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I haven’t posted anything in quite some time – been busy with other things.

One of those things is Wegway Television. And even though it seems a bit awkwardly misplaced to promote it here, as I consider this blog to be mostly about finding ways to write about art, I’m going to promote it anyway. This is a whole new thing for me, and it’s fun.

Wegway Television interviews visual artists in a single take. This gives the artists the opportunity to talk about their work in an unstructured way without concerns about context. In Episode 1, Elizabeth Fearon and Steve Armstrong join Jennifer Linton for an in-depth discussion of her work – a combination of drawing, print making, animation and installation. Her current project is Toronto Alice. http://www.jenniferlinton.com

The people behind Wegway Television

Steve Armstrong is a visual artist, writer, and magazine Editor/Publisher formerly based in Toronto, but now living in Belleville Ontario. He is a graduate of the Ontario College of Art (AOCA) and has an undergraduate degree in philosophy from the University of Toronto. He has been exhibiting in Canada and internationally since 1977. His blog, Wegway and the Institute for the Separation of Theory from Practice, is the very thing you are reading right now. His magazine, Wegway Primary Culture is presently in deep hibernation and its somewhat moribund website can be found at wegway.com.

Elizabeth Fearon was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1970. Her formal art education has included a BFA from York University (1995) and a Post Graduate Diploma in Post Production from Humber College (2002). Fearon’s work has been realized through many media over the years, most recently through video, multiples, and installation. Conceptually, Fearon is very interested in the role of the individual as a member of society.

Her work has been shown in many galleries and festivals, including A Space (Toronto, Canada), The Seoul Museum of Art (Seoul, South Korea), MOT Gallery (London, England), Video Pool (Winnipeg, Canada), The Natural Light Window (Toronto, Canada), and 25hrs (Barcelona, Spain).

Fearon has also spoken publicly about her work in a variety of venues, including The Alberta College of Art and Design, BUS Gallery, and Vtape.

Through both professional and personal experiences, Fearon hopes to continue her exploration of the things that make us unique spirits in a complex, confusing world. 

www.elizabethfearon.comwww.ccca.ca

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descent
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.

tatlinmonument3int

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.

Turner

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.

IMG_3427

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.

rodchenko

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.

Rosetta_Stone

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.

scan0001

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.

 

???????????????????
1908

My name is Steve, and I don’t exist in the way that the English language would lead me to believe.

I’m made up of numerous little Steves who take turns in the driver’s seat. There’s the Steve who wants to drink vast quantities of wine and beer. There’s the Steve who wants to smoke a cigar, although these first two are pretty close to one and the same guy.

There’s the Steve who loves art and has actually swooned in the presence of a painting, the one who wants to make art just as good, the one who thinks that would be an awful lot of work so it would be best to start it later, the one who finds physics and philosophy very interesting, the one who loves his family and friends, the one who resents obligations and responsibilities, the one who thinks his taste in clothes is indisputably the best, and for all the right reasons, the one who worries about the environment, and the one who believes that there is only one Steve. This last one also rides shotgun with all the others. These are some of my nafs.

Carl Jung would call the nafs complexes, an idea he shared with Freud. Jung also stressed that complexes are merely heuristics – believing in their independent existence won’t help the situation.

As far as I know, the Sufis see the nafs mostly as unworthy, carnal aspects of the ego, but there’s probably a lot more to it than that. Nonetheless, the unworthy ones are certainly the most obvious. The nafs I disapprove of in myself are by far the easiest ones to see as not actually being me.

But naturally enough, I’m prone to find the most flattering explanation to be the one that is most probably true. This is simply a function of Armstrong’s Bin. Who doesn’t want to think of themselves as a curious, artistic, responsible, loving person. That’s a lot better than being a vain, resentful, procrastinating substance abuser.

If I were to see all my proclivities as not me, I would find that there is nothing left. There is also a threatened little Steve who thinks that’s frightening. This one is standing in the way of progress.

It seems that my accomplishments are, in a way, the achievements of a termite colony. As my grandmother used to say, “Fancy that”.

williams-web
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.

mz-231-miss-blanche-1923
http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/kurt-schwitters/mz-231-miss-blanche-1923

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.

Richard_Diebenkorn's_painting_'Ocean_Park_No.129'
From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Richard_Diebenkorn%27s_painting_%27Ocean_Park_No.129%27.jpg

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),

“A POEM IS A MIRROR WALKING DOWN A STRANGE STREET”

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.

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.

Formalite
Induces metaphor blindness.

Emotate
Dulls the faculty of taste.

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

Conceptualine
Leads to severe dessication.

Careerblende
Sets off manic socializing, buttonholing, and paranoid thinking.

Aestheticlase
Aggravates the over-assessment of the precious.

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

Theoryte
Brings on fatigue, weakness, and nihilistic thinking.

