|SURREALISM, POSTMODERNISM AND CLASSICISM, 1994.|
Introduction to exhibition
These works occupy an ambiguous position like the surface of the sea, sometimes submerged or appearing like waves or ripples on the surface. There are highlights, moments of clarity which exist only for seconds only to disappear in the inchoate flux that constitutes 20th century existence. The archaic media of oil painting with its tradition of art history jostle with the supremacy of the photo-image, in such a way that we se that what we formerly took to be reality, was in fact varely distinguishable from the dream. The phantasmagorical nature of 20c life is a testament to this, and the exhibition is a statement of this fact. The artist uses the photo-image; the dominant form of appearances that constitute what we call reality, and uses these as a basis from which to construct an aesthetic work that represents both conscious and unconscious aspects of human experience. It is an attempt to find an order through the historical categories of Modernism, Classicism and Postmodernism. The ‘appearances’ are the tip of the iceberg. Beneath it lies the history of language, philosophy, art, and science. Much will be lost to the observer, but hopefully something will get through; glimmers of essences shall sparkel through the cumbersome machinary of the language employed, and revelatory aesthetic experience shall follow. The exhibition starts with the Lacemaker which is my subconscious appropriation of Vermeer in which we see the subtle and delicately woven creation of lace with thread, which is the Ariadne thread made by the pre-established harmony of human beings who structure the world. The exhibition ends in the seemingly accidental appearance of a spider who also weaved his aesthetic thread, and unwittingly became appropriated as an art object himself, becoming exhibit number 53. We have moved from the dead painting to the real still life that occasionally moves. Shall the web of history ensnare us, or liberate us? It is in the corners where we neglect to clean. These corners where we need to look. The artist spins his web and tries to capture reality through his medium. The spider tries to capture the reality of the fly with his web; a fitting metaphor for the appropriated art object, who in all its minute delicateness, is also a metaphor for the artist, a seemingly insignificant particular, raising his head to the Gods and sensitive to the subtle vibrations of the natural world, a natural world found, in the most unnatural of places, the art gallery. Is life a tale told by an idiot, or full of meaning and significance? Why is the 20th century telling us that the world is a tale told by an idiot?
|SURREALISM, POSTMODERNISM AND CLASSICISM|
|Roy Amiss, Aug. 1994|
|The fragmentary nature of 20c life, provokes a strong desire
for order, harmony and stability, and it is through the many
channels of culture that constitute our civilisation, that we
seek to impose enduring structures upon our world and life.
The artist seeks the oxygen of order from the vacuum of chaotic premises from which his creative process began. He needs to challenge the basic 20th century assumptions of a base chaos, uncertainty, impermanence, meaningless and death; the artist tries to extricate glimpses of order, seeking to preserve some stability in this horror of nature. The artist is not alone in this quest, the tradition of holy matrimony is the most obvious example of mankind trying to preserve stability, give meaning, happiness and security.
In the renaissance, man looked towards an ideal model of the world, a quest for true knowledge and enlightenment, a search for harmony and elegance,the imposition of order. (Exhibits 14, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 35, 36, 37) But untempered and in extremes, then this classical outlook becomes claustrophobic and a heavy burden upon our selves with a concomitant loss of freedom. This freedom was the great obsession of modernism, and like the excesses of order promulgated by classical thought, modernisms obsession with the need to be different, also became a tiresome reflex action, without any purpose but its reflex; it is life reduced to a succession of repeated reflexes, in fact it becomes what Hume would call, a habit or custom. To go beyond modernism, we must go beyond Hume. We need the adventure of modernism, but this must be tempered with the rational spirit of enquiry of the Classical mind. We seem to have got stuck with this adversorial dichotomy of reason and emotion, we should strive for a synthesis.
