TO MY FRIEND SEBASTIAN VON LAGIEWSKI
Why, ever since Adam, who has got to the meaning of this great allegory—the world?
—HERMAN MELVILLE to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Nov. 17, 1851
We do not know what art is any longer, however, like many other things in life, we know what is not. Of the countless false certainties that roam the world, art does not subscribe any. The historian Ernst Gombrich once argued, surprisingly, that art does not really exist, that there are only artists. Without saying it, he pointed out that any approach to art that does not have as a main premise the idea of experience, whether of the one who executes it or of the one who contemplates it, falls into idolatry or collect- ing—two modes of relationship that are not artistic but highly valuated as merchandise in our society. That beauty is in our spirit—in the eyes of the beholder—and not in things is a platonic idea: we find beauty in a landscape because it is us who encourage it. In tune with these ideas, the majority of works exhibited today in theatres, cinemas, galleries, museums, concert halls, streets, websites and bookstores belong to the category of artifice. These objects, products all of the Kulturindustrie, are classified into two categories: didactic and pornographic. The former encourages repulsion, abhorrence and contempt, the latter induce attraction and desire, and both are, without doubt, “kinetic”, because they move us in a specific direction.
Desire urges us to possess; disgust to flee. This idea comes from Stephen Dedalus (James Joyce’s alter ego) when he affirms that true art is “static”, while false art is “kinetic.” The former leaves us where we are: static, and it flies over desire or repulsion. The latter has the opposite effect: it moves us to masturbation or condemnation, reifying the object, the spectator and the experience. One takes us out of ourselves; the other displaces us. Desire, or its inverse, repugnance, is imposed on us, no matter what. This is a convenient action for the market, hence the proliferation of artifices (or impure art, as Dedalus calls it). Under this category, it is increasingly difficult to find genuine art (also a recurrent idea in the work of Theodor W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin), because art has renounced revelation as its prerogative, so it has become a mere message, opinion, physiological stimulus or mandate. This attitude is something especially frequent in puritan societies such as the American one, where “progressive art” has been placed at the service of moral judgment. This type of artifice does not generate freedom: it can tie even more than the pornographic one. Only genuine art is able to foster freedom, even if it has to negate it.
The Kulturindustrie has banalized art, cinema, literature and theatre. The colonization of the human mentality by compulsive and irrational consumerism is ending with the most precious value of our human existence: the creative and visual capacity to find answers to the mysteries of life. For the technocratic society in which we live, attraction and repulsion are fundamental impulses: they fuse the biological myth of natural selection to their convenience. Both impulses induce in the organism a speed that clouds other faculties. No wonder why we call our accelerated time Turbocapitalism. Today, the object of desire (or rejection) becomes the only one existing, the only possibility, and everything else is subject to its achievement or destruction.
The Taoists warned us about obsession 25 centuries ago with their maxim: much effort frustrates the purpose. Artifice’s devices instil value judgments, whether ruthless satires or moral fables, expressed in vague social criticism in the style of Michael Moore, or in cinematographic productions of totalitarian regimes. Although it is also perceived is some “intellectual art” such as conceptualism and other pedagogical and vindictive avant-garde and political art movements. On the other side of the same coin lies the pornographic artifice, more suitable for consumerist paraphernalia: its reign is constantly moving, and all the magicians and clowns of entertainment and fun are always present.
Regarding genuine art, it puts us in touch with what we could call transgressive or radical beauty. The disinterested artistic experience à la Immanuel Kant produces a kind of creative stillness (the Wu-Wei of Taoism), in which everything shines with extraordinary immediacy and novelty. As if the work we contemplate (symphony, object, page, performance, film or animation) had an unprecedented effect on our perception. This, on the one hand, arouses a feeling of perplexity. On the other hand, produces the disappearance of the ego: an expansion that no longer requires the insidious presence of the self, or as Jorge Luis Borges would say: the trifle of personality. Art also functions with the activity of the psyche itself, with the material that dreams are made of, and it is precisely that which is able to erase the boundaries between the physical and the psychic. This operation allows us to get out of ourselves, to recognize our insignificance, and it is the best remedy against solipsism.
