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Asemic Writing
October 13, 2007 7:07 PM   Subscribe

Asemic is a magazine of asemic writing, which is writing without semantic content. The editor is Australian Tim Gaze, who's made the asemic books Aussie Runes and The Oxygen of Truth, volumes 1 and 2. "Only words lie; asemic texts cannot lie."

Kiini Ibura Salaam writes about his reaction to asemic writing. Asemic Calligraphy by Emma Viguier.
posted by Kattullus (74 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
At first I thought this would be about the style of writing that Robert Anton Wilson advocated, being absent of "metaphysical" content... oh, here it is! E-Prime. I couldn't remember what he had called it, and asemic seemed like such a RAW thing to say.

On topic, this reminds me of Arabic calligraphy, a little, where the meaning is obscured by the highly stylized presentation. Of course here, it's 100% presentation and 0% meaning (or the meaning is the presentation, whatever). Interesting!
posted by synaesthetichaze at 7:28 PM on October 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Halfway through freshman year at Oberlin, my roommate, distraught over the absence of his identical twin brother, descended into madness. (His brother wasn't doing too well either, having decided to commit "mental suicide" by ingesting dozens of hits of acid along with assorted pharmaceuticals.) While building sculptures in our room out of hair and chewing gum, filling our garbage cans with rancid oil from sardine cans (he loved sardines), and erupting into inexplicable storms of laughter, my roommate became enamored of the French "pataphysician"/surrealist Alfred Jarry and decided to write a paper on him for class. At one point I noticed him scribbling in the typed pages (this was before word processors, kids -- the Earth had cooled recently). When I asked him what he was doing, he said that mere English could not accommodate the ideas he needed to express, so, among the lines of type, there were lines of... well.

Wherever you are, Ben, I hope you're well and thriving.
posted by digaman at 7:48 PM on October 13, 2007 [8 favorites]


I once had a friend lose her mind and do something similar. We were traveling in Europe and staying in a hotel for a few days. After a few days she had a psychotic break. She constructed a fort out of pillows and linens where she would sit and speak in a made up language because what she wanted to say couldn't be contained in any human language. Luckily she came out of it and I got her a berth on a plane back to Iceland that left the next day. She's doing well now.
posted by Kattullus at 8:02 PM on October 13, 2007


The asemic calligraphy put me in mind of Xu Bing's Book from the Sky made with Chinese characters of his own invention.
posted by Abiezer at 8:05 PM on October 13, 2007 [3 favorites]


Where's the "Life's nonsense pierces us with strange relation" tag?
posted by felix grundy at 8:23 PM on October 13, 2007


Touching stories about the asemic writing of those having a psychotic break.

The deliberate asemic writing by William Burrough's lover, Brion Gysin is the most beautiful I've seen. His art blended Japanese and Arabic calligraphy, self-taught painting techniques, and the use of his “magical grid.. He developed a specific kind of his own, which was, now I know the word for it, asemic.
posted by nickyskye at 8:23 PM on October 13, 2007 [3 favorites]


Although writing as a visual thing interests me, and books in, say, arabic or greek interest me because they make no sense at all to my brain, I have to call some of this what it is: scribbles. Some of the scribbles are pretty, like a few of the calligraphic ones - but others are just scribbles. They say it is writing without semantic content. But without aesthetic content, it's a scribble.

I'm afraid we're running into the same zone as the John Cage thread a while back - these scribbles are, by and large, nothing, and nothing cannot contain something. "Asemic texts cannot lie" may be true, but they also cannot say anything, which kind of makes the lying statement moot. That's like saying birds and planes fly, but not asemic "texts."
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 8:34 PM on October 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Kattullus - you were friends with Bjork???
posted by stenseng at 8:41 PM on October 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


The way to successfully combat the feeling that they're getting one over on you is to ignore the artists' statements and just look at the stuff. At least, this is what I do with most of the experimental artforms I enjoy (replace look with listen, or whatever).

