Contemporary Art: Death and Transfiguration of the Arts?

To ask this optimistic or pessimistic question about the death and/or transfiguration of the arts, it is necessary to find at least temporarily concepts of “death” and “arts” which can meaningfully interact.

Considered most generally, art might be distinguished from non-art as a unified organic whole cut off from its surroundings, which are not art, and in itself heightened in intensity or pervaded by thought, A traditional work of art has a beginning and an end (if not necessarily a middle), and the spectator knows unambiguously when and where it has begun and when and where it ends. It does not ambiguously diffuse into the rest of life. As an example of such diffusion into life, once when going to the Bread and Puppet Theatre, I wanted to watch a procession of clowns and dragons implausibly taking place in the street before the playhouse, but my serious friends said “No, we are not watching dragons. we are going to the theatre.” Later the procession came dancing and singing into the theatre, and we realised that it was the play. As in much contemporary art, the edges between art and life were blurred. In traditional art these edges were kept hard, by what one might call organically a cell membrane, which clearly isolated the outside and the processes of everyday life from the space-time globe of heightened life going on inside the organic work of art. The spectator brought to the self-contained work of art a temporary suspension of belief, heightened concentration, attention to the integration of one part with another. It was a sphere in which everything was not better, perhaps indeed darker but more intense and integrated into a universe where each part affected the whole, concentrated partly by the formal considerations imposed by its very boundaries. The very finiteness of the work as an organism is reflected in the elaborate aesthetically perceivable interconnections between the parts. Similarly a plastic work of art was tightly contained within its own limits, and clearly distinguished from other objects which were not works of art. That distinction too has gradually been blurred, a Coca Cola bottle is not a work of art, but in a painting construct by for example Rauschenberg it becomes one. Correspondingly there was a distinguishable group of intense creative people, the artists, who for part of the time, (not while eating, or doing the shopping, or sleeping) engaged in a heightened activity creation of works of art deserving or demanding at least a special kind of receptive attention. This self-contained, heightened organic life within the sphere of definite space time boundaries of the work of art or of the work of the artist might be compared to the organic life of a cell within its isolating membrane. This is not a definition of art, but it is a concept that will function in this context.

“Death” too can be given, a meaning as distinguished from life which can function in the context of this question. Physically the living body is made up of molecules not different from those of a decaying corpse and of atoms not different from those of a stone. But these molecules and atoms are during life temporarily united into a partially isolated individual engaged in an intensified and complexly integrated process of metabolism, mutual modification and transmission of information. In some metaphysical way is connected with this living body the mind, which may also, as oriental philosophers say, ultimately consist of impersonal elements, but which interacts with the temporarily individual body in some psychosomatic way to constitute a living individual. Death could thus be said to be the dissolution of this psychosomatic inter¬connection allowing impersonal matter and perhaps impersonal mind to fall away from each other and to regain their independent states. This quick metaphysical sketch will be illuminating of some of the processes at work in modern art, which one might call the death of art. And looking beyond this dissolving of the organic links between physical and mental, we may see directions of possible transfiguration or new functions of the arts and even of possible new forms or styles of life.

One can in these terms illuminatedly speak of the death of the arts as of the breaking down of the boundary, the membrane, isolating the work of art from everyday life. As the boundary breaks down, the con¬centrated contents of the organic work of art diffuse into the stream of ordinary consciousness either in “the pessimistic view being dispersed and completely lost in the vastly greater volume of non-art, or—in the optimistic view transforming, flavouring daily life like a bit of salt dissolving in water. Which of these processes will ultimately predominate will becomes evident in the future fate of the arts (and perhaps even of the future fate of life, since some profound transformations seems to be required). One cannot foresee whether optimism or pessimism is the more prophetic point of view….whether the arts will transform the fragrance of life or only be lost in the petrol fumes of the street.

