Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Being of Art

The same small handfull of themes and questions drive pretty much the entire content of this blog. While I have noticed that my ramblings on the theory of art have been by far the least read, I also have come to feel that they are the ones in which I have been able to express my concerns most clearly. Of course, even there, I find myself in a strangely paradoxical position.

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.

I have spoken before that objects in perception are undoubtably objects. Having only our perceptions, all that we require for secure knowledge about objects is there continued coherent presentation within our perceptions. Art, however, does not present continually coherently, but flashes out and disappears from the object perceived. Art is an only occasionally present quality of objects. Art instead dwells in a kind of sympathetic perception towards art, not in the objects themselves.

I spoke previously of aesthetic arrest, of moments when the world perceives fails to align with our expectations so dramatically that it freezes us in perception. The artist, I then propose manipulates formal effects to produce such a freezing. The artist is the artist in act of producing an aesthetic reaction. The formal world produces, through chance formal relations, the necessary conditions for aesthetic arrest, the artist, recognizing those relations, skillfully manipulates them to produce the same result. Thus, the progression of art through human history: certain formal effects become institutionalized in the conception of art and over time saturate the societal expectation of art. Art is that which contains these particular elements.

For example, the Neoclassical Movement which dominated the French School prior to the emergence of Realism, Impressionism and the grand proliferation of movements which emerged during the end of the nineteenth century. Art was recognized as art only as long as it possessed the formal characteristics of Neoclassicism, spawning the Salon de Refusés. Certain artists began to feel that the formal elements of Neoclassicism so saturated the idea of art that they no longer necessarily produced the aesthetic reaction which truly elevates mere created form to art in the fullness of its meaning. The transformation of art through time marks the artists’ continual drive towards novelty.

The artist, purely devoted to art, seeks the queer, as previously discussed to turn perception back upon itself, hence art in the twentieth century’s continual obsession with Art History. Art twisted back into the history of its own ephemera in the endeavor to break the whole of its history back apart into moments of perception. What is Suprematism if not an attack on the idea of painting as art itself? The same can be said of Dadaism and sculpture. James Joyce is a novelist in as much as his novels are entirely unlike what preceded them, but reliant upon such precedents to function. The writing of Gertrude Stein is attacks the fundamentals of writing, but relies upon them at the same time.

So why my interest in art here? I am seeking to carve out realms of experience which are entirely related to the Subject, and reliant upon the Subject as Subject. Art seems to be the perfect example for discussing such realms. The being of art, I suggest, is particularly a kind of being in art. The Subject does not encounter art as art, but produces a mode of being in art through the apprehension of art in moments of aesthetic arrest. Art is undoubtably a made thing, it is tied back to the formal world, and yet the qualities which render it art are entirely distinct from the formal. The formal produces the necessary preconditions, but without the apprehension of the sympathetic Subject, the formal cannot produce art in the fullness of its meaning, merely the possibility of its being. The Being of Art is the The Being of the Subject in Art.

I believe that such realms of being, such as Being in Art, are vital to the understanding of the Subject and its relation to the world.

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I Am Not Born This Way

I have always hated the popular assertion that someone is born gay or straight, as if that is enough of a justification for one’s behavior. I understand the popularity of the phrase, being “born this way” allows people to side step the charge that they have a choice in the matter. When closed minded bigots yell at you for being gay, for acting gay, you respond that you were born that way, you don’t have a choice, you were made to be gay. But that’s really not true. I suppose the hidden attack in that position is that, “I was born gay, and you weren’t born Christian/Republican/Evil/a self-righteous prick, you learned that behavior.” Of course, that’s not true. We all learned to perform our sexualities as much as we learned to perform any other identity.

The issue at hand isn’t whether we are biologically determined to perform gayness, it’s whether we have the right the perform our sexuality as we choose. One could make a stronger claim that someone born into a religious family is born religious, since they would be raised from moment of birth in that frame. One isn’t born gay, by that reasoning, but becomes gay with the development of their sexuality: straight families spawn gay children.

