Art, substance and the reading gaze
Most of the shadows of this life are caused by standing in one's own sunshine.
Turn your style into substance, says an advertisement on TV – a pronouncement aimed at our insatiable 'selves'. In real life as well as in the realm of the arts, the relationship between style and substance are rather complex and is resistant to such effortless transmutation.
A work of art, since the beginning of its gestation period, acquires a sense of 'incompleteness' which is carried over to a spectrum of end-results. Viewing makes art complete: viewing equals appreciative eyes getting engaged in reading the work at multiple levels to elicit meaning and significations. As arbiters of taste or sensibilities, viewers stand between the patterns of creative output artists are responsible for and the way art permeates the social sphere. The gaze which at once recognizes, rebuts, and even organizes artistic outputs into trends and tendencies, is, by and large, responsible for providing the context for appreciation, if not production.
André Malraux observed in 1957 that around 1900 Europeans ceased to regard ‘primitive’ artifacts as ethnographic curiosities and began to look at them as ‘art’, reveals Aleš Erjavec in Contemporary Aesthetics (CA), a web portal. Suffice it to say that the appreciating gaze is also the ruling gaze, which may or may not be divisive, depending on the state of the social 'self/body' and to what degree it is being governed by false consciousness.
Before even meditating the question whether 'style' is proximal to 'substance', one might as well get one's head around the fact that hierarchy of categories in art appears only before the 'reading eyes'. What we come to know as ‘tasteful’ and ‘stylish’, therefore, is subject to how the hierarchy of taste operates in the social sphere. Categorization of the cultural products is the next threshold one enters after considering the hierarchy of taste. Clustered into easily recognizable types, art, or should one say, its reading, sometimes displaces it from its context – both aesthetic and historic. Typology, though a necessary archeological tool, may obscure the presence of historical as well as ahistorical forces produced by the culture engine(s). In addition to exhibiting the dynamical relations between content and form played out on a given space (of unpainted canvas/papers for image to appear, or empty space co-opted for sculptural construction), art also bears the signs of multiple transformative proceedings that has brought it to fruition.
If artistic production is to be defined in relation to the social processes involved, the 'material transformation' taking place via the individual artist must be viewed as an outcome of a performative act by an individual working in a group dynamics. The individuality or 'beingness' of an artwork acknowledged in some apparent, visible traits through which we are wont to cluster them under a common name, therefore, presents a partial truth. Categorization involves abstract concepts based on 'ideas, qualities and symbols'. The sacred isolation of each artwork is thus breached; we are wont to deploy knowledge (classification) to make sense of the action (art) before solving the problems of the relationship between the physical/objective make-up of the artwork and the rasa/essence it releases – the latter considered as its supervinience. As rasa can never be reduced to readable signs, it is the authentic appreciating gaze that one must gain recourse to eschewing the 'ruling gaze', though the 'authentic' again is not an absolute value, while the gaze that wants to rule is defined in absolute terms.
The discussion above leads us to the basic philosophical concern – do the aesthetic properties of an 'art object' supervene on physical properties of that object? It is a question lifted right out of the academic discourse broached in 'Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy' to clear the lens through which to extend our gaze.
When art is treated as cultural 'materials' rather than considered in the entirety of its action, or actions, unpacking of any work of art usually collapses into the positivistic search for material fact, linguistic fact and sense fact. This tripartite method concerned with facticity necessitates a separation as well as simplification of the relation between art and society, between form and content, between expression and method.
Classification too seems to rely heavily on visual facts. The choice boils down to acknowledging the syntax before even understanding the layers of 'processual reality'. Processual reality is what the artwork extends into view, which is more than some total of the externalized objective patterns – the facts about the art object. Unfortunately we are habituated to read art in relation to the latter which promotes the separation of rasa from the linguistic expression. The 'reality of the rasa' pertaining to the artistic production, their coming into being, is predicated upon what they call into question – of the present and the past; and also, more importantly, what they prefigure.
The 'prefigurative' in an artwork is that protean, changeful substance which appears like the tip of the iceberg, initially producing only a glimpse of the things to come. The prefigurative arises out of off-the-grid disobedience to the status quo ante and apparently flows unbidden prioritizing 'becoming' over 'being'.
The sacrificial elements – the self and its habits that are mostly atavistic in nature – witness an effacement, sometimes partial, often total, in order to make possible the emergence of the artwork. The trappings it brings into view and the object that it becomes, or the form that it assumes, are like 'Platonic shadows', from where one must look beyond. In other words, the 'actual' usually leads one to the threshold of the 'ideal'. Work of art is to be seen in light of this being here and there at the same time – any artwork thus appears as 'object/attribute-ideation/perception', to reframe the American literary critique G. Thomas Tenselle's postulation.
Categories of style aka 'movements' provide us with an approximate means to judge artistic creations in the effusion of their linguistic expressions. Substance, or call it 'bostu', a la dialectics of Fakir Lalon, on the other hand, usually flows from the way style is performed – the artist's ability to appropriate a language to achieve artistic-ideatic inflections.
Style, in its reduced and socially acceptable form, becomes a false 'model' for art-making. Explored as non-dynamic residue of a long-existing trend, the dated style frequently gives rise to both misrepresentation and misreading. Even when fairly new in its formation, stylistic rigour sometimes works as a smokescreen obscuring a consortium of visions and forces linked to the act of creativity as an open-ended enterprise. To read and discuss what Gayatri Chakravorty dubs as 'epistemography', or work of art in a common composite term, all general reductionist approaches to art appreciation must be set aside to recognize the artistic brio in its entirety. Style, on the other hand, is recognized in the reading of specific genres represented by a period and/or a group of individual artists given to a common interest. Art, one may conjecture, is issued forth from within the social sphere with the hope of inflecting the 'common' with what the commoners may perceive as the 'uncommon'. In reality, the uncommon remains hidden beneath the surface of the common, and, portentously appears as an emotional-intellectual-performative rejection of the status quo ante, bearing the 'normative marks' of the coming social revolutionary change.