19 February 2008

A false dichotomy

Rose and I were walking along the waterfront on our way to somewhere or other one evening a wee while ago. It was the twilight time when some colours get really intense (cos our eyes have got both rods and cones).

We were walking past a certain public sculpture, and Rose remarked on how good it looked. I mentioned that the colours were indeed really good, especially against that background, but that I still didn't like it. When asked why, I said something like 'Native plants made out of number 8 wire? Come on!' She responded with something like 'You're not very visual at all! It's all about the ideas for you.'

Needless to say, I was a little put out by this. It wasn't until later that I realised I don't really distinguish between the two. One of the reasons I don't like the term 'conceptual art' is that it implies that there's such a thing as 'non-conceptual art', which is nonsense. It's a false dichotomy, one that derives from Duchamp's silly comment about 'retinal' versus 'intellectual' art (which was his excuse for being such a crap painter).

I've even heard people assert that you can only think with words, which is patently not the case. (Incidentally, I have a theory that this misconception gave rise to other misconceptions, such as a belief in souls and the afterlife – if you conceive of your 'self' as your thoughts, and you conceive of your thoughts as disembodied words, then it's no great leap to the idea that when you die the disembodied words remain.)

We're extremely visual animals. The human body is designed around getting our eyes up off the ground. (Hmm, I probably shouldn't use the word 'designed', as it implies a designer, but you know what I mean.) And then there's language itself. Just look at some common English phrases: you 'get some perspective', 'take the long view', and 'see things my way'. All of these phrases use seeing to talk about thinking. It'd be interesting to know whether other languages have similar phrases.

I also have a theory about the Great Leap Forward that happened roughly 50,000 years ago. Before this, human material culture was remarkably homogeneous, both in space and time. People made and used the same tools everywhere (i.e. no regional diversity) for tens of thousands of years (i.e. no cultural development). Then all of a sudden there was both regional diversity and cultural development. Conventional thinking tends to ascribe this to the development of language. However, I reckon that, rather than language allowing art to develop, it was the other way around: art allowed language to develop.

Take the earliest known art. You'll note the scientists mention that the maker needed 'fully syntactical language' to explain what it represents. What they don't say is that the maker doesn't need language to make it.

Let's say that every day you take a stone to a certain place to carry out a certain task and then discard the stone. Sitting idly staring at the pile of stones one day, you realise that each stone represents a day you've come here (maybe you'd been snacking on some local mushrooms, ha ha). Now, keeping track of days is really useful for a hunter-gatherer, but you can't carry a pile of stones round with you. Then one day you see a bunch of marks left in the dirt by some other activity. Aha! How about, every day, you make a mark on a bit of ochre?

Then you've got to explain yourself to the nongs around you. We've been trying to do this ever since.


Anonymous said...

Where does that leave me? Of course ideas and the image in front of me match. The brain and the eyes... well there's no need to go on. There is no argument there. But I don't need ideas to tell me that the colours that make up the sunset, and the luminosity of the evening sky, are "pleasing to the eye" - there is no concept involved. What you didn't like about the sculptures was the "ideas" behind it. The symbol of No.8 wire combined with native NZ plants. Perhaps you thought it "too easy" - I don't know. I just felt there was beauty there. And that's not always easy to explain. What is beauty? That's a very personal thing and we could go on about that forever! Ah, I remember another discussion about that. What was it? Something about beauty and the sublime. I believe it was September 11 that sparked that off.... Blither blither.

Anonymous said...

I am with rosie. If something is beautiful to me (and the I do liek the work in question) It doesn't need to have a context or a theorectical basis etc - its just beautiful. Maybe its a girl thing? On the other hand I agree that there is no such thing as "non-conceptual art" but the concept maybe not be so important to me

David Cauchi said...

I wouldn't for a minute want to deny that you can look at things purely in visual terms - some of life's great pleasures are to be had in just looking at things.

However, even when you consciously disregard the ideas symbolised by what you're looking at, there are concepts involved. Seeing isn't a mechanical process like a camera.

Your brain constructs what you see out of the signals it receives along the optic nerve, using assumptions based on its previous experience. In a very real, literal sense, you see what you expect to see - how you see something is determined by your concepts of that thing.

And then of course the idea of appreciating something solely for its beauty is itself a concept.

Anonymous said...

Of course you are right. I did this little experiment with my kids (2 and 4) to see what concept they placed on artworks http://artandmylife.wordpress.com/2007/12/13/the-innocent-eye/

visitors since 29 March 2004.