The Whole Ball of Wax


According to its two crackerjack curators, Laura Hoptman and Peter Eleey, “Strange Powers,” their group show about spirituality, magic spells, aura photography, and the like, is an attempt to “explore the transportive power of art.” They go an audacious step further and assert that art has the ability to change the world. This isn’t a review of their wonderfully wonky show, it’s a reality check. Are Hoptman and Eleey right? Can art change the world?

Most art world denizens would instinctively say yes. But if by “change” you mean, can art on its own change global warming, stop Iran’s president from denying the Holocaust, or halt the spread of AIDS, the answer, I’m afraid, is no.

In concert with other things, however, art can change the world incrementally and by osmosis. This is because art is part of a universal force. It has no less purpose or meaning than science, religion, philosophy, politics, or any other discipline, and is as much a form of intelligence or knowing as a first kiss, a last goodbye, or an algebraic equation. Art is an energy source that helps make change possible; it sees things in clusters and constellations rather than rigid systems.

Art is a bridge to a new vision and the vision itself, a medium or matrix through which one sees the world, and that grants that pleasure is an important form of knowledge. Art is not optional; it is necessary. It is part of the whole ball of wax.

These thoughts are partly inspired by the moral philosopher Mary Midgley and are an attempt to get around all those dogmatists, ideologues, academics, and theorists who demonize and belittle art as a gratuitous, semi-mystical, merely beautiful, purely formal amusement. These aesthetician-scientists regularly reduce art to simplistic, supposedly objective dualisms like mind-body, abstract-representational, reason-imagination, political-apolitical, thinking-feeling, etc.
But all thinking is fed by feeling and all genuine feeling involves reasoning. As Midgley observes, “It’s like saying that shape and size are competing opposites when they’re complementary aspects of a larger whole.”

These thought police claim to look at art with unbiased, objective eyes. They abjure value judgments. Of course, their entire system is predicated on the value judgments they were taught and that subsequently make it impossible for them to grasp other worldviews. Philosopher James Lovelock noted about myopic scientists, “The most successful among them are the ones who hold on to their ideas the longest and who slow the progress in their fields the most.” The same is true in the art world, where many embrace Descartes’s model of “I think, therefore I am.” They wrongly believe that art is about understanding, when, like almost everything else in the everyday world, art is about experience; it’s “I experience, therefore I am.” As Milan Kundera said, ” ‘I think therefore I am’ is the statement of a theorist who underrates a toothache.”

These latter-day Cartesians act like coroners, regularly pronouncing dead that which they don’t approve of or can’t explain. They say the author is dead, painting is dead, history is dead, and so on. As Midgley points out, “Imaginative-systems don’t suddenly perish and they don’t go away until the things they were invented to deal with have been resolved.” Or as Oscar Wilde remarked, “The moment you think you understand a work of art it’s dead for you.”

In his eloquent essay “Vermeer in Bosnia,” Lawrence Weschler reports that Antonio Cassese, a distinguished Italian jurist serving on the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in the Hague, would sometimes go to the Mauritshuis museum after hearing continual testimony about Balkan atrocities. There, he looks at what are among the two most beautiful things ever made, Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring and his View of Delft. He does not do this because these things are “merely beautiful”; he does this, Cassese says, because these paintings were “invented to heal pain”; “they radiate a centeredness, a peacefulness, a serenity, and are a psychic balm.” In other words, when we look at art, we’re not only looking at it; we’re also looking into and through it, into and through the paint, pigment, canvas, or whatever to something else. You’re not only seeing yourself and the mind of the maker; in some metaphysical but organic way you’re seeing the group mind, and even all the minds that have ever lived. You’re seeing a static object that has thought and experience embedded in it, a changeless thing that changes through time. Of course, some art does just deal with so-called formal issues. But even this art does more than that.

In the days just after September 11, painter Gaylen Gerber reported the “small victories” he felt going to the Art Institute of Chicago and simply “looking at shiny plastic furniture from the ’60s and ’70s that in some way, maybe because of its superficial and ultra-clean look, made me feel a little better.”

Gerber was experiencing the ways in which art tells you things you don’t know you need to know until you know them. He was in touch with how art can be “a vacation from the self,” in critic Peter Schjeldahl’s words, or a journey to it; how it’s a system for mapping, reflecting, prospecting, and creating consciousness. Art is a region where protocols are invented or suspended and things one doesn’t understand change one’s life. That’s why those shiny chairs cut through the gloom, a ceramic pot can vie for greatness with the Sistine Ceiling, and the Vietnam Memorial channels a nation’s remorse even though it is based on the one thing that most Americans purport to loathe: abstraction.

Art is often political when it doesn’t seem political and not political when that’s all it seems to be. Neither Andy Warhol nor Donald Judd made overtly political art. Yet both changed the way the world looks and the way we look at the world. That’s because art creates new thought structures. Imagine all the thought structures that either would have never existed or gone undiscovered had all of Shakespeare been lost. Art does far more than only meet the eye. It is part of the biota of the world. It exists within a holistic system.

Those neo-Cartesians are aholistic. They are art world fundamentalists who fervently believe in their one theory and quote the same 17 texts by the same 17 authors (almost all of whom they have only read in translation) to repeatedly prove the same points. It’s time for them to turn the page, clear out, or concede that all art is a theory about the way art should look and that every painting ever made comments on and is a theory about all the paintings ever made. As Darwin said, “it’s not the survival of the strongest or the most intelligent, it’s the ones most adaptable to change.”

The closest I’ve come to getting a handle on all this is something painter Eric Fischl has talked about. Imagine calling two pets, one a dog, the other a cat. Asking a dog to do something is an amazing experience. You say, “Come here, Fido,” and Fido looks up, pads over, puts his head in your lap, and wags his tail. You’ve had a direct communication with another species; you and Fido are sharing a common, fairly literal language. Now imagine saying, “Come here, Snowflake” to the cat. Snowflake might glance over, walk to a nearby table, rub it, lie down, and look at you. There’s nothing direct about this. Yet something gigantic and very much like art has happened. The cat has placed a third object between you and itself. In order to understand the cat you have to be able to grasp this nonlinear, indirect, holistic, circuitous communication. In short, art is a cat.

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