Archives for category: Esthetics


I contributed 12 acrylic on plywood paintings as my part of a group show at the K8N Gallery in September 2016. They are shaped like black silhouettes of a cube, but  become virtual cubes with the addition of just the slightest hint at the point that would be their interior apex. These hints are white letters and symbols made by pressing IBM typewriter balls into the dried black paint and filling the indentations with white paint.

The black paint looks very substantial, but it is not painterly. I sanded out any indications of brushwork or drips to eliminate that trope. I don’t doubt that someone will, or perhaps has, found a new role for painterliness, but in this case, it would make reading these works unnecessarily complicated. It is only necessary that the paint has a material presence that can compete with the virtual depth caused by the colour. Opposing tendencies are held in suspension, push-pull*, in and out, surface and image. For me, that delicate balance encourages an awareness of the perception itself, the seeing of a cube.





*Push-pull is a term Hans Hofmann used to refer to colour dynamics, blue for instance tends to recede, and yellow tends to come forward. These factors need to be borne in mind when working with figure/ground relations.


Steve Armstrong, The Descent of Geometry, oil, brass and fibreglass resin on particle board, 50″ x 50″, 1981-85.

Metaphorical thinking is like using a funnel the wrong way round.

It’s time for a third voice to consider the issues raised in Self Expression and Conceptual Painting and Repressed Anger. The former was a sincere attempt to understand beauty, the latter, an attempt to apply raw self-analysis to my understanding of art. Lately, I’ve been studying Hunter S. Thompson to get an angle on his amazing talent for digression and hyperbole. Then I thought, what if this technique were directed inwards instead of out. But enough of that, down to business:

I have a friend who is an art critic and in a newspaper review around 2001 he used the term ‘conceptual painting’. I coined this term in the title of a painting in 1999, and no doubt, it would have been part of our occasional conversations. I then used the idea, but not the term itself, in a review published in Lola magazine in 2000.

This is all extremely unimportant, especially since my friend used the term to refer to a different idea altogether, but it has revealed something relevant about my character: I had a very strong compulsion to write this because I hope that the term “conceptual painting” might catch on, and if someone else received credit for it, I would feel a sense of loss. This is somewhat ridiculous of course: Was I going to miss out on sex, money, and power perhaps, not to mention the high life on the lecture circuit? No, what I want is credit, respect or even congratulations. This is probably why a discussion of conceptual painting showed up in my first blog post.

I have to wonder why these things matter to me. I remember reading about the conflict between Richard Huelsenbeck and Tristan Tzara over the provenance of the word “dada” and thinking as I read, “this dispute is of no importance, I don’t know them and they don’t know me, they are no more than words on a page, and even if I were acquainted with them, it still wouldn’t make much difference and it would, in fact, only be a problem if I wanted to stay on friendly terms with both of them”. Besides that, they’re dead. I am sure that Huelsenbeck and Tzara experienced righteous anger over their issue, and that is unfortunate. Fame creates resentful new wounds.

What is important is what is done, not who did it. Why should I care about what a bunch of people I have never met, and might never meet, think of some deed I allegedly performed? Since Shakespeare’s not around to enjoy the recognition, why does it matter who wrote those plays? Although there would be a reason for Shakespeare and me to demand recognition if we were in it for the money. And naturally enough, that has been a component for both of us, but not a terribly important one, because he’s dead and can’t collect, and I’ve always had a good day job. As I wrote in 1995, if we face the facts, “we would tell the world that its money belongs in hell. If art is real, then it is serious.”

It should be obvious that we only desire credit for a deed when it is not sufficiently satisfying simply as a deed done. But this becomes less obvious once the euphoria from viewing a completed work starts to fade – when the cash gets scarce, the cheaper wines look better. The Descent of Geometry was fully satisfying as a deed done for almost fifteen years, then the desire to justify and explain it crept in, as evidenced by my writings from around 1999. Those writings have been edited and incorporated in these three related posts.

Ockham’s Razor would guide us to the explanation with the fewest assumed entities but Armstrong’s Bin provides us with the most flattering explanation for anything that puzzles us. Schopenhauer knows why this would be the case – he said that self-interest is the strongest argument, and I’m sure he said this because he had a great sense of humour. The Bin tells me that my painting demands a beautiful aetiology, and most people who see it, seem fond of it, so I guess I could do worse than load it up with meaning. I’m going to indulge myself.

From 1981 until 1985 I occasionally worked on this very stubborn painting. When I felt reasonably satisfied with it (that being the point when I realized that anything else I did would only make it worse), I signed the back and wrote, “Beyond Böcklin’s Island: an arbitrary geometry seeking a meaning in Romance while Franz Schubert has the poignancy of death”. Shortly afterwards this title embarrassed me. I crossed it out and wrote, “The Descent of Geometry”.

Arnold_Böcklin v.3 1883

 Arnold Böcklin, Isle of the Dead, third version (of many), oil on wood, 150 x 80 cm, 1883.

I have noticed a particular trope that has turned up regularly in my work. I have frequently made illusory space on a celestial scale and then interrupted the picture plane and made it difficult to see coherently. I have done this by adding bits of metal, drilling holes, working on peg- board, adding painted shapes to pencil drawings, or by other means that force a difficulty into the act of coherent perception.

For example, a small piece of brass in a painted sky has to be unseen as an extraneous thing for the painting to become a picture of an odd flying object. The geometrical object in the Descent is made of brass strips arranged like cloisonné. It’s fun to un-see things, it’s a childish and playful thing to do like imaginatively turning your bedroom ceiling into an ocean with the ceiling fixture as a strange boat. I’ve done that.

That’s what we do with all pictures anyway, although we are mostly unaware of doing it. We studiously overlook the means of image delivery in magazines films and photographs to get straight to the picture. I hesitate to mention paintings as well, because as a painter, I never overlook the means, I look for the means. I have done this to the extent that, on occasion, I haven’t noticed the picture, and instead, merely seen the painting. It’s startling to suddenly notice the picture.

pegboard yellow frame

Steve Armstrong, A Small Redemption of the Machine Age, acrylic on pegboard, 40″ x 52″, 1993.

I think facts are poetic, and it’s facts, much more so than pictures, that are there to be seen in paintings – especially straightforward, non-conceptual paintings. A painting is like a new spoon triumphantly raising vegetables to the surface of your soup. It is a shroud of conviction, a moist daubing that brings relief, and a television carved from a single block of wood. When you get by the technical stuff (the professional looking that a painter engages in), the leftovers are metaphorical.

In The Descent, the brass insert is the emissary of science that emerges as our savior from Romantic darkness – this grandiose affair depicts the story of Modernism. Science and technology have pushed past all the protests of a Luddite Romanticism.

The Descent of Geometry offers mythological events to explain the origins of science envy in Modernism. There are scientific airs in various Modernist practices – Impressionism with its theories of perception (a defensive posture against photography), Surrealism with its thoughts on intentionality and coincidence versus cause, or Minimalism and Earthworks with their musings about ontology and an Industrial Sublime. The idea of an Avant-garde itself, holds the concept of progress.


Vladimir Tatlin, model for Monument to the Third International, 1919.

I’m left with the feeling that Modernism carried aspects of Romanticism with it into the Twentieth Century. Modernism has a streak of the Romantic “Sublime” through it, although it had become industrial and technological. The Eiffel Tower and its child, Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, Malevich’s White Square, Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, and countless other things all attest to this fact. Baudelaire for instance, preferred harbours over natural coastlines. I understand this feeling. In spite of Böcklin, Turner’s steam engines haven’t been shaken off.


