Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Art, literacy and images and politics, religion and science, oh my!

Seeing is believing!

 “Eros the Bittersweet” by Anne Carson, “Does Writing Erase Art”, Chapter 7, in Ellen Dissanayake’s “Homo Aestheticus", “The Spell of the Sensuous” by David Abram and an article by Marshall McLuhan and R.K. Logan called  “Alphabet,Mother of Invention” from 1977, all discuss literacy and make points of great interest to anyone working in the mode of visual images. 

The main point they all make is that literacy changes how we think and how we perceive—for better and for worse. Now, before you go on a rampage, know that none of these authors is suggesting we go back to pre-literate society (and they are all writers, after all!), but they are pointing out that literacy has a cost.  It may sound elitist, or even racist, as though saying pre-literate culture is somehow primitive, or predisposes one to supernatural thinking.  On the contrary!  This is not about making a judgment.  Literacy, as does any concentrated learning will, re-wire the brain.  And there are consequences to that both for better and for worse.
Literacy changes images from embodiments to representations.

An ameliorative opinion is proffered here:
“In Louder than Words, cognitive scientist Benjamin Bergen draws together a decade’s worth of research in psychology, linguistics, and neuroscience to offer a new theory of how our minds make meaning. When we hear words and sentences, Bergen contends, we engage the parts of our brain that we use for perception and action, repurposing these evolutionarily older networks to create simulations in our minds. These embodied simulations, as they're called, are what makes it possible for us to become better baseball players by merely visualizing a well-executed swing; what allows us to remember which cupboard the diapers are in without looking, and what makes it so hard to talk on a cell phone while we’re driving on the highway. Meaning is more than just knowing definitions of words, as others have previously argued. In understanding language, our brains engage in a creative process of constructing rich mental worlds in which we see, hear, feel, and act.”

Regardless, it is incredibly foolish, as a purveyor of visual images, to assume that this remedies the situation.  To me, it just means, the news isn’t all bad. And even though I am more than willing to pay the cost (I love being literate!) I find all of this to be of crucial importance as it might have an influence on how I make images. 

Other points in four sources mention at the top:
·      Alphabets create separation—specifically, they create separation between our heads and our senses (thereby further enabling the Cartesian mind/body split). 
·      Writing allows for knowledge to be encoded outside our bodies and our experiences, into abstract marks on a page, which fundamentally changes how we understand reality and our knowledge thereof. 
·      Literacy changes how we understand abstract symbolic representations.  This change is evident when comparing oral cultures to literate ones.  In short, once something is written down, it has a more fixed meaning based on the unit of “The Word”.  Categories of abstractions are enabled like “the truth” or “goodness”, or, as I will point out “Art”.  These things now exist outside ourselves as cardinal fixed points of reference but have no specific referent.
The sorting out and pigeonholing starts before words are even formed. Alphabets separate each phoneme and designates it a sign. Reading and writing are processes of exclusion. Something must happen in the brain like this when reading: “chair” as the brain decides the word is “not a bed”, “not a table” and so forth. One of the books above (I forget which) talks about how reading is best done in a quiet area—without too much sensory stimulus beyond the text, while spoken words involve experiencing the breath (and sometime saliva) of the speaker.  Breath=inspiration, metaphorically speaking, a speaker is very much alive.  Written words, not so much.
In order to read, we  (westerners) are taught to interpret marks seen on a surface as corresponding to sounds.  This involves using our eyes, obviously and therefore the part of our brains given over to visual processing.  It has been pointed out again and again that although we are “hard wired” for spoken language, literacy is not an innate human inevitability.  Alphabets had to be invented. Abstract marks on a page…is that not drawing? But of course it is.  I wonder, does drawing lead to phonetic alphabets?  It certainly leads to pictograms, hieroglyphics and the like. 

  This accounts for the shift from “seeing is believing” to “seeing is interpreting”, and therefore more opportunity to interpret incorrectly.  We begin to shift from relying on dictionaries, not our senses.  I am not sure if I read this in one of these books or if this is my idea, but surely this repurposes our image-interpreting abilities.

