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Temporary Note

Recognizing Recognition

By Garrett Rowlan

“Originality,” says Wyatt Gwyon in The Recognitions, in a remark purloined by Otto, Wyatt’s plagiarizing Boswell, “is not invention but a sense of recall, recognition, patterns already there.” (1)
If true originality is a retrograde impulse, we might look backward for echoes of Wyatt’s remark, past the Old Masters and medieval guilds that Wyatt so admires. I would go all the way back to a Socratic dialogue, Plato’s “Meno.” In this exchange between Socrates and Meno, a young Athenian aristocrat, Socrates claims that knowledge is not learned but recalled, “for seeking and learning are in fact nothing but recollection.” (2) Part of this recollection involves an innate human response to certain basic shapes.
In The Recognitions, Gaddis states something similar. As the failed playwright Otto says, “You cannot invent the shape of a stone.” (3) These shapes, curves and circles and arches, are not only parts of a basic visual vocabulary but partake of a greater reality that the artist tries to evoke. As a fledging artist in Paris, Wyatt works with a model whose bared shoulder suggests, “the lines he needed, forms which he knew but could not discover in his work.” (4) Much later, Benny, a co-worker of Wyatt’s, drunkenly praises Wyatt’s skill as a draftsman. Wyatt had sketched a bridge in lines where “every tension was perfect, the balance was perfect.” (5) Benny saw how Wyatt’s sketches, “move in perfect stillness...perfect delicate tension of movement in stillness” (6) Still later, Basil Valentine upbraids Wyatt for his naïve justification of his own forgeries. Obviously echoing Wyatt’s words, he mocks Wyatt for his belief in pictures in which “every figure and every object (had) its own presence, its own consciousness because it was being looked at by God.” (7) It’s as if the shapes themselves possessed an innate divinity, a power summoned forth by the artist. These figures confer a spiritual dimension to the artist’s work. Stanley, the composer, thinks of Bach, Palestrina, and Corelli as those had “touched the origins of design with recognition.” (8)
Yet in the modern world of art, Gaddis often depicts this spiritual element by its absence, a vacancy filled by sentimentality, commerce, or novelty, creating work in a desire to discover “new mediums and new forms” while ignoring a tradition “that’s already established.” (9) The spiritual is ignored in Recktall Brown’s crass approach to Wyatt’s precious forgeries, and Stanley contrasts his beloved Renaissance music with contemporary tunes which are “written to be issued through a skull-sized plastic box as background for seductions and the funnypapers.” (10) Indeed, the artist is increasingly isolated from the wellsprings of art and the support of a true artistic community. Or as Father Martin replies to Stanley, who speaks of his own artistic struggles near the book’s end, “We live in a world where first-hand experience is daily more difficult to reach.” (11)
Clearly, Gaddis believes in an art that would “touch the origins of design with recognition.” But when we try to apply this term to modern art, we run into difficulties. It is clear that when the self-loathing Anselm says that he saws “toilet seats in half for half-assed critics,” (12) he reflects a popular attitude toward art that seeks to impress trendy critics and those who see value only in shock. And yet who’s to say that another artist who deals in readymades or found art isn’t touching the “origins of design?” (Consider Joseph Cornell’s work, the ephemeral evoking the metaphysical.) And what are we to make of Wyatt/Stephen’s last words in the book? He leaves the hack writer Ludy stating that he intends to “simplify.” Does this suggest a reduction in his art down to basic geometric shapes? Perhaps his paintings would resemble the work of contemporaries such as Barnett Newman or Jasper Johns or, later, Bridget Riley. Is Wyatt intending to pursue a kind of minimalism, since he no longer intends, as I see it, to produce Old Masters in reverent forgery?
Wyatt’s artistic direction might even take a more radical turn. In an earlier chapter he had spoken of flamenco music and bullfighting as containing “the sense of violence within its own pattern, the pattern that belongs to violence like the bullfight, that’s why the bullfight is art, because it respects its own pattern.” (13) If Wyatt intends to create an artistic language whose primary intent is to respect and maintain its own patterns, he might even allow for a rhythm and complexity as elaborate as a Jackson Pollack.
Certainly Gaddis believes that modern works can reach the “origins of design.” Consider the scene where Wyatt returns from a viewing of Picasso’s “Night Fishing in Antibes.” He comes home to his wife Esther and says, “When I saw it all of a sudden everything was freed into this recognition, really freed into reality that we never see, you never see it. You don’t see it in paintings because most of the time you can’t see beyond a painting. Most paintings the instant you see them they become familiar, and then it’s too late. Listen, do you see what I mean?” (14)

I think I do. Wyatt “sees through” Picasso’s painting, gazes through its historical aspects, beyond its “style” or its “school.” Wyatt sees both in and through the figures depicted, all the way to the primal patterns and rhythm of the shapes. He sees in Picasso’s painting those basic forms that are both art and yet predate art. (Perhaps Gaddis was aware of how much pre-historical art influenced Picasso, who as a young man from Barcelona saw pre-historic drawings in the caves at Altamira.) (15)
Yet it must also be said that Wyatt’s moment of artistic appreciation is an extreme and rare one. Often one’s enjoyment and contemplation of a painting does depend on its being “familiar.” And certainly if the artist deliberately strove to elicit the kind of reaction that Wyatt expresses, he or she might produce an art that would attempt to shock the viewer into a specious recognition rather than to connect with a deeper heritage.
In the end, the artist must balance the past and present. Wyatt speaks fondly of the medieval Guilds that regulated an artist’s materials and conduct. In other words, he must work within a tradition. Tradition, writes T.S. Eliot, “cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.” (16) “No poet,” Eliot goes on to say, “no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.” (17)
Gaddis suggests an innate power in the basic shapes that an artist evokes. These shapes call to mind a divinity that is often lost in the modern art world’s rush to create new modes of expression. In Wyatt’s final desire to simplify, I don’t know if Gaddis is advocating a minimal art that would be true to those basic forms and shapes, or if Wyatt’s comments about Spanish art respecting its own patterns means something more expressive and rhythmic. Whatever the case, Gaddis believes in tradition, in working through established forms to a deeper meaning. Like Eliot, Gaddis sets a high bar for the artist to follow, a path of trial and suffering. The road to first-hand experience as found in art is long and difficult, and there are no short cuts.

End Notes

1. William Gaddis, The Recognitions, (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), p 123.
2. “Meno,” by Plato, translated by K.C. Guthrie, in Greek Philosophy: Thales to Aristotle, edited by Reginald E. Allen (New York: The Free Press, 1985.), p. 125.
3. Gaddis, 123.
4. Gaddis, 67.
5. Gaddis, 606
6. Ibid.
7. Gaddis, 690.
8. Gaddis, 322.
9. Gaddis, 186.
10. Gaddis, 322.
11. Gaddis, 952.
12. Gaddis, 184.
13. Gaddis, 112.
14. Gaddis, 92.
15. Guy Davenport, “The Symbol of the Archaic,” in The Georgia Review, Selected Essays, 1947-1996 (Winter 2001/ Spring 2002), p. 60.
16. T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1975), p. 38.
17. Ibid.

--Garrett Rowlan
3 December 2003

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