(This essay was originally published in Interalia Magazine, October 2020)
What good is art in a time of crisis? Save perhaps for our cave-dwelling forefolk, for whom art may have been invoked as a protection against mortal danger, the question has probably been around for as long as there have been human calamities. My first deep descent into it came after 911, when images of the towers falling rearranged the architecture of the collective psyche. It was as if reality itself had been stretched to new capacity, and in this warped and wounded new real art seemed utterly superfluous. Over time I recovered my sense of purpose as an artist, but the sting of its absence never fully left me. For the deeper question that that crisis laid bare is one that vexes even in normal times: with so much of practical value one can do in a suffering world, can art – does art – really matter?
I can’t say I arrived at an entirely satisfying answer back then, but if I had it would have been different from the one I’m entertaining today. For here we are again inside another historic rupture – this one less telegenic, perhaps, but no less soul-shifting. Only now the question has acquired a pointed specificity: with so much of the world moving online, why should we continue to make material things? Destined most likely for the insult of digitization – or for the worse insult of storage, where they languish unseen – the objects we bring into being with such devotion can take on a lonely heaviness, a new kind of homelessness in the world. Many artists have turned to digital art. Some have stopped making altogether. Indeed, with a pandemic and an ecological crisis and political mayhem raging, the times demand a robust – a concrete – answer to why art matters.
Curiously, but by no means incidentally, what I’ve come to see as the answer is contained within the very question. It’s the word ‘matter’ that I mean here, and to understand what I’m getting at we need to turn first to the social sciences.
Proxemics is a word few still know, much less use, but back in the 1970s and ‘80s it was a formative presence in many fields following Edward T. Hall’s landmark book on the subject. The word refers to the human use of space and its effects on our behavior, the idea being that how we live in, move through, and define the spaces around us profoundly shapes our experience of the world. At the center of proxemics is the reminder that we are animals and as such navigate the world primarily with our bodies – which is to say with an intelligence that, deeply situated in the earthly, is always in sensual contact with its surroundings. While Hall grounds his findings in studies of other animals (Why do lemmings jump off cliffs? Because they sense electrochemically that their numbers have become unsustainable), most of his work focuses on human-to-human spatial relations. Varying distances between bodies, varying quantities of bodies occupying space at those distances: all transmit distinct patterns of information that alter the internal rhythms of the bodies involved. Sensory in nature, much of what gets transmitted are affective states (we literally internalize others’ emotions by way of olfaction), but patterns of thought, patterns of consciousness, travel too, emanating from body language, vocal rhythms, subtle changes in thermal states emitted by our skin. Rather like the underground mycelial network by which trees communicate with and nourish each other, it turns out that our bodies are engaged in constant conversation while our minds, busy shuffling abstractions, entertain their illusory solitude up in the clouds.
So what does any of this have to do with art, you may be wondering. The connection becomes clearer when we expand what can be meant by body. For just as living bodies actively influence other living bodies, so too are they in dialogue with the inanimate things that surround them. As art forms that explicitly give shape to space, architecture and design figure prominently in Hall’s work. The layout of a tenement building, the orientation of a desk chair, the placement of a window at the end of a corridor: every arrangement of space speaks to the bodies that move through it, imprinting on them its distinct affective signature – for good or, of course, for ill. We’ve all had the experience of hostile architecture – the low ceilings and acidic lighting, say, of a cheap motel – and of finding that our mood is accordingly fouled. What we’re less aware of, however, is the degree to which our everyday spatial experiences inform who we are, giving shape to our ideas about the world and ourselves. For just as the language of a culture influences the worldview of its people, so the structure of its built environment informs the structure of its consciousness. In all directions the human organism bends toward synchrony, unconsciously slipping into unison with the dynamics of its enveloping world.
And what, then, of paintings and drawings? If bodies in proximity and spatial arrangements so affect us, should the same not be the case with the things we call art objects? For art objects too are bodies in space, and ones whose rhythms are orchestrated for no reason other than to communicate. The implications of proxemics for art are profound. First, if most of our knowledge about the world comes to us sensorially – mycelially, we might say, under the radar – then we can surmise that it’s a work’s form rather than anything it signifies that penetrates us most deeply. And second (and crucially), it’s not just a thing’s form. It’s a work of art’s live – which is to say real time – material presence: its presence in space relative to all other bodies in the ever-shifting field that is the community of beings.
Matter matters. It matters because it speaks to us, and in speaking to us it informs who we are. The reason, of course, is that we too are matter, all of us made of the same stuff, all vibrating together to the same rhythms of the same elements. We feel this in the presence of great works of art. We feel our bodies in conversation with the objects as other bodies, our muscles reiterating their rhythms in biosynchronous lockstep. When in the live presence of great works of art, can there be any doubt that art is a force – a something that’s doing something rather than just being – and one that alters our organism in ways we can’t explain? If this can be said of us as makers, should the same not be true of the casual observer – the one who passes a certain sculpture on her way to work every morning, or who absent-mindedly gazes at a painting in a friend’s apartment? She may think she’s uninterested. She may know little about art. But her body cares nothing for concepts and categories. In the silent, sensuous language of things, it will do what it has been honed to do by millions of years of evolution, which is to lean into the world, listen, and, taking the shape of what is said into its own rhythms, respond in kind.
