THE PEOPLE WE CALL artists have always gone into a dark space. A space turned inside-out. Not a somber space, where darkness is sadness, but a mysterious one—like the nighttime darkness of the imaginative child who marches golden caravans across his bedroom ceiling. The poet Homer, archetype of artists, was famously blind—yet out from his darkness pulsed eternal heroes, gigantic and grand like constellations. Georg von Hardenberg, called Novalis, wrote “Hymns to the Night,” and favored the owl-eyes of the night-dweller above even the stars (“farther they see than the palest of those countless hosts”), for night-eyes can view the soul. The painter Paul Gauguin wrote:
As for me, it seems to me at times that I’m mad, and yet the more I reflect at night in my bed, the more I think I’m right. For a long time the philosophers have considered the phenomena which seem to us supernatural and yet of which we have the sensation. Everything is in that word. Raphael and the others were men in whom the sensation was formulated before thought…. For me, the great artist is the formulary of the greatest intelligence.
What, then, is the night—the realm of artistic knowing? Is it the roiling inwardness of pure emotion? Is it the thumping imperative of instinct? For Gauguin and Novalis, and for many other artists who have developed a consciousness of their process, it is neither; it is something nobler and more spiritual—and paradoxically, more solid. In short, it is a realm of pure intelligence. It is not a space of fancy and subjectivity (as some believe), but of unhampered perception, like the mind-space of Adam before naming the beasts. If thought is the light of reason—taxonomizing, mapping—then the night is its terra incognita. The night is the welter of being, the virgin jungle, which scientists’ lanterns strive to lay bare. But the artist dwells in the dark green from the first, moving freely without fire. Gauguin’s paintings of South Sea jungles are metaphors for this hidden life.
The years between 1840 and 1960 witnessed great strides in the understanding of art. These were the years when art broke away from official academies and became independent. These were the years when movements like Impressionism and Cubism wholly transformed the visual culture of the West. And these were the years when the artist, waking to his own strength, often seized the role of mystic or prophet. Art historians, critics, and artists have seen how these burgeoning forces were appropriated into philosophical systems (for example, a sort of neo-Kantianism, as in the work of the art historian Erwin Panofsky and the art critic Clement Greenberg) or yoked to political programs (for example, art as symbol of American freedom, as discussed by Erika Doss). But even in 2009, we have not settled on the true ground of art, in all its inarticulable mystery. In fact, discouraged by our earlier failures, we have often ceased to try.
It seems clear, however, that our inability to grasp the meaning of art—to give it a proper home within our cultural edifice—is a result of willful ignorance. The better we know something, after all, the more alert we are to its subtleties. (It is often noted, for example, that the Inuit people have many different words for what we call snow.) The realm of spirit, like that of snow, also has many subtleties; but our age, with its focus on flesh, has grown blind to the spirit’s nuances. Our present culture is blind to the meaning of art (a product of spirit), because our metaphysical vocabulary has become too broad and too crude. Our experience outstrips our conceptual categories. For this reason, it is high time we consult our wiser ancestors—specifically the medieval saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and his disciple Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), theorist of the artistic night.
Epistemology is the study of how we know things (episteme is Greek for “knowledge”). Most of us have considered epistemological questions during the course of our lives: How does intuition work? How do we know when our assumptions are reliable? Is factual knowledge the same thing as true understanding? Thomas Aquinas’s philosophy was characterized by a distinctive and rich epistemology; Jacques Maritain’s greatest achievement was his development of this epistemology, particularly as it regarded ways of knowing within disciplines—disciplines like philosophy, the physical sciences, mathematics, and most interestingly, art. For Maritain the ground of all knowing, no matter the discipline, lay in an experience I will call “spiritual mingling.” It consisted in the passing of one spirit into another, so that the knower and her object actually fused. Thomas Aquinas wrote in his De Veritate that “We cannot understand things…unless they are truly united to our intellect in such a way that the knower and the known become one.” Maritain built on this truth to develop the meaning of art.
