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Art

The world is a cliche. The more unique and surprising something is, the less likely it is to be true.

There were colours in the sunset last night that even an amateur watercolourist would have thought too obvious – lilac and aubergine, salmon and dusty rose, apricot and clementine – nature at its most gloriously insipid.

The task of the artist is not to be original. It is to show the true banality of the world and give it the illusion of novelty.

I almost never include images on this blog, because part of my purpose is to emphasize textuality through a medium that emphasizes visuality. However, my mother, Mary Jo Gordon has created a painting in response to one of my prose poems, “The Genuflection of the Moment”, so an exception is in order. I’ve also reprinted the source poem below.

The Genuflection of the Moment

There is a drifting and a falling that seizes time when the sun is setting and a summer is becoming an autumn and the heat of a day is fraying into the cold of a night. Each moment then genuflects to the circling of the sun and of the seasons, and their adoration makes us all the hushed attendants of a mystery. This time disdains all measure, passing with the incalculable rhythm of rustling leaves and blowing grasses and singing insects and cresting waves, finding the hollows and the spaces of the dimmed day. Such moments are marked only in their passing. They leave no inheritance. Without memory or remainder, they are only the splendid instant of their worship.

How is it possible to write the beautiful without writing the ugly also? And if we write both as fully as we feel them, how would the writing of it be comprehensible? Who would pretend to know it? It would surpass both the writing and the writer. It would no longer be writing but living. To read it would require entering into it bodily, like another universe, and there would be no returning from this journey, for there is no returning from the beauty and the ugliness of a life once lived.

This poem was written to appear on a sculpture by Guelph artist Ben McCarl called Tower of Dreams.

Dreams

Dreams tower only through accretion, one
laid thin atop another, always too slight,
too insubstantial, like drops of limestone
water that find their height only by course
of millennia, raising delicate
stalagmite fingers into the cave-dark,
trusting that there are other fingers too
reaching down to touch our towering dreams.

The essential saying of the artist is always, “Let there be.” No other saying is proper to the act of creation. The essential saying of the spectator is always, “Amen,” which is to say, “Let it be so.” No other saying is proper to the act of reception. In these two sayings the artist and the spectator together call art into being.

Agamben, Giorgio.  The Man Without Content.  1994.  Georgia Albert, translator.  Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1999.

I initially felt that The Man Without Content was less careful than some of Agamben’s other work, more rhetorical, less attentive to its source texts, a difference that I attributed to the fact that it was his first book.  As I let myself linger over it, however, the force of its argument began to impress itself on me, and I felt that I needed to go over some of its ideas again, which is what I have tried to do below.  I have no guiding argument or thesis for these reflections, only that they are the ideas that have clung, for lack of a more definitive word, to my thinking ever since I finished the book.

1) Agamben establishes a distinction between a present and a historical relation to the work of art.  He says that “The work of art is no longer the essential measure of man’s dwelling on earth” (33); that it “was not always an autonomous sentimental tonality and the particular effect of the work of art” (34); that it “does not satisfy the soul’s spiritual needs as it did in earlier times” (40); and that it “is no longer […] the concrete appearance of the divine” (41).  In each of these instances, and several more besides, his language insists on a temporal disjunction between a former relation to the work of art that “no longer” is what it was “in earlier times” and a present relation to the work of art that “was not always” what it is.  His tone in these passages, and indeed the project of the entire book, is in this sense unapologetically nostalgic.  It looks for a return to a certain stance before the work of art that once was but no longer is.

2) The present stance before the work of art understands art as “a privileged occasion to exercise […] critical taste” (41).  “Our tendency toward reflection and toward a critical stance,” Agamben says, “have become so strong that when we are before a work of art we no longer attempt to penetrate its its innermost vitality, identifying ourselves with it, but rather attempt to represent it to ourselves according to the critical framework furnished by aesthetic judgement” (40).  This critical judgement, however, “everywhere and consistently, envelops art in its shadow” (43), because “every time aesthetic judgement attempts to determine what the beautiful is, it holds in its hands not the beautiful but its shadow” (42).  The result of this critical distance is a strict division between the spectator, who regards the work of art as a privileged object for the exercise of aesthetic judgement, and the artist, who regards it as the pure expression of the formal principle.

3) Agamben describes the historical stance before the work of art as providing “the essential measure of man’s dwelling on earth,” insofar as it puts “man’s activity in tune with the divine world of creation” (34), and he consistently returns to this kind of spiritual language when he describes the work and the function of art, referring to it as “the concrete appearance of the divine, which causes either ecstasy or sacred terror in the soul” (41), and as “founded in the artist’s subjectivity with the work’s content in such a way that the spectator may immediately find in it the highest truth of his consciousness, that is, the divine” (47).  His references to this spiritual function of art, which are always closely related to humanity’s essential dwelling in the world and belonging to the world, are not strictly speaking theological in the sense of being in the service of any definite theology.  Rather, their function is to describe what is for Agamben the essential function of art: its ability to bring something “from concealment and nonebeing unto the light of presence” (59), which is to participate in the divine act of creation.

