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Frank Gillette and Tom McEvilley

DIALOGUE CONDUCTED at UNIVERSAL CONCEPTS UNLIMITED, May 17, 2000

 

 

 

Frank and I talked briefly about this yesterday and wondered which one of us should muddy the water first.  I want to say that I think it’s especially appropriate and interesting coincidence that we’re doing this here, in this space called Universal Concepts Unlimited, because it seems to me as we talk — Frank and I have been talking about this and that for years, you know — as we talked this over, it seemed to me that really what we were dealing with, which is what our conversations tend always to come down to, is the issue of the traditional philosophical dichotomy between universal and particular.  And Frank, I think, wanted to open it with a question about scientific relativism. 

 

Shall I pick up from there?

 

Yeah.

 

I’ve always found Tom’s position, in both conversation and his rather prolific literary work, to be somewhat akin to Paul Feyeraband’s study of the history of science, the structure of science.  Feyeraband, as you know, is the odd man out between Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, who take opposite positions.  Feyeraband assumes the third position in which he essentially argues that scientific consensus is basically a social-psychological phenomenon to demonstrate how consensus evolves.  It runs under the mantle of objectivity.  The curiosity about Feyeraband’s position is that although it deals with what we could call relativism, it tends to argue that this relativism is unavoidable and inevitable, and that any attempt to overcome or to reverse the position of science’s relativity is futile.  An example of the effect of Feyeraband’s position — and I think it in some ways is a parallel universe with Tom’s — is Alan Sokal’s article, or farce, in Social Text No. 46-47, entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.”  Now the editorial red flag should have gone up as soon as they read the title.  If that is not a giveaway, I do not know what is.  After, he published in Social Text, a second article appeared in Lingua Franca, in which he rather hilariously mock-confesses that the entire position that he took in the Social Text argument was a put-on, and a rather cruel facetious insult to the Multiculturalists and the Postmodernist/Deconstructionists, et cetera.  And I want to compare this issue of relativity in science and the fact that it was the subject of such a farce, and the relativity in cultural matters as Tom has so articulated them, and which are, by the way, damn good articulations, I might add.  The essential rule of the scientific enterprise according to Popper, of course, is the evolution of evidence.  And in Kuhn there is a different kind of evolution of evidence, and so on.  One of the first questions that I want to address to you is: would you accept the comparison with Feyeraband, in the cultural field as opposed to the scientific, and how would you, if you do, how would you make the comparison concrete in terms of the positions you take?

 

We tentatively agreed that we’d start out with him grilling me, and end up with me grilling him. As I understand the question here is that you say that Feyeraband is like the missing link between Kuhn and Popper, but I feel really he’s over on Kuhn’s side, and what they both agree on is that observation is necessarily value-laden, in other words that there is no observation that isn’t from a point of view.  So that in other words, observation is always partial and from a point of view, and the empiricist trying to defend observational data would say “Well we do this through inter-subjectivity…we…for example by consulting with other minds, other observers, other points of view, and then kind of throwing out a variety of sight-lines toward the object and seeing where they intersect…And this of course isn’t an absolute.” I would guess and roughly accept that parallel that you draw between his thought and mine. The second part of your question I didn’t exactly get.  My feeling is that, you know, I keep waiting for Postmodernist skepticism and relativism to really take science on.  And I think, I suspect, that they’re going to fail when they make the attempt.  I think this is going to be their hardest moment.  Postmodernist relativism and skepticism have managed to undermine our cultural attitudes in any number of ways, in all the various fields of humanities and social sciences.  But I feel that the confrontation with science -- and for that matter with logic — hasn’t really happened yet, I mean, it’s hard to imagine a Postmodernist critique of the syllogism, which could convincingly argue that syllogism was, let’s say, valid on one continent and not on another.  Or in one decade and not in another, and so on.  I don’t know if that’s given you enough to go on, Frank, but I don’t want us to get bogged down here because we’re headed somewhere.  This is just the beginning.

 

That’s correct.  Let’s not get bogged down…We’ll wait for later to get bogged down.  Let me clarify the question in one more way…with a quote, of all people, from Ernst Cassirer’s essay on man — who certainly is not a Postmodernist — the quote reads: “Physical reality seems to reduce in proportion as man’s symbolic activity advances.  Instead of dealing with the things themselves, man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself.  He has so enveloped himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythical symbols of religious rites, that he cannot see or know anything except by the imposition of this artificial medium.”  Now I will posit, for the sake of this exchange, that perhaps Cassirer’s point is a pre-stated critique of Postmodernism, that is, a critique before the fact…And that the whole issue of the relative versus the universal may be, is in fact, a deeper and deeper immersion, into symbolic systems, and a kind of epistemological confusion between the nature of those symbolic systems and a direct access to knowing the world.  In other words, I would go along with Cassirer and say, or try to compare the notion of the universal versus the relative with the more exotic ontic versus the topical, which I think actually centers the issue far more exactly. Just to kick it off, I’d like to argue from the universalist position, although it’s a highly qualified, hybrid argument.  One of the reasons I find difficulty with the position taken by Tom and others is that the role of doubt in Postmodernism has been elevated to a kind of leveling position — that is to say, it is designed in a way, in the political sense generically, that it will render all things equal somehow or other, and in Tom’s last book, at least the last one I read, on sculpture, he combines Postmodernism and multiculturalism and globalization as a result of the collapse of the Western Eurocentric colonial hegemony. Is that a fair statement?

