The American poet and art critic John Ashbery, in what is perhaps his most famous poem ("Soonest Mended"), sketches what he has described as an "everybody's autobiography," in which his characteristically postmodern approach to narrative style (leaping from comic strip to novel to abstraction in this passage) seems to question the value of the very concept of "information":
And then there always came a time when
Happy Hooligan in his rusted green automobile
Came plowing down the course, just to make sure everything was O.K.,
Only by that time we were in another chapter and confused
About how to receive this latest piece of information.
Was it information? Weren't we rather acting this out
For someone else's benefit, thoughts in a mind
With room enough and to spare for our little problems (so they began to seem),
Our daily quandary about food and the rent and bills to be paid? (Selected Poems 87)
I quote this well-known passage from Ashbery's best-known poem to point out how the queasy questioning of "information" is immediately followed by a vision which can be described as both paranoid and performative: the vicissitudes of the contemporary artist, Ashbery seems to be suggesting, are directly related to the sense of the audience, and it is the audience here that seemingly prompts the mental leap the poem makes from questioning the status of "this latest piece of information" to a nightmarish vision in which the artist's existence is reduced to "thoughts in a mind" that belongs to someone else. I begin with Ashbery's deliberately abstracted and aestheticized poem -- whose very title enacts the argument for reticence given by the proverb it reticently refuses to quote in full ("least said, soonest mended") -- as a way of approaching the question of the intersection of information with aesthetics. I wish to consider the question through the lens specificially of Anthony Huberman's concept of "information" as expressed in "Naive Set Theory." As Huberman writes, "In the end, art that stops information is art that creates space for a viewer to experience it." Through the lens of this statement, I would like to assess the view of art and information expressed by Umberto Eco in his essay "The Open Work in Visual Arts."
First, however, it is necessary to consider some of the implications of Huberman's statement by examining it within its full context:
To stand for the importance of things we don't understand is to stand for an active and reactive pursuit of knowledge. To favor the curious mind over the informed one is to make room for experimentation and risk-taking. To stop the path of information is to reject the passive consumer and to require, instead, an active engagement of a motivated and implicated audience of participants. In the end, art that stops information is art that creates space for a viewer to experience it.
What the context here makes clear is that Huberman is assessing information in light of how a work of art is received. Resistance to facile interpretation (i.e., acknowledging the work of art as one of those "things we don't understand") places the viewer in a relationship to the work of art in which the viewer is in "pursuit of knowledge." However this also, as Huberman essentially concedes, fundamentally redefines the role of the critic, by now "favor[ing] the curious mind over the informed one," implying that previously the dynamic worked in the opposite direction. In other words, Huberman seems to liken the "informed mind" here to an older model of art criticism founded on connoisseurship, in which the "information" possessed by the mind is in itself a means of so thoroughly contextualizing and anatomizing a work of art that any chance for a personal or spontaneous reaction is lost. The "informed mind" which Huberman is keen to urge us away from is, for example, the sort of art criticism practiced in an earlier generation, by men like Gombrich or journals like the Burlington Magazine. As an example, we might try to imagine what sort of viewer today would be required to accurately judge a newly-discovered 5th century BCE Athenian red-figure vase: here an "informed mind" would be positively required in order to establish the authenticity of such an artifact, to reconstruct it physically if necessary, and to elucidate the meaning of what is depicted in its imagery. But does this automatically reduce the viewer of this particular artwork to the level of a "passive consumer? To a certain extent in this hypothetical example it must, for the simple reason that an Athenian red-figure vase was, in its original historical context, considered as something more like a consumer good than like a work of art. To some extent, we permit the erasure of personal reaction here because ultimately the work in question does not have the aesthetic stature of a Michelangelo sculpture. An ancient Greek vase painting can hardly be expected to yield endless fodder for interpretation, so it is hardly likely to encourage the "active participation" of its viewers.
Yet to some extent, the larger question here is one regarding interpretation of the work of art. Privileging the act of "interpretation" as the most appropriate way to approach a work of art is basically another way of saying that art exists purely as a vehicle for a sort of coded information, which relies on the interpreter to complete the aesthetic experience by decoding that "message" (either by divining it through intuition or analysis, or else by applying rules specified in an external cipher-book, so to speak, in order to interpret it in the most standardized way possible). The problem here rests in the willingness to assume a one-for-one correspondence between the details or aspects of a specific work of art and the artist's intended "meaning," and to find the "purpose" of a work of art to lie in that act of interpretation rather than in the relation between viewer and work of art, as Huberman suggests. Huberman is hardly novel in wanting to privilege the relationship between art and audience over the interpretation of art by the viewer: half a century ago Susan Sontag was already huskily complaining, in "Against Interpretation," that in place of a hermeneutics of art we need an erotics of art. Yet this is, obviously, quite different from the "experimentation and risk-taking" that Huberman advocates: a Sontagian erotics of art would, obviously, simply be a more rarefied act of connoisseurship, and hardly evades the notion of value judgments in aesthetics representing no more than the expression of personal tastes. But for Sontag, this would pose no problem -- like a number of other aesthetes, ranging from Oscar Wilde to Harold Bloom, the distinction between critical and creative activity is elided, and there is suddenly no difference between what a work of criticism does and what a work of art does.
What Huberman proposes is, in its way, more radical. He wishes to include the critic (or, as he carefully chooses his term, "audience") as a necessary part of the artistic act. Now obviously with certain works of art this seems absolutely vital in terms of the most basic conception: without an audience, Karen Finley is just a madwoman sticking yams up her ass. With an audience, Karen Finley is a controversial performance artist staging her controversial piece "Yams Up My Granny's Ass." Yet arguably all that the audience does here is to legitimate Finley's work by actually sitting through it, but it is hard to see how this guarantees its status as art rather than, say, an exercise in sheer duration. Indeed, the thing that guarantees its status as art is in fact is very performativity, and it probably retains a certain aesthetic credibility on those grounds (if indeed there is anyone on earth who finds Karen Finley to be credible as an artist) by virtue of being an aesthetic experience that is not an artifact. Karen Finley's work may have prompted angry revanchist sentiments in America to revoke her government arts sponsorship in the 1980s, but it must be noted that, with or without government sponsorship, Finley was hardly creating works of art that could be sold to collectors. In other words, the audience is not put in an interpretive role but is definitely, in Huberman's word, "implicated" by endorsing the notion that the artwork requires the real presence of the artist, which may be supposed (rightly or wrongly) to supply a necessary authenticity lacking in an art world dominated by the likes of Warhol, Jeff Koons, or Damien Hirst. Each of these is producing the equivalent for his time of the Athenian red-figure pottery, and thus invites the passivity of the consumer which Huberman is at pains to eschew.
It is useful at this point, however, to introduce the insights offered by Umberto Eco in his essay on "The Open Work in the Visual Arts," starting with Eco's "radical distinction between 'meaning' and 'information'." (Eco 93). Eco's specialist use of terminology here from cybernetics…