In 1936, Alfred H. Barr used the term “biomorphic” to describe sculpture for his exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art. The influential founding director of MOMA gave currency to a word first coined by English critic Geoffrey Grigson that means “life forms” to characterize a trend in modern art as exhibited by Hans Arp, Jean Miro, Arshille Gorky, Henry Moore, and others. Believing that science and its instruments allowed us to tap into and connect to a life force, Wassily Kandinsky had amassed a collection of photographs of micro-organisms in which the microscope penetrated beyond the external into “the hidden soul of all things.” For the Surrealists, these liminal and unstable forms provided a formal strategy that were a means of dredging up the unconscious. When Barr created the category biomorphic it was the emotional/psychological counterpart to reason as exemplified by geometric abstraction.
We read forms in relation to other forms. Wanting to make the history of art a discipline approaching science, Heinrich Wölfflin devised a system of analyzing art with five opposed formal modes: linear/painterly, plane/recession/closed/open, multiplicity/unity, absolute clarity/relative clarity. Published in 1915, his Principles of Art History has served as the underlying premise for formal analysis ever since — “compare and contrast.” [Erwin Panofsky supplied the analysis of narrative and symbolic content with the study of iconography and iconology.] Barr’s distinction between curvilinear as intuitive and hard-edged as cerebral persists. We can unpack why that might be the case in terms of their associations. A straight line is the shortest distance between two points and speaks of calculation and no-nonsense efficiency. Whereas a curved line meanders and is more playful. Yet a curved line in a field of straight lines has a different affect than one among many. The meaning of any individual form is felt or understood in context within the closed system of the language of art.
Can an artist today can do anything more than use the elements of this language to stand for or represent a new concept? Can an artist “advance a new understanding of form” that takes us “out of art, into the world beyond us?” When Kandinsky valorized photomicrography, he applied his mystical purpose of unveiling or making visible. When an artist such as Tanguy populated worlds with biomorphic forms, he created the unease of a dreamscape with Freudian hints. An artist today creates meaning working with or against all that has been visually expressed before. I have written about the pteropod sculpture of Cornelia Kubler Kavanaugh, who speaks of the warming of the oceans and the tragic fate of these creatures at the bottom of the oceanic food chain with biomorphic forms that evoke pathos rather than whimsy. She took the language of art to something about the fragility of our ecosystem as now understood through systems relations. It seems to me that reclaiming form involves recognizing that form is content but that content is multivalent, complex, and expansive.
For the past few years, I have been interested in luminescence in contemporary painting. Since I first noticed its frequency, its use has only increased. I have considered how it is happening at a time when our world has become more luminous especially as regards backlit digital devices. Certainly the availability of sophisticate pigments allows for artistic exploration, but it certainly doesn’t explain why we would be attracted to them. [Sometimes the effect is achieved through pigment alone, and sometimes it is through contrast.] As a result of this symposium, I have been wondering whether the appeal of these colors is not based in new technology but in our ancient biology. Luminescence in nature does have evolutionary purpose, and is it possible that we are mesmerized by our handheld devices and computer and TV screens because of some sort of physical effect or wiring of our nervous system. [Note to self.] That would suggest that this new quality of color is implicit in the body and doesn’t represent in the way a biomorphic shape would. So perhaps it is possible to connect with the world outside of ourselves in a new way. And yet…each of the artists using this type of color is using it for their individual expression, and it often seems to represent some sort of alternate or transcendent reality. [Below: Shannon Finley, Spiritual Amnesia]
Stephanie, I appreciate your bringing in some historical examples of form as a means of moving beyond ourselves. Kandinsky is very dear to me for exactly this reason. And you're quite right that the formal elements themselves don't change (though materials can and certainly do), so it really is a matter of recombining and recontextualizing -- *and*, of course, rethinking our thinking. You say: "It seems to me that reclaiming form involves recognizing that form is content but that content is multivalent, complex, and expansive." This interests me very much. But now we're up against the old semiotic issue: "content" means different things to different people. For some it is subject matter, for others it's whatever larger "issues" are being addressed, and for still others it's the affective resonance of the work, regardless of its imagery or whatever is being represented. I would like to suggest we consider one more thing it might mean: the somatosensory and unconscious cognitive experience of the viewer, where the artist's identity and intentions are completely removed from the picture (indeed where the ARTIST is completely removed from the picture). Maybe you can say a bit more about what content means to you beyond its being "multivalent, complex, and expansive" and synonymous with form. Or...what you imagine it might mean in the posthumanist context.
So many intriguing and thought-provoking points brought up here; I wouldn’t know where to land with any single, brief comment. However, your line: “Barr’s distinction between curvilinear as intuitive and hard-edged as cerebral persists” resonates with me. It presents a great example of a false dichotomy/binary that can [and continues to] block more sophisticated thinking and new ways of going forward. Also, Taney should not be surprised that I too put a lot of weight on the “unconscious cognitive experience of the viewer” (and the artist).
"Content." "Form." "Multivalent." "Subject matter." "Unconscious cognitive experience." Another deep dive!