 

Somewhat.

 

All of which, reverts back to Cassirer’s issue of our immersion in symbolic systems and each one of those ideas — Postmodernism, multiculturalism, globalization, etc., — is rife with, infested with, their own symbol systems and references and motif indexes.  So I’d like to posit an analogue.  Coming from the ethologists Tinbergen and Lorenz…Now, if anyone has ever heard me say this before, you’ll probably have to tolerate hearing it once again…Lorenz and Tinbergen received the Nobel Prize for the following work.  They, as ethologists, designed a container, in which a newborn chick is released.  Right out of the egg, into this chamber.  And over the chamber they had a silhouette the shape of a chicken hawk.  And as soon as the silhouette was placed over the chick casting it's shadow, the chick scattered for cover.  If they altered the configuration of the chicken hawk, so that it was unlike a chicken hawk.  When it was like some other shape, the chick just moseyed about, pecking his way through the chamber.  The implication being, that somewhere resonant in the chicken’s nervous system is some kind of templatic shape or configuration that matches up with the actual silhouette. Consider that that chick was never attacked or threatened by a real chicken hawk.  Why did it run?  Now what I’m suggesting is that this is an indication in some strange way, that within the human collective nervous systems there are archetypes and arrangements — shapes, forms, tones, arrays of things — far more complex of course than the chick or the chicken hawk, that are already resonant in our collective nervous systems, and that includes our cultural collective nervous systems, which are activated in the same way that the template for the chicken hawk and the chicken is, when we encounter certain forms, certain shapes, certain images, certain combinations of aesthetic phenomena. And that this is a hint, an ethological hint, that this may be one way in which universals actually do function.  Now I would qualify that with the caveat that in order for the template to have a match-up in the aesthetic or value-given, in the axiological sense, it would require having a cultural surround in which you’re introduced to such possibilities…or you’re in some ways bred into the possibilities of these match-ups taking place at all.  And so that would be my first suggestion as a point of the universal operating within a cultural, relative context.  Hence sub-culturally, in the infrastructure of the human collective nervous system, there are, in fact, universals.

 

