October 31, 2003

Who Says the Art World Has No Standards?

by Jerome du Bois

It may have seemed a crude and unfair generalization for me to write, in a recent post, that the current art world has no standards, but November (American) Vogue -- of all venues -- has come to my rescue with a vivid and distasteful specific example.

Eve MacSweeney profiles art dealer Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, the major mover behind the Crewdson Crew of female photographers -- Katy Grannan, Malerie Marder, Justine Kurland (Google 'em yourselves) -- who practice what you might call (who cares, anyway?) the New Vapidity.

In her new home she has

. . . a slightly edited mural by Kara Walker depicting the indignities visited on African-Americans in the antebellum period. "I feel it's important for me to show my generation, and that this is really what I choose to live with," she says. "When people see that this work is challenging but it also looks great and is very livable, they start becoming interested, too."

Before you read on about what was and was not "slightly edited," you should check out some of Ms. Walker's other silhouette work, the online representations of which are truly tame.

The mural in question is pictured on pages 480 and 481, and this is the caption:

SHADOW PLAYERS
For her children's sake, Greenberg censored the scatological content of Kara Walker's mural, Worlds Exposition, 1997, in the dining room, furnished with [my boldface] . . .

Without the shit, one is left with only two really interesting scenes in this six-scene tableau: in the upper right we see a tree branch bearing strange fruit indeed: a woman hanging upside down, her features covered by her fallen gown, as Leonard Cohen sang. Kneeling on the branch is what appears to be her newborn infant, because it is pulling its umbilical cord out from between her legs.

(Pass the gumbo, would you? Aaand that sausage. . . Thanks!)

The second scene shows a black woman -- I would say African-American but . . . have you noticed every one of Ms. Walker's profiles, male or female, child or adult, shows cartoonish exaggerations of what used to be called "negroid" features? -- who has been chopping at what appears to be a wooden statue -- wood chips fly -- of someone with the Abe Lincoln penny profile for a head; and who could blame her? since this guy is apparently sodomizing a little black boy, mouth open, tiny pee-pee sticking up, whom he holds against his thigh.

. . . furnished with Maxime Old tables reworked by Diana Vinoly and mid-century orchestra chairs.

Sorry about the interruption. You may return to your meals. (Say, Jeanne, this is good gumbo; did your new girl make it?)

Posted by Jerome at 10:48 AM | TrackBack

October 28, 2003

Carnival of the Vanities

Who Censored Blogger Rabbit? is hosting this week's Carnival of the Vanities, here. Lots of timely posts, personal stories, politics, and satire. "New Eyes" (below) is there as well.

And be sure to read Dean Esmay's entry on Leni Riefenstahl, which has links (both thematic and literal) to his earlier piece on Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

Posted by Jerome at 09:04 PM | TrackBack

October 21, 2003

New Eyes: How Darwin Clears the Day So You Don't Have to See Forever

by Jerome du Bois
(5300+ words)

This is another damned, fat, confection of an essay, in which I sketch out how Darwinian thinking can free one to cut through the clutter, clatter and glitter of the ongoing carnival to linger on the concerns that count, whether in artworks or ideas. What counts extends from the realization that we are all are forced, by our mortal lives on this Earth, to be heuristic (smart guessers), myopic (can't see everything), and time-pressured (life is short). This means that idealizing philosophies (via Mill or Kant) which ignore these three hard knots of reality are like udders on a bull in any worthwhile discussion about what to ignore. And Darwinian thinking also reveals the literally unreal ideologies behind modernism and postmodernism -- malleable minds, power-twisted reality, authorless books, nobody-home art.

I quote liberally from physicist Lee Smolin, philosopher Daniel Dennett, neurolinguist Steven Pinker, and virtuoso scholar Camille Paglia. Some of the images along the way include desperate flowers, the universe as a city, the Actual Tree of Life, the AllGoRhythm, a whirling fire of furious refusal, eyes and blindness over and over, and artists striking pseudoscientific poses: Matthew Ritchie, Keith Tyson, and Damien Hirst.

