Archives for posts with tag: Wilde

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

klee.ancient-sound

Paul Klee, Ancient Sound, oil on cardboard, 15″ x 15″, 1925, coll. Kunstsammlung, Basel. http://www.sai.msu.su/wm/paint/auth/klee/

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.

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

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

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

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

I find spots interesting as well.

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

wonder_bread

http://archives.chbooks.com/online_books/head_paintings/wonder_bread.html

Here’s Fones from the Coach House books site:

WONDER BREAD

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. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/61.101.16

 

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 http://www.pasunautre.com/2011/12/28/art-in-2012/

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.

imagesYesterday’s Globe and Mail has a short interview with Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips by Elizabeth Renzetti which I would rate as an M for Moderately Interesting. The V for Very Interesting goes to Ms. Renzetti’s recollection of her grandmother who said, when offered some cake, “I can admire without coveting”. It reminds me of Immanuel Kant’s theory of aesthetics, his Critique of Judgement, where he 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. It seems to me that if you are unable to do this, it will be difficult to be happy. What follows is a short excerpt from my 1999 essay, “The Descent of Geometry”:

I have been cursed with a desire for knowledge and at first that might seem better than other more unpleasant or illicit desires. Aristotle would certainly agree – he says that knowledge is our highest good. I don’t deny that some objects of desire are better than others, immoral ones in particular, and in fact, I agree with Aristotle that knowledge is the best thing to want. To me, this seems quite satisfactory and reasonable because that is the very curse I just mentioned.

It’s just that all desire itself is the same in that it is never entirely satisfied. If I fulfill a desire, I will only achieve a measure of sorrow and disappointment because things are never as good or abundant as our desire needs them to be. There is always something a bit shabby about real things when they are forced into a comparison with our ideas and there are never enough of those shabby things to cover the shortfall. Real things, unlike ideas, are often victimized by chewing gum needing a place to go, paint worn off at the corners, an aroma not as nice as we expected, or they simply might not do the things we didn’t even know we wanted them to do until we obtained them.

The cause of our desire is only partially found in the object desired, the greater part being our often erroneous understanding of our own needs. This is the root of our disappointment. And this makes perfect sense of course, when we consider the facts that we are not fully acquainted with an object until we have it in our possession, and besides that, not all of our expectations are possible. When the desired object becomes ours, there remains this odd uncomfortable feeling that there must have been a mistake somewhere.

It can be very frustrating that the desire was perhaps better than its fulfillment and that once it has been fulfilled, it cannot be re-desired (it’s definitely disheartening that we can only desire what we don’t have). But on the other hand, if I do not fulfill a desire, the frustration can be just as bothersome – this because we do not yet have that peculiar disappointed feeling that would help us see that the fulfillment of a desire is no big deal anyway. It is better to take pleasure in the process of desire rather than wait for its inevitable conclusion. This truth is revealed in Oscar Wilde’s praise of tobacco as a good thing because it is never satisfying.

The Book of Ecclesiastes gives similar advice: All is vanity therefore we should eat, drink and take pleasure in our toil. My desire for knowledge is sometimes distressing to me. There is so much to know and I will never know enough. I console myself with the fact that Wittgenstein never read Aristotle and if such a cultured man never found time for a writer of Aristotle’s importance, then I can stop worrying about all the marvelous things I have been unable to get to.

I happen to know though, that Wittgenstein missed a good read in Aristotle. Aristotle seems to be a nice man, a wonderful thinker who seems so real even in his translated words – the realness mostly coming from his heartwarming stubbornness to try to solve every problem by reason alone – observation and feelings being barely relevant. I can almost feel Aristotle’s breath as we both hunch over the same thought. It’s a pleasure to know him, and perhaps this is how I do take pleasure in my toil. I understand that my desire is for something that can never be concluded, and why would you ever want to conclude a friendship anyway? I think an unfulfillable desire is by far the best kind of desire to have – no sorrow or disappointment, and like foreplay, just a sweet yearning with inklings of a beautiful future.

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