“The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary picture is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his essay “Circles”
Category Archives: Essays
“Every era has to reinvent the project of “spirituality” for itself. (Spirituality = plans, terminologies, ideas of deportment aimed at the resolution of painful structural contradictions inherent in the human situation, at the completion of human consciousness, at transcendence.) In the modern era, one of the most active metaphors for the spiritual project is “art.”
…The newer myth, derived from a post-psychological conception of consciousness, installs within the activity of art many of the paradoxes involved in attaining an absolute state of being described by the great religious mystics. As the activity of the mystic must end in a via negative, a theology of God’s absence, a craving for the cloud of unknowingness beyond knowledge and for the silence beyond speech, so art must tend toward anti-art, the elimination of the “subject” (the “object,” the “image”), the substitution of chance for intention, and the pursuit of silence.
…no longer a confession, art is more than ever a deliverance, an exercise in asceticism. Through it, the artist becomes purified — of himself and, eventually, of his art, The artist (if not art itself) is still engaged in a progress toward “the good.” But formerly, the artist’s good was mastery of and fulfillment in his art. Now it’s suggested that the highest good for the artist is to reach that point where those goals of excellence become insignificant to him, emotionally and ethically, and he is more satisfied by being silent than by finding a voice in art.
…Committed to the idea that the power of art is located in its power to negate, the ultimate weapon in the artist’s inconsistent war with his audience is to verge closer and closer to silence… And none of the aggressions committed intentionally or inadvertently by modern artists have succeeded in either abolishing the audience or transforming it into something else. (A community engaged in a common activity?) They cannot. As long as art is understood and valued as an “absolute” activity, it will be a separate, elitist one. Elites presuppose masses. So far as the best art defines itself by essentially “priestly” aims, it presupposes and confirms the existence of a relatively passive, never fully initiated, voyeuristic laity which is regularly convoked to watch, listen, read, or hear — and then sent away.
…But these programs for art’s impoverishment must not be understood simply as terroristic admonitions to audiences, but as strategies for improving the audience’s experience. The notions of silence, emptiness, reduction, sketch out new prescriptions for looking, hearing, etc. — specifically, either for having a more immediate, sensuous experience of art or for confronting the art work in a more conscious, conceptual way.
…Contemporary art, no matter how much it’s defined itself by a taste for negation, can still be analyzed as a set of assertions, of a formal kind. For instance, each work of art gives us a form or paradigm or model of knowing something, an epistemology.”
In every field of human endeavor there is a specific practice that most directly speaks to the fundamental nature of that field. That practice serves as the philosophical manifestation of its arena—not an academic philosophy, but a lived-in, worked-in philosophy. To study philosophy is to study the core of a thing – the why, how, and what – and every discipline has such a core. Literature has poetry, the pure exploration of language and structure; music has the piano, the most versatile and complete of instruments. Science has research, the pursuit of pure understanding. The visual arts have fine art or gallery art, art that exists for its own sake and which explores the formal and conceptual limits of the field. Within fine art, however, there is an even more specific category that most directly touches on the philosophy of art: drawing.
Traditionally, drawing has often been defined in negative terms, by what it is not—a finished piece, a work using a full range of colors, a complex multi-layered work, etc. The contemporary description is more generous: “Drawing as an art form is principally understood to have an essential quality of directness and transparency: Its great strength is the clarity and simplicity through which the viewer can grasp the artist’s actions, ideas, or emotions.” (Drury/Stryker, Ch. 1) This explanation gets at the heart of what drawing does rather dealing with surface questions of medium and appearance. The emphasis on “clarity and simplicity” is a key aspect in understanding drawing as philosophy.
I would like to suggest here that drawing serves as the necessary base or core for art and is the most direct means of studying the theoretical basis of aesthetic experience. Continue reading
Wassily Kandinsky is commonly credited with being the first painter to venture wholly into the realm of abstract art. However, Swedish artist Helga af Klint was making abstract paintings in 1906, while Kandinsky did not abandon recognizable imagery until 1910.  Her abstract works were not shown until twenty years after her death, as stipulated in her will. She did not believe her contemporaries were ready to appreciate their full meaning.