Thursday, 30 April 2009
Tuesday, 21 April 2009
Something I was thinking about the other evening whilst reading the work of Derrida in regards to his idea of deconstruction and 'web of words'. I think of it as an etymological equivalent of six degrees of separation where by constantly deconstructing and tracing back to the origin of the particular word in question. The thing is, it is never ending until all becomes meaningless in the end. It is an enormous word cycle constantly spinning.
For me it was the word Empirical, which means, based on experience or observation rather than theory. In turn I investigated the origins of the word 'theory' and interestingly it derives from the Greek word 'theorein' meaning to speculate, consider, look at. Or 'Thea' meaning a view and 'Horan' meaning to see.
In a way it got me thinking of several things. That at times due to this cycle, we could more or less be contradicting ourselves every time we speak or how nothing actually means 100% what we think it should mean, there's always a contradiction waiting to ambush that very word as it walks along the path of origins.
Monday, 20 April 2009
I play with it.
I like that.
An object of play
and my relationship to the object of play?
I use my hands to move the object.
Play with the tape
Play with the graphite
Play with the camera
Play with the audience
What is it that they perceive?
Maybe the object its self is enough?
String makes it heavy
Monday, 13 April 2009
Photography. Capturing this liminal space between drawing and sculpture.The installations I build are captured in a photograph but sometimes the photographs become line and material. The black of the three dimensional forms looks like a burn on the surface...
And space... Architectural space... has invaded these questions. Corners. Building installations in corners, capturing form and corner in photographs. The corner looks like a pencil line.
And what is the object in photography? Sculptural but drawn?...
Friday, 10 April 2009
Art and Knowledge in Relation to Death, Beauty and Madness Ben Johnson
"Fear is the emotional response to the perception of an alternating loss of control and regaining of control. By 'control' I mean any conscious act of mind and body. The alternation between control and lack of it must occur in varying degrees of intensity and inconsistent periods of time. This alternation insures an element of surprise and keeps the perceiver off balance emotionally so that he cannot construct a set of mental expectations and thereby reimpose control" (David R. Saliba, A Psychology of Fear: The Nightmare Formula of Edgar Allan Poe (Lantham, MD: University Press of America, 1980), p. 5)
The formation of an individual’s personality traits begins at a moment of violence. Consider the symbiosis of growing peacefully through a mother’s body and the contrast of being expelled without choice into an alien world, one of infinite potential and unknowable consequence. So a basic neurological structure is the foundation, with through the formation of language and mirroring of environmental behaviours a consciousness and ultimately a conscience is developed. It’s also worth emphasizing Lacan’s point that the illusion in the mirror phase carries with it the alienation of the self. (Pollock, 2006, p114)
From ‘la petite mort’ of conception to the far greater death struggle of later life, man is unique in his ability to make rational decisions in the space of time in-between. These choices are based on his own virtues, be they morally good or evil. The political theorist Hannah Arendt once stated that most evil is done by people who never made up their minds to be either good or evil. Rejecting both moral poles and existing within the liminal is perhaps a matter of responsibility or alludes to the existential notion of free will but who can be the judge of what’s right or wrong in terms of visual engagement in the first place?
‘Art can never be so well served as by a negative thought. Its dark and humiliated proceedings are as necessary to the understanding of a great work as black is to white…negating on the one hand and magnifying on the other, is the way open to the absurd creator. He must give the void its colours.’ – Albert Camus
This quote from French author and philosopher Camus’s ‘Myth of Sisyphus’ is an example of an attempt to rationalise and find meaning within the dark heart of creation. Each opposite becomes corrupt by the other, yet is unable to act independently; it’s only in the reconciliation of these forces that art can be made at all tolerable.
This relates to the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger’s question of ‘what is being?’ Rejecting the notion of a world as external to some conscious spectator, he gave ‘being’ the somewhat abstract name of Dasein or ‘being there.’ Dasein knows that it is finite and mortal, thus generating what he supposed to be angst or dread. So it is only through confronting our own mortality that life can take on any purpose or self-aware ‘authenticity.’ (Stokes, 2007, p123)
"Experience is not the reception of sense impressions but a form of prospection or questioning; to have an experience is to be in an active state of finding out about the world" - Kant
This brings us to the phenomenological question of contextualisation in relation to an artist’s aesthetic development and sensibilities. To use an example, the controversial American photographer Joel Peter Witkin experienced this authentic self-awareness when he was just a young child.
