Notes on the Sources of Art
by Antonio Dias
This piece has grown during the writing, pushed ahead by the ambition of its title, only slightly modified by the insertion of the word “Notes…” I’m resisting the urge to break it up into my customary 1,500 words. I need to break that habit as much as we all need not to get too comfortable with the bite-sized nature of blog posts in general, a “rule” I’ve already stretched with my “average” post!
I’ve had this gestating inside me for a long time. Somehow it has surfaced now, with the catalyst of a post by Achille Mbembe, at the height of the “Dog Days” when we’re all distracted and feeling a bit lazy… So be it! I hope you’ll give it a look, and perhaps save it for later when crisper air brings renewed appetite. This may be as close to a “Manifesto” on Art as I come! So with some trepidation, here are,
“Notes on the Sources of Art”
There are legends, myths really, that art, painting, the visual arts, began when a lover traced her beloved’s shadow to create a silhouette on the wall. It’s a powerful story. He was leaving for battle…. It links our desire to hold onto what we feel is dear and shows us the way art can act as an aide de memoir. It does give a plausible explanation for the origins of delineation, of drawing in one of its basic modes, the act of tracing. I don’t think it does justice to the greater question it’s intended to answer.
Painting, let’s put aside any arbitrary divisions into abstract or representational for now – if not forever! – contains drawing. Every mark, every touch, is drawing. But let’s counter the urge to reduce everything and begin to expand our view of what painting holds.
We have a surface, what I’ve called, no doubt in unacknowledged imitation of someone else’s insight, a privileged surface of attention. We have implements, whether a finger, an air-brush – one of the earliest painting tools as evidenced in prehistoric cave art – brushes, etc.. We have pigment. Those are the materials of painting. They make a painting, but don’t make it a painting! It’s our human propensity for projection, and the way ambiguity allows us room for interpretation, that gives us the category of things we call art.
Upon this basis, every possible human impulse and mode of empathy enters the arena of painting. Dealing in the languages of gesture, of scale and position, of speed and trajectory, of color, hue, value, chroma; all of these entry points, and many others derived from these and other forms of empathetic identification, rhyming, and projection; create an arena on/in which our values are explored and displayed in the hopes of attracting reciprocal acts of dialogue and connection, between and among us, and beyond the limitations of coexistence in time and place.
Ambiguity is central to painting, in the way Achille Mbembe points out as the opening for interpretation, as he says,
“…without ambiguity there is no possibility of interpretation. In order to interpret, we need to undermine conventional perceptions by bringing incoherence to the surface of life. Otherwise, the mask is equivocal as the Real itself.”
Ambiguity is also central to the human condition. Our perception is tangled up with the impossibility of knowing with certainty. Unless we face the centrality of ambiguity, come to grips with it, we are fated to hide from this fact with fairly dire consequences. Painting is therefore one of the ways, a practice, we can turn to to help us deal with ambiguity. Not only “therapeutically, but as a creator of aesthetic delight, we find and celebrate that beauty is inseparable from ambiguity. This acts as a touchstone between our impulse for beauty and its roots in the human condition as a voyage from ambiguity through to beauty and back.
How does ambiguity function in a painting? It begins with the paradox of the privileged surface of attention, that it remains a flat surface, but that any arrangement upon it, actually even just our attention on its “emptiness,” leads to a powerful illusion of space. It’s flat, and it ain’t flat. It’s bounded by its edges, and it can be infinite in its depths. It is most certainly an actual physical object of a specific size and weight and location; but it can also function in ways that are not limited by any of these constraints. This occurs simply by the focus of our attention. Any surface could have these qualities – IF we chose to give it our attention in this way. How’s that for embedding ambiguity at the heart of painting!
Berger’s Moment of Cubism explores the way certain parallels between various insights occurring at the turn of the Twentieth Century brought us to a certain threshold, one which Berger feels was derailed by the First World War and the traumas that followed. I believe we are now in a position to be heirs to these realizations. It is open to doubt whether we can be any more successful at taking them onward considering what is on our plate!
