In playground parlance ‘dumb’ is interchangeable with ‘thick’. Both have the monosyllabic power of all the harshest insults. To call something dumb is to flatten it, isolate it, encase it in a chamber of silence. From the outside we look in, to the dumb thing. A beetle held beneath an upturned glass. Dumbness is therefore also connected to vulnerability, and tugs at our altruistic selves. The spectacle of vulnerability contains a great deal of self-reflection; to look at something dumb is to appreciate the prone position of things in the world. We are ourselves struck dumb by the joys and tragedies of life, silenced and pinned in place beneath a greater experience.
Paintings embody a certain dumbness in their silence and inscrutability. As Paul Housley has observed the act of painting is ‘dumb’ – anyone who has ever painted will be able to understand the slightly incredulous feeling of moving coloured mud around a piece of wood or fabric. A history of painting can be understood as a tremendous effort over hundreds of years to sublimate this material baseness and elevate painting away from its primordial dumbness. For the past 150 years painting and sculpture have engaged different aspects of the dumb as an aesthetic solution to the overly refined cul-de-sacs that grew out of various developing scenes. Dumb then is a matter of both subject and content. It is an antidote to the excesses of sophistication and intellectual life, putting forward elements of the fantastic and banal in materially ironic ways that eschew tasteful norms. By radically reworking from abstract to a form of narrative cartoon figuration in the 1970s, Philip Guston radically questioned the value of conventional forms of sophistication in painting in a move that critics like Hilton Kramer took as a snub.
Questions of worth and value constantly circulate around the dumb as an aesthetic category. Why bother to paint these things, and in this way? A great deal of empathy and beauty accumulate in the reservoirs of the dumb object. Painters have known for centuries the intensification that occurs when the tragic and comic come together in paint. The Japanese underground comics artist King Terry developed a term “heta-uma” meaning “bad but good” to describe works that were conscious of the aesthetic potential of “unskilled” handling. He also noted the reverse, “uma-heta”, skilled works that nonetheless lacked deep appeal. By rendering the world in a self-consciously “dumb” way, the painter creates empathy for the subject of the work, and also for the painting-as-object itself. Like the sense of continuity between the beetle and the glass that holds it in place for us to see, paint and subject can be unified in ways that lead to a modest empathy for things we might define as “dumb”.