So that the template is like the Platonic Idea?  Except it comes out of evolution rather than out of metaphysics. Now you see, the general issue is just this: when we make a judgment, about, say, something like beauty or truth, is there a possibility that we are communicating with some universal, and hence what we say is infallible unless things interfere with our perception of the universal?  Or, is it just that we’re generating some kind of discourse out of the particular position that we happen to stand in?  In our own personal weirdness and all the little experiences that we’ve have, and all of the conditioning that we’ve had, and so on.  I tend to come down on the side of the particular, that is to say, that our judgments of that type arise out of our personal experience and our personal weirdness and so on.  And not out of any governing super-principles.  And the reason that I tend to come down on that side -- well, there’s two.  And one is that the particularities of things are just given in our experience.  If we accept our experience as our experience, then they’re indubitable.  Whereas, in order to get from them to any kind of universal principle, we need to mediate a leap of logic and that always gets us into the issue that Feyeraband and Kuhn and others have talked about that: observation is value-laden, and that anything that we may call a leap of logic always may serve a personal agenda essentially about one-upping other people.  So that on that ground, on those two grounds, I tend to come down on the side of the particular, without being dogmatic about it, it’s just that one always has to suspect universal claims of any kind because they always mean that someone’s laying a trip on everyone else.  So I think that — it may be in terms of this little discourse that’s going on right in this room, it may be a good idea to specify the fact that in terms of art, and that’s what we’re supposedly here about, although the two of us are sitting up here talking like philosopher — in terms of art, lately all of this has come to our attention in the context of the discourse on beauty.  That in the Modernist period, the period of let’s say Barnett Newman, Piet Mondrian, it was assumed that the perception of beauty, at least in some cases, at least in legitimate cases, and that’s another question…the perception of beauty was based on…kind of channeling a universal…Then at the beginning of Postmodernism, there was this heady period of breaking the universals.  Like destroying the icons.  At that time we felt “ thank God we’re free of the universals, thank God these sacred icons are gone”, and we felt like a weight had been lifted from our shoulders, but now lately, just in the last few years, the last five years or so, it’s as if we’ve re-entered a kind of confusion where we no longer realize that there’s a difference, and I think that’s really what we’re talking about here today.  And the issue of whether our sense of beauty is founded on a universal, or whether it is purely subjective, to give you an example of how people have dealt with this…tried to mediate, you see like Frank, for example, tries to mediate between the universal and the particular…This is an old idea.  You see, like, my feeling is, I recently was involved with Bill Beckley in this anthology Uncontrollable Beauty that Bill edited.  And I said “Bill, there’s only one question that this book is dealing with, and that is, is beauty, is our perception of beauty based on the experience of a universal, or is it just based on whatever happened to us in the street or whatever?”  And Bill’s response, which I thought was great, he said: “Well, I don’t accept that it’s just got to be one or the other; isn’t there something else?” And I thought that was a great response, but my answer to him was “No!  There isn’t anything else.”  The whole long history of thought only shows two ways of dealing with the fact of beauty.  And that is, positing it as a universal, or positing it just as a personal preference that happens to arise from our conditioning.  Or, thirdly, various ways of attempting to combine those two, you know, like this goes back to Aristotle, like the thing is that Plato said that universals were completely ontologically free and existed by themselves, and Aristotle said, no, they only exist in particulars.  That was the brilliant move—that he brought the universal into the particular and then subsequently, in our tradition, we had Kant’s positing of the subjective universal, you know, like…Kant was so convinced by Hume’s skepticism that he didn’t feel that you could posit, that you could really channel a universal or, let’s say, establish the fact that you had legitimately channeled a universal, so he talked about what he called subjective universality, subjective universals.  And this was how he distinguished between the pleasure…the judgment of pleasure…and the judgment of taste.  You know, like the judgment, on the one hand, the judgment of what flavor of ice cream you prefer, or on the other hand, what kind of painting you prefer.  Kant felt that there was a radical difference between these two types of judgment, and he felt that the difference was…that when you decided that you liked a certain flavor of ice cream, this did not mean to you on an emotional level, that everyone else had to like that same flavor.  But when you feel that something is beautiful in a profound sense, it does mean to you that you insist on universal assent.  You, even though your judgment is purely subjective, nevertheless there is a feeling of finality in that subjective judgment that makes you, that convinces you that any other human in that circumstance would feel the same thing.  So he felt that there was this radical difference between a judgment of pleasure and, let’s say, an aesthetic judgment.  Now, my feeling is, at this point in my life, and at different points in my life I’ve felt completely differently, but at this point in my life my feeling is that there is not any difference between the judgment of pleasure and the judgment of taste, that there is not any difference between deciding what flavor of ice cream you like best and what type of painting you like best.  There is no difference whatever. Now, this was one attempt to mediate the dichotomy between universal and particular, and the next attempt we had was Hegel’s idea of the concrete universal, which, philosophers have said, like Aristotle’s idea that the universal only exists in the particular, well really it doesn’t leave much of the particular there.  I mean, if the universal is really in the particular, it’ll just blow it away, it’ll just blow the particular away, and their won’t be much left of it…And in Hegel’s idea the concrete universal was felt the same way…Frank, I think, has his own way to try to mediate between the universal and the particular, and we’re still at that stage of our discussion where we’re talking about the judgment of beauty.  Would you care to…

 

Yeah, I’m going to respond from an entirely other track.  And that is, in brief, a fundamental definition as to what a work of art is in relationship to this issue of universal and particular. This [pointing to a cup on the table] is a human artifact.  That [pointing to another article on the table] is a human artifact; this [pointing to another] is a human artifact, etc.  Works of art are also human artifacts.  But works of art are human artifacts with a particular kind of status. And that status is generated and evolves by-way-of nature of consensus.  The equivalent in science would be the governing rules of evidence.  And where universality enters into the picture, is as to at what point can we all agree that this is a mere artifact or that is potentially a work of art.  And that universalism enters into the issue of consensus when making those sorts of judgments.  Now I see no contradiction in the notion of the readymade, as interfering -- a readymade by its mere fact of selection, taking it out of production and into the white walls of the gallery — as the same kind of consensus and selection that would take place if something were painted with a brush by Durer.  The position is — and as an extension of this argument — is that probably ninety percent — this is a rough estimate — of all works of art, or artifacts that are submitted as works of art into a specific culture, with the claim for that status, wind up being mere artifacts, and float to the bottom of the debris.  So, just the claim of being a work of art is insufficient for that status to be employed in identifying it.  And therefore the correspondence between the cultural relativity of how consensus is derived from, or what it’s generated from, and the fundamental interconnection between and among those artifacts which share this status by means of consensus.

 

See, I don’t accept the distinction…from the first time Frank and I talked together in public, he asked me to enter a class of his at NYU.  And on my way over, I saw a paper coffee cup that had been stepped on in the street, and I brought it in with me, and I showed it to the audience, and Frank asked me — this is the question, this is what all of this is about — he asked me whether I thought this, whether I prefer, whether I would give more value to the Cellini cup or to this messed up and trampled on paper coffee cup that I found in the gutter.  And my answer was, I can imagine circumstances in which either answer would be the right one.  And that is still my answer.

 

And my answer is: I’ll take the Cellini cup any day.

 

Now, at this point, I’m going to drive us through a little agenda here, Frank…

 

All right, let’s go.