Central to this was the discovery that a surface was not just a “window” through which we take-in the illusion of a scene, but that it is a field on which/in which actions occur and relationships are disported. Single-point perspective was a possible method of organizing a surface, but not the most telling one. What we now see as “traditional” cubist space is another, again not the only possible organization, though it does have telling reverberations with the multiplicity of views and discrete acts of perception that grow into what we take in as our view of the world in daily life. In this way it hints at a more “truthful” way of looking at the field of our visual attention than the reductivist conceit of a single vanishing point in a Euclidean Universe of projected geometry. Recession is part of our visual reality, but so is the stereoscopic nature of sight, and the way a series of discreet observations over time build our apparently seamless view.
Just as this field is open to recording any arrangement we may place on its surface, it reflects them back to us with whatever power that arrangement has in it to appeal to our perception and the entire process of confrontation we bring to it as we stand in front of a painting as either painter or viewer. There is always more there than was intended, always more there than we can apprehend at any one time. This is obvious, more or less, with a work considered a “masterpiece,” but it is there in any marked surface, any surface chosen by our attention to be viewed as a painting. This realization is not so obvious to us, but it is of great significance in the making and recognition of a painting.
There is intention in our choice to give attention to this scrap of canvass. We also “read” intention in what we find there. We feel “fooled” if we think that what we considered a painting was really an accident of nature without a human will behind it in some way. Many feel tricked unless that intention is extremely obvious and can be measured in some pseudo-empirical way. This goes for noted critics of “abstract” art as much as for the rube who, “Knows what he likes!”
Let’s accept the existence of intention at the formation of a painting, but with no less suspicion than I would give to intention’s place in any human action. Once we get past that initial intention, the choice to give these privileges to this surface and not another, the choice to look with attention and to interact with the surface in some way; the place of outright intentionality becomes much less clear. We tend to see virtuosity, a trait with a sublime name hinting at god-like powers, literally in the hands of those who exhibit it, as the transparent passage from intention to execution that leaves no sign of effort and contains such a clarity of purpose as to have been a product of nature or divine intervention and not the labor of a human mind and hand. In thrall to virtuosity, we feel we have a perfect arbiter of quality in apparent perfection. This excites us, even when we feel incapable ourselves of its achievement, because it is evidence that WE can transcend our human frailty, at least at some time and in some place.
This is, I feel, a misunderstanding of what actually has happened when we confront a case of undisputed virtuosity. The maker, outside of whatever Ego-trip they may be on, will know that they did not control or even directly intend, or will, whatever achieved that result. Our language of muses and inspiration is an attempt to look at conditions that make virtuosity possible. They all point towards a connection with something beyond the self from which the inspired act springs. They share in the perception that the artist is an observer, or a conduit, for something that passes through them at those times, but that is not them. The fiery arc of the Romantic Artist, and his or her Rock & Roll descendants, pictures the battle between an insatiable Ego and these external sources. They always end the same way, with the destruction of Ego, either with, or without, the death of the artist themselves in a pitched battle, hubris versus divinity.
Virtuosity is then a sign of something that is easily misinterpreted. A sign of ambiguity’s centrality. A sign in a realm of signs.
We continuously take the complexity of perceived existence and generate signs as a way to create a language that allows for interpretation. This is the central act of mediation, and it occurs inside us, even without recourse to any outside medium. We don’t need to write down a sign to have verbal language act on us. We don’t even need to speak it aloud. The same can be said of visual signs. They are there in whatever act of consolidation and interpretation that takes a moment of existence and stores away a memory to stand in its place. We are immersed in this world of signs, of signification, whether we go on to judge any of them for significance, all of the time. This generates another “world” inside us, the world of our conditioning. The runs and ruts of habit creating pathways that deliver our experience of Being into recognizable patterns. This is so powerful that it leads directly to the crisis we’re in regarding our choice of whether to pay ultimate allegiance to what we believe to be true, this layer of signs, or an increasingly divergent reality that threatens not only our dreams, but our existence.
This brings us to the ultimate value of painting. It is a realm in which we can interact with, grapple with, and come to some familiarity with; these dynamics that whip us about at their seeming whim. Painting becomes a practice. This gives us why painting is important. How does it do what it does?
