04 December 2009

Stranger in a strange land

So I had an interview for the postgraduate diploma course the other day. I don't know about you, but I find that, if a certain aspect of an event makes an impression on my mind, that aspect overshadows all other aspects of the event in my memory of that event.

I can recall the start of the interview, where I was asked about my impressions of the year just been, and I can recall talking about what I want to do in terms of using pictures to formulate and convey ideas – 'conferring plastic reality on inner states of mind' (which is a nice phrase of Picabia's I quoted in my proposal).

However, that discussion is pretty nebulous in my memory. It is completely overshadowed by the startling statement the head of the school made to me, more than once: 'You would need to conform.'

It was as if he'd suddenly reached across the table and smacked me upside the face with a dead fish. Suddenly the years fell away and it was as if I was in one of those awkward encounters I had fairly regularly with authority figures at boarding school, involving as they did such level-headed and non-hyperbolic assertions as I was the reason our seventh form was the worst in living memory and that if I carried on the way I was going I'd be dead before I was 21.

I think it fair to say that from this point on in the interview I struggled. I couldn't get over the extraordinary suggestion that the most important thing for postgraduate research in fine arts is conformity.

Oh well, apparently I'll know whether they want me in their course next year in a couple of weeks. Someone suggested I should cover my bets and apply for Elam as well. I did consider doing that – and asking one of the people on the Massey interview panel to be my referee for it – but I don't think I will.

In the interests of transparency, I'll include my proposal. There is one small section that is the token ticking of academic boxes that I shouldn't've included (namely, 'specific placement of your research within the current contemporary art context'), but I'm happy with the rest. This is what I thought we'd discuss. I expected their concerns to have been with what arrant nonsense it is:
Towards a common-sense nihilist guide to life: A research proposal


The true artists of our time are philosophers. I have no time for the sterile arguments of the professional philosophers in the universities, politicians whose axes are ground very fine indeed, who only exist to serve the status quo. I speak of the philosophers of living, those who have something to say to those who would be human, truly free and independent, and reject the tyrants both without and within.

Like most small, isolated communities, New Zealand is a conservative and conformist society. There is no nihilistic tradition here, and no art made from a nihilistic perspective – until now.


I propose a research project to investigate ways to formulate and express the common-sense nihilist philosophy through drawing.


Death – The certain prospect of death could sweeten every life with a precious and fragrant drop of levity – and now you strange apothecary souls have turned it into an ill-tasting drop of poison that makes the whole of life repulsive.’ (Nietzsche 2000: 165.)


What is common-sense nihilism and what does it want?
– Nihilism is a philosophical doctrine that holds that nothing is true or real, and that life has no intrinsic meaning, purpose, or value. Common-sense nihilism is my version of this philosophy. While it shares many characteristics with nihilism proper, there are important differences.

Nihilism is often characterised as a pessimistic philosophy. It is also often mischaracterised as being purely destructive, and so dismissed. Common-sense nihilism, on the other hand, holds that a belief in nothing forms the basis for a positive approach to life, as creative.

Is common-sense nihilism viable as philosophy, as art, as life? What are its implications and consequences? Is it possible to be meaningfully free in an advanced technological capitalist state? These are the questions this research proposal seeks to examine.

Many people seem to have a problem with the term common-sense nihilism. The ‘common-sense’ refers in part to the self-evident nature of a belief in nothing – as in Marcel Duchamp’s answer when he was asked what he believed in: ‘Nothing, of course!’ (Mundy 2008: 57.) ‘Common-sense’ also refers to how we approach the world of appearances. Although there are several good reasons for concluding that the world does not really exist, it appears to exist, and we should treat it as such, without losing sight of its meaninglessness and absurdity.

