μηδέποτε ἐπὶ μηδενὸς εἴπῃς ὅτι ‘ἀπώλεσα αὐτό,’ ἀλλ᾽ ὅτι ‘ἀπέδωκα.
Time is running low… let’s just spit it out. This is about Art, and only Art. 1
Art is what we turn to for what can’t or shouldn’t be said out loud, and while frame narrative, spatial-temporal conceits, and other devices do have their place, treating even this indirectly our Subject of concern makes it a “thing”, a loathsome epithet… it seems presumptuous, taking the Foundational and giving it a name, as if this defines it, let alone doing so to that which is out of grasping. There’s too much one shouldn’t accept even if we could. It’s pantomime, sleight-of-hand, misdirection.
Time passes… and eventually representations, images, sounds, motifs, themes, structures, and even everyone you meet begins to look familiar, and you may wonder whether you’ve met them before, and where, and whether their stories are familiar as well. If not, you still wonder if in some sense you do know them.
Often in attracting a glance, fleeting, mundane exchange, searching or appraising look from…. One looks back, “who was that… really…?”
You will see what a palimpsest my memory is. It says in my notes, a valentine, map, of thickest, most-insistent-which-may-run-overlong muscle: “Mending a possession of quality.” What is this old saw to-be— is it made to cut? Where is my head… is everyone like this? So continues the extended tour of “What Isn’t Here”….
There was a film I read about once. In a bygone age, adapted for the then-new art of cinema was a theatre with proscenium stage, and a solitary someone who had made a hidden apartment there behind the screen, unbeknownst to anyone, there being plenty of habitable space on the old burnished wooden stage under the dim, far-off ceiling and flies, within three flat black walls… the fourth wall was boundless silver-white, almost not there, floating from floor to an obscure great height. The audience was faintly visible through the cool, paper-like surface, quiet as if in a trance, innocently looking back into and through what would become a huge, luminous picture of life. This film isn’t anywhere. As far as I can tell it doesn’t exist after all…?
Retour, as the title of this present exertion, was settled upon after Return, as in “the end of the line, right through a margin, to the start of a new line”, or, “I’d like my time back, please”, though maybe Non-Breaking Space has a ring? Before that, Detour. Uncharitably, Retread or Retire, or Bateau? Before that, Breadcrumbs or Threads that are laid down in labyrinths, and at last the first rejected, Tracks.
Art isn’t description, but expression, of procreative drive, fecundity and excess, the accumulating and dissipating of potential, as lightning strikes from the ground. A “solution in search of a problem”, as “Nature abhors a vacuum”. Line, volume, the concept, the question— some quality must be open, broken, for timbre, chromaticity, accidentals, dramatic tension. Is that what I forgot? Short of this is proportionally illustration, “making bright”, explicit, particular and obvious, obediently filling gaps. Art is without exception moralizing, didactic, whether you’re aware or not. Broadly, my technique, inspired by marble sculpture, mezzotint, principled minimalism, criticism, proceeds by removal, erasure, deletion, negation, possibly… frottage?
To get the expression right, the artist must make the face, feel what the subject is feeling. Everybody knows how ecstasy is to “stand outside one’s self”, and that enthusiasm is that one “has a god inside”. It can at least be exhilarating to be an Artist, and it’s easy to mistake the creative act for apotheosis, Eidos and Ei Theos notwithstanding…. Presaging attitudes of the modern institutional academic or studied chthonic apostasy against, Delacroix once said of Ingres, “He is the complete expression of an incomplete intellect”, and he was… with Sky-God rarefaction and hylotheist Up-ness anxiety, aren’t too the rest of us? It’s “cephalization” only, no shame in that. No. Gods there’s too much talk of, and spirituality, and too many who take themselves for gods or goddesses— “bring out the goddess in You”. That we partake of divinity, that art and music are divine, pleasure is divine, or maybe that exercising a lot is divine. Or doing nothing— Rousseau wrote of his day’s dream, laying in a boat adrift on a lake he felt like a god2. But of what comes highest, deepest, we won’t speak.
What would these associations mean, being more or less than we are… how much would Sense be redefined?3 Sight would probably be the one to go if I had to lose one of my senses. No more leering, disabused of illusion, an undistracted yearning. It’s appropriate enough for Themis or Eros. There is such history with the Unseeable, like Gyges, with Unseen as reveal, Blind, Blinded, Beyond the Veil…. that very act of looking, looking back, to Eurydice, seeing, seeing only the shadow of what once was. And the other stories of what only becomes real once it’s not there. Blind I’d be wiser still… already having an avoidant “adventitious gaze”, sham looking-and-seeing with intentionality. Sight is depersonalizing. Don’t disappear, myself or you? I believe in the privacy and respect that someone should be seen but not be looked at.
