Saturday, October 04, 2014

A Group of One's Own: Full Circle

Much of this comes from rough drafts that inspired a piece in The Immanence of Myth. This is an important post re: the intent and future of this site so please read on...

Art is a medium of personal and cultural revolution. 

How do myths of progress and individuality effect our perspective of art and creativity? Though we regarded it from a macro- level in PrettySuicide Machine, I would like to turn our attention back to the micro- level: specifically the myths that we have of artistic progress, which we can then fold back into some of the larger issues of progress within Western, which is to say, industrialized and capitalist, culture. It is impossible that the myths that structure the place of art within the world should not similarly structure our views of value and commodity, or perhaps it could be flipped around and remain the same.
    Let's consider: it is a common conception that breakthroughs in science, philosophy and the arts have all come about through critical analysis of an established corpus of previous works, and that the process is a gradual one. This is a myth cemented in the natural methodology of teaching art history, or history in general: we assume a gradual progress from one point to the next through time, carrying up to the present day. Perhaps the rate of progress accelerates or slows down, whether through the convergence or divergence of trade routes, the friction and choke points of information of culture in the formation of cities, or the growth of an arts culture in a certain location, (not unlike a bacterial culture) and so on. But we imagine that we can safely assume that this Hegelian myth of gradual synthesis is a sound one. “In all ways we have Progressed, and this progression is towards some end,” so says the teleological myth. Let's proceed with it, but also consider the possibility that, like all myths, it is also misleading.
    It also follows that wherever we have a prevailing myth of “the artist,” rather than a tradition of artisans and skilled tradesman that attempt to do nothing beyond furthering and perfecting traditional methods, the real breakthroughs occur in the hands of rare individuals who change the playing field in varying degrees. Through figures such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, or Ornette Coleman, blues and jazz were transformed into bebop and free jazz. They all had varying experience in the traditions that came before, but all of their contributions are measured in the uniqueness of their own voice, and how the addition of that voice forever changed the tune afterward. An artist is often somewhere between a medium and a curator, picking which elements in the screaming cacophony around us to focus on, to enlarge or elaborate upon, or to rail against. What was Hunter Thompson's mode? What's yours? The emphasis on the role of artist in this process, which really involves everyone engaged within a particular social domain, is clearly something valued in Western culture, even if it is also feared by the conservative elements of that culture. (If a conservative perspective is one that seeks to be backwards facing, emphasizing and idealizing the importance of tradition rather than revolution.)
    We simply don't find the same emphasis on an artist as a unique individual, at least as the rule, in traditional tribal cultures of South America, or in many Asian cultures before Western values began to take hold. (Through it does crop up in various forms of guru worship, which is probably a variation on a similar theme.)
These are two very different, equally valid perceptions of the nature of art. One emphasizes upholding and refining a particular tradition. The other emphasizes a revolution of forms by the individual, and as such is oftentimes as much about the artist as the art. We know of Dali's persona almost as much as his work; imagine the same thing from the Ndebele of South Africa. We know the style, but rarely the creator. The art is more of a cultural and community practice. The work remains, the creator remain nameless outside of the community. The work of Piet Mondrian, which carries a somewhat similar aesthetic as the Ndebele, the same boldness of color and solid geometric simplicity, is distinguished in part because of the artist, even in the case of a less flamboyant artist such as he. There is an element to the individualistic, progress-centric concept of art that is always autobiographical, whether it is implicit or explicit. Even in art focused on form or concept, the value of the art comes through the creator, rather than the piece itself. 