 

I don’t think that a miracle is going to happen in this room, such as that we’re going to answer any of these questions; I just think that we’re going to try to clarify them a little bit and let them hang in the air.  And after the question of universal and relative, or universal and particular, in terms of scientific truth, we dealt briefly with the question of universal and particular in terms of theory.  I think we want, and we’re going to transit to, the issue of the sublime, the concept of the sublime.  Let me just briefly point out to you that the whole issue of beauty and the sublime comes from this ancient author known as Pseudo Longinus, who wrote in the second century AD and argued that there were two types of aesthetic experience, one of them makes you feel good, and the other one terrifies you.  And that first one is beauty, and the second one is the sublime, but they’re both aesthetic experiences.  And then I’ll just say that Pseudo Longinus for me wrote one of the great sentences in the history of criticism.  For example, "a sublime picture might show a whole universe being turned upside down and torn apart.”  This was followed up in the 18th century by Edmund Burke in his Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful in 1757.  He was very true to Longinus. And he argued that the sublime resided in things that were so vast that one could not comprehend them nor could you perceive them.  In other words, something that is so immense that you can’t see it all at once.  So, it frightens you because you know that there’s a great deal of it that you’re not seeing, so it’s like those moments in a horror movie when the camera gets in real tight on the subject and you can’t see what’s going on in the rest of the room…And, you know, that’s fright-some.  The sublime is like that -- you can only see a little bit of this thing, so you’re afraid of it, because you know that there’s a lot of it that you can’t see the rest of.  And there are other qualities of the sublime, but most of them have to do with similar effects, such as, darkness.

 

Or when you are in the middle of a great wind-storm on a turbulent beach.

 

But basically Burke’s idea was that the sublime doesn’t occur unless the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, if you know what I mean.  Otherwise, it’s not really the sublime; it’s just some kind of pseudo-compromised sublime.  And he gave this famous list of four examples of the sublime.  If I can remember…one of them was mountaintops, another one was storms at sea, the third one was infinity, and the fourth one was Milton’s description of Hell in the first book of Paradise Lost.  And then this great formulation by Burke came into Kant’s hands and Kant tamed it down — anyway, this is my view — is that Kant tamed and compromised it, and by the time that Kant had done with it, it was that anything that was other was sublime.  For example, if two people of different ethnicities, were talking with one another, and they were uneasy with each other’s ethnicities, each of them was experiencing the sublime as the other as the sublime.  But, when you get right down to it, in this sense, everything is the sublime. By this, I mean that any two people who are talking together experience gulfs of non-knowledge, and therefore the sublime, at one moment leading to another, involving a gulf of non-knowledge...hence the sublime.  Anyway, I feel that he greatly diluted and compromised the pure definition of the sublime which Pseudo Longinus and Burke had developed.  And Kant himself explained this by saying that there were different categories of the sublime, and one of them he called the dynamic sublime, and that was the sublime of Longinus and Burke, which I feel is the only legitimate definition.  So then, we get into the issue of whether, of how this issue of the sublime relates to modernism and postmodernism.  I think Frank and I are agreed that the sublime is basically a modernist concept — because it’s a universal.  The sublime has to do with the idea that there are universal realities that tower over us, belittle us, and threaten to devour and annihilate us.

 

In his distinguishing between the beautiful and the sublime, I would again argue that human artifacts, in the Kantian sense, are never capable of achieving the sublime — only the beautiful.

 

So Milton’s description of Hell, he would say, was illegitimate.

 

Correct.  It would be an inaccurate application.  While the other attribute of the Kantian definition of the sublime is that it always originates in nature — no human artifact, no human activity, no human doings, would generate the sublime.  Only the overwhelming experience of the world, of the universal — pardon the expression — experience, usually in the most extreme forms: mountaintops, windstorms, oceans, etc., will provide this.  So he did distinguish between the human making of something and that became a judgment of taste. And then the sublime becomes a separate category, going further than Burke.

 

So he would say…could I interrupt?

 

Yeah, interrupt.

 

When Barnett Newman said of himself and the other Abstract Expressionists: “We’re not seeking the beautiful; we’re seeking the sublime,” you would say that …

 

They had misread Kant.

 

Or they had read Burke, and preferred him to Kant.

 

Probably.  Rothko often comes to mind as an example of sublimity in esthetic experience, but even there sublimity is restricted to a gallery wall -- it’s the envelopment, I think, in what Kant means regarding the sublime — thus, to be enveloped in such an experience…it’s not merely a one-to-one relationship between one and the artifact.  And this relates to our conversation last night.  It is the destruction of the notion of the sublime in Postmodernism's foundation...and its current attempt to reincorporate the sublime, into the Postmodern ethos. Which I think is preposterous.  Because the very fundamental basis of the Postmodern sensibility is that such a thing as the sublime is a Eurocentric construct which essentially defies nature.  It’s what Ruskin call's the naturalistic fallacy -- that the naturalistic fallacy would enter into the equation when you confuse the experience of the beautiful and the sublime with human objects and with nature itself, and that would be, in Ruskin’s example: calling a storm “vicious” as a case of the naturalistic fallacy.  The Kantian position is beyond all of that.  In his case the status of nature in which, only the sublime encompasses the natural world — and what remains of the idea is a set of confusions.  And whether those which were directly argued Burke’s position or not...I am not certain.  I’ll leave that detail up to you.

