Thursday, February 23, 2012

Thoughts into Language

Language is often thought of as a codified system, used by human beings, that allows individuals in community to exchange internal knowledge. At the end of this thought is the belief that language is constructed of a set of symbols that transmit intellectual content by their accepted meanings. The symbols are said to have no inherent meaning. Meaning is generated in the use of the symbols in dynamic ways through juxtaposition within the parameters artificially established for it (for example, Rules of Grammar).
Gaining access into another person’s mind is certainly one function of language, but language as a whole is a larger phenomenon. For example, animals communicate to their own kind and to other species through sets of symbols, many of which are pervasive to all life including us. Loud sounds intimidate those creatures that can hear. Large size is used to dominate or frighten those that can see. And every animal with an olfactory sense learns to avoid skunks. Anyone that understands these symbols is included in the dialogue. So there does seem to be a more universal and concrete form of language where the symbols themselves have meaning that is directly observed.
Also, humans can transcend the pervasive language of nature and apprehend languages that do not include them in the dialogue. For example, the perceptual apparatus we humans possess is not affected by the chemical trails laid down by ants. It is not beneficial to our survival to be attracted to the scent they leave and follow it to the food source that has been discovered. However, through analogical thought, we have understood that ants do carry on their lives through the use of such chemical signals that, to them, forms a part of their internal dialogue. This language had to be discovered by us in order to unlock the secrets of nature and serves as a tool to help us understand how to use such methods in the future.
Furthermore, not all discovered languages are realized through sensory observations; some are apprehended through abstract thought that is then applied to nature. One of the most obvious examples of this is mathematics. In some respects mathematical principles are still being negotiated, but nevertheless in a practical sense they are pretty well established, and have many of the aspects of a language. Mathematics has a vocabulary (numbers) as well as rules (multiplication table, etc.). It communicates quantities and qualities, yet this language is not directly observable through the senses. It is defined through abstract rules such as logic, but then verified through observable methods. Two plus two is real because it follows the rules of math and is, when connected to physical reality, verified through the manipulation of tangible objects.
Language is practical, pervasive, discoverable, dynamic, sometimes tangible, or abstract, or visible, etc. Even if it seems indecipherable, there are various receptacles for it. The most powerful receiver in the realm of observation is the human mind. But the human mind has limitations. What if there is a mind that works as the Ultimate Receptacle? What if this mind is also the Ultimate Transmitter? A place where knowledge ultimately rests? If all information can fit within this mind, then it exists beyond the realm of our known language systems.
In this case the true function of language transcends the internal conversations of earth’s creatures. This mind beyond minds is what we find in Scripture. There it is revealed that language is the primary means that God uses to reveal aspects of Himself to His creation. We could debate to what extent non-human beings understand these divine utterances, but we can determine that we ourselves are being spoken to by one greater than, and outside of, creation itself. When we reflect on creation both outside of our minds and within, we are looking at what is called General Revelation. If, by looking at the universe, we know that there is a God, then we can conclude that this God intelligent, all-powerful, creative, etc. Of course left as such, the message can be garbled or confused by other strains found in existence. We must understand what exactly can be communicated here. It is best to remember that this communication is general in that it is available to everyone and also in that it only communicates general attributes of God. Anything beyond the tracing of origins is a precarious affair. This is where looking at language can also lead us: to the source of all language and meaning.
Beyond General Revelation there is Special Revelation. This is also communication from God to humankind, but through a different medium. The language of Special Revelation is more specific and propositional. For example, many believe that Scripture is the main way God has used to reveal His personhood to mankind. In the Bible we learn about His tri-unity, love for mankind, and plan for redemption through His Word. That is not to say that it ends there. Experience and reflection allow us to shore up our knowledge of God beyond Special Revelation itself, but the point is that Special Revelation is special because it takes into account unique intrusions of God into His creation after He formed it, and that it conveys specific knowledge beyond what we can know through the creation itself. Furthermore, Scripture could be said to contain the origins of language. For in eternity, the triune Godhead communicates in an internal dialogue. Then at some finite point in the past God spoke the world into existence. Finally, the “Word became flesh” in the form of Christ.
Each method was the right method used to convey the information. Nothing was violated by God when He revealed Himself through what he made. This fact designed so that the line of communication remains unbroken. Seeing the results of someone’s work and concluding something about that person is true logically and experientially; we know there is a congruence between a creator and his/her creation; it is unavoidable. Also, if someone decided to insert specific autobiographical characteristics of themselves into their work we would expect that the language they chose would be the right one for the job. That is what we see God doing. In fact, He created these languages with their limitations then chose to work within the parameters he set for them. These parameters help us to understand Him as a consistent, rational being.
They also give us a model to work from when we create. We are allowed the freedom of language; but we also recognize the rightness of form and function. Meaning is made more palpable when language is used with care for the message, the form, and the receiver.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

