UMAN BEINGS TAKE A NATURAL DELIGHT IN FORM and pattern. Our eyes and visual cortex are designed to pick out shapes and hints of half-hidden presences, and to recognize the colors, textures, and fine details of natural objects. These are the necessary skills of a hunter-gatherer species, adapted to follow the obscure tracks of fleeing prey, to resolve the outline of a camouflaged animal in hiding, to remember and find again a nutritious berry, root, or herb. Nature rewards the exercise of such skills, which require concentration and work, with a pleasure that modern birdwatchers, naturalists, and scuba divers know well.|
We are also specialized to analyse spatially the forms of a landscape, reducing its confusing mixture of large masses and planes, blurred or acute fine detail, and shadowed, moving ensembles to the clarity of perspective and the mental map that perspective makes possible. The fact that representational perspective as an artistic technique came so late is a tribute to the supreme unconsciousness of the neural miracle we had been using for so many millions of years. If we had had to take time to think at all about the ratios of diminution by distance, or vanishing-points or projective geometry, we would have been eaten by the saber-tooth tiger or starved because we were too slow to figure out the distance of the antelope. Looking at pre-perspective art it seems almost as if we were positively programmed to not think about perspective effects, but leap immediately to the mental map of the whole situation, oneself included, as seen from a god's-eye view. It is indeed an act of genius to recognize the obvious, as Brunelleschi and his Italian renaissance collaborators must have done -- a recognition that was perhaps the precursor of the Impressionist insight, which was to catch the colors and light of a scene halfway along the visual nerve, so to speak, and have the viewer's brain do the rest of the painting. Here again, nature provides a pleasure which is the incentive for work we must do to survive.
Humans, of course, turn natural pleasures to social, cultural, and spiritual ends. The natural pleasure of eating we press into the service of cuisine. The reproductive pleasures are transformed into the arts of love, the complications of sonnets and novels, the exquisite subtleties of nude portraiture. Likewise, all over the world humans create abstract shapes and patterns to decorate their bodies, their temples, their household utensils, and their homes. These patterns are often variants of sexual or aggressive display motifs in the animal kingdom, or of the reproductive technologies of plants (flowers and fruits). They tend to exhibit the fractal scaling characteristics of natural objects produced by the iterative feedback processes of physical turbulence or biological evolution. That is, they show a pleasing combination and close packing of fine detail, intermediate shapes, and large compositional forms, characteristics that are the hallmarks of nonlinear emergent order. The human brain can interpret such patterns as we interpret the combined notes of a melody, and can derive delight from them. Thus there is a definite and honorable place for abstraction in serious art, as an essential decorative element, refining into something higher the pleasure we get from the shapes of seeds and river-valleys and birds, the colors of evening and morning skies, and the mixture of detail-frequencies that is presented to the eye when we behold the large prospect of a landscape.
But -- and this is a large "but" -- far larger claims than these have been made for abstraction in this century, claims that have perhaps distorted the visual arts and caused many promising artists to neglect the most valuable and powerful resources in their vocabulary. Abstraction, declared modernist theoreticians, was essentially superior to representation, because while a realist painter merely imitated what was before him -- and this was a thoroughly masculine argument -- the abstractionist created another real object, with its own presence and being in the world, not tied to a comparison with its model, nor appealing to the bourgeois appetite for inauthentic sentimental reminiscence. Postmodernist artists took this idea a step further, arguing that representation was part of the whole late capitalist system of economic and cultural hegemony that had, in their view, made genuine experience impossible. After all, they argued, the capitalist production system was based on the exact reproduction of identical objects, advertised to its alienated consumers by mass-produced images that commodified all the techniques of traditional representational art. "Pop" artists such as Warhol and Lichtenstein, recognizing that if they themselves were to become successful their images would in turn be reproduced and sold as part of the system, attempted to short out the vicious circle by preemptively adopting the coarsest and corniest of representational techniques -- the advertisement, the cartoon, the package, the publicity photo. They then altered the resulting images by changes in scale or medium, appealing to bourgeois buyers through the depiction of familiar capitalist icons, but preserving their own artistic integrity by the use of abstraction to satirically undermine representational techniques and the socio-economic system they supported.
