By William Butler Yeats
I hesitate to address politics at all, because it’s such a volatile and dangerous terrain, except to try to reel in the extremists and urge caution and broad-mindedness. In the first part I’ll examine the problem of firm belief within the political realm, and in the second part within the art world.
the danger of believing your own beliefs
You’ve probably heard about the latest mass shooting, this time in two Mosques in the city of Christ Church, New Zealand. The gunman was a white male named Brenton Tarrant, who is not yet thirty. Before going on his killing spree, the would-be terrorist uploaded an 87-page manifesto of his convictions and the ostensible justifications for his actions. Evidently, he fervently believed in the worldview he outlined (all notions he admittedly borrowed from the internet, which he thinks is the one true source of information), and that his cause was just (revenge, in fact). In realty, his beliefs were comic book fodder, and his actions a horrendous affront to justice.
I was troubled by the fact that he believed in what he was doing, including that he was some sort of hero for his people (and his people were defined by pigment). Surely, people try to find justifications for their evil acts, but I tend to think they know they are doing wrong, and that it isn’t a problem for them. Let me just point out that Tarrant’s terrorist slaughter violates two of the simplest ethical notions we have in the West, in which case I’d think he would know what he planned to do was wrong.
1) Do onto others as you’d have them do unto you. I learned this in Sunday school when I was 5 years old. I gather Tarrant wouldn’t want to be shot up while he was in a place of worship.
2) Don’t judge a book by its cover. One could just utter the first two words, and most people could finish the rest, that’s how ingrained this maxim is. Clearly, our gunman appointed himself judge, jury, and executioner of scores of people about whom he knew absolutely nothing beyond that on the cover of their books, it said Muslim.
His beliefs were obviously far adrift from even a school child’s anchor in morality and justice, in which case you’d think he might have some very serious second-guesses about the virtue of his plan of action. Apparently not, he’d crystallized reality into what he thought was an airtight paradigm, and documented in less than 100 typed pages. For this to happen, he needed to have a more fundamental underlying belief, which is that reality can, conclusively, be apprehended by the human intellect, and expressed in language. It occurs to me that a fanatic is someone who believes their own beliefs.
I’d noticed something similar a couple years ago, after protestors violently shut down a Milo Yiannopoulos speech at UC Berkeley. I saw an interview with Yvette Felarca, a spokesperson for one of the groups involved in the protest, BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY . She’d accused Milo of inciting violence against Muslims, LGBTQ, and other students on campus, etc… Milo’s an outspoken conservative, and it’s difficult to take his hyperbolic performances at face value (he liked to call Trump “daddy”, and would give his talks in costumes), but I’m pretty damned sure he wasn’t interested in promoting any victimization on campus. What struck me was that IF what Felarca believed were true, THAN her protest would be justified.
The problem was that she advocated achieving her social goals by any means necessary (which by definition doesn’t exclude violence or terror), but what she believed was the real situation on the ground was a partial understanding, heavily biased, and an obvious exaggeration. In order to oppose violence against innocent people, a wholly noble cause, Felarca famously punched someone at a rally, and finds her organization identified by the FBI as “thought to be involved in terrorist activities”.
Similarly, a philosophy professor was charged with four counts of felony assault with a deadly weapon for hitting people over the head with a bicycle lock at a “Free Speech” rally.
Both Felarca and Clanton were teachers who believed so strongly in their beliefs that it was also imperative to impart them onto their students. Felarca’s punches probably don’t pack much of a wallop, and she likely knows it, but it’s still an assault. Clanton’s use of a metal lock aimed at people’s heads was designed to inflict serious, and potentially dangerous injury. As a philosophy teacher, I’m guessing he could write his own manifesto elaborating why his actions were necessary and just, as could Felarca. While Clanton and Felarca are both on the same side of the political spectrum, Tarrant is on the extreme opposite. I’m not suggesting they are equivalent, but only demonstrating that strongly held beliefs (which only reflect a partial truth), irrespective of political affiliation, can lead to aggression, violence, assault, murder, and even mass murder. A sure warning that one is slipping into dangerous ideological territory, and needs to reel oneself in, is when one seeks to use violence against innocent people in order to fight the phenomenon of violence used against innocent people. Of course they will come up with reasons why someone is NOT innocent, but these are most likely wild extrapolations and exaggerations that everyone knows wouldn’t hold up in court. If the other party isn’t directly threatening actual violence, it’s going to be hard to say attacking them was in self defense. If you show up to a rally with a weapon, championing yourself as an anti-violence hero should cause some cognitive dissonance. Even if it is presumed the other side might have weapons, when fighting fire with fire, everyone gets burned, and the only winner is fire.
