Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner.
We met in the morning light at a quiet, sunless park, then walked together a short way to an imposing black lantern of architecture… a kind of museum rather more like a secular chapel, and the doors were already opened to us. Inside it is cavernous and dim but golden white, and there is no obvious focal point, the contents of the room being indistinct— only the vaulted ceiling seems clear, tessellated with a simple design. There are side galleries, as well as passages that probably only lead back to themselves. All sounds diffuse from us completely as it would in a cathedral, but we say nothing, and we are alone. I am so glad to be with you.
It is time to create.
The best art has no image, and the best philosophy has no words.
Art takes no position, because art cannot be false or true as a position might— perhaps Art takes the form of a question, being rather outside the world of knowable facts. As it takes no position or truth value, it cannot convince anyone of its own merit; nor can the artist, for if they could they would surely always choose to do this…. Out of Honesty, Compassion, and Humility, at least, we should rightly shun eloquence and the art of persuasion in general. Even logic is a weapon when used to coerce. The Observer— the Audience— is the companion and collaborator who decides what the nature of an experience is. By this process all things are brought into existence, since before anything is observed by a Consciousness, it cannot look or sound like anything, possess any qualities, or even exist in any way we understand the term.1 For this reason, it may be said that Consciousness is the fundamental Unity Substance, and it assumes its special ontological status from its unique ability to impute Purpose to all things, and a diminished capacity for this entails proportionally less consciousness.
Originally Art was a part of ritual; then the criterion for success shifted to serving the requirements of the funerary portrait eidolon, and of idealism, and the study of aesthetic form. From the study of aesthetic form came the mimesis of particular form. An artwork is better, the closer it resembles a particular referent. Then the referent changed to being the artist persona, and Expression became the vital property. With mass communication and scientific psychoanalytical application, the Instrumental program ascended, where art and all human endeavors were judged by their effective utility. The Open Concept is the observation that no one could, or even should, fully determine what is Art and what is not. Ultimately, a work of art is successful if it stimulates a sense of purpose by elevating consciousness, and inspires, and to accomplish this for a more conscious observer may be variously more or less difficult.
When the means of production or techniques of art-making are understood and systematized then art is reduced to technique, or craft. Art flourishes when its effects are inscrutable, whereas insofar as you can predict what effect a work may have, art is technique or manipulation. Art must remain mysterious, rare, and elusive. We live in an age of miracles, but we should not want to, for this is how the miraculous becomes mundane. Art cannot be allowed to become another channel for wish-fulfillment. Pleasure, it was said long ago, cannot be the end we seek, since even children or slaves or animals might even be steeped in it— yet we would not ourselves be satisfied by living as they do.
One artist had misgivings when they made a badly needed sale of a painting— from the outset they knew they were creating something that a certain collector would like, and it felt wrong to humor someone. Others are not our plaything. The painting was not in any way different from what the artist had already wanted to make, rather, it was just the knowledge that the painting might have power over another which proved troubling2. It is a desperate artist who lives by the maxim, “If you can’t make it good, make it big, and if you can’t make it big, make it red.” This is why in the arts we are wary of sentimentality, and other heavy-handed ways of telling the audience how they must feel. Description shouldn’t be explicit, and as with inducing the audience to a feeling, nor should the artist tell the audience to visualize, imagine, or dream. In any case, those who are able to do this are already here.
Art must create continuous disruptions around it so that everyone involved, artist and audience, will be put into a position of having to discover who they really are. Another prospective client once was in an artist’s studio, standing for a time silently gazing at a large and costly painting of a heroic-proportioned, glistening, glabrous, Aphrodite— the artist stepped in discreetly to offer to negotiate price, but the client cut them off to cry out, “It’s not about the money… it’s that I don’t have the courage to buy this painting.” Art is a test, and everything we admit into our lives is a record of activity which begins in time to form a sort of self-portrait.
To only appeal to what the viewer already knows or desires is to fail them, and the artist begins to become akin to a technician; yet, if the work is too difficult, then the audience turns away, as if attacked. We live in a commodity culture where the general imperative is that we should give people what they want, and not give them what they don’t want, but art is not a commodity. There is little point in making art which the viewer already fully accepts.3
The apotropaic image— that which is like the Medusa aegis of Athena, the image of horror used to protect against horror— can also be beautiful to those who would weaponize it, so it will not do to declare war on Beauty. As with the surreal or vulgar, it is no great feat to scandalize the masses, or amuse them with novelty or incongruity, these being engaging of Humor. An art professor once wandered into a student workspace after hours, to see a solitary, diligent young hopeful laboring over a meticulously drafted floral drawing. Upon seeing the work, the professor asked “Where is your intellect or sense of humor in this art?”— a fair enough question. A fair enough rejoinder is to ask where is the intellect in Humor, it likely being at root the ignoble delight in one’s own imagined superiority over another, over the incompetent, incontinent, or unintelligent. To make a joke of a thing is not to criticize it, but to invalidate it, to exempt it from criticism— the perfect tactic in an age of anxiety: making one’s self into a joke. The more we contemplate this the more pitiable it is.
