Re-Materializations




Excerpt From:
 Re-Materialization, Remoteness, and Reverence: A Critique of De-Materialization in Art
[This essay can be read in full in the September, 2016 issue of The Georgia Review]

On January 2, 1967, in the city of love, beauty, art, and sensuality, four provocateurs, named Buron, Masset, Parmentier, and Toroni, declared that, “Inasmuch as to paint is a function of aestheticism, flowers, women, eroticism, the daily environment, art, dada, psychoanalysis, the war in Vietnam, WE ARE NOT PAINTERS’. The next day, they withdrew from the Paris Salon because, among other reasons, ‘Painting is by nature objectively reactionary’”.
Surely everyone has heard by now, forty-seven years later,  that “painting is dead”. Even a curator in a small gallery in the largest city in rural Vermont was in the know enough in 2010 to inform a group of visiting college students that, “a paintbrush is just a stick with dead hairs on it,” saving them just in time from imminent embarrassment; a few slipped out to their studios during lunch and discarded the evidence of their naivet√©, and became — ta da! — up-to-date, sophisticated, and post-post-modern, no longer weighed down by the physical trappings of artistry, nor its technical travails — but possibly also not bothering to stop to ask questions about the origins of this rejection of aestheticism, flowers, women, environment, art, &c., or the uncategorical embrace of the abstract disembodied conceptualism that took its place. 
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While I am fascinated with the really metaphysical question of whether ideas need to be manifested or just thought or uttered to be real (why do we need to make things at all, when it would be much simpler to just describe them?), and also sympathetic to de-materialism’s aim to de-commodify the art object and rescue the artistic impulse from the mercenary clutches of art dealers and galleries, I am curious and concerned about the way de-materialization is paired by Lucy Lippard with de-mythologization.  One might presume that these two terms are opposites, as materialism could be linked to positivism and science, while mythologization might seem rather to belong to the realm of the irrational and mystical. Their pairing reveals the complex and subtle origin of the metaphysical flight from the real, which in this case has banished both materiality and mystery at once by separating matter from spirit and robbing matter of its magic.
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Since we are all bodies and souls, we are deeply familiar, if we have ever stopped to consider it, with the confusion that ensues if we try to understand which part of us is mind and which body, or how it might even be possible that there is or is not a difference. Just in the way that fairy tales repeat archetypal mythologems over and over (the forgetful bridegroom motif helps us process faithlessness; the wise old witch helps us understand wisdom; the magical object helps us understand agency), the work of art, as long as it truly engages with physicality, comprehensively images forth our confusion about body and spirit, constantly rehearsing the union of opposites inherent in human life. This fruitful oscillation requires what the German Romantic Novalis called “the magic wand of analogy”. Without supplanting the actual, the specific, the concrete, or the real with some oblique shadow of itself (Dickinson’s “Tell the truth, but tell it slant”), without some illusion or leap of faith, we miss the metaphorical magic of art. Consider the puppet theater, which, whether it be miniature or larger than life, is emphatically a world of images and figures; see how the change in scale and change in material signals to us that it is a metaphor, an allegory, a moving image, and not reality? Even in regular theater one is often called upon to make props instead of using objects from the real world. This is a question of maintaining a consistent level of illusion, but also of transporting the audience from out of real life into some other temporary experiential zone. The pedestal, the proscenium, the separation of the stage and the audience, the margins around a poem, the silence between songs, all serve to create a ritual preparedness, a call to attendance and reverence. I know that Artaud and Brecht saw this transport as anti-revolutionary, as a soporific, and called for the constant interruption of the illusion of the work of art; but their critique of this illusion, though it proved that they believed art could be powerful enough to alter consciousness and lull to sleep or wake up to engagement, did not stop to look at all that was lost in the process of dis-enchantment. Plato too pays paradoxical homage to art’s powers by considering banishing it from his moralistically  rational Republic; Benjamin also weighed the dangers and pleasures of the rapture of art, and likewise chose righteousness over ritual. But in the meantime, we have sacrificed much of what art could be, without necessarily having gained much in other areas. 

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