J. M. W. Turner, Rain, Steam, Speed, oil on Canvas, 90.8 x 121.9 cm., 1844. National Gallery, London

With The Descent of Geometry I wanted to make the picture plane a figure and have the world as its ground. I chose the “L” shape because it looks arbitrary and has as many sides as a cube. Hopefully this suggests that the painting is a thing as much as it is a picture.


Steve Armstrong, Zocor, oil on cardboard mounted on panel, 6.5″ x 7.5″, 2006.

This same preoccupation returned with the box paintings. With all my art I want to make the picture plane a figure, and that’s a statement so strong I hesitate to make it, but at the moment I can’t think of any exceptions. It explains why my pencil drawings never go to the edge of the paper and why I make painted sculpture (free standing picture planes in the round). I cannot justify any of this for one very important reason – we do not get to choose our desires.


Steve Armstrong, Rodchenko’s Column, acrylic on douglas fir, 12″ x 12″ x 63″, 1997.

I also see the desire to make the picture plane a figure in the work of Jackson Pollock and Frank Stella. I think that is why their lines do not make figures. I may be wrong about them, but that does not really matter because regardless of what they are up to, picture plane reification is what I want to do anyway. It is not necessary for me to know why. It is also not necessary for me to know whether I have any predecessors with this goal. Desire simply dips into my life like a rudder. Thus a painting is a Rosetta Stone that translates decisions.


The Rosetta Stone, granodiorite, 114.4 x 72.3 x 27.93 cm, Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, demotic script, and Greek script, 196 BCE.

The Descent of Geometry concerns our nasty habit of looking for simple answers to complicated questions. It is no excuse that we fail to notice how complicated the questions are. The Descent also concerns how we situate our desires in unattainable places, as Ludwig Feuerbach pointed out way before Freud and me (projection).

I suppose the Descent concerns how an art object might be indiscernible from an ordinary object. If one were to think otherwise, it is plainly obvious that Romanticism never really went away because for an art-thing to be different from an ordinary thing, it needs to have a mysterious component – something Sublime perhaps. Fortunately, the issue whether any particular thing is art or not, is of no interest whatsoever, especially to artists. Some things are interesting because of their intentional way of being the way they are, and that makes them artish things. Some things are interesting because of failed intentions, or qualities that are irrelevant to their intentional way of being the way they are. These sorts of things are not artish at all.

The Descent of Geometry is about how our use of the Sublime to flatter ourselves is ludicrous and shameful. Taking pleasure in such mysteries is unworthy and I suspect that mystery, being the genus that contains the species patriotism, is, besides the hiding place of scoundrels, the weapon of the baffled as well. Hegel, that Romantic old fellow, provides a fine example of using mystery to cloak vacuity. Oscar Wilde said something about the mystery being in the visible and a corollary of Wilde’s observation would be, “the invisible has greater clarity for us”. And in fact, invisibility has greater clarity than even glass. Invisible pictures reveal visible paintings.

I can only add that I don’t believe in ghosts but they scare me, and I conclude from this that when an idea is fundamental, it is not necessarily true, but it nonetheless stimulates my glands. A good argument has a cheap elegance about it, but beauty is found more easily in ideas that can’t be proven.

I have some advice: Never use things in the manner they were intended, and always use the wrong tool for the job unless, of course, your ambition is to thrill the shopkeepers of the world. In conclusion, consider an artist’s career: As a rule, critics and gallery operators are not terribly visual, most artists are too busy trying to figure out how their work is independent of yours (including me), and the public can be very vexing. At least people like big geometry in the sky, which explains the popularity of air shows and fire works.


Last night I heard a reference to Gesamtkunstwerk on the PBS Idea Channel available on YouTube. This morning The Globe and Mail contained an article by Russell Smith that referenced the same thing. I always enjoy a good coincidence, a pleasure I share with André Breton. I recommend his book Nadja. It elicits an aesthetic appreciation of coincidence, and once you’ve developed the habit of noticing such things, there’s a world of accidental art to be explored. Breton was an arrogant bastard, but I like him in spite of his faults.

The problem is, if you begin to suspect a real connection within a coincidence, its beauty begins to drain out. I’m not talking about the one world, all and everything, cosmic consciousness, clear light, nirvana kind of connection. That’s a whole different, perfect beauty. That doesn’t drain anywhere, it’s already there. I’m talking about causality, which ruins everything.

So it may be the case that the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk is fashionable right now, and as a fashion victim, I’m also trying to write about it. Wagner is associated with the idea, but let’s consider Wassily Kandinsky, author of Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1910), who was somewhat of a Theosophist, a synesthete, and the painter of the world’s first abstract, or non-objective painting in 1910.

From the very beginning there were various understandings of ‘abstract art’. It was something spiritual for Kandinsky and Mondrian, but formal, and a touch political, for Malevich and Tatlin. Today the term seems totally empty and its only reference is historical. Nonetheless, I’m surprised that I didn’t encounter anything written about the centenary of this event. It would have been fun to read.

This is where I would build a case for some kind of non-coincidental connection between synesthesia, or the desire for it, and the Gesamtkunstwerk. But I really don’t feel like it. I don’t sense any worthwhile aha in a conclusion

It’s claimed that Richard Feynman, Franz Liszt, and Vladimir Nabokov also lived with synesthesia. That might be interesting, then again, I don’t think so. It’s not a good coincidence.

Image: Wassily Kandinsky, untitled, watercolour, 188 x 196 cm., 1910, collection of Paris, Musee National Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou. As far as I know, this is the first abstract painting in the Western tradition.


Damien Hirst Spot Painting

There is an abandoned building near Iroquois Ontario that says, “I love Christine Kirkwood by Cole”. Sometimes it’s difficult to know what’s important, but this message has stayed with me like poetry. Christine Kirkwood sounds very beautiful and I think Cole uses all of Christine’s name so he can call up her complete and perfect idea. If he knew her middle initial, that would be part of the conjuring as well – Christine J. Kirkwood. Their relationship does not seem equal to me, just like their names. Christine Kirkwood probably does not love Cole. She may not even like him, or for that matter, know who he is.

I also find the word, “by” in “I love Christine Kirkwood by Cole” very significant. It is definitely childlike, but it also reveals an important truth. “I love Christine Kirkwood” is the title of a greater work by Cole, not just a simple statement of fact. Our feelings involve the whole of us, all of our bodies, including our nasal passages and bowels, and no matter how sophisticated we become, we can never produce an expression that equals a state of our selves. Loving Christine Kirkwood is so much more than can ever be said. We remain alone with our secrets and yearnings except when they are unintentionally revealed to a steadfast interpreter.

Artists are like Cole in that intentional self-expression may not be possible. Self-portraiture, on the other hand, certainly is possible. Whenever someone makes something, that artefact is accompanied by an imaginary someone who is plausible as the person who made that something. This is not the artist – this is an image of the artist in the mind of the viewer. The writer-person who you are starting to imagine as you read my words is a good example of a plausible imaginary someone. My thoughts on Cole are also an example.

Artists can manipulate this image of themselves to help them appear clever, or innovative, or whatever it is they want for themselves. But it is difficult to be a perfect manipulator. It follows from this that the image of the artist that becomes apparent in a work of art is only partially intentional on the artist’s part, while the rest, that being the artist-desired part, is unintentional or perhaps even an error or oversight depending on the artist’s mendacity. Friedrich Nietzsche says that reading a philosopher’s works uncovers the character or moral health of that philosopher. I am saying something similar about art and artists. If my claim holds, it could be a great boon to the hermeneutics industry.


