Never believe an artist who says their work is about nothing
by Pierre Bismuth, 2001

"Your paintings are like my films, they are about nothing... with precision"
(Michelangelo Antonioni to Mark Rothko, 1962)

"Polyphemus, what dire affliction has come upon you to make you profane the night with clamour and rob us of our slumbers? [...] Is someone threatening death to yourself by craft or by violence?" [...] "Friends, it is Noman's craft and no violence that is threatening death to me." "[...] If you are alone, then this is a malady sent by almighty Zeus, from which there is no escape."
Homer, The Odyssey (trans. Walter Shewring)

One often has occasion to observe the remarkable degree to which the public simply accepts an artist's statement about a work of art, and in a way, maintains its trust in the faithful correspondence between the statement and the realisation. As if the statement was not a production in its own right with its own logic and motives but offered unmediated information about the way the work is to be perceived. And yet it must be allowed that a work may be motivated by circumstances that are alien to its definition. Quite simply because this definition corresponds either to what the artist wants to show (as opposed to what can be seen in the work) or to the position that the artist wants us to adopt with regard to the work. To call into question the meaning or value of the statement would not, however, imply calling into question the artist's good faith or intelligence. It is not a matter of knowing if the work is or is not what it is said to be but of understanding the motives behind a choice of definition and being aware of the possible gap separating it from what it designates.

It's very simple. Art that claims to be about nothing, absence, silence, emptiness, vacuity, nothingness, ugliness, meaninglessness, uselessness, trivia, the negligible, the absurd, boredom... never is. We could even say that for the observer who is not taken in or deluded by the statement, such works produce precisely the opposite effect. How can it be that nothing is always something, and what is it that makes an artist want to attain this dimension of absence if, ultimately, they already knows that the undertaking is vain, the project impossible? I am not going to try to analyse the ways of formally expressing nothingness here, or the strategies of formally incorporating nothingness in the actual making of an artwork. I would simply like to show that the use of this concept of nothingness, as applied to the artist's statement about the work, constitutes a strategy designed to dash our hopes as viewers.

But what are these hopes and on what are they based? More than ever, on the political and social context. Since art now speaks to an increasingly wide and, therefore, not necessarily educated audience, it cannot be presented on the basis of a shared artistic culture but must use values that are not specifically related to art and its history. These values are for the most part produced by an economic system based on production and consumption, on the belief in information and communication, on the need for events, tourism, distractions and signs of progress. Curiously, though, even the most disenchanted consumer may still harbour some credulity towards art. While he would be spontaneously sceptical towards the discourse surrounding consumer goods, he might well tend to believe an artist who vaunts the absence of aesthetic qualities in a blank canvas and to consider that there is indeed nothing here to be looked at. We are aware of the commercial impact of lies about quality when it comes to consumer goods, but we find it harder to understand why an artist might wish to devalue his or her own work. Why this publicity concerning the emptiness of the work if that was not really the case?

One of the answers put forward by maladroit upholders of an art based on negative values is to attempt to develop a discourse on the hidden qualities of nothingness. This presumptuous position makes the mistake of thinking that vacuity is a materially achievable quality and not just a concept. "Nothingness" constitutes a strategy that enables an artist to free his or her activity from any form of social pressure. This nothingness defines the absence of qualities from a sarcastic viewpoint, referring to the idea of an economic system based on the daily production of artificial values. The idea of making nothing both marks a refusal to take part in the blindness of all the hype, and anticipates the viewer's value judgements and possible disappointment. The artist who claims that his work is about nothing is doing nothing more than using the public language and judgmental values produced by this system. A work on nothingness, assuming it could exist, would in a sense be the essence of aesthetic production as it is habitually seen from a bourgeois perspective.

If viewers are not aware that this "nothing" is merely a trick of language embodying a critical attitude towards the social system and expectations of art, it is because they never think of assessing the discrepancy between the definition of the work and its physical reality in other words, of analysing the way in which it is implemented and made and presented. If viewers do not undertake this task, that is because in most cases they position themselves as cultural consumers, outside the creative process, whereas in fact they should always consider themselves as the potential creator of the work. Each one of us creates at each moment of the day in the way we live and understand reality. The artist's sole quality is to be aware of this and to make it manifest in the context of art and in accordance with the artistic conventions to which he subscribes. Artists are artists only because they define themselves as such and, by using the strategy of nothingness, they confirm the old idea that the artwork is made by those who look at it. In art, "nothing" exists only for those who are ready to believe in it.

Pierre Bismuth
London, December 2000

Translation, C. Penwarden

Source: Gallery Newspaper 28: September-October 2001