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Between a Question and an Answer - Silence and the Endarkened Mind


Things waiting for attention, graphite 2004


Lately, I have noticed my father, who has slowed right down with his illness, takes quite a while to respond to questions. Sometimes, I wonder if he has heard me, but often, as I begin to ask the question again, I actually interrupt his response, I just needed more patience. Of course, this is not always true, sometimes he really hasn't heard me, or he was distracted when I asked, it's often hard to judge, so now, after a question, I wait quite a while before repeating it, and in the silence, I try to practice listening.


this morning, I feel restless, like something is pressing me for settlement, I have that sense of what Buddhists call dukha, a general dissatisfaction, with nothing in particular. I am unquiet and it is a feeling which makes working very difficult. This feeling is quite similar to the waiting between a question and an answer. 


Often, I try to articulate what I believe art is about, and I think this is one of it's chief qualities, and deserves a little unpacking. Drawing from life is the way I learned my craft. The simple business of sitting in front of something, and trying to describe it's appearance, was where my art journey started as a boy, with Mr Thomson helping me draw bits and pieces from the Still Life cupboard in the art rooms at school. Later, as I became clear that I wanted to be an artist, my focus remained on drawing from life, and it hasn't ever shifted. In my 30's I went back to school and did the 'Drawing Year', which is where I met some very impressive artists who had a similar preoccupation with drawing from life. Now that I am in my 50's, I can see that for all of my adult life, I have been pursuing this odd practice. 


Describing the appearance of things has been the function of art for centuries, that only really changed in the 20th Century, with the various developments in thinking about art, and culture more broadly. Being a strong advocate for representational art, I actually find, sometimes, I need to explain it's relevance. The philosophy of art is sophisticated, and being an artist who makes pictures of things can lead to some hard conversations. One can feel backed into a corner at times, and it is easy to become a little defensive, because the questions posed are existential, not in the least bit superficial. The questions representational artists have to answer, are about the deepest function and purpose of art, and the reason for this, is that the prevailing culture is actually antagonistic toward the convictions and values underpinning representational art. 


Traditionally, that is, in the period leading up to the emergence of the Post Modern, there was an accepted view that there are hierarchies of value, which hinge on certain immutable truths. Value was considered to derive from these non-negotiables, and virtue was seen to be an aspiration toward them. As a result, application and refinement were regarded as hallmarks of quality. In this respect, traditional art practice holds that certain subjective experiences, the ability to appreciate great music, for instance, are a normal human potential, but, that not all people are willing or inclined to aspire to them.


Post Modern thinking attacks this notion, by asserting that there is no hierarchy of value and that all 'truths' are relative. It doesn't do this clumsily, there is no baby heading out the window with the bath water, instead it does it by insinuating a question, right at the root of the established means for making sense of things. Thinkers like Derrida establish the notion that any truth claim is, by dint of it being a claim, open to questioning, because it exists within the finite framework of a 'text'. Once articulated, any claim is open to questioning, and so can not be held to be immutable. This may sound like a type of reductionism, but the genius move is that rather than leading to an ever reducing argument over what comes first, the truth or the truth claim, Post Modernism spreads out wide, dismantling the fabric of any question that is posed.


Post Modern defenders have fought against the assertion by some, that this leads to an inevitable Nihilism, and there is a fight raging between the postmodernists and traditionalists, which tends to take on political dimensions. The complexity of the arguments is such, that few can really understand them, but often, the rebuttal of the postmodernists is to point out specific misrepresentations of Post Modern theory. Professor Stephen Hicks (1) and Dr Jordan Peterson (2) are the most often sighted in this regard, both of whom have made it their business to attack Postmodernism as a cultural scourge. Hicks is considered by some to have so badly misrepresented, not only Post Modernism, but Western Philosophy more broadly, that he can not be taken seriously as a philosopher at all (3). Peterson is also regarded with similar contempt, and yet both thinkers address something more than the technicalities.


