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On the sayings of contemporary art

It seems to happen very often these days, that the textual editorials that accompany an art exhibition give the impression of having been created randomly, using some sort of lorem ipsum 1 generator, distinctive perhaps to the gibberish of the art world. Sometimes, it even looks as if it’s egregiously mangling arbitrary philosophical terms, throwing ontological significance at random intervals, without any aesthetic sense — nor, sometimes, even literary — whatsoever.

It approaches frightening extremes when it just reveals its utter lazy intellectualism, that builds truth for itself and then holds it to universal value, applauding its own empty wit. Every phrase seems to be more mindful about displaying a glossary of terms than in saying something relevant about the art it’s supposed to comment on. It’s always vehemently self-aware, but in absolute denial of its ephemeral nature and vagueness. Generalities, which abound, are laid out with a pretentious sense of morality, a pretentious sense of urgency in its aesthetic irrelevance. To whom?, once should ask. Because, in turn, this means such thoughts can easily be applied to any art display; and it would make no difference at all. It would appear they are battling against the actual artwork to achieve their status, to be considered themselves works of art.

What results is almost reminiscent of a surrealist cadavre exquis composition — this time with all the veils of a truly thoughtful discourse shaped by a single mind. Let’s be clear — it’s building connections to a work just because it’s physically connected to the art pieces it’s supposed to refer to, and because the reader is vehemently interested in making those connections work while nodding at the pace of its ridicule. All the correlation is drawn by the fact it’s in the same spatial context. Remove it from that context and it becomes a generic mix, of more or less persuasive ideas, but with no particular coherence. Move the walls of text from one exhibition to the other, and you would be hard pressed to spot any mismatch — so generic that they are not saying anything at all.

Notes:

  1. Placeholder text often used in graphic design that bears no meaning. More in Wikipedia.

On art

About a year ago I made an exhibition with some of my photography called “Pictures”. For that exhibition I wrote a small accompanying text in Spanish. Here it goes:

Someone once said that judgement ought to be always positioned well above a piece of work for it to be truly good. Yet again, this judgement doesn’t mean adding futilities to what is, ultimately, a picture. It matters perhaps in the moment of its creation, for the author, not in its displaying for the viewer.

The pictures that form this exhibition don’t share a properly delineated theme. They may hold their own, or not, by themselves, yet there is no message a priori to bond or shield them.

Even though an image suggests and conveys endless thoughts, it shouldn’t for that matter declaim them; nor need an orator to guide it. This would make it, at best, infinitely less interesting, and at worst, dangerously deceiving. When art becomes speech, and turns its eyes upon itself, then it becomes art for the sake of art. Something it never was, nor intended to be.

The text as a simultaneous offering to the work is already excessive. Even superfluous. It’s about another reflection, another medium, for some other moment. Its inclusion risks having none: nor reflection, nor exhibition. In this regard, when the concern is contemplating the work, like every text that’s created specifically for an exhibition, it shouldn’t deserve too much attention. Only enough. And from a distance.

We live in a peculiar moment of the arts, one that has been developing since the late eighteenth century, one that bonds discourse with the aesthetic act of creating art, in one keen combination. During the avant-garde the work of art became in itself a manifest of what art should be. Art was starting to be self-conscious and concerned about its own nature.

Now, a century after those practices, the art world finds itself congratulating so called conceptual works that have one distinct quality—so to speak. They are shielded in their duality against most valorizations! When confronted with an aesthetic reprimand they are quick to point that what matters in the work is the message, and if one were to criticize said message on account of its vacuity they would hence reply: “It’s art in the end, not a treatise!”

So the potential lack of aesthetic value is shielded by the fact it carries a “message”, and the potential unsophisticated naivety of said message is shielded by the fact it’s a “plastic” expression and not a thoughtful treatise. What magnificent protection against all possible critic! The result being, that excellence isn’t required because the piece in its ambivalence can be whatever we’d like it to be. And it’d be fine.

Not to Write

I’m not going to write about why I don’t write. That would defeat any stance of honesty. On principle. And it’s quite evident, it would just mean going after windmills with a dragon’s valor. There’s no reason in denying that. Yet again, the fact still is—I like to write. But perhaps more revealingly, I quite enjoy reading. And that’s known. If you don’t read, you can’t properly write.

Now, all things considered, I’m usually valiantly writing. And I can agree with that. In practice. That practice is the beehive of any achievement. No matter how inspired it may dress up as the charm of a unique instant. No matter how mischievously romantic it tries to mask itself to the unwary. In the end, it always flows the same—to create is, essentially, to repeat.

What’s the genealogy of a written thought? That’s a wrong start. Never start at the beginning. For that we call experience—who has the time for that? The fundamental will—to write. That is often misleading, for there is a more primeval thing we ought to do from deep within—which is to look. Even before thinking, we have to look. Where have we looked recently? For we read, and we look, and we write. All curiosity is bound to it.