How do we know intelligence or humor when we see it, context forever changing as it does? For the avant garde of one age may be in another age only fit for being a way to coordinate the rug with the sofa. Or perhaps this is a sociopolitical critique— that it is bourgeois, and in a society doing real work there will be no time for such indulgences. In either case, classism is getting in the way, and it flirts with philistinism to draw status into the picture. For what we really resent, rightly, is the immediacy with which one might self-medicate and exult in a feeling, as if it were a pharmacological prescription— as well as the absurdities that Feeling either would be an end unto itself, or a mere means to an end. Consider the fate of human agency and consciousness if one could, by taking a pill or following a directive, predictably reach a desired sense of psychological homeostasis, yet without the necessity of having done good works, or with no formalities, overture, or invitation. To ask whether it would be truly compassionate to simply acquire somehow the feeling that one has been compassionate. A virtue cannot be found in any sense of satiety, just as art is not in any object. The Aura of an experience, with Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, is the existential authenticity that abides when one is not simply indulging desires, but working genuinely and creatively with others in collegium— which can never happen imperatively, or on-demand, or solipsistically. This is our spiritual bequest.
Art is not to be found in the object itself, but in this Aura. We will only ever have between us the question as to why we think someone has chosen to make, say, or do the sort of thing that they have. The world of all known artistic excellences is multifarious and by definition, surprising, and one must find bold claims made. Cognitive and human limits ensure we see that in the main we paint the same pictures and tell the same stories time and again, and humanity is a complex of desires, where when one has not a certain drive they are thought to have a vacancy, as is seen with those who are tragically wholly untouched by the Muses; also, if humanity had no limit, it would have no scope or domain, and we would have no faculty of discrimination: to be given a crayon, or better, an instrument of absolute authority, and a canvas of indeterminable magnitude and boundless possibility, we would not know how to proceed with any creative mandate, for any effort would be impossible to qualify. Creativity is coextensive with freedom as such, and the power of seduction, and there must be subjectivity, and mystery, and the ineffable. This is Duchamp’s thesis. It is to direct us to the Numinous by showing us where to do our very human business, and showing us The Exit. “If you thought salvation would be found in any object, you’ve been mistaken.”
There are excellences that we would not want to author ourselves even if we were able— desire itself is a limit. And if the artist were truly fit, they would surely not choose to make art, becoming instead one who “competes in the games”, and indeed, the attributes for success there are well understood, and are a matter of simple craft, and craft is a given. Then, in seeking liberation, it is all too easy to only break free into one’s own limited conception of liberation. We work with desires and limits as we know them. Belonging to any group, one does not automatically obtain all the group’s virtues, but one can easily be contaminated by its vices, since evil is more powerful than good: a single dishonesty easily brings down a life of honesty, and an irreplaceable work of art can be destroyed at one fatal stroke. Falsifiability not only makes certain claims inadmissible, but many questions too, and so art. A question cannot be wrong, but it can fail to falsify, and it may only presuppose what it has set out to prove. The best art most engages the critical and idealistic sensibilities, and the final question will always be how, if pressed, to mount a defense of our actions.
Whether it be Beauty or Horror, the world is awash in both, each being readily accessible, and as we have seen it will not do for anything to be too readily accessible, it being a devaluation and commodification; soon enough we will have artificially intelligent mechanisms providing a superabundance of both, and of all kinds of stimulation and depletion, to say nothing of the looming artificially unintelligent mass of humanity objectified. If art is to be a product, or only a brain state, automata would obviate artists entirely, as well as human relationships. A composite was made of all the most beautiful faces, and the result was the most anodyne, lifeless face. In staring into the Uncanny Abyss all manner of horrors were found, even the horror of absolute harmonic beauty staring back.
Comparable works of Beauty are incomparable, and even unqualifiable, and no pleasure principle will suffice to explain it. We want to love the Artist who can make beautiful things, but not because we love those who give us pleasure. It is because Beauty inspires us, and we want to partake of the same inspiration as the artist. Some say that everyone at heart wants Power— over themselves, over others— and many equivocations are employed to make this appear plausible, as it is a useful and profitable way to groom consumers and soldiers, and convenient for justifying the pursuit of pleasure at all costs. But maybe we each really just want to be needed, which is very different from holding power, because to be needed is to have obligations to others: this is a privilege. To as closely as possible become a source of inspiration— to have a spirit. The Will to Power is surely the Will to Make, to create. With dead material, two objects cannot occupy the same space— in creation, there are no objects and there is no space.