F = mg

This thought occurred to me when I was ritualistically driving home from work one day:

Once the rate of our physical movement exceeds the movement of our ability absorb our surroundings we lose our ability to focus. In short bursts where the temporary acceleration serves as an exception it is easy to revert back to a state of equilibrium. But, when the acceleration is the norm rather than a burst, reversion to a natural state is more severely difficult. When I think about the rate at which our minds need to absorb things, at least to an acceptable degree of understanding, questions emerge as to just what we are missing. The ancients had such time, even in their work of survival, to think and absorb. Such thought led to epic wisdom literature. Rumination over keen observations was allowed to ferment into metaphor and symbol. Maybe the symbols took control, and to the extent that they did, their creativity ended and their absorption into the culture led to tradition and other modes of culture-building. Maybe they were led astray by delusions in their ruminations, which led beyond cultural identity into idolatry and superstitions. Nevertheless, they were right in one aspect: the value of thinking is not in quantity, but quality. Although our thoughts can speed up or slow down, I think that there is a natural limitation to both the rate of absorption and the duration of exposure to acceleration.

The contemporary notion, which seems the result of mechanization and the control of scientism, seeks quick verification; then determination based on results. The there is either immediate dismissal or pragmatic utilization. As the relentless atomic clock drives the nails into the coffins of our creativity it seeks to replace imagination with invention. The difference is like that between knowledge and wisdom that the ancients so well understood. Knowledge is useful, but temporary. Wisdom is ‘useless’ but eternal. If we allow the waves of this mechanized thought-acceleration to take over we lose the ability to create a generation of stewards. Rapid staccato beats dull our minds, and distract us from fully-experiencing the world around us. Our minds learn to ignore what they cannot perceive. Although we always do this to a degree, problems arise when we ignore more than we should; more that is safe. True, we no longer need to listen to the rustling of leaves in order to preserve our personal physical existence, but our survival as a culture hinges upon our ability to perceive and think fully through the issues of our times. We no longer seem willing to generate positive thought towards the issues; we seem incapable of even recognizing what those issues are: the rate of the ephemeral transmission of information is too quick for us to digest. The daily news and social media act as ‘scrubbing bubbles’: providing effervescent puerile cleanliness for the mind.

In art, this threatens beauty. Beauty exists in the eternal realm that cannot be reached through the acquisition of facts; it exists in the timeless realm where experience saturates us and absorbs our cognitive emanations. We must slow down and allow the eternal to reach into our hearts (the center of our humanity, if you will). Without this slowing-down-to-experience we are left with only the rapid pace of the automaton. The dehumanized machine cannot create; it can only repeat, only appropriate and reconfigure symbols, not use them in thoughtful and dynamic ways. The result of this is that we are left with hollow or shallow works that only reflect the function of life, not the beauty or truth to be had.

All of this fails to affirm the value of existence. At best it only grudgingly allows for the thought THAT we exist. The dull replication of aspects of life, the mechanization of art-processes, and the dismal game-playing that goes on in the art world today do nothing to affirm culture. It cannot build anything except more machines. Humanity has no heart; he is no longer gossamer, but a lab experiment. The loss of value is the result of the positivism of previous generations, and the atheism of our fathers. I believe that the accelerated environment that we see around us is conducive and amenable to maintaining a secular thought-life, but is antithetical towards a spiritual mindset where contemplation and reflection is paramount. Atheism and agnosticism are impatient and uncreative. It is akin to the relationship some historians have felt between the Greeks and the Romans. The Greeks understood beauty while the Romans understood engineering. To nail this point home Duchamp stated about his “Fountain” that America’s legacy in art is to be found in its plumbing.

I would suggest that we seek to decrease our heart-rate and open all our senses and absorb the meaning we find all around us. Children assume such a state but are educated out of it. As God’s Children, let us return to our youth and enter the Kingdom with wisdom.

