Harold Rhenisch and Tania Willard at the Alternator Centre for the Arts, December 5

I hope you can come and take part in a discussion about the visual culture of the Okanagan. Tania Willard and I will be speaking at Kelowna’s Alternator Centre for the Arts from 6 to 8 p.m. on December 5, which is this Tuesday. Tania will be talking about her #Bush Gallery curatorial project and her work as a Secwepemc artist and curator. Expect to learn about this exciting work:

I will be speaking about the connection between eye and world in the valley, through a discussion about English as an Earth Language. I will work to set the concepts of Land, Landscape, Property and Place to the side and replace them with living terms. Expect to see images from Iceland, the Okanagan and across the Pacific Northwest, as I explore the words of my ancestors, including “Far”…

 

 

…”Head,” “Fell,” “Thick”, “Eye”, “Flow” “Self,”… class in Downtown Kelowna…

… and this guy’s Mexican woes.

I hope to see you there. There will be lots of time for you to speak as well. The event is organized by Katherine Pickering of the University of British Columbia Okanagan, and, yes, UBCO landscaping will form part of the show. See you there, eye to eye.

 

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What is Art For?

My friend Sigrun, who lives in a harbour in Norway and writes about art on the inspiring web log, Sub Rosa, has posed an intriguing question: Is Art Therapy? It’s not Sigrun’s question, actually, although she wrestles with it as openly as she does many challenging works. It comes from her reading of Alain de Botton & John Armstrong’s book Art as Therapy, which proposes that art, rather than having transcendent goals, metaphysical roots, or philosophical underpinnings, or even proto-scientific experimental methods, is a form of therapy. This proposition would mean, I think, that artists look like this:

Sigmund Freud

The Artist Formerly Known as Sigmund Freud Showing Off His Wrist Flexes

Some no doubt do. I am writing this today not to challenge Sigrun. Her open intelligence needs no challenge but only the respect that it gives to the world and all things in it. I’m writing this to challenge de Botton and Armstrong. I’m doing so, because according to their proposition, this is therapy…

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Almond Blossoms, Vincent Van Gogh

It’s preposterous, really. Yes, Vincent was on an uneven keel, and this painting, despite the beauty of its colours and the intricacies of its forms, is a bit bonkers and smells of the kind of clarification out of anguish that early 21st Century culture recognizes best as therapy, but logically that doesn’t mean it’s therapy. For one thing, Vincent pursued his self-immolation or self-re-assembly, however you wish to put it, through a series of strategies that have come to be called art. Art, however, in the sense of artifice and the making of useful or decorative articles, came long before it was given a name as an aesthetic activity, the one that fills galleries and university Fine Arts departments. That aesthetic form of art is a creation of science, which needed something to separate itself from, and like science it is an abstraction built out of an earlier form of unified work. What was there before aesthetic art? Art was the means by which the aristocracy designed and ruled their estates, for one thing, and for another it was the capacity of humans to integrate a set of learned procedures into gestures of great subtlety and grace. Such gestures might include the art of fencing, or the art of arrow-fletching, or the art of good talk, the art of cooking, or even the art of creating symbolic objects with a language of their own, in social conversation with the aristocracy, but not of it. Objects like this:

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The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David.

The sentence of death of the Greek philosopher Socrates and the courage with which he faced it (in this image, he is reaching for the cup of poison decreed by the Athenian court, as punishment for leading the young men of Athens away from marriage and into orgies of gay philosophy and kalamarika), is one of the central images of romantic humanism (well, short of the gay reference). The only thing is, the figures in the above image are wrong, and the old man sitting at the foot of the bed, Socrates’ pupil, the philosopher Plato, should be young in this image. Well, that is if it were an image of time and place. It isn’t. It is an elaborate social gesture. It was through such sleights of hand that the painters of the pre-industrial tradition maintained a conversation with each other, beneath the noses of their noble and bourgeois patrons. Is it therapy? Well, it’s an image that could be used in therapy, because it is almost endlessly narrative, but why is it so? Because of the arrangement of space and colour and line, at their junction with an arrangement of history and time. Is that therapy? Hardly. It is politics. It is an embodiment of Christian symbolism and ethics. It is artfulness. It is a gesture. It is all of these things at once. To suggest that this is therapy is to suggest that early 21st century understanding and concepts are the measure of all of human history, or that early 21st century deconstructionist art and art installation is the pinnacle of all of the human capacity for art in all of time. That’s just silly. Art is human. Humans are art. The whole world’s going to show up there. It’s a language.

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The Language of Art is Continually Reinventive

So is human-ness. They are the same. Art is a mirror.

