The Long and the Short of It
Rebelling against length and size.
Ghent, Belgium, March 16th, 2023
Si yo tuviera un hijo le enseñaría mi retrato
o le diría un cuento
que no dijera nada, pero que fuera largo.
If I had a son, I would show him my portrait
or I would tell him a story
that might not say anything but it would be long.
Jaime Sabines, A estas horas aquí
There is a fairly amusing moment in Miloš Forman’s 1984 film Amadeus, a brief discussion on aesthetics between Joseph II, Emperor of Austria, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart —one that I once thought was fiction but it is in fact based on a real-life anecdote told by Franz Xaver Niemetschek in his 1798 biography of Mozart. After the successful premier of Mozart’s opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), the Emperor, who commissioned the piece and is an amateur musician himself, approaches the composer to congratulate him, but then attempts to do a bit of music criticism to one of the greatest composers in Western history:
“It’s very good.. it just seemed a touch… occasionally seems to have too many notes.”
“I don’t understand Sire”, Mozart replies. “There are just as many notes as required, not more, not less.”
To which the Emperor retorts:
“There are in fact only so many ones an ear can hear in the course of an evening. Just cut out a few and it will be perfect.”
This idea that a predetermined length of a work should serve as the measure of its content, if not its worth, came to mind because last week I was invited to give a zoom keynote at an international conference for a symbolic fee —which I had agreed to do because of a personal friendship with one of the organizers and my interest in the topic— but then I was told that I needed to submit a 20-page paper a month in advance. It was never explained to me why the paper specifically needed to be 20 pages long, but the demand sounded harsh and non-negotiable (also, why not 30, 50, 100, 500 pages instead?). And this is not the first time something like this happened to me: a few years back I was also invited to give a workshop at a biennial in South America, which I also agreed to do since it was an interesting opportunity. But then I was told that the workshop needed to last 3 days. ¿3 days? I can teach some topics for a whole semester, but this specific workshop I was asked to give only required a morning and an afternoon session and it was unnecessary to artificially extend it to half a week. But the organizers were inflexible, arguing that it the workshop doesn’t last 3 days they could not bring me. So I declined.
I fully recognize that I am not the best example of flexibility and that many people actually thrive under such extension demands; I am afraid also that I suffer from a kind of writer’s block when asked to do something that has to be long without any rationale as to why it has to have a particular length. Instead, I am among the group of those who thrive under brevity constraints —which is something that Twitter nurtured now for two decades (until now that it has recently expanded its limit to 4000 characters from 280). And I might be alone in thinking this, but it seems to me that constrained art making is much more stimulating than unconstrained art making. I owe this perhaps to my brother, the writer Luis Ignacio Helguera (1962- 2003), who was a big fan of the short-form genres (Haiku, aphorisms, short stories, prose poetry) and not too interested in the monumental ones (like the epic novel). In Mexico, like in most other countries, the leading authors often are the ones that take on the monumental route: for decades the dean of letters of Mexico was Alfonso Reyes (1889-1959), an incredibly prolific author whose “Obras Completas” span a whopping 22 volumes that include both fiction and non-fiction, plays, poetry, journalism, and even marginalia. My brother instead was much more interested in the work of Julio Torri, an author of the exact generation of Reyes who was also part of El Ateneo de la Juventud (the group of young Mexican intellectuals that emerged right before the onset of the Mexican Revolution). Torri, in contrast, and even though he outlived Reyes for a decade, only generated a very modest output, mostly essays and scholarly works, and only one book of creative fiction, De Fusilamientos (Of Executions), which is a collection of prose poems and mini-short stories, most of them a few paragraphs long. Torri was a true craftsman of language, polishing every single word he wrote, and while brief these pieces are all extraordinary and some of the best literary writing of the 20th century in Mexico.
One of his most famous short pieces is A Circe, based on the famous episode in the Odyssey where Ulysses has himself tied to the mast to resist the lure of the siren’s song (I translate the original below):
¡Circe, diosa venerable! He seguido puntualmente tus avisos. Mas no me hice amarrar al mástil cuando divisamos la isla de las sirenas, porque iba resuelto a perderme. En medio del mar silencioso estaba la pradera fatal. Parecía un cargamento de violetas errante por las aguas.
¡Circe, noble diosa de los hermosos cabellos! Mi destino es cruel. Como iba resuelto a perderme, las sirenas no cantaron para mí.
Circe, venerable goddess! I have faithfully followed your calls. But I did not have myself tied to the mast when we saw the island of the sirens, because I was determined to lose myself. In the middle of the silent sea there was the fatal meadow. It looked like an errant shipment of violets through the waters.
Circe, noble goddess of the beautiful hair! My fate is cruel. Because I was determined to lose myself, the sirens did not sing for me.
