The Impossibility of Realist Art

This is a comment to the post below–rebloged from Alien Ecologies.

The ‘realism’ of the artist was never that of the scientist, even when their work drew on geometrical perspective, was colored by optics, and anatomically rendered. The pictorial plane never truly “represented.” What was suggested there has always been both more and other than the named subject, even when following conventional rules and stripped of other worldly intentions (see Hubert Damisch: A Theory of /Cloud/ for a case study of development of internal resistance to pictorial realism from Correggio to Cezanne).
The moment an artist accepts what they know to be true–and let’s that realization influence what they do (even more so when meticulously following realist conventions, because the contradiction between the claim to representation, and the dependence on these conventions is all the more disturbing), there will be a desire to deal with the fact of that contradiction–in the work itself. This is not a flight from reality–material or otherwise, but commitment to it. There is no art without the “meta.’ Naive realism simply chooses to let illusion stand for the real, without calling attention to it. I would go so far as to suggest that this contradiction, the failure of representation, is the generative engine that drives change. I think that can be said for abstract, ‘non-representational’ art as well, with the fault lying, not between the claim to a ‘subject’ that exists in the material world and the pure fabrication that is the art, in the failure to entirely reduce the aesthetic object to the  picture plane, or surface form and matter of 3 dimensional works. There is just no way to exclude the viewer, who is no mere observer, but actively participates–enters the work and moves through it–creating something like a virtual reality that changes with every viewer, across cultures and spans of time.


Breaking free from the Art System


I want to post a second comment I left on CLCLARK’s blog on Luhmann’s system theory, Systems Serve only Themselves. This has been a concern of mine for some time, expressed in several previous posts.

I see several problems with art as an autopoitec system. The first being, that ‘art’ is an artificial construct. For this, it might be enough if it were more narrowly defined, say… “Euro/Anglo Art.” It’s been a project of art history to treat art as a universal—even while concentrating almost exclusively on European traditions until the assimilating of Japanese, Chinese, African and “primitive” styles by European artists forced the door open to the rest of the world. This greater inclusiveness, however, was more in the nature of colonizing the European idea of art as a universal, drawing on products, which, in their own cultures, served a wide range of activities, and were in no way part of something, neither their makers nor those  who these objects served, thought of as belonging to an autonomous system analogous to a Western idea of ‘art,’ a process not unlike the transformation imposed on European religious objects in the development of the idea (or system) of art in the West.

Also, as autopoitic systems are differentiated from their environment, but subject and responsive to outside perturbations, these responses can be absorbed in their development. With organisms, other forms can be physically absorbed and incorporated: viruses, mitochondria. The point I’d make here, is that what we mean by ‘art,’ is not just a system responding to other systems, but one—perhaps even more than any other—that has incorporated them into its DNA. The Western ‘art system’ co-evolved with capitalism, patriarchal institutions, hierarchical value coding, in such a way that these are more than external systems that use or perturb it, but are embedded in its generative structures.  This is what informs my question about finding a place as an artist—outside that system. Escape from the controlling subject: “Art.” Deteritorializaion from the master subject and its self-cloning powers. Thinking of Deleuze… escape from the root, to the rhizome!


Art and the Master Signifier?


If you listen, not to what artists do, but those who devote themselves to talking about what artists do (and not all who engage in this are Gatekeepers—though criticism lends itself– all too seductively– to Gatgekeeping), it sounds like a search for—an almost religious quest—for just that: a master signifier.

Who or what then is the master?

But what artists (and I use this in its most inclusive sense, in terms of the media employed: visual, performance, literary, musical… and fusions of all these.. )–what artists do, again and again over time, is defy and abrogate and replace the reigning master. Those who don’t, in time, are left behind, left out. Artists who no longer live and create in their own time, in the communal time they inhabit, are they still artists?

And where is the master?

Is this contradiction, this incommensurate desire, the search for that which does not and cannot exist, and its value… its authority, authenticity, embedded in the negative—in the power to hold together the impossible wish with its acknowledged failure?