What the artists and theorists of this movement missed was that their whole argument depended upon a premise that seemed obvious to them, and that has been virtually unexamined, though it still underpins their entire edifice of thought and practice. The premise is that abstraction creates objects that are more concrete, more real, more akin to other actual objects in the universe than does visual representation. An abstract, so the agument goes, is more like a rock or a tree or a living animal than a picture of a rock, tree, or animal would be; rocks, trees, and animals are innocent and don't represent, they simply exist. They possess the true Heideggerian qualities of Dasein, of Being There, unlike the compromised and selfconscious products of commercial technology. Primitive peoples, so the reasoning went, share this innocence, this unmediatedness, this direct contact with Being; the abstract artist labors to recover that authenticity, and this was the purpose of his art. Stories flew around (largely apocryphal, alas) of natives not recognizing images in films being shown to them for the first time. Art photographers, on being told that the picture in their hand was the Grand Canyon, would murmur, impressively, "I thought it was bigger."
It would be easy to pick on the lesser absurdities of this view of things. They include such problems as the implicit racism of assuming the unreflectiveness of "primitive" peoples, and the irony that the very word "nature" means reproduction: nature is better at mass-production than any factory producing "inauthentic" identical objects. Other problems have already been noted: the association of Heideggerian notions of Being with Nazi ideology, and the dishonesty of using commercially vital images to sell avant-garde anticommercial ideas. But there is a much deeper and more interesting mistake: the assumption is that real objects, unlike human minds, don't represent, don't imitate, don't make pictures or maps of each other. The old Cartesian lines begin to appear: nature is unreflective, humans reflect. Nature is innocent, humans compromised. Four legs good, two legs bad. Nature is passive, humans meddle. Nature is abstract, human beings represent. It is my purpose here to reveal this assumption as the fallacy it is, and to argue that nature is itself reflective, compromised, self-meddling, representational. Humans, with all our representational games and strategies of signification, are part of nature, even its most quintessential part, containing nature's own deepest tendencies in their most concentrated form. Thus the most real and authentic art is the most realist, the most representational art, and it is only when artists take up the challenge and responsibility of representation that they are fulfilling the highest aesthetic goals.
The fallacy, paradoxically, was based upon reasoning that came originally from the philosophy of science. For centuries material determinists have insisted on the deadness, the essential lack of internal spontaneous process, of self-awareness and self-motivation, in the fundamental matter of the universe. We now know, from Westfall's fine biography of Newton, that the reason natural philosophers of the Enlightenment insisted on the deadness and inert passivity of material nature was in order to concede to God a necessary role in giving it all life and animation, so that the divine would not be a fifth wheel in the world. Not daring to see God as immanent in the universe, and preferring to keep Him outside it where he could, so to speak, be kept an eye on, they tried to make physicality as incomplete as possible in respect of all the properties attributed to soul, consciousness, reflectiveness, initiative, originality, so that He would still have something important to do.
Somehow the fact that matter has properties never seemed to them to be a problem. That is, particles, atoms, and molecules are not totally transparent; they interrupt the forces that encounter them in such a way as to make them perceptible to humans and other animals. The light must be broken, scattered, transformed, absorbed, refracted, for us to see things at all: and it is only what is seeable -- perceptible, in more general terms -- that can be of any concern to science. If matter had no internal process, light would come to us utterly unaltered by the matter it had encountered, and thus the matter would be invisible. Further, it is only where matter resists the complete logical explication of its internal process, where it interrupts the linear flow of rational consequence and we are forced to establish a constant, a given, that we have any fixed point that might justify a claim for its actual existence. It is the irreducibilty of the fundamental constants -- the speed of light, the gravitational constant, the electron volt constant, Planck's constant, pi -- their darkness and opacity to any further reductive explanation, their idiosyncratic characterization of the fundamental relations of physical reality -- that gives them their foundational role in our understanding of reality.