Witkin claims his quest to find meaning and beauty in deformity and death comes from this childhood memory of a terrible accident:
"It happened on a Sunday when my mother was escorting my twin brother and me down the steps of the tenement where we lived. We were going to church. While walking down the hallway to the entrance of the building, we heard an incredible crash mixed with screaming and cries for help. The accident involved three cars, all with families in them. Somehow, in the confusion, I was no longer holding my mother's hand. At the place where I stood at the curb, I could see something rolling from one of the overturned cars. It stopped at the curb where I stood. It was the head of a little girl. I bent down to touch the face, to speak to it—but before I could touch it someone carried me away."
Often quoted in interviews, the story has taken on the status of myth but whether or not it’s a valid account, it would go some way to explaining how an artist like Witkin could find an entirely different definition of what is commonly thought to be aesthetically and spiritually beautiful. The causal effect of this encounter for Witkin was that his psyche may have become desensitised or alternately shocked into accepting this horrendous event as something life affirming. He would go on to produce hyper-real works of art, where the lines between reality and controlled fantasy became blurred, perhaps as a coping mechanism used to filter and distort the truth of the actual childhood memory.
Much like Nietzsche's "Will to Power" this idea is beyond morality, because it does not answer to anyone's system of what constitutes good and bad conduct. So it is with artist’s who have a moral obligation to choose what’s deemed as aesthetically ‘right or wrong’ and in so doing edge closer to ‘being’ or the truth of one’s own place within ever changing socially constructed and acceptable boundaries.
‘The world with which we are concerned is false, i.e., is not a fact but a fable and approximation on the basis of a meager sum of observations; it is “in flux,” as something in a state of becoming, as a falsehood always changing but never getting near the truth: for-there is no “truth.”
‘Knowledge in itself in a world of becoming is impossible; so how is knowledge possible? As error concerning oneself, as will to power, as will to deception.’
As has been the case with art from the time of Christian morality in the United Kingdom, before we had a set of socio-moral codes intrinsically linked to that of the divine did we start to fear death and the unknown. Most cultures accepted death as an inevitable part of life but it is within this point in history that we pulled away from our evolutionary heritage. After these codes had been introduced by Christianity then came a re-molding of what the cultures before upheld as forms of beauty. On the question of mortality one feeling which did survive is the idea that 'there are worse things than death' such as physical and social disfigurement, pain and suffering; things which are so shameful that only death can be a release but then of course an individual’s name would be tarnished throughout all of history. (Drewnicki, online communication, 2009)
If there’s such a thing as God or ‘a God’ then he must have been generous, creating us as free-thinking individuals. With the arrival of Constantine, the philosophical problem of evil was not resolved. The early church fathers believed God had endowed human beings with the rational foresight to argue and discuss. One absolute authoritarian of the Church was St. Augustine (354-430) who wrote the infamous Confessions about his own misspent wicked youth. Atoning for these sins he would become obsessed by the problem of evil and perhaps fear itself once stating: ‘Unfortunately, we use this freedom to do wicked things and that’s where evil comes from.’
‘ ”Interpretation,” the introduction of meaning-not “explanation” (in most cases a new interpretation over an old interpretation that has become incomprehensible, that is now itself only a sign). There are no facts, everything is in flux, incomprehensible, elusive; what is relatively most enduring is our opinions.’ (Nietzsche in Kaufmann (editor), 1968, p327- p330)
William Blake once famously said ‘I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man’s I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.’ Therefore due to the subjective nature of these systems and an artist’s memories, experiences and the way conscious thought evolves over time, it’s difficult to conclude what should or shouldn’t be socially acceptable, especially since some emotionally resonant (to some people) works of art (such as Fuseli’s ‘The Nightmare’, Delville’s ‘Satan’s Treasures’ and more recently Maurizio Cattelan’s ‘Bidibidobidiboo’ and the low-brow painting ‘Pandora’ by Michael Hussar), potentially go against all biological instincts of survival and allow us to confront our own repressed fears and drives; albeit in some cases with a sense of kitsch and black humour, this allows an audience to engage with the absurdity of the inevitable and perhaps makes the point that there's no room to fret about the projected cruel injustices often transferred from the canvas of an artist into the spectator.
Although it must be stated that there are no rules to emotion, the fact that some individuals might find a knowingly ironic Chapman brothers sculpture repulsive, insincere or a vulgar joke about media sensationalism is neither here nor there. We bring to art the difficult conundrum that our imaginations, experiences, formed memories, repressions and biological drives are all completely unique, so of course our tastes will be unique also. We all consider different things as beautiful for instance, it is said to be in the eye of the beholder.