Paul Klee, Ancient Sound, oil on cardboard, 15″ x 15″, 1925, coll. Kunstsammlung, Basel.

The thought of ancient sound is truly delightful and reminds me of some lines from a poem by Hans Arp, “No one detects now the track of his baby shoes. They left not even a threadlike trace of a tiny hiking-song in the air.” [Hans Arp, “The Seraphim and Cherubim” in Three Painter Poets: Arp, Schwitters, Klee, Harriet Watts trans., Penguin Books, 1974, p. 32]

The self-portrait that Klee is showing me is a playful, modest person who takes great pleasure in poignancy. My imaginary Klee has charmed me. It’s also a beautiful painting.

Sometimes a painter paints in a particular way just to make a painting that is painted in that particular way. These kinds of paintings are meant to look just as they look. This is a very straightforward kind of painting, and it makes a much better door than window. In other words, the painting that is right in front of me is the thing intended to be seen, and the painting is not meant to be seen through to something else such as a talented imaginary artist.

It is very nice that some straightforward, door-like paintings are about the paint itself, or the support for that paint (formal concerns), but it is much more interesting when straightforward paintings are also about something else as well, this often referred to as “content”. But content contains an unfortunate metaphor – content is not inside a painting, content is the painting perceived.

This is why a straightforward painting, even when it is about something else as well, ancient sound as an example, still makes a better door than window. The painting is the thing to be seen, not an imaginary painter or an alienated context such as “the history of art such that this painting is a part of it”, “the history of art such that this painting is a clean break with it” or “an appropriate stance on a burning issue of the day”. These latter kinds of paintings are conceptual paintings.

A conceptual painting is thus an object that is presented as if it were a painting. Some fancy people might call this a simulacrum, but I believe these two things are different. Unfortunately, I don’t find it worth the time just now to clarify that distinction. Thus, a stretched canvas that has had paint applied to it by a human and then been hung on a wall could well not be a painting at all. Fun.

Conceptual painting is not straightforward – it is painting that is presented as painting in order to make a point about something unrelated that is not there to be seen in the painting itself. It might be something like, “The person who made this painting has a new and better understanding of some particular strand in the history of art up to and including this painting here which is making this very point”.

It will be up to the viewer/interpreter to figure out what that understanding might be. An official artist’s statement can be of great value in this regard. The long tradition of the artist’s manifesto has evolved into a standard business letter document to help viewers negotiate these conceptual issues. Most contemporary artists are wary of the artist’s statement. To keep their inscrutability intact, it is better to leave this to their gallery representatives and the critics who write articles about them.

Conceptual painting of course, is a wonderfully clever thing to do, and it makes the painter an art historian and theorist worthy of respect. It also makes the conceptual painter not a painter at all and the conceptual painting not a painting, in spite of the fact it looks like one.

In my opinion, Damien Hirst’s spot paintings are fine examples of conceptual paintings. There is nothing to be gained by merely looking at them, just like all conceptual art, knowing about them is sufficient. There’s more on this in my preface to The Communist Manifesto without Nouns.

I think the spot paintings are primarily about how art is a kind of money, which is not a terribly novel idea – the idea of the cultural commodity has been nagging the conscience of artists for quite a while. Oscar Wilde said that a philistine knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. This comment may or may not be applicable to this discussion, although I suspect it is. I feel confident that Hirst’s Spot Paintings are conceptual paintings with a debt to Warhol, and they therefore they have nothing to do with spots.


Georges Seurat, Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp, 1885.

Seurat, on the other hand, was very interested in spots.


satiescol97 6.5x9.5x58

Steve Armstrong, Satie’s Column, 6.5″ x 9.5″ x 58″, acrylic on wood, 1997.

schoecol96 7x10x94

Steve Armstrong, Schoenberg’s Column, acrylic on wood, 7″ x 10″ x 94″, 1994.

I find spots interesting as well.


And Robert Fones also sees something interesting in spots and dots..


Here’s Fones from the Coach House books site:


I have always liked the simplicity of the six dots in the Wonder Bread logo and its evocation, in product design, of Modernist principles. I remember seeing the logo as a child and associating it with one of my favourite comic book characters, Little Dot, a girl who was obsessed with dots and collected them the way other people might collect coins or butterflies. To construct this painting I found a Wonder Bread logo on the side of a truck and photographed it in order to find out how many different sizes of dots there were, and how the dots were arranged. As with Pancetta, once I positioned an altered configuration of dots on the face, I extended them back in perspective as if they were solid material. I thought of the eyes and tongue as planes of material cutting through the solid logo, hence whatever colour they sliced through was carried forward or backward in pictorial space. The head ended up looking clown-like but rather tragic, as if it was unaware of the dots on its face.

I see more in Fones’ piece than he mentioned. He mostly described the imaginative play that artists enjoy so much, “I extended them [the dots] back in perspective as if they were a solid material”. Fones’ playful attitude towards his work seems similar to that of Paul Klee. But besides this, I see a metaphor for perception. The spots to be perceived by the face are on the outer surface of that face, and they leak in through its sense organ holes. It says to me that the things I perceive are not “over there”, I am actually touched by everything. There is no empty space between me and the things I experience. On my part of course, this is just more of that imaginative play that artists enjoy so much. It’s also worth noting that Klee’s “Ancient Sound” is also a reference to perception.

And to get back to Seurat, he was a very earnest fellow researching the limits of the relationship between granularity and continuousness as it applies to perception. There might be a reason why spots and dots seem to lend themselves so well to meditations on perception. Henri Bergson published Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness in 1910 which also considers the issues of the discrete versus the continuous. It was based on his doctoral dissertation of 1889. For what it’s worth, this was contemporary with Seurat.

As an aside, Seurat also made absolutely superb pencil drawings. I love them very much.

seurat drawing
Georges Seurat,
Aman–Jean, conté crayon on paper; 24 1/2″ x 18 11/16″, (62.2 x 47.5 cm) 1883.


Discussion Points for ISTP Novices, Fledglings, and Supplicants

Was Hirst’s character impugned?

Was this text theoretical, or anti-theoretical, or both?

Is there any urgency to understanding the distinction between a simulacrum and something that is regarded as if it were something else?

Image at top: Damien Hirst Spot Painting from

I live a quiet, petite bourgeois life. For example, the other day I was taking a taxi to the hospital for some tests, and the driver asked me if I was a doctor. Maybe my clothes or haircut prompted the question. If I’m noticed at all, I prefer to be seen as mostly harmless, just as the earth is described in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I need an orderly and low-key life in order to work. I was a sensitive child.

Perhaps the goal of art is to be fascinating. Beauty may not be necessary, but it is a good hook. It seems though, that the frightening and disgusting can also be fascinating. The choice might just be a matter of taste. I’m easily disturbed.

In the 1970’s, artist Mark Prent had an exhibition at the Isaacs Gallery in Toronto which included life-like human body parts made of polyester resin placed in chest freezers. It didn’t do much for me. Life produces more than enough distress all on its own. I don’t need to go looking for more.

I felt I was being manipulated into compartmentalizing my disgust in order to deduce the presence of a clever intervention of a political, or art historical-formalist-aesthetic nature. And since I didn’t discover anything of the sort, I wasn’t sold. When I brought the subject up with a fellow art student, it was apparent that my opinion lead her to the conclusion that I must be stupid – presumably because I found it disgusting. We’re all entitled to our opinion.

Image: Steve Armstrong, untitled planet tab painting, acrylic on paper with brass nails, c. 14″ x 11″, 2000.

