The Retangled Bank
It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects sitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and so reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us[...]There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved. — Charles Darwin
It is impossible to separate the question of what is and what is not art from the faculty of judgment with its concern for quality. The very idea of a bad work of art is an oxymoron. Whenever a work fails to meet the standards of its inner constitution, it also fails to meet the a priori presupposition of what art as such is. — Theodor Adorno
From the Bower bird's arena de l'amour, wherein the male entices his future mate by filling the nest with a wide spectrum of nature's bangles and beads, i.e., with bits of shells, red and blue feathers of other species, glittering pebbles and stones, shards of bark, berries and carefully selected twigs and leaves, to the flagrant pomp and circumstance surrounding the mating dance of Ariodolychuns Schmidt, a deep sea ceratoid angler-fish belonging to the fauna of the darkest abysses, where the pigmy male (after a very brief free existence) parasitically fixes himself to the head of his female partner, approximately twenty times his size—the natural world embodies a phantasmagorical range of manifestly aesthetic tactics.
Artists choosing to reflect, mimic, or otherwise engage the structure and imagery of the natural world confront not only its fecundity and infinitesimal variety: but, in addition, variegated cultural and constantly shifting scientific overlays of interpretation, myth, and analysis that renders nature and its evolutionary processes visible, palpable, and existential. The regency of nature combined with culture's technological instrumentations that apparently expose its innermost fundamental elements, constitute conflicting polarities in which aesthetic choice is tossed into a rapid stream of endless adjustment, signification, and recontexualization. Two distinctly different pratfalls threaten art's reaction to this prevailing condition. First, that it reduces its response to a mere illustration of scientific principles and second, that it imposes upon nature itself alien qualities and intentions that emerge from the sphere of human fantasy, yearning, or desire.
To signify the attribution of human feelings, motives and capabilities to natural phenomena, John Ruskin, in 1856, coined the derogatory phrase "pathetic fallacy." Anthropocentric personification of the natural world, Ruskin argued, denies the true appearances of things to us and substitutes the "truth" with "extraordinary, or false appearances." With a slight spin on Ruskin's pathetic fallacy, one could maintain that industrial civilization, under its bogus cloak of materialist progress, has imposed upon the natural world a reductive and ultimate economic status that has brought us to the brink of global ecocide. Where our Paleolithic ancestors once had gazed into a sylvan glade and, awe struck with reverence, proclaimed it enchanted and sacred. Our contemporaries view the same glade and come away with estimates of how many feet of broad timber it can yield, where the condominiums should be installed, what minerals can be extracted, or where the golf course should be located.
Disjuncture, decay, and accelerating entropy characterize the environmental conditions currently prevailing in late-industrial civilization — with its addiction to fossil fuels, nuclear fission, slash and burn techniques, rampant crisis management and pedal-to-the-metal attitude. Simultaneously science (with its hand maiden technology) evolves ever increasingly sophisticated methods for penetrating the micro and macro infrastructures that govern the natural order of things. From hyper-massive particle accelerator chambers to the extensive genome-mapping project; from orbiting telescopes to far-flung probes to the outer most rim of the solar system, science perpetually engulfs the culture with a surfeit of images and adjacent concepts that purport to reveal under-the-table-facts. Taking this state of affairs as foreseeably permanent how is the visual artist to respond, to mediate, to counter-state, and to assume obligations that resist science's controlling dominance of the "facts?"
Contemporary visual artists who consciously forgo various recent endgame strategies — typified by direct, unalloyed appropriation of previous images or objects, thus enfolding art history back upon itself, or treating it like a "toy store" — confront a trine of information-flow consisting of a) scientific imagery and its associated data, b) the rest of human culture including all its religious and political permutations, and c) overarching: nature itself, Ding an sich. Within this trine exist relentless sub-sets and combinations of cross-references generating anomalous forms integrating aspects and kindred attributes that possess qualities in varying ratios of all three. The pivotal question now addresses what distinct function art-making plays in the ecology of mind that envelopes the trine.
Gregory Bateson, taking a cue from Aldous Huxley, who posited that the central problem for humanity is the quest for grace, argued that, "art is a part of man's quest for grace; sometimes his ecstasy in partial success, sometimes his rage and agony at failure." Bateson further argued that it is "of prime importance to have a conceptual system which will force us to see the ‘message' (e.g., the art object) as both itself internally patterned and itself a part of a larger patterned universe — the culture or some part of it[...] The characteristics of objects of art are believed to be about, or to be partly derived from, or determined by, other characteristics of cultural and psychological systems. Our problem might therefore be simply represented by the diagram:
[Characteristics of art object / Characteristics of rest of culture]
where square brackets enclose the universe of relevance, and where the oblique stroke represents a slash across which some guessing is possible, in one direction or in both. The problem, then, is to spell out what sorts of relationships, correspondences, etc., cross or transcend this oblique stroke."