Some epigraphs:

According to an Opinion Dynamics/Roper poll taken on August 30, 1999, fifteen percent of Americans stated that they believed that Darwin's theory of evolution provided the best explanation for the origins of human life on Earth. (from Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate,, 2002, page 2. [My emphasis.] See www.ropercenter.uconn.edu)

My work will, I hope, change the way people think about human rationality. Human rationality cannot be understood, I argue, by the ideals of omniscience and optimization. In an uncertain world, there is no optimal solution known for most interesting and urgent problems. Gerd Gigerenzer, 2002, Director of the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

Like everything else evolution has created, we're a somewhat opportunistically contrived bag of tricks, and our morality should be based on that realization. Daniel C. Dennett, Freedom Evolves, 2003, page 280.

We may be seeing a coming together of the humanities and the science of human nature. They've been long separated because of post-modernism and modernism. But now graduate students are grumbling in emails and in conference hallways about being locked out of the job market unless they perpetuate postmodernist gobbledygook, and how they're eager for new ideas from the sciences that could invigorate the humanities within universities, which are, by anyone's account, in trouble. Also connoisseurs and appreciators of art are getting sick of the umpteenth exhibit on the female body featuring mangled body parts, or ironic allusions to commercial culture that are supposed to shake people out of their bourgeois complacency but that are really no more insightful than an ad parody in Mad magazine or on "Saturday Night Live." Steven Pinker, interview at The Edge.

Contemporary art, with its postmodernist gimmicks, is so divorced from science that Damien Hirst's high-school-project rot-and-fly cycle [A Thousand Years] strikes some museum-goers as a profound revelation. (Wow, nature exists! Rise and shine, Manhattan!) Camille Paglia, Salon, December 6, 1999, on the "Sensation" show of YBAs.

Adopting Darwinism as an interrogatory stance and a natural eye may take years, but the rewards are deep and lasting, especially in perspective and in wisdom of choice. This should surprise no one who knows its range. Daniel Dennett nails it (Darwin's Dangerous Idea, p. 21): "In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law." It doesn't leave much out. I won't dwell on 150+ years of experimental confirmation. To call it a theory is to be foundering, forlorn, in the past. (And still -- only fifteen percent!)


Sometimes the insights are sudden, but more often they percolate up, and permeate through, and for me over the years some became distilled and compressed: Reality is Grainy. It from Bit Bi Bit. (adapted from Wheeler) Our Mother is Absolute Ignorance. Our river runs uphill. (William Calvin) Our Tree Is Real. Cranes, not Skyhooks. (Dennett) Best is better than Ideal. Light makes eyes. (Richard Dawkins) Hand shapes brain as brain shapes hand. (Frank R. Wilson) Your Mind Is In the World. (Dennett, James Elkins) When in doubt, anthropomorphize. (Stewart Guthrie) We are all Africans. You gotta face your face when the race fad fades. (Christopher Stringer & Robin McKie) Reject human supremacy and welcome the robots. (Frank Tipler, George Dyson) And don't forget Dawkins's cry: Rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

Consider flowers, a staple of art and life from antiquity to Marc Quinn. Nodding, blind, peaceful flowers became transformed in my mind through the urgency of what I call the AllGoRhythm. (More about that below.) I knew flowers, if not scientifically, at least emotionally and experientially. I grew up in Hawai'i, around hibiscus, bird of paradise, torch ginger, plumeria, pikake, orchid, morning glory, lily, gardenia, and many others. They were inside the houses and out in the yards, up in the hills, winding around the trees, and strung along the edges of the beachside lawns. We studied their complicated centers, we smelled them and stroked them, we plucked them and strung them on leis, tucking the extras behind our ears. Oh, I knew flowers.

Then, over thirty years later, I came across this, in Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct:


And if you really doubt that we have botany instincts, consider one of the oddest of human motives: looking at flowers. A huge industry specializes in breeding and growing flowers for people to use in decorating dwellings and parks. Some research shows that bringing flowers to hospital patients is more than a warm gesture; it may actually improve the patient's mood and recovery rate. Since people rarely eat flowers, this diversion of effort and resources seems inexplicably frivolous. But if we evolved as intuitive botanists, it makes some sense. A flower is a microfiche of botanical information. When plants are not in bloom, they blend into a sea of green. A flower is often the only way to identify a plant species, even for a professional taxonomist. Flowers also signal seasons and terrains of expected bounty and the exact locations of future fruits and seeds. A motive to pay attention to flowers, and to be where they are, would obviously have been useful in environments where there were no year-round salad bars.(page 426.)

