Saturday, March 15, 2014

A space between the uncanny and the abject

Walking along the sidewalk on the edge of campus, I had a unique opportunity to experience the fuzzy boundary between two related, yet distinct aesthetic categories: the uncanny and the abject.

The object prompting this experience was a detached weave, which initially appeared to be a dead bird. At first, my aesthetic response was horrified repulsion at the abjection of such a thing, as is to be expected. The abjection was worse than that which typically emanates from a dead bird as this appeared to be a larger bird, on the order of a crow. But as I realized it was not a bird, but rather a fringy strip of hair and adhesive, the horror shifted into a gray territory between the abject and the uncanny.

Dead organisms (or hyperrealist sculptures, wax museum replicas, taxidermied animals, certain cyborgs, etc) are very often sources of the feeling of the uncanny: the uncanny is the aesthetic category that occurs when confronted with something that is familiar and yet, in some profoundly wrong way, simultaneously unfamiliar. In a word, we might describe it as the antifamiliar. Imagine the revulsion you feel when a celebrity gets a bad face-lift – that feeling, where Kenny Rogers looks like a bad wax museum replica of himself, is what we call the uncanny. The uncanny in nonliving objects seems to attune the viewing subject to a feeling of anxiety, essentially grounded in the question “what if this thing moves?” It can be a very strong feeling; I could not even enter the Marc Sijan exhibition at the museum because I heard a noise as I approached the first figure at the entrance and it made me too anxious to do anything but cautiously sidle my way back out of the gallery. (A further question I have considered is whether there might be a metaform of the uncanny if we compare Sijan’s work to Duane Hanson’s.)

The uncanny dimension, however, can be outweighed in various cases when a lifeless body confronts us. Abjection is the aesthetic category of debasement and disgust – dead bodies are of course potentially both uncanny and abject, but abjection assumes more wretched states and materials: hair or fingernail sweepings, excrement, blood, rotting foods… abjection is more emphatically disgusting than disquieting, and I feel it can easily overshadow the uncanny. Roadkill, for instance, is usually too abject for the uncanny to register very much. The dead deer on the roadside is abject on one hand for the blood and the guts spilling out of it, but on the other hand, the context of the open world I believe makes it abject. This becomes more apparent when we consider if you were to discover a dead body in a trash receptacle (which is a phobic anxiety I have any time I have to open a trash container.) The immediate experience I would imagine would be a sort of abject trauma beyond uncanniness; it would be very different from seeing a body in calling hours with an open-casket.

The detached weave was unique in that it was almost equally abject and uncanny. That is, it literally could move about in a gust of wind – in fact, it could fly right into you, and perhaps it did fly into someone, given the wind over the weekend. The horror of this being flown into would potentially operate at two levels – an abject horror at the mere fact of detached hair, and at the same time, the uncanny horror of a realization of the fear at the heart of the uncanny – the thing flapping about as if it actually were a dead bird come to life.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Fragility and Alienation in Kantian Universality



When we say that beauty is subjective, we mean something like this: a painting, a landscape, a song, etc, is not in and of itself actually beautiful, but rather that the beauty dimension is a sort of illusion in the mind of the viewer. Despite the understanding we might have that beauty is not an inherent feature of an object or experience in itself, but rather a subjective response we are compelled to superimpose upon it, nevertheless, the beauty of a Beethoven string quartet feels as inherent a characteristic as greenness is an inherent characteristic of grass, or coldness of ice. That is, just as you can’t strip away the green from the grass, beauty feels like it couldn’t be stripped from the music; it just seems to be there. And just as we don’t feel like the greenness of grass is a subjective matter that occurs somewhere between our eyes and visual cortexes, we don’t actually feel like the beauty of music is actually only subjective, or imaginary, or a matter of choice.

As a result of this state, where beauty is experienced as a virtual reality dimension of a thing, we tend to expect that others will agree that the beauty is there, in the same way we expect others to agree that a blade of grass is, in reality, green. In other words, we commonly say that art and beauty are purely subjective, but when you are really gripped by a piece of art or music and feel that intense sensation of beauty, where your hair stands on end and tears are brought to your eyes, it doesn't feel subjective, but rather feels quite objective and "real."

What results from this is a social component of beauty, which has two basic sides: one, a potential embarrassment, and the other, a sort of pride. These manifest what I observe as two different types of behavior in turn. I will account for the latter first.