Indeed, the principle issue is how, and by what ways and means, visual art penetrates, absorbs, and influences other ingredients of contemporary culture. Hans Robert Jauss posed it this way: "...aesthetic experience does not seem to develop 'organically', on a field of its own, but progressively expands and maintains its area of meaning at the expense of bordering experiences of reality, and this by usurpations and compensations, the crossing of boundaries that offer competing solutions." Is there an equipoise balancing the subjective assertions of art on one side, with the evidential and consensually determined objectivity on the other side? Or, is aesthetic practice of any serious type (operating at the margins of late-industrial civilization) essentially addressing and responding to the attitudes of its cognoscenti? Does it make any difference?
Returning to the dual premise stated in the opening paragraphs of the present text may cast some pale light upon the above questions. That first, nature, apprehended as a domain of mind separate from and prior to human concerns, contains codes and behaviors that operate within an aesthetic dimension; and second,, that artists dealing in one way or another with the natural world do so within a circumambience of interpretative filters provided by scientific instrumentation and cultural myths.
If an aesthetic component (or constraint) exists in the adaptive processes and contingencies of natural selection, encoded in its bowls of modification for fit survival, then, like the pragmatist swallowing anything as long as it works, human cultures likewise are dependent upon a genuine aesthetic component for their survival. If this component is compromised, diluted, or eviscerated, it follows that the culture's survival is threatened with extinction. Since we are now well within a phase-shift of (natural?) history characterized by mutual acknowledgment and recognition (concretized by the first "whole Earth" photographs taken from space) of ineluctable ecological interdependence and unity, the adaptive function of art's percipience is based on its capacity to transcend boundaries; to inform and implicate wholeness with novel images and objects reflecting the initial and inevitable cacophony resulting from the phase-shift. Beyond that, conjecture could follow that this same capacity (in contra-distinction to science with its objective imagery and accompanying data) establishes a firm, vivid context for subjective response to the potentially fierce conditions emergent within global transformation.
Nevertheless, this still positions aesthetic praxis, like a pinball wizard, in a reactive stance vis-a-vis the currents of difference gushing from other quarters of human culture. So be it—in spades. Images, concepts, hypotheses or hallucinations contributed by science, through ubiquitous all-embracing technologies, establish fertile enough duff-&-mulch for eventual restatement, deconstruction (even blatant ridicule) and finally, unmitigated imagination, circumscribed within art's generic realm of discourse. It is taken as granted that the epistemes or forms of knowledge resident in aesthetic praxis function and unfold well beyond the grasp or reach of scientific methodologies and techniques; and while science obviously dominates the culture by arrogating all "significant" knowledge to its own precincts, it remains constitutionally unequipped to displace art's (or for that matter, the mystic's) epistemes. "The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of." Thus, art's necessity is in part determined by being science's foil.
Two additional dimensions of aesthetic praxis and associated subsequent nomenclatures operate independently, hermeneutically sealed within art's self-circumscribed exclusive domain: the cognoscenti's Connoisseurship and endgame nihilism — or, alternately, the subjective ethos of "closing time.”
Connoisseurship is over-ripe with inherent and self-inflicted problems stemming from its guarded "mystiques," the Hermeneutic circle being not the least among them. Another is that virtually all connoisseurship are at the mercy of ethno-aesthetic systems that, more often than not, skew judgments in favor of pre-existing, entrenched canon. Connoisseurship plays a significant part in the current equation, but exclusively to the extent that it eschews any limit as to the source, purpose, or context of the images or objects it assesses. The extent, that is, to which its orientation embraces the correlations and exchanges between differing, non-convergent origins. Furthermore, Connoisseurship is reduced to inbred parochial self-reference, becoming unwitting prey to parody when operating, or holding forth, outside of, or in ignorance of, Bateson's "brackets-of-relevance," and "oblique stroke."
As a recent variant on the theme of anarchistic narcosis, endgame nihilism could be provisionally identified as the utter antithesis of Connoisseurship, epitomized, as it is, by a flush embrace of kitsch, dreck, and impermanence of materials. And, not incidentally, a snide denial of any value inhering in the presence of transcendent forms, or even the possibility of transcendence at all — endgame nihilism stakes out a self-proclaimed position which presumptuously allies itself with the politics of the dispossessed.
Thus, Connoisseurship, emphasizing its central role as designated protector of rarified value, and the endgame — with its equal emphasis on the political utility of an anti-aesthetic, misological assemblage, and terminal expectations — embody opposing attitudinal sensibilities hovering at either end of the present discourse's margins.