 

Well, again…again, we’re not trying to perform miracles.  We did want to talk…

 

Well, speak for yourself.

 

Yeah. We did want to talk briefly about the idea of the resurrections of the beautiful that had been going on. You know how the idea of beauty keeps rising from the grave like a zombie, staggering toward us again…Frank proposed the idea that…at the beginning of the Eighties, Neo-Expressionism for example, was such a resurrection of beauty.  Now, that’s not exactly the way I see it, and this is something that we could talk about for like a semester, you know. It seems to me that Modernism was an extremely puritanical set of values, and that the first stage of Postmodernism, the first decade or so of Postmodernism, which I call anti-modernism was equally puritanical.  That was when they were smashing the icons.  That was when they were getting off ecstatically.  So as I see it...classical conceptual art, for example, that’s anti-modernism, so that I see the anti-modernist phase as kind of alter ego in modernism itself...because it’s equally puritanical.  And I think that postmodernism is by definition non-puritanical, it’s willing to accept contradictions, it’s willing to accept conflated positions, it’s not willing to give any option up.  So that…in other words, I feel that postmodernism proper, as opposed to that transitional phase of anti-modernism began to happen in the visual arts when Neo-expressionism appeared around 1980.  In other words, when painting returned, again like the staggering zombie, but with new manners, influenced by Conceptualism and Performance Art and so on.  Then we began to have a conflated or compromised position between modernism and anti-modernism, and that is, properly, postmodernism.

 

Do you not think there was an insider’s cabal which created the Neo-Expressionists in the late 70’s and early 80’s?

 

I’m sure that there were little insider cabals attending it and involved in it, but I don’t think that in terms of the scale of issues that we’re talking about, and that’s the main question.

 

No, I’m saying that there probably was -- I have no proof.  Inquiring minds want to know, however, is why did this suddenly appear in the midst of…within a matter of three or four seasons…while it was quickly locked into the dynamics of the art world.

 

Well, let me answer that, briefly.  There’s two essential theories about why this compromised view of…what you might call conceptual painting.  First, you had painting.  Then you had conceptual art, and then you had conceptual painting.  In other words, I see it as a kind of Hegelian dialectic.  I think that Neo-Expressionism was called up as a third stage in that particular syllogism of the Hegelian dialectic.  First, you had painting, then you had conceptual art, then you had conceptual painting.

 

The irony is that I appear to be taking the more social-psychological position, and you’re the more universalist at this point.  There’s an argument to be made, and I’ll make it very briefly, that there was a certain…how shall we put it…panic among those who had great investment in the art world in the mid 70’s.  Realizing that the object was dissolving into ideas, hence your anti-modernism and that the cabal had to select…some painter's around somewhere, anywhere.  Someone probably said to somebody else, so let’s find out who they are, and promote them.  And that this was not like what I would call precisely a cabal, but there was a consensus among certain power centers that went in that direction…what I’m saying in effect, is that I don’t think it’s a pure Hegelian dialectic.  I think it’s infused with the kind of social milieu that the late 70’s and early 80’s generated within the art world's precincts.

 

Even if one were to think of the Hegelian dialectic as something that works by itself…I mean, that is to say, one must not think of the Hegelian dialectic as something that works by itself.  It has to work through historical events.  In other words, it has to work in the way that you just described.

 

Okay.  Let me shift from the last transition of this issue concerning the sublime into the issue of technology.

 

I was reading today in Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe’s book Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime, and he uses this term “techno-sublime.”  Now, when we were talking last night…in other words, what he’s saying is that in terms of contemporary art…the presence of technology in the art is the sublime.  This seems to me, frankly, a weak position.  I don’t go along with it, but I’m going to present it to you, because I think that technology in art can be used as well for the sake of the beautiful…as for the sublime. 

 

Or…for the sake of the ugly.

 

But, and nevertheless, his point was that whether it’s used for the sake of the beautiful or the ugly or the sublime or whatever, still the mere presence of technology is the sublime.

 

I completely dismiss such an argument.  I think we are operating within parallel universes.

 

Let me just say, Frank, last night when we were chatting about this stuff, you said something like the issue of technology and art is “inextricable from my work and my life," you were very strong about it.  All this work is based strongly on the issue of the relationship of technology and art -- so we are now coming around to the moment when we really talk about you as an artist.

