An Art of “Why Not?”

I’d like to try to frame the question that’s been posed here less as a consideration of how art might impact thinking about the environment and the various social effects of its continued degradation, and more as an inquiry into how certain styles of thinking might inform art making and shape its ability to effectively influence opinions and action on such issues. It certainly seemed telling that the word “art” didn’t actually appear in the prompt until its very final paragraph. It’s not quite that art qua art was set up as an afterthought. Yet as structured in this instance (the “aesthetic, emotional, and beautiful,” set against problematization, theorization, empowerment, influence) it felt like just one possible mode of activity—and a potentially compromised one at that—available to the makers and thinkers of today’s art world interested in creating effective responses to the range of global crises facing the planet.

Eye agate fragment (Uruguay), from the collection of Roger Caillois (1913 – 1978). Caillois’s self-described “materialist mysticism” found perhaps its most vivid expression in his relationship to stones, and he amassed a large collection of cut and polished mineral specimens throughout his life. Their hidden structures and forms presented, Caillois believed, one of many important subjects for what he called “diagonal science,” a set of practices designed to “bridge the older disciplines and force them to engage in dialogue.” Such an approach would “[slice] obliquely through our common world [to] decipher latent complicities and reveal neglected correlations,” seeking to “further a form of knowledge that would first involve the workings of a bold imagination and be followed, then, by strict controls, all the more necessary insofar as such audacity tries to establish ever riskier transversal paths.”

An anecdote that has informed my own thinking about the artistic and the natural—and about the way certain kinds of curiosity perhaps have built into them a kind of ethical dimension—is the story of the break between Roger Caillois and his Surrealist colleague André Breton. Caillois joined the Surrealists in 1932, while still studying sociology at the École normale supérieure in Paris. Initially attracted by the group’s openness to forms of intellectual play and imaginative poetic feints, Caillois also always had an eye toward bringing a greater sense of systematic rigor to the Surrealist project. Two days after Christmas 1934, Caillois wrote a letter to Breton formally distancing himself from the movement. He cited, as a signal illustration of the crucial difference between the two men’s intellectual outlook, their different responses to a recent incident in which they had been presented with a pair of so-called Mexican jumping beans (seedpods of a particular Mesoamerican shrub that contain within them the larva of a moth, which, in response to the warmth of the human hand or of sunlight, seem to jump of their own accord). Caillois had suggested cutting the beans open to see what made them move as they did, but Breton refused, saying, according to Caillois, that such an act “would have destroyed the mystery.”

This was, for the young thinker, the final confirmation that his desire to find an equilibrium in Surrealism between what he called the “satisfactions” of “research” and the “pleasures” of “poetry” was destined to be fruitless, as Breton would always be definitively on the side of the latter. Wishing to more fully unite the irrational and the rational in a simultaneously imaginative and methodical exploration of the wonders of the natural and social worlds, Caillois called on a “new science of why not?” and staked out his preference for “a form of the Marvellous that does not fear knowledge but, on the contrary, thrives on it.”

Perhaps it’s in such a figuring of both the world and of artistic investigations of it—not the aesthetic or the problematized, the beautiful or the theorized (but such distinctions run into and through each other until their boundaries begin to chafe and dissolve)j, a set of conditions understood to grow more rather than less enchanted the more insistently we interrogate them—that the best chance for real change lies.


Jeffrey Kastner

JEFFREY KASTNER is a New York-based writer and the senior editor of Cabinet magazine. A longtime contributor of criticism and journalism to publications such as Artforum and the New York Times, his monographic essays have appeared in exhibition publications for artists including Doug Aitken, David Altmejd, Jeremy Blake, Michaël Borremans, Tomás Saraceno, and Sarah Sze. His books include the edited volumes Land and Environmental Art (Phaidon, 1998) and Documents of Contemporary Art: Nature (MIT Press/Whitechapel, 2012).