Some of it communicates on a level without language, and you don't need to read what the creators say about it to enjoy it. Of course if you think they are ugly scribbles, you are certainly entitled to the opinion. De gustibus, etc.
posted by synaesthetichaze at 8:41 PM on October 13, 2007


Holy Cy Twombly Batman!
posted by Wonderwoman at 8:41 PM on October 13, 2007


Fake calligraphy can look pretty cool. Saul Steinberg created some fake documents like this one: Diploma.
I'm not sure why these people call them poems though.
posted by demiurge at 8:46 PM on October 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


I don't mean to say that it's worthless, of course. Deliberately meaningless writing is an interesting idea, and it can be made appealing to the eye. It is in fact the artist statement type part that I find disagreeable.

And after all, if you don't know a character set (cyrillic, arabic, kanji) then its "letters" are not much different than these meaningless ones, except in intention.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 8:55 PM on October 13, 2007


Spanish artist Albert Porta (Zush --warning: Flash site) founded in 1968 his own Evrugo Mental State (he named it in English, so I guess the pun is deliberate) with its own currency, laws and (to me, at least) asemic writing system.

Sorry for not finding better links, I am in exam season, should not even be reading Metafilter, argh, etc.
posted by kandinski at 9:04 PM on October 13, 2007


She constructed a fort out of pillows and linens where she would sit and speak in a made up language because what she wanted to say couldn't be contained in any human language. Luckily she came out of it and I got her a berth on a plane back to Iceland that left the next day. She's doing well now.

That wasn't a made-up language; that was Hopelandic!

I was going to do a Björk joke, but stenseng beat me to it.
posted by infinitywaltz at 9:07 PM on October 13, 2007


asdf;jkl

How's that for asemic.

But how about the Codex Seraphinianus?

Semic or no?
posted by exlotuseater at 9:31 PM on October 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


This isn't writing. Writing communicates ideas. At most, this will communicate emotions, and the emotions will differ based on the viewer. No reliable communication takes place.

It might be art. But giving it this supremely pretentious name is ludicrous.

It's just squiggles on paper.
posted by Malor at 10:07 PM on October 13, 2007


I'm pretty interested in stuff like this, but the examples in the linked .pdf magazine don't appeal to me at all. They seem much more like half-assed scribblings (with a few exceptions) than something as wonderful as the Codex Seraphinianus or Brion Gysin's beautiful work. I'm sure it doesn't help that they're scanned very inadequately.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:08 PM on October 13, 2007


(and don't even start with 'so is the Mona Lisa!'.)
posted by Malor at 10:09 PM on October 13, 2007


I'm an engineer. It's not a career (especially anymore) so much as a mind set. To me a thing is what a thing does. I see the world in those terms.

You'll never get any consensus as to what "art" is. For instance, Scott McCloud says that "art" is any human activity which is not directly related to survival or reproduction -- which is certainly expansive. I don't think I'd go that far.

My own definition: art is a creation intended to communicate something which cannot easily be communicated. As such, there are three dimensions to it, three scales on which any given piece of art falls.

* What is communicated can be mundane or profound. (Or somewhere in between.)
* The idea is communicated effectively or not effectively.
* What is communicate can be understood by a broad audience or only by a few.

"Great" art is profound, effective, and broad. It says something important, says it extremely well, and communicates it to many people.

But there is good art which is not at the rail on one or more of those scales. For instance, an impressionist landscape is (or can be) effective, broad, but also mundane; it tries to say "mountains are pretty." But it delivers that feeling of entrancement with the beauty of mountains to many people and inspires that feeling strongly in them. Nothing wrong with that. (A Stephen King horror novel is the same. He's a hell of a good writer; his books really move people. LOTS of people. But what he's saying isn't very important.)

The point is that the core of art, all art, is communication. The artist has some idea, image, feeling, or other mental state that he wishes the audience to feel and understand, and chooses a means of expression by which he intends to induce that feeling or mental state in his audience. When he's done, he may have succeeded or failed, but that communication was the goal.