In the time of Leibniz, order was once a pre-established harmony of God. Newton saw empty space as the "sensorium of God." In the modernist era, this theistic conception of a pre-established order, was dropped in favour of a succession of scientific structures, from the sense data of positivism, the libido of Freud, the historicism of Marx, the atom of Bohr. But positivism failed, it could not discover a way of verifying its statements; the determinist dream of science seem to end with the sub-atomic relevation of Heisenberg and the mathematical insight of Godel (Exhibit 13). The historians of mathematics seem quite unequivocal on the matter:-
"Godel showed that with a rigidly logical system such as Russell and Whitehead had develped for arithmetic , propositions can be formulated that are undecidable or undemonstrable within the axioms of the system. That is, within the system there exist certain clear-cut statements that can be neither proved or disproved. Hence, one cannot, using the usual methods, be certain that the axioms of arithmetic will not lead to contradictions...In its implications the discovery by Godel of undecidable propositions is as disturbing as was the disclosure by Hippasus of incommensurable magnitudes, for it appears to foredoom hope of mathematical certitude through use of the obvious methods,.. Perhaps doomed also, as a result, is the ideal of science-to devise a set of axioms from which all phenomena of natural world can be deduced."1
A.N.Whitehead, the co-author of Bertrand Russell's Mathematica Principia, is an example of a modernist who, in 1932, expressed a view, that would seem to correspond very neatly to a contemporary postmodern view:-
"We cannot produce that final adjustment of well-defined generalities which constitute a complete metaphysics. But we can produce a variety of partial systems of limited generality."2
Mankind has more control over his existence than ever before. This is clearly seen in mass-production, in medicine, tele-communications and electronics. We have the capacity to do more than has ever been considered in history. The price of this has been the increasing specialization of the sciences which has fragmented the epistemological framework through which we have lived our lives; the parameters of religion have been pushed aside leaving a ruptured ethical perplexity the beginning of which we cannot or do not, want to comprehend. We seem to have lost the capacity for integrated experience. We all live our lives in seperate departments. The paradox is that despite the growth of relativism, individualism and communication technology, the community has fragmented and we seem less aware of the social and interdependent nature of humanity. Communities have become fragmented, and societies and nations who are now no longer polarised and dominated by the ideologies that formerly divided East and West, now have asserted their own individualities in terms nationality which has resulted in civil wars across the globe. There is a dissociation of the human mind, a global schizophrenia has occupied the mental void which was left by the evaporation of Marx and other structuralist entities; it is as if postructuralist ideas were a disease, a virulent attack on humanity, which has contaminated the minds of men and women, opening up fissures and splitting the mind, not only from itself, but the world.
We seek control over nature, and this is exemplified in the sciences. We even apply this to ourselves; we feel we are out of control of our lives and seek through psychotherapy and medicine, control over our destiny. We do not want to be accidental victims of nature - such natural disasters we regard as particularly tragic as it admits of no reason, other than the supreme power of natural forces. We at once eulogise nature, whilst at the same time rejecting it. Cosmetics, psychotherapy, hormone treatment, DNA manipulation etc etc. We want to be in control, we want power, power to influence, influence ourselves and influence the world. We eulogise reason and live in contradictions.
If we stare into the faces of the modernists (Exhibit 47), we see the face of horror that confronted them in the dynamic flux of early 20c life. Through the exhibit of the Bottles, we see the faces of modernism as it looked into the abyss. They tried various stratagies to defeat nihilism and circumnavigate the Nietzchean will and void pent up behind appearances. They sought an order only to be defeated by the incomplete logic of Godel, and the uncertain state of the subatomic world, a world which we deem reality.
Man has lost faith in God, worse of all, he has lost faith in the God within himself. This humbling of the human has lead to the catastrophies of Ruanda and Sarajevo. We seem unable to behave beyond extremes, it is either Bhudda or Hitler, Pope or Christ. These extreme examples unleash the beast we might call homo leviathan from the cage of civilisation, and descends into the mire; nature undoes nature, the canibalism has begun.
