THE TANGLED BANK

 

 

As a point of departure, we shall begin with:

 

Darwin's equation for evolutionary change, that is:

 

Individual variation plus Natural selection.

 

With individual variation being determined by the genetic component (or program)...which was unknown to Darwin...yet inferred by his theory.

 

By way of both license and analogy--and with a slight ironic twist--I would maintain that works of art are subject to a similiar equation--in this case :

 

Individual variation plus Cultural & Natural selection

 

From this perch, two premises for aesthetic theory and praxis follow:

 

First premise:

 

The aesthetic component in natural selection--evidenced by the practically infinite variety of natural behaviors and designs--as being the source, the origin, of the governing aesthetic impulse in all and every human culture.

 

This stance therefore assumes that far from being the final fruit and pinnacle of human culture...the aesthetic is inborn--is in the mettle--in the overall evolutionary process governing life on Earth...although, without a scintilla of doubt, it reaches a stage of asomstoic complexity and variety in homo ludens, or, if you prefer, homo sapiens.

 

For example: The ethologists Tinbergen and Lorenz surmise that within given sensitive margins, sets of shapes, configurations, pre-exist--or reside--stereotypically and archetypically in the nervous systems of the creatures within the purview of their research.

 

For instance--employing their classic example: A newborn chick, fresh out of its egg, will promptly scurry for cover in the presence of a chicken-hawk's shadow (or silhouette , without ever having personally experienced peril from a chicken-hawk.

 

Conversely, the chick will not scramble for protection if the configuration--shadow or silhouette -deviates sufficiently from the gestalt of the chicken-hawk.

 

We are left to infer that the shape or silhouette of the predator, somehow dormant in the chick's "data-base" (or nervous system), is activated and translated into immediate tactical action only when its encoded interior template satisfactorily matches the perceived shadow.

 

Additional support for this position arrives from a wholly different quarter--Karl Popper, the pre-eminent philosopher of science and it methodologies of proof, and subsequent rules of evidence, aligns his position with Tinbergen & Lorenz by employing the term "pattern matching"...arguing for a model of cognition which consists..."in matching a configuration prevailing in the incoming sensory data with a corresponding pattern existing in our own central nervous system, either as the effect of phylogenetic programing or of individual experience.”

 

Now here comes the analogical leap: Can we argue that, likewise, although exquisitely more flexible and elastic, a repertoire of stereotypes  archetypes, arch-forms, iconic patterns and schemata exist in the interwoven arrays suspended in the private and collective human nervous system?

 

If so, thus rendering the fundamental task of the artist, her, or his stock–in–trade, to draw out, evoke and otherwise manifest these forms, patterns, ratios and Schemata.

 

Or, conversely, to violate their limits, such that novel significance is generated and conveyed by means of perverse variation and permutation.

 

Second premise:

 

From John Berryman: "The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not nearly kill him."

 

Assuming--and it appears as a reasonable assumption--that late-industrial civilization, spurred on by a reductionist scientific mind-set, characterized by the cult of objectivity and the crass supersticion of materialism... has...with its handmaiden, technology (unintentionally, one might add) driven the biosphere insane, and brought us to the brink of global ecocide.

 

Further, assuming the above as an undeniable given, what is the artist's responsibility, or existential duty, with respect to reacting to this state of affairs?

 

Here we arrive at the crux: Does aesthetic praxis withdraw into its exclusive private sphere of connoisseurship... essentially addressing art's cognoscenti?...Or does it accept the inevitability of the chillastic vision, what both Norman 0. Brown and Cyril Connoly called "closing time", thereby investing its energies and interests into an endgame stratedgy--consciously besotted with nihilisism, or otherwise?...Or does aesthetic theory and praxis confront head-on, with a "full court press", so to speak, scientific and tecnological dominance with an epistemological counter-statement...Thus, re-asserting the validity of the subjective way of knowing, or response, to the world's precarious circumstance by ways & means that include (though not restricted by) A) the appropriation of images and tecniques derived from scientific instrumentation, B) by expressions of rage and disfluency vis-a-vis the precarious condition of the natural world, C) by celebrating nature in its pristine compexity and operational mystery, D) by exposing, elipticly and directly, the intrinsic qualities of evolutionary images and processes, thus reinforcing, or recapitulating, the role of aesthetic codes and behaviours necessarily inherent in evolutionary selection for survival or extinction, and E) by establishing an wobbly equipoise with the epistemes of science, in which both ways of knowing the world are brought into a tenuious balance.

 

Finally, this is emphaticly not a question of art's epestimes, or ways of knowing, replacing science's. Instead, it is a critical matter regarding the way the world is intuitively grasped, comprehended, and appreciated for what it is, with reverence for every and all its explicit and enigmatic manifestations.

 

Is aesthetic praxis capable of prevailing in this confrontation with entrenched reductive economic and technological interpretations of the natural world—endorsed and supported by "scientific" justifications? This is the gravatational center to the questions facing this forum.

 

 

Frank Gillette

 

March 1992 : E.M. Donahue Gallery N.Y.C.