Note: I did not type this out while I was driving.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Towards an Osirian Art

It has been well established that there are vibrant concerns for the future of the arts and the culture. To perceive the current crisis in the arts it might be good to look to the sciences for a pertinent analogy since scientists are the current locus of public thought in the search for truth. In the field of theoretical physics there is the well known rift between General Relativity Theory which explains large-scale phenomenon such as gravity, and Quantum Theory which is the science of the very small (or quanta). The rift caused by these two sometimes competing theories has led to many speculative ideas such as String Theory. A detailed analysis of these ideas is not necessary for our discussion. What is important is to see how the sequence of thought put into these sciences has led to a positing of a resolution. First, there is a problem: how do we explain the apparent problems with the speed of light? The solution is given in both the Special and General Theory of Relativity by Albert Einstein. These theories appeared to account for the observations being made by the improved technology of the day. They also cleared away the problems of previous theories, notably those posited by Newton.
Though the road was paved for science to proceed for future generations, there is a lingering problem. Small scale observations being made at the subatomic level seem to contradict the formulations discovered by Einstein and others in this new theory. Physicists Warner Heisenberg and Max Planck among others aided in the formulation of Quantum Mechanics which helped to explain the observations that didn't seem to fit into the relativity theories. Now to the important point: the science of theoretical physics since the formulation of these two theories has consisted of the attempt at resolution between these two theories. The most dominant form of resolution is currently some form of String Theory with an addendum of a multiverse; but not everyone is in agreement and so there is a wide spectrum of ideas all being revised. Falsification tests continue to be sought out and run to try to find support for each respective position.The resolutions posited have given the field of study the appearance of warring factions each vying for their particular hypothesis to be the ultimate ‘theory of everything.’
Visual art, like physics, consist of strains of ideologies that are currently vying for a cohesive vision; but none exists. To make matters more confusing, there are many individuals in both fields who adhere to differing aspects of the multiplying theories. So, what are the current theories held by practicing artists? The two dominant forces that are at work or at war are Modernism and Postmodernism. Both offer unique solutions to the problems facing humanity. Modernism was the dominant expression of artists beginning in the Renaissance, but not self-conscious until the mid-19th century. Though now ostensibly dead, Modernism is still being relied upon by many Postmodernists as they exist and work. Postmodernism claims for itself a loose definition with no cohesive vision or dominant force within its ranks. It cannot consistently maintain its position and so still often relies upon Modernist thought. The crisis caused by the friction between the major two cultural traditions has caused smaller, often more radical groups to vie for power in the time of the possible renewal of the arts.
Many of these groups remain nameless, but most call for either a return to pre-modern times (The Arts Renewal Center, for example, call for a return to classical tradition, zealously announce the death of postmodernism (without positive assertions), or insist that we are moving into a post-art age.

However, the various positions and their cataloguing of facts and predictions do little to disentangle us from the quagmire. They all either feed the edifice of postmodern pluralism or are ensnared by its unloving embrace. A few of these are attempting to dismantle its critical theory.
These ideas, as interesting as they can be, usually fail to offer any meaning, at least any content that postmodernism doesn’t immediately drain away. For example, why should we forget what has happened, turn back the clock and ignore the last century? The answer has foundation other than some ardent romanticism. And will that illusion not break and issue out the same nihilism that consumed mankind in the first place? Or what can celebrating the death of postmodernism do if there is not a move towards something more substantial?
Donald Kuspit in The End of Art espouses the rise of “New Old Masters” as a more stable solution to the corruption in the contemporary art scene. From an external perspective this sounds right, but what are these masters supported be? How can there be a return to a respectful and meaningful beauty if there is no basis other than to fill a pragmatic moralistic need?
These shifting sands need not be the only alternatives. Christianity can offer a more stabilizing voice. It is the very ideology one from which Modernism and Postmodernism had their root and still rely on as a deep and obscured foundation. Christianity is the only voice legitimately allowing for the assumption that there is a reality out there to be had and that this reality is meaningful and can be explored. An ultimate meaninglessness alone would never generate such intellectual defenses or works of creativity that we see in the two dominant art movements; Christian philosophy is still at work.
For Christians, in the area of meaning, God is the source of all reality. It is not that God is in the material itself but outside of His creation. This sets up an inside and outside view.
First there is a God who is infinite and creative. Then there is the product of His creativity; something distinct from Him but bearing his mark, or, his aesthetic style. This means that while we are outside of God, we are inside His creation looking through his creation to its Source. This gives meaning to the particulars. All that we see is a gift given to us to explore, tend, and ultimately recognize as the handiwork of an infinite Creator. Though this view is also a return, of sorts, to the pre-modern times, the ideology itself contends to be locked into an unchanging reality and therefore timeless.
Next, there is an incarnation, a clothing of the divine, a melding into flesh the very God of the universe that exists outside his own creation. This begins the gospel. This is the solution to the rift in society; this is the ‘theory of everything’. There is a connection between the two realms of existence.