It is easiest for the mind to adopt extreme beliefs, because those are the simplest, most reductionist, and with all the answers and the easy villains (which can usually be identified by appearance alone). It’s looking at one side of the coin, and villainizing the other. Consider the issue of gender. The far right asserts that ones gender is 100% determined by biology, while the far left insists it is 100% a social construct. There is a tragically humorous video of students storming out of an auditorium, when a biologist stated the obvious and incontrovertible fact that there are incontestable biological differences between genders in nature (think peacocks), and that on average men are taller than women. One protestor stated, “We should not listen to Fascism. It should not be tolerated in civil society. Nazis are not welcome in civil society”. Calling a professor of evolutionary biology a Nazi is not a counter-argument to a statement based on scientific facts, in civil society.
Meanwhile, if one maintains that culture plays no part in how gender is constructed, or more importantly perceived, I invite you to go to a shoe store and look around. A visiting alien from another galaxy might conclude that the extraordinary difference between two categories of shoes reflects not a difference in gender, but in species. There’s nothing about the female foot itself that inevitably leads to the design of women’s shoes, especially if comfort, practicality, or safety is an issue.
Beliefs are like maps, and we seem to need them to be able to navigate the territory of existence. Without them, reality would be overwhelming and incomprehensible. They are, thus, in effect, filters. Beliefs boil reality down into something we can manage, make sense out of, and thus can function in. Over time we are able to apprehend and adopt more complex beliefs, both as individuals and a species, but they are always going to fall short of any absolute truth, and are always going to be projections upon reality.
Even science doesn’t declare its facts necessarily sacrosanct. Rather, scientific consensus is a best-working-model. We know historically that the Copernican model of the universe, in which everything ran like a clock and could be broken down to its simplest parts, the atoms, no longer held true with the advent of subatomic physics. Scientists have learned from experience that new and broader models of the universe are periodically forthcoming. Discovery is ongoing, and as the geneticist and evolutionary biologist, J. B. S. Haldane famously asserted:
I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.
Other variations say, “stranger than we can imagine”. You get the idea.
We should learn from science, which doesn’t take its own provable observations as absolute truth, that our second-hand extrapolations based on science, or conclusions of a social study, or interpretation of an ancient religious text, are also a work in progress: partial, incomplete, biased, and serving a certain agenda or purpose.
I noticed, regrettably, that many of the responses to the massacre in New Zealand were threadbare attempts to, of all things, hammer home other overtly simplistic belief systems, rather than pause a moment and questions ones one. Some headlines focused on the fact that Tarrant was a Trump supporter, that he idolized the Chinese system of government, or that he liked the young, black, female conservative, Candice Owens. Still others argue that the REAL terrorist threat is conservative white men. The first examples are just using a horrendous tragedy for political expedience, while the latter shares bold characteristics with the very belief system that underpinned Tarrant’s justification for terror: viewing the enemy an easily identifiable group of people who are other and interchangeable. Here, again, we have the temptation of reassuring, extreme conclusions, with the clarity of easy answers and obvious villains.
The REAL terrorists are the people who believe that terror is not only a viable, but a desirable option or goal. I’m reminded of football fans who have violent clashes after a match. Both sides are passionate about the sport, fanatical about their home teams, idolize the players, and are probably nationalistic. They even share hating and trash-talking rival teams. Their perceived enemies have so much in common with them that they are human bookends. Thus, the white male terrorist has far more in common with the foreign terrorists he believes he’s fighting against, than he does with other whites with whom he claims allegiance.
If one has enough direct experience interacting with people of different races and cultures (I’ve lived in China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia, as well as the richly diverse city of New York), what separates people is their character, disposition, personality, and actions, not their conspicuous biology. Culture is probably more important than biology, but even that pales compared to the qualities of the individual person, once you get past language barriers…
The real person is an invisible entity (the mind) bound in a set of circumstances, which are infinitely variable. Presuming to judge a person by appearance, or information that wouldn’t fill a paragraph, or even a sentence (usually just a label is considered sufficient), is as stupid as judging a poker player by the cards he or she was dealt. Tarrant made the egregious mistake of believing that not only can the enemy be identified by appearance or categorization, but that there is an evil other, which if we could only eliminate, peace would reign on Earth (in a Thousand Year Reich). Those that assert that white men are the real enemy make the same blunder. The only enemy is the mind, it’s invisible, we all have one, and it’s not going anywhere.
