Canary in the Mine: The Artist as a Wary Spectator
Emma Smith on a masterwork by Titian and what it means to be an artist.
This essay by Auckland-based artist Emma Smith first appeared in Programme 1, a publication accompanying the group exhibition Painting Programme at the TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre, 28 June to 11 September 2016. Curated by Reece King, the show comprised works by a host of artists (including Smith) associated with the now-defunct Painting/Visual Arts Programme at Unitec Institute of Technology. Most of the works on display were paintings.
In 2004, I went to see Marina Warner give a talk in a crammed auditorium at the University of Auckland as part of the Sir Douglas Robb lecture series. Warner discussed, among other things, one of the paintings I most revere, The Flaying (or Punishment) of Marsyas (c. 1570–76) by Titian.
The story goes that Marsyas was a terrific pipe player – that he could woo and satisfy even the most expert ear with his deft artistry, and that he was so impressed by his own abilities that he challenged Apollo to a musical duel. Three of four judges, however, thought Apollo just that much better playing the lute, endowed as he was with godly abilities. The punishment for Marsyas’ recklessness was to be flayed alive.
Titian’s painting is the embodiment of the space of trauma, where events can speed up and slow at the same time. It appears in one part on fire, in another entombed in quicksand – somehow being, not simply depicting, the horror of the scene. In some areas, the brush marks seem to jump and flicker like flames taking to kindling; in other areas, the palette seems ashen and gravely still.
There is a terrifying urgency in the paintwork on the body of Marsyas. The marks seem to tear at his skin. An assistant described watching Titian frenetically blocking in the large sections of these late works, smearing the paint with his fingers to blend and dapple the forms. I imagine him working in this way while fleshing out Marsyas’ torso.
Titian included himself in the painting in the character of Midas. Wrapped in red, he sits quite still, looking on the gruesome scene with palpable regret. This area of the painting is so held one can sense the immobility, the petrification of Midas, the only judge to question the fairness of the competition. Apollo looks right through Marsyas, as he begins to remove his skin, and stares intently at the figure of Midas/Titian. Midas holds his gaze. A little dog laps at the pooling blood of the captive.
The painting has been variously interpreted: as an allegorical depiction of the brutal 1571 flaying of Marcantonio Bragadin, a commander who led the Venetian resistance to an Ottoman invasion; as an emotive exhortation to rid oneself of the Dionysian spirit; as a metaphor for the spiritual sickness/divine injustice that saw Venice ravaged by plague (fifty thousand people lost their lives in Venice the year Marsyas is thought to have been finished). Warner has it – or at least had it then – that the story is one of the hubris of the artist who dares to challenge the gods and is flayed for the trouble.
Forgive me if I run with this notion for a little while: the public flaying of the talented, but ultimately powerless, artist, and the sorry resignation of the (artist) spectator. Why is it so unsettling that Titian looks on incapacitated? Perhaps because he is aware that his knowing scrutiny amounts to complicity, and that any protest would be in vain. That he lays bare this fact is shockingly irrefutable.
Although written to accompany a show that centres on painting, this text is most certainly not an article on the health and wealth or otherwise of painting as a medium. Christoph Heinrich, in an essay on Daniel Richter, wrote the hugely satisfying introduction:
Good heavens, not another text about painting after the end of painting! There must have been so many over the years, with hardly an essay on contemporary painting or its highly visible representatives that doesn’t begin with an allusion to the medium temporarily reported dead – or perhaps just talked about and written to death. It’s an impasse, with the reader bored to tears and not one step closer to understanding what today’s painting is all about and why it has attracted so much attention.
It is not the legitimacy of painting within a fine art context that worries me. Like many painters, I suppose, I am worn out by the debate. Suffice it to say I don’t believe the medium is prone to commodification, complicity, substantiation of old-world values to a greater or lesser degree than any other art form.
No, what worries me is a much wider problem: that the space that should exist to foster the broad range of fine art practices, investigative journalism and political reportage, philosophical enquiry, historical (re)interpretation, contemporary literature, and most any other discipline seeking to critique, reinvent, posit alternative ideologies, interrogate, criticise, mock, or mirror the state of play in our cultures is being critically eroded.
The sustained attack on critical-cultural disciplines, either with deliberate intent or as a by-product of the blossoming neoliberal agenda that values monetary gain far and away above social good, means that, increasingly, critique falls on deaf ears.
History shows us that a society that will not hear critique, will not acknowledge critical reflection, will not enlist such reflection as a means to evolve, and will not support and foster difference, is a totalitarian one. As these disciplines are fatigued by economic provocations, circumscribed by culturally produced ignorance and doubt, homogenised in educational policy, their value deemed too abstract by standardized measurements of success, their impact is all but reduced to a husk – and most so in the delicate contribution of art.
The political currency/impotence of art is a long and complicated debate, of course, but as a platform that has historically produced some ingenious dialogue to accompany its contemporary setting, and based as it is in the aforementioned premises of cultural enquiry, it can be said to be political, if not always overtly so. Certainly most artists in this country would wilfully occupy the more oblique territories when it comes to political assertions.
Artists tend to understand their own institutional reliance, culpability, and the necessity for audience engagement, from ‘blue chip’ audiences to first-time callers. Sometimes, they choose oblique spaces out of respect for their mode as a subtle lure. Art may have the propensity to shock, jolt, provoke, anger, titillate, but it can also provoke the quietest of reactions in the unsuspecting: causing you to view an empty field in a different way; to hear a strange, out-of-place sound when you observe a power line; to touch warm concrete simply by looking at it; to feel a shudder as the past observes you.
Inhabiting the oblique is also an assertion that the mode might resist dogmatic policy, overly instructional material, and preachy content. The view is likely too complex to be put as explicitly, simply, directionally as a post to be ‘liked’ or an ad. This art is probably made by artists who wish to posit a more open-ended communication, who understand the complexities (successes and shortcomings) of their contribution to a wider social narrative, who believe in the language of their craft to say what they will, who believe in the language of their craft to say what it wills.
It is the very occupation of the oblique, the unwillingness to assume an overt position, the preference for a form that is at once this and not this, from and of the world, but also conjured from the immaterial, that reveals a chameleon-like nature in the practice. Perhaps it is this constant shifting between mirroring and observing the scene, plain societal reflection and, at another turn, agnotological enquiry, that makes art such a troubling and unpredictable thing in conservative times.
Perhaps, as Midas shows us, artists are enervated, switching endlessly between the weight and weightlessness of their form, immobilised by the askance nature of their view and its reconciliation with the world, flitting soundlessly in their cage like a canary in the mine.
In any case, we must keep an eye on the bird.
Main image: Emma Smith, The sound of the floor (detail), 2016.
 Christoph Heinrich, Daniel Richter: Die Palette 1995–2007 (Köln: DuMont, 2007).