Is art an unalterable conduit to transcendental realms? Canadian talk show host Dini Petty spoke of seeing a Van Gogh at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris that made her cry, a painting that triggered powerful affects, which reminds us that Van Gogh wrote of his intention to use color to express deep emotions. His images trigger such feelings that we find ourselves in a world beyond our limits, one that is transcendental. Simply put, there’s a magic world that can move us to joy or sorrow. Being smart can fail but our ignorance reeks with potential.
In 1969 Harold Rosenberg in The New Yorker wrote that “The function of the university is to impart knowledge, but art is not solely knowledge and the problems proposed by knowledge; art is also ignorance and the eager consciousness of the unknown that impels creation. No matter how cultivated he is, every creator is in some degree a naïf, a primitive, and relies on his particular gift of ignorance.” Robert Storr explained that in the 1960s the art world moved from the Cedar Tavern to the seminar room. Unfortunately in academia as in all institutions there’s no place for eccentrics, confusion, chaos, the indescribable. In the arts “quality” is also downplayed since personal judgments are contestable, undemocratic. Yet we differ more than we think.
Carl Jung writes of four mental functions. Sensations inform us of the external world, the intellect compares and classifies, feelings tell it’s worth to us (value judgments), and the intuition can peek around corners. For most people one function predominates. Intellectuals are rarely sensualists. This difference leads to misunderstandings, as we are often blind to another’s brilliant light.
Nossis of Locri was a Greek epigrammist and poet circa 300 BCE who lived in southern Italy at Locri. Her epigrams were inspired by Sappho, whom she claimed to rival. Her words might well echo in the arts today; “Nothing is sweeter than Eros. All other delights are second to it. Whomever Aphrodite has not kissed knows not what flowers are her roses.” We rethink sensations and sensuality in art when reading that in a 1998 panel discussion titled “Vision and Visuality” sponsored by the Dia Art Foundation, Rosalind Kraus mentioned that Duchamp hated retinal art and when he talked about it, it was always to belittle it. We’d be confused hearing Stravinsky say that he hated melody… yet Duchamp’s profoundly influenced the visual arts.
So much that at a 1995 conference on aesthetics at New York’s International Center for Photography the audience called for a rejection of aesthetic in art. And the work on the walls had been de-aestheticized. Large photographs by well-know artists in veined wooden frames so wide they competed with and negated the visual impact of the work, leaving those photographs to be read as milestones, they had become illustrations of photographic history. The status of photography as an art form has plummeted since and the medium is no longer a high note as it was twenty years ago.
It seems evident if art is boring it is bad art. Even when artists claim boredom as a disingenuous statement it defines a bad artist who made a bad choice, else the dictionary contradicts itself. Solipsism is not an option; art should be explanatory, not textplanatory nor leaning on history; that is no longer art but illustration… of art theory. An illustration awakens no feeling, it is not something we yearn for, technically skilled reproductions are a neutral medium. We don’t accept commercial illustration as art unless contextualized, nor should we accept those who illustrate art theory as a career. Susan Sontag writes “the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellectual upon art.”
It took me a lifetime to learn that what I saw as my own intellectual failure might simply have been a paradigm shift, a way of seeing the world. At the age of 14 I was puzzled by Duchamp’s glass installation “The Bride Stripped Bare”, I could not make sense of it for decades till one day it dawned on me the thing was a Sphinx. One that presented a riddle without answers. The work pretended to be intelligent beyond comprehension but actually it was empty, did not say anything and it accomplished this by hinting at seemingly hidden secrets in order to dazzle the gullible. Could the conceptual movement as launched by Duchamp be an act, a ritual of making objects that looked intelligent and pretend to knowledge? Did Duchamp create a fetish of knowledge, appealing to the hidden religious side of thinkers, the blind spot of intellectuals? Duchamp’s grandchildren, felt, fat, and fur, have also twiddled with critical discernment and honesty in the arts; Joseph Beuys made it all up, excusing his moral lapse on the grounds the art world needed myths.
The fatal attraction of intellectual art is that so few people demonstrate any capacity for deep thought that intellectual mysteries are appealing. There is a thrill to the very idea that here resides knowledge sharing the same space as your heavy feet, or perhaps it is enough to know the work is smart and you’re smart by association. A mythical participation in confirmed intellectual activity would be tantalizing to those who admire and grasp for things of the mind… as the picture-porn of Impressionism does the same for sensualists. Quantum physicists have expensive machines testify to the simultaneous absence and presence of nothing, poets have Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez, and those who think also need something to draw them forward, make them yearn for the unknown with promise of greater thoughts to come, an encouragement to try harder. Now imagine if we were to banish these false idols, how do we find a genuine knowledge and definition of art? What and whom can we trust? We need new observations.