Tag Archives: art

Starting Again, a Month Later

Almost a month later, my husband and I are settling in to our new city. From what I’ve seen, thus far, I really like it here. Washington State is beautiful, and I constantly impressed with how lush and green everything is. I really get the feeling that if you leave something alone outside, after two weeks it will be covered with moss with a fern growing out of it. There’s a retaining wall directly behind our apartment, building, in fact, with a fern growing out of it which I have become strangely attached to. I have resisted the urge to name my little fern friend, but it makes me smile every time I pass it. I love little fern friend.

Of course, this transition has been a little strange and awkward. My husband and I are without reliable transportation, but that’s as much my fault and my laziness at getting my driver’s license renewed as anything else, and the weather has been pretty erratic as well. So, we’ve been spending a good deal of time sitting around the apartment. I have always had a difficult time establishing routines, and living as we do, it’s been difficult for me to keep track of the passage of time. All of which plays in to my ongoing difficulties establishing a spiritual practice.

Every morning I meditate for ten to fifteen minutes after taking shower and cleaning up for the day. That, as much as I hate to admit it, makes up the vast majority of my active spiritual practice. That said, the vast majority of intellectual life is caught up with spirituality, both my own and in the abstract, so I do feel as if I devote a good deal of my time to spiritual matters, even if actively spiritual pursuits make up a small portion of my day. However, even in saying that, I recognize that meditation simply isn’t enough.

Which is where my art making comes in. I have been incredibly hesitant to describe my creative pursuits as acts of worship. I suppose that my Christian Cult upbringing as tainted the idea of worship to me: I have a hard time giving myself over to something that I am told is holy. I do believe in divinity and the divine and I do view my art making as a way of connecting with those concepts, but worship, to me, carries so much baggage that I simply do not want to unpack. However, I also know that in order to grow, I need to confront the things that scare me. Worship, proper worship, not the fake for appearances performance that I engaged in in my youth, needs to be examined and experienced.

My art making is essentially an ecstatic state. When I am creating, I am buried in the act, and other concerns no longer bother me. When I am deep in the process, I will go all day without eating, all of my attention is focussed on the task at hand. On the surface, this should connect quite easily with my views toward worship and with the divine powers and ideas that I do connect most easily with. And yet… I am hesitant and, truth be told, afraid.

I do feel that proper worship is an ecstatic experience, a way of being that takes up the whole of one’s being. I have a very good friend who dances as a form of worship, and this makes perfect sense to me. Watching her dance, her entire comportment changes and there is nothing in her but the dancing. It’s a beautiful thing to see. I am really drawn to that kind of spiritual expression, to creation and creativity as the core of one’s spiritual practice. I suppose it is a means of worship which I view as preserving one’s innate being in relation to the divine. It seems to me that this kind of approach forces one to analyze and examine oneself and to transform one into a vessel of divine expression. The artist, the dancer is still always there, they are just there towards divinity. Worship, then, is an expression towards divinity, it is a way of being in that expression, ecstatically.

So, I have come to realize that I need to approach at least a portion of my art making as worship. I need to incorporate it into my daily practice and devote it to the powers that I feel in my life. I really have no idea what the final form of this work will take, or where it will lead me, but I need to allow myself to be in the act, to let it carry me where it will. I have no more excuses to hesitate, no more justification for my fear.

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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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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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Under the Blue Moon

This Friday past was the blue moon. I decided, on the cuff, to get some friends together and go moon gazing on the hill top in Frick Park. We picked up a few bottles of wine and around 10:30 wandered off into the park. Now, I will admit that my initial intention was to perform some sort of experimental group ritual, though with the final composition of the group it became apparent that was not going to happen. In the end, though, I think we all had an enjoyable, variously enlightening experience.

There is something quite interesting to me about the blue moon: unlike other astronomical events, the blue moon is an entirely calendrical artifact. The blue moon only has significance because of the way that we decided to carve up time, a sidereal calendar wouldn’t produce blue moons. Yet, something about the approaching full moon at the very end of August felt somehow special, alluring. I wanted to use this as a chance to experiment in fairly low stakes environment. If the ritual ended up as nothing more than a silly pantomime, or failing catastrophically, well, it wasn’t marking anything in particular, save an occasional calendrical oddity: the full moon will come again.

I have been deeply interested in the function of ritual, lately, and particularly given my own spiritual orientation, I find a good deal of group rituals to be less than thrilling. I admit, that I have attended relatively few group rituals, and that there has only been one local organization which has consistently impressed me not only with the precision of their rituals, but also with their scholarship, a local chapter of ADF. The reason that I have been repeatedly drawn to the open rituals of this particular group is because of how engaged they are with the theatricality of ritual. They seem to recognize how important it is to capture the attention of the participants and viewers and engage with their spirituality through their imagination. The rituals of theirs that I have attended included a lot of story telling, singing, chanting, divination and  costume. All of this has gotten me thinking on what is actually necessary in ritual. If you recall a prior post of mine, I have taken a semi-phenomenological approach to materia magica, and I think I similar approach is useful here.

For my birthday, a friend danced a blessing for me. Her spiritual practice is sacred dance. No words, just movement. In absolute honesty, I was shocked by how much power she was able to draw upon, by how much energy she worked up by dancing. In the Western Occult tradition we are repeatedly told how important the words, the words, the words are, and never shall you ever tamper with these spells handed down from times immemorial. Of course, modernity has struggled with this concept, and intent has krept in, weaseling around the edges, acknowledged but poorly explored. Intent, we are told, again, is vital and perhaps all of magic reduces to intent, so maybe all you need to do is intend really, really, really hard, and then, whizz bang, magic! Intent itself is a tricky subject, as a great deal of human experience is bound up in intent, and if we are going to have a functional definition of magic, shouldn’t it be precise enough to exclude the mundane intention of paying your cell phone bill from the uncanny intention of warding your apartment? Intent alone is insufficient, just as the word alone is insufficient. The dance succeeds because it looses both word and intent in the action.

I want to pull in here, as well, my previous musings on art as something which pulls you back to pure surface, to the act of perceiving. Indeed, I think ritual operates in a very similar way. Frequently one encounters descriptions of the importance of trance states in magic. Thusly, I posit that trance operates as a restoration of perception to itself. Descriptions of emptiness, of the perceiving of nothingness, of the evacuation of I, the ego, the subject, the cogito in the trance state, I suggest, are descriptions of perception returned to itself, reflexively engaging with itself. When one is in deep trance one is perceiving oneself perceive. I argue, then, that ritual aims to bring its participants fully into the state of pure perception. Magic, will, intent, may then spring up from that perceptual reflex.

My intention on the hill top under the light of the blue moon was to begin exploring these ideas in a group setting. In the end, though, everyone so inclined wandered off from the group, found a quiet patch on the greensward and offered themselves up to the beauty of the moonlight. The moon, that night, was truly beautiful. It shone brighter than I have seen in a long time, and the entire park was uncannily lovely. Myself, I offered up a libation to the moon and praised its beauty, its clarity, its radiance. Strangely enough, all our private adventures on that hill top provided a comforting sense of community. Some of us worshipped, some of us prayed, some of us simply enjoyed the beauty of the evening, and others chatted quite happily in the cool breeze, enjoying the companionship. It wasn’t a group ritual, but the space became special, spiritual, regardless.

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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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