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January 18, February 9, February 22, March 8, and March 22, 2013
Over the next three months, Angie Keefer will give five different talks. The talks are brainy, but Keefer is not an intellectual doily maker. She is a woman without a program. She writes, edits, and publishes, but through it all hangs onto the particulate phenomena of lived life. And the more evenings you attend, the more inclined you may be to see and hear again with demurral, as mystery isn’t something that evaporates as knowledge increases. It grows along with explanations. Why doodle on the walls of the cave, why send mysterious messages, when one can speak directly? She asks the question not for wooden answers, but as a kind of implacable demonstration.
“Who, among thinkers, is interpreting the great world itself—landscape and culture together—in terms of human meaning? Is interpretation possible at all? We lock in asylums people who see meaning in clouds and rocks, but we heap honors on people who see meaning in children’s jokes and patterns scratched on pots. Where do those of us who are not in asylums draw the line—by tacit agreement—between the humanly meaningful and meaningless? Is the search for meaning among the high heaps of the meaningless a fool’s game? Is it art’s game?” Keefer inches onto these absurdly large questions without making a transparently ideological claim on the viewer, and without disappearing up her own ass, so to speak.
My advice to the budding viewer is to attach yourself to the formal decisions of Keefer’s talks—the how, rather than the what. In doing so, I have come to the low-wattage epiphany that her unadorned “Dick and Jane” sentences, her return of speech to art, is perhaps a pesticide to the claustral cubby of intellectualism. Her style drops the audience into easy acoustic rhythms, so that they may be taken out of easy cerebral rhythms. Some may see this as a simple affect, but I’m with Nabokov, I think that style is not a method, not a tool, not a choice of words alone. Being much more than all this, style constitutes an intrinsic component or characteristic of the artist’s ethic.
A genuine interrogator, a real up-at-the-bow-artist who truly challenges authoritarian thinking, we need desperately. But an interrogative posture is easy and banal. The commitment to ask even one combustible question requires something other than knowledge, posture, and slogans. People who maintain their dignity as artists, in a small way, by being puckish in exhibitions, simply delight the public. True interrogation about form requires homework—thought and risk. It takes a lot of dissatisfaction and dissolution to worm out one good stumper. I am reminded of something Joan Didion wrote about her friend, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick and the willful transgression implicit in the written enterprise: “She knew that to express oneself was to expose oneself, that to seize the stage was to court humiliation, that to claim the independence implicit in the act of writing could mean becoming like the women [Hardwick] describes in Sleepless Nights, left to ‘wander about in their dreadful freedom like old oxen left behind, totally unprovided for’—and she accepted the risk.”
Angie Keefer (b. 1977) graduated from Yale University in 1999. Her work has taken place at the 2012 São Paulo Biennial; MoMA, NY; Artist Space, NY; and the Kunsthal Charlottenborg, among others. In 2011, she co-founded, with David Reinfurt and Stuart Bailey, THE SERVING LIBRARY. The Serving Library is a long-term project that looks at how the role of the library has changed over time, from fixed archive through circulating collection to a disseminating pimple on the internet. Of course, that description is not quite right, but expression is always a compromise.
Our gratitude to David Reinfurt, Stuart Bailey, Kitty Scott, Isla Leaver-Yap, Shannon Ebner, Elad Lassry, James Hoff, Chris Fitzpatrick, Will Holder, Sarah Demeuse, Josh Melnick, Scott Keefer, Jennifer Sikes, and Otto Hauser
…Are the world’s artists, with all their noble orderings, playing in the sand? Another way to phrase the same question is this: do artists discover order, or invent it? Do they discern it, or make it up? Finally—are the significance, causality, harmony, purpose, etc., which we find in art objects to be found in the actual world? …Are these structures really intelligences, the product of knowledge, which enlighten; or are they instead only play-pretties, the products of wishing, which console?
It is a shame, having stated the question so tidily, and I hope so poignantly, that we must now disallow it. For the drearily abstract truth of the matter is that there is no final difference between the two choices. The question pertains only to the realm of positivist knowledge—to science. One may discover America, which is actual, or invent a unicorn, which is not. Inventing a trip to the moon is mere literature until we discover a way to get there; the discovery of a unicorn would be very hard news indeed. In science, our fictions do not necessarily create our facts (although, as is well known, they may certainly facilitate their discovery, as Kepler’s elaborate, angelical cosmology led him to posit elliptical orbits). Even in the sciences, however, the matter becomes steadily cloudier as the levels of abstraction climb. What do we mean by asking if a context is actual? According to whom? For all we know of the actual is our knowledge of it, and that knowledge is contextual, partial, verbal, and so forth. Do we know that the brown pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, is a bird of the order Pelecaniformes and the family Pelecanidae—or did somebody just make that up? Did we discover calculus or invent it? Do we discover or invent a new move in chess? Did we discover or invent the qualities of color and charm in particles? Anti-matter?