Twice in the past 500 million years, in the estimate of the Geologist Peter Douglas Ward, mass extinctions have profoundly altered the course of evolution and nearly ended life on Earth. The first event occurring some 250 million years ago, climate and sea level changes resulting from a collision of continents destroyed 90% of all species. In the second event, 65 million years ago, an asteroid strike killed off dinosaurs and most marine life. Each event destroyed a major phase of life, leaving behind a much-emptied world until forces of evolution restocked the planet with new plant and animal species. Ward believes that we have now entered a third such extinction—where humanity and its agencies are responsible. He calls it the Third Event. If we are to entertain this hypothesis seriously — and all available evidence suggests we had better—then we perforce enter into an intractable double-bind. One side of the double bind accepts the hypothesis as irreversible and thus inevitable, leaving the only recourse to embracing the world's concluding fin de sicle and withdrawing aesthetic praxis into a cocoon of connoisseurship and/or self-reflexive endgame nihilism. Thus relegating any counter-stance to a nugatory futility — this could be designated as the inevitability position. The double-bind's other side would resist the inevitability of the Third Event, arguing (perhaps quixotically) that art, as science's foil and in tandem with other doom-resistant forces, is uniquely capable, through various and devious means, of defeating — or at a minimum, holding-off — the apocalyptic denouncement envisioned in the Third Event...or is it too late? This is the double-bind rebound.
The very essence of a double bind is: damned if you do, damned if you don't. Hence, either side precludes the other. One simply cannot incorporate both into their respective figures of merit. This being the case, any calibrated resonance, however clever, imposed for the sake of integrating or fusing the contraries collapses into a cesspool of sophistic farce.
The crucial issue, the germane and irreducible point, is how to escape from, elude, or else wise outwit the Gordian knot of the bind — outside its own terms. By commodious circumvention, this returns us to the heart of the matter. Artists dealing with images and notions originating in science; and/or those dealing with evolutionist images as they intersect with nature per se, with nature as it is altered, ravaged, or driven insane by late-industrial civilization, and / or with images, objects and ideas reflecting the aesthetic ingredient inherent in nature's evolutionary processes.
Jan Avgikos' essay Green Piece maintains that, somewhat facetiously, "Eve got the message. The bitter fruit of the technological age is ecological disaster. It has been a speedy and global collapse. And, as many would have it, it has become art's new moral content. The green approach pulls the plug on the cool reflective screen of culture crit and takes us 'back to nature' in a big way. Designed to reveal our folly and our state, the belated homecoming is bittersweet. Forget theory. Green art's nature is neither commodity nor code nor concept. Get this: it is (gulp) real — and the real is on the verge of extinction. Assuming the missionary position, green art preaches to the infidels and converted alike; as the voice of (our) conscience, its moral imperative is to save the soul of the planet--and that means you and me too." She goes on to state that "The shortsightedness of the green approach lies in its failure to appreciate the irreconcilable dichotomy between what is and what should be in the expectation that art can and should neutralize contradictions when, if anything, art hyper-realizes them."
An irreconcilable dichotomy? Perhaps, yet art thrives in the haptic atmosphere of contradiction, inversion, antagonistic opposition, variance, and cross-purpose — like flinging Br'er Rabbit into the briar patch. In fact, it is well within art's domain of mind to neutralize contradictions by way of hyper-realizing them. Art is perpetually in flux. To argue that "green" art's "nature is neither commodity nor code nor concept," or that it etiolates and trivializes the grave symptoms inflicting the biosphere, is tantamount to dismissing art's functional significance in the ecology of mind.
Let’s not mince words, artists engaged with evolutionist ideas, appropriation of science's technologies, data, and/or the depredations and effects of late-industrial civilization upon the natural world, are indeed generating concepts, codes and yes, even commodities that attempt to penetrate and expose impending dire conditions threatening the existence of sentient life on Earth.
The concepts: Although traditionally considered as an abstraction, or general notion, that serves as a unit of a theory, a concept is herein understood to be both self-sufficient as idea and, in conjunction with other inter-related concepts, to constitute an element of theory. As self-sufficient idea, the Platonic assertion that ideas are ethereal models or archetypes out of which all real things are but imperfect imitations and from which their existence derives, serves to underscore the rabid conundrum confronting the artists in question. To wit: the core concept (as self-sufficient idea) governing Avigkos’ green ethos is that nature is paradoxically both resilient and fragile. Thus, the verata quaestio, the intricate hitch is how to create forms (images, objects, etc.) that, as necessarily imperfect imitations, once removed from the actual processes of nature, nevertheless convey its fragility and / or resilience.
If theorizing is a skill, in which clusters of concepts are brought under a single coherent agis, then theory requires more stringent criteria for acceptance, or rejection. At a minimum, an articulated theory implies the formulation of apparent relationships or underlying principles of certain observable phenomena which are to some degree verifiable. It also implies considerable evidence in support of the formulated general principles explaining the operations of such phenomena; e.g., Darwin's theory of evolution. Theory can be distinguished from hypothesis, which implies an inadequacy of evidence supporting an explanation that is tentatively inferred, often as a basis for continued investigation and/or experimentation; e.g., Rupert Sheldrake's hypothesis regarding the “morphogenetic field."
There are more than several competing theories and hypothesizes appealing to or soliciting the attention of artists involved in ecological and correlated issues. Robert Smithson's earthwork proposals submitted in 1966 and his Non-Sites exhibited in 1967 in New York, disrupted, and revolutionized the prevailing entrenchment of sculptural methods and formats by reinvesting sculpture in the raw landscape.
