I’ve been “reading” some texts by Bern Porter, thanks to a mentor of mine, Joel Lipman, bringing them to my attention. The experience has been profoundly unsettling, so I want to blog some about the experience of experiencing Porter, and what the implications of this experience are for thinking about the role of art in our lives.
Let me start by trying to explain why I put “reading” in quotes. Porter was a found artist; like Marcel Duchamp and his famous upside-down urinal, Porter appropriated texts – newspapers, magazines, advertisements, comics, printed matter, receipts, diagrams, computer language, the list is exhaustive, expansive, and radically almost unprecedentedly and hilariously democratic – and called them “poems.” But going through a Porter book of “Founds,” like his famous “Found Poems,” is the strangest, most shocking experience, because what we find as we pore through the book is that, because of the book, because of the medium, (no page numbers, and various cut and pasted images and diagrams and forms floating in the white space of the page), we become aware that Porter is reversing thousands of years of expectations around the book, and having us look at the poems instead of reading them.
So why is that a big deal? What is the difference between reading and looking? The main difference – and here I have Marshall McLuhan and Bruce R. Powers to thank, for their book The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century – is that reading is more conceptual and linear, and looking is more perceptual and form-based. Looking through Porter’s Found Poems, then, is like discovering a new language, the language of various mundane forms losing their mundanity because of their context and becoming something other, something very strange, almost alien, something different.
Why is looking at Porter’s work unsettling? Because, like Duchamp before him, he is interested in extreme forms of attention and attraction, i.e. pushing or testing or kicking apart our characteristic boundaries of what is art and what isn’t. If we believe that “everything is art, seen in the right light,” then Porter forces us to scrutinize this belief. One of his books, Aphasia, is made up entirely of found advertisements and found comics. Ostensibly, there is no trace of intention in these founds; but then, of course, it is impossible not to intend…and so we come to realize how rich and full these books are with intention, with Porter’s choices of what to include, what to exclude, what to focus in on, what to make the figure, what to make the ground, etc. Even the title of the book, Aphasia, which refers to the loss of ability to understand or express speech, is a whopper of a title – is Porter critiquing our way of living, inundated as we are – inundating is too slight a word here – by advertising speak, so that we don’t even see what is around us anymore? Is he suggesting that we suffer from aphasia ourselves, a kind of numbeddownness? Is Porter then trying to make us more aware of our surroundings, allowing us to look more and appreciate the forms that constitute our lives? Or is Porter trying to give us the feeling of aphasia itself, through the mindnumbing and relentless repetition of his found poems?
I read somewhere recently, in an article by Charles Altieri, that someone talked about loving Jasper Johns because he introduced the everyday back into art. And that is what Porter does, and it is another reason why he is unsettling. Porter wants us to view art, as it were, all the way down – he wants there to be nothing in the world that is not art, or artful – that even the most artless acts and forms are forums of creativity. Along these lines his philosophy is akin to John Dewey’s in Art and Experience, the idea that life itself can be artful, that we don’t need to think of art as something cloistered away in museums, things that we experience now and then in our more tranquil moments. Porter wants us to be alert to our surroundings, in a natural but poised way, so that we are people, in Henry James’s phrase, “on whom nothing is lost.” In that sense, Porter brings the ground, along with the figure, more into focus. He calls our attention, like Ashbery, to more aspects of our total situation. For that reason, he practically begs to be taken more seriously.
And this is why I think Porter is a radically democratic artist – he sort of forces us, almost unbeknownst to us, to take more things in our situation seriously. In doing so, he is broadening our horizons, because he is budging our stances, nudging us towards a different way of being and thinking. He is democratic because he is saying, through his Founds, that anyone can do this – both have the experience of being changed, and of changing someone else. What else should we expect from our most beloved artists?