Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Sketches of Subjective Truth


There's an old and dusty question kicking around metaphysics: what exactly is truth? Is something truthful if it corresponds to reality? Is something truthful if it is useful in describing the universe? I should approach this question with the appropriate caution: there is an answer there, but I am in no position to find it; I am an artist, not a mathematician or metaphysician. Formulating these sorts of truth finding equations has never been part of the job description. And yet truth, of some kind, does seem relevant to the way we talk and think about art.

Just last week I found myself describing the latest album by Chicago electronic music producer The Flashbulb as something acutely truthful. While admittedly cliche, something in the comment seemed appropriate. But what then is true about this album? What separates it as particularly truthful from any of the many other glistening artifacts populating the narrow subgenre of 'breakcore electronica?'




Arboreal (the album in question's title) is just as factual as about any other type of music: it has a number of tracks, each with its own specific BPM, key, chromatic structure, etc. Yet hidden somewhere between these factive points there's an irreducible element of human emotion: at times heartbreaking, at times triumphant, usually both. What is true about Arboreal is not anything about tone or sound or key, but something about being alive. This is the truth of any good art. It is a mysterious and elusive type of truth, and may take a bit of work to get at on behalf of the audience, but it is there and it is real. In order to make sense of this intuition towards truthfulness however, it seems as though there needs to be another dimension, or at least another type, of truth beyond merely the factual.

To clarify: I do not mean that metaphysically deep truth of analytics and academics, that stale inert truth of billiard balls and mathematics and maps. What I mean is something more personal, humanistic, poetic. Not a truth of the outer world but the inner. That subtle and impermeable Kierkegaardian subjective truth. I also do not mean anything like those frilly and silly Platonic forms: there is an undeniable reality to heartbreak and triumph, at least to the person experiencing them, but that does not mean that they are in themselves hardwired into the superstructure of the universe.

German director Werner Herzog has spoke at some length on the topic of subjective truth, or in his worlds "ecstatic truth." While his conversation tends to hinge on a critique of cinéma vérité, he taps into the meaning and place of subjective truth in a much broader (or perhaps less broad?) context. Earlier this year he spoke on the subject:

We must ask of reality: how important is it, really? And: how important, really, is the Factual? Of course, we can't disregard the factual; it has normative power. But it can never give us the kind of illumination, the ecstatic flash, from which Truth emerges. If only the factual, upon which the so-called cinéma vérité fixates, were of significance, then one could argue that vérité-the truth-at its most concentrated must reside in the telephone book-in its hundreds of thousands of entries that are all factually correct and, so, correspond to reality. If we were to call everyone listed in the phone book under the name "Schmidt," hundreds of those we called would confirm that they are called Schmidt; yes, their name is Schmidt.
...
But in the fine arts, in music, literature, and cinema, it is possible to reach a deeper stratum of truth-a poetic, ecstatic truth, which is mysterious and can only be grasped with effort; one attains it through vision, style, and craft.

An artist has proven Herzog's point about the vapidity of telephone book truth. In the 1960's
François Morellet made a series of paintings and prints compositionally organized using a telephone directory.


Random Distribution of 40,000 Squares using the Odd and Even Numbers of a Telephone Directory, 1960.
Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York © François Morellet
Oil on canvas, 103 x 103 cm.

To make the painting above, Morellet traced a grid of 200 by 200 squares, and, with the help of his wife and children, assigned each of the squares a number from a telephone directory. If the sum of that number was even, he would mark the squares with a cross, if it was odd he would leave it blank. 40,000 squares later, he painted those with a cross blue and those without red. The painting took the better part of a year.

There's a certain satisfaction in knowing that this composition had almost nothing to do with Morellet's subjective preference. Looking at it, there's not a whole lot we can learn about him, or ourselves. In fact about the only thing we can learn about him or ourselves is that he doesn't want us to learn anything about either (other than, perhaps, about a certain fondness for red and blue colored grids on behalf of the artist.) But as this satisfaction dissipates, what the viewer is left with is, more than anything ever before, a painting of a desert landscape: a bleak and arid view of a place where no human has ever been nor could ever go. This painting is painstakingly factual, almost more factual than any painting ever could be (Gerhard Richter's Color Charts from 1973-4 and onward are also good contenders for this distinction). But there is nothing to them beyond the painstaking factuality, no truth, no subjectivity. What separates a Morellet from a Rothko or a Kiefer is that you simply can't look at one of his paintings and have one of those this-is-how-I-feel moments of psychological self-identification. There is no catharsis, there is just square upon square upon square of telephone directory.

It's no secret that the arts and art history routinely are met with downward glances and budget cuts from academic administrators at all stratums. Part and parcel of this prejudice is the notion that the art is not involved in truth-finding like the other members of the academic pantheon. And maybe they're right, a rock band or an installation artist is never going to add a whole lot to the sum of knowledge surrounding molecular chemistry, international trade, or terrestrial geography of the early-Cambrian. And maybe that's a good thing. Art doesn't get you that kind of truth, the kind of truth you can put down on paper and tell people you've figure out. But it does add to the knowledge you have about yourself and about how you fit in to the world around you. It's tough to imagine how an outsider could decode the 80's without Jeff Koons or Eddie Van Halen, or understand Gen-Xer angst without Damien Hirst or Kurt Cobain, or understand themselves without whatever portions of the kaleidoscopic spectrum of macroculture they self-identify with. And in this way I think art is much more involved in truth, real on the ground truth, than almost any other type of intellectual pursuit. It may not be a truth of objectivity, but nothing ever is. When we stop learning or thinking about art, what we stop learning or thinking about is ourselves, and that really is all there really is.

