Carl Peters


Art actually: Benign Ignorance and the need not to know


This paper explores the art of the fragment. It will be discursive and attentive rather than expository, because the fragment is discursive, in contrast to the mise en scène, which is focussed, contextual. Separation and estrangement are common affects of the modern work of art. I wish to suggest that such experience is often experienced as a need not to know – as a kind of workable ignorance. The mirror scene in the Marx Brothers’ film, Duck Soup, is a perfect illustration and demonstration of this. All great art spins against the way it drives. Vera Frankel’s “benign ignorance” is a postmodern re-enactment and re-envisioning of Antonin Artaud’s perception of language and art: “benign ignorance can be described as a state of unfocused awareness that permits us to link the confusing world with the deep metaphoric formulations inside us which are strategies for its apprehension. To reach these and give them form in art requires setting knowledge aside, reclaiming it later as necessary. [. . .] It follows from this that a work of art is as good as the amount of knowledge and ignorance it holds in balance.” (27) This calls to mind certain questions: What is the work of art actually? What is the act of creating art? How does art ‘act’ on the audience/observer? Is ‘art’ an ‘act’ (verb) rather than a ‘thing’ (noun)? All of the above? Finally, what does it mean to ‘know’ a piece of art? Remember: any aesthetic experiment is an experiment in “being” – in why we are here and what we are here for. I will investigate, precisely, how Frenkel’s notion of benign ignorance pushes us towards the limit of language, thus placing us at the primitive edge of experience – the unknowable.


Carl Peters teaches in the English Department at the University of the Fraser Valley. He is completing work on a critical book on bill bissett’s painting and poetics for Talonbooks (Vancouver). He has also published books and articles on seventeenth-century literature and culture, bpNichol, Gertrude Stein, gender, and contemporary poetics.