Our own process of creation has a corollary to the incarnation. Christ manifests himself in the form of humanity. The Ultimate had made its way into the particular. In the same fashion when an artist works he is drawing from the eternal wellspring of meaning and pouring it into the forms his hands make. No other view posited thus far gives such a comprehensive value to our existence as creators. No other view gives resolution to the crises by locating resolution in an outside objective Source that is eternal and personal; the two needs that Modernism and Postmodernism desire to have fulfilled, but cannot embrace. The two forms are not only present in Christianity, but are reconciled in our current space-time universe, and will be fully consummated when the move into timelessness occurs.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Synthesis of the Synthetic

There is an unspoken foundational rule that most artists are put under in their training. This rule is sometimes never made explicit, but frequently reveals its shadowy presence over the critique wall like those clouds in cartoons that persecute a cursed individual, soaking them in misery. The rule goes something like this: “You are not what you create”, or during the analysis of art: “leave your personal baggage at the door”. I doubt such statements as these had any relevance to ancient or medieval craftsmen. Such a bifurcation can only colonize an ideology that elevates ego.

The premoderns understood that they were working for a greater good; the struggle to create had a transcendent end. We are now told that there is no greater good than than to magnify our fragmented selves.
It seems that it is of paramount importance today to teach art students to keep a cool detachment from their work like the misogynist Hollywood action hero who lets nothing and no one affect their overdeveloped masculinity. We are taught to ‘toughen up’ and ‘take a critique like a man’ (the actual gender of the student notwithstanding).

There is truth to the idea that the attempt to justify a truncated or insincere practice inhibits development. And since our thoughts could dwell on a perceived failure, fear might also prohibit growth (as an educator in the arts I have seen my fair share of ego). But these types of defenses are the result of leaning too heavily on our art as a determining factor of our identity. They are not a part of a balanced process. It is not a determining factor for the artist who fully understands that their value lies elsewhere, outside of themselves and their work.The problem fractures relationship because modern culture searches for truth through individualized, subjective experience. The experiences of humanity are to be felt in empathetic responses to the expressions of an individual. Viewers are expected to read visual cues with their internal self as much as with their eyes. Artists are expected to convey content that infuses itself directly into the viewers subconscious.

This expected content is tied closely with identity. Artists are to be not only craftsmen, but seekers of truth at the expense of their person-hood. They are to be existential heroes, finding some formulation of truth within themselves and thereby attaining a type of perfection at the end of their artistic career. The world is to witness this struggle and garner hope from its successful resolution.

The whole modernist conception seems contradictory. How is an artist supposed to maintain a distanced position from their work (to avoid feelings of despondency or trust in the natural self) and yet be able to invest their person-hood into the objects pouring forth from their hands? Even if there is to be a ‘training period’, what good comes from the imprisonment of the idiosyncratic ego? Such attempts to do so are impossible, and perhaps should be abandoned.

Fear and anxiety are brought back into the studio by the very attitude that is supposed to keep such thoughts at bay. The new fear is for relevance and authenticity. There is a struggle for originality. Artists must recreate themselves in order to recreate the world.

Mozart once made the comment that his originality was due to the same cause that made his nose aquiline. I think he was onto something there. As a modern he saw the struggle of many composers of his day to find their way. But a belief in a benevolent Creator afforded him the ability to understand that originality is the province of the God who made him. We are given our authenticity and originality as part of our nature, it is up to us to use our gifts rightly. The proper stewardship of our gifts is what authenticity is all about. We do not need to worry nor do we need to manufacture a persona to deal with social perceptions.

Perhaps a better approach is to inspire our fellows to greater heights. To teach each other to transcend the limitations of our processes, whatever they may be, while bringing each other up in love and unity respects the whole person and the collective.

We truly are not what we create, yet our creations contain a piece of ourselves; it is unavoidable that we invest part of our person-hood in what we do. We need to be aware that if we stifle the natural development of the artist we also give the viewer a simulacrum of art. We would lose ourselves only to lose our audience.