But it’s vague. That is to say, in what direction? In what direction ought we look? Since this is but a path of many… Nevertheless, I have no doubt that behind all of this there is a fine seriousness, a modest, dauntlessly hard work for which we aspire. Perhaps even collectively. And it’s quite reassuring that a genuine cheerfulness is to be found—if not at the end, then at the turn of the path. Have you ever heard the echo of such a tune before? It’s not silence, but it very much looks like it. At least from the outside, since in its innermost cave it’s quite the opposite. So musical a discord, such sweet thunder.

We are back to our problem, where all lengthy things require grace. Not a pompous one—that’s not truly useful. It’s the grace of knowing that nothing is really completed until it becomes the very action of doing. And with it, it carries its essential joy. Which is to say, its very shape. Then all is fine—we can sit back. We can contemplate. And how have we forsaken the act of contemplating! Most likely unwillingly. But as most unwilling reactions, it’s a dangerous one.

Contemplate, and repeat. In the end, it can be, because it still is. Such is the way of it. Creation is tied to the time of the act itself. Completion is then nothing but some sort of stoic abandonment. The renounce of the ongoing practice of doing. That’s not what we seek. We seek better. That’s why I’m not going to write about why I don’t write. In the end, who wouldn’t prefer a status line devoid of flamboyant wit?—: “I should write more“.

2001: a nietzschean odyssey

2001 does not only constitutes a landmark in film history, but it also makes up a haven for the most distinct kinds of lucubration; a kind of serve as you please amalgam of pictures. Kubrick once said so eloquently – while others echoed it ad infinitum:

You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film —and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level— but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point. — the often cited fragment from a Playboy interview with Stanley Kubrick (September 1968).

One. Understanding that speculation is possible due to the film being a coherent piece in its evocative level is our first step. (That they are actually words and not images is somehow important here.) Two. That you are free to speculate does not mean that every speculation you can possibly make is valid in itself. Three. Kubrick did choose Richard Strauss’ musical poem.

The mischief of the senses. 2001 is regarded in various film contexts as a symphony for the eyes. With that in mind the appreciation of the film was never fully completed as it was often relegated to perception —and a subjective one for that matter— in terms of image-sound, whereas every ulterior interpretation was somehow valid on the ground that validation was not something you could earn but something you already had. And that represents but the first stage in our aesthetic approach to a piece, and while its true that the creator of that piece would be better not outlining the course of thought pertaining to a reflective stage —which, as it needs to be made with words, is not inherently cinematographic— we, on the contrary, cannot elude it.

I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content. (Another fragment from the same Playboy interview.)

I am not denying the possibility of such a film; on the contrary. It is because the film penetrates our perception in its evocative and emotional level that the ulterior speculative stage —about said philosophic content— is even possible. But once we have been affected in our sensibility our understanding wants to start working with the impressions left, organizing them —not as we please but as the representation in synthesis with our understanding is accommodated in a consistent idea. And so I will follow the connection to Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical tract “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”, which —if anything else fails— is made evident by the use of Richard Strauss’s musical poem Also Sprach Zarathustra. 1

But let’s suppose he had used another musical piece. 2001 would still clearly be a Nietzschean film as every bit of it resembles –in its poetic way–Nietzsche’s work and ideas. Nietzsche was really an ambiguous thinker (made evident by his often inspiringly unfathomable prose); Space odyssey is no different in that sense.

“Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape.”


The Nietzschean idea of a superman is somehow widely known; thus, it is also widely vulgarized and misleading in its use. The übermensch as he wrote is more feasible translated into overman, in a transcendental way. The overman is who transcends Man, not just some present-day man held superior to others but a radically different type of man. Trying to reconstruct the meaning of Nietzsche’s erection by alluding to it as superman is a woebegone effort. Thus, it shall better be paraphrased as over and above man.

The Dawn of Man is the first part of the movie. With the longest ellipsis of all time Kubrick is conveying an important idea: from the ape to the astronaut nothing has essentially changed. We could jump from one to the other because everything remained, in essence, identically. A constant pattern. The Eternal Recurrence of the identical. The question is not how much human beings have evolved, but how little. Human being is still an animal. That is what Nietzsche and Kubrick tried to say.

“All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape.” ~ Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche’s prose is marvelous in its power and emotion —it is evocative. And it is not coincidence that Kubrick starts the movie like that. It is a movie full of dawns. Opportunities. Mankind has always had plenty of opportunities to overcome itself. Zarathustra speaks about dusks. (As well as Nietzsche in the Dusk of Idols.) Kubrick —in what could be thought as a dialectical dialogue— speaks about dawns. Still, mankind has chosen the path of repeating one time after the other our eternal mistakes.

Near the end of the opus, when the main character travels to the infinite and sees himself as an old man, in the immaculate white of the room, with the wisdom provided by age, the old man is nonetheless utterly clumsy. He breaks the glass of wine on the floor. What has he done to overcome himself? In the last moment of the film, the human being before dying tries to touch the monolith, the absolute (be it a metaphor of wisdom, knowledge or whatever). But he can’t. From his shelter, his bed-of-death, he extends his arm to the black prism. And then the camera goes into de object which, throughout the movie, remained distant and untouchable. Only the camera goes into it.

The light does not die. Man is ready for the next evolutionary step. His body is cast away. And the starchild is born. — reference taken from Kubrick 2001: The space odyssey explained.