Smithson constructed Asphalt Rundown, in a quarry outside Rome in 1969. In 1970, his Spiral Jetty was constructed on the southern shore of Utah's Great Salt Lake. These two installations could be marked as essential precursors, the genesis of "earth art"— and earth art, or at least Smithson's original version of it, in turn, could be considered the etiological source of all subsequent naturalist, evolutionist, and science-appropriated imagery. Smithson's theory was firmly imbedded in the generalized relevance of the second law of thermodynamics, entropy. It considered the entropic, particularly bleak industrial slag–induced decay, as a unique source of aesthetic rejuvenation. In his own words: "Parallactic perspectives have introduced themselves into the new earth-projects in a way that is physical and three-dimensional. This kind of convergence subverts gestalt surfaces and turns sites into vast illusions. The ground becomes the map." Smithson's legacy, envisioning art as a necessary resource, and not an isolated luxury, represents a charismatic and important strain, influencing the current climate of earth-bound, naturalist and evolutionist inspired art.
Contra-Smithson, there is the enduring hypothesis, initiated in the mid-60's, that artists are obligated to intercept, reinterpret, deflect and incorporate the swelling glut of high technology products — especially advanced communications technologies, i.e., television, satellites, computers, laser systems, electron microscopes, et al. The operating conceptual premise being that without aesthetic intervention, and left to their own marketing strategies, high-tech producers — the military-industrial complex — would swamp the culture with a highly centralized electro-mechanistic pseudo-utopian malaise, in which regimented conformity, somnambulance, the corruption of language, and blind obedience to administrative dictate would shape and control popular culture. The social apparatus would squeeze out, or at least marginalize, all traces of dissent and discontent — and the accelerating degradation of the natural world would continue unabated. With the generous gift of hindsight, this hypothesis appears to have had some limited and lingering effect, though nowhere near its original and unforgivably naive wooly-minded expectations. The theoretical, heuristic ruminations of Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, Rachel Carson and Gregory Bateson, for example, informed a diverse rag-tag amalgam of artists in the mid-60's, who were at the same time fortuitously acquiring access to de-centralized, portable television technology. This confluence of extra-aesthetic radical thinking and revolutionary technology swept those artists involved into a loose and contentious alliance that culminated in a new genre: Video Art.
Similarly, in the late 70's, computer technology was de-centralized with the commercial introduction of the portable modem terminal, personal computers, and the declassification of global satellite information networks, such as Arpanet. Thus, a pattern was established and reinforced; in which previously centralized technologies were defanged of their potential authoritarian control by miniaturization, inherent dissemination, and relatively wide availability of means. The relevance this continuing decentralizing process has for those artists specifically addressing the spectrum of issues directed at the appropriation, restatement, and aesthetic deployment of scientific images is obvious — increasing access to these technologies exponentially expands their ways, methods and concepts.
The codes: When physical patterns or events, such as phonemes, gestures, and numbers represent a message, the message is considered to be "encoded" in the marks or events. For example, neural signals (Action potentials, in neurophysiological parlance) are coded activity from the sense organs and must be decoded to be useful. The amount of information which can be transmitted depends not only on the bandwidth, or frequency response of the channel but also on the appropriateness of the coding. Ergo: for cognition, perception or behavior based upon knowledge or habitual experience, neural signals are read on the basis of expectations and assumptions, which may prove true or false. This neurological coding-decoding model serves as an apt analogy for the way works of art convey, or fail to convey, meaning.
Image intended/image received is perhaps the classic formulation of the problem. Works of art are usually read as a unity, in which some structural code interrelates its divergent sections, areas, or parts. The audience for the work must therefore comprehend the appropriateness of the code, and decode it, in order to grasp and appreciate its unity. If the structural code is a novel one, unfamiliar to the habitual experiences and knowledge of the audience, then the image intended — received as such — will be, more likely than not, misread, met with outright incredulity, or subjected to ridicule and scorn.
With respect to art focusing upon allied interests in evolutionary theory, naturalism and biological, chthonic, earthbound imagery — the aesthetic code co-mingles with both science's and nature's, establishing a sort of semiotic mitosis, where the fusing and dividing of signs archaically exchange functional roles. When, for example, the work in question (e.g., the outdoor pieces of James Turrell or Richard Long) has a homologous correspondence to the earth itself; wherein the natural codes dominate the "reading" of the piece at one moment, and in the next, oscillate (like the flip-flop rabbit/ duck silhouette) with their aesthetic counterpart. Another instance, quite dissimilar to "semiotic mitosis," is dystaxia, which occurs when the signs of a coded message are no longer simply juxtaposed, when their logical linearity is disturbed. A notable form of dystaxia is found when the parts of one sign are separated by other signs along the chain of the message (i.e. the work of art)...the sign splits into fractional parts, its signified is shared out amongst several signifiers, distant from one another and incomprehensible on their own. For example, the metaphysical site-specific works of Dennis Oppenheim or the deconstructionist and demolitionist site-specific works of Gordan Matta-Clark. In Heidegger's words, dystaxia invokes "Imaginings that are visible inclusions of the alien in the site of the familiar."