If everything is meaningless, it is we who must invest things with value. Rather than using received values from religion and politics, based as they are on a false representation of things, the common-sense nihilist creates their own values and purposes. However, the common-sense nihilist does not create consoling fantasies. The meaning and purpose they create has as its foundation the recognition that life is absurd and that the world of appearances is hostile and contingent. This can involve an antagonistic attitude to society, especially society’s institutions, and a joyful contempt for everything, including themselves.

Fundamentally, common-sense nihilism is about individual freedom, freedom through art. In this, it shares a defining characteristic of the historical avant-garde, and as such is an intertemporal avant-garde art movement. At our present time, when societal conditions have functional similarities with those of the early twentieth century, any definition of freedom that goes beyond the ability to buy and sell material goods is important.


This proposal takes the form of a manifesto, with more than a nod in the direction of the way Nietzsche structured his books. A manifesto is a programmatic declaration of a plan of action, much like a proposal is. As common-sense nihilism is conceived of as a one-person avant-garde art movement, in the vein of Picabia’s Amorphism and Instanteism and Malevich’s Suprematism, a manifesto form is doubly appropriate.


I propose to examine the questions raised in section 4 using drawing. For the purposes of this proposal, drawing is defined as a form of painting. That is, drawing is lines and colour on a flat surface that physically manifest through representation. Representation is defined as the portrayal (presenting again) of a thing by using something else in place of that thing, such as a visual metaphor or a schematic. As Francis Picabia put it in a different context, ‘Photography has been a great help in forcing art to realise its own nature, which does not consist of becoming a mirror of the external world but in conferring plastic reality on inner states of mind.’ (Borràs 1985: 98.)

Ideas, especially philosophical ideas, are usually presented through words. But are words the best way of conveying ideas? Take Descartes’ formulation ‘Cogito ergo sum’ for example. This tells us nothing about whether we exist, but rather only something about the grammatical construction of sentences. The verb ‘think’, like the verb ‘exist’, requires a subject ‘I’. Descartes’ sentence does not demonstrate that he exists, but that words go together in certain ways. (See Nietzsche 2000: 256–7.)

The physicists tend not to use words to convey the complex ideas with which they deal. They use diagrams, such as the diagrams invented in 1908 by the mathematician Herman Minkowski to represent the properties of spacetime in the special theory of relativity: ‘Whatever exists as a movement, as something happening in a space with a specific number of dimensions (n), can be represented as a form in space which has one additional dimension (n + 1).’ Similarly, the physicist Richard Feynman invented a kind of diagram to represent quantum field theory processes in terms of particle paths. (See Nahin 1993.)

To present common-sense nihilist ideas, this research project will focus on the interaction of image and text. Visual art is rich in associations, associations not just with what is represented but also with how it is represented. Is incorporating text with a picture a way of focusing those associations? Does the text limit the picture, and the picture expand the text? Can image and text be combined to convey abstract thought in all its complexity, to ‘confer plastic reality on inner states of mind’?


Art is the worship of error
– This research project proposes to begin with an in-depth study of the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, and how they have been interpreted and adapted by later thinkers such as Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, Deleuze, and Foucault.

As well as examining contemporary artists who incorporate image and text, such as William Powhida, David Shrigley, and Raymond Pettibon, the project will look at ways pre-literate societies used visual art to present abstract ideas, particularly in early Renaissance Italy and pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. How do such considerations as the relative size and placement of images affect their meaning?

In particular, the project will focus on how Francis Picabia, the living embodiment of Dada nihilism, adapted and implemented Nietzsche’s ideas in his painting, his writing, and his person. ‘An artistic temperament which demanded spontaneous self-expression was matched in [Picabia] with an intellect that could no longer see a “meaning” in this world at all. He was, at one and the same time, a creative artist, compelled to go on creating, and a sceptic, who was aware of the total pointlessness of all this creative activity, and whose Cartesian intellect ruled out all hope’ (Richter 1978: 72).