Let’s not take the child too literary! The camera —taking us for this last ride— left us in the space. We are seeing a baby while “Also Sprach Zaratustra” screams comprehension. And while a cold quiver comes up our spine we realize it is Nietzsche’s übermensch. A man which could overcome the Eternal Recurrence of our existence. And now the child is seeing us. Confronting us. Staring at our very essence. We meet our eyes and we are seeing everything we are not. Art is standing straight, hieratically, as a mirror of ourselves. The baby is demanding us: “would you let me exist?” Or is it an illusion constructed by art? After all, it was the camera that went into the monolith, not Men. Kubrick presents the ideas but never concludes them. But we are left to wonder: what has happened —given that Man couldn’t get to the monolyte— to warranty the mere existence of the übermensch? What have we done to overcome ourselves? The man of the future may be born, or may be not. It is up to present-day man —and yes, that means us. It is our journey should we dare to take it. That is, if we can say so, the legacy beyond the symphony for the eyes. There is no such thing as “the starchild is born” as if Kubrick as a puppeteer had commanded such an act to happen. The starchild is not born by inertia.

We could, however, still hold 2001 as a mere experiment with images, and it would succeed as such. Because what is important here is that film cannot be the topic of usual semiotics; film is, before everything else, representation —thus its emotional impact. Semiotics come post factum as reinterpretation of the representation which affected us in the first place. That is why a truly cinematographic piece of art has to be pure in its aesthetic representation, otherwise it feels pale and shy. A shy emulation of literary semiotics, a pale impression of cinematographic possibilities.

Notes:

  1. Of note (from Wikipedia): In an article in the New York Times, Kubrick gave credence to interpretations of 2001 based on Zarathustra when he said: “Man is the missing link between primitive apes and civilised human beings. Man is really in a very unstable condition.”

The beginning—or how Poetica became Kino

When you start something like this – and by this I mean what is implicit in any publishing form of sorts – one should always start by what the abstract reader probably needs first; and that often means a sort of initial rhapsode about the author which though elusive serves as a kind of slow paced parenthesis of gentle and enticing but ultimately obscure opening words …

So I will jump ahead and, while commenting that my name is Matias and this place is my journal, go straight into the the focus of my writing and thoughts: which is film, philosophy and design. That is, in no particular order. There are things in common among these topics. Aesthetic is one of those. I tend to think about aesthetic and beauty with a scent of kantian philosohpy. That is:

The beautiful is that which, apart from a concept, pleases universally.

That should be enough for plenty of unwell faces. Apart from a priori controversy, I am targeting a meaning of beauty as an idea that could be discussed and disputed in the different ways it is devised.

I should be the first one trying some coherence here, so I would go and say that this notion applies to the diferent topics I might write about. That is, film as an art that can be discussed in an aesthetical way, thus, the personal “I am pleased with that outcome” does not essentially matter; but why should an opus be regarded as a masterpiece of ubiquitous pleasure, or why not. That is what can be communicated and shared, that is what we can learn; the rest remains as the solipsism of art.

This is not to say that film as entertainment – when entertainment is regarded as well-crafted storytelling – is not possible; because it is. One could argue that every good piece of art is, in its own way, entertaining. But film can – and should – be much more than ephemeral entertainment. This is not to draw a line between the great art of cinema and the mere superficial aspect of the film industry. There is craft in every authentic piece of entertainment. When in doubt try to create Spielberg’s E.T.

But there are vast abysses to evade.

As you probably know, I’m often accused of intellectual exhibitionism and all forms of elitism. Although I can understand this point of view, it’s a rather wasted argument because, if we regard areas of information as being elite and therefore somehow not usable, it means our centre-ground of activity becomes very, very impoverished. — quoting Peter Greenaway

It is important, though, to state that neither an effort of excluding elitism nor pretentious grandiloquence drives the writing of this journal, but a true urge to share ideas. It is one of the easiest and most vulgar routes to state someone as overly intellectual when what is behind is the self intellectually-less of the accuser. Bertolt Brecht said somthing along those lines, though more succintely:

If all people want is to see something they understand, they shouldn’t go to the theater. They should go to the bathroom.

The effort to understand pushes us forward. Is there any place in the web for confronting constructed ideas? Or on the contrary, elaborated thoughts are to be left to the meld of thousands of brief bits of information and people’s spirit to cope with them? But then there are those who write pieces pleading for a book-length chapter that could easily be said in a status two-line message. We shall not be naif: the amount of words does not inherently count for its quality, but it is an instrumental part of the way ideas are conveyed.

The Internet, as it seems, might not be just a medium but a form of constraining the speech and conforming it in a way that could easily devolve into some “terribly bad” writing. Should we stop experimenting with it then? Leaving it for the more banal and succinct but not necessarily to-the-point thoughts? Not at all. As there are indeed bursts of intelligent words from time to time, it is this very challenge that makes it more appealing.

This first article tries to outline the overall aim and path this site will follow, because in beauty – and one which pretends to be universal – a closed autarchia stands for no meaningful value when sharing ideas. I respectfully invite you now to join me on this slippery path of self-induced reverie.

I redesign this place more often
than I write on it.