Such that, the artist ask, not for belief, but the capacity to entertain the contradiction—to maintain the tension between belief and … not credulity… not reality.. but whatever that reality might be which stands outside the illusion…nothing less, than the capacity to hold the tension… drawn and quartered, the draft horses chained right foot and arm, to left foot and arm, and the Master Signifiers lashing the whip!

Will the work… as you enter its aura… hold?

Hold the tension?

… that they cannot rip you apart… sunder your body.

That’s all I ever hope for from any work of art.

Such a small thing in a difficult world… to be an artist.

John Cage…& the Queering of my Master’s Impulse

Listing to this…

I’ve been listening to a lot of John Cage. I think it’s cause my art has become so centered on the tension between intention and accident.
You think of Cage, you think accident, random patterns–but it’s never just that. There is always the constraint within which the random is allowed to happen, and in much of his work, where there are performers, you hear in the performance, exactly that kind of tension emerging again and again… in little snatches of melody, in coy references to known melodic lines: it’s delicious!
I’ve been doing this since I started making art again–I mean, exploring that tension between control and accident… but never so aware of it as I’ve been since I started playing with silverpoint, where even the reference to the medium calls up associations with great Renaissance draftsmen, da Vinci, Durer… at least, if you are familiar with European art history.
There’s something so satisfying in turning their obsession with control inside out, in the one medium most demanding of that control… you can’t erase a mark in metalpoint. You can’t even cover it over… as it will eventually show through as the metal oxidizes.
… which makes covering over one of the techniques I’m working on… layering. Accident… but also… intention. Structure. I hold those great artists in extraordinary reverence…(too much so… in that this accounts in a major way to my 40 years abandonment of visual art)  and admire those contemporary artists who emulate them, mastering their technical facility. But technical facility, without invention?
The artists of Renaissance were in love with science; they explored their understanding of the physical world through their art. Cage releases my imagination to explore my fascination with the layering of perceptions… how we comprehend the world through layers of the received, the given, and the accidental: revelations into what we might never otherwise have imagined.


Art and Revolution


In a better world, there would be no need for artists to sign their work. Material support would not be tied to a competitive system, and confirmation would come from performing and making and doing, without the destructive, enervating conflict that comes from confusing satisfaction with one’s work with social approval and economic status. On that level, the distinction between craft and art would vanish—as the satisfaction that comes from work well done would fall equally to all who contribute to the benefit of the community. Art would not be a specialty of a few—but a gift nurtured and shared by everyone. Those more dedicated and gifted would serve to teach and empower others.

The capitalist systems of exclusion that corrupt the arts and those who are called to them—the gatekeeping function of galleries, critics, investors, and yes—schools of art, which combine to work from earliest childhood to destroy the seed of the imaginative impulse before it can germinate—which works to marginalize, impoverish or reduce to servitude all but the smallest number of those who survive the culling—having lost its economic and political purpose, would crumble and disappear.

Aroused from the drug of the Capitalist nightmare, every artist, poet, dancer, actor, musician… would be a revolutionary

Anselm Kiefer: Negative Worship of the Capitalist State

He likes Merkel? …and calls himself ‘underground?” I guess, like Weiwei, it takes millions to be underground. I like Weiwei’s politics better. For all the brooding spectre of his work… smeared with the soot of German history. Art that only exists by the largess of power and wealth, cannot but stand as a monument to the glory of the Capitalist State–is a kind of kitsch. Like the architecture of Speers he admires.

Anselm Kiefer: ‘Art is Difficult, it is not entertainment’ An interview in the Guardian.

Colour Me Happy – Orange, from

I love her blog. Beautiful art, and always something to learn. She must be an AWESOME teacher. Her students are very lucky.  I linked THIS, because I’m feeling bliss, having spent the whole day painting–finished #379 (photo tomorrow)… even though orange is my ANXIETY COLOR!

I love the story of the origins of Indian Yellow… the sacred urine from the cow, the lush sensual color of the mango–synaesthesia– color you can taste!

