Popular imagination ascribes a ‘vocational calling’ to the artist, distinguishing him from the run of ordinary mortals, often using terms borrowed from the discourse on religion. This residual of a romantic idea long abandoned by the academy is a mixture of ideas about internal essences, creativity and self-realization, extracted from the human potential movement, new age pseudo-spiritual discourses, or popular psychology. The metaphor of the ‘call’ rising from the depths of the mind accompanies a host of equally overused metaphors alluding to inner journeys, searches for meaning, and creative/spiritual explorations. The artist is named as one who searches within to find inspiration on the basis that somewhere in the ‘depths’ of his mind there are inexhaustible resources of the imagination, unique to him and yet of universal significance; fuel for artistic burning, energy for transforming mundane material into the gold of high art; an alchemy of the imagination — making something, (high art, spiritual realization, wisdom) out of nothing, (that mysterious thing we call the mind) – the artist as shaman endowed with a vital power exercised on behalf of the collective.
The word endowed implies, of course, that we are the passive receptors of this impulse to create. What powers we are as humans endowed with are but faint reflections of a power transcendent of our puny egos, and one we would do well to appease. Searching within is a dangerous thing. It’s not all sunshine. There are shadows. Which is why many insist that when we peer into the depths, we will find not only god and his angels but also the devil and his monstrously sublime children. Painters, and artists generally, are particularly afflicted in this regard, as any number of ‘tragic’ biographies will attest. For the most extreme forms of this romantic mythology, art is a marriage of madness and genius, a species of inner intoxication, a plunge into the ‘underworld’ which only the most gifted seer can hope to survive.
The impulse to make art, seen in this light, is the corollary of the idea of the religious impulse, a natural expression of human nature, transcending cultures and historical periods. Such a vision bestows on the person an inevitable grandeur. If we search inside of ourselves inspiration will percolate up from the unconscious, just as clear fresh water percolates up from a wellspring located deep underground in the mysterious and unfathomable reaches of the earth. It’s no surprise that this vision of the unconscious origin of artistic inspiration (and the artist as the bearer of inner truth) began to predominate at the same time as we began to think of religion as an ineffable experience where the person peered into the unfathomable reaches of the mind – a reified interior space into which one could peer just as easily as one could into the depths of a well.
For many this conception of the mind functions as a form of refuge, a retreat of last resort for the surviving vestiges of the human as sacred essence, rescued from the assault of materialistic consumerism and a predatory science. Who would not want to believe in such an existent, unsullied by the drive to consume and safe from the objectifying gaze of the human sciences, a gaze that would reduce the human to its social, psychological and anthropological predicates, or deliver it over to the exact sciences as simply a mass of evolved biological drives, machine-like cognitive mechanisms or reductive psychical processes.
No doubt the insights of the human sciences – psychology, sociology, anthropology – do shed light on their areas of investigation; and no doubt the findings of biology and neurobiology cannot be discounted.
[T]he experimental non-philosophical labour of scientific concepts 1) lets a particular scientific theory be in its own legitimacy without intervening in it as philosophy wants to, and 2) does not imprudently “apply” or generalize this particular theory for the benefit of philosophical authority . [...] This labour produces open ensembles, a uni-verse of truly fractal knowledges that adequately “reflect” the One. Such a task is distinguished from the task of the philosopher-sage who, believing to hold the authority of transcendental approval, repeats the mixed espistemo-philosophical gesture of expropriation and reappropriation instead of using the sciences themselves under the conditions of a transcendental axiomatics.
François Laruelle, Dictionary of Non-philosophy, p. 70 f.
Painting in the last instance
When philosophy presents us with the dilemma – an essence transcendent of matter, biology, and the social, or a reduction to matter, biology, the social – this dilemma and its solution (on either count) just is the absolutizing move which Laruelle critiques as the mixture of the epistemological and the philosophical, of empirical investigation and philosophical generalizations. When science is left to itself, however, it produces open ensembles of knowledges, in which the findings of the sciences interact while remaining distinct – to lie alongside each other rather than being gathered up by philosophy as its raw material.