Elevation by Gaston Lechaise transfixes me, rises freely from its base, pulls me into its radiant, thorough superiority. Behold… the whole body of work. Wax, bronze, or flesh is the Matter, and the Soul is the Form, Pattern pressed into it; with projected Purpose found, the Soul in bronze unbound.
There is no knowledge, just intuition4 of how to effect what one should, inferring from an absence, building up from there, with no limit to the Good. It’s no use, “Shall not”— what greatest luminary would be brilliant to hide or do naught? “Compose yourself” may be excellent advice, but Peer Gynt defined himself in vain…. Maybe relativists confuse the signifier for the referent, as wasn’t Socrates right to show that Strength is a universal good? Knowing how to be, but cannot out of weakness, is a deficiency of constitution, Akrasia, when so much of what one is tasked with is a question of “how long you can keep it up?”. “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence”, and that Platonic state, “no one sins willingly”5… if only one knew more of error, the misbegotten, misfortune, how to be strong, caprices of Fate… Knowledge or the lack thereof, this is Theodicy.
The proverbial vessel refurbished gradually until nothing original remained, the confabulated Story Ark of Self spoken of in another place, is one of giving and taking form. “Der Mensch ist was er isst”, eating and being tantalizingly close on the tongue. In Gallia “gimmick” isn’t on the menu, it’s literally untranslatable and gets only a dismissal (they, of Zone de Sensibilité, bathing in the indigo moment). We have to be more than creatures who mindlessly consume, never asking what and why and about the end sum, since Justice is to divide or take in proportion, but not both— never to “halve your cake and eat it”. Animals aren’t ours to abuse just because we’ve been taught so, by the way. We must justify it. If we were meant to eat them then seeing them in the wild would naturally raise appetite, but it doesn’t. It’s possible to disrespect even the inanimate, and this proves animism. Children are born animists, asking “why”, as it’s teleology they need to know; and this seems right: “You can’t claim to be a feminist and still eat eggs. Eggs and dairy are a product of the abuse of females.” It’s time to grow.
Around us is the ideal open landscape, a habitat of birdsong, or even what’s not quite there, recommending itself only through an easy proximity, low-hanging fruit or top-heavy parts. The former, distracting immediate sense, where idea or spirit’s forgotten, effectively useless, invisible— Powers’ Greek Slave, but not Eve— or getting that compliment on style or application but not the true Figure, what it represents and pro-poses. “The figure and chains are wonderfully sculpted…” bespeaks defeat, but it’s more fitting, “Let us be free!”. The sordid, ridiculous, willfully ugly are each a mockery of Aphrodite. The latter, idea or spirit’s unobtainable, grabbing at air, invisible again, functionally not there. The inverse of invisible is Naked, as we have seen. Monk dharma doesn’t suit everyone, though looking at Tibetan religious art it may…? Lust abatement meditation involves visuals of internal organs and bodily decay; and the Potaliya Sutta compares lust to bones, a lump of meat, a torch of straw, a pit of burning coal, a dream, borrowed goods, and a fruit tree, but for this author these are what it always comes to, making a portrait sketch of me.
Artists should be secular priests, the teller of tales, appreciating Means and Ends, both more worldly and more otherworldly than mine, for what to desire, how to dine. Against the pretense to Worse, maybe a pretense to Better isn’t that bad— though we’d not wish to be more so of either than the rest, the Maslow Hierarchy is upside down for the Best. “I refuse to join any club that would have me be a member,” is that paradox to enjoy of rejecting comforts, confining bounds of the unextraordinary, and the infinitesimal exhaustion of connoisseurs, or whoever else is inoculated to the Good. As to not numb by half measures, play to the gallery, there must be a disruptive, transgressive fait accompli…. “It’s been done.” Others’ values aligning more to one’s own we’d normally rejoice, but as we’ve said elsewhere, if not a proper test, Art lacks substance; the audience is looking for answers, how to be, an ethos, and there’s disgrace in becoming “high-priest of a low cult”, mouthing visual curses. It’s a welcome try when art’s better than a poke in the eye! It’s an Invitation, Initiation you bring, inspiration, through cadence, elision, or pas des deux fling. To abjure magic, deceiving Nature, and exclaim as a hook, “Throw down this book!”. Not long ago when skill, craft, sincerity, and romance fell out of fashion as they still are, some said Klimt’s paintings weren’t Art, which amounts to a resounding endorsement when you look at “the Some” and see the difference. To be tough and cool they subscribe to materialism, mechanistic rule, consigning sentiment and beauty to the fires of Moloch, and as a privilege tour de force dutifully celebrate, say, Schiele’s wretch… it’s much harder to say if you’re the wreck. If Klimt is too much, that embarrassment of gold, teach us like Courbet, L’Origine du Monde, or the other way round; or paint your friends as Van Gogh or Modigliani would, on plain ground. Navigate past whichever obsolete dualities, the old “rock of dogma” and languid drift into relativistic whirlpool. The Lesser of Evils isn’t much of a philosophy, but it’s better than the alternatives…?
