I received this message recently from Karen Fitzgerald, a remarkable artist and dear friend:
I’m no longer making work for the art world. I’m making it for the world. The art world can go hunker down in its lumpy lodge, as can the fame makers, the fame industry. My back is turned. That may be the most unnerving thing about this new work for me: I’m out in the desert hollering in the wind, and that’s all there is to it.
I resonated immediately with her message, expressed more evocatively than a commonplace complaint of “enough already” (a feeling all of us have had at some point.) Hunker down. Lumpy lodge. Hollering in the desert. Those are lively words.
Karen isn’t the only person I know who is saying, “my back is turned.” Many people are intentionally untethering, disengaging from the posturing and posing that come with a career in art. I would include myself on that list. (Not that I could ever achieve the much-desired states of cool, detached or hip. As Peter Schjeldahl once said about himself, “sincerity is my accursed default.”)
Some view this slow drift from the designated center as an affliction particular to older artists. No longer as compelled to track cultural trends with the verve and passion of their younger days, they turn their focus solely to their work. And while this tendency may in fact be a real thing, I am also pretty sure there is something larger than just an Act III, age appropriate, “I’m on a different path” going down.
Karen’s retreat from the lumpy lodge of art world fads and manners dovetails with two memorable essays published recently by artist Taney Roniger: In Praise of Form: Towards a New Post-Humanist Art, in Interalia Magazine, and Thingly Affinities: On the Strange Power of Visual Form, in the Battery Journal.
Roniger doesn’t have to be sour about art world gatekeeping, fads or fame mongering to stake out a counter position. Her focus is actually on form itself. Over the last few years the visual arts have increasingly moved towards an emphasis on narrative, meaning and message. As a result, form itself has been devalued and underserved. Often it is dismissed with the disparaging epithet of “empty formalism.” For many of the projects trending in the visual arts these days, form has been relegated to nothing more than a delivery mechanism for content.
This denigration of form is actually in step with the longstanding Western humanist tradition, one that views human thought and actions as sovereign and superior. But as Roniger points out, humanism harbors an implicit ideology of “human exceptionalism: the assumption that the human being is the source of all meaning and, even further, the ultimate reality.”
In her first essay, In Praise of Form: Towards a New Post-Humanist Art, Roniger asks:
Can we achieve a new way of being that honors the nonhuman world, one that acknowledges its inherent richness and restores it to its rightful place in the cosmos? Spatially, chronologically, and in just about every other way, it does, after all, rather greatly exceed us.
And then this:
If form is something we apprehend with our senses and discursive content that which is grasped by the mind, the inferior status granted form is a tired recapitulation of the humanist error. But it is also more than this. In denying form its rightful place in art, art is denying itself an exquisite opportunity. For if now is the time for us to move beyond ourselves, to reclaim our fleshly relations to earth, animal, and world, what better vehicle than the power of sensual form?
Roniger’s “post humanist art” advocates for reconnecting with what is the beyond-human world. Stepping back from the selfhood, politics of identity, intersectionality and personal narrative that dominate art making these days, Roniger aligns the visual arts with contemporary thinkers who understand the dire importance of dismantling anthropocentrism including Donna Haraway (Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene,) Timothy Morton (Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People,) and David Abram (Becoming Animal.)
A post-humanist art, says Roniger, would be one of “transcendence. For with the thinker that thought itself into the center of the world silenced, we become living organisms again just like all others, participating in, and exquisitely sensitive to, the dynamic flux of the natural world.”
In her second essay, Roniger is more personal, sharing her own experiences of how the visual world can cast a spell. But, as Roniger points out, “The rational mind…does not take kindly to spells.”
This spellcasting is something every artist knows intimately: form has a power all its own. In a poignant essay titled The Art of Dying, Peter Schjeldahl (recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, sadly) offers his unabashed encouragement to let the visual speak:
To limber your sensibility, stalk the aesthetic everywhere: cracks in a sidewalk, people’s ways of walking. The aesthetic isn’t bounded by art, which merely concentrates it for efficient consumption. If you can’t put a mental frame around, and relish, the accidental aspect of a street or a person, or really of anything, you will respond to art only sluggishly.
Roniger reiterates the value of staying susceptible:
For we too are oscillators: our bodies are constantly pulsating to rhythms and cycles not under the control of our conscious awareness. The world is abuzz with animate forces, and we are among its many transmitters and receivers.
In my favorite passage, Roniger offers a poetic rendition of what happens in the act of art making. Being in the studio can often feel like being in a trance. I like being reminded of the subtle collaboration and co-creating that is happening all the time:
Like deep visceral echoes, our images are secretions born of our visual contact with things. But our mental images are not entirely ours; without the thingly presences that give rise to them, they wouldn’t exist inside us. In this sense, seeing is a profoundly collaborative act – one in which the world offers itself to us and we in response reiterate its form.
Karen claims she wants to make art “for the world.” Knowing her as I do, I get what that means. She has the land in her. In many ways she is an urban cohort of the poet and ecologist Wendell Berry, one who just happens to living in Queens. But like Berry’s lifelong connection to his farm in Kentucky, Karen has never lost her primal attachment to the Wisconsin landscape of her childhood.
Karen and I, like so many other artists I know, are looking for a more authentic way to “oscillate” into what feels resonant and meaningful. I don’t have a land-based root systems like she does, so making art “for the world” may not be an accurate description of how I want to work. Is it possible to make art that is in service to that which is transcendent, to the Great Beyond? To make art that brings that which cannot be described a little closer? Just the briefest glimpse into other realities has left me quite sure that the answer is yes.
Roniger’s final words also give me reason to embrace that hope:
While it may not be our only means of participating in the Great Beyond, aesthetic form is surely one of the most powerful. If visual art continues to dismiss it, insisting on art’s identity as a discursive enterprise, it may end up on the losing side of our century’s catastrophe…And what is art if not an agent of integration, and what are artists if not those who know how to show us what that might look like?