It is crucial to grasp this idea in the breadth of its implications, for it lies at the ground of all cognition—whether scientific or artistic, whether sympathetic or factual. As Gauguin affirms, basic intelligence is not an ability to mimic techniques or phrases; instead it is an openness to metaphysical invasion. When Aquinas wrote of “oneness” he meant a literal fusion of the self with the other. He meant that the knower actually entered into the object of her contemplation, drinking from its reservoirs and swaying in its breeze. This was possible because a permeable, spiritual structure informed all matter, like a dazzling liquid skeleton, flowing and interlocking in glittering geometries. Spirit, Aquinas knew, did not suffer the same limits as flesh pressing on flesh, or as two objects colliding. It is the very nature of flesh to create boundaries—flesh itself is a boundary. But spirit is something else altogether. It illuminates and quickens, and its laws are not those of time and space.
Every moment of true understanding, then, originates from a moment of oneness—a moment so intense, overwhelming, and many-faceted that it transcends language. We cannot contain it or tame it; we can only swim within it, buffeted by its power. This is why, when it comes to the management of daily life, human knowers must step outside the stream of mingling and forge a language with their fellows. Social meanings (the conventional wisdom of, say, “feminine and masculine,” or “normal and deviant”) change with the times, yet enable social cohesion and the development of etiquette. The clamor of history forces labeling: who shall be declared righteous and who transgressive? Who shall be rebuffed and who welcomed? Who is higher and who is lower? Christ himself fell afoul of language and so was killed, though his true meaning was utterly right.
As long as humankind toils on the earth, languages must gather and lurch, their words like bullets aimed at fireflies. As they advance, spin, and scramble, the real will outwit them; their vocabularies are ever only approximations, launched outside the flow of life and set upon stiff vectors while the real meanders on. The artwork, however, is born at the moment of mingling. The artist does not consult lexicons before bearing witness. Instead she treasures the moment, hides it in her heart, and traces its dark lineaments with wonder and innocence, accepting its maddening plenitude. It is for this reason that the artwork is useless; it has nothing to do with the game-play of politics or commerce. But neither is the artwork irrational—rather it is descriptive, the fruit of a metaphysical mathematics, outlining the details that formal languages overlook.
The artwork, in other words, is pre-conceptual. (Maritain calls “pre-conceptual” that which Gauguin likened to supernatural “sensation”—that is, the rawest form of intelligence, formulated before thought.) People called to be artists dwell in the realm of the pre-conceptual, perpetually in advance of the coining of language. Their work manifests the very ingredients of linguistic concepts—perceptions of otherness, qualities of uniqueness, metaphorical likenesses—but in their raw state, before they have been winnowed and averaged by the clamoring mob. In other words, the artist is what we might call a direct maker: she is someone who responds to the pre-conceptual moment not by categorizing it, but by re-creating its vectors. The wise man may abstract moral precepts from the flux of reality; the scientist may whittle new insights to fit useful taxonomies; the strategist may incorporate discoveries into ongoing campaigns. But the artist bears direct, manufactured witness, and this is what sets her apart. She is neither especially mystical, nor especially irrational, nor especially fashionable; she is merely someone whose nature runs (like a river) toward a mirror-response to the mingling of the other with the infinitely vulnerable, because infinitely porous, soul.
There is something vaguely scandalous about Maritain’s notion of knowing. In a perverse and prurient age it can seem genuinely shocking, for it can seem very like the biblical “knowing” that children snicker about in Sunday school (“and he lay with her, and he knew her”). But perhaps it is not a coincidence that the transmission of intellectual knowledge is, at its core, analogous to the fleshly knowledge of the Patriarchs. Both are acts of union that create something new—a discovery, an artwork, a metaphor, a child.
