Is an ongoing relationship with an inanimate object which never changes possible?
Of course it is. There is a kind of discourse which occurs between you and objects all the time: For example, when you find a pencil too worn down to use, and walk it over to the pencil sharpener. Interchange, yes - albeit a very dull one (does anyone still write with a pencil? I’m not doing so at the moment. In any case, the pun was intended).
A much stronger and more complicated interface occurs between you and an object when you, say, look at an advertisement on a billboard. All kinds of stuff goes on – psychological, sociological, implied tactile - perhaps sexual or political – much of it colored by the moment, and, like the first example, offering very little beyond one’s initial comprehension and digestion of the situation presented (“this pencil won’t make a mark” in the first instance, and “would my butt look as good as hers in those jeans?” in the second) and how to react, complete or fulfill the situation (“I’m taking it over to the sharpener” and “I’ll try some on, or not, when I’m going by that store next time”).
It seems unlikely that you would want to have that interchange again and again – so probably you will not choose to put either the worn pencil or the jeans ad, nicely framed, on your living room wall. (I fully realize, of course, that in stating this idea of totally and purposefully non-communicative art, I might be planting the roots of a new art movement - it could be called “Dullism”, “Nothingism”, or perhaps more esoterically, “Ennuism” - in the fertile soil of the perverse and always expandable human aesthetic. It is damned, I hope, to a quick oblivion.)
Anyhow, the point here is that all of us expect more from a work of art that we are going to keep around us than that it seems to fit well around the hips – we want it to continue to engage us and amplify itself, as old friends do, with new aspects of its being as time rolls on. In other words, we want the relationship to be ongoing.
Matisse has famously stated that he wanted his paintings to act like a comfortable armchair to a tired businessman returning home from work – something that he could sink into with a sense of relaxation, abandon, and delight. For years, I’ve agreed – what more could I ask of my own work than that it filled a kind of recreational void for the viewer?
However, I’ve realized that Matisse’s charming and seductive analogy doesn’t work for me any longer – I want something more dynamic, something itchier, stronger, something both physically and intellectually more challenging to occur between my work and the viewer. In fact, I don’t think Matisse himself would be satisfied with a painting of his own that merely met this stated goal – he would put it back on the easel for some reflection and rumination, and then beat it up until it emerged as a real Matisse, gutsy and uncompromising, decisive and instant, witty and wry.
Matisse may be a tough master to stand one’s work against, but Nature itself is tougher – a contest no one can hope to win. Most art doesn’t stand a visual chance against the average dead leaf one can pick up just before walking into the gallery in terms of form, logic, and grace. The artist’s only hope on this scale is to create something Nature doesn’t do – an interrelation between the object and the viewer which is personal and intimate.