So we are at a particular phase in history that many have dubbed Postmodernism. It could be dubbed the Age of Uncertainty, and relativism; a state where mankind has lost his faith in knowledge, certitude, values and direction. We have become the ocean, rather than the islands of the world, we are drowning in the metaphysical void. The confidence of human kind, is at a low ebb. This artist is reflecting this contemporary state using both old and new art traditions. But not confining itself to single isolated historical moments such as classicism, modernism and postmodernsim, the artist seeks to step beyond these models and create another sort of reality that does not reject these epochs, but integrates them.
With the growth of these pessimist conclusions regarding the ambitious project of the enlightenment, the situation seems hopeless. Man's omnipotence and all-consuming ego seem shattered. We are at an impasse, we need an ontology, but however we try, it seems to evade our grasp. But we may be looking in the wrong place. In the modernist era, Breton suggested the possibility of revelation, where polarized concepts 'cease to be perceived as contradictions.' In the postmodern era, Derrida challenged our basic assumptions of language, in particular, how we prioritise our conceptual polarities:-
"Western thought says Derrida, has always been structured in terms of dichotomies or polarities: goood vs. evil, being vs. nothingness, presence vs. absence, truth vs. error, identity vs. difference, mind vs. matter, man vs. woman, soul vs. body, life vs. death, nature vs. culture, speech vs. writing. These polar opposites do not, however, stand as independent and equal entities. The second term in each pair is considered the negative, corrupt undesirable version of the first, a fall away from it. Hence, absence is the lack of presence, evil is the fall from good, error is a distortion of truth, etc. In other words, the two terms are not simply opposed in their meanings but are arranged in a hierarchical order which gives the first term priority, in both the temporal and the qualitative sense of the word. In general, what these hierarchical oppositions do is to privilege unity, identity, immediacy, and temporal and spatial presentness over distance, difference, dissimulation, and deferment. In its search for the answer to the question of Being, Western philosophy has indeed always determined Being as presence."3
We can be misled by the biased translation of texts which can lead to the accumulation of error right through history, so that what came from the past bears no relation to what we read today. And worse, our philosophical and conceptual evolution may be completely erroneus. We might take a page out of Derrida's book (and I'm sure he would approve!) and reject the prioritization of polarised concepts of structuralists and cast off the mantle of modernism in this respect, so that a balance be maintained. We need both, not reject one or the other. Then life will be a series of ascending and descending stairways in the same time and same space. Will this then be a Spinozian singularity? On the otherhand, the possibility exists that the reason why language has a hierarchical structure in the way it has, is that this was unconsciously determined, and this is because we intuite that the world is structured in this way. Or it may be that we are at a historical phase where we prioritize the conscious over the unconscious. In brain research for instance, focus has been mainly on the cerebral cortex which is seen as the seat of consciousness. Breton sought not the obliteration of these old inherited dichotomies, but integration:-
"Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incomunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions. Now, search as one may, one will never find any other motivatiing force in the activities of the Surrealists than the hope of finding and fixing this point."4
And this is precisely what Derrida is seeking to do by showing how our concepts can contain their opposites. Breton and the Surrealists were clearly ahead of their time. Here he challenged the basic binary polarizations much loved by structuralists, that characterize thought.
There are moments in history in which methodologies and practises arise. These, which we could call algorithms, transcend history, for they can be fruitfully applied at any time and with whatever means available at the time; the results of such procedures will yield unpredictable and predictable results. The predictable will be the universal truths that glower at us through history; the unpredictable, we see as the 'particular' fabric of contemporary life.