[Audience Laughter]

 

I can’t shine it back on you?  I would argue that the issue of art and technology began with Fox Talbots’s address to the British Academy in 1839 on the invention of photography.  And that since Talbot’s address in 1839, the question of art and technology has become a separate by-way, starting off as a trickle…and then running into a flushing stream, and then into a river, and then into some kind of oceanic tsunami.  So it’s been around for approximately 175 years.  And, therefore, it’s a relatively novel question in the visual arts. The issue is: how high technology — or reproducible technology especially — is injected into the culture...and subsequently intercepted, deflected and employed by visual artists.  Which is to say, for example, what is more persuasive at this shifting moment in time?  When the video port-a-pack arrived in the mid-60’s -- the first portable television system was introduced...and it had nothing to do…when Sony was designing this piece of technology, — the role of the artist was never considered.  It was basically designed to record board meetings and salesmen’s enthusiasms, and so on.  And it was essentially intercepted by artists, by rather marginal artists at the time, and turned toward the aesthetic domain.  In the same way that it took photography perhaps 30 to 40 years before it was considered a tool of the artist — prior to that it was just some kind of scientific curiosity, or technological curiosity, before the interception arrived. Now, going further, you can follow the art/technic nexus from photography, film, television, video, and now, currently, the computer.  When computer graphics were introduced in one of its early manifestations in the late 70’s and early 80’s, the artist wasn’t the one they had in mind, at all.  It was essentially commercial photographers from Madison Avenue and those in Hollywood's orbit who were by-in-large Sony's marketing target.  In fact, there would have been no profit if it had been designed exclusively for artists. And again, the activity of intercepting such high technology, and redirecting it, towards ends that it was never designed for, is part of the dynamic of the art/technology nexus...is one that goes back to your “inextricable” issue, earlier, that I think has almost the force of an existential duty.  I think, because we are currently inundated with a multiplicity of floods of technological mechanisms, that it is an existential duty of the artist to consider the interception of them and redirecting them to an aesthetic purpose.  So that’s how I would briefly define the issue of art/technology as a recent example.  However, I would separate it from the issue…of the beautiful, the sublime, and rapidly evolving high technology…not separating them really does confuse the central issue, which is the matter at hand.  They are parallel universes.  In other words, you can make dreck with technology, you can make something beautiful with technology, and you can make something dangerous with technology.  And the sublimity issue again goes back to my embrace of the Kantian interpretation that any human mechanism, any human artifact, is out of the picture, not having had a chance in Hell against the sublimity of nature.  So, apropos your earlier remarks, we’re talking about…Gilbert-Rolfe’s position to be rather confusing.  But your précis of it appears to me to also be confusing...not only comparing peaches with pears, but more like peaches with roller skates.

 

Yeah, I like that.  Now, I’m not defending Jeremy’s position.  I just thought it should enter the discussion because its part and parcel of the current discourse that’s happening right now.  

 

[SLIDE PRESENTATION: DIGITAL IMAGES FROM THE SHOW]

 

Now, I’m going to read briefly from the script here because…Frank, in some of your own recent work, I seem to see either the beautiful, or references to the idea of the beautiful...That is to say, this work which was highly technologically made.  This is a piece from Frank’s last show in New York, maybe a year ago, and I want to draw some parallels and distinctions with the present show.  I want to say that I think this work and the other three I’m going to briefly show you…although they’re highly techno-sublime… they nevertheless seem to me to show a classically late-modernist approach to the idea of the beautiful.  That’s partly in the loose handling, which recalls Abstract Expressionism -- these tricky distinctions between the pictorial surface and ideas of illusionistic depth along with the loose handling, the loose painterly handling.  And then the kind of large pictorial fullness and chromatic abundance...the kind of all-over composition and dramatic highlighted effects.  I think in all of these ways, this work seems to relate to classical late modernist ideas of the beautiful with a little bit of the sublime kind of tucked in.  So I question, in terms of your own work, whether your statement concerning the technological approach is completely separate from the beautiful and sublime will hold out.

 

Yeah, thank you.  In another context, I was once asked what I thought the psychological/emotional content of my work was.  And my answer to the question is: alarm and fury. And, I do not accept the notion that one can articulate an image whose emotional or psychological aura is alarm and fury without also entering into the issue of the beautiful.  And when I say "beautiful" I don’t mean it in Tom’s late modernist sense; I mean it in a more traditionalist sense…long before late modernism.  And, to answer your question directly, I don’t see the correlation between the body of work that you just showed an example from last year, and this present body of work in relationship to this issue of the beautiful and the sublime.  Basically, what I did is, I departed from a high chromatic period and entered into a less coloristic passage to demonstrate the range of possibilities within the domain that I was working with...And to underline what I think is one of the more critical aspects of the art/technology axis, which is the notion of signature.  The curiosity concerning signature is that it has always been associated with the hand-eye axis.  The signature issue addresses the role of touch.  From instrument to the surface resulting in the making of a mark, that is the point.  And what high technology does is interrupt the hand-eye axis, and, in my opinion, one of the chief interests of the art and technology issue is in some way how to regain and redefine touch and the hand-eye axis.  The quality of signature is derived from the hand-eye axis without repeating it.  The technology I am currently working with — the software and its hardware — provides a multiple range of pictorial devices.  It transcends the issue of representation or abstraction or any of the other considerations that I think are convenient in other regards, but not in this one…And that it opens up a wider range, in fact an infinitely wider range, for potential maneuvering into the possibilities of how pictures are made or could and probably will be made.  Whereas they’re not dependent upon critical issues engaging the beautiful, the sublime, and so on and so forth.  And that the issue of technology is more directly addressed in what kind of broadening a potentiality which is inherent in the introduction of these systems into the wider culture.