(I don’t find a tab planet disgusting, if anything, it’s kind of pleasant.)

I’ve just discovered an interesting artist, Alan Uglow, thanks to an article by Gregory Williams in The Brooklyn Rail (Image courtesy of Brooklyn Rail) The painting on the right is from 1994, the serigraph “portrait” of the painting is from 2000.

This was going to be about Uglow and me and possibly Gerhard Richter and how copying your own work is a way forward from appropriation, the arbitrariness of subject matter, and the general flatness of everything. Then I got upset.

The problem started when I searched for Sherrie Levine to confirm she was the one who did rephotographing. That’s when I stumbled on this painting of hers, part of a series completed between 1987 and 2002. This particular one is from 1988.

Sherrie Levine plywood

So why am I upset?

I made these two plywood knot paintings in 1993, and called them The Things at the Edge of the Universe 1 and 2, 45″ x 50″ and 15″ x 26″.

edguniv93 45x50

thgsuniv93 15x26

So of course they have something to do with appropriation and how it is related to the difficulty deciding on subject matter when all things seem equal. They are ‘found’ compositions to some extent. All I had to do was colour them in.

We’re living on a very smooth plain, it’s difficult to find things sticking up enough to warrant sincere attention. This also has a bearing on attitudes to copyright, which is the reason everything I publish has been under

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

But there is more. These two paintings are not just about appropriation, the lack of reasons and commitments, and the act of choosing itself. The latter two were well covered by Warhol and Duchamp respectively. The first one, appropriation art, is mainly a rehash of Warhol and Duchamp’s ideas taken to their end point. When youthful spite subsides, it’s time to respect your tradition. That’s the only way to change it. (T. S. Eliot, more or less.)

These two paintings have rounded corners, mildly suggestive of cathode ray tubes, what TV’s looked like in 1993. They are covered in very scratched quarter-inch plexiglass which elevates visibility to a second simultaneous picture plane. The plexiglass has a gridded array of holes drilled in it for finishing nails and the occasional screw. The grid is not square with the sides of the work, which gives the grid some tilt, but no vanishing point.

The nails hold the layers together, but they are also visible objects that travel through all the virtual objects generated with paint and scratches. Nails as wormholes perhaps, the things at the edge of the universe maybe – and all along we thought it was the painted knots. “Ha ha”, as Bosse-de-Nage the dog faced baboon would say. (Please refer to Alfred Jarry’s Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician).

For the most part I don’t mind obscurity, but there are times when it’s frustrating. Frustrating because I feel compelled to defend and explain my work when I come across things that look quite similar – plywood knot paintings for example. But as Mosheim apparently said, “Renown is a source of toil and sorrow; obscurity is a source of happiness” [I got this from  J. W. Von Goethe, Conversations with Eckermann (Washington and London: M. Walter Dunne, 1901), p. 6. And I have no idea who Mosheim is.]

Thankfully, I think it’s possible to feel schadenfreude for my own misfortune. Grimly satisfying wound licking isn’t half bad. While flattering myself that my work measures up to his, I can easily imagine myself in the circumstances of Kurt Schwitters. He said we shouldn’t worry about his obscurity and poverty because he knew very well how important he was. And he is important – his shadow continues to grow, just as Picasso’s shrinks. Therefore, I will not be bothered by the fact that I seem to have made a career of being overlooked and underestimated.


1923 – and it contains seeds of almost all the ‘retinal’ art that follows. (“Retinal” is a reference to Duchamp’s pejorative term for all art that isn’t ‘conceptual’, for lack of a better word. It seems to me though, that visual art would use a retinal vehicle.) And looking at this one humble collage from 1923, I know I have a lot of work to do. The insidious influence of theory still drives me, I’m not retinal enough.

Sherrie Levine has made her career as an “appropriation artist”. She came to my attention in 1980 when she rephotographed pictures by Walker Evans and showed them as her own. It was a brilliant choice because Evans was such a damned earnest photographer, living in a time when artists really thought they were making a difference (aesthetic, political or both) – Schwitters, John Heartfield, Rodchenko, and so on. Levine’s move was a refreshingly bitter thing to do.

I’m sympathetic with appropriation, and in the 1970’s I tried my hand at it with a series of one-piece collages. From time to time, from 1976 to 1999, I tore things from newspapers, magazines, brochures, and maps that appealed to me, mounted them and signed them. These two are both coincidentally from 1979. I picked them because they look nice on my computer screen.

collage 1979

collage map 1979

Seeing that map once again makes me think it would make a great painting – a little bit of a Richard Diebenkorn Ocean Park Series thing going on.


My use of appropriation was sour grapes and cleverness to some extent, but it still had a hint of vicarious escape from media saturation in it. I took back the initiative, the choosing, I was less of a passive consumer. That was the do-good, Schwitters part, but that’s hardly adequate.

Appropriation is basically a rehash of Conceptual and Pop art. It is the blindingly obvious thing to do after Duchamp and Warhol. It’s also a one-trick pony to establish an art career – but if you keep doing the same thing for long enough, you’ll probably get famous. Morris Lewis demonstrated it and General Idea satirized it. As far as appropriation goes, I couldn’t be bothered with anything more than some scrap booking – there are so many other things to think about.

So much for being vexed, and onto the matter of copying your own work. I have three rules for art making: It needs charm, it acknowledges its roots in a tradition, and it contains some other idea, hopefully a new way to see or understand something. That’s a tall order, and I know I don’t always succeed.

In 1977 I propped a book on the arm of a chair. It was open to a photograph of Marcel Duchamp taken by Alfred Stieglitz and I photographed it. I then signed and dated the photo. If art were physics, then Duchamp’s Law would be, “The art of a thing is the choice.” I chose Stieglitz’s photo to be my art.

Levine’s photos of Evan’s photos are more pointed – they’re just the photos with no surrounding context, they’re about appropriation, pure and simple. My photo is polluted with context: the image, the book and the chair in my living room – frames within frames. Besides appropriation, it’s also about my sense of being on the outside, looking through a window into the art world, like watching a family dinner while standing in the snow. Art students sometimes feel that way, very Dickens.

Duchamp 1977
I also enjoyed signing the front – photographers rarely do that.

I 2000, I photographed my photograph and printed it on enough paper to write a screed. It was intended to be amusing like my Artist Statement from a previous post.

Duchamp 2000

It says, “I don’t think Jeff Koons and Sherrie Levine are Postmodernists. I see them as Academic Modernists, Duchamp’s epigoni reworking the readymade concept ad nauseum. My student work of 1977 reflects the same concerns: I accepted what I was taught about permissible museum-grade transgression. To a certain extent, Modernism seems to have been about the quiddity of art itself. Assuming this problem has been solved, and as far as I know, it hasn’t, the next logical step is the quiddity of quiddity. Unfortunately this issue is extremely abstract, and artists are better applied than theoretical philosophers. Instead, let’s suppose for a moment that some point would be served if we were to force historical facts into a dialectical process. This granted, the next dialectical step is to reconsider the ideas negated by Modernism. Notwithstanding De Stijl and Earthworks, (because historical facts must be carefully chosen) the negated ideas are the Beautiful and the Sublime. The other next dialectical step is to chose the particulars of Modernism which need to be negated. Let these be transgression and the logical model of art practice. Therefore, I am pleased to announce that my dialectical thinking has discovered the possibility of a post Modernism. It only lacks a name.”

This definitely illustrates that I had developed some hostility towards theory.

Not much more to say. Here are three related works:

barrel collage 1979
One-piece collage, 1977.

barrel drawing 1999
Pencil drawing, 1999.

barrel photo 2000
Photograph, 2000.