To be clear, I am not a critic of lengthy works, and not even to pre-established length in of itself.
Whatever one might think of Marina Abramovic, she set the standard (and a high bar) for endurance art works, as did Linda Montano and Tehching Tsieh. Even when they might feel contrived, there is a compelling poetry to those gestures, one that causes an extraordinary response with the audience who relate and empathize strongly with the self-imposed physical ordeal that the artist is undergoing (incidentally as per the topic of last week’s column, I will point out that endurance art is probably going to be the last kind of art that AI will ever be able to replicate).
Then on the opposite end, of course, there are artists who thrive when working in miniature. The list of those is the very opposite of small. I just want to highlight the work of a friend of mine, Georgina Valverde, a Mexican artist based in Chicago who in 2012 created The Society of Smallness, focused on creating miniature works and exhibitions. Valverde recalls: “As I shared lunch with a friend in the Sculpture Garden at the Art Institute of Chicago, bird poop landed in the purlicue of my right hand (the space between the thumb and index finger). I took this as a sign to pay attention to small, seemingly insignificant events. The Society of Smallness grew out of this practice.”
The Society of Smallness “Minifesto” reads:
"Small things build and you know what happens next: the cicadas are sucking root juice, the humming bird winters in the tropics, the mole is naked, and emergency sewing kits go unused."
But there is a great difference between Endurance art, miniature art, and any work where the artist self-imposes particular lengths and breadth and the imposition of a pre-established length onto others.
What lies behind this desire to demand specific lengths? The most obvious answer is the dominant preconception that length is a way to assure substance. Going back to writing: one page essay, under this logic, could not be as substantive as a one thousand page essay, which is patently absurd. Abraham Lincoln’s historic Gettysburg Address is 271 words long, while the oration on that day by Edward Everett, “The Battles of Gettysburg” which was supposed to be the main speech of that day, runs 13607 words long and lasted two hours, is seldom read and is largely forgotten. Also, as presidential speeches are concerned, I can’t avoid thinking of the demagogic presidents of Mexico during my childhood such as Luis Echeverría and José López Portillo and their frivolous (and now forgotten) speeches, which ranged from 8,000 to 10,000 words (although one has to give it to Echeverría for endurance: he famously would run cabinet meeting that would last hours on end with no breaks, and even once claimed that he could work for 11 hours straight without going to the bathroom).
But in spite of the established fact that length has never been a formula for substance, there are those that still think that overwhelming the viewer with quantity might serve as a means to compensate for lackluster art. Like a friend of mine once said when we were looking at an underwhelming photographer’s work who had chosen to fill the wall with his photos in a grid: “so that’s the conceptual strategy: if your work sucks, instead of hanging one, hang ten thousand of the same thing so it looks impressive”.
Exhibition catalogues offer an excellent example of the obsession with favoring size vs. substance. I once worked for a biennial that mailed thousands of its biennial catalogues to all the school teachers of the region. It was a generous and grandiose (and expensive) gesture, but also incongruous: what use would a rural grade school teacher have of a contemporary art exhibition catalogue with curatorial essays? The answer was in the biennial organizer’s marketing and their ability to claim that their educational program reached every educator in the region, even if the massive books were to be used as little more than doorstops at the schools. And, as a prime example of how function follows form, in many cases what matters is to make something big. I am reminded of my aunt, Elsa Lizalde, who was a historian and the head of numismatics of the Banco de México, where she worked practically her whole professional life. She often was tasked with writing historical essays for huge, beautiful coffee table books that the bank would produce to ail as gifts to clients, often for the holidays. In spite of her excellent research and writing, I am dubious that many businessmen and finance people who received these gifts spent much time reading those scholarly essays. Even amongst art professionals, how many full exhibition catalogues do we read? To be fair, exhibition catalogues can’t be expected to be read as novels, and their function may be more as the publication of record of a project with reference materials for future consultation; however, their role as the status symbol of an exhibition- and their display as, say a coffee table book — generally surpass their often valuable but niche scholarly purpose.
All of which brings me to a perhaps obvious observation. The dictionary definition of “ornament” is:
a thing used to make something look more attractive but usually having no practical purpose, especially a small object such as a figurine.
In that sense, duration, when it is not in the artist’s domain and lands in the hands of the bureaucrat it becomes just another version of the ornamental form.
Or, said in another way, we can depart from Louis Sullivan’s famous “form follows function” quote from an 1896 essay:
“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and superhuman, of all the true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form follows function.”
We then might be able to add the corollary: “it is the pervading law of all manifestations of the bureaucratic head and heart that disfunction follows artificially imposed form”.
Length demands can work, but to a limit. Paraphrasing Joseph II, there are only so many such demands an artist can negotiate in the course of a career. Just cut out a few and it will be perfect.
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