We have guided ourselves incautiously enough but in a reasoned way into the depths of this palace— or is it a decommissioned and forgotten institution? It’s hard to know what to call it. Some would say, “Sub-Arachnoid Space”. It’s a little shocking and haunting to see that there was once a stair here that would have taken us upward even further, but it has long since fallen down onto the floor where we now stand. The white, paper-like ceiling is far above us and open where the stairwell once was. The level above is scarcely visible, only the paper-like walls and ceiling again… somewhere no one has been able to reach for a very long time…
I wonder what is up there?
For an idea, motivation, action, or work of art to find instantiation, its purpose must be known, and before that, why one thing should be done instead of another, and how it should be done, and the judgements that constitute the fulfillment of the purpose, and the qualities of what exists in contraposition; and so to render the human condition, and complexion of existence, being as it is a study of consciousness, and the metaphysic we must have to for any confidence in these assumptions or realizations— and cosmogony, since any sense of unity and continuity must depend on Cause and Effect, Order, and not Chaos as is often said.
How could there be anything at all?4
There must be sufficient noetic mass to know the figure from the ground.
“Any up line is a young line”
We’ve taken a moment just now to rest and enjoy the passage of time. Quiet, it is said, is not silence, but the absence of noise. On this side of our… house?— through a long, shadowy and narrow corridor (of an unpleasant but somehow exciting stale, rotten silk smell) it is quieter than ever, but the air is alive with a resonant din, growing ever louder upon our approach….
We are amazed and delighted that the ceiling and roof have collapsed here… the wind carried seeds onto the roof where a forest then grew, and when the roof gave way the forest fell down to where we now stand, and now all is equal parts thriving and ruin. Curiously polarized sunlight streams in throughout, and there is a tropical haze. A riot of birds has taken refuge here. What was this room before? What little can be seen of what once was, with its rosettes and ornamental motifs, aren’t so much artifice and banality as sweet, humble, and wonderful. Whether called spandrels, epiphenomena, or an inventory of selective pressures, there is no explanatory power to be found with the reductive capture of language, or subtleties of a refined poetry. Everything has already found its fullest expression.6
There was once another place-to-get-lost-or–in like this one, a shrine, made of discarded fragments of wood cut into bricks of regular size, as well as remnants from a house that had burned down. The entrance was shrouded with dark fabric, being only large enough for one person to enter at a time. It was immensely small within, and through cracked walls, starlight in deep blackness. The interior would after a time suddenly illumine, and the unsuspecting supplicant would be granted a vision. Then all goes dark and it’s time to exit. Afterward one might attempt to describe this ineffable vision to another, but they would inevitably fail— a subjective experience with oneself alone does not possess a knowable objective reality. We are in the dark, making the sign to anyone who will listen: we are Here….
It’s unnatural to even think of another setting when we are so completely taken by this one. All the usual distractions are forgotten, and we are very much present. With heightened awareness. It is being pulled bodily out of one life and set down into the one we had learned to ignore— taking one’s eyes off the movie screen and realizing one is in a crowded theater, seeing the audience silhouette before us, then looking back to see illuminated blue faces looking hopefully upward— being fully conscious for the first time since perhaps childhood, when reality was unfiltered. One sees the blue cast everywhere now. Young artists always seem to have a stage where they paint blue faces, or treat differently the eyes.
John Stuart Mill in his youth was driven to contemplate his own mortality when calculating that one day music itself would die, as the permutations of musical melody and rhythm would be exhausted and innovation would no longer be possible. He did not know that new forms were to be discovered and come to predominate, and by relation, the musical convention of his day would one day become relatively diminished— however still it may be that even Jazz has its rosettes and formal obligations. And in his suicide note, neo-classical painter John William Godward wrote: “the world is not big enough for myself and a Picasso”. In one case the artist didn’t know that art would yet live, and in the other, that art had already died.
This is the true meaning of “life imitates art”… living through imposed forms. As with saying: “I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think you think I am”, The Self is a discursive history and system of illocutionary acts, whose material being is refurbished and recast time and again so that nothing remains at any instant except this Story7, necessary fiction, or fairy-tale. So the Story, our Subject of concern, is not just the source of action, but its own Object, for in the act of conjuring, one becomes a conjurer. What we are doing is casting a spell….
What works one ought to bring about, and how, may not be determinable from a description, or Is, but rest assured that our works will nevertheless sooner or later be interpreted as an Is. And if we were to believe that all things must only be done out of self-interest alone, yet the sum of all interests and their considerations may be seen to be as interrelated as they are, Self becomes too dilute to be a useful or honest conception. The Soul by contrast, is so certain of as to be, as Aristotle points out, “that one thing which we are willing to die for.”
There is little else to say here. This excursion into the black box, magic lantern or empty theatre, which began to become more of a fragmentary tour of everything or nothing, is for now at its end. It is time to create— so let us accept the invitation to be a Stranger or Wanderer, to step out into the evening air and embrace Life.8