I am overcome with the suspicion that art tries to kill us. Not in the completely literal sense, but in the way the experience of art can take you to a state that is pre-lingual and pre-perception, somewhere close to the being before it becomes human. Obviously not all art does this, but that which does is interesting to me, because it makes art conscious of itself. The idea of the absolute/unreachable seems to me universal and has probably been a part of humanity since the beginning of expression (though I can’t tell you what the beginning is). This does not necessarily have to do with dualism, because I don’t think that the conceptual separation of the material and the metaphysical is required to experience what I can only call asymptotic sensation. Many artists including myself are driven by the fact that any representation or creation of the world or some state of being can never be or fully encompass that which it refers to. Postmodern thinkers have already abandoned the style of thinking/creating that seeks to represent reality. Abstraction avoids or destructs narrative and superficial elements of perception. But even pure production that is nonderivative must come from somewhere, someone or something, and is linked to and limited by sensation, specifically, human sensation.
“Modern art and modern philosophy can be said to have converged on a similar problem: both renounced the domain of representation and instead took the conditions of representation as their object.” (Daniel W. Smith on Deleuze’s aesthetic theory)
I am reading a philosophy book about Francis Bacon’s paintings. Barely, but insistently, the word “violence” as it is used in theory is beginning to make more sense to me. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the use of a term that applies to very real physical consequences in the context of esoteric theories of art and literature, especially when the violence is supposedly occurring between concepts, words, and meaning. The abstraction and liberal application of the word without precision can seem problematic, and often is. But I have been going insane with the infectious idea of art as an interaction with the body (both literally and figuratively) and, at least in the marginal branches, very much concerned with the abject, which is linked to grotesqueness and violence. So much has to do with dying, and the ultimate consequence of violence taken to its limits is death. It makes sense that instruments of creation are often compared to weapons. One of the purposes of art is to voice what cannot or is not voiced. Often what speaks speaks in the margins and seeks to subvert or destroy the cliche, the normal, the stagnancy that is the lived life and the dominant ideological body. On a more basic level, art strips even the pre-perceptive experience.
Portrait of a Man with Glasses -Francis Bacon ^
“To make spasm visible.”
While Bacon’s work does channel the violence of narrative scenes such as crucifixions, mutilated bodies and beasts, what is more deeply compelling about his work is, and I agree with this claim, “violence that is involved only with color and line: the violence of a sensation (and not of a representation), a static or potential violence, a violence of reaction and expression. For example, a scream rent from us by a foreboding of invisible forces: ‘to paint the scream more than the horror…'” (Deleuze-Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation).
For me, looking at a Bacon painting is like being sucked back into the ineffable moment upon awakening and not recognizing the environment or my own body, or it looks like what it feels like to be nauseated, or anxious, or simply being a pile of unified flesh and bone. The state before recognizing the self or subject as a person or something in the world context. But the moment is not stable and the viewer moves between rhythm and sense. The violence of the line is not separated from the violence of the figure and the figure itself is both the object and the subject. I am experiencing what it expresses as I am gazing at it. Seeing is bleeding.
I hear a lot about the “violence of the gaze”, and have been reading a lot about the wound and even wrote a little about it a while ago in a post about Let the Right One In.
The concern with monstrosity and wounds and trauma. The riddle that bubbles up when death enters as a question mark at the end of a sentence or line. On the surface level, Bacon’s portraits look like piles of meat or mutilated freak-beings.
The discomfort on the viewer’s part is a strange mixture of sensations, fear and revulsion, as well as pity. I like what Johannes G. says in his post about Arbus:
“We don’t gain mastery over them with our gaze. But that’s not because we feel sympathy with them or some such humanist crap; on the contrary, they are riddles, we don’t empathize, we don’t feel a personal connection etc.
This is why I think the liberational metaphor is wrong: we don’t answer the riddle, we don’t survive the art work.”
Sympathy is not the same as pity. And I’ll end with this:
“The entire body becomes plexus. If there is feeling in Bacon, it is not a taste for horror, it is pity, an intense pity: pity for flesh, including the flesh of dead animals…”–Delueze