Art as a mycelial power. A disquieting possibility now arises. What if, rather than being a marginal actor forever in need of justification, art in fact matters far more than we think? What if, by virtue of its being part of the material environment that gives contour to our consciousness, it has been complicit, without our knowing it, in the making of our broken world? Suddenly the weight of the question has shifted. If we’re truly willing to entertain the idea of art as world-making – not figuratively or abstractly, but concretely, in the flesh – does it not fall on us to ask: Is this the kind of world we would make if we knew we were making it? Have we inadvertently perpetuated, reinforced, or otherwise abetted anything to which we might consciously be opposed?
While it would be a stretch to suggest that art has had any role in the pandemic, or in promoting racial injustice or escalating the threat of war, there are more hidden sources of cultural brokenness on which one cannot be so sure. We could take aim at the usual suspects (art’s complicity in corporate capitalism comes to mind), but these may in turn be rooted in something larger. For beneath the clamor of the immediate present, and afflicting all of us indiscriminately, an unattended wound grows deeper the longer we ignore it. To put it in the language of crisis, we might call this wound the crisis of our retreat from the real.
“The real” is none other than our carnal existence in, and continuity with, the actual, material world. Before our concepts, before our artificial dichotomies, before the differentiation of our faculties into discrete, isolable functions: before all this there is the raw fact of our sensual existence as animals. The real is the native intelligence of the body, source and ground of all our discursive activity. It’s the rich spectrum of emotions without which conscious thought is unthinkable. It is the intelligence of touch as our most primal way of knowing, of olfaction, and kinesthesia, and all the other under-recognized senses. Finally, the real is our situatedness in space and place, the fact that we are not just organisms but always organisms-in-environment.
Given what the pandemic has done to isolate and confine us, it hardly needs saying that we’re losing contact with the real. But the present moment aside, our gravitation away from the actual and toward the virtual has had us on this trajectory for some time, an impulse that seems itself rooted in a source deeper still. For before Google, before Facebook, even before cellphones, were we not already living at a safe remove from the real? The very identification of the self with conscious, discursive thought, so natural for everyone living in our culture, is already an act of withdrawal from nature. Then there’s the denigration of the senses and the emotions as legitimate ways of knowing – to the point where we’ve all but eliminated natural odors from our lives – and the valorization of language and logic as the sole avenues to truth. There’s the mighty self as solo agent to whom the material world is other, animal means not human, and being elsewhere in thought is more comfortable, more “natural,” than being in our own flesh here and now. Save for those precious moments when, whether by effort or by grace, we find ourselves fully present to the world, we live in perpetual flight from the real, invoking our exhausted dualisms to justify and make sense of it. Only a culture built on its absence could spawn an entire industry around what we call “mindfulness.”
Some will insist that this is no crisis at all. Some will say that what we’re in fact witnessing is a momentous advance in the right direction – one that will lead to our eventual liberation from our bodies and, all thanks to technology, from the larger prison of nature itself. But if proxemics teaches us anything, it’s that our dynamic contact with the sensual world constitutes so much of who we are. One could no more extract oneself from the web of sensual relations than one could lift the water out of the river and still have the river. How lonely, how enfeebled, how shapeless, the lifeless water.
And where does art stand on the crisis of the real? While one can’t presume to speak for individual artists, the general thrust of recent art suggests complicity with the lifeless water. For what is the demotion of form and matter to the ranks of servant to “content,” so prevalent in this age of addressing issues and ideas, if not precisely a distrust of the body and sensual experience? What is the insistence on concept as the generative force behind art if not an affirmation of the intellect as the locus of intelligence? And what, not least, of the disavowal of beauty, so long now relegated to the amateurs and the unsophisticated? One might argue that this is insider talk, that the vicissitudes of the art world have no real effect on the larger culture. But if we’re to believe proxemics, this is a gross underestimation of our form. We might profess to espouse a progressive ecological worldview, and we might even desperately want our art to matter in its service, but however earnest it may be, if our art ignores the body it is mattering in the wrong direction.
All of which brings us, finally, to the present moment. The great online migration: from the standpoint of proxemics, nothing could be more disastrous – for art or for the world. In severing vision from the rest of the senses – already such a deep current in our image-oriented culture – we are denying ourselves the sensual fullness we need to be whole. When looking at online art, do we not feel this? Does the body not ache for all that is missing? Never before has one been so aware of art’s physical gravitas than when experiencing an anemic facsimile of it through a screen on a desktop. But online art does more than just deny us the full conversation. What’s worse is that, very subtly, though certainly unintentionally, it affirms the legitimacy of the disembodied observer: the one who, having uprooted itself from the sensual world, believes it can know, move through, and live in the world from its isolated perch somewhere outside nature.
It has long been leveled against our culture that we’re too materialistic, that we care too much about our things and not enough about the invisibilia. Indeed, some would argue that our wasteful consumption is precisely what has brought us to crisis. But what if, in our flight from the body, from nature, from the real-time actual, we are in another sense not materialistic enough? While we may covet our material possessions, we have grossly underestimated their power and agency. Were we more aware of the silent conversation of things, would it change our relationship to our material environment? Would it change what we as artists bring into the world, and the conditions under which we bring it? While art is unlikely to quell political upheaval or deliver us the salvific vaccine, it certainly has a role to play in our recovery of the real. By embracing its own mattering – its sensual, material presence in an increasingly virtual world – and doing so emphatically, without apology, and wherever possible, it can serve as a silent force of return, pulling us back into the nourishing humus of the world. And in asking if art matters, should we do so again, we might remind ourselves that to be matter is to matter. And, following the wisdom of the etymology, to matter is in the most profound sense to mother. The only question is what kind of mother art will be.