Great Critics and Their Ideas: Athena Goddess of Wisdom

on painters apologising, from the October issue

By Matthew Collings

Gustav Klimt, Pallas Athene, 1898, oil on canvas and inlay, 75 × 75 cm. © and courtesy Wien Museum, 2015 Caspar David Friedrich, Landscape with Grave, Co•n and Owl, 1837, sepia ink and pencil on paper

Athena is one of the 12 major deities of the Greek pantheon. She presides over innumerable activities, from weaving, flute music and military strategy to building, industry and agriculture. Athena as the goddess of philosophy became protector of the city of Athens in the fifth century BC, but some historians speculate an origin 3,000 years earlier in Libya in a form half-human, half-bird, with wings and talons. 

ARTREVIEW Tell us about yourself. Where do you come from?

ATHENA Zeus swallowed my pregnant mother, Metis. I was born from his head when it was split open with an axe by Hephaestus, a male version of myself, cruder but with the same range of duties. I came out fully grown, and Hephaestus demanded a union. He attempted the rape, but at the last minute I disappeared and his semen fell on the ground. It impregnated Gaia, the earth mother, and thus Ericthonios, founder king of Athens, was born. I raised him myself as my foster child. I never had a lover or husband. One of my titles is Parthenos, meaning ‘virgin’. I enforce the rules of sexual modesty and ritual mystery.

AR Why did Hephaestus split Zeus’s head open?

It was hurting. It might have been other gods, and a hammer, not an axe. Every cosmological story has variations. Zeus swallowed Metis, an older deity, also a goddess of wisdom, because Gaia warned him any product of a union with Metis would threaten his power. In his belly Metis forged my armour and helmet, and the hammering gave him a headache.

AR What are all these stories for?

Myth is the foundation of life; it is the timeless pattern, the religious formula to which life shapes itself, inasmuch as its characteristics are a reproduction of the unconscious.

Is there anything else you’re the goddess of besides knowledge and wisdom?

Art.

AR What’s on your mind about it at the moment?

A panel discussion at the Jewish Museum last year. It was the third of a series with the collective title ‘Painting Beyond Belief ’. I just caught up with a YouTube film of it.

AR What aspect of it did you apply your wisdom to?

Apart from one participant’s articulate, self-aware statements, the whole thing seemed to be a message about the need never to be wise at all.

AR Why would artists shrink from wisdom?

Well, they were painters, and painting today is supposed to be postpainting. You have to reference things like film and language to justify it. You can’t talk about it in terms of painting as such except with shame. The reason this event caught my attention is that I’m curious about the fact that although there’s a lot of knowledge about myths, gods and the unconscious today, there doesn’t seem to be much about the nature of painting now. You get subjective statements that at best say something clear about one practitioner’s ideas, but as a rule you don’t even get that. It’s just fragments of cultural analysis that they feel under some kind of obligation in a public situation to pretend to identify with even though they never really seem to have much to do with them. The nadir wasn’t the YouTube film, in fact, but a written interview with Jacqueline Humphries I read online after it ended. She was one of the participants on the panel. I absolutely salute her work. Those paintings are powerful because you’re really looking at nothing but strokes. They’re free but ordered. Spontaneous but structured. The large scale is exhilarating. I hoped the interview would clarify her contribution to the panel discussion, which was muddled, but no more than the statements made by all the other speakers except David Salle. He has emerged recently as the only painter alive that can explain a painting charmingly and relevantly.

AR And did it clarify it?

No, it was the same. She said her use of silver paint, with its reflective qualities, which creates visual confusion, related to her interest in film noir. When an actor is lit in such a way that they seem to be broken up – a familiar visual trope of the noir genre – it’s impossible to trust anything they say. But there was a slippage between exteriorising thought processes while working in the studio and summarising ideas found in a book.

AR So the interview was worse than the film?

Why not simply state that maybe one finds value in the mere establishing of a surface? (...) the fact is you find significance in this limited activity

With the film, streams of hope-for-the-best subintellectualisms made one zone out sometimes, whereas in cold print they’re less escapable. The structure of the panel discussion was that participants had to show images of their work followed by one that wasn’t that but, rather, any image or object that meant a lot to them. Humphries showed a Cézanne bathers painting fused with a still from Orson Welles’s The Lady of Shanghai. One superimposed over the other. She was impressed by the fit: “This all-over colour field painting, essentially, with this black-and-white noir image.” I felt I was being offered compensation for a dissatisfaction I don’t actually have. I don’t think paintings are inherently incomplete or that the genuine thoughts involved in making them are impossible to admit. Why not simply state that maybe one finds value in the mere establishing of a surface? You might be shocked that so much really can be left out. You might find yourself sometimes wishing you could do more, even want more, and be more ambitious. But the fact is you find significance in this limited activity. You’re grateful you’ve got away with it and had sales for years, as well as international shows, publicity and official endorsement.

AR It risks alienating listeners that want to be stroked.

Yes, and a great deal more could be said, of course, but it’s difficult to begin to do that from a foundation of statements that are nothing like this, just smokescreens of denial and irrelevant offerings.

AR What else was said?

Humphries never thought about paintings, but always about “other things”. I find this assumption that other things are needed is everywhere now.

AR Where, for example?

