2.1-2.3 More Crumbling Dualities (Charles Eisenstein)
In Session 1 the panel has been demolishing key dualities, such as mind/body, reason/emotion, and human/nature. That is not to say that these dualities shed no light on the human being, but that when reified they become polarizing lenses that filter out the entanglements between them. Now we move on to form/content, as well as two more implicit binaries: in 2.1, that implied in the word “aesthetic,” which for a long time (at least since Kant) has carried connotations of formalism and anti-utilitarianism, and in 2.2, the distinction between symbol and object implied by “meaning.” So I think the panel will probably proceed to dismantle these dualities as well. I’ll start us off: The herbalist-philosopher Stephen Harrod Buhner makes a strong case that the vaunted human uniqueness of the use of symbol is just another anthropocentric conceit. What qualitative difference is there, he asks, between insect pheromones and spoken words? His point is all the more valid when we accept the somatic dimension of cognition. When we can’t isolate cognition in the brain (or nonmaterial mind), then necessarily the distinction between symbol and direct causal agent breaks down as well. This has obvious consequences for the question of meaning in art raised in 2.2. We cannot separate it from the physical impact on the body – which of course depends on the full set of embodied relations referred to in 2.1. Ultimately, the breakdown of these dualities entails the breakdown of the distinction between fine and applied arts, and even the category of art altogether. I’m sure scholars have discussed in exhaustive depth the definitions and undefinability of art, so I’ll end here before I venture too far out of my depth.
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Charles, to your last point first: Scholars have indeed poured much ink into the definition of art and/or its undefinability, but I'd say very few have gone so far as to suggest the inevitable dissolution of the category of art itself. (This could be due to a failure of imagination, but perhaps it's just that art people are too invested in their subject to assert themselves out of a career!) But I'm all for it. Why should we set aside a certain category of things and experiences that are to be considered more special than, somehow elevated above, everything else? What if we were to consider everything special so that we were surrounded by a world of things that enhance the wellbeing of our organism, that infuse all aspects of life with a sense of rightness and belonging? (This does, however, introduce another questionable binary: that between human-made artifacts and forms shaped by nature. In our live conversation the other night one of our philosophers mentioned that this is what the form/matter dichotomy has meant to philosophy: form refers to things shaped by human will and matter to the naturally occurring stuff of which form is made - which I find very strange. Is this a distinction that should go as well? After all, we *are* nature.) In any case, your point about the symbol/object dualism is intriguing, and begs further discussion. I'm all for wresting the word "meaning" away from its cerebral associations. I'm going to look into the book you mention -- thanks for that.
Actually I see now that you didn't mention a specific book. Is it in The Lost Language of Plants that Stephen Harrod Buhner addresses these ideas?
It might have been in a personal conversation and not in one of his books. But it could have been The Lost Language of Plants.
I do know of some radical thinkers who question the category of art. I think I cam across the idea decades ago in the writing of Joseph Eppes Brown that observes that many indigenous languages do not have a word for art, since it was so interwoven into life that they didn't conceive of it as a distinct category.
As for form being what is shaped by human will, I think that is human exceptionalism sneaking in through the back door. Saying that only humans can be the source of a structuring intentionality.
The concept of Art (capital 'A") as a value unto itself didn't really come to be until the late 18th-century in the Western world. Sure, Michelangelo created sculptures, but he wouldn't have thought of himself as an artist. Those things we call artworks would have been integrated into social/political/religious custom and practice. Images would have a power in a way other than aesthetic. Titian's "Venus of Urbino" would have been for prurient interest and not the artist's command of paint. The idea of Art is tied to art as commodity (bought, sold, collected) as well as national collections in which the accumulation of artwork speaks of status. This is the system we still have today.
One thing that has come along is teaching art and art history within universities, which has traditionally been done as a history of artistic change in which those artists credited with bringing about the change are included in the narrative. The concept of evolution has been incorporated into the narrative such that the goal of an artist is to create something new or unique. Surprisingly, even though post-modernism question the "new, better, best" paradigm of modernism and gave artists permission to cull from the past, this albatross of "that's been done before" still hangs around the art world's neck.
That Art came to be at a certain moment in history allows for the possibility that art making could be culturally situated differently. What are the systems and beliefs that would have to change?
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