But human beings cannot create ex nihilo. We cannot will paintings into existence, nor summon a sculpture from thin air. Though all perception arises from the mingling of spirit with spirit, the artistic response—the act of re-creation—must depend on the physical means at the artist’s hand. A poem, paradoxically, must be spoken from within the lines and sounds that make the language of the writer. The great woodcarvers of the northern Renaissance were bound to the limewood trees that grew nearby. And painters, like poets, must seize their motifs and their expressions from the visual language around them. For this reason, no response to the artistic night will ever be a pure one; every work will come encumbered by the facts of the artist’s milieu, and even by the conditions wherein she painted: the humidity of the air, the scents and the sounds, the slope of the floor on which she stood. Embodied variables such as these give the artwork an existential superstructure. If the heart of the work is the shape of the moment, then the work’s skin is the separate life of the medium—paint, canvas, or marble—suffused with its own existential backbone, a willing ornament of a deeper ground. An artwork is a castle built of living things, each a cosmos unto itself. Put another way, an artwork is like the Pauline church, whose interlocking parts (head, hands, and feet) are at the same time human beings, sovereign and distinct. The artist, as earthly maker, uses objects that have their own life, and so he is always surprised when his work is done.
The challenge of art—in every culture that has developed fine art—has lain in achieving harmony between media and moment. The purity of the moment must submit to the impurity of language—must in fact reposition the facets of language, exposing their foolishness, by prizing them from their complacent systems of ritualized logic and flinging them wildly into a new collage. Yet our socially forged languages bear a vein of truth. Thomist philosophy, which was born alongside the nature mysticism of Saint Francis of Assisi, affirmed a deep congruence of all matter with spirit. For both Francis and Thomas all things were living metaphors, recklessly singing of their dark origin; objects like “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon” inevitably communicated the refulgence of God. Seen in this way, artistic media—the lines and sounds of languages and the crude stereotypes of our commercial culture—have a runic life, intrinsic and pulsing, that is indifferent to our degraded social meanings. With these media the artist strives, like God, to make a form that will be congruent to a specific metaphysical substance—not, indeed, a substance formed ex nihilo from the divine imagination (we are not, after all, gods ourselves), but a felt spiritual convergence within the creation. The artist describes a single mote in space-time wherein God’s creatures have mingled and have known each other, forming a chord from separate celestial melodies. To feel the chord and to mirror it, so that the shape of the medium flows with the shape of the moment, is to make what Maritain calls genuine poetry.
But where is the visual poetry of the twenty-first century? For a long time, it has been scarcely permissible for ambitious artists to frankly avow the dark metaphysical origins of their “formulations” (as Gauguin would put it). Works that are basically experiments in sensory perception, declarations of identity (personal, ethnic, or sexual) or ironic social commentaries have all been accepted, and have been extensively theorized. But none of these types of work actually plunge toward the true night of poetry. It can appear, in fact, that all true congruencies have been forgotten, so that art is no longer a question of matching media to moment, but instead of deploying media as a political tool. Indeed, our willful insensitivity to the night of knowledge is so great that many of us would not recognize poetry if it were paraded in front of us. Yet a few artists have picked up forgotten threads, renewing congruencies forged in times that were more clear-eyed.
In the West today we juggle two legacies—two great, mythic visual vocabularies born of our tireless investigations into the structures of mind and body. First there is the humanistic legacy of the Renaissance, which bequeathed to us the richest visual language known to mankind, replete with geometries, gestures, and narratives that have been the envy of the world, but that are now in eclipse. One need only enter the Sistine Chapel and gaze at Michelangelo’s muscle-bound figures, with their stern faces and twisting poses, to know that here was something rich with potential, announcing a visual poetry bent on proving that man, truly, was the measure of all things.
Then, beginning in the nineteenth century, the humanistic image was shattered. The well-proportioned human figure was no longer the medium best suited to expressing the cosmic struggle. Instead western society favored swirls and vectors, geometries and abstractions, the grand music of the spheres, the vortices of storm systems and the caprices of electrons, outside the scale of humankind. Yet this, too, failed to satisfy. The utopian dreams of modernist urban planners, the prismatic fantasies of Cubist improvisationalists, were rejected as sterile. Today the great powers of the physical world are no longer symbols of divine transcendence, but are forces to be harnessed and used for the seizure of power or for fleshly gratification. We no longer, in short, have a great normative congruency—neither the congruency of a man-god, nor of a great equation. Our minds have sunk to the realm of the useful, so that we are like latter-day Romans rushing toward decadence.
