What is Art?
The act of art is an act of value bestowal—one allows a value to emerge (who knows its sources, its provenance?) for delectation or abhorrence or indifference—the hazard of that.
Value-bestowal suffers an ontological primacy: Being is brought to apparency in such a manner that something is asserted to be of worth. And conversely: where a new value is in evidence, a new way of appearing-to-be has impressed itself into a world.
The wildly heterogeneous and multitudinous character of art production bears witness to Being’s profligacy, its incorrigible effluence into apparency. Being may be “one”—but it is increasingly evident that ontologies are many. Each take on “what is” is partial, covers Being itself. If it succeeds in dominating for its moment, something like a trickster function springs from its absent complement to disorder what we took to be real. Collateral ontological damage. “The Tragedy of Doctor Side-Effect.”
One hundred billion galaxies and counting. This intimates an absolute ignorance and incapacity to situate experience as such. Public “knowledge” layers a universal unconscious.
An unconscious is also formed by the pertinent scale of the human collective. When did a village become a nation, a nation “the masses”—but today the surface of a globe, teeming with sentient creatures reduced to information depots? That would be ONE ontology. But the social unconscious itself is ontological. Art might render this explicit and so provide conditions for its further life. What no one is saying, evoked from a vast unconscious métier.
Consider an interface between the thing that is not understood and yet is what we most intimately are and the thing we most universally share—the “world” itself—the vast survey of mediations—language—materiality—culture—history—the formalities and trivialities of public information—the repository and generatrix of content: art on the membrane between these two, flashing discoveries at the vanguard yet, in spite of the belligerence of imposed concepts of “history.” We cannot place ourselves there, because the events that will grant our art its so-called “place” in history haven’t happened yet. And anyway there is no such “place”—no static registry; the thing once formed will not stay hermeneutically put. No context other than the one we discover by inventing it, hazarding its exposure, delivering it up to unconscionable change. It is not possible to take responsibility for this. And yet we do.
Charles Stein (born 1944 in New York City) is the author of 13 books of poetry including a verse translation of The Odyssey (North Atlantic Books), From Mimir's Head (Station Hill Press), and The Hat Rack Tree (Station Hill Press). His current poetic project, Views From Tornado Island, can be sampled at his website.