In oral culture, things don’t always have a one to one correspondence to single words, but to phrases, which are sensory experiences with many nuances. We don’t speak by pausing to mark the end of each word, what we hear is an issuance of integrated sounds.  To wit: when you hear the Beatles' song “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”  you are free to hear “the girl with kaleidoscope eyes” or “the girl with colitis goes by”.  The context determines the meaning, (not the symbol with its dictionary definition).
A girl with colitis goes by
In literate cultures one can have single abstract words, like “truth”, which are connected to concepts and are ratified by dictionaries which makes them less mutable.  In oral cultures, one can have examples and embodiments of “a truth”, demonstrations of “ a good thing” etc, but an overarching, separate, non-referential abstract category is not so easy to comprehend without being able to single out the word and hold it above other things as an entity unto itself.  Because it is not a singular identifiable entity as anyone trying to define “truth” or “goodness” can tell you.  It’s not a tree!  And if it were, you might have to explain why each tree is different from the next.

As anyone who has written an artist statement, mission statement or any kind of manifesto or declaration can tell you, its very uncomfortable deciding what words to use when writing something down.  Its such a commitment! Writing has the potential to survive, possibly forever, quite apart from any human body, in a way spoken language cannot.  Writing creates laws, contracts and other codifications with dire consequences in a way speaking does not.  What good is law if you can’t write it down?  Without writing you just have “he said/she said” chaos and laws that change based on the power and will of the biggest bully in the room.

In literate cultures an image is understood as a symbol, not analogous to the “real” thing but a representation, inherently an unreality.  Literacy precipitates a much stronger “fourth wall” as it were.  Literacy makes false idols possible. 
To oral cultures, images are “presentations” not “re-presentations”; they are embodiments and instances, a real thing, an exemplar, a truth unto itself.
In oral culture, seeing is believing and in literate culture, we are taught, “don’t believe everything you read”.  Needless to say, seeing becomes suspect!  How could it not when we are seeing sounds! Don’t believe your eyes!  A whole cascade of events occurs which make images more superficial and suspicious.
One could go so far as to claim that images are only sacred when they are embodiments.  They are profane when they are representations. There was a time when it was believed that holy icons were embodiments, not illustrations.  The icons were deployed as actual shields during invasion in the belief that whatever saint depicted would protect them.  It’s possible that it even worked if the invaders were reluctant to spear a holy image. 
Seeing is believing!
 And we all get to have these experiences first hand, for as children we are pre-literate for a while and we all create images that are nothing short of magic, with the power to evoke that which we wish to call into reality.  The idea of an image as a re-presentation comes when we learn to read; I’m guessing that’s when we become interested in “realism” and documentation.  But as most artists believe, images without spirit are bereft, boring and disappointing.  This is why so much art suffers.

Art in oral culture is tied very closely to ritual and religion, and possibly politics and has no separate category to identify it as anything other than “the stuff you need for rituals and ceremonies”.  In a literate culture, “Art” is a word, like “truth”, without a solid referent. “Art” became a category until the Renaissance, and its no coincidence that this is the time “Fine Art” became a Liberal Art and became “teachable”, in theory.

As an image-maker, I would think, it is important for an artist to be keenly aware of all this.  One might attempt to reclaim their visual cortex for a more pure vision, or at least encourage it to multitask.  At the very least, artists should be aware that they can’t see like they used to before first grade (or whenever reading and writing is taught nowadays).  In deploying narrative or even “subject matter”, one should have a sense of how this will be “read” rather than seen. 

As for artists using text in their work, it is not enough to use a lovely, poetic turn of a phrase or a profound passage of prose in conjunction with appropriate accompanying visuals.  There’s something about text art that reminds me of the child who was using a machine gun for target practice.  The text outguns the image.  They can look pretty together, they convey a veneer of profundity, but that’s about the extent of it and the words largely render the image subordinate, if not irrelevant.  

A second thing is the McLuhan article has the following passage: “The very word idea is indicative of the revolution in thinking that took place with literacy.  This word, which is not to be found in Homeric Greek, derived from the word eidos indicating ‘visual image.’”
Well now, how very fascinating!  Because I can tell you, I find the word “idea” as it is used in relation to art to be very, very tricky indeed, especially in my own practice.  The word “idea” is tossed around carelessly, with the presumption we all know what we are talking about.  But do we? How many people think in images?  I think its almost zero.  Even amongst visual artists, wherein on would hope to find a larger instance, I think its close to none.  I don’t know of any tests, but I would love to hear about them if you know.

