j w stewart
ruled line

El (Do Not), 1995 - 8.4 x 8.4 in - 21.3 x 21.3 cm
Collection of Concordia University Archives, W.A.Stewart Fonds

Over the years I have had people ask, and some people challenge me to explain the texts that appear in some of my pieces. Some of these are incidental quotations, little snippets, taken directly from a given source and reproduced in the original typesetting — that is, photocopied from the source, usually a book, and usually taken out of context. Sometimes I've combined snippets from different sources and re-assembled them into phrases.

In other cases when the text is a central element of the piece, I've written the text or derived and adapted the text from a source or sources. What follows is a demonstration of how one of these texts was composed.

I have made a series of pieces that use a dancing/prancing caped half-bull half-human figure. In most of these pieces this figure has had superimposed on him the following text or a variation thereof:


I have been questioned about this text a few times. A critic of my acquaintance went to see the show which included this piece. He was accompanied on his visit by an artist I didn't know. I happened to be there at the time. The artist scolded me about the quote not being attributed. Not footnoting it was apparently contrary to his faith. He assumed that I couldn't have written it myself. I guess I just don't look that smart. And I didn't exactly write it either, at least not from whole cloth. I sort of edited it into existence from disparate parts just as I do with the rest of my work except usually with images rather than text. He didn't read the first line very carefully. I have the feeling he was looking for an excuse to dislike my show and my work anyway. I didn't answer him and left without explaining myself.

The text came about this way. I had been reading Michael Baxandall's Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy. I was catching up with some books I was supposed to have read when I was an art student. I was taken with one of the citations from the book: (Phrases and words I extracted are in indicated.)

"As for the pictures themselves, the Church realized there were sometimes faults against theology and good taste in their conception. S. Antonino, Archbishop of Florence [Antoninus, Saint Antonio Pierozzi, also called De Forciglioni (1389-1459)], sums up the three main errors:

Painters are to be blamed when they paint things contrary to our Faith — when they represent the Trinity as one person with three heads, a monster; or, in the Annunciation, an already formed infant, Jesus, being sent into the Virgin's womb, as if the body he took on were not of her substance; or when they paint the infant Jesus with a hornbook, even though he never learned from man. But they are not to be praised either when they paint apocryphal matter, like midwives at the Nativity, or the Virgin Mary in her Assumption handing down her girdle to St. Thomas on account of his doubt (plate 20), and so on. Also, to paint curiosities into the stories of Saints and in churches, things that do not serve to arouse devotion but laughter and vain thoughtsmonkeys, and dogs chasing hares and so on, or gratuitously elaborate costumes — this I think unnecessary and vain."
[1982 paperback edition - page 43.]

I was interested in the idea that 'painters are to be blamed'. I've long found the extent to which society concerns itself with what is expressed or shown in public and even in private settings. We used to hear about this or that exhibition or play being shut down by the authorities for one reason or another, usually for obscenity, but quite often for what might be termed indecency of other kinds. It could as easily be for a political or social position that was offensive to the majority or that went against social convention. What intrigues me is why, in a city the size of, say, Montreal the powers that be would be so inflamed by a show happening in one room or two, somewhere in a city of millions of rooms, that they rush to close it down.

El #5, 1995 - 43.75 x 32 in - 88 x 81.3 cm
Collection of the artist.

At the same time I wanted to comment obliquely on a certain orthodoxy manifesting itself in contemporary art circles, a kind of puritanism and also an anhedonic seriousness expected of art practice. Art that didn't carry a freight of social responsibility was considered frivolous and not to be taken seriously. This attitude was more prevalent among critics, curators and art historians, non-practitioners, than among artists themselves. A certain cohort of this academy seems to want to arrogate to itself a central position in relations between the artist and the viewer. The prevalence of these ideas is such that they have often been either internalized by artists or adopted as camouflage or protective coloration, at least among those who would like to be be taken to be making 'advanced art' as the critics call it. That is, artwork worthy of critical consideration. This seems to me to be no less of a mechanism of control of what artists represent and show. There has always been a gulf between the real attitudes of artists and those of the various non-practitioners attendant to the art scene, the critics, the curators, the collectors, etc. I felt that good art can be made with no social value beyond the virtue of its own appeal be it intellectual, philosophical, sensual or whatever. The internal constitution or morphology of the piece, as it were.