It is my nonlinear nature to want to respond with a version of Jon Sakata's semiotic post from earlier today, "Response to 2.6." As he wrote to me, "What is content and what is form if not a mutative mess beyond control?"
But I am also very open and would welcome a more logical, analytical response from those who are gifted at doing that.
Thanks so much for that comment, Unknown. I'm just curious: are you one of our panelists? (I only ask because this happened once before, and I'm trying to figure out why your names don't come through in the comments.)
To unknown, regarding your comment regarding binary/dichotomy, I always wanted to have the ability to show more than 2 slides when teaching in the classroom (art in the dark). I remember being completely blown away by the set-up at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth with which you could should slides 360 degrees. I would tend to agree that this classic comparisons seem to reinforce the mind/body duality, but I think the aspect that is worth accepting is how form and its effects are achieved through elements in relation to each other. We can reference external experience to get some sense of why a formal element can be read a certain way, such as I suggested in why a straight line and a curve might have certain associations, but artists use a visual language based on internal relationships...along with a tradition of how its been expressed. So how does one...or can one...completely get out of it "into the world beyond us"? In writing about Kandinsky and other artists, I am wondering if it is a matter of expressing new ideas about that world and our place in it? I am drawn to asking: why many artists and critics have abandoned the great formal enterprise of art making?
Great question at the end there, Stephanie -- I would love to have people take that on!
So sorry about my mystery man status. I thought my name was attached, but here it is: Steven Baris. Clearly I need to brush up on my blog call & response tech skills.
Ah, thank you for that, Steven. I was sure you were someone I knew -- I just didn't know who! I want to respond to one thing you mentioned in your comment above. You say: "Taney should not be surprised that I too put a lot of weight on the “unconscious cognitive experience of the viewer” (and the artist)." Now that I know who you are, I can say that I'm not at all surprised! But I wonder: to what degree would you say your *personal* unconscious is involved in the embodied meaning of your work? I ask because this is something I myself am eager to avoid -- i.e., my work being in any way about my personal self. I realize that it's difficult to tease apart what's personal from what's apersonal, but I'm interested in reaching always toward the apersonal, toward the parts of me that I share with other members of our species, and even with other animals and matter itself (as I think you know from my recent essay, A Silent Mattering!) -- and these not in themselves, but as they dynamically interact with my environment, local and cosmic. We have several hundred years of focus on the person of the artist bearing down on us (the artist as lone creator, set apart from the rest of the world), so this is not easy. But I do see this as the future of art: an art that attributes creation not to one being alone but always to a situated being, which is to say a being-among-multitudes.
Challenging question Taney! I wish I could answer succinctly, but I can’t. However, I can say that I’m intensely interested in the answer. But by definition, a conscious self (presently, he who is writing this comment) cannot know directly what’s turning and churning in that realm many have labeled the cognitive unconscious. In fact, I’m not even sure I understand what a “personal unconscious” would consist of or how is would manifest except maybe as some linkage to a conscious self/ego. (But I fully expect that I’m missing important aspects of this intriguing term.)
But to your specific question as to how that realm of my personal unconscious might drive the embodied meaning of my work, I can, for now, only nibble around the edges. I’ll start by returning to my earlier remark, echoing the previous comment on Barr’s false binary on “curvilinear/emotional” and “hard edge/cerebral.” That resonated with me because even though much of my work can be described as geometrical and (largely) hard edged, I see the cerebral as playing only a partial role in its creation. Improvisation, intuitive grasp of form, and the romancing of materiality all play equally significant parts. Whether these aspects fully qualify as transmissions of embodied meaning is an open question, but I feel they probably do. But, again, I’m only nibbling at the edges of your question. Yet another factor in my thinking and working process that I feel is critical echoes yet other comments that were made earlier in the symposium having to do with the importance of verbs over nouns—or process over static objects. I realize this doesn’t go directly to your personal/apersonal inquiry, but I feel there may be [and this would require further reflection for me to flesh this out] aspects of it playing out in my fascination with diagrammatic thinking, both in my own practice and other artists.’ Along with privileging processes over static representations, I feel it facilitates a ready engagement of art with other kinds of experiences and discourses beyond conventionally sanctioned “art,” especially mathematical and scientific.
Steven, I should have clarified what I meant by both of my terms (personal unconscious and apersonal unconscious). Now that I write them out, the terminology seems awkward. Here's how I'm thinking: By the personal unconscious, I mean something like the Freudian unconscious, where one's personal history (early life, relationship with parents, any trauma that's been experienced, etc.) unknowingly shapes the actions, thoughts, and attitudes of the conscious self. By the apersonal unconscious -- and perhaps the better term here would be species-earthly-cosmic unconscious -- I mean all the unconscious cognition that's determined by our evolutionary inheritance as living beings on this planet. This would include our somatic intelligence, all the thinking our body does without your knowing it, and all the ways in which we're affected by other beings, material things, and goings-on around us. All of the latter is what I consider apersonal: these are propensities we share with other bodies and beings.
