Taking Us Beyond our Threshold of Comfort and Zone of Familiar Experience

Leo Steinberg does a superlative job of addressing the feeling of discomfort associated with the experience of the new – in particular with relation to the new in artistic creations. Now, I’m fully aware that not everyone in the class is especially interested in the art, at least not to the extent that others of us are. Nevertheless, art is an especially good field in terms of which to explore the theme of radical novelty. I would hope, though there are a number of us who feel less committed to the study of art, that there is no one of us who is completely immune or uninterested in the experience of radical novelty. If that’s the case, then there’s not much I can do to instruct you; as Steinberg would say of such an entirely deadened person, he or she is “beyond all experience.” But, since even resistance is a form of participation, it’s highly unlikely that we have any members of our class who are genuinely comatose. (In fact, I’m increasingly convinced that Steinberg uses that phrase, “beyond all experience,” with reference to the aging Clement Greenberg, whom he considers so set in his own formalist vision that he has become incapable of understanding, appreciating or even countenancing anything other than what he already knows and condones.) That said, let me repeat that art is a particularly good place to investigate the phenomenon of novelty, specifically to so many of us (artists included) for whom art seems good for nothing.

These days we constantly hear of new breakthroughs in science and technology, or new political happenings. However, in all of these areas, generally appears to us under the title of developments: the latest development in the war against terror, the latest breakthrough in the war on drugs, the latest breakthrough in the fight against cancer, etc. In other words, as soon as something potentially new or unusual appears within these fields, it is almost immediately domesticated within some grand Humanist narrative, made into the latest installment (to refer to the work of recent French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard) in one of either two master-narratives: 1) the progress of Reason and human knowledge, or 2) the emancipation of Humanity and the procurement of social justice. Not that I necessarily find either of these two concepts either distasteful or, like Lyotard, no longer intellectually and politically plausible. However, if we immediately incorporate all novel happenings into either of these two schemas, in that same gesture we convert it into just the latest instance of the same old thing. Whatever might have appeared to us as unique and unprecidented is really just the latest development in a story we have been telling ourselves for years. This is especially to case with science, technology and politics for a number of reason, not the least of which being that these three areas of inquiry first arose in their modern forms at the same historical moment in which European culture was thematizing the notions of Progress and Development. They are all products of the same ideological formation.

When it comes to art however, we find ourselves in an ostensibly different situation. Because whereas it is quite conceivable to argue that progress in the fields of scientific and medical research, or the spread of democracy, are vital to human interests and survival, it is much more difficult (or at least for about 150 years it has been) to argue that art is a human necessity and that without it our lives would become not only culturally impoverished but quite possibly unlivable. And this is especially the case, at least to mind my, when we consider this same opinion in the light of the “major” artworks which have been produce over the last 60 years or so. It’s one thing to say that we would be appreciably worse off if we had never seen Michelangelo’s sculptures and paintings, whereas it’s quite another to say our lives would be significantly less rich if we were never to have experience the paintings of Jasper Johns. My point, however, is that precisely because so much of (modern) art strikes us immediately as utterly gratuitous, as not playing a significant part in any grand narrative of human progress, that we are able to experience it as genuinely new.

As a result of having this experience of novelty, or to use another term ‘adventure’, we are freed up by it to think in different ways, or perhaps to think at all – quite possibly an event much rarer than most people would tend to believe. Rather than immediately asking ourselves how new events in the realm of art immediately contribute to the development of knowledge or the bettering of human life, we rather ask ourselves all the more sharply, specifically because there is nothing to justify the existence of new artistic creations, why anyone would want to make something such as a bronze cast of a light bulb in the first place. To speak in more technical terms, new art, at least momentarily, at least for the span of about seven to ten years, has the capacity to liberate us from deliberative judgment and allow us to enter into reflective judgment. Rather than asking at once what a new creation is good for, we are able, with the help of genuine art, to ask ourselves for a change, and primarily, how does it make us feel? To ask the first question is to flee from our anxiety in the face of the new, whereas to ask the second question is to show a willingness to abide momentarily in a state of anxiety, and to cultivate an awareness not only of how this particular object makes us feel, but also of what feelings in general are available to us humans, and what does it feel like to be Human, per se? My thought is that our sense of being Human is never so acute as in those moments in which we find ourselves confronted by something unprecedented in experience, which appears to come to us from a realm completely beyond human concerns.

Pablo Picasso
Guernica, 1937
Oil on canvas
137.4″ × 305.5″
Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid Spain

If you pause to think about it, isn’t this precisely what Steinberg, after a number of years of haunted deliberation, is finally able to conclude about the works of Jasper Johns, that they offer us a view of a reality in which products of human culture and industry are presented to us completely stripped of all sense of purposiveness? In Johns’ work a light bulb is no longer a technological development good for creating light and extending the workday, but simply as a smooth bulb capped by a corkscrew abduction. No indication is made that such an object is meant to be put into a socket, much less fed electrical power. We see our familiar world, then, returned to us in the form of fossils. Certainly, one can always reconstruct a prehistoric past. Palaeontologists and archaeologists have done this for years. But what should become apparent as a result of experiencing Johns’ work, is that all such reconstruction are precisely that, reconstructions and not actualities. Both deliberation and reflection play a role on way we model the past. And what is true of the past is likewise true of the present. The live reality which we most often take simply to be the natural and inevitable result of human endeavor, or even the way things have always been, is in fact the result of a long and complex process of decision making. The world we have inherited could well have been very different, not only in its appearance but also in its feel, if even a very small number of contingencies had been slightly different. Not just the past, then, but also the present becomes an occasion for wonder, for questioning, for investigation.

Natural Cast of a Dog
Pompeii, Italy (79 A.D)

Jasper Johns,
“LIGHT BULB I” (1958)
sculpt-metal with cradle
Gift of Mrs. Jack M. Farris
Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, CA

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