I’m convinced that synaesthesia underlies all the arts.. the bed rock. How else is it, that we associate colors with emotions? I don’t.. quite… taste color. Or see sounds. But pretty close. And what would poetry be if not for the power of words to link all our senses?

You ask–what of conceptual poetry?

What of it? I’m no gatekeeper. I don’t make–or believe in rules that say what can or can’t be art, or poetry! But I think conceptual poetry draws on something of the power of fiction/crossed with philosophy: in that it conjures alternate realities… that is… alternate to our received and habitual ways of comprehending the world.

It’s the transgressing of boundaries that all forms of art have in common, sensual, imaginative, cognitive, and in this age of our Empire of Money & Death… Political!

Artists as… tricksters of the real

I came across this cleaning my room… from 2009: two years before OWS, and 3 years before I would begin making visual art again.

…poets and artists are the ultimate subversives. Not prophets and seers, as the Romantics thought, not hermetic guides blessing humanity with visionary truth, but…
tricksters of the real,

Marxists …
of Night at the Opera, destroyers of painted sets ripping away the masks of power, tearing down the curtains of the Corporatocracy–all that makes it possible to believe in the American Hologram–the artifice of the military/industrial/prison complex. By using the stuff of our collective illusions as raw material for… play,

for delight,
for life

—they…we… poke holes in the artifice that everyone might see, that the vision be not for the few, but for all.

The Death of Art


I wrote the following as a comment to a post on Levi Bryant’s Larval Subjects <TheWalkingDead>

This is something I’ve been trying to get my head around for a long time—what it means for an artist or poet to live in a  time without ‘posterity’. Hazlitt’s essay on Fame is the clearest statement I can think of for what we have lost. For Hazlitt, ‘fame’ was nothing like what that word has come to signify in popular usage, which is nothing more than contemporary notoriety; it was rather the consolation and hope for poets and artists unrecognized in their own time, who lived in obscurity, whose only reward was their investment in a belief that future generations will surely bestow on them the recognition they deserve, a belief that found support in the company of all the great artists and poets of the past. A kind of immortality akin to that of the Greek heroes of the Iliad. Even when this wasn’t as plainly articulated as it was with Hazlitt’s romantics, it has been present in one form or another, always—for as long as there been such a thing as Art. Walk through a museum. Thumb through the pages of a book on the history of art. Read Homer, or Shakespeare, or Cervantes. There would be your confirmation.

This is an idea that has a history older than history itself—drawing, before the written word, from oral traditions, stories and legends of the ancestors. But who can believe in such a thing now? –hiding in its pockets, as it does—its untenable teleological assumptions—some dreamt up culmination of the human story… or a future that has no end.

This is what the Death of God means to art, to the making of art. I feel this as something so immense, so important—that I’m a loss for how to think about it, how to express it. I suppose, for those who count success as material reward and notoriety, the very noise generated by of their misplaced desire is enough to mask the loss—but it doesn’t erase its effects. The noise of a Contemporary without a Present, exposes the truth… or the lie, as does the frantic, almost hysterical obsession with defending (even while erasing) ‘creativity’ –by demonstrating its usefulness, showing how it’s but another part of our blind collective frenzy to own control and commodify every last living cell and atomic particle in the accessible universe… what are these, but replacements for the old, dead transcendence with which we wrapped– and called upon to justify the erotic jouissance of our childish play–all that we have left now, of what we used to call “Art”? Because Art doesn’t exist without that false transcendence, without what was purchased with that belief in posterity and all that it assumed.

Art is as Dead as God.

And after the fear, the feeling of something precious lost—comes a sense of tremendous relief… terrifying in its own way… but relief! There is no one watching from above… no unborn critics holding our future hostage, waiting in eternally suspended judgment the works of our imagination… where we once had ART… what we have now – is but play, a joyful play that preserves us—for however long or short our stay on this transient planet, in a childhood we need never grow up or out of.