That said, I knew from an early age that I was unlike the people around me. I knew that I was different. That was, to say the least, uncomfortable. But, I wasn’t gay. I didn’t know that I was gay until I was twelve or thirteen. What I felt before was a sense of alienation totally unconnected from my sexuality. I was a very intelligent, shy, emotional child. I thought too much and too quickly. Most of what I encountered didn’t make sense to me, nor could I understand why a lot of the adults in my life believed and said things that I could reason through and undermine as a seven year old. I was raised in a religious household, and yet I can at no time remember believing any of it. I quite emphatically remember my confusion at the way the people around me blindly repeated nonsense as if it were undoubtably true. Of course, I knew all the right words and all the answers, but it was more like playing make believe or something: rearranging words to make a kind of sense within a very particular frame. I knew the stories of Jesus and the apostles and all the prophets and their prophecies, but I think I had more faith in First Officer Spock. My burgeoning sexuality was just a coincidence.

I think when people remember feeling alienated as children, they tend to elide it with other traumas. Sadly, in contemporary society, one’s sexual development is a severe trauma for a lot of people. One’s sexuality suddenly leaps back and invades all the queerness, all the awkwardness, all the alienation that one has felt. People aren’t willing to simply be other, to be really basically queer, it was their gayness all along, hiding and showing itself just long enough to make other people uncomfortable, but not revealing itself fully until… well, trauma.

I am not gay because I was born this way. My birth in no way relieves me of responsibility. I am queer because I have embraced that as a part of myself and act accordingly. I own my queerness, I live in my queerness. Had I so decided, I could have owned my religious upbringing, I could have made that the whole of my being, and today I woud be living a very different life as a Jehovah’s Witness. I didn’t make that choice. I had every right to, but I chose something else. I chose to live my life as I saw fit. I chose to make sense of the world and of myself for myself. We all make choices, and that’s the right that needs to be defended.

I am not born this way, I am this way because I chose to be this way. I have worked long and hard to make myself into the man I am today, and I am fully aware of the missteps and struggles along the way, all of which make me even prouder of the times when I have succeeded. I am not born this way because I take full responsibility for being who I am. I worked with the resources I had to transform myself into someone who, despite my shortcomings, I am quite proud to be.

We all need to be able to say that we are who we are by choice, and know deep inside of ourselves that this is true. That’s the right we fight for. Not the right to be what we were born to be, but the right to be what we make of ourselves.

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Continuing Toward a New Ontology

As should be obvious by this point, I have been having a great deal of difficulty with the ongoing Ontology project. Mallory has repeatedly stressed to me a need to move past the fine details and begin working out the bigger picture, which I am now endeavoring to do.

So, allow me to briefly sum up the argument so far. The biggest feature of this project has been the assertion that the Subject is total and indivisible. It cannot be broken into its component features and retain the qualities which it possesses as a subject. Indeed, the Subject, once resolved, is no longer composed of constituent units, but is totalized into a single, coherent whole. In short, the Subject is irreducibly complex. Now, I recognize that term derives from the largely spurious Creation Science movement, and I am not using it in that context. Biology as a science has sufficiently explained the means and mechanisms through which complex structures develop from simpler antecedents. In this context, I use the term irreducible complexity to describe the resolved Subject as that emergent property which cannot reduced to the structures from which it resolves. Indeed, I think this is the only fashion in which a concept like irreducible complexity can be made sensible: as volta. The resolution of the Subject is the volta which transfigures the prior system into something radically different and new. The Subject is irreducibly complex because it is no longer the sum of its parts, but a new emergent being.

Of course, the emergent Subject is reliant upon its substrate: the physical structures are necessary preconditions for the emergence of the Subject. Indeed, when we speak about the sanctity of human life, is this not what we are speaking of? The reduction of this argument to mere cells has produced a cacophony of nonsense arguments and sophistry which are no longer attached to the underlying issue (why ban abortion and legalize capital punishment? The murder of political adversaries is just as egregious if it is the mere cells which we privilege. After all, we’re all made of the same stuff, full grown humans just have more of it than fetuses, so surely, by weight alone, killing an adult is worse than killed a kidney bean sized cluster of cells).