So too the labour of the artist and his productions – they are, according to the non-philosophical perspective, free from expropriation and re-appropriation by philosophy, which would use the art object for its own transcendental purposes. From this point of view there are artistic knowledges in the same way as there are scientific knowledges; these knowledges can function beyond (or before) the legitimizing authority of philosophy. Laruelle uses the idea of the ‘fractal’ to express the way art practices (or scientific practices) can function independently of each other but in relation, and can ‘reflect’ knowledge of the Real in terms of a first name, or as in-the-last-instance. These practices and their knowledges – the sciences, the various art practices, are forms of human activity, as is the practice of philosophy and philosophical decision, and its ways of ‘processing’ the real – universalizing particulars, synthesizing dialectical opposites, appropriating art practice as aesthetic truth – all of this philosophizing is in the last instance ‘mere’ human activity before the binding formulations of philosophical capture appropriate it as truth of philosophy. In this context one can ask “what is the nature of art – the painting, the poem, the piece of music the novel etc. – as an experience of the object before philosophical capture formulates it as truth, or as the bi-bifurcations of form and content, material trace and cypher, material object and cultural artifact, or their synthesized unity. What, in other words, is painting in the last instance?”
The usage of non-aesthetics should be found instead within the specificity of the activity of the “non”, indeed in a specifically artistic concept, if not of the Real, at least that of “force (of) creation.” [...]
In the end any artistic composition can be combined with any composition of thought without limit: this is the first axiomatic constant. From this point of view, it is necessary to rethink the currently used concept of the “avant-garde” in a non-historical context, since all linearity and circularity of history are excluded.
A second constant of axiomatic creativity reposes upon the fact that combinations can be assembled [...] according to a principle of generalized relativity, forming like fractal-isles of thought on art, fractal-isles that can border on the works themselves, at best by constituting an equivalent poetics. Different particular non-aesthetics that then spring forth, spread out and combine to describe the most varied works – be they ancient or traditional, recent or futuristic. This is an activity to which no limits can be fixed. [...]
But, third constant, everything must be able to be erased and return to the non-system of-the-last-instance. This constant keeps non-aesthetics from congealing into a system of sufficiency i.e. returning to a philosophical illusion. […]
François Laruelle, Dictionary of Non-Philosophie, p. 87 f. (my emphasis)
The artist lies in bed smoking a fat cigarette, perhaps a joint. The sheet is pulled to the neck as if to deny him movement. Only his head is visible. His hands – the all important painter’s hands – are hidden; it might be that he holds a gun beneath the sheet, who knows? Around him the debris of living – various utensils, a heap of shoes. A bulb and a light switch dangle near to hand. The light is harsh, flooding the constricted space evenly, casting no shadows. Beneath his head a dark patch, the darkest spot in the painting, stains the pillow, as if blood were seeping from a head wound into the white fabric. His eyes are wide, alert, unmoving, in expectation of some event, or listening for some far off sound; he stares into a space beyond the frame. He waits. The objects of his world surround him like an alien assemblage, each form enclosed in a blood-red line, an insistent line that establishes each object as a self-contained unit with no real connection to its neighbour. No unifying light moves across the forms and no structure under-girds the arrangement. Man, bed, sheets, shoes, utensils, bulb, switch, are not the elements of a composition, but an accidental heap. The image is, it seems, loaded with meaning, but there is no narrative that would explain what has happened or what is about to happen. On his chest, poised precariously at an angle, a plate of uneaten food rests, forgotten. It is the only point of tension in the scene, since even a slight movement from Guston will send it sliding towards the bottom of the frame. For now, though, it remains poised, caught in the general air of stultification, postponement, expectation.