Hence, the codes governing "green" art and its variants cover an exceedingly wide range of semiosis, messaging devices, indexical and symbolic tactics — and, no less, novel combinations and mutations of these. The intertwining of aesthetic, natural, scientific and hybrid moral sign-systems is unquestionably a precarious enterprise. At one end, art and nature are deemed to be isomorphic, with the claim that art, at this juncture in history, is compelled to be imbued with an urgent reality, in the generic sense. Or that it accurately mirrors reality; such that, the codes of the natural world become virtually identical with its aesthetic vehicle. The other end maintains that art, again at this same juncture in history is, however disinclined or reluctant as it may be, forced into the dubious modality of didactic responsibility — waving its boney finger of indignation at the culprits; exposing their draconian, nefarious, and Manichean designs. Between these extremes (and blessed be the middle!) artists are re-codifying, re-integrating motifs and supporting concepts that encompass the natural world as it intersects with scientific precepts and cultural mythologies. Their formidable task is how to re-code and manifest subliminal judgments in such ways that they recapitulate the formal constructs of previous meaning, representational context, and metonymic reference. For "green" art (and its variants) does emphatically not exist outside, or separate from, the continuities dominating art history. Its governing spirit, its hovering angel, is traceable back to the Paleolithic and Magdelaine cave-cathedrals of Pech Merle, Niaux, Lascaux, Altamira, Wissendorf, et al.— wherein the carving or painting on the walls was inextricably linked to the survival of the tribe. In addition, there is the driving spirit of Agon, an artist's self-willed contest entered into with one's predecessors and/or contemporaries, in which the "anxiety of influence" determines and shapes one's options, possibilities and potential for creating, for inventing, an original statement. Thus, "To be is to be the value of a variable."
The commodities: As the yoke of necessity, as the tangible stuff that makes the art-world go-round, whether in the form of traditionalist objects or, ephemeral manifestations of tentative hypothesizes, environmental and otherwise — the object as juju, as fetish, as totem, as icon, as relic, or as mercantile commodity, remains, and will foreseeably remain, the dynamo fueling the entire enterprise.
No moralistic assertion will alter this condition; no Marxoid convoluted aspiration will reverse it. This is as it should be. A symbiotic linking obtains among artists, critics, collectors, dealers, curators, and art historians, which determines the floating worth, at any given mutable time, of the commodity value (the "cash value" in William James' pragmatist terms) of any specific object of art. "What was is, what will be is, is is." This is the way it doubtless is.
"Art is a particular organ of the understanding of life because in its confines between knowledge and act life reveals itself at a depth that is inaccessible to observation, reflection, and theory." To view the world with a zealous eye, while the imagination roams from Arcadia to Elysium; from dwelling on the intricate interdependences of microbes to mites, from breathing the rarified air circulating between "knowledge and act", to contemplating the "starry firmament above and the moral law within."— and to reveal (or unconceal) these views in unpredictable yet non-arbitrary ways, is the artist's function in the grand scheme of things. Mayhem, fury, and terror, the smog of moral pollution and despair, impose their brazen inflictions upon the world, and these too are fair game within art's purview. It is not only a matter of beauty; it is a question of subjectively derived significance that sustains aesthetic purpose. This significance is currently magnified by the urgency and alarm that infects the global culture's belated realization of what it has wrought upon itself. "Only in broken speech is the form of disfluency consonant with the chaos of the world's content." Images and objects depicting chaos, intoxicated with rage and dysfluency, may be the only effective means of jolting late-industrial civilization out of its dissolute and complacent cul-de-sac — and moribund dependence upon palliative solutions to endemic environmental pathology. This could be labeled the "stick" approach.
The "carrot" approach (conversely) instigates a circuit of images and objects, which embrace, enhance and draw formal attention to the natural world in its pristine complexion, disposition, and mysterious order. It is in no way restricted to bucolic views of the landscape, or pastoral idealizations of the way it was. It strives for an overall re-enworldment of art itself — retreating from pure abstraction, academic figuration, and neo-pop irony. With a combination of minute observation and exact expression, it expects (optimistically, one might add) to alert the sensibilities of its viewership to the invisible as well as visible realm of nature’s evolving agencies. "Rampant indeterminacy occurs where the reference can be changed throughout the language while the truth-conditional meaning is preserved." Likewise, this plethora of images and objects conjures up and celebrates references to chromosomes, viruses, bacteria, mitochondria, plastids, prokaryotes, insects, arachnids and vertebrates while simultaneously exalting in the grandeur of geological stratifications, continental drifts, unpredictable climatic changes, glacial advances/retreats, and humanity's eternal and universal fascination with celestial orbs.