Art is a mirror? Well, that’s not exactly the same as therapy, is it. Still, there can be art in therapy and therapy in art, and as the authors of this discussion point out, and Sigrun so generously lays out for us:

The authors see art as a tool, which has the power to extend our capacities beyond those the nature has originally endowed us with. While traditional tools often are extensions of the body, art is an extension of the mind. Art, says the authors, help us with psychological frailties.

Oh well, so much for poets and musicians and barrel wrights. We are only speaking about intellectual art here, the art of the mind. But that’s a bit sly. This tradition was invented for practical purposes, and holds within it that gesture of deliberateness. Every human who confronts it has to accept or reject or somehow come into conversation with that structure of power. What’s more, every gesture of paint on canvas has been made by the body as much as by the mind. They come together in the art. It is a language exquisitely not of the mind. To apply to all of art a definition of art rooted in Enlightenment ideas of the primacy of intellect, just because they share the same name (art), is plain silly, but so it is in a contemporary kind of rhetoric that substitutes partisan debate for discussion. Sigrun, in her generosity and endless curiosity goes on, to explain the authors’ thesis:

The seven functions of art are:

  1. Remembering
  2. Hope
  3. Sorrow
  4. Rebalancing
  5. Self-understanding
  6. Growth
  7. Appreciation

These are to be understood as therapies. Well, it’s the function of memory to remember, of hope to hope, of sorrow to grieve, and so it goes, on and on. These capacities come before therapy and remain a part of daily human life. They’re just words, that’s all. It’s a dangerous thing to do as these authors have done and to transfer the words back onto the world. That’s rather artless. Might it not be that rather than art being therapy, therapy and art both are drawn from life, and that there’s a bit of therapy in art and a lot of art in therapy? Might it also not be that if any particular approach to art tips over that threshold and becomes therapy, that it is indeed therapy, just as the author’s suggest, without changing the definition of forms of art that have not made than change? Of course, it might be. The real question presented to us here is whether there is a line that has evolved over time, of which only the leading point of that line can be called art; anything else is an echo of art. Well, if one wants to define art that way, sure, but this remains:

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 Toad Wishing I Would Just Go Away

Humans may have evolved far past toads, but toads are still better toads than humans. It’s not a contest. It’s not a value judgement. What’s more, this image, although documentary in nature, is so because of the artfulness in it: the long tongue of green extending from the toad to the lower left, anchoring the image in the foreground, although the toad is off balance to the right, and so on. That’s not therapy. It’s how the human mind works. It lives in the same territory as therapy, and it can be used for therapy, just as therapy can be used for art, but it’s just not the same thing at all. There is no dichotomy here between popular sentiments set up to be knocked down like straw men. There are toads, and there are humans, and there are our particular ways of being, on this planet in which almost all life forms come together from two genders and create life from their coitus, their being together, their union. Art is like that. Like humans, it is very much of the earth and of bodily experience. Like words, it is a language. It can be used for many things, including therapy… or not.

Presenting the Haig-Brown Lecture

Tomorrow, I’m off to Campbell River on Vancouver Island, to present the 4th Annual Haig-Brown Memorial Lecture in Environmental Writing. I will be arguing that this Icelandic River lies at the heart of Canadian political and environmental traditions, and is a place to situate our government.

p1430251The New Canadian House of Parliament

 Talking with the earth and including it in our social group is not a new idea. It is at the root of English. In fact, it is at the root of being human. If we, the people, reclaim that language, the government will follow. It will take time, but over time, we will speak again. Some of us will even speak like this.

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Harold Thinking Out Loud in East Iceland, April

When I get back, I’ll tell you all about it.

Talking About Talking About Art

I believe that the writing of the future is here and it is largely present in the world of art writing. I say this in response to the many records of linguistic adventuring recorded in contemporary art writing. It seems to me that readers of art  have begun to apply their reading of images to a reading of language, without dropping the Height of the 19th Century language of popular culture. The result is a kind of century-wide gulf that art writers are filling with a cornucopia of undocumented approaches and techniques, while literary traditions are still largely back there before World War I. In one sense, this makes sense: the writers are supplying the background line, on which the art writers are scripting their texts. In another sense, though, it suggests that literary writing will soon be replaced by the new traditions being built up currently and almost out of sight. I think there’s a great opportunity in inserting some dialogue into this divided tradition. On the one side, literary craftspeople supply a pre-modern groundwork, vying to return 20th century literary experimentation to 19th century street ballad populism, such as this:

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“Canada Reads” 19th Century Redux Populist Debunk-the-Book Event on CBC Radio Source

On the other side, artistic commentators riff off of them into texts that participate in the socializing and de-socializing effects of contemporary art practice. Since the future is being created in this maelstrom of divided roles, my suggestion is that some chat back and forth, in which everyone’s truths can be shared, will lead to a rich, literary future. If such dialogue does not take place, I foresee a future in which the knowledge of the literature of the last century, and all of its powerful engagements during the political throes of the end of the Age of the Book will be lost.  I have been reading these magazines for a few years, tracking this new literary genre. Today, an article in Toronto’s C Magazine struck my eye.