Bad artist statements begin with, “I am attempting to create a dialogue.” Why not, “leave them without speech (in a prologue, with poetry in the breech)”? In Scythia, they open gifts later, in private, that no one is made to feel that what they have or give isn’t as good as another’s. I’ll struggle to finish a piece, “swallow the mare but choke on the tail” (when it’s not by narcoleptic obliviation), and almost luxuriate in abstemiousness, because there’s never-not the promised anticlimactic tristesse pushing gifts away, leaving them, the giving and receiving, touching and feeling, saving up for some inconceivable final None… most people are whistling in the dark, pretending to laugh or have fun. They praise strangers sooner than praise those close, and sing “Happy Birthday” deliberately badly— “The Taunting Song” is the oldest song, some arrangement of it appearing in every culture, back to prehistory. It’s always sung well. “The mouth is the dirtiest part of the human body.”
Perennially spotted in art, from poems to still lifes, is the Manifest “in hand”. Collecting, compiling inventories or lists in lieu of elaboration starts to resemble more materialism and acquisitiveness, hypertrophied cultural literacy… “Look what I’ve got and you don’t”… a lot of name dropping. But explicit over-development also… more pleonexia, taking what’s not ours, “milking it”. This vice may have its dipole in minimalism, using the unfinished objective to obviate the objective. One of many unassuming undertakings, a pretext to share a maxim, a fortune cookie banality perhaps… “Now is the best time of your life”, and it turns out that it’s a blank canvas. The finest line is the unspoken one, that “Now is the only time of your life”, past and future being reflections, you see. “I look forward and see myself looking back”— a favorite poem’s coda.
Zoe and bios are two Life terms, for what we live in or what lives in us, and precious little of either turns out as you’d wish, “will”— “I do”, an affirmation of rather optimistic view— taking credit for good and blaming others for evil, as if there weren’t a common sprue. Yet Will is that convenient way to deny responsibility to others, since shouldn’t they attend to their own issue? For there to be some individual originative Will one would have to Will one’s self to Will…. We do what we do, when we do, because it couldn’t be otherwise. One may not Reason when they act, but their actions are Reasonable, in volisis, the pre-conscious fundament of causality that applies itself to a just End. Is someone unwise? Of course, they were wounded. They can tell themselves to be wiser. No, they were wounded, and are unwise. They were wounded, though I was wounded as badly, but I’m wiser and better than they are. No, then you ipso facto weren’t wounded as badly. Is someone wise? Of course, they have not really been tested. Remove the incoherent fiction of Will from any crude calculus of Conduct and see that no one is Responsible, but that everyone is nevertheless profoundly Accountable. All is neither gift nor curse, but the raw material of either, and can and will be taken away. “To understand everything is to forgive everything” is an unambiguous and necessary mandate for Compassion.
It should be somewhere in the Thompson’s Motif Index? The most horrible folktale for me, where the young, anxious protagonist has the chronic complaint… cannot shoulder their burden, pained of daily responsibilities, mundane or not, the boring or irksome or difficult passages…. Beseeching any supernatural passerby to intervene…. Someone responds, a mysterious old woman typically, pressing into the hand a small ball of thread. “When meeting with any trouble or mild discomfort, find your peace and endure… by pulling a bit on the thread….” The clock moves miraculously, whatever obstacle or inconvenience has vanished… it’s a different day, year, era… generations fade. But suddenly one day there’s no more thread to pull. Youth is gone… opportunities and exemptions, dreams, everyone you knew and whoever wanted to know you, to give their breathless unconditional “Yes”… far in the past, far gone. It’s the last few days, far in the future, and what remains is the spent narrative thread come to its end.
