Sunday, October 10, 2004

Struck by death: on The Birth of Art

"Art is primarily the consciousness of grief, not its consolation."

What does Blanchot mean by this? We all know that art consoles us. It is why we return to it, flee to it; this awesome space in which we make our own intimate refuge. Blanchot seems only to be colonising the universe of art to express the post-trauma of post-war Europe. What about the art throughout human history, from prehistoric cave paintings to the plays of Shakespeare, to the rich novels of our time, how can all this be the consciousness of grief?

The same question arises when scientists, or in this case evolutionary psychologists, claim all art stems from mate choice in pre-historic culture. They say art is a happy by-product of sexual display, much like a peacock's tail. The animal demonstrates how healthy and powerful he is by using a surplus of energy to create the enormous folly of its tail. The peahen chooses to mate with the male that will most likely produce strong, healthy offspring. The more extravagant the tail, the stronger and healthier the male.

We ask: is this, then, the ultimate meaning of art? When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, was he keeping an eye out from on high for some skirt down below? Well, it's not as simple as that of course, as the example indicates. As I wrote below, a theory of art such as this might be persuasive about unconscious motivations for the production of art, but it doesn't tell us much about the art itself, or indeed our experience of art.

This is not a modern experience. We can go back right to the beginning to examine it. In a review (1) of George Bataille's book on the extraordinary cave paintings discovered by chance in Lascaux in 1940, Maurice Blanchot says that despite the understanding that the paintings come from a world of "obscure savagery, of mysterious rites and inaccessible customs", the paintings themselves are "strikingly beautiful" and "prodigiously clear". He says that the paintings evoke a "free spontaneity ... that is carefree and without ulterior motive, almost without pretext and joyfully open to itself" (that is, with no trace of grief). Could it be that we are witnessing, as Bataille claims, the birth of art?

Blanchot doesn't doubt there are hundreds of years of paintings behind the current paintings on the walls, but what we see is always the beginning of art just as each work of art is the beginning too; a perpetual birth. We become aware of something that wasn't there before. While Blanchot admits that this thought is an illusion, he also says it is true: "It reveals to us in a perceptible manner the extraordinary intrigue that art pursues with us and with time."

What is this extraordinary intrigue? Whatever the answer, it is elided by science. If we compare Blanchot's expressive response with a random search of online writings on Lascaux, discussion of the paintings is almost entirely archeological analysis: for example, do they reveal that Homo Erectus was "already setting traps, digging pits to capture elephants and rhinoceros?" The search for knowledge, for control, always overruns and obscures wonder before these works. The paintings become tools for explanatory use, much like the flint stones scattered on the floor used to slice animal flesh.

Yet, Blanchot says, it is precisely the realisation of knowledge and control that was brought about by the paintings. By interrupting everyday effort and work to create images and to celebrate the timeless time of being unconsciously part of the natural world - the creators began to separate themselves from other living species. Art became power and weakness: power over nature but also realisation of the inability to return to that pre-human state. The worker broke away from utility and became an artist. Appropriately, Blanchot speaks of the singular individual:

This void separating him from the natural community is, it seems, what revealed death and destruction to him, but he also learned, not without pain or misgiving, to use this void: to make use of and deepen his weakness in order to become stronger.
We can see this in all art, in all the arts: the use of weakness to become stronger; to become completely other than nature by virtue of the inability to become one with nature. It is a transgression against the natural order that is, Blanchot says, at the heart of becoming human.

While sexual selection might well have contributed to the technical facility and impulse to adorn the cave walls, what the adornment reveals is something else: a mutation beyond the graphs of evolution. It is not measurable; the time of the void's appearance will always be obscured because the time's absence is the void itself. The cave paintings celebrate the power of this transgression but also retain a memory of the distress and horror of what it means: "the disconcerting thought that man does not become a man through all that is human in him".

Blanchot ends his essay by drawing our attention to the human figure in the Shaft of the Dead Man, the only such representation in the cave - feebly drawn and unadorned by colour:
The meaning of this obscure drawing is ... clear: it is the first signature of the first painting, the mark left modestly in a corner, the furtive, fearful, indelible trace of man who is for the first time born of his work, but who also feels seriously threatened by this work and perhaps already struck by death.
So when Blanchot says that "art is primarily the consciousness of grief", he is referring to this feeble yet indelible trace. It is present for us now. It is the strange feeling of presence we sense before art, an illusion that is also true. We find the art in art not in technical aptitude, not in political or social or psychological content; not in the tour de force of a personality or techniques of self-effacement - all perhaps consoling in themselves - but in the experience of art brought utmost to the fore.

1: See The Birth of Art, the first essay in the collection Friendship (Translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg). Bataille's book Prehistoric Painting: Lascaux or the Birth of Art is long out-of-print, but I have since written about a copy I managed to find.

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