An entry point is our realization that there is always something more, something other, there at every stage, and in front of every viewing, something more than is apparent. This brings us back to what I would say is the “Source” of art. Instead of tracing a shadow, what if we are stirring a kettle? In this pot there are ingredients we’ve added, and these ingredients have their specific histories and bring their particular qualities along with adulterants – additions we may not have intended. We may not have even recognized they were present when we tossed them in. Together they act on each other and continuously change the qualities of the stew as a whole. Again, sometimes in obvious ways, but more often in ways that elude our understanding. If we are to make a stew, and not simply a hash, we need to continuously broaden our capabilities to sense what is there in the midst of all our conditioning that is leading us to assume we always know what is there. Sustenance or poisoning are at stake! We have the potential to beguile as well as nourish. What is made may not have an obviously discernible recipe, but its flavor will be there to be judged by any and all who partake of it.
This is a world of interaction and relationships in which intention is subsumed by the demands of performance. Actions may be slow and deliberate. They may be quick and seemingly slap-dash. Neither has much connection with whether they are effective, or even with the speed at which we will be able to discern that effect. We are in a world of experiment and within a range of interaction from the timid to the bold. In a world of comprehension in which some things will be immediately apparent while others will remain opaque, until we’ve managed to quietly back ourselves into some particular corner from which they reveal themselves to our shifting gaze.
Looking at painting in this way as a preparation of nourishment that gives us experience navigating complexity makes it clear that any narrow view of the product or intention of a work of art is ridiculously reductivist. All of the human condition is open to be fed by painting, and likewise all of our capacities, conditions, and traits can feed the act of painting, and do, whether we intend it or not!
This takes painting, art, away from the narrow nostalgic motive of holding onto the objects of desire and places it at the center of the search for practices that nourish our humanity by, and through, all the means at our disposal. It also places this practice at the heart of our coming to grips with intention and the search for effective action in a world of deep complexity, a world in which we appear to be confronted by double-binds at every turn.
Painting gives us a way to grapple not only with ambiguity, but with our discomfort of it, with confusion. When something is as open-ended and as sensitive to the slightest manipulation as is a painting’s surface, we can only face it if we have found a way to suspend our confusion and work through its discomfort. We may do this by screwing up our resolve and adopting a pose, but the demands of art will ultimately shine through such a surrender to contingency. We may be fooled, but eventually someone will see through it. The wonder of painting is that in its practice, by opening ourselves to its quiet, yet insistent voice, we can find all that we need to discover the real courage to stand where we are. The effort of letting go and of maintaining a scrupulous honesty are rewarded, reflected in the painted surface.
In a turn-about from the myth of holding onto the beloved, painting shows us ourselves. Not in a Narcissistic mirror – though that is always a risk – but through its capacity to take what is inside us and put it in front of our gaze. This is not reflection as a passive mechanism that bounces light to float a chimera before our eyes as an aide to self-infatuation. This reflection is active, it is the sum of our acts and our judgements, our confusion and our moments of clarity that has accumulated upon a surface that is a field, a visual field, and also a field of action and contemplation. Looking at this field, we can practice an objectified gaze that cuts through what we intended, to see what we’ve accomplished.
Let’s unpack that: We are trapped within our subjectivity. When we act directly within the world we enter into an infinite complexity that hammers us with so many external contingencies that there is little time to learn from reflection. The arena is so broad that our actions are overwhelmed. In confronting a painting in the act of painting, we have narrowed the field of action to this microcosm. The boundedness of the painting encloses our interaction and limits complexity. This may be a quibble if we look at it from a strictly mathematical perspective, it is still infinitely complex, and a fraction of a “smaller” infinite is still infinite! But, this interaction is mediated, as opposed to what Mbembe calls, “the Real itself.” This mediation does circumscribe, this framing goes back to the privileged surface of attention. This framing is perhaps the greatest privilege we accord this surface. And we do so because it gives us a “scratch-pad” version of reality to work on. This is not a map. A painting does not stand-in for reality, it is a bounded and framed bit of reality, mediated reality. In this way it is no different from any of our interactions since signification, that other aspect of mediation, is always at work within us and between us and any exterior input – including all of our “internal” functions!
