Archives for posts with tag: Toronto


An addendum to Self Expression and Conceptual Painting.

One day while waiting for my train to arrive, I watched a freight pull by and noticed a spray-painted message on a boxcar, “ANGER IS A GIFT”. It had never occurred to me that anger was a gift, and thus it required further thought. I am more inclined to see anger as an unwanted disturbance, or an interruption of any free will that I might possess. Anger doesn’t seem much different from a toothache – it goes about its business with little regard for my opinions or wishes.

It would be strange if anger were a gift. But let’s be fair about this, and consider for a moment some hypothetical people who might regard me as “too cerebral” or “alienated from my feelings” because of my opinion about anger. Quite likely, these people have such preposterous ideas because they are suffering from a fundamental misunderstanding about human nature – they identify their supposed selves with their emotional weather.

These deluded, hypothetical people could easily jump to thoughts like “anger is a gift,” and then add, when considering me, “especially in your case, as it might curtail the growth of a tumor.” But who can say – we all have our delusions. Nonetheless, I suppose anger is a gift in a certain way. First there wasn’t anger, and then suddenly, I have anger. It’s like getting a birthday gift in the mail.

But I haven’t been fair. I have trivialized the concern by merely playing with the somewhat tautological connection between ‘gift’ and ‘getting’. Now I have used the word ‘tautological’ to make the hypothetical people feel bad about their possible ignorance of the word. It makes matters worse that these same people probably don’t feel bad about their ignorance at all – they don’t even care, they may even be proud of it, and I don’t doubt for a moment that they think I’m a snot – that is, if I were generous in my definition of ‘think’.

Sometimes I get the feeling that the world has been configured by high-average people primarily for the exploitation of average people – people who can be counted on to respond somewhat normally and predictably. This is the kind of world where people of high average intelligence can expect to succeed. The dictatorship of the “middle-brow”, as Clement Greenberg might say.

In this kind of world, the people at the extreme ends of the intelligence-sophistication-wisdom scales all have to fend for themselves when it comes to community and stimulation. This also applies to people thought of as defective, eccentric, or dangerous by those middle-brows mentioned above. The shunned and invisible find their own places to gather: places like group homes, sheltered workshops, strange hobby gatherings, Mensa chapters, academies, criminal organizations, and religious or political get-togethers.

All of this though, has merely been an example of my repressed anger and resentment reaching outwards from the personal to full-blown social theory. I suspect this may be rooted in my mostly unsuccessful career as an artist, and my unimportance within that huge group of hypothetical people I don’t want to spend time with anyway. I am thankful I don’t know them, and I suppose that might be a gift of sorts.

Of course it might just be self-loathing. Hard to say. It’s easy to prevaricate, and hard to be honest, especially if pride is involved.

At any rate, it’s true that righteous anger and revolutionary anger can be gifts. Anger is a healthy response to injustice, and Noam Chomsky endorses it because it motivates us to do courageous and important things. But regardless, repressed anger warps my good intentions and this is not a gift. The box car was right, but it confused me: I probably live with more anger than I care to acknowledge. It’s hard to make clean art living that way.

Image at top: Steve Armstrong, Equality Brand Aluminum Foil, oil on cardboard with serrated metal edge mounted on panel, 7.5″ x  16.5″, 2006.

I made this atypical box painting (atypical in that it contains an internal figure/ground relation (the red on blue)) shortly after being diagnosed with macular degeneration.The condition developed shortly after the death of my mother who also suffered from it. Stress and grief may have triggered my amazing psycho-somatic powers. I guess I was a bit upset.

With this painting, I was engaged in some unintentional self expression that has just been waiting there for me to notice it. And perhaps someday, if I have a famous name, at which point I am very likely dead and my cremated ashes have been poured into the Humber river in Toronto, the place I will always consider home, and those ashes are somewhere out in the North Atlantic, this box painting with its serrated metal edge, will be sought after as if it held drops of holy blood from a self-severed ear. The art market works in obvious ways.

Self expression was my warped-by-anger intention. Clean art goes as planned, dirty art doesn’t. I like both kinds, and this requires further thought.


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.)

LR dangerous minerals
Artists are intensely interested in their medium – how it works and what it does. Nonetheless, for reasons of health and safety, certain dangerous minerals should be used sparingly or avoided entirely. It is important to realize that these insidious substances can have deleterious psychotropic effects.

Induces metaphor blindness.

Dulls the faculty of taste.

Produces delusions that politicking, social engineering, and giving advice are actually art.

Leads to severe dessication.

Sets off manic socializing, buttonholing, and paranoid thinking.

Aggravates the over-assessment of the precious.

Results in an intense interest in the appearance of one’s work while also feeling very little responsibility for that appearance.

Brings on fatigue, weakness, and nihilistic thinking.

Generates art-object blindness.

Causes stupidity.

Please don’t misunderstand. Art does involve expression – that’s where futility comes in (a previous post).

Below is something which nods its head to Formalism but is definitely not lacking in metaphor – Tom Dean’s Floating Staircase from 1979. It haunted Toronto Harbour for two years. David Yerle’s blog mentions awe and Dean’s piece elicits awe.


“The Floating Staircase was a device of the imagination so awkward (5 tons, 24 ft. square, floating on 56 oil barrels) that it could not be appropriated by any aspect of our culture. What was explicit in the staircase is perhaps implicit in much of modern art — its uselessness and essential homelessness. Modern art has tended to express an anachronism. It does not serve a function so much as a kind of dysfunction. It exists as a white elephant, further aggrandized in the white elephant of the art gallery, and succeeds best in reflecting the white elephant inherent in culture. The Floating Staircase reflected the pretention and hope apparent in all our enterprise and culture, not to mock but to affirm its real nature as a monument laboriously, heroically and painfully achieved, immediately inert, and only redeemed by its falling to ashes. ” T. Dean (In 1981, the artist burnt it on the water.)

IMAGE – Steve Armstrong, Formalite, rubber stamp “print”, 1995
IMAGE – Tom Dean, Floating Staircase, 1978-9, along with quote, from Mercer Union.


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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