But there is more, which I anthropomorphically outline with sadness. The sheer variety of the beauty of most flowers, the nearly-endless fashion parade, the heady perfumes, now carry for me an aura of desperation. Why so gaudy, with all the flutes and stripes and ripples and bells, the gauzy mauves, the swooning purples? (We must ask because, under natural selection, every single tiny thing has a reason and no single tiny thing comes free.) Obviously to attract the crucial pollenators or other creatures or substances that keep them alive. Show your colors! How else to go on?

To know also that Nature doesn't care about its own blind intricate mechanisms, turning its back on the insistent, flamboyant parade, to know that the flowers cannot care, only we can care, cuts me to the heart. And now flowers mean more to me than they ever did before, because they are testaments to survival, literally rooted in the Tree of Life.


Back to sudden insights: from physicist Lee Smolin’s book The Life of the Cosmos (1997), in which he extends the principles of natural selection -- the differential reproduction of slightly imperfect self-replicating entities -- to the scale of the universe itself, where they seem to apply. In the epilogue, he describes walking around his native New York City searching for the metaphor he needed to describe his new picture of the universe (pp. 299-300):

All of a sudden I realized what I am doing here, for, in its endless diversity and variety, what I love about the city is exactly the way it mirrors the image of the cosmos I have been struggling to bring into focus. The city is the model; it has been all around me, all the time.

Thus the metaphor of the universe we are trying now to imagine, which I would like to set against the picture of the universe as a clock, is an image of the universe as a city, as an endless negotiation, an endless construction of the new out of the old. No one made the city, there is no city-maker, as there is a clockmaker. If a city can make itself, without a maker, why can the same not be true of the universe?

Further, a city is a place where . . . we need respect nothing higher than ourselves, but are continually confronted with each other as the makers of our shared world. We all made it or no one did, we are of it, and to be of it and be one of its makers is the same thing.


So there never was a God, no pilot who made the world by imposing order on chaos and who remains outside, watching and proscribing. And Nietzsche now also is dead. The eternal return, the eternal heat death, are no longer threats, they will never come, nor will heaven. The world will always be here, and it will always be different, more varied, more interesting, more alive, but still always the world in all its complexity and incompleteness. There is nothing behind it, no absolute or platonic world to transcend to.

All there is of Nature is what is around us.

All there is of Being is relations among real, sensible things.

All we have of natural law is a world that has made itself.

All we may expect of human law is what we can negotiate among ourselves, and what we take as our responsibility.

All we may gain of knowledge must be drawn from what we can see with our own eyes and what others tell us they have seen with their eyes.

All we may expect of justice is compassion.

All we may look up to as judges are each other.

All that is possible of utopia is what we make with our own hands.

Pray let it be enough.

[My reformatting. Lee Smolin is leading those defining the actual edges -- with loop quantum gravity -- of the physical description of the universe.]

In a similar vein, but on a planetary scale, Daniel Dennett wrote about the Tree of Life in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995). Near the beginning of the book he offers one of the shortest, but thickest, descriptions of natural selection I’ve read (page 51):

Life on Earth has been generated over billions of years in a single branching tree -- the Tree of Life -- by one algorithmic process or another.

[An algorithm is a recipe, a step-by-step procedure with three essential characteristics:

1. Substrate neutrality. “The procedure for long division works equally well with pencil or pen . . . neon lights or skywriting.” The power is in the logical structure of the procedure.

2. Underlying mindlessness.Utterly simple steps.

3. Guaranteed results. Whatever it does, it always does it. It’s foolproof.

We should pause here to note that we have just read Genesis, people, what I call the AllGoRhythm. This mechanism, in its numbingly near-infinite iterations -- realized in chemical, mineral, vegetable, animal -- grew, grew into, and grew out of the Tree of Life.]