Unpacking is a bitch! We’ve not made much progress…. Confronting this privileged surface with our attention unlocks a reflection that lets us play with the boundaries of subjectivity. Within the field of focus as we attend on its surface we can observe our interaction as it unfolds. We can stop most activity – except the drying of the pigment perhaps – while we wait for inspiration or understanding or perception to “catch-up” with what is there in a way that is impossible in our broader interactions with the world.
We have entered into a relationship with an “inanimate” Being, but a Being none-the-less. It’s not “our” creation, but it is a creation in which we have taken part. It is not “virtual.” It is real, yet mediated. The difference being that any “map,” any “virtual reality” we might generate – create is too generous a word for the act of accumulation this boils down to! The difference between the virtual and something like a painting is the difference between the finite and the infinite. Any virtual reality is limited by the finite capacity of the “memory” of its system. It replicates our conditioning which is limited by our memory within an electronic simulacra that also has a limited memory – actually many times more limited. It cannot create anything that was not entered into it by acts of accumulation. Our Minds may be intrigued by the simulation for a while, but will always end up seeing through these limitations and become dissatisfied. Talk about futility!
A painting does not share those limitations. It is a collaboration, a dialogue between its “maker” and Mind, between it and whoever looks at it with whatever they bring to bear on it. That infinity opens up – grounded as it is in fundamental ambiguity – an infinity of potential responses, each mediated by conditioning but not limited by it. We’ve gone way beyond a reflection of heart’s desire or Narcissus’s mirror!
That a painting is a Being, may seem a preposterous claim of exclusivity for a crude daubing of pigment upon a surface. In fact it’s the opposite of a claim of exclusivity. It is an acknowledgement that everything is a Being, and that a painting is only different in that it gives us a chance to play with that reality and experience Being where we may not be accustomed to finding it.
The question of completion haunts the act of painting. One criteria is whether a painting can be seen as whole. Of course the empty expanse of an untouched surface is whole, a painting can be whole throughout its creation, but most likely it will lurch in and out of a state of wholeness into and out of fragmentation. This risk of falling is the “juice” of painting. This is where the excitement comes from. We risk fragmentation at any point when we make a change. Our conditioning is there ready to break a unity it does not recognize at any point! Coming to grips with this possibility and experiencing what such a process entails is one of the great lessons of painting, it gives it power as a practice.
The unity in a painting, our search for it, our learning to recognize it, and its needs, from us, to maintain its dynamic equilibrium; are all aspects of our discovery and relationship to the wider unity of Being. The drive to act on a painting comes from a sense of its lack of complexity, from its one-sidedness, its lack of Being. Our actions don’t generate Being, but they allow room for it to develop IF we are open to its birth pangs. It is the quickening of a painting’s life that motivates us to return and do it again. This bathing in acts of creation, as midwife and as parent? Connects us to the Unity of Being in a way that opens us to see how we are surrounded by such acts of Being. Unlike physical procreation with its selfish drives to carve out a unique place for “us” and “ours,” this creative process opens us to the interconnectedness of all.
These notes on the sources of painting carve out a distinction between the views of painting and its place in life that have dominated since at least around 1, 000 BCE when the archaic Greeks were formulating their mythos. I doubt that any of my characterization of art as springing from a wider connection and interaction with Being would have been unfamiliar to the Cave Artists of 25,000 years ago. It is an attempt to get past efforts to belittle and trivialize these feelings of connection in favor of placing desire at the pinnacle of human action. It’s not to quibble with any particular “movement” in art, but to carve out a stance that refuses to give the last word to any system of art as a mere service to the economies of desire. Art existed for decamillennia before it was constrained to such a narrow and restrictive channel. There is no coincidence that the loss of this connection can be associated with the rise in instability and the cult of death. Reconnecting art with these sources gives us a practice that can bring us some recognition of what equilibrium might mean after so much insistence that “salvation” lies with leaving it behind.