Which means that asemic writing cannot be art, by my definition. If there is no meaning, there is nothing to communicate. Without communication there is no art.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:27 PM on October 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


Oh, come on, they're ugly scribbles. The idea sounds cool, but the work itself is §«©$±°µ.
posted by painquale at 10:27 PM on October 13, 2007


(Nicky, for the record, Brion Gysin may or may not have made it with Burroughs, but they were primarily artistic collaborators, not lovers. Burroughs had other lovers.)
posted by digaman at 11:27 PM on October 13, 2007


The way to successfully combat the feeling that they're getting one over on you is to ignore the artists' statements and just look at the stuff. At least, this is what I do with most of the experimental artforms I enjoy (replace look with listen, or whatever).

I find this fascinating because it's so different from my own way of looking at things. To me, a lot of the point of conceptual art comes more in the statements--and how they respond to and argue with other artists' statements--than in the art itself. Or, put more succinctly, the art is not an island, but part of a bigger picture that includes artists' statements, criticism, theory, etc.

The point is that the core of art, all art, is communication. The artist has some idea, image, feeling, or other mental state that he wishes the audience to feel and understand, and chooses a means of expression by which he intends to induce that feeling or mental state in his audience. When he's done, he may have succeeded or failed, but that communication was the goal.

I sincerely hope that you get past this. Until you do, you're missing out on a lot of good art.
posted by roll truck roll at 12:04 AM on October 14, 2007


Somewhat related

Thanks for the great post, Kattullus.
posted by roll truck roll at 12:06 AM on October 14, 2007


digaman, Brion lived with my family for almost a year in NYC, while he was making the Dream Machine, in 1965/66. It was at that time he started to make really beautiful asemic paintings, especially for the Dream Machine. I also knew John Giorno from that time, whose loft on the Bowery was where Burroughs, Gysin and Giorno all lived together on and off over the decades. Never thought they didn't all have sex together at one time or another. You mean they didn't?

When I met Brion later in 1974 London, when Burroughs was living there, I remember Brion saying he "enjoyed swapping carbolic acid enemas with Burroughs". I always thought that was something unusual they liked as part of their sex together, lol. Never thought to google it and now I did, it turns out to be an old fashioned treatment for hemorrhoids, LOL
posted by nickyskye at 12:51 AM on October 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


&) - ^&%\;_#?@-*
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:27 AM on October 14, 2007


Most of my writing, regardless of intent, seems to end up asemic. It's written using the same glyphs everyone else in the English-speaking community uses, it's just utterly devoid of semantic content.
posted by kcds at 4:29 AM on October 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


This is amongst the stupidest things I have ever seen.
posted by greytape at 5:21 AM on October 14, 2007


Oh, come on, they're ugly scribbles. The idea sounds cool, but the work itself is §«©$±°µ.

I'm afraid I kind of have to agree. I was hoping for things like the Codex Seraphinianus or Saul Steinberg's stuff, but this is kind of meh. Still, interesting post.
posted by klausness at 5:25 AM on October 14, 2007


Kattullus, these recent posts of yours, they rock.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 7:06 AM on October 14, 2007


Great post, interesting thread. Thanks. I'm a big fan of art that sits at the border of nonsense in a fort made of pillows and linens.
posted by mediareport at 7:11 AM on October 14, 2007


It is not universally the case, of course, but it seems to me that more and more works in more and more disciplines require less and less effort on the part of the recipient. Not all films spoonfeed their viewers, but more and more of them do; not all music gives the ear nothing more to parse than simple variations on what has been heard before, but a lot of it does; there are increasingly draconian sets of unwritten rules on what is acceptable in literary texts of all sorts which tend towards the simple, the short and the clear.

This asemic writing, on the other hand, positively demands effort on the part of the reader. You cannot simply look at it, you have to stare at it, enter into it and allow yourself to imagine what it might mean. Unless you put something in there yourself, all you will see, as several people have pointed out, is a page of squiggles. It is not just a thing in itself, it is also a trope for any kind of art which is partly incomplete until the recipient has done their part and entered into the work themselves, bringing their own ideas and their own imagination.
posted by motty at 8:36 AM on October 14, 2007


And here I was expecting Gertrude Stein. "An occasion for a plate, an occasional resource is in buying and how soon does washing enable a selection of the same thing neater. If the party is small a clever song is in order."