Carrot or stick, there now exists a grouping of artists whose common interests revolve around the re-enworldment of the aesthetic object. However diverse, what they tend to share is what can be referred to as a "Neo-paleolithic" conviction that the survival of the tribe (in this case the global tribe) is, to a remarkable degree, dependent upon the epistemological relevance of works of art. Science, political and religious ideologies, technical quick fixes, and magical thinking alone, will simply not suffice. This position further assumes that knowledge derived from experiencing works of art is unavailable to any and all other modes of knowing. Context conditions and determines response. And works of art in Western culture are undeniably received and evaluated within a privileged contextual framework — the gallery, the museum, the site-specific location, the archeological ruin, the studio, etc. Thus the aesthetic experience with regard to works of art, and the knowledge they impart, is indivisible from the circumscribed conditions of their consumption.
This enveloping condition unleashes a profusion of dichotomies. Primary among them is the furcular duplexity of the experience itself. Which, in turn, fuses the reception of a work of art with the obbligato (so to speak) of its milieu. Also, the context of reception is generally rife with contagious associations which color the experience with historical, religious, ethnic and other varieties of bias. Consider, for instance, viewing and contemplating Leonardo's Annunciation, perhaps one of the greatest paintings in the entire world, outside its august confines of the Uffizi. Let us say, in a dank and odorous sub-basement on the lower east side of New York, or a back alley of Calcutta. Would it, could it, possibly survive and retain its ineffable powers external to the context of its usual habitat? This is no mere trick question; it has an unflinching relation to the effectiveness, the bearing, and relevance of art aspiring to expose, alter, and reverse the poisonous assault inflicted upon the global environment. Or, works aspiring to extract and isolate the organic beauty and integrity of evolutionary and/or scientifically derived images--for the explicit purpose of elevating them to the ontic level of objects and images of aesthetic significance. While without them necessarily being dependent on the context, or enhancing milieu in which objects of art are typically ensconced. This is the nexus--originating with Smithson — of re-enworldment, the radical departure, delivering these bodies of work from the past, present, and likely future.
The Marxist conception of industrial process as "second nature" and the "real" beginning of human history has turned belly-up into a vast and unbridgeable conceit. But let’s avoid throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. "All that exists, all that lives on land and under water, exists and lives by some kind of movement. Thus the movement of history produces social relations; industrial movement gives us industrial products, etc." This truism is expanded upon by Susan Buck-Morss,"...the collective fantasy released at the beginning of the new era of industrialism reaches back to an ur-past. In the temporal dimension, images of ancient, mythic origins of Western civilization become prominent (one manifestation of which is neo classicism). Materially, the technologically produced ‘new’ nature appears in the fantastic form of the old, organic nature." Elsewhere she states, "Within the concept of history, time indicates social change and the uniqueness and irreversibility of human events. Traditionally, it has taken on meaning in opposition to 'nature,' in which time is change only in the sense of cyclical repetition. Darwin's theory of evolution undermined this binary, however, by arguing that nature itself had a unique, non-repetitive, historical course." Farther back, Giambista Vico made the cogent point that the way we view, apprehend or understand art, and other humanly derived artifacts — in other words, the products or excretions of culture — is fundamentally different from the way we understand nature. Thus, for the artists in question, the quintessential problem(s) reduces to the appurtenances which coexist among and between the non-repetitive course of natural evolution, the repetitive cycles of history, the desolation of organic nature as an unintended result of the "new" and "second" nature, the monopolistic powers of science and its attendant methods and cultural myths that reinforce and protect the “way it is,” and finally the intrinsic beauty and sublimity of the forces of nature itself.
Ultimately, it comes down to a confrontation between the epistemes of art and science, a contest between the validation of tacitly acquired knowledge, and the rules of evidence and consensus, establishing the validation of objective facts and concomitant theories. Martin Kemp rendered the distinction this way:
The ultimate difference in the relationship between means and ends in art and science explains why the concept of 'progress' in the history of science has a different status than in the history of art. I do not wish to suggest that some aspects of the making of art cannot be described in terms of progressive success in meeting definable ends. Indeed, the achieving of verisimilitude as one of the ends of perspectival techniques is obviously amenable to description in terms of progress...But there has been a general modern acceptance that the achievement of such progress should not in itself constitute the ultimate value we place on the results of an artist's activity...In science, by contrast, the scientific text loses its intended, primary value once it has been superseded as a means of achieving its stated ends. To be sure, we may look at the text in historical retrospect with admiration for its original insights and for the beauty of its vision. We may analyze it in its social and intellectual context with effective results for our understanding of the text. We may even adduce lessons still to be learned from it. But its dominant original intention in establishing an explanatory model for a phenomena can at any point be subsumed or superseded within a constantly changing body of knowledge.
Hence, art's truths are subjective yet permanent; and the hypotheses, theories, and facts of science are objective yet temporary.