Chris Willcox

4 comments:

Laodan said...

You write:"There's an old and dusty question kicking around metaphysics: what exactly is truth? Is something truthful if it corresponds to reality? Is something truthful if it is useful in describing the universe? I should approach this question with the appropriate caution: there is an answer there, but I am in no position to find it; I am an artist, not a mathematician or metaphysician. Formulating these sorts of truth finding equations has never been part of the job description. And yet truth, of some kind, does seem relevant to the way we talk and think about art. "

What stands out in your thinking is the following sentence: "Formulating these sorts of truth finding equations has never been part of the job description."

The artist's job was not to formulate these sorts of truths indeed. The artist, and more particularly the visual artist, was always in charge to "illustrate" the worldview of the men of knowledge of the day for all to share (shaman under animism, priests under religion, new rich merchants under modernity).

But something radical happened during "high modernity" around 1900. It was the rejection of the past forms at representing reality by the avant-garde. They tried to come up with new forms but alas their search ended in utter confusion which led some critics to speak about the death of art.

Art was not dead. But the unspoken role of the artist to illustrate the worldview of the men of knowledge of the day was dead indeed. The reason why the unspoken role of the artist was definitely dead was because high modernity had sacrificed the traditional role of the men of knowledge in societal organization in favor of the necessary relativism needed by "economic massification" that would later mutate into consumerism.

The avant-garde's search for a truer representation of reality ended in utter confusion. But how could it not have been? As you write it had never been the artist's job description to imagine what reality is all about so what is necessary to understand reality had voluntarily been left out of the artist's education. And this is still the reality today.

But today's proliferation of visual signs about reality is finally questioning the traditional role of the artist as an image maker. (science in and out, visualization,...)

Being "dumb as a painter" as Duchamp repeatedly said is not any longer workable. The visual arts are being overtaken by the images of those guys who study reality: the scientists, the information visualists and so on.

Visual arts are entering a turbulent period of redefinition. The time of formal discussions is over. What is needed is to find answers about "what is reality". The "there is an answer there, but I am in no position to find it" is not working any longer.

Tor Hershman said...

Take a great work of art, something that would stun ye or me, and place it in a jungle/forest. Now, 99.99% of the animals, take or give a bit, will walk, fly or swin by with lill’ or no notice. HOWEVER.. . . .every so often. . . . .a wee flea may stop on the work for an extra long, more than it needs to in its effort to find food, etc, on the work. Perhaps a bunny may sit and stare for minutes or hours but most beasties will, at best, attempt to eat it or mate with it and nothing more.
Do the same in our human jungles/forests; it’s pretty much the same deal.

Truth, Lies, it's all a waste of time.

Chris Willcox said...

Laodan, what I mean when I say "there is an answer there, but I am in no position to find it," is that the duty of the artist is not to finally prove Riemann’s hypothesis, or to figure out a working Unified Field Theory. Artists look for truth of another kind. Something not about the external world, but the internal world. A truth not about things you can look at and touch, but things you can imagine and introspect. What I meant to present here was two categorically distinct types of truth, one of the scientist and one of the artist; one metaphysical the other epistemological/phenomenological. There is an ontological difference here.

Further, I don't think the avant-garde's search for "truer reality" ending in confusion should necessarily be seen as a bad thing, just a signifier of a change in ideologies from one generation to the next. There has been a change in rhetoric, and artists since the 60's certainly lack the heroic language of the High Modernists, but it does not mean that we are through with truth-making.

Laodan said...

Chris,


I beg to differ with Tor Hershman. I posit that art has a societal functionality. This functionality has been lost to mostly everyone during the last fifty years but this does not imply that "Truth, Lies, it's all a waste of time".

The fact that late modern societies fragmented to the point of atomization should not be considered as the natural societal norm. It is not. Our late modern societies are simply collapsing and the sad state of affair in which art finds itself is the reflection of the collapsing natural societal norm.

Since the cultural dawn of humanity visual arts had a societal functionality. That function was to create visual signs, for all to share, about the worldview of the men of knowledge of the day. That functionality has been un-interrupted along tens of thousands of years and, the more archaeologists succeed in digging further down in history, the more it appears that it could well have been the case along hundreds of thousands of years. Or to put it otherwise this societal function of visual arts has been in practice over more than 99,9% of humanity's cultural span. High and Late modernity appear to have derogated to this societal functionality for less than 0.1% of humanity's cultural span. The least we can say is that what has been going on during the last 0.1% of the human time should by no means be considered as the norm of what is to come.

But why was the function of art to create visual signs, for all to share, about the worldview of the men of knowledge of the day?

There are very good reasons for that:

1. about societies and reality.
- societies need cohesion to last. Such a cohesion, anywhere around the world at any given time, was built by making all the individual atoms share a common worldview. (a common vision of reality)
- why was it considered that people would agree to share a common worldview? For the simple reason that humans are social animals who search for answers on the existential questions. And furthermore once "enlightened" by an answer they want that answer confirmed by those around them.
- such answers on the existential questions are not the truth about reality... They are stories about reality. Why is that? Simply because reality is unattainable to humanity.
- those stories about reality are devised by the men of knowledge of the day (shaman in tribes, priests in religious societies, merchants in early modernity). With high modernity the men of knowledge, if they still existed, were relegated on the level playing field of the market for ideas where they had to compete with all kinds of charlatans for eyeballs...

2. about sharing concepts about reality among all the citizens of a society.
- humans evolved vision as their primary sensor in their quest for survival... at least for a few hundred thousands of years.
- many will simply never be able to understand a written or spoken story. It was thus necessary to recourse to a short-cut. Such a universally working short-cut is the visual sign.