April 18, 2020
When I toss around the word Art, and I will let it be capitalized, I am referring to the process that may have sprung from the common mind of humanity, like Athena from Zeus, into the history of life on earth as a unique phenomenon over the course of a geologic blink, between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago. The invention of Art is the mark of the Cognitive Revolution in the anthropological narrative. Our ability to pass human-instinct back and forth, to invent tradition through language and media, forever pushed us out of the normal, ecological machines of evolution. The exile from Paradise was not a historic event but a process that continues in us every day, in every breath, a slow-dripping faucet that is contingent on nothing but the momentum of our shifting consciousness.
More so than working with a particular agenda in a particular medium, to be an artist is to forever wrestle with the idea of what Art is. Art has never been one thing, unlike science that is by definition, necessarily one thing. Art is not defined by aesthetic theory, although aesthetic theory can not exist without art. Art is also not confined to whatever we need it to be, in fact so much of it is generated in and functions beyond the conscious veil of our societal narrative. There is a creative frontier and there is a scientific frontier and as far as the last 250 years are concerned, they have moved forward together as sometimes-allies in a push and pull between truth (the agreed-upon realm of the physical sciences) and meaning (the metaphor that bridges experience and identity).
It was William Blake in Songs of Innocence and Experience, published in 1789, just 14 years after James Watt’s coal-powered steam engine kick-started the Industrial Revolution, that brought the modern mind online and reminded of the bitter exchange we had no choice but to agree to — the investigable world of empiricism made the world not only consumable but disposable. A century and a half before Blake, Descartes served us the naked world. The masks of Art, like the masks of god, were not necessarily proven false, just assumed to be irrelevant. When defending his philosophy before the king and was asked where God fit into his world, Descartes smiled and said that he had no need of god in this model.
The modern mind, the one that invented modern art, has never escaped the persistent and fertile idea that the masks of Art do as much to reveal as they do to conceal. This is the secret of the metaphor. Robert Bly: “a poet who is ‘leaping’ makes a jump from an object soaked in unconscious substance to an object or an idea soaked in conscious psychic substance.” When art (little “a”) is discussed in popular culture, especially in regard to science, words like “fun” and “illustrative” are used to describe (more than not) one mode of art-making (usually illustration) and how it used in the service of describing a scientific truth. I would like to work from the other direction — I aim to use scientific truth to inform artistic meaning. There remains, beneath the substrate of perceptive agency, a unified core beyond light and shadow, where the mystery is happy to remain. Our imaginative capacity to appreciate that mystery is unbound. It is on this path, my friends, that we again find the garden. It doesn’t come out of anticipation, it is here and we have to work very hard to refuse it.
1. My skull is different. Forms are fluid. Feathers replace hair in the secret stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. We may be following the whales into the sea. We are shocked to find furry eggs in golden nests. The year the humans broke their machine, they saw themselves in viral mirrors on snake scales. In silence for weeks, we sit for so long, spring roses bloom in our mouths. Through hollow reeds pointed at the sun, we breathe in the world’s new history, an infinite metaphor ready for the child’s eye we are growing into.
2. There is the new poem, on the plate, for breakfast. What a starving fool that I am not taking it. My glasses are made of tiny bird bones and still I only move in the dark. Most days spent avoiding the tender attention, upset, and numbed to pain’s confusion and a master of being scared or fooled. And then the snap of beauty. The blinking flower. The little sun. I’ll share. Some beautiful words are wrapped in sounds too large to hear until finally, at death’s boring door, we’re lucky to realize our whole lives were spent listening to nothing else.
3. You are welcomed into the home of the great poets. It is actually just a hut next to the railroad where the switch operator lives. You have got to enter with me unapologetically, and once inside, we find both Chartres’ cathedral ceiling and we find that little apartment in the city that we rented when we were younger. The one where the lonely violinist who stayed next door would play all night. Where we learned to feel everything that could be felt and where we had permission to do so. It was here that something started to live in us that will outlive even the stars. It was here that we taught even the broken table to dance. It was here that we invented new math to count the treasure collected after the storm, when the Great Work was able to begin and the whole world was forever changed.