Mimeseum
Generates art-object blindness.

Expressionane
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.

01Dean-1979-680x410

“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.

Boxpainting
I enjoy a cigar from time to time, something I do in the privacy of my back yard when weather permits. While self-indulging one day, I noticed Mike, my cat, doing something interesting. We have an old milk can in the corner by the back door and Mike caught sight of a mouse in this vicinity. He pursued the mouse, and it very reasonably ran into the corner behind the milk can. Here is the interesting part: Without hesitation, Mike went to the other side of the can to catch the mouse as it emerged. It didn’t emerge of course, opting to hide over running. I rescued the mouse by removing Mike.

Here’s why I found this interesting. The cat behaved as if he believed in the persistence of hidden objects. More than that, he behaved as if he believed in Newtonian space; that the mouse continued on the same trajectory, under the constraint of the corner which in its way makes up the x, y, and z axes. I’ll admit this might be pushing things a bit, but to push a bit further, the cat might be functioning within the same forms of perception as we do. For me, these are the Kantian ones of space, time and causality. To expand on that, space, time and causality are a priori (logically prior) to any knowledge we might have. They mediate our understanding, we understand in their terms.

As Richard Nixon said, let me make one thing perfectly clear. I’m not claiming that cats believe things, although they might, who am I to say? I’m suggesting that regardless of the sophistication of a living thing, it is successfully existing and reproducing because it behaves as if it knows something about its world. This is backing off somewhat from A. J. Ayers’ definition of knowledge as a true belief with sufficient reason to a more humble definition of knowledge being a behavior that looks as if it were a belief that’s confirmed by results. I know that’s a bit mealy mouthed, but it’s the best I can do. If you want to say something about the world of putative things, which Kant referred to as the noumenal world, I think that’s about as good as it’s going to get.

But to finish with a grander claim, the living things in the universe are like keyholes through which the universe catches a glimpse of itself.

Afterthought.
I think physical things and awareness of them lie on the same continuum. They’re made of the same stuff, whatever that stuff might be. And obviously, matter, energy, and mind don’t cover enough ground to be that stuff. If anyone cares, this was also Carl Jung’s take on things. Here’s an interesting quote from the theoretical physicist David Bohm, who also agrees, if I understand him correctly:

“If the thing and the thought about it have their ground in the one undefinable and unknown totality of flux, then the attempt to explain their relationship by supposing that the thought is in reflective correspondence with the thing has no meaning, for both thought and thing are forms abstracted from the total process. The reason why these forms are related could only be in the ground from which they arise, but there can be no way of discussing reflective correspondence in this ground, because reflective correspondence implies knowledge, while the ground is beyond what can be assimilated in the content of knowledge.

Does this mean that there can be no further insight into the relationship of thing and thought? We suggest that such further insight is in fact possible but that it requires looking at the question in a different way. To show the orientation involved in this way, we may consider as an analogy the well-known dance of the bees, in which one bee is able to indicate the location of honey-bearing flowers to other bees. This dance is probably not to be understood as producing in the ‘mind’ of the bees a form of knowledge in reflective correspondence with the flowers. Rather, it is an activity which, when properly carried out, acts as a pointer or indicator, disposing the bees to an order of action that will generally lead them to the honey. This activity is not separate from the rest of what is involved in collecting the honey. It flows and merges into the next step in an unbroken process. So one may propose for consideration the notion that thought is a sort of ‘dance of the mind’ which functions indicatively, and which, when properly carried out, flows and merges into an harmonious and orderly sort of overall process in life as a whole.” David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980, p. 55.

IMAGE – Steve Armstrong, Box Painting, 2008.

I really hope some physics and philosophy type persons are moved to comment. I don’t doubt this post needs refining, and perhaps even rejecting. Go for it.

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

nixon front
“Compressed air is a disgrace.” FN1

I have a formula for humour that consists of applying the three following rules:

1- Use reason to explain all human activity.
2- Assume everybody knows what they are doing or talking about.
3- Assume no one is ever under the thrall of the seven deadly sins.

I sincerely believe that this formula will work for anybody. Even cheats and pedants can be funny if you stick to the plan. Richard Nixon was extremely funny. This is why Nixon is my favourite President. I think Hunter S. Thompson grieved the end of his presidency, and now I miss Hunter S. Thompson.

Power is antithetical to humour. Beauty is a kind of power. But sometimes humour is beautiful, and the beautiful is funny.

IMAGE
Sometime in the 1990’s, driving in the United States of America, I stopped for lunch and noticed the bowl of sugar bags on the table. Each one had a President on it, so I rummaged around for Nixon. I saved it.

FN1 Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault, “The Magnetic Fields”, The Automatic Message, David Gascoyne, Antony Melville, Jon Graham trans., Atlas Press, London, 1997, p. 140

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