The Rustling Sound of Ordinary Speech | Quodlibetica

The Rustling Sound of Ordinary Speech

Constellation 13 Quodlibetica

By Patricia Briggs

I’ve been reading Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, a book that has been sitting on my shelf waiting for me to pick it up for years. I’m particularly struck by De Certeau’s idea about the consumer as producer. For de Certeau, the consumer is not a passive receiver of cultural images and discourses but rather takes in a steady stream of stuff, digests it, and spits it back out in a “secondary production hidden in the process of its own utilizaton” (xiii). In other words, culture consumers quietly re-appropriate the objects, images, and ideas fashioned by professionals and experts, re-negotiate this material in light of memory and the chance contingencies of circumstance, and produce a constantly changing bricolage of practices that shape daily life. De Certeau calls this secondary production “ordinary speech.”

So innocuous are these common place practices of enunciation—like walking, talking, looking, cooking, etc.—that they are everywhere but hard to recognize precisely because they are so ubiquitous and banal. As I strain to see this “secondary production” that is “ordinary speech” as a model for understanding� art viewing and art writing, I imagine rustling sounds of movement and unselfconscious chatter of artists and viewers moving around in artists’ studios off of the official stage of galleries or the pages of glossy art magazines.

Silent Viewers and Experts

Separating artists from viewers, silencing them to make space for the voices of “experts” is fundamental to the structure of the modern museum, commercial gallery system, and print publishing industry. As we all know, from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, the museumification of artworks meant removing objects from their original contexts, placing them in museums (and by the nineteenth century in commercial galleries), encouraging artists to keep their mouths shut, and allowing artworks to speak for themselves.

Like artists, most viewers are silenced by this system, even as art institutions and publishing companies dub some viewers “expert.” [i] The print publishing industry is the gatekeeper of the official discourse on art, as it has been since the earliest days of published literature on art. It’s not much different today than it was in earlier times, except that today there is a thriving art press that sustains itself on advertising dollars. A team of editors grooms any given art magazine’s brand. A critic’s authoritative words might make it into the pages of one of these magazines if (and only if) they adequately support the brand.

So, although it is reasonable to lament the “dwindling numbers of professional art critics” [ii](without their expert consideration the last drips and drabs of funding still available to institutions and programs that support artists is likely to be lost), as a professional critic who can’t remember a time when I received a single word of feedback on a piece printed in reputable art magazines, I am not entirely sorry to see them go. A viewer/writer can never be an expert but rather acts the part by speaking or writing in particular ways within particular contexts. To be sure, dwindling numbers of critics does not mean less art is made, less talk about art happens, or less writing about it is done. Professional art criticism, the official discourse of experts, may well be the other to the massive muffled discourses of “ordinary speech,” the unofficial chatter of artists, viewers, and writers that constitutes the daily life of art communities.  Why not pay more attention to it and work to expand our notion of viewing instead of lamenting the decline of the “expert”?

Rustling Sounds

Which practices constitute these secondary productions “hidden in the process” of their own use? Could it be that immersive engagement with art making might be one of them?

I suggest this because I recently found myself in the Mathis Gallery and Frame Shop in Racine, Wisconsin, a struggling Midwestern town with nearly as many empty storefronts on Main Street as viable businesses. Walking to the counter with a small print in need of a frame in my hands, I spotted a group of canvases leaning against the gallery wall. I could see the yellowish stains of age on the sides of the canvas as it wrapped around the edges of the stretcher frames. Judging by their size I figured the paintings dated to the 1940s or 50s. Leaving my print on the counter, I flipped through them. I could see the influence of Picasso of the 1930s and of Pollock’s early abstractions, but it was the clarity of intention I sensed in every one of these dark abstractions that gave me goose bumps. As it turns out, nearly the entire oeuvre of Theodore Czebotar, a little know American artist born in Racine, is stored in the gallery’s basement.

When I returned to see more, I was overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of the work. When Czebotar died in 1996, he left thousands of drawings and painting dating back as far as the early 1930s. There are piles of street scenes drawn in New York City, Racine, and elsewhere. There are cartoons, beach scenes, interiors, and figure studies. There are photographs taken over the decades that picture Czebotar and his wife working in a rough cabin studio, picnicking in the country, on a beach on the Pacific Coast posing with jagged monoliths of weathered driftwood that are echoed in the artist’s abstractions. Incessantly drawing, Czebotar traveled from one end of the United States to the other hitching rides on boxcars during the 1930s or living out of a camper trailer during the summers in the 1960s, searching for inspiration and hoarding every sketch he made.

