Saturday, January 23, 2010

some educive growths by a sidewalk, picked for replanting

It’s not that city life is chaotic. So much is happening, no order can be discerned before the inestimable assemblage of events have transposed into another question of order. The ecology is change by change within change within change, levels of cycles and process, our evolving humanity easily seeming like some eternal recurrence. Another day.

But someone from, say, the 1950s transported into 2010 wouldn’t have any idea why so many people are apparently talking to the air (wires coming out of their ears, into their jackets), so much pointlessness in the solioquys, as if not daring to be left to the solitude of their own thoughts (or thoughtlessness), idle chatter exponentiated, maybe longing for a brain implant that allows a tribal mind (thereby unwittingly returning relative quiet to a bus or train ride).

At best, the street offers all the healthy din of our evolving writ small, some of the manifold Flow that all there is expresses, Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquid modernity” (Liquid Times, 2007), where too much happens so readily, here and gone, that an account can’t be captured, little solidity of The Present, little frame of reference for long-term plans. Our lives are netweaves, assemblages, because the environment is animate assemblage, disassemblage, reassemblage—simulacra vying for genuine pretense. Be flexible and adaptable, adroit at tacking, because the days are rocking ships on tempests of time. Be ready to abandon commitments and loyalties without regret, writes Bauman, because opportunism reigns. “Endemic uncertainty” rules the ecology, where living well becomes risk management.

In light of such a view, Bauman argues that “we are all artists of life,” in his the art of life, 2008, “will it or not, like it or not.” We give life form and purpose, because that’s what successful people who end up happy do. “And we are praised or censured for the results—for what we have managed or failed to accomplish and for what we have achieved and lost.” We are designers in the face of constraints we will not accept and constraints we cannot elude. The pathwork will be what we have to look back to in later years, when we wonder where all the time went. There will be the story of our lives, memorable and not, because we will have become whatever stayed memorable for the narrating we must do.

So, what is “art”? Why even use the word? Calvin Tomkins, beginning Lives of the Artists, 2008, notes that “the early years of the twentieth century gave rise to a new kind of artist, whose first obligation was to invent or discover a new self.” Now, for the ten artists interviewed in his book, “art has been, among other things, an approach to the problem of living.” But it all (the art world of the ‘80s, the ‘90s, and our turn of the century) “brings us back to the question of self-invention. ….In my experience, the lives of contemporary artists are so integral to what they make that the two cannot be considered in isolation.”

Art of living, life of art, self, world—elated embodiment, worn identity. Existentialism is modernity. Questions of Being express our nature. Do we find ultimate resolution in an epistemology? The black cosmos looks back, black and silent. Some moral vision we design and sustain? Are we ultimately some art (or lack of artfulness)?

Discourse on aesthetics has found a new life in recent years. Jacques Rancière’s Aesthetics and its Discontents, 2004 (2009) seems typical, arguing that we need the institutional discourse of art, beyond the dissolution of “art” into life (“a remorseless ethical demand”) and life raised to “art” (or some “metapolitics”). We need to keep legacies alive, as youth (and “slacker art,” Tomkins’ phrase) pretends that our humanity originates in The Present (a depressing thought), rather than, well, that one might work on a cathedral that’s growing to redesign itself relative to our degree of fidelity to its advance.

Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: rethinking environmental ethics, 2007, seeks to “relinquish the idea of nature” in ecological thinking, but to range “widely in philosophy, culture, and history” to explore “the value of art in imagining future environmental projects.”

So, what is “art”?

Ha, what is gardening?