I’m sick today, so I’ve been wandering through my hard-drive and some old texts. Most of them are hideously naive and atrociously written, and will never see the light of day again, but I thought this one naive in the right way. It’s also never been published here. A shockingly optimistic essay, I have of course edited a few words here and there, but it still stands – at least on my good days. Dating from 2010, it originally appeared in a publication that accompanied the event ‘Investigations into the Super Physical,’ which was curated by the brilliant Padraic E. Moore, and took place as part of Cork Art Trail (November 2010). If you think it awful, please permit me this enfeebled indulgence. The above image is, of course, Agnes Martin (Gratitude, 2001).
For whatever reason, the similarities between an investment in what we term the supernatural and the aesthetic are many. A means of approaching this curious homogeneity may be reconciled through a discussion of belief, and more specifically, faith. More recent intellectual developments of the 20th century permit scant space for the self-determining viability of either, and yet simultaneously the means of approaching life itself in this century seems to involve an investment in the random, or ineffable. With regard to art, modernism predicated consideration of the artwork as something self-contained and transcendent in essence, a moment of grace accompanied its apprehension. Postmodernism, on the other hand, sees this grace subside in a wave of relativism, deeming this movement more democratic or egalitarian in nature. And so an incongruous dichotomy is at work: art is perceived contemporarily as culturally mediated, infinitely explainable, yet resting on systems noticeable by their ambiguity.
At the start of the twentieth century it would not have seemed likely that such a development would have ensued in your lifetime, or indeed anyone’s. Empiricism seemed set to define the conditions of life itself, its limit point not yet encountered. Yet science – quantum physics in particular, gives rise to a means of approaching life itself in the most unquantifiable and abstract terms. Though rigorous in means, all approaches inevitably attest to a ground zero that is unanswerable: what or who gave rise to something at all? And, more specifically, why? Science is but a means of defining that which is unexplainable, coming closer in defining its demarcations and yet never apprehending resolution. And so in this respect we have come to accept an interpretation of life itself, which finds its ground zero in a wholly unanswerable question. The lifeworld of the 21st century has, for the most part, forsaken the manner by which this most unanswerable question has been traditionally appeased; that is, religion. Religion is, after all, possibly the most capable of answering this question (or never-ending series of questions), not because its terms involve some kind of empirical justification, but rather that it shrugs the demands of empiricism itself. Religion necessitates an ambiguous movement favouring faith over proof, mystery and devotion over understanding and reciprocity. Though a dogmatic interpretation of religion necessitates its abandonment within a society which demands the illusion of freedom, and at the same time, absolute devotion to this necessary illusion. Thus, religion is left by the wayside, as materialist means of approaching the unexplainable flood in to take its place.
At the same time, the question as to why one would hold more faith in the stock market, capitalist economics, the prospect of universal equality, over and above the prospect of religion, remains. None of these systems hold any more rational validity than the former, but simply approach the ground zero of unanswerability by divergent means. Late-capitalism, for example, requires the production of commodities as means of subjective identification; the commodity, becoming subject-like, merely acts as a disavowal of the absolute uncertainty that underlies its production and necessity. This act of disavowal permits intimacy with the demarcations of the question, but no desire for its appeasement. Thus all such routes lead hesitantly to this point, drop hints at its presence, and in so doing comforting us. If they do not function properly, then we cannot function at this point, and are bound towards it in a tumultuous progression of pain and terror.
The supernatural appears almost as the underside, a flipped religion. For it does not comfort or appease the gravitation towards the unavoidable, unanswerable question, but rather beckons us towards it: the question becomes unavoidable in its continued presence. This question accompanies those who attest to the supernatural, the paranormal, whatever you want to call it. Whether this is a voluntary movement I can only speculate; perhaps it is an outward expression of some kind of death instinct, a movement of subjective attempts to gain mastery over the unknowable. I remember being fascinated as a child with anything holding a residue or essence of death: tarot cards, the I Ching, ouija boards, ghost stories, anything, in fact, which moved in an inverse direction to the religion that resulted in my enforced presence in a stuffy, dark cathedral every Sunday without fail. I gradually memorised all of the pentagrams of the I Ching and practiced tarot on willing friends, unsurprisingly gleaning predictions astounding in their accuracy. Slowly though, my interest waned, following religion. Books on the paranormal and the majority of a deck of tarot lie still in dust-ridden corners of my room, wearing signs of use yet unopened for years.