An important Dada strategy is its use of humour, and especially its mockery of ideals. Humour has no respect for self-important persons or institutions. It deflates those who are puffed up. Perhaps most importantly, it mocks itself. Can humour be used to create a space for freedom to exist? Given our current societal conditions, is the time ripe for a resurgence of a nihilistic avant-garde movement using humour as a weapon?


Nothing matters! – This research project will result in a series of drawings that combine visual metaphors and schematics with slogans and aphorisms to present the foundations of the common-sense nihilist philosophy. This series will build on Where art belongs, which was produced as part of the Adam Art Gallery’s Wall Works exhibition from 8 September to 4 October 2009, and which was the first tentative step towards ‘a common-sense nihilist guide to life’.


Borràs, Maria Lluïsa, Picabia, United States of America: Rizzoli, 1985.

Mundy, Jennifer (ed.), Duchamp Man Ray Picabia, United Kingdom: Tate Publishing, 2008.

Nahin, Paul, Time machines: Time travel in physics, metaphysics, and science fiction, United States of America: American Institute of Physics, 1993.

Nietzsche, Friedrich (trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann), The basic writings of Nietzsche, United States of America: Modern Library, 2000.

Richter, Hans, Dada: Art and anti-art, United Kingdom: Thames and Hudson, 1965.


Ski said...

Ewige blumenkraft!!

David Cauchi said...

Nieder die Kunst: Nichts is gross und Cauchi ist sein Prophet!

Nur zupacken und festhalten!

Ski said...

Stoppen Sie zu glauben. Fangen Sie an zu denken. Erblicken Sie die Illusion.

Ski said...

Illusion ist Wirklichkeit. Illusion ist nichts. Nichts ist real.

David Cauchi said...

Die Kunst ist tod!

Es lebe Nichts!

David Cauchi said...

Fuck it, let's be clear:

Es lebe die gesunden Menschenverstand nihilistische Kunst Cauchi!

Ski said...

Der gesunde Mensch? Der gesunde Mensch ist nichts! Alles ist nichts. Nichts ist real. Kunst ist alles

David Cauchi said...

Ich bin der gesunde Mensch. Ich habe der gesunden Menschenverstand!

Die Kunst ist nichts. Nichts ist alles!

Nichts siegt!

Ski said...

Sind Sie der Supermann? Der Magister der Philosophie, der Meister von nichts? Wo ist nichts alles und Triumph ist der Meister von alles?

Lob ist zu nichts!

David Cauchi said...

Nein! Ich bin der nihilistische Mensch. Das ist der gesunde Menschenverstand.

(Auch ich spreche kein Deutsch.)

David Cauchi said...

Ich werde 'Meister von nichts' stehlen.

Ski said...

Menschen sind natürlich. Und Natur ist nichts. Wir sind, also vernarrt in Sein unter Natur, hat sie keine Meinungen über uns…

Der ist gut Bart - ich spreche nicht Deutsches auch nicht.

stephen said...

HE' snicht Pining! HE' s gab weiter! Dieser Papagei ist no more! Er hat aufgehört zu sein! hE' s abgelaufen und gegangen, um seinen Hersteller zu treffen! hE' s.a. Stiff! Beraubt vom Leben, steht er im Frieden still! Wenn Sie hadn' t nagelte ihn auf die Stange he' d drückt die Gänseblümchen hoch! seine metabolischen Prozesse sind jetzt Geschichte! hE' s weg vom Zweig! hE' s trat die Wanne, he' s schlurfte weg von seiner Todspule, Durchlauf hinunter den Vorhang und schloß sich dem unsichtbaren Blutenchor! an! DIESES IST EIN EX-PARROT!!

David Cauchi said...

Yes, I want parrot that screams slogans at you in German! That would be brilliant.

Slogans in German mixed with the occasional 'Bollocks!', of course.

stephen said...

a parrot that screams slogans at you in German

Oh my god, that would be the best pet ever.

David Cauchi said...

Fuck yes.

visitors since 29 March 2004.