That, of course, is my own projection upon reality, a partial truth, biased, incomplete, and serves my own purposes. It’s a work in progress, and my best-working-model. While it isn’t the unadulterated truth, I think it’s a better model than, for example, seeing people as defined by their biology at birth, or their presumed culture, and fanatically believing in that. You are less likely to assault someone based on their appearance alone, or how you categorize them on sight, if you don’t think they are defined by biology or cultural affiliation.
While I may not rigorously believe my own beliefs, I disbelieve them less than I do others. The more firmly someone believes something, the less I generally trust that it is true, because it is most likely reductionist and terribly one-sided. That’s not a litmus test, of course, because some conclusions are based on overwhelming evidence. It’s the firm convictions about things which are inconclusive or unknowable (usually of a social nature) that are particularly suspect.
Disbelief and Art
I find myself now in the curious state of not believing in art history, particularly contemporary art history. Not only do I not believe in it, I can’t believe in it, because I don’t find it believable. The feeling is not unlike a child outgrowing the belief in the Tooth Faerie, or Santa Claus, in that it just becomes impossible to re-believe.
In the past there were momentous achievements in art that changed the way we make and conceive of art, rerouted culture at large, and even changed the way we think. Now I just see formal experiments with medium, wild tangents, pranks, hybrids, props illustrating bogus philosophical profundities, and often frivolous thought experiments.
Jackson Pollock’s radical and revolutionary invention of action painting that opened doors for all artists (and closed more), is revealed as a stylistic development which is just one possible avenue of artistic exploration among myriad others. If Pollock’s paintings are good, and I genuinely appreciate some of them, it is because they are good examples of a particular strategy of making art. In short, they are good paintings because they are good paintings, and NOT because they are radical, revolutionary, important, or any of that external and extraneous claptrap.
What if we just forego subject matter altogether, any modeling and rendering, and focus entirely on design? And what if this design is done through flinging and spilling paint? Yap. That’s one thing you can do, and Pollock did it particularly well. It does not invalidate anything anyone else is doing. If some people decided to follow in his footsteps, others rebelled against it, and others didn’t take it into consideration. But art history will tell us that his paintings changed everything. They only changed everything on the canvases he was working on himself.
The same applies to Van Gogh. Some say he ushered in Expressionism and was important for his recognition of a painting as a flat surface. Instead of creating illusionist space, he piled the paint conspicuously on the surface (apparently Gauguin asserted he was making sculpture). That’s all fine and good, but the difference between his best paintings and the ones that weren’t as good is not how well they flattened the picture plane or presaged Expressionism, but whether or not they were good examples of his style. Van Gogh’s style, like Pollock’s, was one possible avenue of investigation and expression. It was not a repudiation of Seurat, or Degas, or even Bouguereau.
Pollock and Van Gogh made good paintings, but a consequence of disbelieving the master narrative of modern/contemporary art is that a lot of art that is held as of revolutionary importance to humankind is not intrinsically good at all, but requires a background story to give it relevance (kind of like the hair of Elvis is intrinsically worthless unless it is a talisman for a believer). When the background story falls apart, a lot of art comes tumbling down with it. A crumpled piece of paper on a pedestal, by Martin Creed, becomes junk when robbed of its bogus revolutionary profundity.
Contrary to what people say, there’s more freedom in realizing Creed’s crumpled paper is worthless, or worse, than in accepting it as an astoundingly important achievement in art. It’s hard to perform the latter, for me, even in jest, when it adds nothing to Duchamp’s readymades, such as exhibiting a comb as art 78 years earlier. At best it’s a variation on a tired and threadbare theme, which was only ever considered viable because of its ostensible originality. Nevertheless, overtly derivative radically original art is a staple of contemporary art.
If you don’t buy into the importance of this or that style, and its broad implications about what you can and can’t do, what is important or irrelevant, breaking new ground or dead on arrival, than you are free to do what you want, and the real question is how well you do it.