One can use this model of death to examine the two directions in which contemporary art is dissolving. The one direction, the separation of consciousness from the necessity of a material embodiment, would correspond to the directions taken by conceptual and minimal art. The other direction, the independent dispersion of the material would parallel present developments in theatre, music and even plastic arts leading to the loss of distinction between events or objects of ordinary life and art-directed “events” and pop art objects. For instance in the theatre this process might pass through improvisation on a given text, to improvisation suggested by the director, to the actors’ independent construction of the play or happening, to the participation of the audience in an artist-instigated event or happening, to a new view of the world in which everything that happens is a “Happening”. This might lead to a heightened self-consciousness, a detached aesthetic enjoyment of all of one’s own activities and of the events of the world around. This could at the very best lead to a Zen-like transformation of life into a perpetual and perpetually interesting happening. Such is John Cage’s ideal for his music — the expanded form of attention – that after the concert the newly awakened ears transform the sounds of the street from noise to music. In this world the function of the artist would be to transform everybody into artists or perpetual art appreciators and then to disappear discreetly, the continued existence of a specialist in art-production being otiose when everybody is his own artist or is doing his own thing. Social work and creative playing with children.

At worst the mere quantity of ordinary transactions would dilute the diffused art into insipidity and shake the sacrifice of the self-contained living work of art vain and merely pathetic. One cannot yet foretell which alternative will predominate whether the transformation of life styles will create a global work of art (as Buckminster Fuller would say it) or whether the artists’ energy will be consumed in diffuse social work.

The opposite direction of dissolution toward the unembodied or only irrelevantly embodied idea—leads to conceptual art and minimal art. The creative work is already completed once the artist has thought what he wants to do and given the directions for doing it. When it is thought, in a non-material way, it is, and when the spectator has repeated the artists’ thought, communication has occurred. Examples are: “Draw a line across the Gobi Desert”, “Put a plastic sheet across the Grand Canyon, or even John Cage’s more subtle directions for amplifying the vibrations of a mushroom growing and then playing that as music. The idea attracts the attention, but its physical realization is not essential. (Although multiple maquets of such projects are sometimes made and sold in galleries as objects, this seems self-contradictory like making a saleable statue of a Platonic idea. Art as the giving of directions for performing a mental activity approaches the condition of abstract number theory. Similarly a recent series of lectures on linguistics and logic presented in an art gallery aimed at transforming logic and linguistics into art by placing them in the appropriate frame for aesthetic contemplation. This dissolution (or sublimation) of the concrete work of art toward disembodiment is also manifested in minimal art. In it more and more elements are found to be inessential and discarded. Saumel Beckett’s development is typical of this as he progressively diminishes the mobility and articulateness of his characters until in his latest work there remains only the sound of breathing, and all attention is concentrated on that. This is similar to Hindu and Buddhist meditation on the breath, as are the minimal art paintings of an uninterrupted colour field of the “contemplation devices” of a single colour used in some forms of Buddhist meditation.

In this direction also it seems that western art is, from its own point of origin, moving toward the oriental unity of art, life and meditation.

Whether this seems to be death or transfiguration depends partly on one’s point of view and partly on future developments.

First “art” and “death” will be defined temporarily to create concepts that can meaningfully interact. Art is provisionally defined as a heightened sphere of activity within a definite boundary (somewhat like a cell membrane) which separates it from the rest of the non-art world and art creation and appreciation as separated heightened activities performed by somehow concentrated people — artists and connoisseurs. “Death” is defined as the dissolution of material elements brought together temporarily in an intensified activity of metabolism from each other and from the mind or thought.
Art might be said to be dying and possibly being transfigured. (dependent on pessimistic or optimistic view points) in both of these directions of dissolution. One is the direction toward art diffusing out of its isolating boundary into the surrounding ordinary life — as in pop art where ordinary objects become works of art or in “happenings” where theatre is assimilated to anything that happens. The question remains whether art thus transforms everyday life (as in the Zen continuity between ordinary life, ritual and art) or is diluted by the sheer quantity of non-art. The second direction is toward disembodied or not essentially embodied thought in conceptual art and minimal art, wherein art approached science or becomes an object of meditation.
Both of these have optimistically similarities with oriental, particularly Japanese, art where all life becomes object of aesthetic contemplation, and minimal objects of beauty focus the attention. Pessimistically they contain the possibility of the death of the self-contained organic work of arts and its complete disappearance in an untransformed environment.