The Universe expands and contracts from Beginning to End, where in each possibilities are few but inevitability untold, a lozenge “Problem Space” manifold, the cataract of fullest potentiality, Center of All.
Finally, the background arises: it’s deepest night, only clearest, cold starlight, on remote, arid moraine, between distant headwaters pulled back at low-tide, and plateau, day’s distance ride. One approaches… starts to see a point… whether you are upright, in repose, a mark, a sign… X… or XX… or XXX….The heart, radiating heat, a light source— a modest but steady flame from an oil lamp.
It begins with seed, apple, “malum”, gravitation, shameless Life getting down, borrowing against the Future as seemingly limitless energetic fount… “Negentropy”. Self-awareness emerges, when before there was little; then, a deluge. One day ahead there’s Reverie, the Eternal Return, to fathom every misgiving, regret, virgin, fallow or peak experience. The unrealized connections… the dawning of what is from then to be completely certain and what will never be, the same condition, the ever-narrowing channel of impossibility and inevitability, converging to that single point, to Tagore’s core principle, “…the contradictions of existence merge themselves and are lost. … Unity and duality not at variance.”6
Bach’s Prelude BWV 846 tells the whole story in only about two minutes.
Beneath these terms Lower, Higher, inferior, superior, better or noble, is a comment on vulgarity. It’s hard to resist deriving “wound”, as in the Latin vulnus for “injury”, “vulva”, and “to wind”, “wend” or “wound”, in Proto-Indo-European, for “to wind or turn coils”, with vulgus— to be vulgar is to be wounded and bound. Then digging further, volo— volute “to wrap or roll”, involution, being “to turn”, and “volition”, “will”. Isn’t Will a turn, redirection, feedback into itself? This is what my notes suggest. The Origin, The Injury, The Womb, and The Will, set adrift together in a bundle. And Eleutheria too…? Freedom. 7
I made a beacon for that, a fullest body burning a fullest corpus of clichés, and the habit of clinging to them, an imperfect, naive painting à la Le Douanier Rousseau, “Concerning the Heavy-Handed Use of Symbols”. Art in extreme austerity— the consummate way— would dispense with overtures, caveats, apologia, rhetorical manipulations and tricks. No more arbitrary intertextual conceit, no disingenuous simile, hyperbole, oversimplification, ridicule, persiflage, uncontemplated prejudices and feelings; no more appeal to authority, the lexicon, to tired themes past their “Sell By” date, mindless or scandalizing surreality, dada, vulgar or morbid motifs, “sacred” geometry, cheap symbols and flash, mimetic craft and sugar. No more lay psychologizing, pathologizing, compulsive acquisition, no more navel-gazing, no more lists.
The ear I’ve heard is a microcosm of the body, upside down in utero. Let the ear have an out-of-body experience, it’s the Artist’s tradition. Once a sort of art dealer was in my studio, imagining it would play well to depreciate Chopin, but I cut it off right there. Sound and the senses are touch: autonomous sensory meridian response; frisson, a butterfly caress (in Ancient Greek, both Soul and Butterfly is psyche… we each have a butterfly inside), katabasis or “falling” when the season sends a chill into your breast; giddiness, cringe, or ‘the parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’…. Death, devastation, absolute mortal death. Invariably, we express, write, paint, compose, position ourselves for touch.