Why do we like to post songs on Facebook? Why do we use Pinterest or Tumblr? And why is "liking" or "faving" a part of this experience? There are many ways to explain this phenomena to be sure, but an explanation from the vantage point of this entry is that we want to share things we find beautiful, and when we do this, we want others to feel the same way. Beauty allows us to virtually externalize our subjective states in a way that isn't otherwise easy, if even possible. A piece of beautiful art is able to crystallize something you feel but could never really articulate and, in turn, to present it in simple, sensate form. Beauty utters the ineffable (which presumably undergrids everything, if you will indulge me some portentiousness.) To find that someone else connects to the object in question and "likes" or "favs" it is to feel, through proxy perhaps, a connection beyond the object. Your own subjective response feels all the more real by virtue of the agreement of others. And thus we want to share the things we find aesthetically right, if not beautiful. This aspect of aesthetic experience allows us to form communities (this is a term I tend to associate with Dave Hickey in regards to aesthetics) around things we agree are beautiful. It is the mechanism of stylistically-oriented subculture. It is the reason bands are able to sell t-shirts. It isn’t trivial and I don’t think it is even really secondary.

On the other hand, and what is more interesting to me, a fragility embedded in the experience of beauty becomes apparent when disagreement occurs.

If I am lecturing to a class on aesthetics and I share something I truly feel is an example of beauty and the response of the class is something other than their agreement, it is a painful experience. In turn, of course, is a feeling of abject, awkward embarrassment to be in the audience that is being exposed to a botched beauty attempt. Someone is reading a poem or playing an acoustic guitar and it isn’t good and you don’t know what to do so you play with your iPhone because what else can you do in such a crisis?

Along similar lines is the potential debasement of the aesthetic dimension of something when it enters the larger public sphere. It would not be uncommon nor would it be wrong to feel a kind of betrayal when a song you have loved is used in an advertisement. Beauty does not really occur in a vacuum, despite the “white cube” rhetoric of modern gallery spaces. The power of soundtracks should go without saying. An image can be altered and manipulated in myriad ways merely by the accompaniment of music; it is as effective as it is subtle. If beautification through association is possible, why wouldn’t the opposite be as well?

A song by The Smiths called “Paint a Vulgar Picture” provides some insight into the nature of debasement and fandom:


“I walked a pace behind you at the soundcheck
You're just the same as I am
What makes most people feel happy
Leads us headlong into harm”

The key feature of the dynamic described in this song hinges around the distinction between “most people” and “us.” This is not a description of an ostensibly universal appeal of the object of fandom (described as “another dead star”), but rather very limited, personal connection felt by the narrator. (As a sidenote, I think this is another song Morrissey wrote about himself, which hopefully doesn’t complicate things too much.)

Kant describes the aspect of aesthetic judgment where we expect others to agree as “universality,” though we might use a word like “universalizability.” That is to say that for Kant, the community that a person expects will agree with an aesthetic judgment has no bounds. The nature of aesthetic experience in Kant’s conception of it is that anyone anywhere making an aesthetic judgment of beauty should feel like anyone else anywhere else will agree with the validity of that judgment. Or to use Kant’s word, you universalize your aesthetic judgments. Perhaps this expectation is an ideological feature – an artifact that emerged somewhere between the Symposium and the Critique of Judgment as a result of the philosophical baggage the concept of “beauty” acquired along the way (IE associations with “truth”, “goodness”, etc, all associated, in turn, with brute political or moral imperatives.) Perhaps the expectation of universalizability is a sign that our notion of beauty is corrupted.

In any event, this is a feature of Kant’s critique I find worthwhile to question: is it not typical of humans to identify their humanity at the level of microcommunities rather than toward an abstact whole? Isn’t it possible that, while a person might expect others to agree, this does not necessarily include all others – far from it, in fact? If you are a Morrissey fan and the world seems cruel, insensitive, wrong, etc, why should one expect the entire universe to agree about beauty? After all: “the world won’t listen.”

I might describe this limited scope of applicability as “aesthetic alienation.” That is to say, I think that we do project the validity of our aesthetic judgments onto other people, but we limit the extent of this projection. 

Different sources of beauty may entail different possibilities for social presentation. Is it comprehensible to imagine Mark Kozelek playing in an arena? It would be crass and absurd. While it is empirically possible that there are enough people who like Mark Kozelek to fill an arena, if you experience the music in very personal terms, mass appeal would be totally incongruous and aesthetically debased. When “personal” is an aspect of the aesthetic character of something, quality becomes bluntly inextricable with quantity: where art is “personal,” the better it is, the less of an audience you will expect to “relate.”