But maybe we have found a new paradigm—our last great paradigm—not in a static form at all, but in the anchoring fact of the darkness, soft and vast as the living universe. We cannot fix our eyes upon it because it is ever within and behind us, shooting from our eyes and fingers, moving too swiftly to codify but everywhere leaving its trace. We dwell inside the dark cloud that Ezekiel saw, from which burst fiery wheels and golden beasts. We are afraid of the darkness, but it is our substance and core: the realm of spirit, whose regions flow through us in our fearless helplessness. We are living in a time of transition, where the challenge of art is to make neither perfect bodies nor sublime geometries, but to point toward the dark source of both. The best artists today thematize an epistemological drama of radical openness, where conceptual defenses fall before metaphysical invasion.
Figuration: The Example of Jean Rustin
Jean Rustin once worked in an insane asylum. He witnessed the atrocities of World War II, as well as the subsequent collapse of Europe’s self-confidence—the collapse, indeed, of an entire modernist project built on hope for the future, on domination of the natural world, and on humankind’s domination of itself. When Rustin adopted a more-or-less fully formed classicism in 1981, then, he prodded the classical figure to a contemporary place—a place beyond the bounds of hope, of prediction, of human control. He made richly textured, beautifully composed narrative images that incorporated the most refined techniques of the western academic tradition, yet were informed by the historically new things his poetic self had felt and seen.
Put succinctly, Rustin’s works of the last twenty-eight years probe the fulcrum-moment between metaphysical openness and closure. All of his figures operate on the same stage—a shallow gray space, dimly or barely lit, sometimes furnished with straight-backed chairs or narrow cots. This is a metaphorical space—a space of institutional confinement or detainment. Yet the inmates’ captors are never present, and one wonders if, in a time past time, Rustin’s figures languish in a prison that is self-made.
Two pictures suffice to illustrate the delicate pendulum swing in Rustin’s work. In The Kiss, painted between 1997 and 2002, two naked figures, their eyes closed, pleasure each other on a narrow white cot before a plain gray wall [see Plate 9]. Like all of Rustin’s figures, they are shorn and bloated, with pallid skin. They carry the marks of the insane: indifferent to their environment, indifferent to the health of their bodies, indifferent to the present viewer (whom their postures address), trapped in a featureless physical space very like the collapsed chamber of their minds. In similar paintings, Rustin depicts figures masturbating while gazing absently past the viewer. These are consummate images of crabbed self-absorption, in which oppression and victimhood, it seems, are one and the same.
Other paintings, however, hint toward the narrowest of escapes from this gray after-world. The British art critic Edward Lucie-Smith has noted that Rustin’s Dark Room recalls Dutch group portraits like Frans Hals’s Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse (1664) or Rembrandt’s Syndics of the Drapers Guild (1662). This is undoubtedly true, and there is something poignant in the comparison. Such rigorously disciplined seventeenth-century portraits—disciplined in their composition, their palette and the mien of their sitters—wryly conjure a tense, Puritanical atmosphere. (Rembrandt’s sourfaced old women, with their black dresses and lace collars, have always whispered, stoically, of pleasures squashed out of fear of sin.) But for Rustin’s figures it is this very Puritanism that is needful. The old self-pleasuring, pursued to the bitter end, has lost its mystique and has become a mere addiction. The inmates’ eyes, newly opened, peer with curiosity toward something Else. In our example, Night in the Corridor, two shrunken figures gaze anxiously outward [see Plate 10]. They have put on dark jackets, though their genitals remain bare. It is remarkable that Rustin’s images of awakening (even if it is a very pitiful awakening) involve themes of darkness. Rustin has deployed an old ascetic trope (dark backgrounds, dark clothes, straight postures, wide eyes) not toward the achievement of transcendence or the maintenance of morality, but toward the bare reclamation of sanity. A soul mired in the merely empirical (the touchable, the visible) is a blind soul. To deny the night of the mind is to become mad.