Outside of positivism, in the realm of understanding—of human interpretation—invention and discovery are the same process. It is all fiction. Did Plato, or Kant, or Freud, discover a series of significant relationships, or fabricate it? Did Noam Chomsky discover a series of significant relationships, or fabricate it? Did Schönberg? Did Mondrian? Did Confucius or the Baal Shem-Tov discover a series of significant relationships or fabricate it? Did Shakespeare? Did Conrad, did Beethoven, did Donne? The question is meaningless.
But let us go further. The intellectual, interpretive orders which we find in art objects must be there to be found in the actual world, for somebody found them, if only by making them up. But surely there are false interpretations, such as that the Aryan race is destined to rule Europe. Surely there are human orders which only madmen discern, such as the one in which the tide of history is understood to have risen and borne upon its breast the returned general Napoleon Bonaparte, in the person of the speaker. How do we distinguish between those inventions which we honor by the name “discoveries”—such as Freud’s—and those inventions we dismiss as balderdash, such as the doctrine of signatures? Alas, we have only empiricism. Some interpretations, such as Plato’s and Freud’s and Buddha’s, are still proving useful in their respective fields. This, in turn, is a matter of consensus. Consensus within the various cultures sets useful inventions/ discoveries in the shrines of convention, where they reign until consensus changes, when some even more useful fiction replaces the old, as the doctrine of signatures was replaced. This is all very well, and establishes that much of our question is disallowed. But we press on.
What are we to make of artistic interpretations of the great world? Do they obtain? Do those in what consensus calls a great work obtain in the actual world? We have seen that, so far as we know, interpretations of natural facts do not obtain outside their artistic contexts; Melville has not explained to us whales. Interpretations of human facts, however, may well obtain outside their contexts. In the presentation of Achilles and Lear and Lord Jim and Madame Bovary and Dorothea Casaubon and Ahab we may discern relationships between character and event, or character and its parts, which empiricism, if it could ever be directed to such insubstantial ends, would I think discover to be actual recurring patterns. These structures are actual; the articulation of them is discovery. This is a great value of literature. But this is referential. It presents a model of discoveries, of relationships interpreted out of the great world. Well and good.
But please, what about artistic (not interpretive) values in art? The idea of order is actual; a pebble is an ordering. But do the ordered relationships among all parts which we find in a great short story or sonnet exist in nature? Do the reflexive structures and intellectual patterns and purpose which we find in art—do these obtain elsewhere? Or do we merely make them up because our minds are uniquely adapted for making things up?
This is an appalling possibility. If our minds are selected for inventing bits of order, then art’s highest function is to shed light on the mind. And, terribly, any human artifact is the mind’s own simulacrum. A play or a government, a canal or a culture, is a physical replica by means of which the mind duplicates its own structures unwittingly, as a strand of DNA replicates itself inside a banana leaf. And if this is true, and the natural world which churned out the mind is a wreck and a chaos, like a rock slide, then the mind is a marvelous monster indeed. And the work of art (in addition to being the least of our worries) is always a tour de force in which the mind displays abilities absurdly in excess of, or at least incidental to, their survival function. For the ability to conceive and execute murals and epic poems and symphonies and novels is a grotesque trick of tissue which sprang from the pot of the possible, like the grossly overdeveloped antlers of the extinct Irish elk.
The mechanism would be this. The overrefined abilities which go into the production of art, religion, and any systems of value would have persisted within the expanding brain of the species, and developed further, and in fact made a rollicking success of the lot of us, because they are extremely adaptive—not for understanding what is, but for getting through the winter. The fictive ability to invent and order makes possible the imaginative conception and execution of shaped tools, the agricultural calendar, complex societies with myth, social ideals, and civic order, and other such dreary, survival-enhancing phenomena. The murals and novels, then, while not specifically useful, would be merely harmless excrescences of the same adaptive tissues, or at best, useful models of social ideals, or abstractly, ideas of order. By these lights, there is no order anywhere but in our brains, which are uniquely adapted for inventing it and for handling complex abstractions. These abilities have served us very well. The only significance and value which obtain anywhere are in the mind’s discernment of these fictive qualities in its own manufactured models. We create value and locate it in our monstrously overdeveloped mental self-replication, our stuttering repetitions of our brains’ own order, with which we have covered the gibbering earth.
This is the most dismal view—of art and of everything—I can imagine. It must be admitted that one idea in this book is consistent with this view, and even points to it: the suggestion that we already agree tacitly that human significance is the only significance. Although all the generations of people, ever since we can remember—artists, thinkers, cranks, and pagans of every stripe—have intensively sought and sometimes found meaning in the natural world, none of those meanings has “stuck.” Nowhere does any consensus agree upon any set of human meanings for the natural world, but only for the human world. Our dwelling places where we dwell, along continental coasts and inland river valleys, are the only sites where what we want and so fiercely imagine can be found, the brain’s own baby doll: purpose, significance, and harmony. In the fabrication of these things we are skilled because the skill feeds and preserves us, as the specially adapted tissues of benthic fishes or of dragonflies feed and preserve them. Our brains secrete bright ideas and forms of order; armored scale insects secrete wax from their backs. Thus Cro-Magnon man imagines a long process like dressing skins, like planting grains, like forming diversified societies; thus armored scale insects survive humped under their own goo.