This sort of art relies on the tension between the reader's expectation of semantic content on the one hand -- the reader trying to make the work cohere in some way, squinting, re-reading, head-scratching -- and the actual vacuum of sense in the work. It's easy to write plain nonsense like "addasöpaof mcoiaöj", it's hard to write nonsense that the reader wants really hard to make sense.
posted by creasy boy at 9:00 AM on October 14, 2007


But we could do that with any random squiggles. Or patterns of dropped pinecones in the forest. Or wind marks on sand dunes. Or waves on a windy day at a lake.

With most things that are considered art, there are meanings to be obtained with effort. Just requiring effort on the part of the viewer, however, doesn't make it art. These are random squiggles. There's no reason to view these squiggles as opposed to any others. No consistent meaning can be drawn from them. They deliberately don't represent anything, so they're all equally non-enlightening to stare at.

There's nothing to learn here, no insights to be had. It's ultimately barren.
posted by Malor at 9:07 AM on October 14, 2007


Unassaili-babble.
posted by edverb at 9:29 AM on October 14, 2007


"asemic writing, which is writing without semantic content."

No, it's moving a pen on paper without making letters or other recognizable shapes. From the look of it, the writer lets that jumble of sensory input that makes up thought—that cascade of colliding inhibitory and excitatory axon potentials that finally collapse, hundreds of times a second, on a definite output—instead ricochet off one another. So what you end up with is half a b then no, wait! an f... with a hint of p.

Writing without semantic content would still be writing, albeit but noise dancing inside the tangled shoreline. And if you want your writing devoid of semantic and syntactic content, you might wont vapor cellphone zieterflesh garmonster georgian applebees stance. Furthermore, ggzuzuuyzyzyzycyvzvzfsfqwrsdkjslkjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjj jjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjj ijjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjijjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjxxxxxxxzzxzx. It's still writing, not scribbles. But totally devoid of meaning (which is what semantics deal with), not form. I would consider this "aformic" or "amorphic" 'writing'.
posted by Eideteker at 9:35 AM on October 14, 2007


(Nicky, wow, we should talk! I knew Burroughs later, in the late '70s. Hopefully Burroughs, Gysin, and Giorno all did have sex together at some point, but to be utterly blunt, it always seemed to me that those guys were more like sisters than lovers, with Giorno as the younger protege. I don't know anything about Giorno's sex life, but as far as I knew, Burroughs and Gysin had a yen for young straight guys, which they were more than willing to satisfy with an exchange of cash. They were certainly inseparable intellectually for a while, but I never picked up any romantic vibes in their accounts of their friendship.

That's fucking hilarious about the enemas. Considering how much WSB & BG liked opiates and derivatives of same, it must have been a gaddam brick wall down there at times. Anyway Nicky, I'd love to hear more about your family -- email welcome.)
posted by digaman at 9:45 AM on October 14, 2007


Eideteker: ggzuzuuyzyzyzycyvzvzfsfqwrsdkjslkjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjj jjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjj ijjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjijjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjxxxxxxxzzxzx

But this isn't devoid of semantic content. Can you read it out? I can. The sounds may not signify anything beyond themselves, but every letter represents a sound.
posted by Kattullus at 9:59 AM on October 14, 2007


But representing a sound isn't meaning. A word like "dog" has meaning because I can use to refer to a real thing, not just to the sound or appearance of the word. This is why I quoted Gertrude Stein, who uses words but seemingly without considering their meaning, i.e. asemantically. Whereas the 'asemic' style in your link is not just asemantic but alinguistic, I think.
posted by creasy boy at 10:09 AM on October 14, 2007


> uses words but seemingly without considering their meaning, i.e. asemantically

Not quite "without considering," creasy -- as you said so well before, her genius was in navigating the line between sense and nonsense with the balance of a world-class ballerina. I don't think she seems like she's not considering their meaning any more than Thelonious Monk was not considering harmony when he played dissonant chords that happened to be gorgeous and funny.