Abstraction: The Example of Josiah McElheny
To turn inward, or to turn outward. To be open, or to be closed. There is something so elemental here, so basic, that its representation hardly needs to be freighted with complexity. Yet it is not enough, somehow, for the metaphysically inclined minimalist (say, a mystical Donald Judd) to figure this dichotomy with a great silver box or a looming door. There is another, necessary element that the box and the door are missing. For that which turns in—that which alone has the will to turn in—is a composite creature. It is made of spirit and flesh. When it turns, it turns in a certain direction. It does violence to itself in a manner that upsets a certain balance. The human animal, it is clear, is not homogeneous like the spirit-angel of Aquinas or like the soulless mote of cosmic dust. This is why any figuration of human struggle must tend toward a certain anthropomorphism. We, as a species, lack a simple elegance. Try as we might, we cannot resolve ourselves into a golden spiral, or polish ourselves into a metallic sheen. (This, incidentally, is why the crucifixion, taken in its most basic lineaments, is the most efficient possible figuration of the human condition. It bridges heaven and earth, West and East, with the broken, unwieldy body of a man—a man mounted on a Cartesian grid.) But what happens when we do try to polish and resolve ourselves? What happens when we submerge the complexity of our dual nature within a monolithic vision?
Josiah McElheny, an artist in glass, has been accused of superficiality. But at his best he is an artistic moralist, exposing the distensions of modernist rationalism in order to bring it to account. For Rustin, the night-blindness of the modern world is rooted in fleshly onanism. Josiah McElheny shows that overweening reason begets its own blindness, effacing the intrinsic meaning of living things. In McElheny’s Modernity circa 1962, Mirrored and Reflected Infinitely, for example, eight glass vessels sit side-by-side in an open, lit rectangular space backed by a polished mirror [see Plate 11]. The mirror gives an impression of endless repetition, though the number of concrete objects is few. This might remind one of the natal assembly lines in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Meanwhile the illusory quality of the repetition is doubly appropriate: first, it underscores the falsity of the utopian, homogeneous ideal of modernist social engineering (which, indeed, was only an illusion), and second, it demonstrates the modernist preference for airy theorizing (literally, “reflection”) above the claims of the unique, the breathing, the real.
What is most interesting about McElheny’s Modernity circa 1962, however, is its poignant ambivalence. The eight figures are reflected monotonously, infinitely. Taken individually, however, no two of them are very much alike. They come in all shapes and sizes: tall, short, fat, thin. All of them have implied heads, waists, and feet. (I do not mean to accuse McElheny of a sort of anthropomorphic literalism here, but I do submit that his vessels, with their open centers and sinuous surfaces, are apt human metaphors, at least.) Furthermore, when studied directly, and not through the mediation of the mirror behind them, these figures yield entirely different kinds of reflections: they reflect each other. The most devastatingly beautiful views of McElheny’s Modernity are the views close up [see Plate 12] where we see tall others, round others, bumpy others, shot through the curving surfaces of each individual’s receptive “skin.” These mournful creatures (creatures without faces) have been subject to a fascist stripping-down, but their basic forms are obdurate, unaverageable. They have the melancholy of the anatomist’s skeleton, beautiful even in death and exploitation, because their intrinsic order cannot be effaced. And even, perhaps, because of their indignity, McElheny’s figures have been brought to a place of helpless openness, of infinite vulnerability—a vulnerability that, in its improvisational potential, will regenerate the soil, the veins, the hair, the crust that modernity had sheared away.