To no extent has art's autogenic wellsprings ever been independent of intense dialogical exchanges with nature per se and / or with every manifestation, deviation and perversion—religious political, magical, economical or otherwise — of human culture. However, within the timeframe of the last one hundred and fifty years or so, that is, with the extremely rapid emergence of industrial techniques and scientific dominance, the plastic arts (beginning with Courbet's radical naturalism) have been transformed, and distanced from the rest of Western culture. Its allegorical responsibilities were abandoned, left to rot in the hands of the third rate aspiring to second-rate sentimentality. Its cutting edge invested its attention in the perceptual and phenomenological constructs of picture making, for its own sake, for its own survival. After Cezanne and the Cubists, a sort of tenuous truce was affected with science, in which art supposedly absorbed and applied the insights of relativity, the fourth dimension, quantum physics, and post-Euclidian geometry. The jury is still out as to the actual extent of these influences. But this much is certain: an emerging strain of the plastic arts has now come full circle, returning to engage the natural world and reassert its capacities to define its precarious circumstance, as well as extolling its awesome majesty — employing any and every device that advancing technology provides, for its own, and the world's ends.
If art is a signature of consciousness, then its necessity is unique in the constellation of the free play of cognitive faculties. In the words of William James, the artist's way is, "To be rapt with satisfied attention to the mere spectacle of the world's presence, (and) is one way, and the most fundamental way, of confessing one's sense of its unfathomable significance and importance."
January 1992 / NYC / Published in the catalog for E.M. Donahue Gallery / Curated by the author.
The Origin of Species (New York: Modern Library / Random House, 1993), pp. 373-4.
Aesthetic Theory (Edinburgh and London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1985), p. 236.
Serpens nisi serpentem comederit non fit draco. Unless the serpent has devoured a serpent, it does not become a dragon. Francis Bacon, “Of Fortune,” in Essays and New Atlantis, ed. Gordon Sherman Haight (Roslyn, New York: Walter J. Black, 1942), p.168.
Aesthetic tactics is employed in this specific instance in the zoo-semiotic sense, in which ceaseless informative commerce is displayed between members of the same species as an extravagance, or biological luxury, beyond the requirements of mere instinctual behavior see, for example, Thomas A. Sebeok's A Sign is Just a Sign (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Edition, 1991).
Re: Modern Painters, Vol.3, Chap. 12. Typical examples of the pathetic fallacy: Attributing God's wrath to a volcanic eruption; assigning an enemy's curse to the cause of a devastating flood.
For the purposes of the present text, endgame strategies are classified as consisting of two types: a) post-modernist maneuvers which attempt to revivify various “isms" of recent, and perhaps not so recent vintage, generally characterized by their ironic appropriation and, with tongue at least half-way to cheek, by their reintroduction as novel solutions. Nietzsche's phrase, "An exhaustion gazing backwards"...comes to mind. And b) the nihilistic, more virulent variety, characterized by a chiliastic vision of "closing time", in which every and all values associated with prior aesthetic judgments are mocked, and rendered nil. Keats' remark, "There is no fiercer Hell, than the failure of a great project”...comes to mind.
Donald Judd's remark in Art in America, November 1984.
Gregory Bateson. “Style, Grace, and Information in Primitive Art” in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, (Northvale, New Jersey and London: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1972), pp. 128-132.
Ibid, p. 141
Re: “Sketch of a Theory and History of Aesthetic Experience” in Aesthetic Experience and Literary Hermeneutics (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota, 1982), pp. 111-112.
Aesthetic is employed primarily in this regard (and throughout the rest of the text) in the strict axiological sense; i.e., pertaining to the analysis of values to determine their meaning, types, origins and epistemological status. Secondarily, as the inquiry into the nature of these values when they specifically concern questions of significant form, beauty, the sublime, the tragic, the humorous, the ugly, etc.
Re: Blaise Pascal's Penses.
Re: Norman O. Brown, Closing Time (New York: Random House, 1973).
See, for example, Sally Price's “The Mystique of Connoisseurship” in Primitive Art in Civilized Places, Chapter 1 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989).
Wilhelm Dilthey's phrase, formulating the way one gradually comes to understand the meaning of a text, image, object, musical composition, et al. The Hermeneutic circle's most salient feature being the intrinsic logical dilemma of pre-understanding (Vorverstanormis...in Heidegger's terms), in which the life-chain of experience that an interpreter brings to the task of interpreting, cannot be transferred to those without an identical or reasonably similar life-chain of experience. The more complex the ensemble of events, or components, that the connoisseur isolates conceptually for his attention, the more hermeneutic pre-understanding must he bring to the phenomenon before it can be broken down into meaningful "atomic" components, by the causal connections of his eventual explanations. Accordingly, the less likely it is that his explanations will have the aura of objective validity. That is to say, the more complex the stuff being explained, the less objective--the less communicable--will be the aura of its explanation.
Ibid, p. 141
See, for example, Adam Gopnik's "Empty Frames" in the New Yorker, November 25, 1991.
Paraphrase of an excerpt from Peter Douglas Wards' précis for his presentation of the "Third Event" hypothesis delivered to the Reality Club, November 25, 1991, NYC.
Re: Bateson's classic double-bind example: "I love you, go away."