I was reminded of something from Benedetto Croce's contribution to the 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica (1929) where he enumerated 'artistic qualities'. He did not define art as much as try to distinguish it by what it is not, in seven ways (this article in Brittanica is derived from Croce's Breviario di estetica - The Essence of Aesthetic). I think his 'qualities' number 6 and 7 are to the point:

6. Art is not instruction or oratory: it is not circumscribed and limited by service to any practical purpose whatever, whether this be the inculcation of a particular philosophical, historical or scientific truth, or the advocacy of a particular way of feeling and the action corresponding to it. Oratory at once robs expression of its "infinity" and independence, and, by making it the means to an end, dissolves it in this end. Hence arises what Schiller called the "non-determining" character of art, as opposed to the "determining" character of oratory; and hence the justifiable suspicion of "political poetry"—political poetry being, proverbially, bad poetry.

7. As art is not to be confused with the form of practical action most akin to it, namely instruction and oratory, so a fortiori, it must not be confused with other forms directed to the production of certain effects, whether these consist in pleasure, enjoyment and utility, or in goodness and righteousness. We must exclude from art not only meretricious works, but also those inspired by a desire for goodness, as equally, though differently, inartistic and repugnant to lovers of poetry. Flaubert's remark that indecent books lacked vérité, is parallel to Voltaire's gibe that certain "poesies sacrées" were really "sacrées, car personne n'y touche." [Sacred because no one will go near them]


El #4 (Do Not), 1995 - Framed dim. 10.5 x 10 in - 26.3 x25.5 cm
Collection of Mark Garland

So ... I paired the words "artists are to be blamed" with an image of a dancing bull figure that I had made earlier for another purpose. I wanted to evoke maleness but in a more whimsical, if mysterious or enigmatic, manifestation than generally received ideas of masculinity or macho then in such disrepute. I also wanted to have a prancing, skipping figure that would convey the opposite of seriousness or ponderousness.

I decided to look for text elements, fragments to further these ideas and to make the basic idea of painters doing some wrong thing less specific than in the Baxandall citation. I took some phrases and remixed them and combined them with phrases from two other sources.

From Joseph Campbell, The Hero With aThousand Faces (Second edition - paperback printing as per 1973 - page 390, 2nd paragraph), I took:

"An unconscious identification took place, and this was finally rendered conscious in the half-human, half-animal, figures of the mythological totem-ancestors. The animals became the tutors of humanity."

And From Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Eighth Atheneum printing 1969 - page 196, 3rd paragraph), I took:

"The characters who elude the moral antithesis of heroism and villainy generally are or suggest spirits of nature. They represent partly the moral neutrality of the intermediate world of nature and partly a world of mystery which is glimpsed but never seen, and which retreats when approached. Among female characters of this type are the shy nymphs of Classical legends and the elusive half-wild creatures who might be called daughter-figures, and include Spenser's Florimell, Hawthorne's Pearl, Wagner's Kundry, and Hudson's Rima."

So from Campbell I took: half-human, half-animal, figures of the mythological totem-ancestors.
And from Frye: characters who elude the moral antithesis of heroism and villainy — which I changed to — Moral argument between good and evil.

At that time the Commission on the Political and Constitutional Future of Quebec, also known as the Bélanger-Campeau Commission was sitting. I heard about the testimony of Yves Beauchemin who said that bilingualism made people 'culturally schizophrenic'. A week later I happened to hear an interview with Beauchemin on an english CBC radio show originating in Toronto in which he was promoting the latest translation of one of his books into english. He was speaking perfect english. You have to figure he wanted to save everyone from his own terrible fate. I took the phrase "when they represent the Trinity as one person with three heads" from the Baxandall citation and changed it to "persons with two heads" so that my painters could be blamed for representing bilingual people as well which was contrary to the faith of Quebec sovereignists and other nationalists at the time.

So that is an example of how text has sometimes been used in my work. Please don't ask me to explain about other texts in other pieces because it took a lot of searching and thinking to relocate the texts I used for this example and to reconstruct its composition twenty years after the fact and I'd really rather spend my time making the stuff instead of talking about it.

I would be happy to have any comments you care to offer about this essay
click here

El #7, 2000 - 56 x 57 in - 142.2 x 144.8 cm
Collection of the artist.