"What is the use of a violent kind of delightfulness if there is no pleasure in not getting tired of it. The question does not come before there is a quotation. In any kind of place there is a top to covering and it is a pleasure at any rate there is some venturing in refusing to believe nonsense. It shows what use there is in a whole piece if one uses it and it is extreme and very likely the little things could be dearer but in any case there is a bargain and if there is the best thing to do is to take it away and wear it and then be reckless be reckless and resolved on returning gratitude.

Light blue and the same red with purple makes a change. It shows that there is no mistake. Any pink shows that and very likely it is reasonable. Very likely there should not be a finer fancy present. Some increase means a calamity and this is the best preparation for three and more being together. A little calm is so ordinary and in any case there is sweetness and some of that."


-- Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons
posted by digaman at 10:29 AM on October 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


That's a good Stein quote. I started reading absent-mindedly and thought it was one of her essays or speeches, and spent a few minutes trying to figure out what her argument was, tricked by the first two sentences that seem to almost cohere.
posted by creasy boy at 11:05 AM on October 14, 2007


Wow, thanks so much for posting this. I completely forgot how much I love Cy Twombly's work. He uses this kind of writing to great effect, and it never occurred to me that there was a name for it.
posted by unknowncommand at 11:53 AM on October 14, 2007


This is amongst the stupidest things I have ever seen.

+1
posted by Kwine at 1:22 PM on October 14, 2007


Steven C. Den Beste: Which means that asemic writing cannot be art, by my definition. If there is no meaning, there is nothing to communicate. Without communication there is no art.

I've been thinking about that a lot today. I don't agree, but I've had a hard time explaining to myself why it is that I don't agree.

When I was a kid I covered the walls of my room with maps of places that don't exist and gobbled up descriptions of invented societies. I also drew huge maps of worlds of my own invention, provided them with societies, history and sometimes even invented scripts. The joy I take from asemic writing is akin to that, sometimes directly so, as with the letter from the Mraurovian High Commission in the 3rd volume of Asemic magazine. I do agree, up to a point, that communication is at the core of art, in that all art is exchange of information. So, what information do I receive from asemic writing? I get strangeness, exoticism, a direct sense for the pictorial quality of writing and, last but not least, some pretty pictures.

That said, to each his own.

And thanks, gnfti.
posted by Kattullus at 1:32 PM on October 14, 2007


Who knew there were so many friends of Bill on here? Burroughs and Giorno were definitely somewhat physical together when I knew them in the late 80s.

On topic: Doxo Wox is some of my favorite semi-semic writing.
posted by Eater at 1:51 PM on October 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


Jesus, that's hilarious, eater. But what the heck does "definitely somewhat physical" mean? I'm going to get in touch with J.G. and ask him for the definitive word on Burroughs and Gysin. In the meantime, it seems really appropriate that we all intersected in this thread.
posted by digaman at 3:05 PM on October 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


So, the One Who Would Know tells me that Burroughs and Gysin were never lovers -- to put it bluntly, they were both bottoms, and more to the point, he says, they were friends "in a way that would be contradictory to any erotic / physical relationships."
posted by digaman at 5:13 PM on October 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


Who knew there were so many friends of Bill on here?

If I'm not mistaken, dejah420 (who I haven't seen here in a while) also knew him and others of the group. This is one of the reasons I love this place, and all you people.

I remember when I was, what, 3 years old, maybe. One of my first memories is of one day when, for what I remember as an entire afternoon, I kept scribbling figures on pieces of paper and running them up to my mom in the kitchen, asking 'Is this writing?'

Of course she'd have to answer in the negative every time, but I kept at it.

I'm not sure what happened after that -- the shimmering veil gets pulled across the scene -- but I assume it involved teaching me to read. Been voracious ever since.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:31 PM on October 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


I think I know what they're trying to get to.

This is hard to explain: when I listen to someone speaking a language I don't know, I think I respond to it using the music part of my brain instead of the language part. Different languages have different kinds of sounds and patterns and rhythms. I can hear the music of each one.

