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The Death of the Unreliable Narrator

Ed Atkins, Ribbons, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist and Cabinet, London

Ed Atkins, Ribbons, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist and Cabinet, London

‘Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!’ So the flustered old man shouts while fidgeting with the partition that kept him, and the controls for his distracting light and sound displays, hidden. The old man is, of course, the supposed Wizard of Oz, the scene from the 1939 film providing the starting point for countless books and essays on the qualities of sound and narration in film (yes, including this one). The authority of the wizard, an apparent god-like power, who is revealed to be merely a nervous man tinkering with an amplifier and a smoke machine, gives a concise and classic example of the trope of the unreliable narrator: when what we are being told is bending things a bit, misleading us, or just plain untrue. The unreliable narrator is a concept with which we are all familiar – whether in the form of boastful exploits in the Life and Exploits of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, 1759-67, or in Kevin Spacey’s voiceover from the grave in American Beauty, 1999. The dissonance between what we are being told and what is being made revealed has long been used as a tool in fiction and art; but what happens when the unreliable narrator becomes ubiquitous and all narration is untrustworthy? What happens when the unreliable narrator becomes the only narrator in town? Continue reading

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One man lays a noose over the head of another man; small labels dangling off each of the figures indicate that the doomed victim is the ‘Artist’, the knotted rope represents ‘Platitudinous Phrases’ being placed on him by the ‘Art Critic’ and ‘Word Mongerer’. This sceptical moment is just a small corner from Ad Reinhardt’s collage comic How to Look at Art Talk. Tucked into London ICA’s Fox Reading Room was a collection of 27 of his ‘How to Look at…’ series of mock lectures that appeared from the 1940s to the 60s in the New York publications PM, ArtNews and Transformations. Self-described as ‘a nosegay for the art-schmeckers’, Reinhardt’s comics are a refreshing antidote and timely reminder to current debates droning on about supposed crises in criticism.

Chaotically diagrammatic and ironically explanatory, the series actually represents informal criticism disguised variously as introductions to iconography, cubist paintings, surrealist art and any number of Reinhardt targets felt like taking a shot at. It is something like Max Ernst’s 1934 graphic novel Une Semaine De Bonté (A Week of Grace) on semantic speed, using old etchings and cramming type into every corner to collect quotes, art world inanities, style surveys and quick scenester reviews. The central kernel might be the recurring scene of a man mockingly pointing at an abstract painting – ‘Ha ha what does this represent?’ – followed by the painting angrily jabbing a finger at the frightened man and demanding, ‘What do you represent?’ For all its jaunty aesthetic philosophising, Reinhardt makes it clear that, for him, abstract painting is where it’s at. In How to View High (Abstract) Art, the ‘picture artist’ is compared with a reactionary who breeds illusion, imitation and hack skills while the abstract painter carries the qualities of honesty, dignity and decency.

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