Artforum, April, 1991, p. 105-110.
See, for example, Sheldrake's The Presence of the Past [New York: Vintage Books/Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Random House), 1989]
See, for example, The Writings of Robert Smithson (New York: New York University Press 1979).
Exhibited at the Dwan Gallery, 1967.
Smithson's eccentric definition of entropy can be found on page 81 of his collected essays (Re: footnote 22): "ENTROPY: a) Equal units approaching divisibility; b) Something inconsistent with common experience or having contradictory qualities; c) Hollow blocks in a windowless room; [and] d) Militant laziness."
Ibid, p. 90.
Dennis Oppenheim, Micheal Heizer, Walter de Maria, Sol Le Witt and Robert Morris also produced earth works, more or less contemporaneously with Smithson — but with divergent premises justifying their respective results.
In 1967, the Sony Corporation introduced the Porta-pac a reel-to-reel (CV standard) portable video tape recording/playback system that supplied the means for artists to experiment with multi-channel installations, time-delay devices, feedback imagery and various other alternate applications of television technology.
TV as a Creative Medium at the Howard Wise Gallery, NYC in May of 1969, was the first public exposure of Video Art--it included installations by Nam June Paik, Charlotte Mooreman, Paul Ryan, Eric Segal, Thomas Tadlock, Frank Gillette and others. In January 1970, Vision and Television, curated by Russell Conner, at the Brandies Museum of Art, was the first museum survey show (complete with a catalogue) of the fledgling medium. It included, for the most part, different installations of the artists in the Wise show. By the end of 1969 groups of artists, electronic engineers and social visionaries gathered themselves into "collectives" devoted to the expansion and advancement of the "alternate" video medium. The most important and influential of these were the Videofreex and Raindance Corporation.
Arpanet was de-classified by the Pentagon in 1967. According to Roy Skodnick: "The actual design an implementation of computerized conferences originates in the Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP) of the President of the US. The first computerized system harnessed instantaneous transfer of information to conventional methods of data gathering through questionnaires, a further development of the Delphi system which soon led to a highly innovative technique for using a computer to structure human communication for information exchange and collective effort to solve a problem." (Re: Skodnick's introduction to Teleconferencing, Computers, and Art by Frank Gillette and Brendan O'Regan published in All Area #2, Spring 1983, edited by Roy Skodnick.) These projects, supported by the Whitney Museum of American Art, under the titles of Planet and Eies were the first attempts to utilize computer teleconferencing technology to aesthetic and heuristic ends. (For the results see All Area 42, Spring 1983).
Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text (New York: Hill and Wang edition, 1979), p. 117.
What is Called Thinking, trans. J. Glenn Gray (New York: Harper Colophon edition, 1954), p. 77.
Re: the recent work of Vincent Shine, Robert Lobe and Alan Sonfist.
Re: Barbra Kruger, Jenny Holtzer, Hans Hoffman and David Hammons, among uncelebrated others.
See, for example, S.Giedion's The Eternal Present: The Beginnings of Art (New York: Bolligen Foundation Series edition, 1962); and Andre Leroi-Gourhan's Treasures of Prehistoric Art, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., edition, n.d.)
Re: Harold Bloom
From the Greek: The contest between artists, past and present that drives them to displace each other's innovations with their own.
Re: W.V. Quine's famous remark in The Ways Of Paradox, (New York: Random House edition, 1966), p. 9.
In a conversation with Ron Gorchov (circa 1990) he causally remarked “that it took as much courage to hang a painting on one's wall, as it took to make it," This offhand comment, in the midst of an animated exchange concerning the status of works of art, has always remained with me. Its relevance to the issue of commodity appears self-evident.
James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, (London: Faber and Faber edition, 1951), p. 439.
Hans Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press edition, 1961), p. 208.
Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, (New York: Doubleday edition, 1963), p. 48.
This conception (teleological and romantic as it is) of the artist's function will undoubtedly raise the hackles and drag out the outre fripperies of the opposing camp(s). I.e., the endgame nihilists and the haughty certitude of solipsistic cognoscenti…let ‘em at it, all comers are welcome.
David Shields, Dead Languages, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf edition, 1989), p. 129.
George Lakoff, Women, Fire and Dangerous Things (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1986), p. 321.
There are striking exceptions to this condition independent of Western culture, though rare enough--and becoming ever rarer. I.e., Aboriginal or "primitive" cultures such as those of Bali, the Inuit, the Dugum Dani of Iran Barat, the Tupi-Kawahib and the Nambikwara of the Brazilian rain forest, etc. Wherein the objects of art and artifacts are thoroughly, absolutely, integrated with other aspects of life. Where there is no such thing as an object of art external to, separate from or isolated from the rituals and necessities of daily existence.
Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House edition, n.d), p. 119.
The Dialectics of Seeing, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press edition, 1989), p. 145.
Ibid, p. 58.
The Science of Art, (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press edition, 1990), p. 340.
The Varieties of Religious Experience, (New York: The Modern Library Edition, 1936), p. 39.