4) In fact, this idea is definitive of art for Agamben.  Every art, he says, is “production into presence” (59), by which he means pro-duction as poesis, an idea that he contrasts with reproduction as praxis.  The production of poesis is creative, bringing non-being into being, whereas the reproduction of praxis is active, merely maintaining existence.

5) By bringing non-being into being, poesis also brings humanity into being. “Man has on earth a poetic status,” Agamben says, “because it is poesis that founds for him the original space of his world.  Only because in the poetic he experiences his being in the world as his essential condition does a world open up for his action and his existence.  Only because he is capable of the most uncanny power, the power of production into presence, is he also capable of praxis, of willed and free activity” (101).  The creative production of poesis does not overcome or replace the active reproduction of praxis, but in fact founds it, places it in the world.  “By opening to man his authentic temporal dimension, the work of art also opens for him the space of his belonging to the world, only within which he can take the original measure of his dwelling on earth and find again his present truth” (101), and in this sense, “The gift of art is the most original gift, because it is the gift of the original site of man” (101).

6) The idea of temporal dimension in the preceding quotation plays a particularly important role in Agamben’s understanding of how the work of art grants the original dwelling place of man.  In his own words, “To look at a work of art means to be hurled out into a more original time: it means ecstasy in the epochal opening of rhythm, which gives and holds back.  Only by starting from this situation of man’s relationship with the work of art is it possible to comprehend how this relationship – if it is authentic – is also for man the highest engagement that keeps him in the truth and grants to his dwelling on earth its original status” (102).  I do not think that I am entirely able to follow Agamben’s argument here, but he seems to suggest that the experience of the work of art is an experience of being outside of linear time, of being thrown into a time that is not subject to chronology, but is instead governed by the work of art’s own giving and holding back, what Agamben calls rhythm.

7)  In this experience of the work of art as poesis, as a production into presence that grants humanity’s dwelling in the world through an experience of originary time, Agamben claims that the role of artist and spectator are at last returned to solidarity, because they are no longer able to maintain anything like critical or aesthetic distance between themselves or the work of art itself.  “In the experience of the work of art,” he says, “man stands in the truth, that is, in the origin that has revealed itself to him in the poeitic act.  In this engagement, in this being hurled into rhythm, artists and spectators recover their essential solidarity and their common ground” (102).  Put in terms of his earlier concern with the way that critical distance divides the work of art either into an object of criticism or an expression of formal principle, he says, “The work of art is neither a cultural value, nor a privileged object for the spectators, nor the absolute creative power of the formal principle; instead, it situates itself in a more essential dimension, because it allows man to attain to his original status in history and time in his encounter with it” (101).

The work of art, be it visual, literary, theatrical, musical, or anything else,  implies a division between the artist and a public, even if the position of the artist is multiple and undefined, even if the position of the public is occupied only by the artist.  This division is, or should be, only a provisional one, as when the artist continually functions as a public for the work of art as it is being created, as when the public is driven by the work of art to make art itself.  In practise, however, the division between artist and public is too often understood as absolute, or at the very least as surmountable only by the greatest difficulty, where the artist as genius produces the work of art almost entirely without influence, as an original work, and where the public passively receives this work, permitted only to critique art, never to participate in its creation.

This understanding of art is not supportable.  The figure of the artist as original genius is an obvious if persistent falsehood, in every case, and the figure of the passive public, though all too real in most cases, is the very antithesis of art.  If the public’s experience of art does not result in the creation of more art, than art has failed.  The work of art and its experience should, in every case, without exception, call the public to become the artist, and the work of creating art should, in ever case, without exception, drive the artist to become the public for other art.

A merely disinterested, passive, observing, critiquing public that refuses to participate in the creation of art ensures only that art will be confined to museums and universities, the domain of curators and professors and critics and other professional pedants who are more interested in describing and classifying art than in living through it.  This is not to suggest that the role of the public as critic is without value.  It is to suggest that public criticism must have as its aim the creation of new art, that it is too often concerned only with being criticism, and that criticism apart from creation is the destruction of art.

The public that art creates must never be satisfied to remain only a public.  It must begin to understand that being a public is an inseparable part of being the artist, that the public and the artist lead naturally one to the other, interpenetrate each other, cannot exist one without the other, must never be made to exist in isolation.  Unless the public must become the artist, art fails to be art, because it fails to be lived by those who offer and receive it.