This vast collection piled haphazardly in the unfinished basement of an aging building is not unusual. It is common, ordinary. It represents countless lost or nearly lost oeuvres that captured scarce critical attention and languish in the shadows before eventually disintegrating into dust. Unframed and uncatalogued, Czebotar’s life work represents a way of life, a common practice of compulsive drawing, an artist’s immersion in a process of production that is a searching for an ineffable ideal that more often than not gives rise to frustration. Repetitive gestures of the hand preoccupied with drawing, shuffling through piles of drawings, looking at compositions, quietly walking from one composition to the next (then back again). These are the banal productive activities, the “ordinary speech,” that constitute the everyday life immersed in art. Yet these everyday practices play out beyond the field of vision of most viewers (who see only what is presented in the gallery) and are seldom illuminated in the writing of experts.


Although Rikrit Tiravanija and relational artists like him challenge the structural separation of artists from viewers and recognize that the viewer is a productive collaborator in the process of making art meaningful, relational art nevertheless typically plays out in the official space of galleries and falls short of illuminating the practices of daily life that constitute art communities. Work of this kind makes the artist an “expert”/director incorporating viewers into art installations like extras on a film set. This highly orchestrated and self-conscious rapprochement between artist and viewer can’t possibly represent de Certeau’s “ordinary speech.”

Rather, the artist’s studio and its satellite locations—the coffee shop, bar, and kitchen table— are the places where artists and viewers cross paths regularly, though the chatter of their discourse remains largely hidden from critical view. While the common assumption (perpetuating the primacy of the museum, gallery, and art magazine) is that the artist’s studio is a private retreat where viewers are not welcome, artists’ studios, in fact, are often filled with talk.

Teaching at an art college attuned me to the rich texture of serious studio conversation, often called “critique,” a term that essentially means artists and others  –i.e. writers or critics–talking to each other about art as a community of committed viewers. Although the average viewer may find it difficult to find an entry to it because institutional forces tend to separate artists and viewers, this kind of conversation motors the world of art making.

For non-artists, simply being in an artist’s studio—standing in front of an artist’s unfinished work, looking at failed attempts, seeing source materials tacked up on studio walls, seeing cups of cold coffee abandoned on secondhand tables—feels slightly transgressive. Here, viewers ask questions, give advice, disagree with artists about interpretations of their own work, suggest things to read. There’s often talk about perception, consciousness, being, pedagogy, childhood. Artists ask viewers questions. They want to know what viewers see in their work.

When I talk to artists like this I always get hungry and I usually leave exhausted. I think this activity and the impulses that instigate it are an aspect of “ordinary speech,” of the practices of everyday life that keep artists and viewers coming back to the not-very-commercially-viable thing we call art which almost none of us, artists or writers, actually make a living doing.

It is true that I have the credentials of an “expert,” and I recognize that the fact that I write art criticism informs the relationships I have with artists.  Nevertheless, I am striving to enact the role of engaged viewer whenever I have the opportunity to speak seriously with an artist about art. My point here is that those of us who write about art, who are compelled to watch art seriously and talk about it compulsively,  need not play out the role of “expert,” but rather model a practice of engaged viewing instead.

Blogging may honestly be a way of doing this. While print publications emerged as a way of providing a forum for international exchange of ideas for the benefit the broader public, in practice they fetishize the international and the national at the expense of the local, a process which marginalizes all but a handful of celebrity artists. As the age of print publishing wanes, experts and professionals with privileged access to the “global” no longer need serve as the gatekeepers of public discourse. In a digital environment these distinctions no longer apply. The local is the global and any engaged viewer can write a blog where their position as viewer, receiver, consumer is reframed as producer. Like the ordinary practices of the studio— looking at art, hands making art, talking about art, walking from one work of art to the next— blogging may well be a kind of “ordinary speech.”

Throughout The Practice of Everyday Life[i]de Certeau makes a great deal of the rational arguments sanctioned by experts as the opposite of “ordinary speech.” 

[ii] This phrase is drawn from the invitation to writers to contribute to this issue of Quodlibetica.


Reblogged from The Rustling Sound of Ordinary Speech | Quodlibetica.


About Patricia Briggs
Patricia Briggs is the director of galleries and curator of exhibitions at Jamestown Community College in Western New York. She writes the blog "Scene Unseen: Viewing Notes" about visual art in her community.

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