Sunday, 13 July 2014

From the ground up

What is Magritte’s faux pipe an enlightenment of? What do we learn from it? We learn the lesson, the great lesson, the only truly important and significant lesson we are likely to learn from works of art, the lesson of our position vis-à-vis Being. And here I am again, incapable of distancing myself from the problem of Being, bound to it, my feet immobilized, my mind defeated. Being is always there, always present. In saying this, I am stating my ontological confidence in things immutable. God is always there, in everything there is: this is religious certitude at its most fundamental. (Can you see how religion becomes philosophical? Can you see how philosophy becomes religious? Haven’t they always been?)

Above and beyond the things of the flesh and of the mud there are the things of Aether and Ideas: this is the Platonic configuration of the beings-vs-Being problem. The Aether is the region that refuses us. It’s where signs grow towards, in the hope of reaching that impossible-to-reach state of total signification.

Source: Extra Mile Academy

The (re)turn of the artist

What must have been really terrifying to the Lascaux man was the realization that Being could be imitated. To have the world out there and the work of art here, literally at your fingertips (not even in the open anymore, but enclosed in the viscera of a dark, underground space, the cave), that must have caused the frissons of terror in the first man of the arts.
Every true artist misreads the predecessor not because they find them insufficient, but because they know the predecessor is a bunch of signs, of mere approximations. And signs, because they’re made, they can be un-made as well; undone, to use the proper English word. Cathedrals have been destroyed and rebuilt, books have been burnt and rewritten, and so, the capacity of the human race to do and undo has flourished. This is an awful generalisation (an unacceptable excuse for genocides and cultural eradications), but it’s how we can state the nature of signs: the fact of their mutability. And since we’re at this, let’s say that what needs to be added to this realization is the other fact of our existence: the eternity of Being. Compared to it, we are nothing. This too sounds miserable, horrible, atrocious, depressing. And that’s the reason religions promise happiness elsewhere. That’s why there’s happiness promised in philosophical reflection (the happiness of understanding at the end of toilsome reflection). That’s why, among other things, Aristotle found catharsis necessary: the aesthetic relief for a pre-aesthetic terror.

Back to Being

When things are, as said by Vilém Flusser, in that state of primordial terror that precedes and precludes aesthetic pleasure (when our eyes are too weak to resist the explosive brilliance of the new), we are situated so close to Being we can feel the Boom. We are thrown back by the blast, in full astonishment. But then, cautiously or downright irresponsibly (whether we’re cowards or heroes it matters not so far as we have an answer, an attempt at deciphering what’s blown us away), we come back upon Being. We come back upon Being the way criminals are said to return to the place of their crime. Why do they do it? Maybe in order to clarify the terror of the moment when the crime was committed, the shock of its newness.
This return is exactly what transforms us into artistic beings; this insufficiency, this I-want-more, I-want-it-again kind of philosophy. And now, from the distance to which the blast has thrown us, we take a second look and things look less brilliant, less dazzling. Now, with the distance that affords us the courage (heroes always need distance, don’t they?; even if it’s distance from themselves, from their own security, their own instinct of survival), we can finally see the blast as beautiful.
What I think is important to an artist is this awareness of the moment of the blast: the second when Being materialized itself as a terrible event, as a manifestation of a force that pushes forth. Once the artist knows this, they also know that everything that followed (everything that became Man after the fall from Paradise) is an empire of signs. And if there’s anything that can be replicated, it’s this: the process of signification. Not Being. Being is forever unrepresentable, forever humiliatingly greater, embarrassingly more complex, painfully more laden with potential than we can even start to comprehend. So Being aside, let’s get back to the earliest moment when we have discovered ourselves as capable of doing things; when we have discovered ourselves to be capable, tout court.

An epiphany of the ground

Source: China Daily
When visiting the tombs of Emperor Qin, with its life-size soldiers made of terracotta, Annie Dillard had this wonderful revelation of the development of signs. She saw the excavations and the big picture of history being unearthed. But, most prominently, she saw these figures of terracotta men, half-unearthed, half still buried, telluric creatures about to emerge:

“The earth was yielding these bodies, these clay people: it erupted them forth, it pressed them out. The same tan soil that embedded these people also made them; it grew and bore them. The clay people were earth itself, only shaped. The hazards of time had suspended their bodies in the act of pressing out into the air.”

The terracotta men are, obviously, replicas. Ceci n’est pas une pipe applies to them perfectly (not least, because they’re made of clay too). Ceci n’est pas un soldat, Annie Dillard would have said about the men of clay she contemplated, had she been asked to give those objects a definition.
Dillard’s is a very fortunate association, because it employs things of the earth. Signs growing out of the ground to inhabit the sublunary landscapes of humanity, that’s what the terracotta army is about. Terra cotta, cooked earth, earth transformed from its brute state into a work of art, earth pressing art out. This is what all arts are about, really and truly: about growing from the ground up, about pushing signs out of a primordial foundation, about making something out of Being.
Earthen objects, telluric symbols. Earth is easier for us to understand, and that’s why all forms of art have to grow from the ground up. Earth has given us a proper location for Paradise: not in the skies where improbable mythologies often locate it, but laid upon the very earth from which everything grows. The Christian paradise is a place of gardens and trees and flowers, all of which are things that grow from the ground up. The skies, however, are harder to understand, harder to cope with. From the skies fall complex birds with wings that we’ve strived to replicate and managed only partially. From the skies fall stars and angels. They fall, and that’s the key to their understanding: the gravitational force of signification, which pulls everything towards the ground, whence they can grow then freely, smoothly, into works of art, works of the human hand. The skies have given us vague and powerful divinities, forever out of reach, in whose proximity signs are approximate at best.
I want to finish with another quote from Annie Dillard, just because it’s an excellent way of describing the groundness of arts. This time, she speaks of one particular terracotta soldier on the excavation site:

“The earth bound his abdomen. His hips and legs were still soil. The untouched ground far above him, above where his legs must be, looked like any ground: trampled dirt, a few dry grasses. I looked down into his face. His astonishment was formal.”

Source: Xinhuanet