I can't hear the music of English. The words get in the way. I can't turn off my comprehension of the words in order to hear the music behind them.

I don't like all of them. I can hear the music of the French language but I don't like how it sounds. ON the other hand, I think Spanish is amazing.

And I can't hear the music of Japanese any longer. I don't fully understand it (not even close), but I've been working with it long enough now so that my language center kicks in when I hear it. When I listen to Japanese now I hear phonemes and I pick out an occasional word and I hear verb conjugations and particles. My brain is wrestling with it as language, not enjoying it as music.

Does that make any sense? It's the best I can do to explain what I'm talking about.

These people are more visually-oriented than I am. Perhaps they think there's a graphic beauty to writing, an art behind the written words, equivalent to my music that's behind speech. Perhaps they, too, cannot experience that art if the words have meaning. Perhaps the "reading" part of their brain kicks in, shutting down the "see art" part.

I don't speak or read Arabic or Thai, and when I look at those languages in their written forms, what I'm looking at is a kind of punctuated drawing. Perhaps to someone else it's esthetically pleasing, the way the music of languages I don't speak is to me, for some languages.

So maybe, just maybe, these guys are trying to find that art that's behind written language. Perhaps that's the point of this all.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:45 PM on October 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


I don't buy it, SCDB. I think it's just pretentious garbage.

If you want to get that feeling of 'visual music', why not just read a real language with real meaning instead? You won't understand it, but the patterns are real, and there's an actual, potential payoff. Plus, any system that's in broad use is going to have a much stronger sense of 'music' than made-up chickenscratches.

I think this is just a method to put zero real effort into something while calling it art.... both on the part of the creator and the viewer.
posted by Malor at 8:27 PM on October 14, 2007


Well, I didn't say it was successful, or particularly profound.

These days, it seems to me that the most common message embodied in "modern art" is little more than "Stop IGNORING me!"

They've given up on trying to communicate anything profound, or to communicate effectively, and just try to get a rise out of people. Hence baloney like "Piss Christ".
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:37 PM on October 14, 2007


Steven C. Den Beste: These people are more visually-oriented than I am. Perhaps they think there's a graphic beauty to writing, an art behind the written words, equivalent to my music that's behind speech. Perhaps they, too, cannot experience that art if the words have meaning. Perhaps the "reading" part of their brain kicks in, shutting down the "see art" part.

That's exactly what it is. For me, I don't ever hear the music of languages I don't understand from regular speech. I have to listen to poetry or hip hop to fully appreciate the music of language, whether it is a language I understand or don't. However, I can sometimes disengage the reading comprehension part of my brain and just appreciate the shapes and patterns of writing. With asemic writing, I don't need to disengage anything, I can just appreciate it aesthetically.
posted by Kattullus at 9:43 PM on October 14, 2007


What an excellent post, and thread! This is all my favorite stuff.

I completely dig the idea of asemic writing. Heck, I've even done a bit of it myself. I see examples of it quite often in the form of aerosol graffiti. Not all graffiti, mind you: most writers are still writing their names, in more or less legible forms, progressing from straight letters to indecipherable wildstyle. But a very small number of graffiti writers have taken the plunge into total asemia. Here are a couple of examples of what I would consider asemic writing by graffiti artists:

Apex (San Francisco)
Zezão (São Paulo)

I love this stuff because I love the boundary between sense and nonsense.

It's the visual equivalent of glossolalia (speaking in tongues).
posted by otherthings_ at 11:57 PM on October 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


SCDB: They've given up on trying to communicate anything profound, or to communicate effectively, and just try to get a rise out of people. Hence baloney like "Piss Christ".

Except -- don't you think Andres Serrano communicated his message *very* effectively and profoundly (that is, clearly and deeply) with "Piss Christ"? It's just that a lot of people, who got his message loud and clear, didn't like what he was saying very much. But the fact the art and its message was disliked didn't mean it was not communicating.