    Imagine that living at the same time as Picasso, there was another artist with a similar style and equal skill. This fictional shadow never attained any amount of notoriety as an artist, however, eking out an existence as an accountant. In the present day, which artists work is more valuable? The fact that this question is rhetorical only proves the power of this myth in the Western world. These works only become valuable if someone manages to bolster the myth of this shadow artist; if he attains sainthood within the art world, then perhaps the work will command high prices by virtue of the name. An artist's foremost task as myth-maker in a world fixated on commodity is to build cultural value through one's own myth. Andy Warhol and Britney Spears both serve as examples of what importance the spectacle has in this fickle process.
    Breakthroughs at the hands of these individuals are literally just that, changing the playing field altogether, rather than being a part of an unbroken, linear progression from antiquity to modernity. This may seem confusing, since the myth of progress itself is linear. It is only in retrospect that we identify, or even invent, the ideological connections between one movement and sub-culture and the next, in essence drawing a line in a field of dots. 
    This idea of contention, opposition, and temporary synthesis is key in analyzing the procession of creative work. Creativity thrives in an environment of nurturing conflict, and a motivating factor for many artists, as well as scientists, is the need to express themselves in contrast or conflict with the prevailing ideologies of the culture(s) around them.1   The framing of this situation is depending on the premise of the myth: that the individual will is central to the creative process, and that there is a single history of civilization that is based on a single narrative of progress. Though this may seem at first an oxymoronic statement, within this frame it's clear that the life-blood of artistic and philosophical advancement lies in struggle: each new “great” school of art or philosophy comes about as a reaction to the previous, now ossified system. Calling it a “system” at all is a demonstration of this. Nature is systematized. Contained, controlled, mastered. This is one of the conceits of progress.
    When something has become a system it has entered the adult stage. Along with this comes stasis, and ultimately, degeneration or replacement by a young upstart. The Golden Bough's mono-myth finds some purchase in this territory, as does the Graal myth of the wounded king and Percival — what we now establish must be overthrown or outgrown tomorrow. The myth of progress depends on this. According to it, each generation must exceed the past. And perhaps in some sense it often does, but this linear, teleological myth implies a singular goal. It contradicts those traditions that attempt to mirror rather than master nature, which reveals itself as the circle or spiral, never a line. It contradicts a narrative of decline, which continues to try to interject itself in the form of myths of apocalypse and revelation.2 And it contradicts an interpretation of history that says that at various times, one thing has been emphasized over another, and at the present time, myths of progress and conquest are merely the “genre of fiction” that's selling.
    Many of the breakthroughs used to further the narrative of progress come as a result of critically analyzing, even challenging, the mythic axioms held by the surrounding culture, as we see in the history of Christianity with Eckhart, with Bruno, and so on. Whether artist, inventor, or philosopher becomes less relevant within this context. Each took a new gambit, however subtle or gross, based on the risks taken by those that came before. The challenge is not just in regard to an invented “art world,” but towards the culture as a whole. If successful, these gambits can reform the culture itself. Yet it is subsumed into this underlying teleological myth, like cobblestones laid to build a road.  