On the other hand, it goes without saying that ACDC will play in an arena and so an arena is probably aesthetically integral to the experience – of COURSE other people like ACDC, and of course there are enough to fill an arena in any given city. (I choose the examples of Mark Kozelek and and ACDC because Mark Kozelek has released an album of Bon Scott-era ACDC covers which render the songs abjectly poingnant and personal.) In effect, this sort of economics of fandom seems to be built into styles which have subcultural extensions; the discrete boundaries (and thus, the sanctity) of the community must not be overreached by popular appeal to the larger social sphere. This situation is grist for much “hipster” bashing, but I think it is actually a simple and basic mechanism of how taste actually works; the difference is that prior to the 00s, discrete styles were a possibility and we had words for them and their subcultural extensions like “punk” or “disco”. Basically, to account for this mechanism: we want our tastes to mean something commensurable with how deeply we might feel moved by them. The way we measure this meaning is a sort of balancing act between qualifying and quantifying factors – how precisely do we relate to the other people who are relating to the art?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Artist Statement - 2012

Long before I was born my greatgrandfather was a lawman. One day when transporting a prisoner to be deported from the country, the man, handcuffed to my greatgrandfather, leaped from the train, tearing off my greatgrandfather’s arm. 

I knew what painting was before I knew there was art. The first painting I remember was a picture of a clown on black velvet in the basement. This object seemed to turn the space into a terrifying void. Once I learned that there was art, I always heard that I should have such feelings about it.

I make caveman art with paper. I aspire to make allegories despite never understanding them.

I am inspired by a fragmentary understanding of German philosophy and a complete understanding of Judas Priest records played backwards.

I am motivated by the prospect of feeling like Manet.

My pictures are inspired by old freemen who roam the forest and country, a bloody arm dangling from their wrists, and graven images of clowns who terrify and tempt from their exiled spaces. My ideal is an object that will operate outside of any notion of art. I cast myself as Anti-Oedipus in an allegory against interpretation.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Junk mail art

Would art fiction be more enjoyable to read than actual art history?

(A work of art fiction is a text [or otherwise an information package] which describes art which has not actually been produced and/or artists who do not actually exist as such.)

Ostensibly I feel this is a possibility. There is something very curious about the dynamic between work and diversion and the way something can become so engrossing simply by being a diversion of one's productive energies and thinking.

Banality itself becomes seductive when presented as a game; this is apparent from the habitual playing of desktop Solitaire to the addictive potential of Second Life. (I wonder what the aspect of explicit rules and formulated limitations involved has to do with this seductiveness...)

There is something vital about aesthetics in this dynamic, and I think it is vital to the (sensual/first-hand) experience of the work of art. A viewer does not necessarily need to expect that a work of art will serve an instrumental purpose, providing a neat and clear little lesson they can take away, solving a particular problem, or even being something that can be agreed about. Yet a viewer does at least require an understanding of the rules ordering the work to allow the inexhaustible ineffabilities of the aesthetic to be enacted.

Art fiction I imagine presupposes a set of rules as fiction. The rules of fiction are understood quite naturally and are of course amenable to engrossment as diversion. If art history presupposes rules as history (not even to mention as art history), the complexity and incommensurability is of an altogether different order than that of fiction and, I would argue, holds less potential for aesthetic enjoyment.

A text in either event, however schematic, presupposes fundamentally textual interests, and this presupposition I suspect is inherent and native to the act of reading.

As an art historian/critic/philosopher, I may treat works of art rhetorically. Indeed as an artist, I may produce works of art rhetorically. Doing so will satisfy these fundamentally textual interests I suspect of texts - that is, the work of art is treated ultimately as an instrumental support for some extrinsic bit of information - and yet I don't imagine such a text, as art history, would have the same potential for engrossment as a text of art fiction.

Art fiction is self-substantial/self-substantiating. Art fiction is rhetorical, and its fictional objects are almost certain to be so as well, yet as art itself, no such extrinsic ends need be necessary and so they need not be assumed by its reader.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Aesthetics of mediation and teeth


Teeth whitening is a public act.

One's eyes do not directly see one's teeth.

In less mediated times, one would most often see one's teeth in the reflection of a mirror; it must be assumed, and quite reasonably, that this viewing took place in a private space.

The most effective advertisement for teeth-whitening may be that which takes place completely as a side effect of social networking and the disembodiment of experience entailed by this transubstantiation from the private to the public, from being-as-seeing to being-seen: the avatar.

