Monday, December 11, 2006

Gilles Deleuze: Theorist as Artist

Sometimes, the pursuit of theory can seem a cold and unrewarding endeavor. Given the amount of time I spend experiencing and reflecting upon visual art, the very fact that I will always be a mere observer and commentator can begin to fill me with a sense of futility and superfluousness. What do I, the theorist, add to the already rich landscape of actual artworks? Granted, these are only passing moods from which I am thankfully spared for most of the time. After all, my readers are already familiar with my defense of and devotion to the value of art theory. But nevertheless, I am on these rare occasions gripped with a sense of loss that I will never myself become an artist.

You can only imagine my relief upon my recent discovery of an article by Valentine Moulard in a 2004 issue of Philosophy Today in which she holds up a third possibility, the possibility of the theorist as artist. The central thesis of her article is as follows:

To understand Deleuze's "transcendental empiricism" (perhaps the only thought which truly effects the overthrowing, and not simply the reversal of Platonism), we must read Deleuze as a modern artist.1

In other words, not only does Moulard suggest that Deleuze, even as theorist, is himself a modern artist, but that it is only within this framework that we could possibly understand his work. That is, his status as artist is the condition for the possibility of his theory's validity. If Plato, firmly engrasped by a logocentric rationalism, held that it is the theorist's noble duty to banish the artist as inimical to the proper development of reason, Deleuze, the anti-Platonist, performatively renders philosophy as a theoretic-aesthetic discourse fundamentally opposed to the rational erasure of difference, an opposition oriented by a recognition and commitment to the creative and fundamental role of the unconscious in every discourse.

Now, as Deleuze writes in Cinema 2, when we experience a work of art,

we constitute a sheet of transformation which invents a kind of continuity or transversal communication between several sheets, and weaves a network of non-localizable relations between them. In this way we extract non-chronological time. We draw out a sheet which, across all the others, seizes and prolongs the trajectory of points, the evolution of regions. This is evidently a task which runs the risk of failure: sometimes we only form generalities which retain mere resemblances... But it is possible for the work of art to succeed in inventing these paradoxical and hallucinatory sheets whose property is to be at once a past and always to come.2

This point is of the greatest import, as Moulard reminds us:

This transversal sheet of transformation which inaugurates non-chronological time and that the work of art has the power to constitute is none other than the famous third type of repetition which, in Difference and Repetition, Deleuze identifies as the ungrounding, the untimely or the order of Aion, and which, from the point of view of memory or the past, he associates with death and destruction; but from the point of view of the future, it coincides with creation. In this profoundly counter-intuitive third synthesis of time lies the key to the radical novelty and uniqueness of Deleuze's transcendentalism. The important point is this: the third synthesis is the Deleuzian transcendental. I argue that it is there that his thought becomes a work of art, there that the concept becomes indistinguishable from the affect and the percept, that non-sense comes up to the surface so as at once dislocate and constitute sense.3

As a theorist, it is easy at times to simply believe that sense is opposed to non-sense. This supposed insight lies at the center of any bifurcating rationality. Fortunately, Deleuze reminds us of the profound dependence of sense on the more fundamental, unconscious, and immanent non-sense. And, as Moulard helpfully points out, within the Deleuzian framework, even mastery

is rooted in some unconscious, involuntary, non-subjective-in a word, purely immanent-repetition which, as the affirmation of difference, necessitates the creation of lines of flight from within the sterile paradoxes of modernity.4

For Moulard, theory crosses over into the realm of art precisely when "it creates concepts as affects, as percepts, as the sensible out of which thought and subjectivity are generated."5 I cannot help but think of Marion's conception of the icon as always surpassing our attempts to delimit, determine, and cognize its meaning, a surpassing that speaks of the overflowing and unlimited that both constitutes art and stands parallel to the purely immanent in Deleuze.

I am personally tired of the sterile paradoxes of modernity, as I'm sure my readers will understand. I have written on the topic elsewhere, in terms of bifurcating rationality and the theoretical straightjacket of form and content. Little did I know, however, that even I, as theorist, could potentially engage in a fundamentally artistic project whose purpose is to performatively lift us out of this tedious vortex of logocentrism. I wish to reflect further upon these matters, hold myself to account for the disappointing fact that my concepts have so far failed to be either affects or percepts, and make a concerted effort in the future to recognize at a deep level the role of non-sense in simultaneously dislocating and constituting sense.

