On Art and Freedom

I subscribe to 32 Poems, which is put out semi-annually. It contains, as promised, 32 poems per issue. They are thematically curated; the Spring/Summer 2022 issue features “32 Stages of American Hunger”. It’s that sort of thing.

In said issue, I read a piece I found provocative:

Agnes said that painting is not about ideas or personal emotion, that the object is freedom.

Victoria Chang, Agnes Martin, Fiesta 1985

Left alone, and quoted extensively, such a statement would be merely pretentious and annoying. Obviously expression and ideas are what art is all about. They don’t function without these things. And “freedom” is a negative idea: it means that you have a choice to do X or Y. It is not a thing in itself.

Fortunately, Ms. Chang does us the courtesy explore her meaning:

Before anything is written, it is completely possible. Once the line is drawn, the light narrows down to a pinhole. What is art but trying to trying to make something resemble what it was before it was made, when it was still unknown and free?

ibid.

Again, this contains an ontological contradiction: a thing cannot exist before it exists, so strictly speaking this is utterly meaningless. But it does capture something true about creation: the way that choices are definitive, and carry forward into future choices. Each movement from potentiality to actuality is a reduction.

Art in this sense becomes mystical: Jews of the Kabbalah trying to commune with Ein Sof, or God in his Pre-Creation Simplicity. This may be what the Abstract Expressionist were going for: a pure form, in which nothing exists and everything is possible. It puts me in mind of a Lee Krasner painting, Untitled, which I encountered at MOMA long ago:

At the time, I called It “Lee Krasner seeks the Language of Babel”, which means I may have understood an expressionist painting at first glance back in the day. Or not, because “understanding” is not what expressionist paintings are for. Pure form cannot be put into language; Heaven cannot be described. We are back to meaninglessness: all the critics of Post-Modern art are correct. They’re not saying anything, so to encounter them is to impose your own notions upon them. It’s a one-man birthday party: you don’t get any presents you don’t bring.

The other side of this is that what is evoked may be subconscious: a feeling you didn’t know was there. But just as often it may be nothing at all: especially as the longing for pure form becomes more and more a longing to escape actually creating anything. The purest form, after all, is Nothing. Even a Banana taped to a wall, to the extent that it’s not a nerdy Surrealist inside joke (art students are never not nerds), becomes too accessible, because everyone knows what they’re looking at.

Thus, this is a deep game to play, and games are full of cheaters.

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