 

Appearances…Appearances, of let’s say, the beautiful or the sublime…are accidental or not essentially connected to this.

 

Paradoxically, on the contrary.  This is the point I’m making.  Even if I were not working with high technology, I would be none-the-less interested in making something beautiful.  That’s the point.  So the issue of beauty and the connection to my work and high technology are independent parallels.  I would none-the-less remain interested in making something beautiful.  I suggest the following: the issue of the beautiful is close to a red herring.  And that the genuine issue is significance.  I believe that the beautiful is a sub-set of significance. When an object or an image acquires what I judge to be an authentic work — we discussed this earlier -- it’s not the beauty that is the first order of judgment derived from viewing a work of art... but a sense of significance…something much more elusive than the beautiful…And the beautiful can also be, dismissed as being “merely beautiful”.  So my point is that it’s the notion of significance that I am more directly interested in, and as a sub-set of significance.  Yes, I am interested in making beautiful images.  Whether their black and white or outrageously colorful or whatever is almost…a demonstration of what I think is the spectrum or the dynamics of the technology of art engaging the technology.

 

Yeah, but in your work, technology and the beautiful exist as separate streams that happen to flow together across the surface.

 

But not necessarily so.  It just happens to be so in my case…I’ve seen and absorbed numerous magazines, journals, and catalogues brimming with what I dismiss of as cyber-kitsch.  Which is essentially what, I think, ninety-nine percent, more-or-less, of the stuff being done with current software displays.  In which an attempt to be beautiful, and on the surface perhaps they are, but they completely lack significance.  They lack mystery…no ambiguity…Another issue, by the way, that I’d like to address, is the notion of ambiguity and how that relates to what I’m doing vis-a-vis the sublime and the beautiful.  But the beauty is not necessarily a result of the technology.

 

Right, right.

 

That’s the distinction I want to emphasize.

 

It’s an accidental conjunction.

 

Or perhaps not so accidental, but it is a conjunction.  And they’re not driven by technology’s yoke of necessity.

 

Frank described these works as the fusion of the painter’s studio and the photographer’s…He remarked to me that all of the titles are from Finnegan's Wake.

 

A great source of titles, incidentally, if anyone’s interested.

 

And I remarked in reply that in terms of the works from last year’s show, which we saw four examples of a moment ago…that these works seem to have moved into a later stage of the image.

 

I would agree with that.

 

And that was all I came here to say today.

 

And on that favorable note, that’s all I have to say. Are there any questions?  We’ll take a few questions. 

 

 

[QUESTIONS FROM THE AUDIENCE]
 

Yes.  As to your Lorenz example--which I have heard you discuss before — I think it’s a highly unconvincing argument for universals.  Because you are only thinking about biological phenomena.

 

Well, to answer briefly…I use the Tinbergen/Lorenz example in a simplified way.  I’m not suggesting that we go around with templates in our brain and when we see such templates we rush to embrace them or whatever.  It just strikes me that there’s a hook in this analogy…that I think connects with — if you’re going to argue from my position, you’re going to have to discover some kind evolutionary/biological connection with…if it’s universal, it must be in — the collective psychological archetypical system.  So it’s a convenient argument, as opposed to constructing an elaborate one regarding how the biology is a component in the acknowledgement or the recognition of something that is already in place in the nervous system.  As I said to Tom, and this is an extension of last night’s conversation, it may be so, but the universals are always interpreted in terms of the local cultural context, but that does not make them less universal, in my opinion. For example, if I can enjoy, if I can become enraptured by let’s say, Burundian music…I’ve never been to Burundi, nor do I know what its traditional forms of structure are…Just listening to it, there’s something about it that strikes me as universal.  So there’s the context of one’s cultural circumambient surround, that determines whether your accessibility to the universals is strictly culturally conceived, or culturally created, or in fact is one which transcends those differences.

 

Let me break in here briefly…This Burundian universal, Frank mentioned it to me last night, and I said, well, I’d like to counter that with an example.  The idea that there are universals…because we can appreciate the same thing that a Burundian can appreciate…well, I think that that depends upon a highly selective choice of examples.  I mean, for example, what I would say in response to that is that universals are disproved by the fact that aesthetic judgments change continually.  And… for example, like in the eighteenth century, Boucher was regarded as a monumentally great artist and today he’s regarded as trivial.