No other animal is able to see itself from outside, and that prerogative is provided by the artistic experience. This is not a call to vindicate an anthropocentric or intellectual perspective on art, no. This remark is only intended to underline that denying the privileged space occupied by the human imagination in the theatre of nature, is to deny the only thing that gives us the degree of nobility that we admire in other species. There is a specific place where dreams, myths, poetry and madness come together. That place is the imaginary, an area that Henry Corbin exalts from his studies about Sufism: the imaginary is an intermediate space between the sensitive life and the mind—the first human, the second divine. Art, in this scenario, also occurs in the imaginary world, in artifice, in the fictional.
It is not nonsense to imagine that it is also possible to dream an artwork and then to execute it. Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar and Jeff Mills dreamed a poem, a short story, and a song. Art, in short, helps us to discover our own mystery: it amazes and awakes in us the strangeness of the every-day life. Those men and women who painted on stone a dynamic eight-legged bull in a place that did not reach natural light, so we had to see it with torches, as in the caves of Altamira and Chauvet, refer us to this idea of imagery. The tremor of fire close to the images moves the figure: cinema had been invented. Those caves and similar, and our ancestors, confronts us with forgotten dreams and allows us to peek into vertiginous chasms. When Pablo Picasso visited one of these caves he said resigned that those artists had already invented everything, that afterwards, all is decadence and repetition.
Yes, all novelty is but oblivion. It would not be fiction to suggest that, perhaps, it was not these hominids that discovered art, but that art discovered them: art, and not any God or natural selection, as the creator of humanity, art as the gesture of the soul. To demonstrate this, almost with the necessary scientific rigour, we have to see and believe in art’s sensitivity to present the radical mystery of existence and to acknowledge its ability to capture and interpret that mystery in an object or movement. The artistic vision springs from the intimate capacity to marvel from the bewilderment at the fact of existing. An intellectual and emotional astonishment: the world is not what we thought it was, and to verify that fact is a kind of awakening.
It is clear that our perception of the world changes with the experience of art. However, art not only has a genetic nature, but it also helps us to see, to compare, to interpret and to question life. Art also is what David Bohm said of the theories in physics and mathematics: they are windows to see outside; tools that help us understand the world and the human condition. Sometimes we see the world through art, sometimes the light we see is Rembrandt and the storms on the shore are Turner; there are also Ambrose Bierce atmospheres and Kafkian and Dantesque situations; there is an outer space Stanley Kubrick and Jeff Mills.
We see the world through the veil of art, just as we see it behind the veil of a dream, through the fiction revealed in our memory, or by the trance that comes with the consumption of psychedelic substances. Certain ascetic practices allow us to pierce that veil to dress with another. And if there is someone who believes that there is a world without veils, not only ignores the artistic experience but also ignores its own human condition.
In an era of aesthetic relativism like the current one, it is necessary to rebel against the old cliché of “everyone to his own taste”. Taste can be cultivated— we know that since David Hume. It is always possible to refine perception and sensitivity, and art, if it is something, is our accomplice in that process. In fact, when we talk about nature, our judgment is already influenced by art. Art is not only the condition of an ethos, but it is also an objective company, and perhaps, the most objective that exists.
Reducing art, myth and religion to primitive forms of inquiry awaiting the arrival of the scientific method is a major misunderstanding. What science does is to enrich the mystery of life by revealing deeper levels of reality. This objectivity has a corollary: the answer to the mystery of our existence must be poetic because only poetry is capable of assuming a why. Poetic answers can only be figurative (imaginative, veiled), never literal, as science claims. There is no science of the particular, said Aristotle. Science is that narrative that transits from the particular to the general; its objective is the law. On the other hand, art is a way of celebrating the singular and irreducible: instead of solving the puzzle, art frames it in such a way that its irresoluble character is splendidly evident, but it manages to remain a mystery. The rhetoric of scientific literality is simply another myth, the myth in which we live in post-contemporary societies. A myth that we will have to get rid off if we do not want to eradicate all the living species on the planet—including ours, and the planet itself.
The idea of beauty has been changing since the caves of Altamira, but in the last century took a drastic way. For the ancient world, the universe revealed its beauty when it was released from the limited aspirations of the ego. Art was what gave that necessary and healthy serenity to the mind and the soul called by Greeks ataraxia. For Plato, beauty and goodness have gone hand in hand, and classical art has dedicated itself to exalting that harmony through the geometric ideals of symmetry, order and unity— just like the artworks of the contemporary artist Alicja Kwade. However, in the last century, that kind of beauty has acquired another connotation, and artists have set out to get in touch with another type of chaotic and transgressive beauty: the abject. The new standard of beauty assumes disorder, chaos and asymmetry.