I have never bothered to write anything in memory of a public figure before, and I may never do so again, so this should be some indication of how significant a figure Maurice Sendak is in my own personal canon and how deeply saddened I am at his recent passing.  His Outside Over There, is probably my favourite picture book ever made, and his illustrated editions of George MacDonald’s The Light Princess and The Golden Key are too beautiful even to describe.  What they possess, as all of his stories and art possess, is an understanding of the darkness that is a part of even the happiest child’s world.  He writes to children, but he never patronizes them, never makes light of their fears.  Instead, he takes these fears seriously enough that facing them becomes an act of true courage, and we begin to see that the fears of childhood always remain to be faced, that living with them is one of life’s hidden heroisms, and we find that he is writing to adults as well.

It grieves me that he will have no more stories for us.

I have been reading Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Muses, which includes an essay called “On the Threshold.”  This essay makes a close reading of a painting by Caravaggio called The Death of the Virgin, arguing that this painting locates the viewer on the threshold of death, the world, existence, and suggesting that art generally functions in this way, not so much representing the world as presenting it, locating us in the impossibility of the world, of existence.  Given my preoccupations with the idea of the threshold (see “On the Threshold of My Death” , “On the Threshold“, “The Door, the Threshold, the Between“, and “On the Scaffold“), this essay has obvious interest for me, but there are other less obvious ways that I found myself responding to it, not all of them closely related.  Rather than try to force connections between these things that do not exist.  I will simply list them.

1.  I cannot make myself like Jean-Luc Nancy.  Though I often appreciate his work, I find something cold in him, something that I more sense than understand.  In contrast to Derrida’s posture of a certain joy and a certain dance, which I respect but cannot emulate, and in even greater contrast to Heidegger’s posture of thinking thankfulness, which has become increasingly definitive for me, I find in Nancy only a posture of distance and reserve, the very posture that I dislike most in myself.

2.  The painting that Nancy analyzes, The Death of the Virgin, is one of three paintings that have long been significant to me, the other two being Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son and Caravaggio’s The Conversion on the Way to Damascus.  The Return of the Prodigal Son is a very famous picture, made still more famous in modern religious circles by a book of the same name by author Henri Nouwen, but I identified myself with it long before I read Nouwen, particularly with the figure of the prodigal’s elder brother on the right hand side.  Nouwen’s book, though insightful in many ways, fails to account for my identification with this figure, portraying the elder son’s distance as primarily one of jealousy and self-righteousness, while it always seemed to me that his distance was the distance of reflection, of thought, of consideration.  Rembrant’s elder son looks neither proud nor angry, only thoughtful, distant.  He is unable to let himself be undone enough to throw himself at the feet of his father like his brother does. The figure of John in The Death of the Virgin occupies a similar position.  Physically separated from the other apostles, his head resting on his hand, deep in reflection, he also is too occupied by his thoughtfulness to fully participate in the work of mourning that is going on around him.  He is separated from it by his thinking of it.  He is reflecting on his grief rather than being undone by it.  All of this is why Caravaggio’s The Conversion on the Way to Damascus is my favourite painting, because it represents my desire, which is the complete undoing of this reflective, thoughtful, contemplative distance.  Most representations of this scene depict a Saul who is kneeling or sitting in a halo of heavenly light, blind and fallen but still dignified and self-possessed.  These Sauls still manage to keep their distance from what they are experiencing, but not so Caravaggio’s Saul.  His Saul is lying on his back, in the dark, beneath the very hooves of his horse, his arms thrown up in fear or blindness or acceptance or sheer instinct or who knows what.  This Saul is undone, and though I fear that I am too often in the posture of the prodigal’s elder brother, my desire is to be undone in the way that Caravaggio’s Saul is undone.

3. The National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa is currently holding an exhibition of Caravaggio’s work, until September 11th.  Though my two favourite pictures are not in the exhibit, I would very much love to go.  Unfortunately, I have neither the time or the money to make the trip.  Here is a link to the list of paintings that are on display.

4.  I am intrigued by Nancy’s argument that art locates us at the threshold of the world, of existence, perhaps even as this threshold.  I will quote him several times, at length: 1) “So, we have entered there where we will never enter, into this scene painted on a canvas.  All at once, there we are.  We cannot exactly say that we have penetrated there, but neither can we say that we are outside.  We are there in a manner older and simpler than by any movement, displacement, or penetration.  We are there without leaving the threshold, on the threshold, neither inside nor outside – and perhaps we are, ourselves, the threshold.”  2)  “This is the ordinary command or demand of painting: very simple, very humble, even derisory.  See the invisible, not beyond the invisible, nor inside, nor outside, but right at it, on the threshold.”  3)  Painting paints the threshold of existence.  In these conditions, to paint does not mean to represent, but simply to pose the ground, the texture, and the pigment of the threshold.”