"Understood in its metaphysical sense, Beauty is one of the manifestations of the Absolute Being. Emanating from the harmonious rays of the Divine plan, it crosses the intellectual plane to shine once again across the natural plane, where it darkens into matter." —Jean Delville
So what could be considered as beautiful? An ‘Absolute Being’ as Delville sees it seems to suggest a kind of well integrated spiritual harmony within the observer but his view can’t apply to every individual. So if beauty to some people is not a form of spiritual awareness or even the opposite of the abject and degraded or even something dark and grotesque itself; who’s to say the statement should be true at all? If anything beauty could tap into an innate drive, to combat the complexities of our own repressed fears and give hope and pleasure, often when it seems life may be joyless in the short-term.
How for instance must a Rose have evolved to be considered beautiful? More importantly how has the human mind evolved to consider such a thing beautiful in the first place? Perhaps it is out of mans reach, as nature is something so perfect and impossible to reconstruct and synthesise. If anything beauty may be an awareness of the present moment, an intoxication of the senses, something painfully sad yet uplifting, a romanticisation through exposure to societal fantasy and ultimately, hard to define.
Plato once said ‘if you know what beauty is, then it is as if you have met it face to face as a form’ so therefore, through engaging with an art object said to be beautiful, we may come to have a deeper understanding of what it means to be a living, breathing, thinking, emotive human being. So in this, beauty may be conceived (like Baudelaire's statement) as 'the infinite within the finite.' Discovering what true beauty is to every individual may be an almost impossible task, much like confronting a form of madness.
Human beings are fundamentally emotional animals, experiencing great heights of ecstasy and depths of depression. Compared to other animals, humans are both more likely to have excesses of joy (e.g. manic depression) and excesses of sadness (e.g., unipolar depression). No other animals are known to intentionally kill themselves. Humans are the only animals known to exhibit such destructive tendencies towards their surrounding environment and fellow members of their species. On the other hand, humans also display at times some remarkably altruistic behaviors which, on the surface, may not seem particularly adaptive. ( http://wilderdom.com/personality/L7-1EvolutionaryPsychology.html)
This enduring, almost macabre fascination to return to a cycle of abuse is a psychoanalytic conundrum akin to that of madness. As Einstein once said ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.’ So perhaps by analysing our own innate fears and confronting a dark mirror of the self, we can evolve towards an individuated state of recognition and acceptance. This dis-harmonic part of the mind is what Carl Gustav Jung called 'shadow theory.'
‘To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light. Once one has experienced a few times what it is like to stand judgingly between the opposites, one begins to understand what is meant by the self. Anyone who perceives his shadow and his light simultaneously sees himself from two sides and thus gets in the middle.’ (Good and Evil in Analytical Psychology (1959). In CW 10. Civilization in Transition. P.872)
‘It is a frightening thought that man also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses- and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism. The individual seldom knows anything of this; to him, as an individual, it is incredible that he should ever in any circumstances go beyond himself. But let these harmless creatures form a mass, and there emerges a raging monster; and each individual is only one tiny cell in the monster's body, so that for better or worse he must accompany it on its bloody rampages and even assist it to the utmost. Having a dark suspicion of these grim possibilities, man turns a blind eye to the shadow-side of human nature. Blindly he strives against the salutary dogma of original sin, which is yet so prodigiously true. Yes, he even hesitates to admit the conflict of which he is so painfully aware.’
(On the Psychology of the Unconscious" (1912). In CW 7: Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. P.35)
Perhaps in accepting this part of the unconscious and externalising it into a creative endeavor, the need for negative self-analysis and social alienation could be drastically reduced. The ontological quest could thus resume afresh, giving a greater understanding to the individual and of human life.
Although it should be stated that a continuing preoccupation with the foul side of humanity has taken its toll on numerous great artists and thinkers; often through acceptance of the shadow, comes the attempted rejection of what was imagined to be the old alienated self. There arises a conflict and an overexposure of what the artist believes himself to be and what his personality becomes through the art; due to the physically manifested art being in conflict with the metaphysical inner world and vice versa.
This is how the abstract painter Rothko put it: I studied the figure. Only reluctantly did I realise it didn’t correspond to my needs. Using human representation, for me, meant mutilating it.’ Shot of all moral or emotional compromise, the painter seeks to move ‘towards the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, between the idea and the onlooker.’ But this sudden overexposure of the work, as of those who look upon it, is accompanied by a violence that is not only ‘symbolic’, as before, but practical, since it affects the very intentionality of the painter:
‘To those who find my paintings serene, I’d like to say that I have trapped the most absolute violence in every square centimetre of their surface’ Mark Rothko confesses before proving the point by turning this repressed fury against himself on a certain day in February, 1970.' (Virilio, 2003, p37-38)
Sadly, in Rothko’s case, it was all too easy to fall prey to the archetype of martyr, yet due to his transcendental vision, he was able to live on in the monumental paintings which were left behind. When a person dies they become what they were before they were born but a trace of this particular artist's actions, left a mainly positive inspirational impression upon the collective psyche. It's a conundrum to think, that a man so fueled by his own mental turbulence could produce works (discarding his later paintings) generally considered as being gentle, serene and meditative. It is in this very irony, that the mass reproductions of his work tend to generate a kind of gentile bourgeois comfort.