At this point in our art culture ideas are fetishized to the point of nauseating, authoritarian doctrine.  Ideas are Important! Very, very Important, of great Importance, in fact! Being “thought provoking” is the entire enterprise of art! 
No young artist is granted a diploma until they memorize the following bit of dogma and are able to repeat it ad nauseum, ad infinitum in the manner of a spy being interrogated who repeats only his name and rank with glazed eyes and the fixed puils of a zombie: “I choose my materials to fit the idea.  Not vice-versa.”

I have ideas for artworks all the time.  They are all words—shopping lists for the most part.  And even when I am able to sketch something that has to do  with those “ideas”, the correspondence between the sketch and the thought is flimsy and insubstantial.  If I were to “make my ideas” I would be making garbage for the most part. It becomes further corrupt when I am in the phase of actual making.  I don’t conceive in glass and turning a sketch into glass is a matter of reinventing everything from the ground up.  By the time I am finished, whatever passed for the original “idea” has dramatically changed.  I am willing to say that there is no such thing as “ideas” in visual art.  There is only materials, process and design. Ideas are what happen at the opening.

To be as reductive as possible, there’s only one subject in art: “The Truth” (this is why we crave authenticity and sincerity, for what is the truth without it?).  That can be expressed as three arty topics: political truth, scientific truth or spiritual truth.

But, what is “truth”?  Is truth something to do with “goodness”?  Or is it something to do with “reality”?  Is it something observable or something deeper and invisible?
Is the essence of a thing what is “true” or is its appearance?  Is reality something perceived by our senses or does our thinking create it? Second of all we understand “truth” to be “good”.  But is truth good as in “accurate” or good as in “virtuous (moral, educational, etc)”?  How can truth be these mutually exclusive things at once?

Observable reality, it ain't pretty.

And this is why beauty is always at the crux of art, whether in disrepute or dogma. Because beauty suffers from the same problem.  Is beauty a synonym for the truth as Keats once said?  Or is it a method of concealing reality?  Is beauty perceived or constructed?  If beauty is the truth, then it must be good!  But is it good as in “sensual pleasure”?  Or is it good as in “good for you”?
If  “truth” is “observable reality” then art is either stuck being a falsehood, an artifice, removed from reality, at best mimicking it as a kind of lie.  Or it can do what it seems to be doing now and ally itself with the “truth” that is our current version of “reality”, science.  Hence we have a lot of science-y looking art these days. 

My point is that subjects for art tend to exist at the intersection of “beauty” and “truth”, and beauty and truth niggle around like agitated atoms at the intersection of body and soul.  Are we talking physical truth and reality here or mental?  They never seem to be able to take a fixed position (at least not for long). However, when they approach balance between the two, perhaps that’s the definition of great art right there.

There was a time when truth was clearer and it was defined by religion and for the most part, cultures were segregated enough to more or less agree locally. The truth was not even slightly in the eye of the beholder.  It was the exclusive property of God.  Art, in this case allies itself with religion.

Now, things are a lot more diverse.  God apparently died during the Modernist period and we are busy eradicating nature for financial greed.  Perhaps science will save us?  Empirical thinking seems true enough.  It ensures repeatable, peer reviewed results.  It is based on observation!  So now we see art making an alliance with science.  Hey, that rhymes!  It must be true…

As for politics, in this case, we see artists who strive to convey a moral truth.  One that is corrective and good for us.  One that makes up for what we lack, perhaps.
Political art is usually anti-aesthetic, probably because it wishes to impress upon us the harms of social wrongs.  When political art stands opposed to a cause it is usually ugly, as its “truth” is an ugly one.  When it is for a cause, it is seductive and attractive, as it is necessary to persuade nonbelievers in their “truth” (which they find lovely, presumably).

The problem with all these as subject for art is how to remain an embodiment and avoid being an illustration.  How to be an instance, a primary experience of this truth, and not propaganda, or a reflection of it, or merely a symbol of it.

To create things that exist at the very nexus of spirit and matter, to traverse, redress, and redeem the mind/body gap is at the very essence of what it means to be an artist. 
To favor ideas, to fetishize them, is to miss the point entirely.