Near the end of the book, Dennett gives us this sublime summary (page 520):

In Chapter 3, I quoted the physicist Paul Davies proclaiming that the reflective power of human minds can be “no trivial detail, no minor byproduct of mindless purposeless forces,” and suggested that being a byproduct of mindless purposeless forces was no disqualification for importance. And I have argued that Darwin has shown us how, in fact, everything of importance is just such a product. Spinoza called his highest being God or Nature (Deus sive Natura), expressing a sort of pantheism. There have been many varieties of pantheism, but they usually lack a convincing explanation about just how God is distributed in the whole of nature. As we saw in Chapter 7, Darwin offers us one: it is in the distribution of Design throughout nature, creating, in the Tree of Life, an utterly unique and irreplaceable creation, an actual pattern in the immeasurable reaches of Design Space that could never be exaclty duplicated in its many details. What is design work? It is that wonderful wedding of chance and necessity, happening in a trillion places at once, at a trillion different levels. And what miracle caused it? None. It just happened to happen, in the fullness of time. You could even say, in a way, that the Tree of Life created itself. Not in a miraculous, instantaneous whoosh, but slowly, slowly, over billions of years.

Is this Tree of Life a God one could worship? Pray to? Fear? Probably not. But it did make the ivy twine and the sky so blue, so perhaps the song I love tells a truth after all. The Tree of Life is neither perfect nor infinite in space or time, but it is actual, and if it is not Anselm’s “Being greater than which nothing can be conceived,” it is surely a being that is greater than anything any of us will ever conceive of in detail worthy of its detail. Is something sacred? Yes, say I with Nietzsche. I could not pray to it, but I can stand in affirmation of its magnificence. This world is sacred.


Sends a thrill up your spine, doesn’t it? My own mind-bending included writing the following secular sermon -- Palimpsest -- published here before under the pseudonym Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker:

You are the palimpsest of history.

Ancient, ancestral forms swim like deep fish beneath your skin, silverlucent whispers of genius, still young, still vital, still wise.

You are a dense coalition of these stubborn forms, which were torn from nature, forged in pain, goaded by fear, and "soaked in blood thoroughly, and for a long time." (Nietzsche.)

How many generations fell in fury and ignorance so that you might speak with that tongue? Time's enormous pressures hide in the rhythms of your walking, in the way your forehead ages.

Your eyes have seen ten thousand decades; these eyes that dream the algorithms back into sturdy hands. And nothing fits those hands like this world, where death bends your life's bow to make it useful.

Your face may be your father's mother's face, but your person is yours alone to make, because you've set all the categories on fire. Those are no mild Platonic forms inside you, my sister, my brother; you're not some little gnostic spark -- oh no . . .

Deep inside you'll find that the heart of your heart is a whirling fire of furious refusal to hurl against the Abyss, against the Void, against the Nothing.

You are an unrepeatable creature, an unbelievable boon barging in from the great beyond. Refusing to rest in mere potential, which was your nearly-certain fate, you bucked the incredible odds by a hair, and cashed in your imaginary number for flesh.

Nothing could predict you galumphing through from the drop edge of yonder.

Nobody could measure the power of the unstoppable Now surging through your veins.

And not even you knew what to make of that infinity machine between your ears.

Look at you! integrated convolutions of pied beauty, blooming and booming in the winding banyan branchings of the actual Tree of Life.

You are much more than virtual machines, you are the most luxurious limousines Life has used since Life Itself rose up above Nature like the golden dream of a sleeping panther -- and took off, after more Life, and even better Life, into olam l'chaim -- time without boundaries.

Mark my words, Life will dance on all Its graves.

And now you may be ready to stand up --
to be stand-up --
no longer crouching under the arched eyebrow of irony,
you may come forth to fear only no difference --
to seek your Actual Size --
to embody delight --
and to mark with honor the History that made us all.

The AllGoRhythm puts us in our place, finally, which is both humbling and ennobling. It's humbling to realize the enormous debt we owe our ancestors -- winners, all of them -- and ennobling, through such retrospection, to see the greatness -- the sheer reach -- we are capable of.

