28 July 2009

Re: Becoming Nothing

What follows is a letter I received from the author of the italicized text in the previous post, "Becoming Nothing". Reader responses posted here will be forwarded to the author.

Dear -------,

I wanted to submit a few remarks in response to the comments of mine that you included in the previous exhibit at Altarpiece. In conjunction with the ideas presented there, I have been plagued by another thought, and, more relevantly, I have been plagued by my own inability to express it. In this particular case it seems that I might benefit from trying to express it clearly to someone who has a hope of understanding. I trust you won’t mind me using you as a sort of test subject in this endeavor, but if you do, stop reading now and discard the letter! In any case, perhaps you will also get something out of my meandering here to include in a future exhibit.

The idea in question began as an intuition, which you posted, regarding the relationship between art and the “real world.” This was the intuition expressed in the phrase, “Politics is [or perhaps it should have been ‘are’] a lame substitute for art.” What I had in mind was the ability of art to transform the state of humanity, to create better worlds by virtue of its ability to awaken truths that lie dormant in our spirits. Art is direct democracy imbued with a sense of what is good and true. This, I thought, renders politics unnecessary as a form of representation of art, an unnecessary regulation of a world that man self-regulates through communicative and expressive tools given him at and before birth.

Of course, this all sounds more or less wonderful on paper, but it began to butt heads with reality when I was put upon recently to explain it in the language of “daily life” in conversation. My interlocutor insisted that any system of organization of the exigencies of daily life counts as a political system, for example the working out of how a society’s collective garbage will be dealt with. Art, he argued, simply could not take the place of such necessities.

This argument upset me considerably because, while I could see how it derived from my own remarks, it seemed to miss the point entirely. It seemed to miss the significance of what I was saying, to somehow render banal a point that had begun in my mind as a (subjectively) inspired moment. I couldn’t see how to reconcile this problem, and in fact it appeared to me as merely an instantiation of a general difficulty I had encountered before. Namely, so many of the ideas and principles that are the most important to me are seemingly incompatible with daily reality. The values implied by a commitment to the realms of art and ideas bear no relation to the world inhabited by people. At best they provide some guidelines by which those in positions of comfort can organize their thinking, but even the lives lived by these individuals are not freed of their ultimate constraints. It seems more likely that thought and art have developed into parasites that flourish in the fertile heat and moisture of the first-world intellect. At this point in history we feel deeply the need to reconnect with our own species and not to labor under the illusion that the idea is a creature that serves and depends upon us. We experience a keen drive toward action, which unites us with our immediate, physical realities and brings us back into existence, back into integration with a world we have almost destroyed.

This is a historical pressure that I feel in the same moment that I feel illuminated by the transcendent importance of art in the broadest sense. When I am confronted with the question of how my dream for the world—so full of expression and expressive forms of knowing that politics as we know it no longer fits—relates to the need to dispose of garbage, I am stricken with something like the pain of separation… the realization that my visions, about which I care deeply, do not relate to people, about whom I care deeply. The idea of communicating with and transforming people’s souls is irrelevant and indulgent when people are too abused and too hungry to have souls in the first place. So you can see the depths of confusion into which my friend’s well-meaning criticism plunged me.

I have, however, recently come to a possible solution, or a justification which I would like to submit to both your and my own scrutiny. After a brief chat with another friend about the degree to which the present systems of the world have doomed themselves, we agreed that the human species will probably outlive the impending implosion in some form. We couldn’t escape the inevitability of, at the very least, a sort of Malthusian collapse after the failure or refusal of human ingenuity and compassion to catch up to growing populations and dwindling resources and compromised ecologies and greed. (You and I have discussed this as well in connection with that National Geographic article.) Nevertheless, the total elimination of mankind seems unlikely. We will still be here, and this allowed me to realize that the questions of why and how we are here are becoming more rather than less relevant. Perhaps in order to undertake intellectual and artistic projects in the face of such contagion in the modern world, one has to resign oneself to an almost appalling level of hopelessness.

But even as I write I can sense the weakness in this point of view. Have I so little hope and love for people living now that I have to resort to the apologetics of art as a withered attempt at communication with people who do not yet live? And, you will point out, I have not even addressed the original problem of politics and art. I suppose the only response I can give is to admit with a mixture of pride and shame that, yes, my dream involves such a radical reorganization of life, such a reinvention of the real, that art will supplant even trash collection, that there will be no such thing as trash as we pull ourselves along the rope of existence toward the infinite and the truly meaningful. That almost no one now living can understand this. As for how it will come about I do not know, I guess there will have to be some kind of disaster, or perhaps people can claw their way there slowly through the mud (a process for which, surely, I am not needed).

Art in its broadest sense is not only writing and painting and film, but also every thought and action in which we chip away at the veil between us and everything. Maybe the straight-talk description of this involves all of us sitting in silent meditation from birth, or voluntarily extinguishing the species, or simply living in such a way that we create no excesses like garbage or profit or nations that can’t sustain all their individual voices.

Ultimately I think I would like to distinguish between politics and governance. The governance of things like the way water flows, how food is stored, where information can be found, etc…. these can be artistic acts insofar as they are externalized means of integration with the world—insofar, basically, as they are done selflessly and out of the same duty toward people that the artist-poet feels. This is how politics destroys art and inhabits the resulting void. Politics is the governance of people, the creation of mutes, the belief that we can be spoken-form, the hypnotized agreement of people to remain uninvolved in the creation and exposition of reality.