Beauty and Emptiness

I find myself constantly returning to Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: “The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.” I also constantly connect this with Marina Ambramovic’s disturbing refrain, “Art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful.” Art in my understanding of it is only and only ever can be two things: beautiful and useless. All other qualities, all other descriptions, come from outside of art. Art itself, pure, actual art is merely beautiful and useless: art is empty, evacuated, devoid.

What does art do that nothing else can do? It presents, perfectly and wondrously, pure spectacle. Art restores the world to pure surface, it signifies absence. It marks perception as perception, restores beauty to its primal state, before commodity, capital, value. The allure and seduction of art lies in its vapidity, in its total lack of depth. It is entirely because of this that from nearly the beginning of human history, art has acquired a value beyond measure: art is precisely that which negates all value.

Let us not, now, elide the techniques of art with art itself. The techniques of art, of its production, of its mystique have been utilized across time and culture for purposes which are distinctly anti-art. The most obvious of these to the modern mind will be propaganda and advertising. Both of these forms utilize the techniques of art, but unlike art, which is entirely kenotic, attempt to cover over the empty plain of pure surface with meaning, to mine into and implant social, political and commercial depth. Propaganda and advertising aim to tell you things, they carry with them a terrible depth, a drowning depth which seeks to override your own perceptions, to alter and subsume them into the desires of others for you.

These schemas blaspheme the face of art, which is entirely indifferent, blind. The aim of propaganda and advertising is to penetrate you, to fix you in the gaze of the political, the commercial, to transform you into an object of political and commercial power. Art itself serves only to deliver you back to yourself through its frigidity, its vacuity. What is absent in art is delivered into it through your perceptions. Art, strangely and viciously, however, remains entirely detached, it has given you back to yourself through its indifference. Art remains unaltered by you, by your perceptions. Your perceptions echo back from the pure surface of art and through you entirely into your own echo chamber. That which resonates in art is yourself.

There are, of course, the softer declensions of the techniques of art, those which maintain the usefulness of objects: crafts, and the like, those operations which concern themselves with the beautifying of things. A carpenter makes a beautiful table. The table is not art, it is foremost characterized by its use, it will always be a table, until it rots, or breaks, or is replaced, at which point it becomes garbage. The beautiful once table may be transformed at anytime into art, once its use is stripped of it, once it no longer becomes defined solely by its table-ness. Museums are full of antiques that once served as along side their peers to fill grand houses, demarcating social space and the use thereof, now, inert, next to busts and vases, they are returned to total object-hood, again empty, returned to the total surface which defined their materials before production.

Yet even the museum serves as an engine of commodity, marking what it acceptable as art and what is not. The contents of museums suffer and decline, loose some of the gloss of their pure surface in the face of the grand institutionalization of the commodity of art. The museum, the cultural bastion, seeks to implant depth, cultural depth back into art. Only the most dramatically useless, the most woundingly beautiful works can survive this violence. The great artists are held to be great because they strangely succeeded in creating total absence, art which endures is the art of nothingness. Only nothing can withstand the cultural turbines of the historicizing institutions.

Let it be clearly understood: art is not a mirror. A mirror serves to show you to yourself, to return to you your image. Art does not serve. It maintains itself in its uselessness. When you engage with art, you are engaging in a feedback loop within yourself, you are confronting the total surface of pure objects and the surface turns your perceptions back upon themselves. Art makes you perceive perceiving, and so doing, multiplies bizarre effects as perception, that which goes unnoticed, is thrown into sharp relief within the psyche and it becomes the only thing noticeable. Pure surface returns perception to you, fills you with it. You perceive not yourself, as in a mirror, but your perceptual powers themselves. Art is when it restores perception to you, when it collapses the reflex of perceiving into a single action, and embeds you psychically in perception, destroying your detachment from subject and object.

This is, obviously, a polemic. It suffers, as all polemics must, from an incredibly narrow and reductive focus. For that I apologize. There is a great deal here that I intend to return to and expand, to open back up.

I have been struggling for some time to write about the role of art and art making in my life and spirituality, but I have found the process much more difficult than I had originally realized. I found myself over and over writing mere validities like “art is deeply important to my spirituality” and then being unable to continue.

I realized after writing the above polemic that there I simply care too much to simply write about the role of art in my spirituality. I have too many theories about the political power and importance of art, about the cultural relevance of art, about the commodification of art and its position within capitalism to talk merely about its spiritual significance, especially as for me, the spiritual role of art penetrates into all of these other fields of discourse.

And so, I am opening up yet another project on this blog: an exploration of the spiritual import of art and its ramifications on the function of art in society.

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4 thoughts on “Beauty and Emptiness

  1. Soren says:

    I like this idea a lot, though I think it only applies to visual art (and perhaps music somehow, although music doesn’t really have a surface). Literature is incapable of producing pure surface, as the act of reading is always and necessarily an act of interpretation.

    • eidolos says:

      Essentially, I agree that this conception of art applies best to the visual arts. Music, I think, in its purely sensual nature still relates to the basic idea, though perhaps a different metaphor would work better there than surface.

      • Soren says:

        I think the issue with music is that it is one dimensional, and the dimension in which it exists is duration. You can only expirience an instant of music at time; in order to hold together a piece relies heavily on the memory of the listener. Which doesn’t contradict your ideas at all, it’s just something I’ve been thinking about.

  2. […] I push the idea of art as pure surface. The apprehension of art is the apprehension of the self in apprehension. It’s a reflex. Art is art only in as much as it is perceived, and even then perceived in a fashion which allows it to function as art. Art sits, then, in a fundamental nothingness. Art is empty. The set of objects which we determine as art is necessarily an empty set. For art itself is not an object, but an object in perception perceived in such a way that art is brought into being. […]

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