By Kevin Blake
“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” These famous words from James Joyce’s famous character Stephen Dedalus, in his famous novel, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, embody the idea of an inescapable infiltration of history in our present reality. For Joyce and Dedalus, the “nightmare of history” may have been rooted in an existential conception of history, or the universal fact of inevitable death, but the transcendent quality of the phrase acts as a directive in the form of an optimistic metaphor for rehashing history as a means of creating a better future.
George Santayana was more direct when he said, “those who do not remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” At first glance, these collective bits of wisdom seem obvious. They seem correct. They seem true. And though I would agree, that the repeated fragments, phrases, images, and sounds of the past have the ability to communicate warnings for the future, our methods of assimilating these legends have just as conspicuously perpetuated the nightmare. The recitation of our traditions awakens us TO the nightmare, not from it. As we are wrapped up in contemplating evidence that either rejects or accepts the histories offered to us–through the vast network of delivery systems (books, the internet, television, etc….)–we become more in-sync with the legend itself. Thus, we succumb to visualizing the nightmare more clearly as an insurmountable obstacle. Through incalculable attempts to shed ourselves from our antecedents, we see our legends reinsert themselves more deceptively in each subliminal iteration in the present.
The paradox here is that rational thinking–as it is defined by those who have developed a science that diagnoses irrational thinking–has delivered us to the most preposterous circumstances. The problem lies in an inherited trust in the clairvoyance of tradition. Of religion. Of science. Of government. Of culture. To wake up from this nightmare that we’ve been led to believe is a dream, we must stop chanting the legend and start pursuing delusional thought.
Artists have always been at the forefront of delusional thinking. Leonardo da Vinci, now celebrated as a rare genius, was not considered an educated man by the standards of his day–he did not attend a university and he was not versed in Latin(both requirements in fitting this mold). His deficiencies–in the way of this criterion–limited his ability to read the classical texts, which may have been an advantage in his development as an artist, architect, and engineer. He was employing the scientific method in a multitude of arenas long before it became a staple of science. In a revealing passage in one of his sketchbooks da Vinci notes, “First I shall make some experiments before I proceed further, because my intention is to consult experience first and then by means of reasoning show why such experiment is bound to work in such a way. And this is the rule by which those who analyze natural effects must proceed; and although nature begins with the cause and ends with the experience, we must follow the opposite course, namely (as I said before), begin with the experience and by means of it, investigate the cause.”
Had da Vinci been educated and reading the natural philosophies of Aristotle (the then guiding principles of nature), he may have never arrived at such methodologies. It is through this ignorance that his ideas and process surpass accepted forms of knowledge and transcend time.
Science will downplay how long its own adolescence actually lasted, but it wasn’t until a 16th century intervention by Galileo Galilei that forced it to take a hard look at itself. The Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo was trialled and convicted in 1633 for publishing his evidence that supported the Copernican theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun. His research was instantly criticized by the Catholic church for going against the established scripture that places Earth and not the Sun at the center of the universe. Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy” for his heliocentric views and was required to “abjure, curse and detest” his opinions. He was sentenced to house arrest, where he remained for the rest of his life and his texts were banned. Galileo wasn’t the only figure in history to be persecuted for their belief system–suppressing knowledge has been an active ingredient in human civilization since the beginning of recorded time.
In an age when information has never been more fluid, knowledge–in its infinite variety–is abundant. Available. Easy to acquire. Because of this access, no one can escape disenchantment. As Galileo’s delusional and sacrilegious idea about the earth’s place in the galaxy dissolved the idea of the cosmos as the locus of spirits and meaningful powers within the realm of religion, so too, does it empower the picture of the universe as governed by universal laws–laws written by the same authority whom condemned this revelation in years prior.
This marks the point in history when science co-opts the subversive position. Persecution (in science) evolved from blatant acts of abuse carried out by the church, to a dissolution of potential theoretical projections through brandishing theory as law. Science has become in an institution which thinks of itself as a meta-theory through which all ideas must submit through its system. Simultaneously, science is the beneficiary and catalyst of the disenchanted which creates a system of “rational” thought.
The scientific method, who claims its roots in rationalism, is actually conceived in the most scientifically irrational production. Rene Descartes, the founding father of modern science, created the scientific method after having a dream in which an angel appeared to him and told him that the conquest of nature would be achieved through mathematics and measurement. This isn’t the tale we are taught. Science typically delivers the primary observations. The gathering of data. The major insight. It rarely reveals the trace of the idea, which was the impetus to execute study and experiment.
Artists have developed a stigma over the great expanse of time. If an artist projects a theory developed through a visit with angels, no one is surprised. It is expected. It is as easily shrugged off as the outlandish theory itself. The focus of the artist’s ideas assumes an aesthetic echelon that more often than not, omits theory and potential through a relegation to discourse that is painfully self-referential. Art, in many circumstances, appears to be a conversation about itself that serves itself and its initiates.
Within this system, an aversion to delusion is born much in the same way it is perpetuated in science and religion. The properties may vary. The classifications, categories, and rankings may change and represent an entirely different value system on the surface, but the problem is equally polarizing. In all our defining social systems, we are required to make a leap of faith. We are required to believe in the universe exploding into existence from an unidentified singularity. We are required to believe that there is a bearded white man coaching earthlings from another dimension. We are required to believe that the art hanging in museums is the “stuff” we need to reference in determining the value of all future manifestations of the human brain which would like to gain entry into the big Art game.
To change the conditions of the big game, we must advocate for innovation. Real innovation occurs at the concrescence of delusional thought. It occurs when existing conditions prompt individuals to reject linear values which means to reject the idea that innovation can only occur within the realm of technology, science, and mathematics.
Oliver Wasow, an artist working in the Hudson Valley area of New York, has a peculiar art practice that has evolved from a background in traditional photography to what might be considered an ongoing social media experiment that utilizes photography as the foundation of social critique. The idea that it could be an experiment rather than simply an art practice is of particular interest to me as I spin this web. Whether this is the intent of the artist or not, doesn’t really matter. The results of his experiments, his daily practice, and the response to it-exist as a data set much in the same way as a census tells us something about the population.
Wasow’s delivery system is social media–predominately Facebook. Daily, he posts found photographs or images conjured in his studio and curates a thematic based on his personal interests. The art, however, is not committed solely to the aesthetic quality of the image. The innovation occurs in the ensuing dialogue. The comments section is where the magic happens. It is where people expose themselves through all manner of projections that reflect their interpretations of the image, their intuition, and their impulses–all of which say much more about the people who comment than the image itself. It is like conducting interviews with the masses without asking any direct questions. The curation element that classifies each photograph within an album of related visual elements seem to be the substrate that defines the line of questioning upon which his friends are given a platform to respond.
As an art object(s), Wasow’s social media production defies standard procedure and institutional critique. It toes the artificial line that defines what IS and what is NOT considered art, and it is in that boundary where I find the most interesting practices. Within the trajectories of defiance we may find the ability to detach from the “nightmare of history.”
In the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde notes, “We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.” If admiration of aesthetics and the constant reference to tradition is all we have as a result of art production, then I would agree with Wilde wholeheartedly.
Maybe I’m delusional, but I think art can DO more.
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