[The Seven by Nine Squares home page] [YAWN 16] [Art Strike 1990-1993]

The Strike Within a Strike

Auden once wrote,

Learn their logic, but notice/ How its subtlety betrays/ Their enormous simple grief.
The logic of an "art strike" both helps us notice "their" logic and shows us that "we" have learned it all too well.

"Their" logic is more fundamentally an orienting and spatial feeling, and in that way it is instrumental: it is a form of defense in which "I" am "in here" and you are "out there" and "a chair" is to my "left". I know where everything is, so I'm safe and okay over here. There might be other possible ways to conceptualize feelings about being where you are; this particular thought-protection is a bit anxious about where we all are and who is too close to whom.

Inside/outside is of course part of a whole chain of dualisms which rest on the fundamental switch (the on/off) of Aristotle's logic: A cannot be both A and not-A at the same time. Either/or. The enormous simple grief Auden mentions is too serious to trivialize by chatting about it but consider one bit of Western sorrow, that feeling you see in everyone's face but which no one ever talks about, as caused by this continual sorting: inside me/outside me. Thus, before everything else, distance.

This problem of instrumental reason is the familiar target of critiques by a whole tradition of European writers from Nietzsche onward; Habermas sums up their point this way: "reason denounces and undermines all unconcealed forms of suppression and exploitation, of degradation and alienation, only to set up in their place the unassailable domination of rationality." That is, reason, which liberates us from our spiritual tradition (infinitely corruptible and oppressive, as Western history continues to demonstrate) also confines us in a dry and loveless self-consciousness in which objects and predictable forces act in calculable ways and spirituality is mocked by artists and talk-show hosts alike (a not-so surprising alliance). "Because this regime of a subjectivity puffed up into a false absolute transforms the means of consciousness-raising and emancipation into just so many instruments of objectification and control, it fashions for itself an uncanny immunity in the form of a thoroughly concealed domination." It is so busy exposing the empty claims and phoney forms of exploitation that it creates a pervasive image, a substitute world: a "world" full of things which need to be unmasked and which automatically lose their claim on us once unmasked by reason's cackle. The world is not only objectified, it is full of shams and cheats only reason can save us from. In this magic "world," where unmasking is the hocus-pocus, paradise would be a place where everything was finally clear: "the opacity of the iron cage of a reason that has become positive disappears as if in the glittering brightness of a completely transparent crystal palace."

The art "world" is completely pervaded with this attitude, transfixed as it is by a culture it imagines it can successfully overmaster simply by unmasking it - often enough, this urge to unmask the other is itself a mask for an urge to partake: either to gaze unhampered by a guilty conscience ("I'm collecting images for a thorough critique later so leave me alone") or to enjoy the apparent rewards it pretends to despise by further hypnotizing an already bored and hypnotized audience. Hey-not only can you look at this too, but it is more cool to look at this than that trash you usually look at and someday it'll be worth, like...

In such circumstances, to call a "strike" points up many of the unpleasantly tainted (therefore repressed) aspects of "artmaking": the recognition of consumers as bosses, the expectation of pay, the urge to be part of the system it pretends to criticize and so on.

But to think in this way-that is, to imagine "art" as an objectified product or object or event which I can control and withhold-is to learn their-our-logic all too well. Like all ascesis, it is useful to make one aware of the feeling of the activity: to give up or renounce something is a good way to become conscious of what before might have been merely automatic and habitual. Not only that, to be conscious of the craving as a protection. Against what? This practice is another perhaps less dreamy way of working on the same dilemma addressed by the philosophers since their target is "desire," insofar as by the term "desire" we can identify not the pleasure in something really occurring here and now but rather the imaginary enjoyment of something in an imaginary time (the future or the past). Imaginary pleasure taken in some imaginary time is nothing but a substitute for and an evasion of the life that might really exist (but floats past unrealized) during the time of the illusion. And in this culture the individual's stock of pleasure-images is pervaded by advertising of one form or another, all of which requires an unrealistic income in order to be realized, as well as a brand new imaginary ego chock full of essentially bizarre but well respected qualities like dishonesty, toadyism, hard-heartedness, and other sociopathic attributes. It's no wonder the face of a daydreamer is so often grim or sad.

It is a good idea not to be too caught up in the idea that some unmasking project of "ours" means we have once and for all found a place of moral elevation. And safety: they, the deluded, are over there, we are here. Idea=idea. As the writer they used to think was called Dionysius (now called Pseudo-Dionysius) put it: "God hates ideas." Obviously, since thinking is just something we do so as to have opinions among our possessions, an activity not to be confused with meaning, which is something to be lived, somehow, if possible, tentatively and stubbornly or maybe patiently (how should I know?). Meister Eckhart said, "God acts without instrumentality and without ideas. And the freer you are from ideas the more sensitive you are to inward action."

"Art" is not a separate "thing" one chooses to do or not do but a form of "inward action" if you like which you naturally express or communicate in some way. A disciplined attention to that is simply a more disciplined attention to one's existence. In a way, to think of it as "art" and get things for it is already the result of a previous art strike or tantrum of some sort. The Greek term "hecatomb" for example doesn't mean the sacrifice of 100 oxen, it means that by this magical act I will get 100 oxen from the gods in return. Who did the bargaining there, we wonder and is he still available?

Joseph Beuys in an interview was asked about the series of Christian images he pursued for a time and his response was that he gradually realized that such traditional motifs were already achieved and not what he himself needed to do; there follows a long mysterious discussion of the need to suffer "this process of crucifixion and complete incarnation in the material world" before working through to an achieved spirituality. Neitzsche talked about something like this also, of the death of sacred ideas, loss of faith in the old names, and then a movement from the material level of the senses back towards the spiritual. "I desire for myself and for all who live...without being tormented by a puritanical conscience, an ever-greater spiritualization and multiplication of the senses; indeed we should be grateful to the senses for their subtlety, plenitude, and power, and offer them in return the best we have in the way of spirit."

The point is that "art"is already there in the way one sees or listens to or moves across the world. As we notice or don't notice something, we are already in the life we are making all the time at a level so fundamental we can't even be aware of its workings much less try to stop them. We can always offer more in the way of spirit. Or we can reject much of this experience in favor of what might be called art simply by devaluing the former-after all you can't make a career out of it and nobody gets famous for just going down the street with eyes open, ears open. I approve of "art strike" as a way to annoy ourselves and cut into our sleeping time. But it is also the logic of our shining and heartless utopia that invests in/thinks there is something out there (both holy and laughable) called "art" or as Krazy Kat called it "ott." The trouble is provocation is an individual matter; for example "spiritual" is an essential term for something-what (the fuck) else to call it, eh?-but it drives me crazy every time I say it so I make myself say it, especially in cool art publications. Pretty soon I'll try to slip [Jesus] into one of them (he crossed it out, didn't he?) because there's a strike inside the strike. Don't tell anyone.

[Pseudo-Karen Eliot