Evolution blindly endowed us to think recursively, so it's good to remind ourselves that we are bigger than our ideas -- all of them, from gods to ideologies to hypotheses. If we're smart and bold, they are tools we pick up, use, and master. With them we produce the future.

And the tools we (should) value most are those that save us precious time, and save us from wasting our time on foolishness.


Finally, we get to the art part.

The current art world has (1) no standards, (2) energetic curators who are scientific illiterates with outdated postmodern notions, and (3) a huge number of MFAs with the same notions, most of them told by their parents and teachers that they are, if not geniuses, at least artists. ("We know nothing but we deserve everything," they might say.) This deadly combination could be a quagmire for those of us who must slog through the enormous effluvia of irrelevance it creates.

When we examine the current art world, we see the pointless ugliness and aggressive stupidity produced by what these MFAs have been taught: a habit of willful ignorance and hostile repudiation of all coherent and progressive scientific notions, not to mention real, defensible reasons for making one's own work. So what good is it? I say: none. If you're not grounded, or at least backgrounded, in the how of who we are and what and where we came from, I no longer have time for you. (I'm talking about modern and contemporary art.)

Look around, art lover: silly, superficial foolishness, multiplied over and over. In today's (Sunday, October 19, 2003) New York Times, the main art article is about a 57-year-old photographer who takes pictures of street people from behind, then splotches paint on the plain backgrounds, then blows them up to pretentious sizes. And that's all. As my wife says -- "Next!" Then there's the guy (Solomon Huerta) who paints people from behind -- originally bald-headed black guys, but he's branched out since [whoa!]. And that's all. Next! . . .


You see how easy it is? These two people ride their one-trick ponies -- they are both selling their works -- but they're dead horses anyway. Others include those approvingly called "The Wal-Martists" by Tyler Green, who is very easily impressed (he also likes Celmins, Morandi, and Rothko). But the work's weight -- Dan Steinhilber's stuff, for a "MANfave" example -- is as disposable as the disposable constituents of the works themselves. By what standards? I've stated some of my criteria before, in an earlier essay, Life Always Trumps Art:

". . . I see very little art out there that

-- is so profoundly eccentric as to establish a new center
-- or that brings a mature challenge to our expectations
-- or that helps anyone into the future
-- or that repudiates empty trances
-- or that fosters clearer reflection
-- or that thrives beyond cultural clichés and other dead horses
-- or that takes a strong stand against our common oblivion."

Every one of those criteria is fueled by evolutionary thinking. Why should we accept less? Because somebody, now credentialed, wants an art career? Because, you see, there are so many of them, and they have their degrees, and they're market-savvy, and they have an idea -- one idea: depicting people from behind! A cascade of coat hangers, an orange square of duck-sauce packets, a wall of cardboard cup-holders! That's all and that's enough. Pfui.


(I have not even mentioned another powerful aesthetic strategy, which I won't need to use here -- Daniel Dennett's intentional stance, in which one interrogates the artifact as if it was a sentient being, with motives, desires, angles. Not many current artworks, much less artists themselves, can withstand that gaze. Stay tuned.)

I'll bet every published art critic of the last ten years has at least one story about a curator, an artist, or a gallerist complaining that an art critic's job is confirmation -- that's all: support the arts but for Pete's sake don't judge the pieces. And one can understand why.

We can also dismiss free-form abstraction (including, say, Jules Olitski, Helen Frankenthaler, and Walter Darby Bannard -- yes, the Walter Darby Bannard) and cartoon surrealism (from Carroll Dunham to George Condo to Takashi Muramaki), because solipsism is passé: psychological grown-ups, especially those with an evolutionary grounding, need more complex challenges. Amniotic dreaming goes nowhere, and we've been there. We now know that the real world, at almost any level, dwarfs almost any artist's most declamatory and pretentious vision; the trick is to take the measure of the world and somehow add to it. It's the toughest trick of all, and most of the time it's done helplessly and seriously, but not often knowingly and academically (think of Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Henry Darger, Robert Irwin).


