Art and Philosophy...A Rant
Vices and their remedies, akin to murmurs of departure and an arrival of the impending, are a salient dimension of philosophic rumination. Art, specifically the plastic / visual arts instead addresses, endeavoring to entrap, the lithe and fleet stream of configural significance. This erstwhile distinction is essentially an epistemological divide between articulating the forms of things unknown and the evolving consensus concerning things knowable. “The world is all that is the case” verses a vertiginous and iridescent embrace of all that is not yet the case.
This case, such as it is or appears to be, is thus the crux of contention slicing art from philosophy. Proof, the nature of “truths," revealed speculation, logical deduction, dialectical cunning, skeptical inquiry tentative rules determining evidence, haywire conjecture, inverted falsification, unmitigated bullshit, are all in a contentious mix asserting which this or that is so and so...The witch’s brew of philosophy.
Visual / plastic art, on the other foot, springs from a bulging rhizome of illusion, fiction, delirium, and enchantment. Very generally speaking, it desires to draw blood from a turnip. Nine times out of ten, (more or less) it fails and is hence relegated to the rotting heap of mere artifacts. Adorno, in his Aesthetics, remarked that there is no such thing as “bad art.” It is, or it is not, although it can be calibrated in terms of “greater” or “minor” import. By way of definition, bred in the bone, a genuine work of art is never spent.
Art speaks for itself, so to speak. Like a murmuration of starlings, it’s various and devious shifting maneuvers converge and then split into Agonistic competition. Meanwhile, speaking to itself, philosophical investigations generate a fecund area of questions (incantatory and / or anhedonic) tagged and then bagged as solutions to unavailable answers. For example, is mind isomorphic with the brain? For example, is matter, however lush, rhapsodic, and/or mundane, simply “random” occasions of mere irreducible subatomic particles slamming into each other? Another example: are things — and in the Nominalist's sense, words — what they assume to be…or are they simply and bluntly pestilential and carnivalesque tricks enveloping our presumption of knowing what is or what is not. Or, is all of the above just a feint, parry and joust gambit regarding the nature of clever argument? We shall see.
Things, images, words…all grist for any and all epistemic mills? Perhaps. However the authentic issue is a maze of questions addressing their differences. What, for instance, separates a thing from its image, and then from its appointed verbal status? Being there, in an eternal present, as poets perpetually remind us, is the point, the most salient point of all…thus, the luxury of making such differences is beside such
points. “Is is, what was is, what will be is.”
(No thing—nothing—makes certain sense in relation to difference unless, of course, it makes the difference “making a difference.” Separate this from that or demonstrate qualities inherent in any distinction parting contrary points of view, e.g., Beckett’s malodorous quip: “A fart has no nose”)
Aloof philosophers and their professional handmaidens, in turn their ideologues and enforcers, have had, and remain to have a firm grip on the “common sense” of normal, even hum-drum, experience (most especially in politics). There is no such thing, no such entity, as an idea resulting in some sort of action, some kind of embodiment, without a concrete grounding in a specific world-view…however shallow or
craven (most especially in politics).
The trouble with the world is not that people know too little, but that they know so many things that ain’t so
— Mark Twain
Boiled down to its essence, Gregory Bateson’s core point, its pivot and gist, is this: the way the world works and the way humans think is out of joint, out of whack, out of sync. Woe is us. Nature is sovereign. Simple as that.
But Bateson’s (and Twain’s) pivot and gist is as well a spur for certain and particular precincts within the scope and sweeping arc of the visual arts. For a grand example, consider the Shamanistic brio and profound cleverness of Joseph Beuys; here, as elsewhere, concentrate on the materials and their affects, which brook no quarter, no implicit reference, or even a seductive depictive reference. Instead, they are manifest in and of themselves (ding an sich)…they signify no thing, toxic, sweet or otherwise. Innocent, or in the becoming, Beuys’ materials (copper, felt, flax, stone, bee’s wax, etc.) in the most ineluctable sense, stand for themselves and thus reveal the world exposed in the raw.
I choose Beuys as an exemplary case (in the current context) for several reasons. Chief among them is his adamant resistance to Duchamp’s “silence.” Cutting to another quick, Duchamp’s persuasion unleashed a
torrent of appropriationist maneuvers, more than most of them, drifting diluted, into copies of copies. Rendering an image / object into a gulf of tiresome reproductive swill, his ultimate and persisting influence with its inexorable momentum, has thus resulted in a cul de sac swamped with all too easy knockoffs and babel of tongues. Thus enfeebling the demands made upon any and all viewers…easy come, not so easy
The re-enchanted world is thus exposed in the raw verses a multi-mediated bilge of recycled rinky-dink irrelevance. This is the fundamental contest, continuing and expanding in the present. This is, to speak without an immediate trace or ghost of sarcastic repost, what the contest amounts to. Such a difference will exclude or eliminate every and all distinctions separating high from low, separating commercial utility from the rarity of ephemeral significance. All will become, has indeed become, a schemer of neo & post indifference. What an intractable mess.
So here is where we are, in some kind of neither-land where shit and Shinola are indistinct, where the topical and the ontic meld into a blur of victim-centric interpretation. Where my ism is superior to your ism; where the top dog wags its alpha tail; and where all and everything is nothing but a simple gesture indicating dominance, power, and unabated absolute control. Welcome to our in-the- flesh reality. Welcome, as well, to doubt, suspicion, compunction, and ineluctable desire. You have arrived.
But, upon arrival, philosophers and artist's are perforce compelled to explain themselves. Their arguments, aside from the usual sophistic mumbo-jumbo and sheer claptrap, will or will not buttress and support the conditions encompassing the making of art. These conditions are susceptible to all sorts of ideological distortion. Sorting them out, no meek task, is a responsibility for the advantage, benefit and profit of both those who speculate about the relative value of this or that and those who make. Such conditions are also saturating in their influence. Perpetual, irresistible, free floating anxiety (erotic, sinister, comic) drives and invigorates a truculent force…a freshet, a cascade of tactical ingredients.
…anxiety is the expression of a retreat from danger. — Sigmund Freud
Civilizations begin in the dance and end in rhetoric. — Arnold Toynbee
A poem is the dance of an attitude. — Kenneth Burke
As any dictionary will attest, all language is tautological. Circling around the spectra of images/objects, they are as well similarly self-referential. Working in the studio, in whatever medium, one is, over and over again, confronted with what has already been made, has been established, has been ensconced in whatever cannon. Is originality a measure of merit? That is and remains the key question. And this intractable issue is further complicated by the jargon, specialized nomenclature, and outright glossolalia of the neo-post modernist persuasion of mind which states, in some uncertain terms, that “originality” simply does not matter. However, a recalcitrant, pesky, formalist revanchism keeps on trucking, seemingly impervious to any and all neo-post dictates.
Now here is where philosophers re-enter the central argument: What is the difference separating a thing from its copy?
1989 / East Hampton / Delivered to the Ranters Society, London