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Saturday, May 16, 2020


When I was a mathematician, I wrote a couple of papers and a thesis. These papers had endnotes, in which I cited other mathematical works (generally, previously published papers.) These citations served, basically, three purposes. In decreasing order of importance:
  • 1. They listed the things I needed to be, and assumed were, true in order for my work to be true. That is, they revealed the links of reason and logic by which my work connected up to the great unified mass of mathematical discovery.
  • 2. They provided useful references to the reader, who might need to glance at them to make sense of my work.
  • 3. They provided my paper with cachet, the appearance of seriousness.

Now, item 3 is definitely a thing in the sciences. People will, I am told, cite papers written by likely reviewers of their own paper. Citations are a tracked across the sciences, and these metrics can be valuable. If you juice another fellow's metric, he might rubber-stamp your paper. This is, however, frowned upon.

Item 2 ought not to be necessary. If I have written my paper well enough, I have provided enough of a thumbnail sketch of cited work that a reader can make sense of my paper with only the knowledge common to practitioners in my field. So, this is insurance against my own clumsiness.

It is Item 1 which matters here. I am acknowledging the work done before, and revealing the way mine builds on theirs. I cite the cited by name in my paper, and point to the endnote to give the details. We are engaged here in collectively building a whole, and we maintain records as to the structure of the thing. Note that my paper/thesis does not work if any of the cited work turns out to be wrong. The citation chain also allows us to clean up messes.

Let us now turn a disapproving gimlet eye upon the same practice in the Fine Arts. We have Oliver Chanarin taking 640 photographs of his wife, because August Sander took 640 pictures for his large project. We see Jörg Colberg deploying the muddy greys and the "thing seen through/beyond/under/above other thing" tropes of, say, the Mahlers, turning every picture into a cloud of prepositions. MFA students are taught to make work the references other work.

But why? What purpose do these citations serve? Chanarin's work will in absolutely no way whatsoever rely in Sander's work. He does not need Sander to have done his work in order to do his. Colberg could be making these awful things if he was the first German to ever use a camera. There is no built structure here, at least not in the sense that the newer things rely on the earlier things.

Whatever the intent here, it is no way resembles the edifice of reason built in mathematics, the sciences, and indeed across much of the humanities back in the day. But perhaps this is the wrong tree to be barking up, Art is, after all, not Reason.

The postmodernists observed that things like words are meaningful only (mostly) in reference to one another. Language is a great network of, well, of stuff that self-supports through a system of cross-reference. Serious Voices in Fine Art talk about a shared vocabulary and whatnot, clearly trying to visualize and present Art as a similar system of inter-references, generating meaning by the effects of this network of reference.

The trouble is that this is probably bullshit. I suppose there's a faint possibility that I simply don't speak enough of the "language" to make any sense of it, so it all sounds like giberish, but I am extremely dubious about this theory.

The references are too slight. The word small acquires meaning in part by its relationship to large, but the important relationship between the words is not that they have the same number of letters. The word small does not gets its meaning exclusively from large but also big and tiny and size and measure and weight and round and on and on.

If Chanarin gives up after 639 portraits, does his work collapse? Does his contribution to whatever the collective meaning-structure of Art suddenly become null and void, because his Sander reference collapsed? That's insane. His citation of Sander cannot be meaningful here.

No, I think these citations seek to draw meaning and cachet from their forebears. It is certainly true that the work from Chanarin, Colberg, and endless MFA students often makes literally no sense without the citation. But I do not believe that meaning necessarily arises from the citation. The new work is fundamentally an unadorned endnote. Its only meaning is the citation.

Or rather, the only meaning it acquires by citation is the citation. Chanarin's project might turn out fine, but any meaning it has will be in and of itself. The citation will remain merely a citation. Sander's work does not in any meaningful way support Chanarin's, to know Sander's pictures does not help us make sense of Chanarin's. Chanarin gets from Sander, basically, just a number: 640. Colberg gets from the Mahlers a visual idea of sticking the house behind a fence.

There may be some kind of network effects here, of course. Indeed I suppose there must be. We view Art always in the mental context of other Art we have seen. We compare this painting with other paintings we have seen. There is, in some sense, a collaboratively built edifice here. The connections, though, are not the dunderheaded explicit citations the Art Press breathlessly explains to us. They are organic, the simply arise, and we notice them if at all only after the fact.

The explicit reference may have aspirations of more, but it exists in reality only so that you can say "August Sander" a couple of times when you're being interviewed about your photography project.


  1. There's a nice interview with Judith Joy Ross on YouTube where she references Sander. (She was asked by someone important — Szarkowski maybe — if she was aware of Sander. She lied and said no.) Here's the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S29dwdrMEh4

    1. Thanks for posting that. I never heard of her. Her portraits are super good.

    2. ...in the interview she calls herself a "dinosaur"; the art photography industry needs more dinosaur, less poodle.