Otherthings_: thanks for the graffiti art links (which got me grazing on flickr for other graffiti, which was fun). But the best graffiti was one of the first things that I thought of when I looked at some of the asemic calligraphy: I frequently find great tags' designs to be so stylized as to be completely unrecognizable as lettering and thereby crossing the line into that boundary zone between text and abstraction.
posted by aught at 6:13 AM on October 15, 2007


@aught: yes, totally, wildstyle graffiti is right in that liminal zone. The difference is intention:

straight letters = readable by everyone
most graffiti = readable by insiders only
wildstyle = unreadable, but still represents a word
asemic = not intended to be read, not a word at all.

Graffiti writers on the cusp of asemia are at a point where the medium (their style) replaces the message (their name).
posted by otherthings_ at 7:54 AM on October 15, 2007


Aught, taking my three dimensions, "Piss Christ" communicated effectively, to a wide audience.

The problem with it is what it said. Remember that my definition of art is "a way of communicating something that cannot easily be communicated". Well, the message of "Piss Christ" was "your religion is stupid and I despise it."

Art wasn't needed for that message; it can be communicated easily using ordinary language. Using a weird, roundabout way of communicating that message doesn't make it art.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:38 AM on October 15, 2007


Although I have yet to try asemic writing I am excited about it as a creative exercise. I'm wondering how different people's styles would differ from each other.. Would it resemble the primary language of the writer? Would a pattern emerge that reflects their personality/mood/individuality? Could one express anger or sadness in a series of squiggles? What happens if one were to write really fast without thinking?

I don't know.. As a writer and an artist (that sometimes dabbles in pure abstracts) I'm excited by all of this. It seems so elemental and subconscious and, well, just plain fun.
posted by troubles at 1:32 PM on October 15, 2007


I have to disagree about the message of Piss Christ, SCDB. I always thought of it as a commentary on what has happened to the idea of Christ in modern culture. Most mainstream religious sects seem to be pissing on what Christ represented every day.
posted by synaesthetichaze at 2:06 PM on October 15, 2007


I should mention that I'm not a Christian, so I might not have such a good grasp on whole thing.
posted by synaesthetichaze at 2:07 PM on October 15, 2007


Stephen, how do you know what the message of Piss Christ was? I didn't see any words accompanying the work.
posted by telstar at 6:43 PM on October 15, 2007


Telstar, look up the word "desecration" in the dictionary.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:27 PM on October 15, 2007


Ooh, I know! That's how they dry coconuts for cake toppings, isn't it?
posted by Abiezer at 8:33 PM on October 15, 2007


What is being desecrated, Steven?
posted by telstar at 9:07 PM on October 15, 2007


A crucifix was desecrated. "Piss Christ" was a crucifix immersed in urine.

I do wonder how many sophisticated NE liberals would have been as entranced by a Koran immerse in urine in a jar.

Telstar, you're not stupid. Please stop acting like you don't understand what I mean.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:44 PM on October 15, 2007


Well, maybe to you, immersion in urine is desecration. However many cultures don't see urine as all that bad. In fact, urine is deemed decidedly medicinal among many. Are you perhaps not seeing much but yourself in Piss Christ, thus making this work of art truly powerful?
posted by telstar at 10:21 PM on October 15, 2007


SCDB, I'm late to this aspect of the discussion, but I'd suggest that Art is not about communication at all. You might be thinking of Illustration. Some of my favorite art pieces don't communicate anything at all in the normal sense. They simply exist. If, by existing, a piece of art causes some people to think about things differently, well.... that's a very potent piece of art. But that's not the same thing as communication, because the artist didn't necessarily have a specific message in mind.

As an aside, I move we amend Godwin's Law as follows: "As an online discussion about art grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler Piss Christ approaches one." ;-)
posted by otherthings_ at 10:27 PM on October 15, 2007


However many cultures don't see urine as all that bad. In fact, urine is deemed decidedly medicinal among many.

That's just silly, at least in this context.