It is telling, that rebuttals of Hicks and Peterson, take place in the 'text', that they are accused of misrepresenting the textual claims of specific philosophers, when in essence, what both are doing is actually challenging the results of those 'claims'. Peterson, for instance, asserts that Derrida's use of the term 'Phalogocenrtic' (4) has the consequence of unravelling the principal hierarchy of value in Western culture, and ascribing all blame to the male. Many postmodern philosophical rebuttals have been issued deriding his representation of Derrida's term, but no meaningful attempt has been made to examine the potential truth in it. Peterson's claim is not so much, about the term, but about the consequences of the thinking which gave rise to it, and employed it so effectively. What ever one's position on notions of 'The Patriarchy', it is a fairly well established conviction in the West that only evil has flowed from it. The term Phalogocentric, has been a brilliant means of establishing that conviction. The term essentially meaning that Logos, that is Truth, can not be understood in the West outside of a masculine framework, and that the very notion of a linear, and thrusting narrative structure to history and culture is phallic in nature.


What Hicks and Peterson both assert is that there is a substructure of 'Truth' or Logos which is a vital component in any functioning society, and Peterson specifies that it is only possible to apprehend this Truth through competence. In essence, Peterson asserts that postmodern culture attempts to dismantle competence, and that is its chief sin.


Competence is the fulcrum upon which arguments about culture and the arts specifically, ultimately hinge. It is an argument about competence and the measuring of it which drives the proposals of another recent thinker. The late Sir Roger Scruton, argued from the perspective that there are hierarchies of value and meaning which, when society is healthy, both inform culture and the arts, and are perpetuated through them. Scruton asserted that education should actually enable people to make moral choices, through refinement, but that this refinement was not only achieved by enlightening but also by what he called "endarkening".


Scruton believed that the enlightenment project had not only yielded great benefits, but that some of the avenues of thought which flowed from it, and which had begun to dominate western thinking, were actually counterproductive. He saw an un-tethering of constraint on human desire and emotion occurring, through the erosion of moral education, as an upshot of the rational project being unable to quantify certain essentials. Not only this, but in the un-tethering, he believed a new type of barbarity was asserting itself.


"moral education cannot be ... purely enlightened and enlightening ... it cannot be simply a matter of teaching [people] to calculate the long term profit and the loss, while leaving .. desires to develop independently. It must involve an endarkened and endarkening component, by which [people] are taught precisely to cease [their] calculations, to regard certain paths as forbidden, as places where neither profit nor loss has authority." (5)

For me, what Scruton is saying articulates very well, the link between ethics and the arts, and it provides a means of approaching the hard encounter between contemporary thinking and traditional art practices. The simple business of describing the appearance of something is not easy to justify, and calling it art is even harder to justify. What is an artist who describes things doing? They are waiting, listening, asking questions and remaining silent, unsure their questions have even been heard. Desire, the desire for an answer, for stimulus, for something satisfactory, is being sublimated to receptivity, the self is being put in service of the other. If we are going to justify art we have to recognize it has a function beyond the obvious.


Measuring that function wont be easy though, there is no "profit and loss" means for assessing the quality of art. The best means of measuring art, might be to consider the culture it participates in. What refinements and benefits does the art bring, what human virtues does the art enable and enhance? What morality does the art pertain to? If we consider culture, not so much in terms of the movement of the masses, but rather, as the manifold interactions of individuals, when art communicates patience and listening, waiting in the silence, a willingness to encounter discomfort in the service of truth, then I think it is potentially good art.


notes:

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Very thoughtful piece - I have posted it on three different Facebook pages - but suspect only the very serious or intellectual will read it- Americans are not known for their "love of art" or for their understanding art. or even caring about it, except, perhaps, in terms of how their car was designed....

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Bless you Phil, your friendship means a lot to me, I'm sorry we haven't been able to touch base recently. I'm still in France, Anya has been amazing, allowing me to be here and keeping my back free. I think you might be being a bit hard on Americans, many of the people who most inspire me, yourself included, are American, but as a good friend of mine recently pointed out, you don't know because you don't live here, and I had to concede he was right.

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Thank you for sharing your dukha. I wish I could alleviate some of it.

Culture we are fed with, then fed up with.

When we forget culture life is here. The way we eat when drunk, our dukha when sad, the tears we shed in our sleep when we don't get to touch the face of our love.

We are the Things waiting for attention.

Simona

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