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Poetic Thinking 2016 | January 22, 2020

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Artists and Aphorisms

Artists and Aphorisms
  • On February 5, 2016

From Kafka to Richter, we have grappled in this class with the aphoristic form. How does the aphorism serve the artist, why are artists so drawn to the contradiction, oxymoron, the pithy and playful? How does the aphorism push up against the cliche? While our discussion of Kafka certainly left me with an appreciation of the literary power of the aphorism, reading the quotes from Richter left me wondering what the place is of irony, frustration, and insincerity in the artistic aphorism.

Storr discussed Warhol vis-a-vis Richter in terms of the Death and Disaster series. The comparison to Warhol might also be salient in terms of literary style and voice. Warhol was famously cagey and contradictory in his public persona, often citing pithy one-liners in response to questions about his life and art. Some of his infamous quotes include, “I am a deeply superficial person,” “I like boring things” and “Making money is art.” His book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol from A to B and back again, is not exactly a book of aphorisms, but there are moments that resonate or play with the cliche and aphoristic form, for example, from the chapter called, “Time”: “A: I always think about the people who build buildings and then they’re not around any more. Or a movie with a crowd scene and everybody’s dead. It’s frightening. I try to think of what time is and all I can think is . . . ‘Time is time was.’” (You can explore the text here: With Warhol, scholars and journalists learned to take his persona with a grain of salt. In comparison, Richter’s aphorisms seem more sincere and truthful, reflecting a similar tone to Richter’s art of repetition vs. Warhol’s deadpan.

Warhol’s aphorisms, in my view, seem to be a kind of performance art or self-conscious irony that plays with the public’s perception of his art practice. (I might go as far to say that someone like Kanye West, in his stunts at award shows or his famous post-Katrina indictment “George Bush hates black people,” is operating in a Warhol-esque paradigm.) While the readings from class, and the persons of artists like Warhol, West, and also Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei, show the artist’s affinity for the aphorism, and I have not fully sussed out in my thinking WHY? Is there a kind of anti-intellectual or unartful feeling to the aphorism, that helps the artist express his philosophy in an unsentimental way? What about the pithy and ironic is helpful to these artists, vs. what we identified as the “aesthetics of earnestness” in Jonathan Harris’ artistic persona?


  1. Yinshi,

    I have also been *really* curious about the aphorism. In a way I’m more comfortable with the Warhol lines you’ve quoted (“I like boring things” is a favorite); which lend themselves more easily to irony, sarcasm, paradox, contradiction… the tone is clear. And I agree that they function as a performance, or a shield, or a statement against having to explain himself. But in Kafka’s, for example (the first one, with the tripwire, still sticks): so many of them leave me so frustrated because I can’t tell if I’m meant to take them seriously. Am I meant to laugh, or am I the one being laughed at? The aphorism as a form–perhaps I’m also feeling this way because it is often used in religious literature–seems to require a leap of faith *somewhere*, but it’s as though I can only determine that somewhere if I correctly interpret the entire oeuvre of the speaker. I am wondering now if *faith* as a concept can be of any use to us in our discussion of the poetic, or poetic thinking.

    For example, choosing to assume on good faith that all choices of an artist is intentional, and not amateurish (as a harsh critic might assume). This *also* reminds me of our brief conversation about “successful” art vs. “bad” art, during the Didion/Montaigne class, which I do think has something important in it…

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