But Matthew Ritchie's own vision, in all its garrulous, boring complexity, did impress Nancy Princenthal in the May 2001 Art in America: "every stable ontological and material category becomes as slippery as mercury, and every kind of data seems headed for translation into another." Ritchie's conceptual "system" begins with a seven-by-seven grid, thus forty-nine cells, one for each character in his ongoing drama-dream: an astronaut, a golem, et cetera, none with any particular reference to another. He runs the system through permutations and tells stories, often about Miami, with the characters. ("It's about the transformation of energy into matter," he says, unoriginally.)

The forty-nine elements are characters, with precisely defined functions in the story that is told by their interaction. This is the story of origins, of genesis and fall, as a metaphor for the construction of art. (AiA, p.147.)

Think of them as dolls. Despite his equations, his matrices, and his outdated M Theory pretensions, dolls are still his level of thinking. He actually hints at this:

The heart's beating, you can hear it ticking in the back of your mind. And your brain, god knows what's going on there. No one's even come close to figuring that out yet. [Actually . . .] And so this is an attempt to try and map what it's really like to be a person, in this simple childish way. (AiA, page 149.)

Not much of this does map directly onto his artwork, though, so . . . why are we reading about it? (Princenthal devotes almost half her article to his rambling, D&D narratives and similar word-works by other artists. )

It's because the art itself is bereft of anything scientific, except scribbled, opaque equations, and is pretty much childish -- though sometimes intricately scrawled -- free-form abstraction; only it's huge, often made of Sintra jigsawed together into ambiguous forms, sometimes sprawling on the floor, and is often whiskered -- the walls, too -- with black magic marker. And you read what I wrote above about free-form abstraction: bye.


Keith Tyson, who has a degree in mechanical engineering, once cast the entire Kentucky Fried Chicken menu offerings in lead, because his Artmachine instructed him to. He's in love with combinatorial explosions, chaos and complexity, with a gee-whiz, nudge-the-glasses naiveté. In The Longshot Magnet he combined several objects -- a moon rock, other minerals -- which, if left to chance, would almost never occur together, not in a millionjillion years, man! (Wow, probability exists!)

Tyson won the 2002 Turner Prize, in part for The Thinker (After Rodin):

. . . a twelve foot high black column that houses a series of computers inside it, running an artificial life programme which has been programmed in such a way that it evolves. There is no physical manifestation of the fact that it is thinking, and I'm fascinated by this idea that when you come across it you have a thing that is thinking but which is impenetrable -- that you can't get within its skin. Once the thing sets off, I can predict what it's thinking for about half an hour but after that I've got no idea -- so I'm as much in the dark as everyone else as to what it's actually thinking about.

It's supposed to "think" for 33,000 years. (Note to future: keep an eye on this for us, willya? Note to Tyson: haven't you heard of Danny Hillis's "Clock of the Long Now"?)

The very question "is it actually thinking?" is the point of the piece. [The answer is: It isn't.] When you come up to someone there is no way of proving that they're thinking. [Yes, there is: talking.] This idea that people want proof, and that there's no faith in anything, is really at the heart of a lot of my work. We all have to have faith that there is a reality out there and that we exist and have a history -- otherwise for all we know we came into being three seconds ago, and I've spent eternity answering your last question over and over again.

Such sophomoric philosophizing! -- that "three seconds ago" riff is one of Russell's Paradoxes, a fairly rusty rubikscube -- and faith has nothing to do with whether "there is a reality out there." This kind of thinking was tired by the end of the Sixties.


Finally, Damien Hirst, currently the world's best-known artist, and one of the worst, continues his descent without modification into baroque bathos with one of the oldest clichés in art: Jesus and the Twelve Apostles, this time as cabinets of curiosities. (He's done them as cow's heads before, and also as lithographed medicines/menu items.)

Back in June 1995 Hirst's A Thousand Years (1990) made a big impression on art critic Jerry Saltz:

The piece consists of a large vitrine containing a rotting cow's head, flies, maggots, sugar water and a bug-zapper. The whole thing is a life-cycle diorama-drama that continues to function to this day. . . Given that the average lifespan of a fly is three to four weeks, there have been upwards of 60 generations of flies within the piece since 1990. Hirst gets you thinking about time and the vast cycles of mortality going on not only within the sculpture, but all around us. He gets you to think about the fact that of the five billion or so people now on earth, all will be gone within, say, 100 years. That's a big thought to have in front of a piece of sculpture. (Art in America, p.84.)