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Jimmy Limit, Green Liquid with Yellow Bag of Mandarins on Green (…) 2012  Source

Well, to tell the truth, Limit’s image is not the image here. The real image is the magazine, the bar code, the paper it’s printed on, and everything. It is a sculpture.

The words of Stephen Horne’s article, “On the Doing (s) of Art Criticism, are a sculpture, too. He begins with a ritual nod to the current art world practice of preferring processes over objects, and observes…

I’ve been trying to think about what art criticism is, what criticality is — or could be.

Observes is a good word for this kind of thing. It is not that he is thinking. In fact, thinking eludes him, but observation stands in its place. That revelation is worth the price of the magazine alone. It only gets better. Two pages in, we get:

If one admits that there is no “outside,” the terrain becomes more interesting and, paradoxically, less familiar.

Did you observe what is happening there? No thinking, and no meaning at all. In fact, thinking, argument and meaning are not the strategies here. Those are literary strategies. What is important here is observation, and a dance with ritual amulets. Doubt me? Take a look at what happens when the text is gently pushed with some basic literary interventions …

If two admit that there is no “outside,” the terrain becomes more interesting and, paradoxically, less familiar.

If three admit that there is no “outside,” the terrain becomes more interesting and, paradoxically, less familiar.

If four admit that there is no “outside,” the terrain becomes more interesting and, paradoxically, less familiar.

One could, of course, go on. With each of these tiny manipulations, the text reveals the preference given to singular identity, held at the illusion of an objective distance, although there is no distance in a literary object that has not observed its workings beyond the most superficial level. Distance, in other words, is not the goal here, but closeness. The words are being painted, for their emotional resonances and their ability to constrain thought, rather than the literary goals of extending and developing it as part of a tradition. But that probably sounds like gobbledy-gook. Here, visually this is kind of what I mean:

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“Pintura Habitada” (Inhabited Painting) ~ Helena Almeida, 1975. Source.

This is more or less what Horne is doing with his words: by laying down quick brush strokes, he defines a reader’s approach to the white page. Almeida was doing it with the white backdrop to a photograph. You could do it with a white canvas, or with something like this (although no blue is involved) …

P1080795Signed Building, Kelowna, British Columbia

Take a look at the previous signings that have been painted over by the building’s owners. They are important here.

Just as the building’s owners in the above image have missed the purpose of this art, to claim the public image of the building which inhabits the private space of the person not wishing to be erased by its occupation of space (and thus using indelible pen to leave a trace of his or her own public image, a name), literary readers might easily miss that Horne’s article is not a piece of criticism at all, but a painting, using as a palette a series of resonances. The way in which literature can speak to that is, thus, not in the realm of argument, but in the realm of physical manipulations of the space of the painting (which uses the medium of text and is called “On the Doing(s) of Art Criticism by Stephen Horne.” Again, gobbled-gook. Here, the following should be clearer. First, Horne’s image:

Making suggests a certain way of regarding time: it builds an object, moves from a plan (concept) towards completion and end-product, with the result being a material object that already ‘gives’ a market relation.

All the important social gestures of the art world are there.  But look what happens with even an initial treatment of it as text rather than as paint:

Timing suggests a certain way of regarding making: it deconstructs an object and moves to a plan (concept) from completion and end-product, with the result being a market object that already ‘materializes’ a given relation.

Same syntax. Same words, but now the capitalist underpinnings of the approach are revealed more strongly, although very little else of the apparent meaning of the sentence is changed. Meaning is, in other words, a ghost. You can do anything with it that you want, and are not limited to Horne’s approach. Now, in literary writing, this is all a kind of red flag: if the syntax is allowing any meaning to be plugged into the various slots of a sentence, then the writing is just coasting. You could take this to an extreme and get this (which can be completed any way you like, and arrive at more or less the same end, which is predetermined by the syntax):

—— ——– – — — ——— ——: — ———— — —— — —– — – —- (——-) —– ———- — ———-, —- —- ——- – ——- —— —– ——- ‘————‘ – —– ——–.

