Lawrence Weiner

Manhattan, 2011

Lawrence Weiner is an existing empirical fact. Here he stands, effortlessly seeming not to glimmer, amongst a pair of locked bicycles, a tree in a barrel, an encroaching vine, a length of wrought iron fence, and two slabs of bluestone. The porch light is on at midday. A cigarette at the ready, he crosses his legs and green boots in front of the door to his home, which is ajar. Everything is what it appears to be—except that, in his straightforward way, this relaxed telamon is holding up the world.

The first thing Lawrence ever said to me after hello was, “Don’t blow smoke up my ass.” This was in the run-up to a public conversation. After I mostly didn’t, we stood up. He grabbed my elbow, pulled me close, and whispered, “Well, that wasn’t total bullshit.” Since then, I’ve been trying hard to disperse my certainties, to replace them with Lawrence’s nondirective, cosmically wise specificities, which I think of as a branch of ethical philosophy—despite the fact that rhetoric annoys him.

Plato is said to have despised artists. And it is true that he argued for expelling poets and painters (liars and illusionists) from the republic. On the other hand, it has gone mostly unremarked that sculpture, sculptors, and sculpting feature throughout the dialogues as metaphors for trustworthiness and solidity. It is one of those curious details of history that Plato’s mentor Socrates, the protagonist of the dialogues, the bedrock of moral philosophy, and a teacher who preferred questions to answers, was a sculptor by training.

Socrates was condemned to death for impiety (questioning everything) and corrupting the youth of Athens (teaching them to think). In Aristophanes’ The Clouds, the house where Socrates operated—the storefront forerunner of the Academy, the Lyceum, and the modern university—is identified sarcastically as the Thinkery. (History has been kinder to Socrates than Aristophanes was.)

What am I saying? That this row house in the West Village is a Thinkery? That the philosopher-bearded person manning the door is a sophist: guilty of crimes against the conventional wisdom? That I am corrupted?

Step in, and make your own judgment. That’s what Lawrence would want. (You’re free to be wrong, though you’ll hear about it.) And come prepared; the hemlock of choice is whiskey.

Dakin Hart