    Art is a medium of cultural revolution. 

It is even a constant revolution, in the Marxist sense — a continual process of self-criticism — though certainly not necessarily towards Marxist ends. The Western myth of art seems indistinguishable from the myth of the revolutionary individual. This mythic current could even be called Luciferian, though only to the extent that Lucifer is conceived of as a symbol divorced of Christian morality. He is the light-bearer, not all that unlike Prometheus; a figure that disobeys the laws of the land. But this transgression is not without purpose. It is done in the name of progress. Thus the Western myth of art, in the form of the revolutionary artist, is inexorably tied into the myth of progress.
    The advances brought about by these individuals generally occur as a result of people thinking about old problems in new ways. At first, they are seen as mavericks. The unlucky are excommunicated, exiled, even killed. This further proves this thesis of the revolutionary power of the individual artist in this paradigm of the artist as Lucifer. They pose a threat to the status quo.
Secretly, this myth gains some of its power through the reactionary reflex of the established order, rather than directly from itself. This is ongoing. A hundred — or even ten — years later, this Luciferian, “dangerous” idea, represents the next tradition that needs to be smashed in the name of progress. Where does this road lead? (We have already begun an critique of that in the previous chapter, though its unlikely any final conclusions can be drawn.)
    There is a misconception within the myths perpetuated by capitalistic culture, which claims that art and philosophy are useless endeavors — at best, a mental exercise, at worst, an activity for criminals and dilettantes. Even arts organizations that demand the arts behave well in business terms are tacitly buying into this myth, such as NEA chairman Rocco Landesman, when he said
Look … you can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase. So it is time to think about decreasing supply.” (Peter Marks, Washington Post, February 13, 2011).
Though inarguable within the context of business, this view forgets that all of the great periods in human history, leaps of progress in terms of science, mathematics, and other disciplines that produce more tangible results, have occurred side-by-side with paradigm shifts in the arts and philosophy. It is impossible, and irrelevant, to definitively argue which came first. How can that be quantified? Art and philosophy, without trade, commerce, and application, is sterile and masturbatory. Similarly, trade and commerce is brutish and myopic when it isn’t applied with the sensibility that comes from in-depth philosophical and artistic debate. Both are crucial to cultural evolution, but only when applied together, and the cultural value of art cannot be comprehended from within the valuation system of commerce.
This misconception is one of the dangers of prevalent capitalistic myths. It is possible that it has actually further divorced these two currents, modern art rendering itself a theoretical, navel-gazing reflection upon its place as separate from the profane world of markets and commodity. This, in part, came about through the hands of the art world itself as a reaction to its position within a world defined by corporate and capitalistic myths, an “art world” arises which in many cases consists of happenings where nothing happens, of canvases painted white, and music performances where nothing is performed.3
   In a Capitalistic society, the qualities of what cannot be quantified are irrelevant.  What cannot be commodified cannot be useful, cannot be meaningful. Max Horkheimer deals with this in The Eclipse of Reason, for example: 
...[T]he transformation of all products of human activity into commodities was achieved only with the emergence of industrialist society. The functions once performed by objective reason, by authoritarian religion, or by metaphysics have been taken over by the reifying mechanism of the anonymous economic apparatus. It is the price paid on the market that determines the saleability of merchandise and thus the productiveness of a specific kind of labor. Activities are branded as senseless or superfluous, as luxuries, unless they are useful or, as in wartime, contribute to the maintenance and safeguarding of the general conditions under which industry can flourish. Productive work, manual or intellectual, has become respectable, indeed the only accepted way of spending one's life. (Horkheimer.)

    However, Horkeimer attributes this to the “subjective reason” which to his thinking performed a coupe d'etat of both so-called “objective reason,” on the one hand, and the mythological impulse on the other. I would instead argue that this end result, which he is quite correct about, was not arrived at through the overthrow of objective reason, but it is instead its ultimate conclusion. It is the inevitable evolution of a specific mythology heritage, which gave birth to reason, which gave birth to the nation-state, which, through many other turn-abouts, gave birth to blind industry. Zeus consumed his own father, Kronos. That is not to say that he was not born by him. The same could be said of Horkheimer's objective and subjective reason, as presented in the Eclipse of Reason. No return to objective reason is possible: we are living in its aftermath. At the same time, it is arguable if it existed, save as an ideal, in the first place. 
    Instead, the alternative can only come to life through the culture, embodied in the form of new art, and new myths. An example of this in practice was the situationist movement.

Art is a medium of personal revolution. 

Gabriel Wick
Let's get further down the rabbit hole, and expand further on what was said about counter culture myths. In revealing the nature of the counter culture myth, we also have to return to the myth of the artist as a unique and individual creator, slaving away in solitude, because in the final summation this doesn’t seem toline up with the history of art. Nor does it make a whole lot of sense for the myth-makers to be working inisolation, given the cultural significance of myth itself.