Surrealism is one such algorithm that allows both the exercising of our ratiocination and spontaneous creation, through the creation of aesthetic experience. They are an attack on the denial of the aesthetic. Surrealism shows us how to laugh at the fact, thus giving us an aesthetic dimension. (Exhibit 38)
It may seem contradictory to resurrect this idea, in reference to my previous emphasis on order, but it is not incompatible with the rational. Rationality is needed to articulate intuitions that spring from the unconscious. Andre Breton admitted the value of reason, that there is no objection once we receive these subconscious intuitions, to submitting them to reason. Breton was reacting against the total subjection of human beings to the rational positivism of his time, which was first articulated by Auguste Comte. In our century, logical positivism was taken to an extreme, so that civilisation became blinkered and blinded. Breton comments:-
"We are still living uder the reign of logic:.....But in this day and age logical methods are applicable only to solving problems of secondary interest. The absolute rationalism that is still in vogue allows us to consider only facts relating directly to our experience . Logical ends, in the contrary, escape us'.5 Our excess confidence in conventional logic is unwarranted, as many logicians would be the first to admit. Does it only tell us what we already know? Is it merely tautological? D.J.O'Connor put the status of logic very nicely, by saying that logicians were not interested in the meaning of propositions, but were solely concerned with the abstract formal structure of propositions and their arrangements. In fact, it is doubted that logic or mathematics or geometry have any real connection with the real world at all. It is all an immense superstructure of human thought which has no more truth value than the dream. In 1952, the philosopher Sir P.F.Strawson launched an attack on the formal distortions of the actual use of language by logicians. Another heretical figure that has much agitated the orthodox scientific and philosophic community, has been Feyerabend. He too criticised the straitjacketing effect of logic:-
"Logicians and philosophers of science....demand that the main terms of the discussion be 'clarified'. And to 'clarify' the terms of a discussion does not mean to study the additional and as yet unknown properties of the domain in question which one needs to make them fully understood, it means to fill them with existing notions from the entirely different domain of logic and common sense, preferably observational ideas, until they sound common themselves, and to take care that the process of filling obeys the accepted laws of logic. The discussion is permitted to proceed only after its initial steps have been modified in this manner. "So the course of an investigation is deflected into the narrow channel of things already understood and the possibility of fundamental conceptual discovery (or of fundamental conceptual change) is considerably reduced."6
The mathematician Andre Weil, was also well aware of the danger of convention and the habits of following well-established paths:-
"The great mathematician of the future as of the past, will flee the well-trodden path. It is by unexpected rapprochements, which our imagination would not have known how to arrive at, that he will solve, in giving them another twist, the great problems which we shall bequeath to him."7
Thus we must court the unexpected for discoveries and revelations to occur. Feyerabend advocated an anarchistic methodology in the sciences as a way of maximising the the generation of discoveries. It is a cliche now, and one much publicised by Dali that, "accidents make creativity." The use of chance can make us approach a situation in a whole new way, not unthinking but through the intuitive feelings of the unconscious. Clearly we have the possibility of putting Surrealism in the service of science. I doubt that Breton would express this in quite the same terms, for Surrealism is an activity, a behaviour, a way of living a life that extends across the whole spectrum of human existence. Nevertheless, it seems the Surrealist program is not exhausted, it still has currency and potential to bring enlightenment - a new renaissance. It is merely exploiting one half of the human mental potential which we ignore most of the time. Feyerabend considers it a dogma the view that:-
"...all subjects, howvever assembled, quite automatically obey the laws of logic or ought to obey the laws of logic."8
He challenges the view that that there is a single logical system which underlies all different disciplines such as anthropology, history of science etc.,:-
"There is Hegel, there is Brouwer, there are the many logical systems considered by modern constructivists. They offer not just different interpretations of one and the same bulk of logical 'facts', but different 'facts' altogether. And the assertion is not true as there exist legitimate scientific statements which violate simple logical rules."9
I discuss the weaknesses of conventional logic, not because I want to reject them, but to show how blase we become; we unquestionly accept its precepts - it becomes a matter of faith that blinds us to new possibilities and discoveries. We have to be wary of the danger that the utility of logic (and it is very useful and powerful) does not end up limiting our potential future knowledge. I suggest that Intuition must be resurrected; Surrealism is one such path that may lead us into the future, with its intuiton and insight.