As we now know, simply taking up space is a complex performance for matter, and its other qualities, of mass, charge, parity, and so on, are the maintained achievements of its internal process. Its external communicative process is more remarkable still, of course -- crystals, plants, animals, we ourselves, are the emergent forms that such communication makes possible. Thus the universe postulated by the material determinists, lacking that mysterious inner negotiation and external sensitivity that makes matter observable, would be completely invisible -- and of course untouchable, unsmellable, inaudible, and tasteless as well. Since science relies essentially on observation, science would be impossible in such a universe. It is only to the extent that the universe and the things in it have some kind of inner metabolism and outer sociability -- only, that is, the extent to which they are alive -- that they can be said to be at all. Being is not given, but the achievement of the universe's continuous originating inventiveness, its life and growth.
A large part of this liveness, this internal reflexivity, of ordinary matter is devoted necessarily to making and displaying more or less crude internal representations of the rest of the universe. Butterfly chrysalises often combine two or three levels of representation, aimed at various possible predators: the appearance of a dead leaf for the stupidest ones, a spot of color denoting poison for the cleverer ones that have spotted the disguise -- and sometimes the false appearance of a chrysalis of a truly poisonous species, saving the metabolic expense of manufacturing real poison. Vines pestered with butterflies will grow leaves that look like butterflies, on the correct theory that butterflies will not lay eggs on what they think are fellow-butterflies. But these are simple forms of representation and imitation compared to what one finds among higher animals. The greylag goose expresses its love for its mate by pointedly making a mimed attack on an absent, counterfactual goose, in a "triumph ceremony" that is a fine analogy of human theater. The male blue satin bowerbird's bower is not a real nest but a magnificent advertisement to the female of how good his nest-building genes are. But the need to represent and depict goes all the way down to the most primitive entities in the universe. An atom must find ways of translating the impact of incoming energy into terms that it can absorb without flying apart; indeed, all the atoms that exist are the ones that didn't fly apart. Atoms do this by adjusting the disposition of the electrons in the harmonic series of electron shells that makes up their outer skin; and they relieve the pressure of such impacts by giving off a photons of their own, whose unique signature can be picked up by a spectrograph. Those spectral emanations are in fact representations of their environment, in terms that are unique to the element that produces them.
A former student of mine, the designer and architect Jack Rees, has suggested in an unpublished work that it is no coincidence that the great physicists -- Newton, Einstein, and so on -- tended to make their discoveries in mechanics simultaneously with their discoveries in optics. Perhaps, he suggests, optics and mechanics are at base the same thing. That is, objects in the universe exist (have mechanical properties) only in and through the fact that they express themselves and experience the expressive activity of other objects (they see and are seen). All exchanges of information are conducted by the photons of light or by particles that can be translated into photons. And mechanical processes are fundamentally exchanges of information. Certainly the basic principle of all physical science is that it must be based on observation -- that is, it assumes that an object has reality only to the extent that it is observable, even if indirectly. Scientific reality is observability. At the same time the only way that anything can be observed is by its effect on other things; thus for scientific reality we need not only a world of observable objects but also a world of observing objects, that is, objects that can register by their their response the presence of other objects. The power of the observer in the constitution of fundamental reality has been confirmed again and again by quantum physics, and is already a feature of our electronic technology. We can generalize this idea to the proposition that every thing exists if and only if, and to the extent that, it represents other things and is represented by them -- that is, it expresses itself in such a way as to to be intelligibly recognized as what it is, and it registers and records its fellow-beings in such a way as to make their existence concrete.
Thus representation is a fundamental feature of reality, not just a superficial freak of civilized mimicry. The universe was only a "buzzing, booming confusion," as William James put it, at the first moment of the Big Bang. Since then it has been painting and sculpting itself with greater and greater precision, evolving complex chemistry, plants, and animals to do it more effectively, and achieving thereby a denser and denser reality and concreteness, the more sensory modalities it has brought into play.
