Learning by Heart

What can art teach us about happiness?

Adrian Searle once claimed, in the pages of this magazine: ‘Everything I know, I think I’ve learnt from artists.’ In wondering, as I often have, whether what he said could be true and, if so, whether it could be true for me too, I’ve found myself asking what an education solely directed by art and artists would consist of.

Contemporary art can appear to be boundlessly enlightening, and those of us who surround ourselves with it can run the risk of it being our sole source of intellectual and spiritual illumination. But it’s not encyclopaedic. Driving, growing vegetables, playing or watching sport, and keeping pets are just a few of the topics on which, in my experience, recent art has been generally mute. Also, perhaps surprisingly, is happiness.

By contrast, despair, anxiety, fear and anger abound in today’s art as they have done for centuries – since Romanticism, if not before. The cliché of the unhappy artist is so entrenched that, even when faced with an ostensibly beautiful or affirmative art work, most people (especially when wishing to seem discerning and insightful) try to penetrate its supposedly superficial aesthetic pleasures in order to root out that which is disturbed or disturbing, off-kilter or outright painful. That is where profundity lies, we think; there is the truth that art prizes.

Critics writing about the recent work of Ken Price, whose post­hu­mous retrospective is currently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, have been as guilty of this as anyone. One reviewer saw in the iridescent Zizi (2011), one of Price’s last works, not only ‘luxury, sex, comedy’ but also death – via an implausibly specific resemblance to Mesoamerican Chac-Mool sculptures, which are supposed to have been used in sacrificial rites. It’s a stretch. It reveals, perhaps, how uncomfortable critics are with unmitigated luxury, sex and comedy, and how knowledge of an artist’s biography can overwhelm one’s interpretive faculties.

In 2007, Price was diagnosed with tongue and throat cancer, and soon after told that his condition was inoperable. Sculptures that look like jolly gobs of ectoplasm or lazily drooping fungi have been compared by commentators to tumours. Some look like fleshy mouths; a wobbling pink cloud from 1998 is titled Cheeks. After Price’s diagnosis, these allusions took on added poignancy.

The thing about Price’s gorgeous sensual ceramic sculptures is that they have always rebuffed language but, at the same time, compelled viewers to try and find descriptive and analytical terms to make sense of their beauty. Such language tends to lean towards representational associations, rather than moods or tones. No critic in their right mind would say that these seem like happy sculptures, both products and producers of happiness. But that’s what they are.

Beauty is not happiness; nor, strictly, is pleasure, joy, bliss or jouissance. Jacques Lacan took care to distinguish mere pleasure from jouissance which, he said, was akin to a painful excess of pleasure. Roland Barthes thought pleasure contenting, satisfying, affirmative, bourgeois; in The Pleasure of the Text (1973), he wrote that only jouissance is culturally progressive, and ‘unsettles the reader’s historical cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language’. The implication, of course, is that by acceding – even temporarily – to the stasis of pain-free contentment, one is automatically complicit in the ideology of the status quo. Nobody seems to have considered that unreflective critical miserabilism might, one day, become a status quo in itself, an equally reactionary pose of intellectual superiority.

Simple pleasure or quasi-painful jouissance: which state of mind most suits the work of Ken Price? It’s hard to say. In the final decade of his life, Price seems to have entered what he called his ‘golden period’. At the age of 67, he removed himself from Los Angeles, the city of his birth, to a house and studio he had built in Taos, New Mexico. It was an area he had loved since he lived there in the 1970s; out there, he said, the vast skies were ‘connected to the land’ and he had the space and the time to devote himself to his art. Price had his family around him – a wife to whom he was devoted and a son who worked closely with him in the studio. And as many people agree, it was there that he made some of his finest work. ‘I used to call it the highway to the unconscious,’ he said in 2007. ‘And that’s where I like to be, in that place where you’re open, your mind goes quiet, and before long all kinds of possibilities come.’ When illness came too, he is said by those who knew him to have faced it with courage and grace.

So which was it – happiness or pain – that spurred Price to greater innovation, material experimentalism, humour and imaginative clarity? It wasn’t just the urgency of knowing time was short that allowed him to make such vital and assured work. As Jeffrey Ryan has observed, Price’s sculptures have all the composure of Chinese Scholar’s Rocks. They are about a state of being; they do not rely on anything exterior to themselves. If that isn’t happiness, what is? Do they have the power, though, to salve misery, to make the unhappy happy? Of course not. But for those of us who are undecided, perhaps objects such as Balls Congo (2003) or 100% Pure (2005) can point us, sagely, towards a certain way of being. We need more art like that if we are to rely on it to teach us everything we know.

Oh, and the name of Price’s wife, who he adored and on whom he openly depended? Happy.

Jonathan Griffin is a contributing editor of frieze and a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

Issue 152

First published in Issue 152

Jan - Feb 2013

Most Read

Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018