This is much more obvious with music, and music is in no way subordinate or inferior to visual or conceptual or any other art. There may be theories of how music has progressed, and ones laced with extraordinarily biased politics, but for the real connoisseur of music, the one whose tastes are a bit eclectic, the best music doesn’t belong to any genre, political affiliation, or geography. Music takes a lot of time to ingest, but food less so, and so most people can appreciate food from different cultures, eras, and so on, whether it’s the main course, an appetizer, or dessert, and the real test is if it’s a good example. We don’t generally judge the quality of food (unless we are vegetarians…) by the politics of it, or how important a development it was. We enjoy a pizza if it is a good pizza.
In my case part of my disbelief is due to the art world rejecting me as a viable artist with anything worthwhile to say (much more likely it is automatically pernicious) because of my DNA at birth. I could argue, “Hey, it’s not OK to disqualify me based on biology”, and still believe in the official narrative of contemporary art, just object to its application in my case, at this particular time (in the past my biology wouldn’t have been a disadvantage).
As it happens, however, the direction my art has meandered at present is in territory that is unacceptable according to the history of the evolution of art. I’ve started to create images from the imagination in conspicuous 3-dimensional space. I wrote an article recently about how popular the notion is that “art is not a window” into anything. I did some Google searches and what really struck me was that while there were hundreds of thousands of hits for “art is not a window” and “art is no longer a window” (and other variants), there were virtually zero stating that art is not JUST or ONLY a window. Art is NOT a window, full stop. And if you make an image that is a window into another realm, the artist’s imagination, and so on, well, than it isn’t art, or not art worthy of looking at or any sort of consideration.
I didn’t decide to start exploring illusionistic space as a rebellion or rejection of extant art — that would be considered a worthwhile approach — it just happened. Generally speaking, I too had long ago abandoned mimetic space, and even in my digital works created an impasto surface.
I became a little frustrated with my favorite brush I was using in Photoshop to make digital drawings and paintings, and experimented with tinkering to make my own. I ended up with a cross between charcoal and air-brush. And when I used this brush my former conspicuously textured drawings became more realistic, mostly because I used softer edges.
Someone pointed out that I was using the convention of B&W photography, which hadn’t occurred to me. He was right, to a degree, since it wasn’t intentional, and I was rather loosely using laws of perspective, modeling, lighting and shading.
The next image moved further into illusion.
I didn’t attach any wide-sweeping importance to doing this, as I’ve switched up styles and approaches regularly, and so there’s no deep belief attached.
I would be an idiot to not recognize that these pieces have at least three fatal strikes against them:
1) They use technical drawing skill. This can only be a bi-product of a contemporary art approach, not a critical necessity on which the whole result is entirely dependent. Today, it’s not even necessary for an artist to produce his or her own work, and it may be considered a bit quaint to do so.
3) They use the visual imagination. This is only something you do in second or third-tier artistic productions. It isn’t taken seriously, and defies the long-held conviction that nothing new can be imagined, in which case appropriating and collaging from extant examples of popular culture is the way to go.
3) They treat the “canvas” as a window. The trajectory of all of modern art is in opposition to creating 3D space within the frame of a canvas, or paper… Everyone knows a painting is paint on a canvas, and the picture plane is flat. To go back is as reactionary as maintaining that the sun, and everything else, revolves around the Earth.
I’m critically aware that what I’m doing now is considered hopelessly backwards and irrelevant within the framework of modern/contemporary art history. And yet I’m doing it, and I like the results. Working with illusion allows me to create new visions. Instead of art being a thing in a gallery that takes space, it’s an imaginary space one looks into. It’s more like a fleeting hallucination than an art object. I’m fine with that, too.
The one I’m working on now is even more illusionistic, so far, and that’s primarily because instead of only using black or white, I included mid-tones (greys).
There’s a very angry-looking man, and a monster. I didn’t intend to draw that, I just saw it in my various marks, and then accentuated it. I didn’t even draw the beads of sweat on the man’s head. They just appeared, and then I tried to improve a couple of them, slightly.
Here I am, in the process of working on something that has no legitimacy in the at world, and may in fact be anathema to it. Should I abandon what I’m doing, or jettison the art world paradigm coming from the outside? My teachers, when I was in art school, had zero tolerance or interest in this kind of work. I ended up doing anything and everything (including photography, sculpture, performance, conceptual, and installation art) except this.
There’s a very strong tendency in the art world that anything you do has some sort of relation in importance to whatever anyone else is doing. If what I’m doing at the moment (I’ve only being doing this a couple months) is legitimate, than that would mean, according to popular logic, that what someone else was doing is illegitimate. It isn’t. I’m perfectly happy with a flat, Mondrian grid painting (though, admittedly, I think the best thing he [n]ever did was painting the Partridge Family bus in his style), or whatever anyone else wants to do creatively.
