at the Noguchi Museum
I have taken another look at the crude epistemological model I have termed maze in the light of Aaron Asphar’s comments and Heidegger’s essay The Origin of the Work of Art. Aaron said,
the artistic, praxis, grounded perspective - that which deals with the actionable world - is the one that gives the meaningful sense of the 'maze'. For some people I know it fades into an ephemeral ghost structure (you must know the type I mean) - and often they go all 'cybordy' - I see this as a lack of somatic investment, probably a lack of sensuous artistic engagement.
Even though I have used the word maze as a metaphor—no one is physically walking and crawling through the tunnels of a cave when they make a work of art today—I think Aaron’s comment points to an important area of consideration for the location of the art object today: the body/earth (I am in the U.S. and Aaron is in the UK, but I think that ‘art today’ is linked in fundamental ways between Europe and America).* I think this is especially important considering the explosion of Internet culture, which impels a cyber-vision, even in the arts, away from the body and physical spaces. In seeking connections and racing along the broad and speedy avenues opened up by the Internet, artists the world over are looking for ways of making art on, with and through the Web. Whereas, in their most potent manifestations, such acts—or more precisely, sites of activity—are beautiful things (insert names of favorite websites and social media hubs), there is, potentially at least, a down-side to all of this. And that is the impossible movement such activities attempt toward an escape from the body/earth.
I cannot interact with anyone online without being aware of a physical being sitting behind an Internet device. They have body odor, perhaps they are sitting at a chair in bare feet, and perhaps there are dust balls at their feet. Or perhaps they keep the floor spotless, and they like to feel the squeak of their feet, tender because they never touch the rough ground outside. A bird is chirping out there, just beyond the window, and they are tapping on a keyboard, sending out messages to people far and wide who are also sitting behind their own Internet devices. These people vary according to age, race, nationality, gender and sexual preference. Each has their own set of physical attributes and afflictions. Each has their own history, and each has a different relationship to the physical spaces and the bodies in their immediate environment. And for each, all of these somatic concerns effect what they do and what they say, inexorably. But the important difference between all of us is the degree of awareness of this fact. For artists, this fact is essential. And why do I say this? Because the truth of art is based on this fact.
Heidegger’s essay amplifies and clarifies what I have been groping at:
There is much in being that man cannot master. There is but little that comes to be known. What is known remains inexact, what is mastered insecure. What is, is never of our making or even merely the product of our minds....[p 53]
Earth, self-dependent, is effortless and untiring. Upon the earth and in it, historical man grounds his dwelling in the world. In setting up a world, the work sets forth the earth. The work moves the earth itself into the Open of a world and keeps it there.
The work belongs, as work, uniquely within the realm that is opened up by itself. For the work-being of the work is present in, and only in, such opening up....
The [Greek] temple and its precinct, however, do not fade away into the indefinite. It is the temple-work that first fits together and at the same time gathers around itself the unity of those paths and relations in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline acquire the shape of destiny for human being. The all-governing expanse of this open relational context is the world of this historical people....Wherever those decisions of our history that relate to our very being are made, are taken up and abandoned by us, go unrecognized and are rediscovered by new inquiry, there the world worlds.
The “world worlds” as Heidegger says, even if we are looking at the ruins of a temple, an ancient play forever wrenched out of context, or a Roman copy of a lost Greek statue. It bears emphasis that the most ancient cave paintings and objects are not the only things that we cannot situate with definite historical certainty.
The Aegina sculptures in the Munich collection, Sophhocles’ Antigone in the best critical edition, are, as the works they are, torn out of their own native sphere. However high their quality and power of impression, however good their state of preservation, however certain their interpretation, placing them in a collection has withdrawn them from their own world. But even when we make an effort to cancel or avoid such displacement of works—when, for instance, we visit the temple in Paestum at its own site or the Bamberg cathedral on its own square—the world of the work that stands there has perished....World-withdrawal and world-decay can never be undone. The works are no longer the same as they once were.
E. H. Gombrich echoes Heidegger:
The fame of Pheidias is founded on works which no longer exist....The sculptures in our museums are, for the most part, only secondhand copies made in Roman times for travelers and collectors as souvenirs....We must turn to old descriptions...a gigantic wooden image, some thirty-six feet high, as high as a tree, covered all over with precious material—the armour and garments of gold, the skin of ivory....not forgetting the eyes, which were made of coloured stones. There were griffons on the helmet of the goddess, and the eyes of a huge snake which was coiled inside the shield were, no doubt, also marked by shining stones.[The Story of Art, p 53]
Our inability to place ourselves in the caves with Paleolithic man is the same inability to experience an ancient Greek play. The difference is one of degree, not kind; the further back the higher the degree of difficulty. The difficulty can be better appreciated if one recognizes that a piece of junk sculpture made in Miami Florida today does not have the same significance as a piece of junk sculpture made in Hannover Germany in 1918. What the two have in common is the material. They are works, they are made. And one of the ways in which the “world worlds”, one of the reasons this is possible, is that, in a work of art, the material is used, but not used up.
Isamu Noguchi, stone
the sculptor uses stone just as the mason uses it....But he does not use it up.
the relation between world and earth does not wither away into the empty unity of opposites unconcerned with one another....The opposition of world and earth is a striving....In setting up a world and setting forth the earth, the work is an instigating of this striving. This does not happen so that the work should at the same time settle and put an end to the conflict in an insipid agreement....
Isamu Noguchi, stone
This is where we find ourselves, not because art is history, but because “art grounds history”.
I find myself at the same crossroads as before, and I ask the same question: If we want so much to know a man who lived 30,000 years ago, isn’t it because we wish to know ourselves?
Georges Bataille, in The Birth of Art [pp 26 and 15], put it more beautifully than anyone:
The Modern Primitive, after untold ages of maturing, stands on a platform nearer the first men's level than ours; until some crucial change occurs, his lot is to stay where he is, uncreating and bogged down in the same dark backward abysm of time that immobilized his forbears. For us, on the other hand, a new but indefinite time is being born...the world within us is altering and in like manner, the world altered during that moment between the Reindeer Age's beginnings and the flowering of Lascaux. There was an outburst. There have been others, yes....Greece also gives us the impression of a miracle, but the light that emanates from Greece is the light of broad day: dawn's early light is less certain, less distinct, but during a stormy season, early morning lightening is the most dazzling of all....Those men [may not have] had the clear, analytical awareness which, too often, is the limited definition we give to conscious awareness. But the surge of strength and the feeling of grandeur that bore them up may be reflected in the passionate vitality animating the giant bulls of the Lascaux frieze. There existed a tradition, not strong enough to quash the new impulse, but to it those painters doubtless did owe something. However, they strode out of it, creating as they came; in the cave's semi-darkness, by the hallowing lamp-light, they surpassed what until then they had been by creating what was not there the moment before.
metal sculpture by Anthony Caro
*I recommend Aaron’s posts on the importance of the body in the work of Helene Cixous.
Heidegger quotes from Poetry, Language, Thought, Harper Colophon paperback, 1975