It is true that the unique perspective of a genuine, engaged outsider is part of what gives art its teeth. The "revolution” comes from listening to your experience, everything else be damned; the necessary compromise comes in learning how to play well with others without putting a pair of scissors in their eye. Art is not a solitary endeavor, and its benefits are social, even if they are hard to delineate or define. It requires real commitment both of the artists to not waste their audiences attention and energy, to make it engaging in one way or another, to move someone do their pulse is raised or they weep or leave the room thinking a miles a minute and they want to get right back in there. That's what this is ffor, whether it experience is solitary (in some ways) like a book, or an engaged live action theater. No artist “made”it alone, and you’d best believe they had friends you never heard of that helped form a work that became immortal. We often work alone, but even that is arguable, if you've lived in any functioning art communes. It's hell when people don't know how to prioritize their work but otherwise it's communion for people like us. It's why some of us don't have children. (And those that do have to work twice as hard as twice as hard.) That's it.

Going back To Class.
For an art movement to have integrity, each individual must be true to themselves above all else, yet for that to come about, it needs solidarity of purpose. Th is is the dilemma. Creators need one another, for critique, for diversity, for sustainability. They need each other to build a myth of a “scene.” You needn’t agree about anything else, but without an alignment of collective and mutual best interest, a movement, a commons, a culture cannot come to be. It will collapse in on itself before it attains any sort of critical mass. Th is seeming paradox is part of what keeps many creative individuals disenfranchised, biting at each others ankles: they’re arguing about the wrong things, and focusing their energy and attention in the wrong place. Movements only occur when people learn to work together towards common goals, to hell with the politics.

Such groups require no closed manifestos, no party lines, no armbands, tattoos or uniforms. What is needed is space to meet up and share ideas and collaborate, a means of making the relevancy of their work evident outside the insular and seemingly elitist circles that form around such groups and the ability to eat without completely shilling the underlying premise or making other creative prerequisites impossible. Space, resources, an understanding of mutual benefit, and a determination that goes far beyond any benefit that...

I can't continue. Because it's long, and may not be entirely the point. I've tried this thing I'm talking about. I've tried it many times with everything I had at those points in time, limited as it may have been and several other times "we'll see how it goes" moderates. That was in my transition to cynic, where now my reaction to people asking if they want to be in an art commune is "do you like group sex, because that's likely to be the only potential benefit?" That was one thing about communal living that I think worked out just terrific half the time, when the right people connected with what they needed and it actually struck some kind of stasis for long enough. All relationships that chance people are alchemy. And I was half-kidding before but I'm dead serious when I say that alchemy like that is the heart of the work. Transformation is where it's fucking at. You get stuck if you depend on that method but it's one of the best. Look at the poison of Beatrice, or Isolde. There's something else to that drinking of their death.

Anyway, I'm not going to belabor Bataille. But I've seen this go down in so many horrible, painful, often just pointless and petty ways which makes it even more painful. So I can't hold any hope for it. But it's the only way of being that's so far ever given me any real joy in life. Everything else just feels like going through the motions.

So I can't say I've shut out the possibility of this, and I can't say it's not still my dream, but as a reality, it seems further and further off. My work is my life but the work depends on others to actually grow and be good -- just as I can help catalyze and facilitate the work of others in that kind of environment. I'm cautiously putting out my feelers again, trying to be receptive. Emphasis on the word cautious...

This site and Mythos Media were originally reworked to support this concept. That platform still exists, but the "Others," the group seems to have receded yet again into the background. Get in touch if you are interested in doing your part in kicking it up a notch. If that doesn't happen, it'll likely gradually become little more than my personal blog, as it was in the very beginning...

1 It is also commonly observed that there is some clear link between the obsessive pursuit of creative expression and the sex drive, following along the general lines drawn by Freud in Civilization and its Discontents. But that would take us far afield.
2 Revolutionary concepts of time can serve a teleological movement towards an “End Times” state, but do so in the sense that we see in the Hindu yugas,

3 Which is not to say that there has been no value produced, for instance, by John Cage's 4'33", but there can be little argument that this movement in art has unintentionally furthered the capitalist myth that art is purely masturbatory. Conceptual art seems in a sense to merely be a revolt against the capitalistic or at least industrial idea that every thing, every action must have a purpose. Where does this revolt lead? 

[Take a Trip with us... Mythos Media.]

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