At some stage my interest made a leap. Not back to religion as in some penitential gesture – that is yet to happen. Instead, I invested something in art. More specifically perhaps, faith. Because art, just like religion and even the supernatural dimension, cannot be empirically proven or justified; this of course leads to permanent problems with public funding, as you’d imagine. Its results cannot be measured, its effects evade enumeration. And yet one engages in the process of art, be that making art, writing about it or simply experiencing it, in the manner akin to that of the religious devout. This act of faith is inevitably disavowed through a materialist conception of the art object, that which deems its significance as born purely, and wholly, of context. And indeed simultaneously, the material factors which can account for the work of art become unfixed, and disavowed, through a fully transcendentalist approach. In so doing, both approaches negate the other; what remains yet is faith in the work of art to actually withstand this philosophical tug-of-war.
Neither means of approaching the work of art (or indeed art as such) can actually be disproved. On the one hand, a transcendentalist approach gets to the heart of the ‘why’ of art; in the absence of this manner of consideration, I fully concede the cultural equality of art alongside any other form of cultural production. On the other hand, looking at art in this manner attests to a felt belief in art’s superiority, a superiority resting on its inherent resistance to rationality. This is easy to dismiss as exclusionary or elitist, though in so doing does not cease to hold validity as an argument. A materialist approach is equally cogent, and yet fails to acknowledge the unexplainable reticence at the heart of art as such. More than likely, if one entirely accepted this approach, one would lose interest in the field of art, in its stead moving on to another pursuit, one that invariably offered more questions than answers. Imagine being a devout Catholic all your life, only to find out from your recently past auntie that Heaven was a bit like Torremolinos, and God somewhat senile; even Hell might seem a preferable destination, given its comparative mystery. Or, to take another example: imagine if scientific study yielded the reason as to the ineffable power of art over the human psyche. And it came down to the triggering of one nerve, or synapse, accompanying the release of some particularly mundane hormone. Art could hardly withstand this utter banality, its potentially abhorrent ramifications. And yet this is an approach which finds a willing audience contemporarily. We are more than willing to sign away the ineffable, explain the unexplainable. We leave scant room for doubt, ignorance, or faith.
Whichever approach is deemed subjectively favourable, the question never itself reaches self-realisation. Art can be explained by both and yet at the same time, neither. As Maurice Blanchot says, ‘It is no mystery, but it cannot be demystified’.[i] Alain Badiou, in a 2009 essay titled ‘Philosophy as Creative Repetition’ acknowledges this. Art, like philosophy, is interminably bound to repeat the formulation of the question that underlies the ontology of art as such: how does art hold such potentiality? Why would anyone engage in such a seemingly useless exercise? What can art, in fact, do? Philosophy acts in much the same manner, but reflects its meanderings back on itself in order to glean some meaning to be applied to the formation, or appeasement, of human subjectivity. For both art and philosophy, action consists of new approaches in formulating a question that remains unanswerable by necessity. In fact, it is this impossibility that actually founds and gives structure to, both disciplines. Like religion, if the horizon were to appear as anything but opaque, the concept itself would become unfixed, redundant. The continued relevance of both philosophy and art rests on the ‘singularity of an act,’[ii] an act which finds its meaning as it approaches its own essential impossibility. This means of approaching art can reconcile postmodernism’s repetitious movement with an underlying ineffability, or resistance to intellectualisation. In the knowledge that art, like philosophy, forms itself on the repeated attempt to answer an impossible question, one comes to realisation of the faith-like demand it puts before us. If faith were not required, then surely either would have approached an answer at this stage. If faith were not involved, then surely both would have been abandoned long ago, in favour of something that aimed to answer something more straightforward, or at least was more honest with regard to its claims.
According to the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu, the best understanding ‘rests in what it cannot understand. If you do not understand this, then Heaven the Equalizer will destroy you’.[iii] Therefore, the most important understanding to be gained from art is the understanding that it exceeds rationality. Indeed, it always has, and will continue to do so. Otherwise, it might have defined the impossible question at this stage, not only the question but also the answer. The fact that it has not, and most likely never will, necessitates faith in its interminable ability to fail. The aim is nothing but creative and interminable failure. I’ll set another scene: your roof destroyed, you promptly hire a man to fix it. Day after day, he returns, scales the ladder and potters about in a cacophony of thuds and swearing. He never fixes it, but each day the hole creates such an amazing wash of colours on the floor that you permit his continued failure. Unlikely a scenario as that is, it has a lot in common with an appreciation of art: infuriating and beautiful, one-sided, often cruel, and requiring a faith that exceeds the inevitable poverty and torment of its devotees.
[i] Maurice Blanchot ‘The Space of Literature’ (University of Nebraska Press: 1982, original French version, 1955) pg. 163
[iii] Chuang Tzu, as in Ursula le Guin (1982) ‘A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be’ in Ursula Le Guin Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (New York: Grove Press: 1989) pg. 93