Steve Armstrong cube

How can our writing do justice to the things we wish to say, assuming we’re even clear in advance on what those things are? Genetic Fractals posted on the subject of our habitual dualistic thinking, and how that limits our understanding and ability to communicate. That was the impetus for this post.

Carl Jung borrowed the word syzygy from gnosticism to describe the self. It means a union of irreconcilable opposites. I tend to agree with the idea that my “self” is such a union, and I would include with this the irreconcilable thought that the self both does, and does not exist. An organism with the power to observe itself and its environment is prone to draw some common-sense conclusions such as the existence of a self, but I’m unaware of any compelling reason to believe it. Besides that,there is evidence to suggest that there is no self – our continuous mental and physical change over time, obsessions, addictions, habits, and so on.

Thus, I don’t actually have any strong beliefs in the existence of the self, and the possible fact that it may consist of the union of irreconcilable opposites might just bolster that position. But in spite of my opinion on the subject, it’s also obvious to me that I behave as if I believe in a self.

Also, the language I’m obliged to use seems to presume the existence of a self. The ‘belief’ sentence above for instance, contains two “I’s”, a “my”, and a “me”. Jung didn’t make any such claims about the existence of the self either, “The Self is not a philosophical idea, since it does not predicate its own existence, i.e., does not hypostatize itself. From the intellectual point of view, it is only a working hypothesis”. (Psychological Types, Collected Works Vol. 6, para. 789.)

My working hypotheses include: there is no self without opposites, contraries, contradictions and dualities, but additionally, there is no self at all. My thinking and my experiences all arise from this strange state of affairs. How then, can I write anything that I approve of?

I want to be liked, so one motivation for my prose style is to be charming. And not just for the reader – I want to charm myself. But there’s more to it as well. As a former magazine publisher and editor, I view not being interesting as a fatal flaw and the desire to be interesting leads to wanting charm. This as an invitation to beauty.

Truth and beauty can be understood as opposites, not opposites, or both at the same time. Oscar Wilde’s, “The Decay of Lying” makes the point that truth and beauty are opposed, and John Keats in his “Ode to a Grecian Urn” said, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”. I agree with both of them, but it’s difficult to say this in a sensible or useful way. I also suspect that Wilde is telling us something true in a beautiful way, but he would never admit such a faux pas because the beauty would be damaged.

As an irrelevant aside, the word “charming” became important to me when I read Tristan Tzara’s dada manifestoes as a young man. I found the quote I wanted to share after a search through my piles of books, which feels pretentious to call a library although that’s what it is (I also cringe internally when asked what I do, and I say I’m an artist). The quote is at the end of this post.

Dada was much more compelling when I was an adolescent than it is now, and Tzara’s “great” writing has become a little tarnished. The love I had then has become somewhat nostalgic and wistful. Nonetheless, he loaded a lot into the word charming, and as I write this I remember my mother who would use “charming” dipped in acid after witnessing something particularly gauche. Some words are bigger buckets than others.

As another irrelevant aside, I generally find Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement agreeable, but he certainly seemed to have a strong bias against sensuousness. Thus, he overlooked the metaphorical potential of colour, “The colours which give brilliancy to the sketch are part of the charm. They may no doubt, in their own way, enliven the object for sensation, but make it really worth looking at and beautiful they cannot.” Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, J. C. Meredith trans. p. 67.

The profundity of charm escaped him, and more than likely, he wouldn’t see much in Oscar Wilde. He’d be baffled, like Russell on Nietzsche.

But to leave charm aside, if we suppose that the truth is useful, which seems like a pretty reasonable thing to suppose, Charles Baudelaire could enter the fray, “The idea of utility … is the most hostile of all to the idea of beauty”. (Charles Baudelaire “Further Notes on Edgar Poe” in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, J. Mayne trans. and ed., Da Capo Press Inc., 233 Spring St. N.Y., p. 102.)

And while we’re at it, here’s Schopenhauer, “The beauty of a work of art consists in the fact that it holds up a clear mirror to certain ideas inherent in the world in general … Beauty, however, in its general aspect, is the inseparable characteristic of the idea when it becomes known. In other words, everything is beautiful in which an idea is revealed; for to be beautiful means no more than clearly to express an idea. Thus we perceive that beauty is always an affair of knowledge, and that it appeals to the knowing subject”. (Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Comparative Place of Interest and Beauty in Works of Art” in The Pessimist’s Handbook, A Collection of Popular Essays, T. Bailey Saunders (trans.), Hazel E. Barnes (ed.), Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964, p. 593)

Schopenhauer was squaring off against Kant’s Critique of Judgement, and he also seems to be closer to Keats, while Baudelaire’s early Modernist viewpoint is in agreement with Kant and perhaps with Wilde as well. In a previous post I said, “Immanuel Kant’s theory of aesthetics, his Critique of Judgement, says that an aesthetic judgement is taking either delight in, or aversion to, something in a completely disinterested way – don’t want to have it, don’t even care whether it actually exists or not.” This is the lack of utility that Baudelaire praises and Schopenhauer disparages. Once again, I don’t have a problem agreeing with both of them (all five of them in fact). Art is useful, art is not useful. Beauty is truth, beauty is a lie.

I’m also inclined to agree with Carl Jung who was of the opinion that the more easily an idea can be clearly expressed, the less likely that it will be true. I’m sorry to say, I can’t pull up a footnote or an original quote for that one. You’ll just have to trust me. I read his entire collected works and letters between 40 and 30 years ago and I didn’t make note of it. Obviously though, he wasn’t intending tautologies or things true by definition to be included in this. It has to do with descriptions about the way things are, ontological claims. Jung neither agrees nor disagrees with the others mentioned above. It’s a meta-claim about claiming. But I have to say, he causes me to quibble about Schopenhauer’s claim that beauty is the clear expression of an idea and how that claim may have a vague connection with Keats’ truth/beauty idea. This connection has become more tenuous, unless I’m willing to revise my understanding of clarity. I’d actually be fine with that.

This brings me to ambiguity, which has nothing to do with being difficult to understand, that being mostly a matter of poor communication, and no doubt, I’m I’m guilty of this. Ambiguity however, does have something to do with complexity and that can be challenging. Sometimes the matter under consideration is quite complicated, but on the other hand, sometimes things just aren’t clearly apprehended.

Complexity and fuzziness are both ambiguous and I believe that ambiguity is the engine of beauty, truth, charm, utility and knowledge.
Ambiguous, fuzzy concepts soon pick up a context of metaphor and the resultant loss of conventional meaning can be exhilarating. I find ambiguous ideas and presentations to be beautiful and useful, true and false. Ambiguity is like a caress.

Here’s an example of the fuzzy and ambiguous: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, from Pictures of the Gone World, San Francisco: City Lights Books, poem 5 (which is all caps in the original),


Mirrors are ambiguous. The fact that we can look at them and in them at the same time should be ample proof of that. Fancy European philosophers and psychoanalysts have written entire books about mirrors. I needn’t say more. Except that Ferlinghetti’s mirror may be connected with Schopenhauer’s, above. And also except there might be some uncertainty about what exactly is fuzzy: mirrors, mirrors with legs, or the statement that a poem is a mirror walking down a strange street. It’s mostly the last one.

For an example of the second thing (loss of conventional meaning), I turn to Albert Einstein, the ultimate in positive ad hominem persuasiveness, “The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead”.
Taken from the abridged edition of The World as I See It, Philosophical Library, New York, 1949. The essay appears on pages 1 to 5.

