by Stephen Freedman
In my first year of college I was introduced to the Meditations of 17th century French philosopher, Rene Decartes, beginning famously with the over-coined proposition, “Cogito ergo sum”, I think therefore I am. This was the paradigm underpinning modern Western philosophy, upon which I built my kingdom of certainty.
Following two years of “pure reason”–my newfound faith predictably upon the precipice of collapse–I assailed my professor, “Shouldn’t it read, ‘I think therefore I think I am,’?” Forbidden by this pillar of academia from asking further questions, my passion for logic flagged. The supposition that additive reasoning would create increased certainty, delivering me from the vagaries of emotional relativity into the comforting hands of self-knowledge, disintegrated. I left University that year, and never returned.
A decade later, transfigured into a pragmatic professional artist, I was confronted with another foundational challenge, this time to that pragmatism, the vestigial tail of my youthful search for certainty. The messenger was an unlikely conceptual artist, Jeannie Cartabiano, whose disturbing works promised meaning but evaded analysis. Struggling to grasp her equivocal constructions, I asked about the essential structures which underpinned her art.
Cartabiano proposed that there really were no such absolutes in existence–only the "certainty" of ambiguity–stories to which we assign certainty for the purpose of getting from A to B. After all, haven't we all been abandoned by our mothers in one form or another? Healthy individuation requires it. How we subsequently begin to re-construct reality depends upon primal human tools; the individual's ability to imagine and believe, built upon a foundation of collective memory, iconicized in art.
“Well, of course there are absolutes!” I blustered. “We all agree the sky is blue! It’s as close to absolute as it gets: It’s a consensual reality.” The world is full of such relative absolutes. ‘Screw the pursuit of pure reason!’ I thought. Descartes was dead to me. This was my functional truth, privately established to keep the beast of uncertainty at bay.
She replied by deftly raising one eyebrow, a withering dismissive I have always wished to master. And then my counterpart pointed to the screen on the window. “What is it?” she demanded.
“A fly screen,” I replied, just a little miffed by this banal turn of a conversation I’d hoped might become profound.
“It’s a grid. It’s a divider. It’s a weaving. It’s a …”
As she continued, her voice echoed in the distance and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I felt dizzy. My world view was crumbling. The idea of ‘fly screen’ convulsed and separated from my intentions. She was right! None of this around me was named due to its nature. I had named my reality based on personal attributed assumptions. Those presumptions could change as freely as context and my needs. My confidence in my relationship with reality teetered and toppled. I fell through the floor; the next floor below gave way, and the next, and the next. I descended into the rabbit hole–a chaos of uncertainty.
Over ensuing years, the remnants of my attachment to deductive reason dissolved. In my ongoing search for a fulcrum for managing my increasingly human condition, I attached myself to the field of evolutionary biology. If there was certainty to be found in the world, then surely it would be founded upon human experience. What better place to search for human nature than in the nature of humans?
Principles emerged: Human perception, behavior, and yes, even art-making, all reflected the paradigms which had once emerged from our differential survival. Aesthetics became the language of my atheist soul: Art–not as formal object–but as a state of mind, became the most mystifyingly impractical and yet fundamental of all human expressions. The economy of natural selection endows human regularities (those singular things we all do in culturally distinct forms) with survival value, so art might explain itself in a measurable economic way.
Daunted by the task of finding those commonalities, I once again approached my conceptualist friend and asked: “Could you reduce one of your compositions down to simple language for me?” I was asking her what those magical icons might be which preceded the making of profound art. Were there archetypal patterns?
But there was that raised eyebrow again–that withering look which suggested I’d just crawled out from beneath a rock: “My compositions are simple language,” she replied. “Art can’t be reduced.”
Once again decades of assumptions collapsed. I had always believed that thought lay at the foundation of my human nature. Now it was clear: We might describe art through our language, but art is a fundamental, functional expression of our humanness. A description of art could never be more than just what we think of our humanness.
How many times had I seen
an artist create a profound work, but when asked about its meaning,
offer a trite, contrived response that did little but undermine the
profundity of the work itself? There is so often a gap between
conscious intention and the driving principle of effective art; a
gap which is only bridged by the art itself.
‘We don’t know what we’re doing!’ I suddenly thought. But more accurately, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’
From Diogenes, who carried his lamp through the daylight streets of Athens seeking an honest man, to Duchamp’s urinal as “Fountain”, conceptual artists have disrupted the cultural perception of art as commodity, redefining idea, melded as both the subject of art, and as its object.
Drawing no divide between that which is known intellectually and that which emerges from the viscera, conceptual art attempts to seamlessly embrace the entire edifice which is our being, so that we might experience and express our humanness in an integration of the voices of reason, passion, and intuition. Not from rational patterns of thought, system or reason, but from the absence of pattern or the appearance of the rational, we continue to navigate within that vast inconstancy which is our human nature.