The clichéd link between madness and creativity is often romanticized by poets such as William Blake, Charles Baudelaire, Spanish court painter Francisco Goya and the fantastical Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch; all of whom have both been linked to some form of psychotic illness. The signs of mental turbulence have often been embraced and upheld as a useful tool for creative thought. As if icons such as the above mentioned, could tap into imaginary flights of fancy others more (or less?) fortunate could not.
‘Most often, artists who focus on emotions and feelings in their work are manic-depressive whereas artists who remove themselves from the world are more often associated with schizophrenia. Creative people with schizophrenia often experience a sense of alienation from the self, from their bodies and from the world. They become hyper-self-conscious but are able to step outside themselves, allowing a more cerebral form of creativity.’ (http://www.lcmedia.com/mind195.htm)
Although perhaps it’s dangerous to think this way, maybe the stereotype is more enjoyable, the sense of mystery becomes transparent when the creative act is reduced to nothing but a neural alpha wave. Metaphysical art could be defined by its secrecy, its spirituality and its aspiration toward the infinite heart of reality; which although fleeting and pseudo-philosophical in its observation, at least this allows a person engaging with such work breathing space to interpret it’s meaning through the imagination, instead of having to over rationalise and potentially ruin what is considered beautiful, no matter how ugly the truth of the creative process may have been.
Perhaps, as Jung had suggested, it is hidden within the blueprints of the mind that courageous and symbolic tales of battling the inner demon resonate on a collective level; the triumph over evil instead of succumbing to the temptations of self-destructive behavior. Such mental ailments could even be considered a gift from the genes, allowing the artist’s in question to see hidden codes beyond the realms of the unreal. There’s one argument to suggest that such mental abnormalities could be seen as an evolutionary advantage in certain cases, the idea that madness and creative genius are related predates modern psychiatry and can certainly be traced back to Aristotle, when the Ancient Greek philosopher suggested that ‘no great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.’ (Bentall, 2004, p112)
An artist who’s been discussed more than any other, as someone who allowed himself to embody the ethos of insanity and channel every brush-stroke into one of carnal violence is undoubtedly Francis Bacon. Apparently an avid reader of Nietzsche, Bacon would go down in legend as an artist who’s adopted nihilistic social tendencies fed directly back into those un-ground canvases in the chaos of his studio. Pushing himself to the limits at all times, nulling the boredom, enacting sado-masochistic fantasies and releasing the entrapped death in his photographic source material; it’s as if through Bacon’s easy arrogance, self belief and acceptance of his own self harm, the wound and gaze of the dark underbelly of society brought with it a wider acceptance of confronting humanities fears and horrors.
"I look at a chop on a plate, and it means death to me. I would like some day to trap a moment of life in its full violence, its full beauty. That would be the ultimate painting."
(Francis Bacon, "Distorting into Reality", TIME, June 8th, 1962.)
Bacon once stated that we’re all ‘living in the shadow of death’ and so with this statement, brings the thought that perhaps art allows for the consciousness of an artist to live on through the work, after the final act? Not of course in a pseudo-spiritual sense but just the idea that the physical projection of an artist is laid bare for all to see and although Bacon never allowed an audience when he was painting, it seems clear that every brutal stroke of that paintbrush, may have brought with it the underlying feeling that his own natural drives were being reversed somehow. That through leaving this trace of memory on canvas, people wouldn’t forget his intentions; to tear off the protective mask and reveal the demonic, more extreme aspects of humanity, in all the horrendous glory.
‘Death, after all, is that limit that has no experiential reality for those that cross it, even as it constitutes an experiential reality and a limit. For Heidegger, Death will be both the making and the dissolution of Dasein – the individual, graspable death, the only death worth having. For the French philosopher Levinas, the very intangibility of death will be a call to community through work on behalf of the other.’ (Townsend, 2008, p36)
So what can be reconciled from such grim perhaps morbid fascinations? After all, for Bacon this daily routine may have been considered a normal form of exploration and expression. It is not for society to choose what's right or wrong with one of his paintings, it is just for society to choose its moral virtue and it is only through confronting the 'irrational' that more positive perhaps constructive forces can be generated. Man has a natural intuition as a foundation for understanding the experience of violent paintings. Bacon's work isn't repulsive particularly, in fact for certain types of individuals, it could be said to be honest and challenging to the senses.