It has taken us four hundred years, through the most brilliant intellectual achievements of the human race, to reach a scientific view of the world in which we can now see the particles of matter, no less than living organisms or conscious brained beings, as feedback processes with some measure of autonomy, self-determination, unpredictable historical identity, and reciprocal communication with the rest of the universe. One way of expressing this is in the language of another former student of mine, the Belgian philosopher Koen dePryck. He says that the world we live in is an onto-epistemological universe -- that is, it only exists to the extent that its participants know and experience themselves and each other, and it is only knowable to the extent that all its inhabitants have an individual inexplicable existence. Everything experiences itself and each other into being.
Putting this thought in economic terms, we may even say that the universe is a market, a system of communication and exchange, in which value -- that is, being -- is built through internal and external feedback processes. It is a network of bonds, a "fair chain of love" as Chaucer put it, and the warrant of being is what Dante called "the love that moves the sun and the other stars." The currency of the market is codified and abstracted obligation -- debt -- which is the economic version of gratitude and love in the moral sphere. Money is love incarnated as best it can in physical property relations. But art is also the incarnation in crude physical terms of values that are the result of far more subtle and complex (though no less physical) neural and social processes. A great painting or sculpture must endure its material enactment in paint or stone, as love and gratitude must endure theirs in bequests, wages, gifts, and payments. As modernist critics of the market have rightly pointed out, markets are based on reproducibility, representation, and image. Thus an artist seeking to create truly authentic art -- art that has the concrete reality and presence of other objects in the universe -- should not avoid or seek to undermine the methods of the market, which are themselves a developed and concentrated version of the universal process of natural evolution. Rather, such an artist should, as his or her predecessors did in Florence, Amsterdam, and Paris, include the turbulence of market feedback in the work of art, especially the turbulence that results when an object both is and represents, and thus has both a face value and an intrinsic value. The intrinsic value of an object, say one made of gold or precious stone, is itself fossilized face value, for as we have noted, the properties of an object -- its color, ductility, crystalline structure or refractive capacities -- are already the way it represents the rest of the world and declares its own meaning. The intrinsic value (what a work of art is) is not diminished by its face value (what it depicts), but enhanced; it has being to the extent that it has meaning.
What are the implications of this view of things for contemporary artists? The first is that it may not be enough to just paint or sculpt the exterior appearance of things, even if that appearance tells us much about the artist's thoughts, sensory process, or unconscious feelings, or about the economic and political relationships of the artist's society. There is a further responsibility, which we owe to the integrity of the objects themselves, to express their essence and spirit, their nonlinear inner process. We need to return to the ancient animist universe of kamis, naiads, genii, totem animals, mountain spirits and tree goddesses -- but get it scientifically right this time. The second implication is that though it is indeed legitimate to satirize the commodification of the marketplace, etcetera, by means of pointed uses of visual realism, the attack may be relatively misplaced. The market, which is the basic ecosystem of human moral communication, and is based on suasion, is not the enemy. Any system based on linear power and coercion, such as government bureaucracies not accountable to the public, is.
The third implication is that artists should perhaps pay more attention to those often marginalized genres of animal and bird painting, scientific illustration, botanical drawings, maps, fractal plottings, and the like. What art there is often tends either to make them dead objects, or sentimentally humanizes them. The things we now know about the physical world around us amount to a revolution in perception and cognition, a revolution largely ignored by avant garde artists, though many humble genre artists are beginning to realize what is going on. It is time for these changes to find their expression in high art. The last implication concerns contemporary portraiture and the artistic representation of the human face and body. Generally they are depicted now as entirely cultural objects (unless, as in the work of the likes of Francis Bacon, they are shown reductively as slabs of meat). But we humans are also extraordinary animals, beautiful, aged, subtle, graceful. Animals are not, as the now refuted natural philosophy would have it, automata, and as animals, neither are we. But our freedom is partly an animal freedom. Let us have art that shows us as part of the animal kingdom, as part of the ecosystem, as part of the universe.