Silence is Golden

“In art it is hard to say anything as good as saying nothing.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein

People who speak harshly of painters, but don’t themselves paint, irk me.

Even when they speak harshly of mediocre painters.

Compared to these critics, painters—even masterful ones—are always more congenial.

That’s true in all the arts.

Hollywood producer Tim Van Patten once described Martin Scorsese’s congeniality toward his fellow filmmakers.

“He never puts down a film. He’ll find something positive about everything, Van Patten said.

“We were watching this one movie called Pete Kelly’s Blues, directed by Jack Webb, star of the ’60s cop series Dragnet. After, Marty says, ‘Well, this is not Jack Webb’s best work,’ and I’m thinking, Jack Webb? Really? Does Jack Webb even have best work?’ But that’s the way he is.”

Scorsese’s forbearance is less about following mom’s advice (“If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all”) than about art’s basic ineffability—something many critics can’t seem to grasp.

Art occupies a world where ordinary judgements (conclusions like “these jeans make me look fat” or “this wine is off” or “this vacuum cleaner sucks”) aren’t particularly useful.

In art, words usually fail.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein liked to remind students that words can, and often do, mislead—especially when it comes to art.

Words (their undisciplined use) can lull us into thinking that a painting is like a pair of jeans; that a painting ought to “be easy to slip into,” “fit well,” “look great,” and “make me feel good about myself”—an attitude that reduces the painting to a consumer product, and that lets me satisfy my deep “craving for simplicity” by pronouncing the painting “crappy” or “badly designed” or “the wrong cut for me.”

Wittgenstein would say the painting cannot be intelligently talked about that way.

Words demand that we talk about the painting using terms of reference; but, while such talk works for jeans, it fails for paintings.

The best we can do is react to the painting intuitively—and keep our judgments to ourselves.

Silence really is golden.

Above: Krazy Kube. Oil on canvas. 16 x 12 inches. Ships framed and ready to hang.