5.  I would like to hear Nancy in dialogue with Jean-Luc Marion on the subject of the relationship between art and religion, particularly with respect to the role of seeing and visibility.  I wonder whether Marion’s idea of the crossing of the visible might speak to Nancy’s concern that the religion requires of art  incarnation or reincarnation, while art requires of itself only carnation.

6.  I recall first seeing The Death of the Virgin in art class and being told that Caravaggio had used as a model for Mary a drowned woman who may have been a prostitute and may have been his mistress.  I remember thinking, while the class discussed the sacrilegious and iconoclastic nature of this choice, how profound a truth Caravaggio had thereby managed to portray.

Graham Ward’s The Politics of Discipleship –  I really enjoyed Ward’s earlier book, Barth, Derrida, and the Language of Theology, a careful and insightful work that responds to Derrida’s thinking with a respect that I have not often found in Christian thinkers, so I was expecting something more than I got from The Politics of Discipleship.  It still carries itself with a certain care and respect in its more philosophical sections, but much of its argument ventures into sociology and economics and politics in ways that I thought were less convincing.  I frequently found myself wishing that Ward would move more slowly, more cautiously, more precisely, more rigorously.  Each of the book’s sections needed its own book, needed to take its time, needed to make some time for what it had to say. Even so, there was much in it that I found useful, and I have quoted one section of it on several occasions now, so it is probably worth a read.  Just moderate your expectations.

John Gardner’s Grendel – I first read this book a number of years ago.  I liked it very much then but even more now on my second reading.  It is short, and it reads quickly, so it can feel deceptively simple, but it rewards an attentive reading with profundity.  I am addicted to the Beowulf legend, so I read or watch every adaptation that I can find, but I am almost always disappointed by portrayals of Grendel.  Everyone seems to want Grendel to be more human.  They try to develop sympathy for him by humanizing him, and they fail to understand how essential it is that he be evil, essentially and absolutely, in order that Beowulf might become the sort of hero that he is.  If Grendel is humanized, then Beowulf’s heroism is ambiguous, and this might make a perfectly good story, but it is no longer the story of Beowulf.  Gardner’s Grendel does not fall into this error.  Though his Grendel does inspire a certain sympathy, it is a sympathy for the role that he must play as monster rather than a sympathy for a humanity that is simply hidden behind a monstrous appearance.  This Grendel is never anything than a monster, and it is precisely this that inspires our sympathy.  He is my favourite portrayal of the Grendel figure outside of the original.

Charles Williams’ The Greater Trumps – I never understand a Charles Williams novel.  I only experience it.  I experience it as a mystery and as a pleasure and as a wonder.  My capacity for description is always beggared by his writing, and I can only ever tell others to read him for themselves, so I will say it once more: read Charles Williams for yourselves.

Margaret Atwood’s  Oryx and Crake – I read this book on the recommendation of a friend, though I have never been a big fan of Atwood’s.  It is not a bad book.  If I had not known who the author was, I would even have said that it was a fairly good book, on the higher end of the science fiction genre with respect to its writing, though not much by the way of science fiction, seeing as it represents a futuristic world in which people are still using CD ROMs.  Yes, I said CD ROMs.  Unfortunately, it is not the work of some middling science fiction writer but of the most recognized name in Canadian literature, and so it stands as one more example of why Atwood simply does not deserve this status.  The story is mostly interesting.  The characters are sometimes engaging.  The plot is well structured.  All well and good, to be sure, but none of this sets Atwood above any of a dozen genre writers I have read over the years, and she offers precious little else.  There is not a single sentence in the whole of the book worth savouring as a sentence, as language, as literature.  It is not a bad book, as I said, and maybe it was intended to be nothing more, which I can respect, but I do wish people would stop telling me how wonderful a writer she is.

John Porcellino’s Thoreau at Walden – If I had ever imagined the story of Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond being told in cartoon, which I assure you is a thing I have never imagined, I would have been very doubtful about the wisdom of such a project.  I would have suggested that the very fine balance between romantic ideal and practical wisdom in Thoreau, a balance that too often teeters in one direction or another even in the original, would have been impossible to maintain in something as simple as a cartoon.  I would also, it seems, have been wrong, since Porcellino’s book maintains the sensibility of Thoreau’s writing admirably, though its art is very simple.  It was only a matter of minutes to read, but it’s effect lingered much longer.