Monday, January 28, 2013

Defining the Undefinable (part 2)

Let us turn to some philosophical and perhaps metaphysical underpinnings that drive the creation of art. On the one hand we have the monetized system of art, which says that ultimately what is of greater value must by the same virtue be a greater work of art. This is the contemporary formula of the market system. The flaws are inherent and one does not have to go too far to see and understand that flaw, because not every artwork that commands a bigger price is necessarily better than another of lesser or no value at all. Value in dollars does not equal value of importance or value of meaning. Damien Hirst can have his assistants work around the clock producing one dimensional paintings and sculptures that will sell at exorbitant prices at commercial galleries and at auctions, (maybe not so much these days) but he cannot imbue those works with an equal amount of meaning when the works and the production of them are itself meaningless. Warhol was much closer to the truth about this split in art production when he said that he wanted to be a machine and turned his studio into a factory of artworks. Hirst on the other hand, manages to attach an empty gesture to each piece and calling it meaningful, just because it deals with an idea so loaded with meaning….death. What is at work here however is a simple transference of a deeper meaning into a signifier all but emptied of its meaning the way that modern day logos work for corporations. The logo is simply a symbol which stands in for the corporation’s image and by extension what it does within society. It is as if the symbol of death in Hirst’s art is simply just a logo slapped onto the side of individually packaged pieces. This does not however make them more meaningful. Everybody is obsessed by death. That does not make Hirst a special commentator on this particular problematic, just because he can make artwork about it or rather attach that meaning, like an ironic logo, in post-production .

On the other end of the spectrum lies the art as created by, for and through higher faculties of humans. Such art does not have to be monetized and therefore artificially valued, in fact when the question of money is taken out of the equation we get what could be called “true” art, art that is created solely for the purpose of being art. This brings up the ontological question of what is it that makes something art? Are there not differences between craft and art even where the question of money is concerned? Craft, like art can be produced simply for the enjoyment of production. This does not make it lesser craft. Art created for the enjoyment of creation is also not lesser art. What separates art and craft is hidden in their essence. Here we need to borrow from existentialism to understand this separation. In the basic problem of existence and essence we are confronted with two variations. In one essence, precedes existence as in a set of plans or instructions preceding the production of an object. The essence of an object is clearly defined before the object ever becomes or is created. Thus it can be said that the essence of the object exists while the object itself never has to exist itself to be understood as that object. In the other, existence precedes essence, as in a human being, who has to exist first in order to define who he is. There is no formula or a set of blueprints to form a human being and no one will know what a human being will look like and act like until he is born. A similar problem is in play where craft and art are concerned. Art is in most cases something in which its existence precedes its essence, and vice versa where craft is concerned. To define art, it first must exist. An artist can have a concept, an idea, even a set of blueprints for his artwork, and this artwork may then be produced according to those blueprints, it is however the definition that must later follow actual existence. For most artists, the blueprints are simply guidelines with no hard rules. An artwork will not necessarily end up looking like a drawing in a sketchbook or what is in the artist’s head. This is crucial to understand because craft functions in a very similar way except that in post-existence, once the object is made, there is no need for further definition or justification. The object simply exists, and in most cases, plans for a craft object have been clearly defined, if not the object itself, then at the very least the way that it is created. A wood carving is a set of instructions, an essence for a craft object. A work of art however, doesn’t need to have, and usually doesn’t have a set of instructions by which it has to be created. In such cases it is easy for a work of art to slip into the realm of craft. In contemporary society the line between art and craft has blurred so much it is virtually impossible to distinguish one from the other.

One other defining criterion however seems to lie in the question of production itself. The craft object’s production is typically a set of learned gestures, whether through being passed down within the family or learned at school, that get repeated in order to satisfy the object’s integrity and identification with the craftsperson who made it. The visible mark of the woodcarver’s hand justifies that identification. This integrity is then coupled with recycled imagery and symbolism. As a result the craftsperson does not have to go far for inspiration to create another piece. A work of art on the other hand does not have to follow a similar mode of production each time a new piece is created. In some instances the drive towards new and different modes of production is what defines the art itself. Imagery and symbolism are only contingent, helpful but not necessary. The endless repetition of gestures can in effect be detrimental to art, rendering it categorical and boring. Such art is emptied of all substance early on and can never truly be reinvested with meaning. Art strives toward change, craft strives toward tradition.

In the metaphysical realm and the definition of art, we must turn to the work of E. F. Schumacher, and his concept of the “levels of being”, borrowed directly from western occult traditions (whether Schumacher was aware of the similarity is uncertain). Schumacher delineates the progressions of evolution (not in the traditional Darwinian or evolutionist sense however) between the four kingdoms of mineral, plant, animal and human. Mineral and plant kingdoms are separated by the existence of life. Where mineral simply exists, a plant lives its existence. Between plant and animal exists a separation on the level of consciousness. A plant is not conscious in any true sense of the word the way that an animal is. An animal on some levels then also possesses emotions and intelligence. Between animal and human exists the level of self-consciousness or self-awareness, the hardest of the levels of being to comprehend, even by humans, a totally out of the scope of modern science. In equation form the above would look like this

Mineral = m
Plant = m+x
Animal = m+x+y
Human = m+x+y+z

Each consecutive letter (x,y,z) represents the three upper levels of being. Only humans have all three present from the upward evolution from one kingdom to the next, when each one was carried over from each previous existence (this is the common occult knowledge of the evolution of the four kingdoms), thus allowing them, through the level of self-awareness, to think abstractly, grow spiritually and thus actually participate in creating their environment and the world in which they live, something denied to the other strata of existence. Science, typically relegates humans to the animal kingdoms as “thinking robots” or “naked apes”, completely disregarding the inner lives that each human experiences, simply because they are non-measurable and therefore outside of the scope of science for consideration. Schumacher therefore realized that all science is in effect solely dealing with inanimate matter in order to justify and understand the world of the living, something which he found irreconcilable, giving credence to the 300 year old split between science and religion. Art falls out of sync with science completely, because as a product of this higher human faculty it can never be measured or experimented upon, but that is exactly where the absolute and irrefutable existence of art comes in. As a product of a reflexive faculty, the mind, it has more in common with religion and spirituality than with science, and thus the effect art has on the soul can be explained and defined. To further clarify this problem, Schumacher proposed the concept of progressions. Each progression underlies the evolutionary movement between each level of existence, increasing each time from passivity to activity.

Mineral = cause
Plant = stimulus
Animal = motive
Human = will

As each progression increases in complexity, so does the unpredictability of existence and the richer the experience. At the human level the progressions from cause to stimulus, to motive to will result in a being capable of producing a work of art simply for the sake of producing a work of art, or for the sake of elevating other human beings to its own level. Does spirituality not work the same way? Will in this sense is as indispensable as shelter and food in the existence of human beings. Art which does not strive toward the will to truth according to Schumacher devolves into two categories. Art that appeals to feelings is entertainment and art that affects will is propaganda. Art therefore has to transcend entertainment and propaganda to become great.

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