Religion, reason, philosophy, couldn’t be the cause of opinion— it would need to be the cause of these— belief precipitates from contrastive harmony or dissonance, proportion, and aesthetic interpretation of the Good as beautiful. New is got at by way of the old, and complex by primitive. To go Up is to perform an Indian rope trick. Where is the Good, where are the Noble Souls? Hardly here… they disappear first, maybe backstage where you can’t see, doing actual work, or to the Isle of the Blessed or Free. Others rebel against a cruel social order, and violate themselves, to underscore the Good and our accountability for it, saying, “In a decent world there would not be those like me. Don’t turn your head, see what you made me do.” It’s said to this day there’s no exemplary human specimen still… but one can’t describe the best in an incomparable set, or how anyone should seem to be, save for recourse to observed empty fact made full. With analogy, what to accept or reject isn’t in the arguments, but in the colon, and it’s every bit analogy. Because it doesn’t feel Beauty, and can brook no interpretation of the Good, no mere mechanism can know Truth or speak it. This is the essence of Keats’ “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”.8
Unity of Virtues, Beauty, the illumination we come to see, quite real, substantial, Truth and Soul embody. There are many out there clerical copying in obligatory couplet rhyme, but when Artist embraces All… hear the room chime… highlights glisten, silver striation, careful shade, contour, and volume in figurative cascade. In equipoise from besotting to bewitching, delightful storied dalliance or captivity full, with barest nymph or sorceress in kohl, the proper seat, sublimate, conjunct, Fantasy and Absolute meet… at a final crossed uncrossed sign, most exclusive enfolding cleft perfection, hearth of Creation, to be pulled to or make it, kiss from smile to sole, the End, Beauty, the idyll Moral Call. 9
I can’t stop thinking of gifts left behind, those I’ll never see again, the oeuvre that could have been but won’t be, and The Traveler’s Curse, where the more experiences, the more transient each… the more transient, the more significant, bittersweet, in this discontinuous sea…. “Character” implies agency, prodigality, agonism, or some way you’ve tried and failed, but worthwhile, not self-imposed? That Ship of Fools has sailed. “Reversion to type” is to remember one’s servility, itinérance, impermanence, to take up the crutch, and seek refuge in reading, writing… making good impressions (as such).
There was a note about Nothing and Nullity, but much is omitted or missing. “Listen to me, but what if no one speaks…. Silence… have nothing to say.” Is it from saying nothing or having nothing to say? “You can only take with you that which you’ve given away.” I’ve found I can’t commune with an image, statue, monument. Efforts at humor, congeniality, subtlety, deference… were never supposed to lead to a credibility gap. To move to Lusitania or Hellas… it’s so I don’t have to speak, just directly be.
To be a Stranger is my home position… the original position, rebirth from half-alive fiend or impostor, recast back to supplicant visitor and mystery. Character and Karma each derive from “to engrave, carve, write, draw, stamp”, a remarkable link… Matter is from Mother, and Pattern from Father, Material and Form, and each comes from the other. They are inseparable.
All I was taught is wrong, or learned, I keep finding. “Many books do not make a scholar”… to be neither like that, nor like the artist who has accurate sight but no Vision. There’s too much made of Truth and not enough about Honesty. The wiser I get, and more honest, the more I’ll make up what I must; or else I prefer interlocution, someone else talking. Being human, and listening, where hours don’t pass as quickly.
Empathy is not taught, it’s already part of us by definition, to incubate, foster and groom, as innate social, somatic grammar that if terrorized will not bloom. “Education commences at the Mother’s knee”, where Empathy, Sympathy, are in the Feet, and “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” It’s from “soil”.
“Humanity” is borne of soil. We each die a second time, that moment our name is last spoken. You and me, together, “as long as it lasts”, a fleeting Eternity.
Retour is my epic last digression, soliloquy, or apologia in ellipsis, stitching, tearing apart out-of-fashion remnants, a Nostos, being-At-Sea tale of perils and fictions, return to the Origin, with no hero or god to boast of, as much nautical as noetic, with Nausea, and Nous, for Mind, from the same stem (which explains so much) as Noumenon, Knowledge, Gnosis, Nostalgia, and would-be Homeric wordplay, that deliverer Nausicaä, Returner to Now.
Like the film mentioned earlier it also doesn’t seem to be, recordings compiled of various historic moments of silence, beginning with the funeral procession of Queen Victoria, where no sound is heard save for the occasional public murmur or cough, the wind in the trees, birds near and far, and the surface noise of the wax cylinder recording medium itself.
“You are here.” It’s midday, fourteen hundred hours….
Robin of Oakwood, with the vast interocular span, from that place where I was uprooted in the deep past that I miss terribly, I think of you often and hope you are well. And those like you— I’ve recognized you in others, who look and sound like you did. Yet it’s another world, another time.
Traversing a space and taking the general survey with the usual blunt metaphors, it’s traces, shadows, or reflection ahead— what’s of the highest importance, but can’t be gotten at, hard to pin down with words. As as soon as you’ve filled one space you then have two spaces to fill, one on each side. A mirror, with the subject oddly missing from the frame, frustratingly ever so slightly out of view.
I’ve made a lot of art and words as an excuse to talk about how art and words never suffice, rejecting one artifice for another, and not saying what I want. If it seems a kind of hand-waving, perhaps instead take it as a surrender, or a simple “Hi”….
Written with extreme haste from a hole in the ground, Haven-Country, gray December, 2022.
“Never say, ‘I have lost it’, only that ‘it was returned.’”