Prior to the emergence of the Subject, there is nothing that would sufficiently differentiate the human body from other complex physical systems. The human body varies from other objects only in scale. Solar systems, atoms and the human body are all of equal importance prior to the emergence of the Subject, due to their engagement within the same network of formal relations. The network itself determines all relations even as it is determined by the totality of its constituent units. Value is not an objective quality.

It would sound as though, at this point, that I am working toward a justification of the soul, or some other ethereal substance unique to human being. Well, after a fashion, I suppose I am. This uniqueness I have been calling the Subject. The reflexive, interior spaces which certain beings inhabit, the realm of the Subject, is what we seek to preserve in our honoring of human life. The emergence of the Subject radically alters the formal network relations. The Subject suddenly emerges as a locus of intent, previously unknown in the formal network. The Subject destroys the equality of objects.

The next important piece is the Subject/Object divide. Subjects are differentiated from objects by the aforementioned interiority. Subjects contain themselves within their subjectivity: subject withdraw into themselves, whereas objects are in relation only to the network in which they are entrenched. Subjects are in relation to themselves in reflexive unity with the network. The network itself is a necessary precondition for the emergence of the Subject, the action of the Subject is primordially reflexive. The reflexivity between Subject and object partially allows for the Subject’s self-recognition as Subject.

I had previously leveled a critique at this project, aiming to entrench it firmly in ontology, as ontology, differentiated from theology need not produce a morality. I have come to feel that I was incorrect in making this claim. While I still hold to the sharp distinction between ontology and theology, I do believe that already we have here the beginnings of a moral concern. If we are concerned with the Subject, our concern must then spread back to the necessary preconditions for the Subject’s resolution. The substrate and the network become vitally important, and both must be maintained in order to ensure the development and flourishing of the Subject.

As this project continues, I intend to further develop these themes, as well as return to the tangled concept of the soul and its complex intellectual history.

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Gladly Beyond Any Experience

In three weeks from today, my husband and I will be boarding a train and travelling across the country to a new home waiting for us in Washington State. While this adventure has been in the works for almost six months, it all fell together quite suddenly at the end of August, and only in the last week has it finally begun to feel real to me. I will be leaving Pittsburgh, the city that I was born in and lived in for twenty-nine years and travelling almost literally as far away from it as I can go without crossing an ocean. Oh, gods, the ocean. I have never even seen the Pacific Ocean. I imagine that it’s very much like the Atlantic (how different can it really be?), but still, I can only imagine. I am overflowing with anticipation and wonder.

I have gone on trips, before, of course. I have an uncle who lives in Colorado and in my teens my family would visit him semi-regularly. I always loved Colorado. Everything seemed more real there. Of course, it helped, I imagine, that we were up in the mountains surrounded not just by nature (I have a lot of nature here, too, Pittsburgh is very green), but enormous nature. No matter where we went, the sky was hugely there. The mountains dominate the horizon, and the trees! The trees were, well, everywhere and really big. I know that Washington and Colorado are very different, but it’s really the only reference I have. Going to visit my uncle always felt like an adventure, like there were new things, new realms of experience everywhere.

I know that in time that sense will fade, but I’m thrilled to have it for as long as it lasts as my husband and I establish ourselves in Washington. Routine, I think, abolishes wonder. Yet, I think it is this wonder that fills life with real meaning. As much as I have tired of Pittsburgh, and of living in a place that I have come to feel simply has nothing left to offer me, I do still try to detach myself from routine and just experience things. My husband and I go on adventures whenever we can, even if that really just means wandering around the park and playing with other people’s dogs, or going to a coffee shop and trying a lavender vanilla latté for the first time. These are small things, though, and I’m excited to have a whole new unfamiliar world of adventure. I want to hold on the that adventure for as long as I can.

