Today scale matters more than ever, and the perspectival shifts generated by contemporary technology only further corroborate a materialism in flux, and one that exists independently of the human mind and our ideas about it. With the aid of a Large Hadron collider, scientists can now observe the Higgs boson, an elementary particle thought to give everything else mass and to have triggered the great cosmic explosion leading to the formation of the Universe 13.7 billion years ago. As if reminding us of just how late in the game our sentience entered the picture, the Hubble telescope sends back images of swirling pools of light—material traces of galaxies in existence billions of years before our eyes and telescopes were around to behold them. Models of stellar evolution based on these images predict that in another 3.5 billion years all of the earth’s water supplies will be dried up by the sun’s heat due to cosmic expansion, no matter what we do to “save” the planet. Neither the earth, its galaxies, nor the Higgs boson particles seem all that concerned with what humans think about them, preceding and exceeding our evolutionary blip, inscribing our very existence as one more emergent form among a vast and complicated assemblage of material processes.
And yet over the past 40-odd years of cultural theory, art and its attendant discourses have focused intently on how language and culture shift meaning, how the material universe is subject to cultural construction, or how, as Lacan put it most forcefully, “[i]t is the world of words that creates the world of things.” And while these positions have been a strong riposte to essentialism, the idea that linguistic signs refer directly to stable concepts and forms, they have undermined our account of how all entities, including aesthetics, are products of cosmological, biological, and geological processes in addition to social ones. In a moment of profound cosmic zoom—a time when evolutionary biology, technology, and anthropology give us a picture of the planet both prior to the human and in excess of its control—the endurance of matter is something artists are considering anew today. Art is now positing an identity for the artist and for aesthetics that undermines a purely conceptual or linguistic origin for either.
This is not to say, however, that we need more theory. Or rather, the recent return to materialism and realism within contemporary philosophy may begin to tear the old threads binding aesthetic philosophy and art, wherein the former is used as a tool to represent, explain, or critique the latter, reducing art to ideas or a world of words. Instead, following a materialist ontology, the belief that there is a reality that exists independently of the human mind, we may begin to grapple with the ways that art performs its own kind of theory in excess of us: how it intensifies, produces sensations, and unleashes real effects on the material world.
This conception of art gives little credence to the human as a privileged meaning-maker within the processual dynamism of matter. Rather, in sympathy with Elizabeth Grosz’s brilliant book Chaos, Territory, Art (2008), it cares less about what artworks signify than what “forces they enact and transform.” Such an embrace of the great outdoors and its aesthetics most certainly offers a more ontologically rich rejoinder to idealism than an era of aesthetics focused intently on human language and discourse. But it also forces us to grapple with the ecological demands of our day, not least of which is what it means to make art in the context of a material universe that is not primarily “for us.” From this flattened perspective, one hopes that we may begin to sense and feel what art itself is already doing and provoking in its own theoretical effects.
JENNY JASKEY is curator of the Artist’s Institute at Hunter College, New York. She is co-editor, along with Christoph Cox and Suhail Malik, of Realism Materialism Art, to be published by Sternberg Press and the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College this spring