Thomas McEvilley (1939 – 2013) wrote about contemporary art as conjunctive, as sequentiation and dispersion, as an “and,” and not an “is.” For example, in an essay called “Modernism, Post-Modernism and the End of Art,” McEvilley reacted to Arthur Danto’s boast for the philosophization of art as a recent phenomenon by offering the following cumulative portrait of ancient philosophizing:
Plato produced various theories of art, but even before Plato Democritus of Abdera wrote a book On Painting, and even before Democritus the Pythagoreans were involved with music theory and geometrical abstraction. For some reason these ancient philosophers felt that an essential part of philosophy was to investigate art and analyze it theoretically, and that conviction about the duties of a philosopher has remained active till our time.
It is this aspect of McEvilley’s work that I wish to commemorate and expand on in a symposium devoted to his work that I am currently planning with artist Joyce Burstein on the topic of Ancient Cultures and Contemporary Art. My aim here, however, is to pay modest tribute to the conjunctive spirit of McEvilley’s work by briefly complicating our view of what we could call the “ancient unconscious,” while at the same time expanding the kind of contemporary art often included in discussions of both ancient cultures and the unconscious. Aside from the lofty exemplum of Sophocles’s doomed tyrant and the deep-therapy of Artemidorus’s dream-text, I will claim that there is an ancient model of the unconscious that is closer to our postmodern age of superficiality, materialism, commoditization, and art as entertainment.
Towards the beginning of book three of De rerum natura, the Roman poet and Epicurean philosopher Lucretius laments how we humans are often unaware of the fears that motivate our behavior and it is only when “true voices are elicited from the bottom of the heart and the mask is ripped off that the reality remains” (nam verae voces tum demum pectore ab imo / eliciuntur et eripitur persona, manet res). Some scholars read these lines as giving Lucretius, via his master Epicurus, a claim to be called the primary ancient forerunner of modern psychoanalysis through the explanatory role of the unconscious. Other scholars are more skeptical, reading Lucretius as merely working within the diatribe convention by reflecting on the inconsistencies of beliefs and our basic human capacity for self-deception.
Now, consider these two broad approaches to the Epicurean and Freudian unconscious in terms of the work of Cindy Sherman. On the one hand, we could compare the argument raised by the skeptics to how Sherman’s famous Untitled Film Stills (1977 – 80) series should be interpreted as a feminist deconstruction of the variety of feminine roles most recently defended by Roberta Smith in the New York Times against James Franco’s New Film Stills at Pace. On the other hand, we could compare those defending an Epicurean unconscious and follow Donald Kuspit, who saw a feminist approach to Sherman as eliciting only a “partial truth” on account of her work showing “the disintegrative condition of the self as such” as prior to gendered definition. Yet there is a middle way for both Lucretius and Sherman, opened up by the Epicurean theory of the simulacrum. The simulacrum which, as a “latent image” has been read as anticipating Freud’s unconscious, was in fact used by Epicureans to describe how sight and other senses work; in how objects give off particles from their surfaces which strike our eyes or ears. If we keep this latter simulacrum in mind, consider how the Untitled Film Stills may be interpreted if we frame them in terms of the pervasive influence of Andy Warhol, whose work not only utilized the media of photography, television, and film, but also shows us the repetitive “filminess” of these fantasies. But where does this leave Cindy Sherman’s own description of the work as originating in girlhood games of dress-up and a fascination with the look of film noir characters? One way is to follow Epicurus and allow for a “swerve” or clinamen to occur within materialist repetition of her work. In Lucretius’s Latin this swerve is enacted through the material of language itself, in the change of one letter (e.g. voluptas/voluntas) to punning alliteration, like the verae voces of the passage above. For Cindy Sherman, the pun is present in the rhyming title of Louise Lawler’s response to both her own contemporary and her debt to her predecessor in the work “Cindy and Andy” (2002 – 03).
McEvilley ends “The End of Art” by invoking an argument made by Kuspit in his book of the same name. Kuspit claims that art, which had long performed the function of revealing the unconscious of society, had now, with postmodernism, put itself at the service of the conscious mind. My reading of “Cindy and Andy” with the Lucretian model of the ancient unconscious could offer one possible step—back—in the right direction.