Art as In-between


The term ‘art’ has been used to refer to many things over time, so much so that it now seems to be stretched to its limits; it is obese, and in many respects has lost much of its functionality in becoming so. And yet, the fluidity of the term – its unwillingness to be pinned down – may provide us with a clue as to its essence.

As we touched upon when we looked at the effects of capitalism, we live in an age of specialisms, in which information is categorized – placed under the umbrella of a specialism, and marked for the attention of the specialists (we’ve already seen the value of this kind of division for the State). In contrast to this would be the idea of the ‘metaphysician’; that is, a person who takes an interest in information from a variety of fields (typically science, philosophy and art) – an idea that has been on the wane since the time of the Renaissance, and the rise of capitalism. In the compartmentalized society of advanced capitalism, the metaphysician is a person of little practical (market) value, and nowadays may be more commonly referred to as a ‘dilettante’.

Art can be understood as the negative space in between our categories and definitions. We are generally able to shelve all of our various manifestations of culture under a series of terms, and in this way we anchor experience. And so, upon a sea of possibility, we create our vessels, giving them names like ‘cinema’, ‘dance’, ‘theatre’, and ‘literature’. Yet beneath them the sea remains, its fluidity – its insubstantiality – a constant threat to our safely anchored structures.

The sea – this substance that slips and slides, avoiding the rigor-mortis of solidity – this is the domain of art. Art is what we call the space that exists in between everything else, the space that R.D. Laing referred to as “The zone, the zone of no-thing, of the silence of silences, […] the source”52, and the place that Hillman alludes to as the metaxy – it is what, in the event of a large enough storm, our vessels – our definitions – slip into.

So what is the use of this space? Why should we dignify its elusiveness with a name? To answer this we must first remember that, before our fine vessels gave us solid ground to stand upon, there was only sea. This undefinable mass came first, and from it all of our ideas were born. It is a place that eludes definitions, and in this sense it remains a place from which alternatives emerge; where other things can be tried out.

So whilst our structures may offer us comfort (the comfort of being able to label experience; to understand it, to grasp it – to say, ‘this is a film’, ‘this is a book’) we must remember that they are structures that we erected – and whilst they can provide us with shelter and a vantage point, they can also constrain us, or imprison us. Depending on our point of view, they may threaten to block out the roar of the sea altogether, allowing it to slip mercifully from memory.

Let’s take an example – if we consider a modern dance performance; we have labelled this area of experience ‘dance’ and because of this, when we go to a dance performance we expect to experience something approximating our culturally received idea of what ‘dance’ may be. This is a reasonable expectation, yet if we allow it too much credence then we may forget that a dance performance can be many things other than what it promises at surface level; it could be a way of appreciating music; or a way of reflecting on space, or architecture; it could be a sexual experience, or a tyrannizing one. The reality of the performance threatens to explode its vessel into a million pieces, to return it to water.

Water is the place from which new forms arise: a place of practice, experimentation and freedom from definitions. Our age chooses to call this place ‘art’, a term that, through its fluidity – its vagueness; its unwillingness to function as a proper signifier – serves to capture the motion of the sea. This is why we run into so much trouble when we attempt to pin this word down, to say ‘art is this’, or ‘art is that’ - water cannot be pinned down, it refuses. We could then just as easily give it another name, one as equally fluid: we could simply call it ‘freedom’.

We have chosen to call those who inhabit this domain ‘artists’, although, again, they could as easily go by other names. A scientist can swim in the sea, as can a philosopher, a writer, a plumber. In truth, this area of the in-between is open to anyone because it exists within all of us. The sea is an element of the psyche, a capability. It is home to what Keats termed ‘Negative Capability’; “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”.

Psychologists frequently refer to this idea, invariably describing it as an element of psychological ‘maturity’. The ideas that we’ve already considered go hand in hand with it; mindfulness and its aversion to fixed definitions and categories; creative living with its dictate to see the world your own way (or to cook the sausages your own way). Fromm makes links to it with his notion of spontaneity - ‘free activity of the self’ - which he puts in opposition to uncritical adoption of patterns suggested from the outside (again, the ability to make up your own world; your own definitions) He makes explicit reference to the artist as someone who can express himself spontaneously and goes on to say that “if this were the definition of the artist […] then certain philophers and scientists have to be called artists too […]”53

He sees that the ‘artist’ is simply someone who is thinking in a certain way, is using a capability that is inherent within each of us. The artist is a person of the sea, at ease on firm ground or in water.

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1 comment:

  1. Nothing exists by itself, independently of other phenomena. Each of the elements of the chain of cause and effect is itself an aggregate of fleeting elements in perpetual flux. This is an argument that shows up the nonreality of independent, permanent phenomena, whether a divine Creator or an atom existing by itself, without causes or conditions, independent of other phenomena.

    [...] curiously the Greek word 'atom' means 'uncuttable' [...] Buddhism uses the same word. It speaks of particles that 'have no parts', which can't be subdivided. These are therefore supposed to be the ultimate constituents of matter.

    Now, take one of these particles, considered an autonomous entity. How could it combine with other particles to constitute matter? If these particles touch each other, the left-hand side of one particle, for example, would touch the right-hand side of another. But if they have left and right-hand sides, they can be divided, and thus lose their characteristic of being 'indivisible'.

    If they have neither sides nor directions, they must be like points in mathematics, without dimension, thickness, or substance. If you tried to put together two dimensionless particles, either they wouldn't touch and can't therefore be put together, or they do make contact with one another, in which case they merge with one another. A whole mountain of indivisible particles could then dissolve into a single one of them.

    The conclusion is, therefore, that indivisible discontinuous particles with an intrinsic existence as the constituents of matter simply can't exist.

    An atom is just a concept, a label that doesn't cover any entity that exists in an autonomous and absolute way. It exists only as a convention, in a relative way.

    According to Buddhism, atoms can't be considered fixed entities, existing according to one single, determined mode. So how could the macroscopic manifest world, which is supposed to be composed of such particles, have any fixed reality? All this helps to destroy our notion of the solidity of appearances.

    It's in that sense that Buddhism affirms that the ultimate nature of phenomena is emptiness and that emptiness carries within it an infinite potential of manifestation.

    [Matthieu Ricard]
    The Monk and the Philosopher, p.108-11