The artistic movements of the twentieth century strived to free art from the imitation of nature. They were more interested in the subsoil, which is below the natural order of things, just like the psyche with its layers where dreams and oppressed desires rest. That root is no longer beautiful, or at least it is not in classical terms, because it deals with pure matter, with our deepest and repressed feelings, with humankind’s history. In general, we have considered that beauty occurs when reality is fair to our expectations, while what we call sublime arise when we find something that exceeds our capacity for assimilation when old feelings of security are threatened. Hence, it is said that all art, not only the avant-garde, is a challenge.
The transgressive and radical beauty of our already old contemporary time makes the strange and unusual emerge. It is fervently anti-traditionalist, and it is constantly fighting against conventions, expectations and instrumentalisation. Furthermore, the radical creative act aims to erase the thin line that separates the artist and the spectator from the object. The artistic experience tends to erase the borders between the mental and the physical, and the spectator from the object. Johann Sebastian Bach was aware that a beautiful melody was not enough: beauty requires the abyss, the lack of handles and the threat of the immeasurable.
Those subsoil memories also reach the literary: from the secret alliance between the hunter and his prey in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick to the appointment with impotence and the human condition in Franz Kafka’s Before the Law. In contrast to the experience of the abyss, we find the not innocent world of kitsch, which is much more suitable for marketing strategies and collecting impulses in a system that combines the cult of technology with the cult of emotions. Less and less people are being moved and touched by art, although there is art everywhere, any time, like never before in history. There is nostalgia for deep emotions and transcendence, but our society doesn’t have time for deepness and emotions.
Turbocapitalism, highly competitive of course, manufactures psychopaths and fosters the need and search for fame and money. Under this regime, criticism is neutralised with social media debates and with the idea that each person is its own and a better judge. Madness took over our institutions, and our leaders, in their megalomaniac and narcissist behaviour, not only govern and lead us like messiahs, no. They also have become a role model for the ones who intend to take all the loot.
From the artistic experience it can be said that it takes us out, even if only for a moment, from the age of psychic ice in which we live, from the cloud of opinions, from numbness and insensitivity, from the walled egos that rule our contemporary life. Art offers its hospitality in the face of that icy and atomized atmosphere. By having a life of its own, art allows its interlocutors to participate in a spiritual organism, almost like a shamanic ritual. Artworks impose a rift on their creator, but also to those who contemplate or recreate it. Inventing a metaphor and re-enacting it are equally creative activities—without telling the moral of course.
Artworks always overflow the vision of the artist, it always says more than it was meant to say. Maybe it is the human mind—as a theatre or cave where certain echoes resonate—where the source of the creative experience exist. Hence that asceticism that each creative act requires, that helpful and receptive attitude: the mind cannot contemplate nature from outside itself. Both worlds, the physical and the imaginary, are aspects of a single phenomenon, of a single substance, Baruch Spinoza would comfort.
Every night we renounce to exercise control over those unleashed creative forces that we have been allowed to contemplate, and which of course are not independent of our mental life during the vigil. As Gustav Jung recalls: the impression of creating in freedom is illusory, artists believe to swim when in fact they are being dragged by the current. What we have called physical or rational world depends on a narrative (and that is the reason and not something else) of mechanistic nature. Now we find that it is something like an extension of subsoil memories, of other narratives (mythical, oneiric), place in a historical context. Hence the work of art—through the crack that opens between one world and another—allows us to discover the hidden strata of the real, that, curiously, sometimes serve as an oracle. The reason is simple: artworks give a vision of the psychic forces that make up our present—the eternal clamour of forces that was the cosmos for Heraclitus. They are not so many products of culture as products of nature.
Beauty is not useful, as Henri Bergson said; there are countless useful things that are not beautiful. Nor should we think that science is aimed at technological proliferation. Humankind feels the impulse to know by knowing, to satisfy certain aspirations of intellectual and moral order. It is not technology that adapts to our desires, no. It is our desires that adapt to technology as an extension of them. Our spiritual Hiroshima results from confusing individuation with individualism. The first is the indefinite expansion of the self, so the question about where one ends and where the world begins ceases to make sense. Individualism (acquisition of fame or wealth) is a spectral parody of individuation. Only art can counteract the typical modern mentality that tries to persuade us that the true purpose of the human being is to appropriate, dissect and control everything and that even the deepest mysteries are only problems that await solution.