It's perhaps due to the fear of the unknown and the natural avoidance of violent thoughts that life itself can be made at all tolerable. These symbolic codes are hidden within us from the moment we enter the world, we wish to become strong, powerful autonomous entities and pull away from the weakness we felt as frail nurtured babies in order to become independent and socially useful. At least that would be the rational idea. To overcome that particular drive Bacon may have been allowing society to deal with those thoughts, as he once said 'to tear off a piece of his soul and show it to the world' so others would not have to deal with such dark imaginings.
The brain is undoubtedly a complex organism, one which relies on old and new mechanisms for combating and diminishing this fear. The oldest known human brains were found in Armenia and date back 6000 years (http://www.stonepages.com/news/archives/003119.html). It's thought that the death of these individuals was due to a form of ritualistic practice. Perhaps the inner sanctum these bodies were discovered, contained imagined ethereal demons of which we could have no possible understanding. Paleolithic man was afraid of something due to a very different outlook on life and the beginning of human consciousness perhaps heralded with it an understanding of disharmony.
The mind is often jarred or shocked when confronted with something asymmetrical. This relates to the idea of the 'golden mean' or perfect patterns contained within nature which also form part of our genetic makeup. We have an idea or a natural affinity with things which are harmonious or contain 'perfect' structures which live within ourselves. The striving for this emotionally resonant ideal of beauty allows man to create definite forms and simulacrum's, in line with the perfectly valid idea of happiness or a pure and productive state of consciousness. So if there's a direct threat to this harmony through images and thoughts which are clearly out of touch with this idea of ‘perfection’, then people can become afraid of their own mortality.
Therefore humans can be fearful of disharmony, as it’s said to be a natural attack on social progress but through confronting this kind of artistic and abnormal order of things, fear itself may be considered as just another mental construct, albeit one with an evolutionary importance.
Take for example constructed social identities and the idea of the 'persona' and the earlier example of Witkin's personality traits formed through a deterministic incident. It is not to say that artist's like Witkin and Bacon are insane in their pursuits to achieve a kind of postmodern violence, just that they have different ways of seeing due to a formed knowledge which may be out of sync with 'normal' societal expectations.
The looking glass of madness may also provide a smeared reflection, a black mirror, an antithesis to ordinary experience. It is through trauma or a series of traumatic incidents which may force such an individual to gaze into the external world as a passive observer. Such artists may engage in the types of detached behavior where by life becomes a fiction, made up as he or she deals with split paths of time. This alludes to the fragmentation of an artist like Bacon’s mark-making.
In a highly romanticised sense, such a break from normal codes of engaging with the world, allow a kind of transcendent approach to the creative act. Much like ancient Shaman’s who purposefully dissolve their very personas, to deconstruct and reconfigure, to die and then become reborn having plotted a course through the uncharted reaches of the psyche. By confronting the baser instincts of human nature, perhaps transformation is attainable and once we learn to live alongside such dark imaginings, then the need for unjust, selfish, aggressive and anti-social behaviors could be drastically reduced.
After all, we’re just animals, striving to make a mark through lived experience and it is in this struggle, that such egotistical, narcissistic projections become un-masked. With a touch of madness for a guide and through embarking on a journey which may seem detrimental to the natural course of human evolution, to die a thousand deaths and then come out of the other side, reborn and hopefully wiser, such negative patterns of thought could become transparent or at least be absorbed in order to create something ultimately positive and life-affirming.
‘What is reflection? Simply to reflect on these two questions: How did I get into this and this and how do I get out of it again, how does it end? What is thoughtlessness? To muster everything in order to drown all this about entrance and exist in forgetfulness, to muster everything to re-explain and explain away entrance and exit, simply lost in the interval between the birth cry and the repetition of this cry when the one who is born expires in the death struggle.’ (Kierkegaard/Hong/Malantschuk, 1967, p339)
‘There is no art without intoxication. But I mean a mad intoxication! Let reason teeter! Delirium! The highest degree of delirium! Plunged in burning dementia! Art is the most enrapturing orgy within man’s reach. Art must make you laugh a little and make you a little afraid. Anything as long as it doesn't bore.’
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Stokes, P. (2007). Philosophy: The Great Thinkers. London: Arcturus.
Townsend, C. (2008). Art & Death. London: I.B.Tauris
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