By adopting a modernist stratagy such as surrealism in the present context would seem to be a typical symptom of postmodernist culture. But, this is a complex theory which has many ramifications in many different fields. Nevertheless, borrowing from the past, clearly represents a dissatisfaction with the present. But the idea of borrowing or ressurrecting ideas from the past is a historical commonplace. There is in fact nothing new in this. The problem is what you do with these ideas. The artist can magical transform the past into a new contemporary aesthetic experience. If this is successfully accomplished, then it more currency and a longer shelf life than others: in short, some ideas transcend history. If we look at Plato's Republic, we see that the problems in society that he tried to solve, are the same today. We seemed to have moved no further; the basic problems have not been solved. The problems may be incapble of solution, or we may need to devolop new stratagies. One such stragagy I believe is that bequeathed by Surrealism. It is remarkable, and a testament to the force and power of certain Surrealist ideas that they should be relevant as much today as when they were written.
We can learn from history, and I have sought the Ariadne's thread that interwines the epochs so that the labrynthine chaos of the world of our experience can be both conscious and unconscious, rational and irrational, and be synthesized into a new conception of human life.
We easily can get sucked into the treadmill of contemporary living, and this leads to the mental rigidity of tram line logic and specialization, and to neglect of the metaphysical and aesthetic, which can result in dehumanization. It is no coincidence that the Spanish Art historian Ortega y Gassett, spoke of the Dehumanization of art which he observed in the growth of Modernism. Today, this dehumanization aspect can be said to be a classic symptom of postmodern culture. So much is sterile and there is a distancing, especially in the case of new media and technology employed both in art and life generally. The world of the 'Simulucrum' as Baudrillard put it. The world of TV, film and virtual reality all seem to distance ourselves from nature. The world of the free market also is a dehumanizing one in which human life is reduced to economic units of consumption. The uncertainty and instabilities of the market, destabilises lives, and the increased competition between individuals promotes family breakdowns, strife, uneasiness, and the collapse of communities. In order to justify his actions, economic man becomes Darwin man and appeals to the laws of nature to affirm his philosophy. The struggle to survive can be so dominant that it becomes a distraction which consumes each individual existence, and therefore distances himself from his being and the metaphysical aspects of existence.(Exhibit 7)
For the true philosopher, or artists, the pursuit of metaphysical essences virtually become their major existential focus. The difference between the artist and most other professions, is that the artist, by the nature of his activity, is forced to confront his true self through aesthetic experience. His battle for survival is not located on the physical plane of the every day, but is the rarefied oxygen of reflection upon the metaphysical, the aesthetic. The complex situation occupied by the artist today, is such that, if he is truly curious, his art will unravel into all kinds of areas from politics, science, philosophy etc, which all have important connection which spill out from the nature of artist activity. The artist lives life like any other mortal, but through his observation and intuition he also glimpses the metaphysical through the aesthetic.
There are aesthetic moments in history that have transcended time. The reason for this I believe to lie in the subconscious. We have certain natural affinities. When these affinities are universal, then the painting, sculpture and photograph etc., will, if historical circumstances permitt, transcend history. One such common affinity, is that of the human face and body, which have fascinated humanity since the beginning of history. Post-Freudians such as Barthes, Winnicotte and Fuller have all explored this territory. For Winnicotte, these affinities were established at the crucial transitional moments of infancy when the infant discoveries the 'self' and 'other', at this point, emotional attachments are established with whatever objects are around, eg. a toy, a doll, a blanket etc. This he called the transitional object. Fuller, leaning heavily on the Freudian ideas of Stokes and Klein, also situated our affinities in a similar manner, according to post-Freudian theory, and spoke of the "expressive potentiality of the human figure' and the 'Terribilata' of Michelangelo's Moses. Barthe tried to discover what it was that fascinated him in an old photograph. He concluded that it was a seemingly small insignificant part of the picture- a detail that fascinated him. But this detail, which he called the 'punctum', he analysed and explained by reference to early childhood experience of his mother, and the association of a necklace his mother wore. It is this sort of insight that can depict the morphology of our subconscious. Admittedly, Barthes 'punctum' was completely personal; he found the 'particular' as an association made in the course of his personal infant history. But once we uncover these contaminating 'particular' associations, may this not clear the way and make us more sensitive to those universal aspects of existence that constituthe true structure of a human reality? The challenge for the Surrealist is to discover ways of intuiting these unconscious structures.