In our lives, in our art, there are two shifting strata. First, at the dark core, is the spiritual binary: the secret, personal signal eternally flashing “yes” or “no” to the invasion of the other (or eternally negotiating, like a gate on a microchip, the flow of information and electricity). In 1918 the American thinker and historian Henry Adams criticized this binary quality of Thomist philosophy, arguing that it was deterministic—that the individual could choose only between closing himself and thereby dying, or opening himself and becoming a puppet of God. What Adams did not see, however, was that to be open is to become exposed, terrifyingly, to a universe of possibility. For the entire physical universe, ennobled by its glittering congruencies, flows into the open soul and around it—piercing it, massaging it, coaxing it and bidding it follow in a million different directions. The soul is a perpetual Saint Sebastian, receptive to painful, forceful vectors that can be tolerated—that can be used and accepted—only in the case of complete surrender. At the heart of every great artwork, then, must be the gaping “yes,” the yawning wound. And reaching from it, clothed in the artist’s language, must be the baptized matter that flows through that wound, shot through with an order and a significance that makes the poet, the historian, and the mathematician alike cry “glory.”
The sensitive viewer enters the artwork in plunging sympathy. He recognizes that the artist’s idiosyncrasies or distortions are actually fluid exclamations of co-suffering, and not, first and foremost, conceptual inventions. The co-suffering of true knowledge explains why Tolstoy’s characters are so real. It explains the “infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing” of Eliot’s Preludes. Transcendence comes not through some desperate striving to rise above the material; it comes (paradoxically) through plunging into the inky, murky depths—the blood, and guts, and pus—and finding not disorder, absurdity, randomness, meat—but rather crystalline filaments and swirling fractals of infinite, overlapping complexity, coursing with a black-bright flood that is Being itself, the underpainting, the midnight lining of the carnal cloud, infinitely rich because it is both the source and the rational conflux of everything known and unknown.
Jacques Maritain’s model of the artistic experience has certain practical ramifications for the creation and appreciation of art. Some of these are ethical, and some of them are technical. First, an art education based on Maritain’s principles must encourage students to gently discover the physical qualities of various media, both in order to cultivate technical virtuosity, and also to emphasize the beauty intrinsic in the artist’s media. (It goes without saying that the media themselves should not be destructive ones; there is a real call to environmentalism in an art theory that proclaims the essential dignity of all things.) Secondly, a Maritainian education must help students become initiates in living visual languages; this should be accomplished not through enforced visual mimicry, as if art-making were like a child’s matching game, but through deep narrative attention to the way historical languages have emerged from natural conditions. It is only by this means that students will be enabled, once mature, to build fluidly and organically in a manner proportionate to the breadth and complexity of their pre-conceptual lives.
But a complementary aspect of art education must always be deep-down ethical, and this is where it gets tricky. If Maritain is right in placing the raw, pre-conceptual encounter at the ground of all true poetry (whether visual or verbal, whether spatial or aural), then would-be makers of art must learn utter, unflinching vulnerability. This is only possible in the absence of greed, cravenness, self-satisfaction, self-indulgence, pride, and fear. Metaphysical openness is painful and unpredictable and requires discipline to maintain. But only the helpless soul can see the truth.
For art, above all, is about the intrinsic meanings of things. Social languages—those meshes of mundane prose—appropriate living things into subtle networks of useful stereotypes (“tree,” “man,” “child,” “town”). Artworks, on the other hand, represent things as they are, for instead of submerging realities within concepts (“Christ was a man”), they re-deploy concepts as experiential pointers (“I have known the one called Christ, and he was truly ‘man’-like to me”). In art the word or motif—what the semioticians call the “signifier”—is always crowned with ghostly quotation marks. It is ever-exposed as a metaphorical emanation from a dark and fluctuating ground. This is a metaphysical version of the phenomenon anthropologists call “bricolage.” Bricolage is a product of creative appropriation, wherein objects created for one purpose are used for something wholly different (imagine a ceremonial crown made of Coke bottles and tinfoil). The bricolage of the artist takes the prosaic constructs of language and re-orients them toward a freshly perceived truth.