If we assume that conventional meaning is not mysterious, and the mysterious is both ambiguous and exhilarating, then it makes sense that Ferlinghetti and Einstein belong together. The two quotes illustrate my claim that ambiguity is the vehicle of metaphor, given that the desire to understand a mystery drives a person to metaphorical thinking. I highly recommend believing that and here’s why: When confronted with something new and strange, I think about what it’s like and what it’s not like, a refining process to try to see it as it is. By the way, the use of the term vehicle is a bit of a reference to Ogden and Richard’s analysis of metaphor into vehicle and tenor found in The Meaning of Meaning. That’s different though, and extremely irrelevant at the moment.

So how can I write something I approve of? I attempt it with metaphors, complicated and sometimes unnecessary syllogisms, meta-text, ambiguity, fuzziness, prevarication, parentheses, mendacity (in moderation of course), charm, qualifiers, caveats, and writing between the lines. I attempt the same things in my visual art. What else would a syzygy do? I’m one of Tristan’s people.

Tristan Tzara (written sometime between 1916 and 1920. Motherwell’s book doesn’t specify, and good luck finding out online):

“A few days ago I attended a gathering of imbiciles. There were lots of people. Everybody was charming. Tristan Tzara, a small, idiotic and insignificant individual, delivered a lecture on the art of becoming charming. And incidentally, he was charming. And witty. Isn’t that delicious? Incidentally, everybody is delicious. 9 below zero. Isn’t that charming? No, it’s not charming. God can’t make the grade. He isn’t even in the phone book. But he’s charming just the same. Ambassadors, poets, counts, princes, musicians, journalists, actors, writers, diplomats, directors, dressmakers, socialists, princesses and baronesses – all charming. All of you are charming, utterly subtle, witty and delicious.” Tristan Tzara, “Manifesto on feeble love and bitter love, Supplement: How I became charming, delightful and delicious”, in The Dada Painters and Poets, Robert Motherwell ed., New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, Inc., 1951, p. 97.

Nine below zero – early in his career, Bob Dylan sang, “And it’s nine below zero, at three o’clock in the afternoon.” Coincidence?

IMAGE: Steve Armstrong, untitled, acrylic on paper with brass nails, 2000.

3 stoppages étalon (3 Standard Stoppages) 1913-14, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968
Marcel Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages is the most explicit work about the importance of chance that I’ve ever seen. It also might be the first. Duchamp dropped three one meter threads onto a prepared surface and used these lines to make his meter sticks. The following came from the Tate’s website:

In 1964 Duchamp explained: ‘This experiment was made in 1913 to imprison and preserve forms obtained through chance, through my chance. At the same time, the unit of length, one meter, was changed from a straight line to a curved line without actually losing its identity [as] the meter, and yet casting a pataphysical doubt on the concept of a straight edge as being the shortest route from one point to another.’ (Anne d’Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine, eds., Marcel Duchamp, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973, pp.273-4.)

It’s interesting how Duchamp referred to the creation of a work as an imprisonment. It occurred to me once, while listening to Thelonious Monk, that sometimes making art feels like a crime. His exquisite, pauses before committing to a note can make my hair stand up. Art can be very, very serious. The artist is culpable. What’s done is done, and it can’t be taken back. When the move is made, the idea of it is no more. It’s a murder of sorts, and a museum is a morgue.

I hesitate to mention dialectics, but this is the experience of aufhebung, the dialectical move of raising up and preservation through destruction. That’s all nonsense of course, because the dialectic is about feelings, not thinking – a complicated memoir dressed as bad philosophy argued from the personal experience of “it seems like”. Notwithstanding Hegel the Reprehensible, Marx has said many perceptive things, “In no sense does the writer regard his work as a means. They are ends in themselves: so little are they means for him and others that, when necessary, he sacrifices his existence to theirs” FN 1

Art is important.

Embracing chance may seem like an evasion of responsibility, but chance is unavoidable. An artist should love fate like Nietzsche and permit art to be a premeditated arrangement that allows chance to occur. Sometimes the latitude for chance is limited to merely the chanciness of skill, but at other times it is given huge scope.

The critical moment for any work is heeding the realization that the piece might be finished. This is more difficult than I often suppose. I admire the work as it proceeds and I don’t want the pleasure of feeling so smart and talented to stop. But if I don’t coolly consider my judgements as I work, I risk irredeemably ruining it. I need to pause and look at it as an art lover, not an art maker. Maybe it’s done, and maybe it’s not. Think carefully. Not sure? Do something else and come back to it later. Ultimately, when I make the last call, and weeks later decide that it was the right decision, I get the finest pleasure: I still feel smart and talented, but now it comes with relief instead of worry.

Duchamp also mentioned pataphysics – more about that in a future post.

He also said he made it with chance, “my chance”. Perhaps a confession that he made some adjustments, or more likely, repeated the process at an appropriate height to obtain results that were apparently random, and incidentally, fit on sticks of pleasing width. I don’t see anything wrong with this. Artists are liars and keep secrets. The camera obscura is a great example. I suspect Vermeer used one, and he’s my favourite painter. I saw “Girl with Scarf” when it came to the National Gallery in Ottawa and I was stunned. There were no edges, just tiny fallings-off into infinity. David Hockney tried to out the cheats in a book. He may approve of cheating, but I’m not sure, I haven’t read the book. For his sake, I hope he does approve.

Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” makes my point, “The only form of lying that is absolutely beyond reproach is Lying for its own sake, and the highest development of this, as we have already pointed out, is Lying in Art.” FN 2 The Decay of Lying is a delightful dialog that I highly recommend. It’s funny and true in a mendacious kind of way, although Wilde would never be so gauche as to make any claim to truth.

FN 1 Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844”, in Marx and Engels on Literature and Art, L. Baxandall & S. Morawski (eds.) St. Louis: Telos Press, p. 61.

FN 2 Oscar Wilde,”The Decay of Lying” in “Intentions” in The Artist as Critic, Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, Richard Ellman (ed.) New York: Random House, 1969, p.318

IMAGE from the Tate

Allow me to justify myself and feel validated. Yes indeed.

In the comments on my post the other day, The Elevator Speech, I said, “It’s the unexpected good result that causes the artists’ high, which, in my opinion, is way better than the runners’ high”. There’s nothing like a momentary thought that you just made something perfect. That’s a good day. You just want to do it again. And I inevitably fall for the idea that it wasn’t an unexpected good result at all, and in fact, I had cleverly planned the whole thing. It’s best to shake that before you start the next project, otherwise second rate crap is on the horizon.

I just read “A Conversation with David Foster Wallace” From The Review of Contemporary Fiction Summer 1993, Vol. 13.2, By Larry McCaffery. I follow livelysceptic, and the post Stargazing, had a comment by someone else I follow, Dyssebeia. The comment had a link to the DFW interview. That link is also at the bottom of this post as a footnote. I like footnotes.

Here’s what Mr. Wallace had to say, “But you’re talking about the click, which is something that can’t just be bequeathed from our postmodern ancestors to their descendants. No question that some of the early postmodernists and ironists and anarchists and absurdists did magnificent work, but you can’t pass the click from one generation to another like a baton. The click’s idiosyncratic, personal. The only stuff a writer can get from an artistic ancestor is a certain set of aesthetic values and beliefs, and maybe a set of formal techniques that might–just might–help the writer to chase his own click. The problem is that, however misprised it’s been, what’s been passed down from the postmodern heyday is sarcasm, cynicism, a manic ennui, suspicion of all authority, suspicion of all constraints on conduct, and a terrible penchant for ironic diagnosis of unpleasantness instead of an ambition not just to diagnose and ridicule but to redeem. You’ve got to understand that this stuff has permeated the culture. It’s become our language; we’re so in it we don’t even see that it’s one perspective, one among many possible ways of seeing. Postmodern irony’s become our environment”. FN1

There are a few things to discuss here. First off, the artists’ high and the click refer to the same thing. Secondly, DFW and I seem to be in agreement about Postmodernism being unhealthy. If you’re interested, I go on about that in The Communist Manifesto without Nouns. And for more on the subject, here’s the Editorial from Wegway, issue one, 1995, back when it was a photocopied, folded and stapled zine.