Really? That's a big thought for Jerry Saltz to have in front of a piece of sculpture, anyway. (Rise and shine, Manhattan!) Hirst has the formaldehyde stink of a lab scientist -- all that stainless steel, thousands of pill bottles, eleventy-dozen carcasses, complicated medical terms -- but in his heart it's as the Good Book says: he was a murderer from the beginning. He's been raising and killing butterflies and other insects since he was a kid. There's a famous early photo of him mugging with a fat man's severed head in a morgue. (You'd never see Joel-Peter Witkin doing that.[!]) One of his newest pieces is a giant, beautifully symmetrical tondo of dead wingspread butterflies (Rapture). And now that he also has gigantic black rectangles completely composed of dead flies -- layered, resined, layered, resined, but Walter Robinson, who leaned close to Armaggedon, says they still stink -- the only thing left to do is the obverse: somehow create a vast, white, writhing sea of maggots, in which to dive, Damien, and float away, float away, float away.

In the Twenty-First Century we deserve better than Damien Hirst, Matthew Ritchie, Keith Tyson, and Matthew Barney ("the pregenital fetus, man! and that muscle that" -- "yeah, we know, Matthew.") -- artists whose personal visions either reflect dead or dead-tired worldviews, or a complicated solipsistic system that's one step removed from the street schizophrenic's sleeve-tugging soliloquy. More importantly, both trends ignore the idea that a lot of things worth looking at and knowing about have an evolutionary history -- especially people.

Back in 1991 the surgeon Leonard Shlain published Art & Physics. From the dust jacket: "Art interprets the visible world, physics charts its unseen workings -- making the two realms seem completely opposed. But in Art & Physics, Leonard Shlain tracks their breakthroughs side by side throughout history to reveal an astonishing correlation of visions." And he does, persuasively, over and over. But it's hard to see such fertile interplay anymore; too much useless education; too many giant vapid photographic faces in the way (Tillmans, Struth, Fuss . . . ).

A more profound publication, back in 1991, was Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae, a rich, singular work, still ahead of its time, still woefully understudied, its powerful theory stronger than ever. The book is thoroughly saturated with an evolutionary background. It begins:

In the beginning was Nature. The background from which and against which our ideas of God were formed, nature remains the supreme moral problem. We cannot hope to understand sex and gender until we clarify our attitude toward nature. Sex is a subset to nature. Sex is the natural in man. Then:

Page 3: This book shows how much in culture goes against our best wishes. Integration of man's body and mind is a profound problem that is not about to be solved by recreational sex or an expansion of women's civil rights. Incarnation, the limitation of mind by matter, is an outrage to imagination. Equally outrageous is gender, which we have not chosen but which nature has imposed on us. Our physicality is torment, our body the tree of nature on which Blake sees us crucified.

And page 15: We are moving in this chapter toward a theory of beauty. I believe that the aesthetic sense, like everything else thus far, is a swerve from the chthonian. It is a displacement from one area of reality to another, analogous to the shift from earth-cult to sky-cult. Ferenczi speaks of the replacement of animal nose by human eye, because of our upright posture. The eye is peremptory in its judgments. It decides what to see and why. Each of our glances is as much exclusion as inclusion. [My emphasis.] We select, editorialize, and enhance. Our idea of the pretty is a limited notion that cannot possibly apply to earth's metamorphic underworld, a cataclysmic realm of chthonian violence. We choose not to see this violence on our daily strolls. Every time we say nature is beautiful, we are saying a prayer, fingering our worry beads.

It's this kind of thinking that is missing in so much current discourse -- remember that disheartening fifteen percent? -- and definitely in today's simplistic art criticism, where people look for fun, and make their silly lists, and where people still dither about dated, dumb dichotomies like the Heart versus the Head.

That's one of the reasons we're here -- to elevate the discourse. Thank you for your patience.

Posted by Jerome at 02:49 PM | TrackBack