True poetry, then, is also the truest science. For poetry alone is purely, even objectively, descriptive. What unreliability it possesses does not reside in the perception of the sincere artist; instead it resides in the weakness or paucity of the socially constructed tools the artist must use. For indeed, the artist has no choice but to marshal (albeit creatively) faulty and flawed signs and matter in order to indicate, by means of deep structural congruence, a sovereignly true thing. Meanwhile the true-seeing viewer, a night-dweller also, need only crack the codes of history—the arbitrary crotchets of our shifting languages—to penetrate to a homelike ground beneath every authentic Work. To paraphrase the American painter John La Farge, who meditated extensively on the relationship between art and language: History does not judge art; art judges history.
By 1953, when he published his landmark Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Jacques Maritain had become a highly intuitive writer; thus his greatest contributions to art theory are not systematic at all but are practically works of art themselves. Nevertheless, it is possible to extract certain principles—an understructure—from Maritain’s writing, for the forging of a twenty-first-century art criticism that properly understands the metaphysical lineaments of the artistic act and the historical trajectory through which art has awakened to itself as a spiritual operation. In so doing, we make social use of Maritain’s ideas and turn what began as poetic meditation into fodder for social language and social policy. But that is exactly what our times need.
First, it is important to internalize concepts like “oneness,” the “pre-conceptual moment,” “direct making” and “congruence.” All of these principles, when properly understood, can help viewers and scholars understand art. An art born of oneness will always be unique and idiosyncratic—will be filled with fissures, lacunae, and baffling turns, will not be resolvable into pat concepts or narratives. At the same time, however, such art will be generative of ekphrasis—of complementary verbal congruencies that are the work of the night-viewing critic and interpreter. An art work about which no one can speak—an artwork that does not generate art itself, in other words, may not have been based in a true encounter.
Second, it is important to anatomize how our present milieu conspires to snuff out the light of the pre-conceptual moment. Our aggressively synthetic, commercial culture, full of stimuli designed purely to incite physical desire, to manipulate or to propagate falsehoods, is a feeble palette from which to select effective congruencies. Furthermore our physical environments, wherein the stars are blocked by blaring lights and the flowering earth is strangled by concrete, deprive us of the existential data we need to cultivate true sight. This is what Guy Debord lamented in his famous “Society of the Spectacle,” and this is what Pop Art often exposed. Our return to environmentalism and organic food must be joined by a return to metaphysical organicism. Our spirits are consuming junk food just as our bodies are.
The many-vectored nature of art, however, offers a universe of possibilities. Once we have wrenched ourselves from the deceitful cacophony of commercial culture (which has damaged us more than we know) we can begin fresh metaphysical researches into the meaning of life, of humankind, of God. What does it mean to be human in an age past pride—past the artificial conflation of the animating spirit either with the form of the body or with the shape of the mind? Figures like Rustin’s squinters begin to show a new way. For these figures are neither the bulging Platonic ideals of Michelangelo, wherein spirit and flesh are merely opposite sides of the same beautiful fabric. Nor are they meager hieroglyphs, populating the mind-space of some unified subjectivity and having no being of their own. Instead they command their own dark space, bodying forth a real life, yet they also reach beyond themselves. With their outward glances, their glimmering selfness, they wrap the viewer; they say, “I am—and I should be—both there with you and here where I am.” McElheny’s glass vessels likewise deliver their very selves into others, and receive others’ selves in return. This is the oneness of the both/and, of the self/other. For Aquinas, when it came to the constitution of things, spirit enveloped flesh and clouded about it—not the other way around. What does it mean to thus be turned inside out?
In the mystery of the artist’s birth—of everyone’s birth—the created spirit gathers to itself the beautiful, mathematical energies of nature and unites them for a space, creating a garment for its powers and latent glories and an anchor for its glittering eyes. We are upright vortices, shifting and breathing, but we are also knit-parts of a whole, moving the whole when we move. In short, we are the night itself, and only in owning this can we build anew amid what can seem to be the end of all things.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.