The painter’s head, reduced to a grotesque lump of bone and flesh, balances on the front of its chin. His body has disappeared, or he never had one to begin with, since there is no sign of overt violence. There is, though, a sinister splash of red on the chin and around the edges of the form, making us wonder if an unnatural rebirth has subjected the painter to some sort of fantastic metamorphosis. Or perhaps this is the painters natural state, minus torso, limbs or mouth, his form expressing his essential nature as the all-seeing eye. It is the eye we are familiar with from other paintings, locked in confrontation with the spaces and objects of its world. And yet he is not helpless. His eye exudes an intense concentrated energy, the point of axis around which the scene revolves. With the stupefied persistence of a drunkard, he stares into the dregs of an empty bottle. Near to hand are the implements of his trade – a brush and a rolled sheet of paper – now forgotten. A naked bulb floods the space with a harsh light beneath which nothing can hide. A parched desert landscape and a blue sky replace the space of the studio. And yet that same claustrophobic atmosphere prevails, as if the world was not big enough to contain this primal confrontation between a mind and its alienated objects. The bulb, dangled precariously close to the painters head, seems to burn through the wall of his skull, its heat charging the intense state of wakefulness emanating from the painters eye.
The artist’s disembodied head appears to have been skinned, exposing the dirty red of congealed blood and raw flesh. It dominates the empty landscape, the top of its head grazing a claustrophobic sky made of the same fleshy substance. It stares into the space beyond the frame with the usual intense expectation of an event which will never happen. Its monumental solidity has endured some cataclysmic event that has erased other forms from the world. It waits, locked into a solitude that is its fate, an image bereft of any narrative clue that would revel something of its inner essence, beyond the mysterious intensity of its mesmerized stare into an infinite nothingness.
The poet lies in bed, the sheet pulled to his neck. His body is emaciated, the skin wrinkled as if in the process of detaching itself from the skeleton. Although the arms, hands, torso and legs are not visible we know that whatever wasting disease has attacked him has rendered them useless. But for the support of the pillow the scrawny neck would be unable to bear the weight of the head. The mouth is set in an agonized grimace. The eyes stare. His world, now stripped of form and reduced to a murky grey fog, threatens to dissolve, voiding itself of itself. Only the bed, the sheet, the pillow and the body are present to the mere fact of dissolution, a fate stripped of narrative and proscribed meaning.
The painter Phillip Guston abhorred the idea of ‘official art’. His intention was to undermine it by pushing painting to the brink. He was acutely aware of the ambiguous nature of the practice of painting, by which one was necessarily implicated in a tradition, a discourse, and, ultimately, a system of power relations, crass commodification, and ideological co-option. If that were not bad enough, art, according to philosophy, needed the universalizing validation of philosophical discourse, grounding it according to the logic of the philosopher, and giving it voice as the bearer of an aesthetic truth; the painting could not be left as mute form (the painting as brute object); philosophy, final arbitrator of the true, the good and the beautiful, must explicate its meaning according to its dictates. Guston instinctively resisted such appropriation and proclaimed the autonomy of art; its capacity to embody its own truths. He practiced painting as intensity of form, an act in which the remainder was a mute object propped against the wall of his studio. Matter preceded sign, which was necessarily dependent upon it. Mute matter, unilaterally gave the sign, but was not given by it. Painting, as Guston practiced it was an alchemy, by which substance became sign via the transmutation of matter/paint. Once created these signs were Janus faced. They looked, on one side, to the shared social world created by the shifting relations of words and their referents; and yet they were mute objects stacked against the walls of the studio.
As Guston approached it, a painter, in the process of making, manipulated a material substance, a practice enacted at the cusp of the void – a point where the flimsy covering stretched across the chasm gives way underfoot, exposing one to the awe-ful moment when knowledge of the absolute contingency of one’s existence becomes a matter of certainty. At that point one was apt to experience the abrupt failure of words, and a primal sense of abandonment. For Guston, an artist sought to inhabit that precarious position in which the basic ungroundedness of experience was vividly present to awareness. His practice was to continually test the ground underfoot, like a man lost in the darkness of a marsh who, with each tentative footfall, must risk being sucked into a bottomless chasm, but who had no option but take the next step.