 

In response to that...it is the evolution of consensus.  That is to say that there is no…let’s not confuse the issue of universal with the issue of consensus.  Basically, if you look back into art history, the further back you look, the greater consensus of what a work of art is, as opposed to a mere artifact.  As you get closer to the present in the contemporary world, it’s under higher dispute as to what is a work of art and what is not a work of art.  So the nature of consensus also evolves.  I think practically everyone in this room would agree that Myron was a great sculptor.  But perhaps not everyone in this room would agree that Jeff Koons is a great sculptor.  And it’s not just because a Periclean sculptor trumps a contemporary American sculptor.  It’s about…as history distances itself from the object, and the consensus becomes increasingly rarefied, while achieving depth, it also becomes solidified as well.  And so the idea of Boucher being considered high at one point and now like Bougereau and his coterie considered to be trivial, is nothing, in my opinion, but a kind of fluctuation in the consensual development of judgment.

 

But…but don’t you think that Myron’s reputation is also just been solidified by a series of successive generational opinions?  I mean, in any case, let me just ask if there are any other opinions.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more clear example of a Platonist on one side and an Aristotelian on the other side.

 

I think the only thing that’s manifestly present to us…is the particular details of our experience from moment to moment.

 

It can also lead to nihilism; nevertheless, I’m not saying you’re a nihilist.

 

I am a nihilist!

[Audience laughter]

 

It’s the nihilistic undercurrent, or the potential for a nihilistic positioning of one’s ideas that is the extreme of relativism, cultural relativism, multiculturalism, whatever you want to call it…It’s tainted by a kind of...let’s party till we puke mentality…Such that it’s all relative anyway.  Myron is worth this…the Cellini cup is worth that.  Thus we encounter the issue of a graduation of values, a hierarchy…the whole notion of hierarchy collapses around all of this.

 

That’s the idea.

 

Yeah, I understand.  And I’m saying: not so fast.  It’s the ancient baby-and-bathwater problem. The way hierarchy has been employed politically, for example, which Tom has pointed out rather effectively, has given hierarchy a bad name.  I would argue that there is in fact an ontological hierarchy in our value arrangements.  That is to say that some things are worth more than others.  And these have intrinsic values.  We associate them with intrinsic values. That’s why I would argue that the Cellini cup is better than this crumpled coffee cup.  And if you had to live with one or the other for the rest of your life, I’ll take the Cellini cup.

 

And as far as the Cellini cup goes, I still hold that I can imagine circumstances in which either position could be taken.  Any other questions or remarks?  Bill…

 

“Beauty is a red herring,” was the remark that you made and were threatening to get to that. But I think it’s always a red herring.  I mean, probably, the only interesting thing about taste is that it’s always changing...I cannot think of one other interesting thing about taste.  And while I may be wrong, that your taste, you the artist, might have changed your own taste even about your own work within a couple years…In your response to the wide acceptance of your work, now I could be wrong about that, but I certainly know that you’re capable of it, and I think every artist is capable of it.

 

My answer to that is yes, great artists can or will become eclipsed.  Even Bach was eclipsed.  This issue of taste changing is an obvious one.  That is to say, it’s a prima facie instance.  The real crux of the matter is how aesthetic judgments evolve consensually, how reputations go up and up and down and down and up again and then are revived and so on.  Such that there’s a kind of sine wave that you can actually predict…a return of, let’s say, Burns-Jones.

 

But that whole issue of consensus is a matter, like an epiphenomenon of shifts in social and class status.  I think, I feel, in terms of the agenda that we made up for this event, that it’s time for closing remarks…

 

I just want to make one observation, I feel that there was a merging of the ideas of beautiful and sublime that, in fact are a mistake, and when, Frank, you were talking about the sublime in Kant, and also in Burke, as being only in nature...I think that’s an extremely important point. And when an artist approaches the sublime, perhaps you could call it beautiful, like your work over their but I think the point is that it is directed beyond the art.  And that experience of the sublime in nature is mysterious, is ambiguous, is not subject to taste.

 

I would agree with that…more or less.

 

Well, where all of this directs us is interesting…The sublime directs us to the beyond; experience directs us to the here and now…And frankly, I would rather bet on the here and now than on the beyond.

 

I know that it flirt's with apostasy to assert that Deleuze has perhaps stated something on the verge of the humorous and preposterous…But ah…I’ll stick with the traditional definition as evolved from Burke and especially Kant.  And the idea of mixing it in with the postmodernist ethos a la Deleuze, renders it a grab for a wider range of terminology in the postmodern pantheon of terminologies.  It’s essentially colonialist…It’s a colonialist attitude about, you know, let’s take on, let’s incorporate, reincorporate the notion of the sublime…And beyond that it’ll be something else, and something else, and something else…So it’s a kind of intellectual colonialist specter to me.  I was once asked in a panel discussion very similar to this if I’m not a postmodernist, what am I?  And my answer was, I’m a radical traditionalist…and by being a radical traditionalist, I don’t mean I’m interested in repeating, but I’m interested in the notion that you stay with the program, in effect...I’m anti-anti-art, to put it simply.

 

I’m pro-anti-art…That man who just slipped out the door had the right idea, and I’m going to do the same. Thank you all for this and goodnight!

 

[Applause]

 

[End of Transcript]