This is the reason I’ve never written a manifesto. None of my rules, or obsessions, or inclinations, or fascinations apply to anyone else. I have no interest in being a part of a movement, and don’t encourage anyone to do whatever it is I’m currently working on.
Unfortunately, this is not a reciprocal openness. Other artists, critics, and theorists (those who write the imposing sounding “critical theory”) are prone to pretentious manifestos and eliminating the competition with a sweeping gesture. Consider this statement by infamous art critic, and proponent of Abstract Expressionism, Clement Greenberg:
…maintain the high level of his art by both narrowing and raising it to the level of an absolute in which all relativities and contradictions would disappear. Subject matter or content becomes something to avoid like the plague. ~ Clement Greenberg.
In order to advance the art he championed, subject matter and content needed to be eradicated, in which case in the great advancement of art, those who employed either were troglodytes, and their productions as useful as square wheels.
And here is his take on closing the window into imaginary space:
“Realistic art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art. Modernism used art to call attention to art. The limitations of painting–the flat surface…the pigment–were treated by the Old Masters as negative factors that could be acknowledged only indirectly…. Modernist painting acknowledges them directly.”
There can be no subject, no content, and no mimetic space. The stuff I’m working on was redundant in 1960 (before I was born), when Greenberg penned his influential essay “Avant Garde and Kitsch”. His ideas were still popular when I was an undergrad at UCLA in the late 80’s. My first painting teacher there gave me a “B-” because I made representational art (in fact, using the same technique I used for these images, but with acrylic on canvas), and she believed that was no longer an avenue worth exploring. My paintings were definitely some of the best in the class, but she believed my thinking was wrong. She told me that I would never make it to grad school.
Greenberg’s thesis has been overturned, but replaced by other ostentatious projects that similarly disqualify every kind of art other than what they are promoting, or at least some art (virtually all of them dismiss what I’m doing). Minimalism rejected Abstract Expressionism’s emotional content and attempts at transcendence.
Ad Reinhardt, who made all-black painting, or nearly so, had this to say:
The more stuff in it, the busier the work of art, the worse it is. More is less. Less is more. The eye is a menace to clear sight. The laying bare of oneself is obscene. Art begins with the getting rid of nature. ~Ad Reinhardt
Notice he’s not just talking about his art. All art is worse the more there is in it, and all art begins with getting rid of nature. Here is an artist on the cusp of history, boldly steering us in a pristine new direction, and severing ties with the past. There is one direction only, and all others are irrelevant.
Here’s a quote from appropriationist, Sherrie Levine:
The world is filled to suffocating. Man has placed his token on every stone. Every word, every image, is leased and mortgaged. We know that a picture is but a space in which a variety of images, none of them original, blend and clash. ~Sherrie Levine
Notice here that EVERY image is unoriginal! Not most, not all but the rare exception, ALL. And she doesn’t “think” this, she states it as a bold fact. This is a horrible argument which I’ve addressed in great deal elsewhere, so I will try to keep it really brief here. Everyone builds on what went before, and nothing is created in a vacuum. I think even the old masters knew this. However, anyone can potentially add something and reconfigure it to be new and different. If Sherrie is right, there’s really no need for me to make any more realistic images from my imagination, because surely I can’t imagine anything new. It is accepted wisdom in the art world that nothing new can be imagined.
These sorts of all-encompassing, revolutionary statements are the norm, which is also why “radical” is probably the most overused word in relation to modern and contemporary art. Radical is almost always a break with the past, a repudiation of it, and a monumental vision in which legions of artists and their art can also be dispensed with in favor of the the revolutionary new order in the year zero.
With hindsight, we can be pretty damned sure that Clement Greenberg, Ad Reinhardt, Sherrie Levine (and scores of others who make similar epic pronouncements) are wrong. Their views aren’t even compatible with each other. Nevertheless, they fervently believed their own beliefs. And notice how there’s no room for my latest art in any of their beliefs. It’s not only invalid, it’s impossible. M’kay.
The thing I take away from the overarching pronouncements of artists and critics, is that you just shouldn’t take your beliefs too seriously. None of us has the complete picture, the correct answers for everyone, or access to absolute truth. In the political realm, fervent beliefs are much more dangerous, as they don’t just end careers and thwart people’s creativity, they end lives.