Practicing lived experience
What Guston demanded from the viewer was a commitment to risking meaninglessness; he expected, as a matter of course, a refusal of any proscribed meaning or the fetishization of the art object as bearer of truth or, worse, holder of exchange value. Art practice, as making of the art-object or as experience of the art-object, was not a matter of production or consumption, but of a sensitivity to the raw data of life; to what Laruelle calls ‘lived experiences‘:
The text of this science [of man] is thus no longer the cogito and its membra disjecta distributed across the Human Sciences. It is the irreducible kernel one must extract from the cogito in which it is still enveloped and masked. But this extraction cannot be conceived in turn as a philosophical operation, since it is rather an immediate given to which we are here content to ‘sensitize’ ourselves.
Francois Laruelle, From Decision to Heresy, p. 49
For me this idea of sensitization is a practice, a way of resistance; a rejection of the confining systematization of thought; a practice in which we can return to that immediate given which Laruelle describes:
I am a sufficient Solitude, far too short of ‘solipsism’ to have to disabuse myself of it. I am not a cogito, a relation to a Site or to an Other. I am out-(of)-the question: not the question of man, but the ontical or the ontological primacy of the question of man. I do not find my essence in my existence or my questions, I feel my subjective essence before these questions arise. I am the beginning of my life and my thought.
François Laruelle, From Decision to Heresy, p. 48 (my emphasis)
Of course, philosophy will insist on its inevitable ‘jurisdiction’ over lived experience, pointing to the way such experience is necessarily filtered through the symbolic system as already and always given, so that unmediated experience is apriori excluded. Such a position takes at face value the bifurcation posited by philosophy between ‘raw’ experience and symbolic representation. Non-Philosophy, on the other hand, posits dualities as lying alongside each other, resisting a resolution that would involve a synthesizing move. It proposes axiomatic terms in place of the circular process of a shattered unity and a synthesizing resolution that would establish a new unity. Both terms – raw experience and symbolic representation – are certainly related, but on the one plane as it were, lying alongside each other as terms standing in for, or cloning, the real, and not as terms within a dialectical process – an apriori unity that must be shattered and re-established on a higher plane according to the dictates of philosophical thought.
For artist and viewer alike, what Laruelle suggests is not passive consumption or even rigorous analysis but an active determination to sensitize ourselves to the primacy of the given – the material form in which the painting exists or has its mode; and our experience of this material entity as a ‘material’ manifestation or a given-without-givenness in its own right. How we might consistently do this has interesting parallels in x-buddhist practice, touching on the paradoxical nature of Zen’s ‘just sitting’ and Dzogchen’s ‘natural state’. It seems clear that, as far as either goes, it is not a matter of simplistically dispensing with thought, and making a fetish of a state of no-thought; or cultivating concentrative states to induce higher order cognitive capacities; or elevating visceral felt meaning to the level of a cognition.
What we describe here are the structures of this ordinary man. Structures that are individual, invisible in the light of Reason and Intelligence. These are not ideal essences, but finite, inalienable (and consequently irrecusable) lived experiences. The individual structures of ordinary man are describable outside of any anthropological prejudice – that is to say outside of all Greek philosophical rationality.
François Laruelle, From Decision to Heresy, p. 49
What then does Laruelle mean by the term sensitize, and the statement:
I feel my subjective essence before these questions arises. I am the beginning of my life and my thought.
Francois Laruelle, From Decision to Heresy – Experiments in Non-Standard Thought, Urbanomic, Falmouth, 2012.
Francois, Laruelle, Dictionary of Non- Philosophy, Univocal, Mineapolis, 2013.
Dore Ashton, A critical study of Phillip Guston, University of California Press, Oakland, 1990 (available here for download).