Sanders spoke of his students’ reluctance to particularities, manifest in their assertion that by leaving their stories vague, they allowed room for readers to insert themselves and provide their own interpretation. Sanders liked to reduce their argument to its absurd case, he said, by suggesting that they ought, then, to leave their pages completely blank.
This comment, as I recall, got a hearty laugh and knowing nods from those assembled, a group that included both earnest professors and eager students. From the southwest corner of the room, the high-backed Eisteddfod chair sat in silence watching over the assembly, inscrutable but for its ornate carvings, which no one noticed or cared to decipher. A diffuse light shone in from the west-facing windows, through external metal slats, as the sun approached southerly vertical. On the south end of the room, on floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, an assortment of professors’ books rested unmolested but for the steady rain of dust accumulating on their pages’ edges. My own first book, which would soon occupy a place of prominence on the middle shelf, outward-facing and eye height, comfortable and confirming to the default perspective, was not yet among them, nor, indeed, yet in existence, quite, as an object.
(Sanders did not reduce his own argument to its absurd case: to the utter extreme of detail, where not a mote floating in the air would go unremarked or undescribed. While a blank page is easy enough to produce in reality, such an infinitude of detail can be conjured only in the imagination, and in the abstract.)
My mind did not then wander, though it wanders now, to the 1967 Batman episode “Pop Goes the Joker,” in which Cesar Romero’s character wins an international art competition by leaving his canvas blank. Responding to the befuddled judges’ “What is that?” he says “My painting is titled ‘Death of a Mauve Bat,’” and when he’s asked for further explanation, the gallery host, Baby Jane Towser, buts in to declare, “It’s symbolic [of] the emptiness of modern life. What else?” Towser’s subsequent announcement that the Joker has won gets hearty applause and knowing nods from those assembled, Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson excepted, of course.
Abstract Painting, which at first glance is a plain 60-inch all-black square (upon longer and deeper observation, it reveals itself to include various shades of black, perhaps some shapes [Nigel Tufnel appears in mind, answering his own question about Spinal Tap’s pure-black Smell the Glove album cover, amidst a flurry of interpretations by bandmates: “How much more black could this be? And the answer is none; none more black.” Which in turn brings The Beatles, of course, but I refrain, because invoking The White Album would bring along Charles Manson’s murderously wrong interpretations, and after Manson would follow Joan Didion, and we haven’t got time, though her work is certainly worthy, and I’ve spent much time reading, admiring, and teaching it, noting especially the overly simple way so many of us understand “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” which Didion herself subverts and complicates in the sentences immediately following, so, before we get too far off track (too late!), to Metallica’s self-titled album, or to Jay Z or to Danger Mouse, for instance, I’ll pause only to explain that I cannot get my computer to place the n in Spinal Tap beneath an umlaut, just in case you were wondering]). It is difficult to experience such works via the computer screen, which flattens and translates them into pixels, which do not respond well to changes in viewing distance or angle. I recall seeing just one such work in person, Robert Motherwell’s 1958 Iberia, which hangs in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. I found the painting—a horizontal swath of brush-stroked black with a tiny unpainted white swatch in the lower-left corner—to give rise to many questions, mostly of the philistine’s “this is art?” variety, but some of a less skeptical, more earnestly curious kind. Later researches revealed that Motherwell was long obsessed with the ravages of the Spanish Civil War, and that while painting a series of Elegies to the Spanish Republic, he “discovered black as one of my subjects—and with black, the contrasting white, a sense of life and death which to me is quite Spanish.” A note at the Guggenheim website accompanying the painting admirably complicates Motherwell’s recollection or interpretation of his own work, stating, “Given that the Elegies date from an ink sketch made in 1948 to accompany a poem by Harold Rosenberg that was unrelated to the Spanish Civil War, and that their compositional syntax became increasingly intense, it seems all the more apparent that the ‘meaning’ of each work in the series is subjective and evolves over time.”
In matters of law, a summary judgment is one in which a judge issues a verdict “summarily,” which is to say without a jury trial, because the evidence unquestionably favors one party’s claims, because no significant facts are in dispute. For example, in May of last year, Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York issued partial summary judgment in favor of a group of Twitter users blocked by @realDonaldTrump, ruling that such blocking is unconstitutional as it violates their First Amendment rights. And in May of this year, Judge Amit P. Mehta of the US District Court for Washington D.C. issued summary judgment in favor of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which had requested (and has still not received) the financial records of Individual 1. Or just a couple of months ago, Judge David Briones of the US District Court for the Western District of Texas issued summary judgment in favor of El Paso County, Texas, and Border Network for Human Rights, which claimed that the president’s declaration of a national emergency at the southern border was unlawful and that use of emergency funds to build a border wall would violate the Consolidated Appropriations Act. A summary judgment is one that no person in their right mind could interpret differently.
Patrick Madden is the author of three essay collections, Disparates (forthcoming in 2020), Sublime Physick, and Quotidiana, and co-editor of After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays. He curates www.quotidiana.org, co-edits the journal Fourth Genre with Joey Franklin, and, with David Lazar, co-edits the 21st Century Essays series at the Ohio State University Press. He teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts.