On my desk I have a card, given to me a few years ago, with a John Cage quotation:
I confess I don’t know where to begin with this blog. It’s a conscious decision, after all, to begin anywhere, and not from a known beginning point. Cage’s suggestion seems to be that where to begin need not be conditioned. Or perhaps what Cage is getting at is that this choice has nothing to do with the content of ‘anywhere’ or ‘beginning.’ Or maybe he believes that, even a chosen and conditioned beginning is anywhere. I don’t need to get it right or know more to begin, I don’t need to locate myself better, or even know where I am headed. A very Cagey quote.
The deeper meaning of the Charles Ives quote at the head of this blog is that much knowledge and discovery is contingent and provisional – that many times wrong turns out be right – and vice versa. In art we see this over and again – the work that is roundly dismissed and ridiculed in the moment (Duchamp’s Fountain and Large Glass come to mind, for different reasons) simply abides in its reality over time, and in new encounters something new happens. One can never tell. What is limiting to new encounters is an attitude that superimposes a set of fixed beliefs on an experience, like Ives’ publisher assuming he wished to compose in standard Western harmony.
The vastness and contingency of history, though, and the truth of the uncertain unfolding of things, can seem overwhelming and humbling when encountered in the simplicity of my experience, especially when I need it to mean something specific. But I find comfort in this uncertainty. I have headed out on the journey this blog with some partial knowledge in many areas, and a passion for experiencing art – an electric, dynamic, compelling constantly changing experience that has held my attention since I was 5. If my experience shows me something, it shows me that art, like life and truth, is never fixed—but it can be encountered really, in the simple straightforward and changing reality of what is in my experience here and now; that, (and as part of nature, as all is nature), it is never a known or knowable quantity, but unfolds in real time, as one component of the unpredictable evolutionary movement of nature, not discovered but encountered, merely encountered.
I have faced criticism in this blog for my misunderstandings of philosophy (true), for a supposed attack on meaning (false), and for trying to take away expertise from the experts (really false). So I thought I would restate things – not necessarily responding to criticism, but simply presenting the thoughts in the real time of their unfolding. Thoughts are, after all, objects too.
What I am proposing is simple, and based on a fact: the art object is, in fact, an object, with its own life, activity, relations, and freedom. It does not exist for me anymore than my wife or daughters exist for me. It is radically available and unavailable (in the same way that all objects are) to all, equally. This flattens my assumption that my view of the object – no matter how learned, experienced, subtle, nuanced, clever, etc. – is privileged above others. But let’s be clear: what I am saying is not that all views are the same, nor that we can’t value some views, but that our valuing isn’t ever final – it is always provisional and contingent, momentary, fleeting, and subject to revision. The philosopher Levi Bryant calls this ‘ontological flattening’: the being status of all things human and non-human, imagined and here and there, is the same, but this doesn’t preclude provisional and contingent judgments about value, or an acknowledgment that things are very different from one another, with vastly different functions, abilities, power, and force. My contention, though, is that this ontological flattening, when realized, has a powerful effect on the way we encounter objects, first, and the way we encounter ourselves, second.
What is striking to me in the tone of most writing and spoken discussions about art are that they seem anything but provisional, contingent, or (gasp) possibly wrong. (Of course that wrongness is provisional too, it could turn out to be right!). We seem, in our discussions about art, to need to be right, final, decisive, and exclusive. And I don’t believe this is a function of the structure of language: the argument that, at least in most modern languages, the economy of subject-object linguistic structure, and even the dialectical form of argumentation, predisposes communication to reduction, certainty, power, dominance, and privilege. No, as poetic uses of language have shown since Homer, language need not be as strident as all this – it can be suggestive and open and allowing of its own limitations, fallibility and contingency. But this is only part of the point: language can be precise and economical – like this writing, here in this blog – while acknowledging (and actually building on) its own failure, impermanence, loss, in its very structure.
For example, the notion about the need for permanence in language has spurred a series of questions: where did that arise? Is it a function of nature or culture? Do I know, or even have a guess? As many have observed, the structure of communication may be more related to early man’s survival need to quickly identify and mitigate potential threats to survival – it may have nothing at all to do with any macro or ‘cultural’ decision, but may be concurrent with needs driven by biologically necessity. But is that true? Perhaps the degree of nature and culture in the mix has varied by micro-degrees over time in a way that would be impossible to retrace. Or maybe the function of language is purely cultural, a concept of ‘language’ emerging with the rise of a sustained release from biological necessity that allows mental reflection. This is a new thread, a new line of inquiry, growing and emerging here and now. And I don’t know the end or even the means of it right now. It can be disconcerting, as a reader, to be led down a new path, to be shown a new thought, especially when that thought remains raw and untethered. But this is the difference between an attitude that seeks finality, and one that seeks to discover, experiment, and respond to what’s happening – really, right now.
This is what we’ve forgotten in our encounters with art: how to be real – how to allow the flow and uncertainty and continual newness of discovery that is currently happening in the encounter, to exist and breathe itself into that encounter, rather than choking it off at the source with a set of preconceptions about the way things need to mean, how they mean, and what they mean.
The strident tone of our descriptions, I think, emerges from the same basic, syntonic assumption about the status of the object and our relation to it that is pervasive in culture: we assume we are above it, and it is there for our use (and abuse!). The way we look at objects is selfish, in more colloquial words, in that we see the object as co-extensive with our experience, a passive actor in our play, and one that we direct at will. In fact there’s no real awareness of directing these actors at all, for our attitude about objects reflects a total reification – it goes unconsidered, and our view of the object goes unexamined, the same way assumptions about the shape of the world went unexamined for centuries, and the way assumptions about racial and sexual inequality continue to go unexamined currently. Language, in the hands of this selfishness, merely confirms existing beliefs, looks for evidence to support known positions, or (at worst) invents its own evidence (think of climate change deniers).
By contrast, what I am calling a real encounter would include in its experience and language a deep sense of its permanent changeability. A real encounter would be, as Adam Miller in his recent book Speculative Grace quotes Bruno Latour, “partial and modest.” A real encounter could not support such invented evidence – that evidence would appear immediately as so provisional as to be unconvincing. Real encounters get us to the doorstep of confronting our assumptions, examining our prejudices, and refocusing our attention on the truth of the encounter – truth not with a final capital ‘T’, but the provisional, contingent truth of what is happening in front of us, given all the limitations of our thinking and experiencing apparatus, given the failure and fallibility of our real status, given the contingent facts of our immediate environment, given the always-changing and slippery elements of all of these factors.
A real encounter means letting go of our positions and beliefs about art – not in the relativistic sense of abdicating what seems to be real and true to us, now, but rather, in fact, by engaging MY experience more fully, AS real to ME here and now, and NOT to any other, anywhere else. Letting go means holding my immediate experience with a kind of provisional grace, humility, irony, and openness, that allows it the full breadth of its encounter, while not letting it kill the art object in the process, nor hamper its ability to experience the continued unfolding reality of the encounter, nor truncate its openness to revision and growth. Letting go seems to mean I embrace the anywhere that is the real encounter, here and now. At least that’s the way it appears right now, subject to revision.