The experience of the self as an image is no longer limited to private viewing and taken for granted in life outside of these mirrored spaces. The reflection is now public, "iconic," and, further, it is fixed.

Thus the comparative whiteness of teeth is no longer the stuff of subjective oblivion, and, in the hyper-realizing of the moment fixed by a flash, no longer a minor detail overwhelmed by a far greater manifold of minor details in dynamic and lived space.

If "reality" is in some meaningful and even empirical way able to be understood as a product of mediation, is there a qualifiable difference in the aspect of reality between whitening one's teeth with bleach versus whitening one's teeth with photoshop?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Aesthetics of sleeplessness

I couldn't sleep very much last night but when I did I had a weird dream.

The heat is too much I suppose. I woke up at 1 am and drank two glasses of water.

It looked like there was going to be a big storm and I could see flares of lightning somewhere else but then when it rained it lasted for about one minute.

I put on my tape of "gentle rain" and after it had ended I was still awake.

I have gotten two more sounds of nature tapes: one is a "thundering rainstorm" and the other is "the oceans relaxing surf." They are not very good.

I would be pleased to find there were a tape of a rainstorm that didn't sound real.

And I was thinking about what the market for these tapes was like. Someone probably paid something like $14 for these tapes 20 years ago at some music store in a mall. And the tapes were released by actual record labels.

And there was a huge bewildering cultural situation in which all of this happened, and it makes me think of the architecture and design of the mall just to imagine anything about the sounds of nature tapes. The mall was full of burgundy, and people could smoke inside of it. I feel like that little facet makes the time that has passed seem so foreign.

The meaning of things consist in so many little details beyond the thing itself.

"Gentle Rain" is a product of the conditions of its time and place, of the ideology which made it possible as a commodity.

It was another time.

I know that the rain I am listening to is rain from 1987, when the mall was lined with burgundy carpet and burgundy paneling and burgundy benches and people could smoke in it and put their ashes into burgundy ash trays.

The mall seemed so much more personal in its homeliness.

I have been thinking of the title "Sleepless" for an imaginary film, and I think it would have something to do with tapes of nature.

The sound of rain must only work as a sleeping aid if you can stop thinking about what it means that it's on a tape. (But then again, I wonder if its efficacy for the people of 1987 wasn't precisely in the opposite of this? The little details that compose its meaning. And what is the sound of nature anyway? Whatever it is, if it is there, couldn't you not escape it?)

Boredom itself is misunderstood. Boredom itself is engrossing.

When we sleep we experience nothing and when we fail to sleep we experience nothing, ie nothingness. In the former, nothing is a negative state. In the latter, it is a positive. Sleep is an escape and sleeplessness is a pursuit.

What is sought?

More importantly, what is the seeking?

Time itself is institutionalized beyond biology. Sleepless, we are out of time.

It is a desperate pursuit and a desperate fleeing, from anxiety to nothingness.

In banal desperation I turn on the television, hoping to be bored back to sleep as bluish static, like particles sputtering from the screen penetrates the sheet over my head and bores into my skin and my sandy, circled eyes.

Sleeplessness wins in spite of banality and boredom, and so I seek engrossment.

Most infomercials I find are for exercise machines and routines and pills. There are elastic bras and body-shapers, articles conflating containment and clothing. One imagines the bodies. Some are scams preying on these bodies, these desperate bodies, promising the secrets to gaining riches and luxury vacations, all as an unthinking middleman on the real estate market or eBay. Of course there are gadgets. I suppose there would be less market space for music collections, and needless to say, the payers of paid programming aren't actually that interested in providing me with aesthetic reverie, but the splendors of positive boredom Time Life has endowed my life from time to time number many hours.

Infomercials are both meant to be enjoyed and not meant to be enjoyed. They have an aesthetic value entirely in spite of themselves, yet this value is derived from precisely everything that they are. Deceit is given its most honest exposition in these productions.

What one feels, adrift in the negatives that constitute the target audience for infomercials - nonsleeping, underemployed, disenchanted - is dread. This is the sublime dread of the existentialists, when finally the stark wasteland underneath all the distraction is revealed, in its collapse, to be nothing, and to have been nothing all along. The production functions perfectly, and nothing more.

This "nothing more" is the void.

Harsh static set to images.

Smiley-faced demons prodding the smiley-faced damned.

Pulled to sea in the surf of a muzak version of a Jan and Dean song in a broken elevator, never ending.