The ideas of Surrealism in the Postmodern era are viable; that Classicism is not incompatible with that; that both chaos and order are necessary for each other; that an order exist which is outside the realm of conventional logic; that both logic and an unconventional order are discoverable through aesthetic intuition of the unconscious; that once the conscious conceptual categories cease to be applied, then a new order becomes apparent. But it is not the old modernist order of Freudian structures, for they were pure theatre - a play directed by Freud. No, this unconscious is one founded upon a deeper level, an empirical unconscious of concepts of experiences we are not conscious of, therefore they are likely to be of a very strange character. We might take this as a form of unconscious atomism, which could reveal what our minds are truly sensitive to in this world. That is, it will give us a more complete picture of what the structure of the world is, according to human beings.
Roy Amiss, Aug.1994
1. Boyer, C.B. & Merzbach, UTA C., 'A History of Math ematics', pp685, John Wiley & Sons NY, 1989.
2. Whitehead, A.N., 'Adventures of Ideas', pp149, Pub; Mentor NY, 1955.
3. Derrida, 'Dissemination', Translator's Introduction I. A Critique of Western Metaphysics, ppviii, Pub; The University of Chicago Press, 1981.
4. Breton, A., 'The Second Surrealist Manifesto', pp124, Pub; ? Recent Edition with other writings (original 1926).
5. Breton, A. 'The Surrealist Manifesto', pp9, Pub;?
6. Feyerabend, P. 'Against Method', pp202, Pub;?
7. Weil, Andre, Quote in 'History of Mathematics', (Boyer & Merzbach), pp709, Pub; j.Wiley & Sons NY, 1989.
8. Feyerabend, P., 'Against Method', pp204, Pub;?
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SURREALISM. POSTMODERNISM AND CLASSICISM
ROY AMISS - List of works exhibited - August 1994
------------------------------------------------------ paintings / drawings
1. 'The Lacemaker'
2. 'Unforeseen Circumstances'
3. 'The Absolutists'
4. 'Apollo spills the wine'
5. 'Double Dutch'
6. 'Greek Dancer'
7. 'Tragedy of the Merchandise'
8. 'Hybrid Space'
9. 'State of the Market'
10. 'Madame Bovary'
11. 'Three Greek Philosophers'
12. 'Hume - no necessary connexion'
13. 'The Incompleteness of Kurt Godel'
14. 'Pontefract to Worksop'
15. 'Signs Giving Orders - Enlightenment'
16. 'Body in the Text - Lucretius'
17. 'Body in the Text - Voltaire'
18. 'Shropshire and Birmingham Madonna's'
19. 'Renaissance of the Past is the Renaissance' of Today and the Renaissance of Tomorrow'
20. 'Supper at Emmaus'
22. 'Automatic Drawing (Sept 93)'
23. 'Automatic Drawing - The Archeologist'
24. 'Automatic Drawing - The Party'
25. 'The Last British Picture Show'
29. 'Automatic Drawing - Life'
31. 'Sense of Occasion'
32. 'That's Life'
34. 'Automatic Drawing - Balance & Rhythm'
35. 'Self-portrait, tuna tin and drape'
36. 'Four Self-portraits'
37. 'Two Drapery Studies'
38. 'Haagsche Courant Newspaper 10th Aug. 94'
39. 'Einstein Tickler'
40. 'The Science of Painting'
41. 'Heavens Above'
42. 'Elephant in a Bottle'
43. 'Inside & Outside the Mind of Albert Einstein'
44. 'Marilyn in a Bottle'
45. 'The Logical Positivists'
46. 'Who killed Schrodingers Cat'
47. 'The Modernists - Dali, Bunuel, Picasso, Strzeminski, Majakowski'
49. 'The Uncertainty of Heisenberg'
50. 'Portrait of Leeuwenhoek'
51. 'The Red Shift'
52. 'Red Sticker NFS'
53. 'The Spider Ariadne and Her Thread'