No, actually, it's just plain silly.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:28 PM on October 15, 2007


Now you're being obtuse, telstar. I am sure SCDB is right in saying immersing in urine would be considered desecration by those mainstream Christian denominations that use them. The artist can say that is not his intention, but he'd have to be naive to think that those who care would agree.
posted by Abiezer at 10:29 PM on October 15, 2007


err, use crucifixes.
posted by Abiezer at 10:30 PM on October 15, 2007


As much as I was hoping that the Piss Christ discussion had died down, I will join in if only to point out the following:

1) It is not a sculpture or a ready-made, but a photograph.
2) The picture sure is pretty.
3) Sister Wendy Beckett, a nun and PBS art critic, doesn't think Piss Christ is blasphemous:
Moyers presses on, asking whether she was offended by Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, a work which, he claims, "denigrates the central figure of your faith." Again, she begs to differ. While advancing her opinion that Serrano is "not a very gifted young man, but he's trying to do his best," Sister Wendy absolutely refuses to see Piss Christ as blasphemous. Instead she reads it as an admonitory work that attempts to say "this is what we are doing to Christ."
4) Here's a poem by Andrew Hudgins reacting to the piece:
Piss Christ


If we did not know it was cow's blood and urine,
if we did not know that Serrano had for weeks
hoarded his urine in a plastic vat,
if we did not know the cross was gimcrack plastic,
we would assume it was too beautiful.
We would assume it was the resurrection,
glory, Christ transformed to light by light
because the blood and urine burn like a halo,
and light, as always, light makes it beautiful.

We are born between the urine and the feces,
Augustine says, and so was Christ, if there was a Christ,
skidding into this world as we do
on a tide of blood and urine. Blood, feces, urine?
what the fallen world is made of, and what we make.
He peed, ejaculated, shat, wept, bled?
bled under Pontius Pilate, and I assume
the mutilated god, the criminal,
humiliated god, voided himself
on the cross and the blood and urine smeared his legs
and he ascended bodily unto heaven,
and on the third day he rose into glory, which
is what we see here, the Piss Christ in glowing blood:
the whole irreducible point of the faith,
God thrown in human waste, submerged and shining.

We have grown used to beauty without horror.

We have grown used to useless beauty.
5) I thought we all agreed to stop arguing about Piss Christ and Mapplethorpe back in 2000.
posted by Kattullus at 11:03 PM on October 15, 2007 [2 favorites]


Sorry, I don't buy immersion in urine as desecration. Hint: look to those areas of history and culture where urine was a sacrament. And no, I truly do not care what a bunch of turn century rednecks think, there is much more to the work in question than "I think your religion is worthy of a bucket of warm piss".

Maybe everyone should take off their Jesse Helms shades?

I'll stop arguing about Piss Christ when right winge-ers stop using it as their trump card in discussions about art that they don't particularly care for. For the very reason that Piss Christ has taken that role, it is truly a powerful and far-reaching piece of art.
posted by telstar at 11:27 PM on October 15, 2007


It's not that I want to debate the merits of the piss-piece. I laughed off SCDB's injunction to look up "desecration" on your behalf, but maybe you really do need to look at the base meaning of the word. You can check out all the injunctures there for damaged sacred objects and spaces. A chip off the altar will do it.
I don't believe in any of that, but if you're going to debate it, understand it. I'm sure Serrano did.
posted by Abiezer at 12:03 AM on October 16, 2007


Sheesh. It's a good thing we've switched from the asemic writing to something easier for people who don't like art to talk about.

Listen, people. "Is it art?" is not a very interesting discussion after the first time you have it. We could be having much better discussions about this.
posted by roll truck roll at 7:23 AM on October 16, 2007


For the very reason that Piss Christ has taken that role, it is truly a powerful and far-reaching piece of art.

This is an excellent point. It was powerful art, because they're still talking about it even now.

I didn't think much of it at the time -- it seemed like a cheap and easy stunt to me -- but it's inarguable that it had a profound effect. It is very unlikely that anything I do or say in my entire life will affect the world as much.
posted by Malor at 8:01 AM on October 16, 2007


It is very unlikely that anything I do or say in my entire life will affect the world as much.

Poop Christ? Doodoo Buddha? Arsehole Allah? Don't despair, the field's still wide open, man!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:22 PM on October 16, 2007


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