Now, we are moving for serious reasons. My husband and I have family and friends on the west coast who are going through difficult times and they need familiar faces with them. We really don’t have too much tying us to Pittsburgh, and so we offered to go to them. When people ask me why we’re moving, that’s what I tell them, and it is the gods’ honest truth. I am told, then, that I’m such a good friend, such a caring person to just pack up and go, and yet, I feel a little disingenuous. I am moving at the behest of people that I care deeply for, and I would do anything in my power to alleviate their suffering, it is a delight to do so, and yet…

I am thrilled with the thought of all of the new things, of all of the opportunities, of the new worlds unfolding in front of me. I feel very selfish. I am in the process of applying to a graduate program in Northern California which, if all goes smoothly, will alter the course of my life entirely. I am moving not just out of a city, but out of an entire way of living, of being. More than anything else, I’m thrilled to have someone that I love so deeply that I did the one thing that I was certain I would never do, and married. My husband and I are travelling into an entirely new life together.

I am so excited to see how this change effects my art, my spirituality, my philosophy. I have been focussing a good deal, lately on the idea of wonder and its spiritual significance, which I can guarantee I will discuss in greater depth on this blog, and this whole adventure seems like a perfect opportunity to explore these ideas further. I feel so much like I am on the edge of a great transformation.

I am put in mind of one of my favorite poems:

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

– e.e.cummings

Place and person are beautifully elided: a whole new adventure…


A Return to Beauty

I have previously spoken about the experience of art as a return to surface: the experience of art is the experience of pure perception. Indeed, the experience of aesthetic arrest I think perfectly illuminates my conception. Aesthetic arrest is typically used to describe the apprehension of beauty, which is itself a tangled and complex word, but I would argue that beauty, in the traditional sense of the word is unnecessary and vague. What we are struck by, in moments of aesthetic arrest, is not pure beauty, but pure perception. What, for example, significantly differentiates perceptual the apprehension of striking beauty from the apprehension of striking ugliness? Both captivate and bewitch us. Marina Abramovic’s frightening performance piece, Art Must be Beautiful, defies beauty. The performance is stark, obsessive, and disturbing. There is little within it that one would actually call beautiful. Yet, one is brought up short, arrested, by the experience of the piece.

I turn here to Merleau-Ponty who, in his mammoth work, The Phenomenology of Perception, describes moments when perception fails to align with the expectations of the analytical mind. He calls these moments queer. Queer perceptions turn the entirety of our world, they stop us and demand attention. These queer moments are not in themselves beautiful or ugly, those terms come after. Beauty and ugliness are characteristics applied by analysis, they do not spring forth from the experience itself, but arise from reflection. The maxim, the mantra which Marina Abramovic repeats only flourishes into meaning once the experience of the art itself has moved through perception into thought. The beauty of art exists only in as much art stops thought for perception itself to exist authentically, so that thought may return and bear judgement.

Beauty and ugliness exist in equal measure in aesthetic arrest. One is captivated by beauty and ugliness only in as much as they defy one’s expectations of the world. Andy Warhol’s Disaster Series directly address this concern. Horror is rendered into beauty through an analytic interpretation of the mode of representation. The images themselves shock through their disregard of the expectation of beauty in art, and then proceed through to beauty again from the analysis brought to bear on the formal qualities of the work (the repetition, the use of color…). Warhol’s Disaster Series emphatically queers the expectations of the viewer (especially at the time of their production) and achieve their effect by return the viewer to act of pure perception. The image must be understood, brought back into line with the world itself. That action complete, the beauty or ugliness of the image can then be ascertained. Art queers is such a way that the queerness of the interaction of perception and judgement is itself illuminated.

When art is beautiful, it is in as much as it disregards beauty. Beauty emerges from shock, from arrest. Art functions as the skillful manipulation of formal elements to achieve this return to perception, to enable the viewer to look without judgement.


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