Did you know that when I was a kid, I made a neighbourhood newspaper with an Underwood typewriter and carbon paper? The print run was, I think, around 5 or 6, and a couple of the copies were pretty hard to read. When I was 15, two friends and I took our life savings (I worked part-time in a public library for 90 cents an hour) and we bought a used Gestetner ditto machine. We published an ‘underground’ magazine called Karma and sold it on the streets in Yorkville (that was Toronto’s ‘Haight-Ashbury’ area in the days of Hippies). Using the same Underwood typewriter as before, I wrote concrete poetry under the pseudonym of Lenny Ankersfeldt. Now is almost 30 years later, and now is Wegway. As W. S. Burroughs says, “Isn’t life peculiar?”. But enough of maudlin wool-gathering.

I have been wondering why art has become so puny and irrelevant. It may be because art is about too many things these days. Art is so distended with content, it has de-materialized into an infinite balloon of cultural æther. Oddly, our present situation is also like the old saying, “A very tiny baby can easily get lost in its bathwater”. Obviously then, when things get either big enough, or small enough, they become invisible. It is time we learned that trying to force relevance, inevitably leads to kitsch. And it is time to remember, that if you would just stop being a wise-ass for a minute, we would all agree that kitsch is bad.

I have also been wondering why no one since Arthur Cravan has gone on record saying something tactless. Are we all filled with so much self-pity for our irrelevance, that we want to leave our pathetic little careers unthreatened? I realize that our pond is small: That is why we submit to civilization and its discontents. Perhaps that is why nobody will say something like, “David Salle’s paintings are the cloying dwarf offspring of that empty man, that thief and charlatan, Picasso”. You will notice that I also prevaricate in my saying of such a thing. I believe that this is an era of minced words because outside of our art-confinement, nobody cares. That is how unimportant art has become. Since no one else cares, we need to flatter ourselves, and show feigned support for each other although we know in our innards that we and a few others are good, while the vast majority are “salon painters” or some other fatal thing. This fawning has the additional side benefit of inducing wealthy idiots to divert some of their money to art instead of baseball cards. If we really cared, we would honestly say what we think of our peers, and we would tell the world that its money belongs in hell. If art is real, then it is serious.

The Modern world worries everybody; it is not just a problem for silly artistes. That is why the L’il Abner / Beverly Hillbillies myth is so touching. We want an Eden that has not been bothered by the Modern. That is also why the science-fiction theory of “Post Modernism” is so enticing. Jed Clampett and Post Modernism are both wish fulfilment fantasies. There is no Post Modern perception, nor is there a Post Industrial world. Our present mode of perception (assuming there is such a pretentious thing) began with the camera obscura and was confirmed for all in 1839 with the invention of photography. Dirty industry is merely sliding out of Western sight into the Third World. Beware of Marie Antoinettes of theory who rush to declare the new era of the Post Modern and the Post Industrial.

Things are the same as they ever were, only worse. It will have to get much worse yet, before there is a radical change. We are nowhere near a critical mass, and nowhere near the magical point where an epiphenomenon might pop up. Now the Modern is pervasive enough to be opaque. We cannot see outside the virtual. Everything is subsumed. Here is your challenge: Do not give up on Modernism; it is yours; take it back from the cosmetics manufacturers and the advertisers. Take Modernism back from your television set and your personal computer. Art is becoming irrelevant because artists are losing their vision. I have decided that I am not an artist: It has become a foolish thing to be. There is no dignity left in the word ‘artist’. It has become no better than ‘shopkeeper’ and ‘poseur’. I am not an artist because I am not nothing. Wake up. Fight back. Jobs, entertainment and apartments darken our souls. Throw away your television. Cancel your newspaper subscription. Dump theory. Embrace practice. In a couple of months you will begin to realize what you are in. You will begin, once again, to see the difference between double entendre and self-consciousness.

S. E. Armstrong

I greatly admire David Foster Wallace’s writing. I feel validated that we agree on some points, this in spite of the fact that he will always be the better writer. I have pencil drawings to fall back on.


Image – Steve Armstrong, The New Architecture, an aerial perspective, graphite and coloured pencil on paper, 8″ x 10″, 1980.


It’s time to let some other members of the Institute have their say.

André Questcequecest finished a book in 2010 after ten years of occasional work. Wm. F. Krendall provided the introduction and I added a preface. It will probably find its way into the Institute’s giant omnibus – working title, The Documents of the Institute for the Separation of Theory from Practice, which is still on a drawing board somewhere.

I’m pleased to present Questcequecest’s book here in its entirety, a small portion in this post and the balance on a linked page. This is a world premiere. Very exciting. Yes.

And by the way,

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

istp comicscode
The Communist Manifesto in English
With All Words Functioning as Nouns Removed
Except for the Title, Preface and Introduction
In order to Make It Formally Consistent
With the Theory of Dialectical Materialism

Short Title: The Communist
André Questcequecest 2001-2010

with a preface by
Stephen Eric Armstrong

and introduction by
Wm. F. Krendall


For the most part I don’t find conceptual art very interesting.

The idea that generates a conceptual artwork is the salient part, and once that idea is understood, the experience of the resultant work often feels redundant, unnecessary or even a bit “hot”, to use that word in Marshall McLuhan’s sense. I also suspect that on occasion, the exhibited objects of conceptual art are for the most part, ingenuous commodities. Naturally enough, we all have to make a living, but to paraphrase Marx, commercial relations falsify human relations, and as he said of paid journalists, himself included, writing for money is its own punishment.

Years ago, as I became aware of “Postmodernism”, I had an idea to make scaled down copies of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International as table lamps. They were to be called The Lamp of Postmodernism and I wanted them to be cast in bronze, as this would suggest a formal repudiation, perhaps through feigned ignorance, of the constructivist ideas involved in Tatlin’s work. I still might do it someday if I find the gumption and the money.

I think my idea is conceptual art, and I actually find it pretty interesting, so it might be worth making. But I may only feel this way because I thought of it. Hopefully the lamp, besides actually being useful as a lamp, is sufficiently pointed or poetic to be worthy of existence. It’s a serious decision after all. There’s already a lot of art in the world – no need to fill it to the brim.

At the least, I think the lamp communicates my take on post Modernism fairly well: Like all nihilism, post Modernism as an art practice, is unhealthy. Nietzsche said that (the part about nihilism and ill health). The desire for a better world becomes just so much grist for the mill.

And besides this, the dark times in twentieth century Europe that lead to the thought that poetry is no longer possible, also gave us horrific connotations concerning lampshades. I hope the callousness is apparent.

I have yet to make the lamps but I did make a rubber stamp image of the lamp in 1995 and produced an edition of “prints” in 1999. No one has ever accused me of being diligent. Yes, I’m a dawdler.
Steve Armstrong
The Communist Manifesto with all words functioning as nouns removed is pretty much unreadable and I would recommend that you don’t even bother trying. Well, maybe a page or two to get the general idea, but that would be more than enough because it won’t get any better further along. It’s a meaningless text that isn’t meant to be read. It is only meant to exist. It’s basically a joke about a particular absurdity I think André Questcequecest found in Marxist theory and it’s an unreadable waste of paper except to the extent that the gesture has been made visible.