On another note, I'm quite interested in how "verbing" informs your art-making. Is it that the forms that emerge in your paintings are a function of your process, or is it something perhaps more specific? I'm reflecting on this very question with regards to my own work.
Finally, I'm not sure if you saw this comment I made to Daniel earlier, but you might find it interesting:
Daniel, there's so much in your post that calls for response, but for now I'd like to push a bit further into one aspect, which is your characterization of art as trafficking in the subjective while science, on the other end of the spectrum, deals in the objective. For me, one of the most significant objectives in moving beyond humanism is to redefine what we mean by both terms, or to learn to inhabit a space somewhere between the two. In her new book, our fellow panelist Jane Bennett explores a new model of subjectivity in which the self is experienced as a porous being in constant dynamic interchange with the nonhuman forces that surround it. Acutely attentive and open to the world, this self lets itself be acted upon, influenced by, the material conditions and affective states of the things it encounters, in turn acting upon and influencing them as it "exhales" what is taken in. Because of its outward orientation (its being "dilated" to the world), and because it takes into itself that which it is not (i.e., nonhuman forces), there are aspects of this subjectivity that are distinctly apersonal and "objective." I find this a wonderfully compelling model for a new kind of subjectivity - one that dovetails precisely with my aspirations for art. Can we envision a model for art that is similarly apersonal? And might this be a way for art and science to meet in the middle, as it were? In any case, I highly recommend reading the book; I think it will make you reconsider many things that are taken for granted. (It's called Influx and Efflux, published by Duke University Press.)
I'll get back to you you on this (hopefully) later today, and thanks for pointing out your earlier response to Daniel. For now, I just wanted to quote a single sentence I happened upon this morning reading a fascinating "art" book--one of its collaborators is a friend of mine. I thought of you. "How to make sure that seeing anything is not seeing oneself?" Sort of says it all.
As for your question of how “verging informs my art,” how to begin? I’m keenly aware of the profound contradiction woven into so much of my art practice; namely, that I mostly traffic in static images and forms with the intention of representing (I prefer “enacting” although this may be somewhat conceited of me) dynamic, implicitly temporal processes. [Actually, is this any more of a contradiction than all those painted flat surfaces out there purporting to representing 3D spaces?] Regardless, it’s what drives the work and also my interest in what I call diagrammatic thinking, which, as I alluded to above, is so often oriented to processes. Certainly the ubiquity of sequences in my work allude to temporal processes. But because I’m a lazy person, I’m pasting in a short statement I wrote for my Jump Cut series, which I feel captures more of how “verbing” plays out in my work. “Jump Cut is a cinematic term for a specific kind of failure (purposeful or not) to convey an illusion of continuous time and space. This occurs in the editing when contiguous clips of the same subject are sequenced from camera positions that vary only slightly. This causes a disruption of the viewer’s experience of seamless cinematic space and time. For me, the jump cut offers the perfect analog to the kinds of spatial/temporal disjunctions we often experience in our hyper networked and accelerated lifeworld. Of course, the representation of space/time in my work is not filmic but rather what I would describe as diagrammatic—a geometric syntax of nested and overlapping frames. Ultimately I am interested in how these arrays of conflicting spatial cues and disrupted sequences conjure a sense of space/time that is highly elastic and ambiguous.”
One more thing that may be of interest to you at a later time when you can watch it. It’s an interview with Robert Wright and Leda Cosmides who is a key thinker and researcher in evolutionary psychology and who is one of the folks who’ve push what is called the modular theory of the mind. I bing this to your attention as it directly addresses what you you described above as “ the unconscious cognition that's determined by our evolutionary inheritance as living beings on this planet.” Anyway, here’s the URL. No pressure to watch it; there will be no quiz given. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49uww5Fotj4
Stephanie- very interesting points here- makes me wonder if we have no other ways of communicating than those mentioned by Wolfflin, does this mean it has all been exhausted? You write: "I am drawn to asking: why many artists and critics have abandoned the great formal enterprise of art making?" Is this a consequence of our overall atrophying aesthetic intelligence due to art's low status in society and hence lack of education? Or is that it has all been said already? Or is it the lure of technology? Can it be that the visual language of art is exhausted? Is it possible that a post-humanist art means no art at all, but just a more intimate, sensuous appreciation for nature?
Years ago, I went to a lecture in Boulder by one of my Pitt professors, David Summers. He told of one of his colleagues, and African art historian who was African, who talked about the language of art history and its terms as "giving something a face." In other words, it allows us to put a face on something that is a very complex organism and allows us to meet it, interact it with it, and, importantly, allow us to talk about it with others. And as with any conceptualization allows us to begin to extend our thoughts and create others...generative and increasingly differentiating. The problem lies when we grant an "is"-ness to the descriptor or concept. So Wolfflin comes up with something that allowed us to go beyond subjective taste and artist bio, but in the hands of those with limited insight it became
concretized. The same goes with critical theory, which originated as an approach and a methodology but became an overdetermining set of frameworks.
Nietzche: "What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and; anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions- they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are nowconsidered as metal and no longer as coins."
Today I posted "We Have Been Here Before," which begins to address the questions you raise.
Post a Comment