1. Moulard, Valentine, Philosophy Today, vol. 48, no. 3, pp. 288-298, Fall 2004, 288-289
2. Deleuze, Gilles, Cinema 2: L’image-temps (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1968), 162, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 123.
3. Moulard, Valentine, Philosophy Today, vol. 48, no. 3, pp. 288-298, Fall 2004, 290
4. Ibid, 293
5. Ibid, 292

Monday, December 04, 2006

TAR ART RAT and the Fragility of Interpretive Equilibrium

The other day I was visiting a friend of mine, an art collector living in Manhattan. I am often surprised by the variety of works he has acquired. On this last visit, I noticed a pair of paintings that managed to strike my interest. I asked him where he'd found them. Apparently they had been hanging in a small exhibition in Seattle in 2005, the work of a local artist known as TAR ART RAT. According to my friend, this artist had founded an organization called the T.A.R. Foundation for the Continuation of Humanity. I will admit that our conversation has influenced the following interpretations.

I discovered a series of works by said artist on the Saatchi Gallery website. He provides the following explanation of his work:

I just like to make stuff. The 'stuff' is a direct conscious-collage/bi-product of being alive in these intensely overstimulating and 'troubled' times... Usually manifests as cartoon-like images with human-plight under/overtones.

This simple series of statements, in my opinion, masks a deeper truth about the situation of the artist at this moment in American history, and perhaps history in general. By diminishing and even rejecting the outright interpretation of his work as "art", TAR ART RAT creates a critical aesthetic distance that opens space for his own "direct" method. Reduced to mere "stuff," the materials of his work and the ultimate product of their combination merge into one larger work, a work which he defines as a "bi-product" of his historical situatedness. I am particularly interested in his claim that his work "usually manifests" in a particularly way, a direct challenge to the sovereignty of the artist in creation and a reminder of the socio-processual vitality of art itself, as a concrete expression of broader social functions, aesthetic presuppositions, and what we might call "aesthetic discharge."

If we begin, for purposes of simplicity, from a structuralist standpoint, we might speak of various polarities (whether aesthetic, social, political, personal, linguistic, etc.) as bearing a kind of ontological-electrical relationship. Insofar as art is an unconscious activity, we might see the vital tension of these polarities as giving rise to sudden discharges, expressions of underlying forces that themselves produce further artistic polarities. Insofar as we consider art as a conscious mode of production, on the other hand, we might see the artist as attempting to "solve" these polarities through recourse to what TAR ART RAT has called "conscious-collage," a directed, higher-order structuring of fundamentally unconscious, given stuffs (this term meant to underscore the apparently neutral evaluative significance of cultural materials prior to their being caught up in the process of creation. Of course, we must remember that all cultural materials are always already interpreted, and so the very attribution of neutrality is itself an expression of the situatedness of the artist, who must view the unconscious as raw material only insofar as he or she attempts to bring certain aesthetic presuppositions to bear on the conscious experience of structuration).

Let's focus for the moment on “Nurturenature," a deceptively simple piece. The first element that struck me was the function of the title, which serves to undermine the natural hermeneutic posture one might take to so fragile and sparse a work. We are confronted with very little: three unnaturally conical trees standing on artifical bases constructed from their own roots. One's first impression might be of simple artificiality. The prominent white space and merely suggestive horizon call to mind the utilitarian reserve of an engineer's sketch. And parallel to the fact that the engineer's blueprint only comes to life for the layperson upon noting the label, we here find our interpretative equilibrium disrupted when bringing to mind the explicit reference to nature-nurture, a tension which is both unrelated to the work at hand, and yet somehow reverberates through its understated lines and tensions. Perhaps it is this dichotomy of dependence/independence that TAR ART RAT means to underscore. But we must be careful here, for he would certainly resist the very idea that the artist can "mean" anything, if by this we understand a kind of communicative intention. Rather, it is the work itself, as social-aesthetic process, that gives rise to whatever "meanings" we might be forced to confront in our experience of it.

But for now let us leave these as mere suggestions. I will for the time being call this my first TAR ART RAT installation, as I would like to study his work more closely and see if his organization hasn't produced any writings of which I'm currently unaware. I hope to write more on the subject in the near future.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Notes on Some Possible Future Entries

I have received numerous requests over the past year to introduce my readers to lesser known artists, the kind one would not likely found written up in the major journals of aesthetics, or at least not yet. As the primary task of these writings is to engage with the critical literature on its own terms, I have tried to stay away from venturing out into independent critical musings. Nevertheless, I do believe that it might provide some useful contrast, particularly if any of my readers are interested in my own positions apart from my reactions to the experts. Let me mention, however, that I am in fact no expert and that I hold no graduate degree in art theory. Furthermore, I have never been published in the British Journal of Aesthetics nor any equivalent periodical. Finally, as I am also no artist myself, I am hesitant to put too much weight on my own intuitive responses to genuine works of art. It is worth noting, nevertheless, that I strongly believe that the more we engage in critical reflection on the meaning, function, and possibilities of art in our times, the greater our appreciation of the field will become. And, I would hope, perhaps even the independent arguments of theorists such as myself might someday serve to inspire a younger and more artistically-inclined generation. These are high hopes, but not without an obvious value in maintaining my enthusiasm for my endeavors in writing.