Unlike The Communist, “The Magnetic Fields” (1919) by André Breton and Philippe Soupault is enjoyable to read. This is probably because of its failure as strict automatism. Breton and Soupault wrote quickly in order to access their “unconscious” and they did not revise or edit the text – they wished to avoid any stylistic and aesthetic considerations in the writing. I don’t think anyone has ever called it Fauve Literature, but I’m happy to do so.

Of course, it is not entirely possible to avoid all stylistic and aesthetic considerations. One’s taste will be an unseen guide and the decisions that generated the text can be imaginatively guessed. In the case of Breton and Soupault, I find their thinking charming. I feel acquainted with their working minds just as Blake welcomed Milton into his home. The Communist, on the other hand is merely the product of a process, a case of complete automatism. The result is much less charming. As a rule, conceptual art isn’t much to look at.

To illustrate the failure-success of “The Immaculate Conception”, here is a quote:

A perfect odour bathed the shadow and a thousand little scents ran up and down. They were thick circles, ravaged rags. Millimetres away, the endless adventures of microbes were perceptible. Style of cleansed cries and tamed visions. The brief puffs of smoke fell furiously and in disorder. Only the wind could absorb this living peat, these paralysed contrivances. The wild races, the bridge of delays, the instantaneous brutalizations were found to be joined together again and mixed with the blue sands of modernized pleasures, with sensational sacrifices, with the fleet flock of elect narcotics. There were the serious songs of sickly street alters, the prayers of merchants, the afflictions of swine, the eternal agonies of librarians.FN1

As an “executive summary” then, this book needed to exist and never be read, as it hints at the difference between practical things and art things. In Zurich, Lenin was acquainted with the dada artists at Cabaret Voltaire, and when he left for revolution in Russia, he chided them for not doing something useful. I’d like to write a play about that.

Stephen Eric Armstrong

FN1 Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault, “The Magnetic Fields,” The Automatic Message, David Gascoyne, Antony Melville, and Jon Graham trans., (London: Atlas Press, 1997), p. 83.


In his book, Marxist Esthetics, Henri Arvon explains Marxist doctrine with quotes from V. I. Lenin and George Lukács. I would like to reproduce two of his paragraphs and insert my own commentary. The quoted words appear in bolder type. The quote is continuous, without breaks or changes of order, thus Arvon can be read without my interruptions by reading only the bold type.

According to Marxist doctrine, essence is the sum total of the principal internal aspects of a process, whereas phenomena are the immediate outward expression of this process. The essence and phenomena are thus both related to the same process, and in this respect they are interdependent and indissociable. Lenin compares the essence to a deep current, and phenomena to waves and swirls of foam that disturb its surface. “The foam [is] on top and the deep currents below. But the foam is also the expression of the essence,” he states in his Philosophical Notebooks.

In my opinion, Marxist essence, “the sum total of the principal internal aspects of a process,” is merely a different way to refer to the potential explanation of a process. The essence of a process is what that process is doing. In addition, a preceding essence is similar to a cause which is, of course, just a different kind of explanation. Lenin’s interpretation differs – essence and phenomenon have equal status as actual things in the world. Ontologically speaking, internal aspects are not much different from external aspects (phenomena) – as Lenin says, deep currents versus disturbances on the surface – they’re both made out of water. I am left to wonder though, how an internal aspect can be an aspect at all, because it is concealed, invisible.

The prime task of Marxist esthetics, therefore, is to re-establish the dialectical unity of the essence and the phenomena, in contradistinction to the tendencies of bourgeois esthetics, which disregards human totality and makes of the essence and phenomena two different levels of consciousness.

Waves and foam are visible but deep currents are not. A bourgeois aesthetics might regard these deep currents as something that is theorized, surmised, supposed or deduced, whereas the phenomena of waves and foam are the things that are seen or perceived. These are quite rightly “two different levels of consciousness,” in spite of the fact they both concern the same process. The process is indeed a totality but the consciousness of it requires division by mental function – for instance sensation, perception, and cognition. The “human totality” to be presented in a work of art will be experienced by a total human who will, no doubt, be tempted to divide his consciousness in order to understand what is being experienced.

According to George Lukacs, art must “provide an image of reality in which the counterpointing of phenomenon and essence, the exception and the rule, immediacy and the concept, etc., is so intimate a blend of the two opposites that they totally intermingle and form a spontaneous unity in the immediate impression we have of a work of art, constituting for the person experiencing them an indivisible unity.”

This is, of course, what Bertolt Brecht was attempting to do in works such as The Three Penny Opera. If internal aspects become something that is experienced like the phenomena they are associated with, and thus form a “spontaneous unity”, then there could well be internal aspects of internal aspects, and so on, an infinite regress, which at some point, I suspect, encounters an agenda for social engineering. As Tristan Tzara says, “Dialectics is an amusing machine that leads us (in banal fashion) to the opinions which we would have held in any case”FN2. One thing is clear: Nouns can be misleading in that a rigorous application of Marxist theory leads to the conclusion that they all refer to an infinite regress of some sort.

André Questcequecest has decided to rewrite The Communist Manifesto to make it formally consistent with the theory behind it, a theory that seems to imply that all things are a process and thus more like verbs than nouns. But even verbs imply a thing performing the action, or having it performed on them.

Interestingly, removing the contradiction between form and content has mostly served to cause sense and nonsense to exchange places. This demonstrates that The Communist Manifesto is politics and not art or science. And more importantly, that art requires a fairly tight relation between what it wants to say and how it says it – content and form. But naturally enough, that’s what I thought in the first place.

Wm. F. Krendall

FN1 Henri Arvon, Marxist Esthetics, Helen R. Lane, trans., (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1973), p. 50

FN2 Tristan Tzara, “Dada Manifesto, 1918,” Dada Almanach, Richard Huelsenbeck, ed., M. Green, D. Wynand, T. Hale, B. Wright, A. Melville, and S. Barnett trans., (London: Atlas Press, 1993) p.127.

The Communist

A is haunting — the of. All the of old have entered into a holy to hunt down and exorcise: and and French and German.

Where is the in that has not been denounced as communistic by its in? Where the that has not hurled back the branding of against the more advanced, as well as against its reactionary?

Two result from this:
I. Is already acknowledged by all European to be a.
II. Is high that should openly, in the of the whole, publish their, their, their, and meet this nursery of the of with a of the.

To this, of various have assembled in and sketched the following, to be published in the English, French, German, Italian, Flemish, and Danish.


The of all hitherto existing is the of class.

And, , and, and, in a, and, stood in constant to, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open, a that each ended, either in a revolutionary of at large, or in the common of the contending.

In the earlier of, we find almost a complicated of into various, a manifold of social. In ancient we have, , , ; in the Middle, feudal, , , , , ; and in almost all of these particular, again, other – subordinate.

The modern bourgeois that has sprouted from the of feudal has not done away with class. Has only established new, new of, new of in of the old.

If you’re interested, the rest is here, proof positive André Questcequecest actually completed the task. You’ll probably recognise the last paragraph.

The actual work by Marx and Engels can be found here.


In 1978 I made a pencil drawing called, Under Construction: The Gardiner Expressway looking East Towards Jameson.
Here was something that could put Toronto on the map.

Tatlin Toronto

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