 

Some forms of poetry do just that. The thing is, though, that this is a century-old observation. More interesting is that cover to C Magazine. Here it is again:

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An Art Object that Is Actually a Magazine Cover

Compare to a book cover. Here’s Lisa Moore’s February, which “won” the Canada Reads verbal boxing match for pop culture literary championship this last February:

hot-ticket-Lisa-Moore-CaughtWords Are Used to Lead to Image

The process of reading entangles word and image. 

It’s all designed to catch, rather than enlighten, a reader (although that’s not Moore’s intention, of course, but this is a book, not a manuscript, and it has several faces). Now, here’s another by Lisa Moore:

February_Lisa-Moore

See how the text has been laid over the image in the same way as the USB code in Limit’s C Magazine Cover?

twoNow, one more manipulation should make this interesting indeed. I’ll add a text from the High Age of the Book, to show you how much has changed (and stayed the same)…

threeSee that? Both types of image represent their underlying syntax, or the technology that they were reproduced by. What’s more, we’re no longer in the age of text, but in an age in which text is image and image is text. Reading is now a visual experience, and the reading of Horne’s essay is also one. In fact, I suggest that his concept of “art criticism” is a form of painting. Rather than creating meaning, he is inhabiting the world that the poets of 1914 were working towards, as they tried to get beyond the limitations of argument. Well, it worked. It started with stuff like this:

The apparation of these faces in the crowd;

petals on a wet, black bough.

Ezra Pound

Now, that attempt to replace “meaning” by a sudden visual knot, looks like this, in the robotic, populist literary genre called Wikipedia, which represents an attempt to transfer the concept of meaning from the old textual world to the new visual one. Intriguingly, the use of robotic and electronic technology has a big effect, as the writer attempting to “define” Pound’s poem, winds up hectoring and saying banal and irrelevent things..

metroStill, the splicing work of turning it into a visual object, reveals more than the text did. In this new universe, it is Horne’s approach, and that of art criticism (remember, it is painting, not argument, in the sense of a painter laying down brushstrokes over brushstrokes over time to create an immediately perceivable illusion) in general, which is the most honest. Horne makes a comment which speaks well to this point. Here it is:

If ‘waiting’ is conventionally understood to be passive while ‘doing’ is active, the space that is art disrupts the binary in favour of a space that is in play.

Applying a literary manipulation (an active reading, in the sense of the Creative Writing school that Robin Skelton tried to start in Victoria in 1967, in which creative response was the communication, not intellectual analysis … a bit before his time, he was) to that text-image, we get:

If ‘writing’ is conventionally understood to be passive while ‘painting’ is active, the space that is art criticism disrupts the binary in favour of a space that is in play.

And that’s pretty much what Horne is doing. One can go further:

If ‘writing’ is passively understood to be conventional while ‘painting’ is active, the space that is art criticism disrupts play in favour of a binary that is in space.

It means the same thing. In other words, meaning is not the issue. Criticism like this could be presented in a gallery setting, as a kind of variation on a theme, so popular back in the days in which painting and art were mostly synonymous, before art moved into reading. It could, however, also be presented in a book, and what is a book but a gallery space, or a theatrical space unfolding in time. And what’s that, but a sculpture? Here’s one:

P1080762Alley, Kelowna, British Columbia
Note the painted-over graffiti on the right. No, you an’t see it, but the grey paint reveals that somewhere, deep down, it is there. Keep that grey paint in mind as you read on.

Do you see? This photograph is a sculpture of time and space. It has been selected by the eye (mine), which has recognized a conjunction forces, in the syntax laid down by a machine meant to mimic the human eye: a camera. A camera is a creator of human spaces. The human who operates that machine is sculpting them, out of a flow. As long as it flows, it’s not time or space, not in the new visual understanding that Horne lives so well within. Now, there’s a lot more to be said about this intriguing photographic space, but I think one more image will do for this introduction to the future.

P1080763Alley, Kelowna, British Columbia

The many layers of concrete, plaster, signage, brick, windows, and so on, on this wall are no different than the work of a sculpture or of a painter on canvas, or of Horne, who uses words in their place. Even the building owner who tried to assert ownership over the public image of his back wall by painting it with grey paint, was living within this visual universe. Only the art critical writers, like Horne, have found the language that speaks to this new world, of a new century. That’s where the literary spark has gone now. Fortunately, for those skilled in words, in a textual sense, there is much that literature can add to this new genre. There is much good work that we can do together. I, for one, am working on it by creating books that work as photographic-textual sculptures that unfold in space and time.  They’re not written; they’re sculpted, as are blogs, such as this.