Wednesday, April 12, 2006

art in whitewater time

We start from here: that most art, for all the PR about absolute freedom, is created in relation to certain themes and problems. How can this sound both blasphemous and tautological? Of course people will keep doing whatever they want to: people will probably keep on painting nudes etc as long as there are nudes to paint, they are and always will be free to do that. But of course the art that seems most numinous/relevant/revolutionary seems to break ground. And this is the point: art can only break ground where there is ground to break. Meaning that it can only break ground if it exists in the context of some kind of obsession/thematic/problem.

In whitewater time, these thematics follow hard after each other like TV channels surfed by a bored idiot. How do you flatten a painting? How do you remove the symbolic value of a painting? How do you deconstruct gender? Boring, boring, boring, like reading transcripts of monks debating angels on pinheads. Even now "new media" installations that juxtapose the virtual and the real as if their interpenetration was some sort of ontological scandal are starting to smell like ancient Victorian pornography. "LOOK at this TART showing her ANKLES!!! Isn't she a SLUT!!!"

In this environment, it seems hopeless (or at least boring) to read, let alone write a history or a taxonomy from first principles. I am highly impatient of learning or inventing new terms unless their usefulness is demonstated in the next paragraph. The principle of parsimony must be applied with an iron fist. I am particularly suspicious of grounding abstract principles in words from languages other than the primary language of the text. Heidegger used a lot of Greek, but it was justified because he wanted to talk about things for which there were no German words. Derrida forced English-speakers everywhere to use words like "differance," "trace" and "deconstruction," but again, he was writing in French to begin with and these coinages proved, like geometric axioms, to be highly useful, far-reaching notions. I still think though, that he did a particularly bad job of explaining what the hell he meant. No Feynman, he.

And so we arrive at my three models for clear writing: Richard Feynman, Philosophical Investigations-era Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Brian Eno. Everything they wrote was short and aimed at illuminating/dissolving a specific/immediate issue. Feynman was fond of referring to himself as a Babylonian (as opposed to Greek) physicist. Greeks were supposedly more interested in creating huge, monolithic, self-consistent superstructures of ideas, whereas Babylonians were more interested in finding techniques that bore immediate practical results. By which Feynman meant he was not averse to utilizing a range of techniques, perhaps even a multiplicity of incommensurable metaphors, to make predictions of practical value. That's for me.

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