The National Gallery in London put on a show over the summer of a few of their paintings, with each work accompanied by a specially commissioned related installation created by an artist working in the medium of sound. The rationale was that, for visitors, it would bring new meaning to the works, in sound form.

AR What’s unwise about that?

Paintings have enough meaning already in painting form.

AR Did Jacqueline Humphries really think like that, too?

The common ground is platitudes being presented as ideas and ideas being thought of as necessary for a medium that’s short of them

The common ground is platitudes being presented as ideas and ideas being thought of as necessary for a medium that’s short of them. The “other things” that Humphries – this genuinely formidable painter – thinks about instead of paintings turned out to be incredibly tame. They really were the equivalent of the National Gallery’s soundscapes, one of which was a recording of single violin notes played on different speakers, relating to the inclusion by Holbein in The Ambassadors of an image of a lute. There’s an effect of sogginess, not fieriness. Besides film noir, Humphries thought about Woody Allen. The paradox of his films is that “… he was a stand-up comedian but he loved Bergman”. Just as Cézanne can join Orson Welles, she implied, Allen fused with Bergman. “And he really does manage to do it. They’re comedies, but you come away thinking serious things. You might even be depressed.” There’s nothing you can do when someone drones on like that in an intimate chat, for example, stating the boringly obvious as if it’s a blinding insight. You can only look away and wait for it to stop. But with public discussion about art, it’s an arrested moment. It’s been going on for years.

AR Who else was there?

Charline von Heyl said of her fascination with verbal language: “You get to a point where you find a moment where it conveys what it wants without following the narrative of the words.”

AR That sounds interesting.

I agree. But it was followed by an absurdly literal account of language and limits. It was the equivalent of someone explaining Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage by saying they literally remember being a baby and looking in a mirror and acquiring language.

AR How did it go?

I should emphasise I admire von Heyl’s compositions because they cause the viewer to perceive in any individual work by her not one visual order but a multitude of them, constantly shifting. Sheer visual intelligence has an exhilarating effect. In any case, she said she recently used words to save a painting. It was an unusual format for her, wide and narrow, and she quickly discovered the middle threatened to be incoherent unless she found something to enable her to get a grip on it. A celebrated recent book by the author Jason Schwartz, a young reclaimer of classic Modernism of the Joyce and Stein kind, has been obsessing her because of its innovative use of language. Without a definite aim in mind, she copied lines from it onto strips of paper. Then she decided to use the strips to compose a structure in the middle of this painting, the problematic area. It worked. Language did the trick. The painting’s formality now solved and the words no longer needed, she got rid of them and retained only the strip forms. Again with this story, like the film noir and Woody Allen ones, no light has been cast on anything, and lip service is just being paid to concepts that sound important.

AR What do you conclude?

Wisdom is at a low level where painting is concerned.

Caspar David Friedrich, Landscape with Grave, from October 2015 Collings
Caspar David Friedrich, Landscape with Grave, Co•n and Owl, 1837, sepia ink and pencil on paper

AR What do you counsel?

There’s a lot that can be said about what really goes on in the making of a painting, which a panel of genuine achievers – another one was Carroll Dunham – had difficulty in attempting because of a nearly unanimous but unspoken agreement that intoning truisms and clichés from middlebrow chat about the arts is the only possible discourse. The purpose of it is to elevate works that are in a visual medium in ways remote from anything you can actually see with your eyes. Remember Frank Stella in the 1960s said what you see is what you see. But his self-explanation 50 years ago, while logical and conventionally articulate, nevertheless leads to delightful surprises, because of his breakdown of what’s possible for art – for example, proposing that a viable subject could just be to find out if paint on canvas can ever look as good as it does in the can. By contrast the talk of these panel members in the Jewish Museum last year was anything but surprising.

AR I see you’re wearing a cloak over your golden armour, trimmed with live snakes.

Yes, one of my forebears is the Minoan domestic snake goddess.

AR And there’s an owl on your head. Isn’t there a saying about that?

Hegel wrote: ‘The owl of Minerva only takes flight at dusk.’ Minerva is the name of my Roman counterpart. The owl is my symbol. They see in the dark. Hegel was thinking about the philosophy of history. He meant that knowledge spreads its wings not at the height of events but at their ending. To return to art (and moving away from paintings as such), one of the tasks of thought about it is to fight the tendency whereby learning becomes its opposite, and meaning is considered deep only when it’s shallow – the narratives of explanation take a rigidly unchanging form, and genuine ideas are considered unhelpful for education. A typical representative of this upside-down system asks what is learned by a fresh set of perceptions and answers its own question with a smug and resentful ‘nothing much’.

AR Can you bring your language down to earth a bit?

Think of the London artworld, this site of power. It wasn’t always so. If you were an artist in the 1970s you got used to an appalling sound every Saturday evening in the studio at 5.45pm. I’m referring of course to braying on Critic’s Forum on BBC Radio 3, about, for example, painted portraits. How the eyes always seem to follow you around the room.

AR Haha, yes, I know what you mean. It really was insufferable.

There was a feeling of the inevitable about the limited artistic horizons that the redundant public honking of art critic Marina Vaizey, for example – a regular contributor on that programme – stood for. But now with hindsight the broader cultural stultification of spirit and mind it represented is perfectly clear – the dull provincialism of art in the UK, which had to be moved on from, as indeed it was.

AR I think she still survives.

Good luck to her.

This article was first published in the October 2015 issue.