Sunday, December 10, 2006

Particularity of the medium

One of Dewey's key concepts is the particularity of the artistic medium. For any kind of aesthetic production, the specific situation is interwoven with the specific medium. Aesthetics and ethics can't be understood apart from the very specific experience and situation. Artists work with, think in terms of, suffer through, slave over in terms of that medium. They have something they are trying to do or express, and the way they need to do that is in and through that medium, not through scattershot vocalizations or collections of different media. They force need and meaning through the funnel of their chosen medium, the resistance and obstacles it throws in their way, but also the unique potential and affordances it alone provides to them. They steep themselves in the nuances of the traditions of how that medium has been used before, and those filter into the unique constellation of the present situation and the state of the artist's current orientation to their subject, their environment, and the tool -- what they've tried to do and have done before, what they want to do now. All of this seems central to what I'm trying to go after with my research, and what happens for me when I work in the medium itself.

There is something I'm trying to get to and get at with Compendium and what surrounds it (e.g. publishing exports on the web, writing about it, etc). Each time I plunge myself into actually making something, shaping, planning, redoing, battling with why some aspect isn't working or isn't going the way I want it to -- each time, as Dewey says, is unique, and is only and uniquely done through the purpose and lens of Compendium as a medium. I could do some aspects of what I'm trying to do in other media, and also could (and sometimes do) make stuff within Compendium in a repetitive, non-original manner, but I don't want to. There are particularities and specifics of Compendium that are part and parcel of why I'd want to make the current object in the first place and how I want to go forward. I want to achieve or make or express the thing, but I want it to be achieved/made/expressed in Compendium. I want Compendium to rise to the occasion, to be the tool I need it to be, to become the tool I want it to become. There is an ongoing project, some long-term goal (what Wright & McCarthy would talk about as the future-orientation of the work) or purpose that I'm after, that keeps me returning to this medium to try again, to apply it to something else. The more I'm away from it I feel like I am not doing what only I can uniquely do, the more I work with it the more I want to do it. At the same time I tend to leave things unfinished or incomplete -- that's part of it, part of the nature of the medium I am obsessed with, is that it can always be queried, used in dialogue, extended, reshaped. Every object I've made has been done with that intent and in that spirit; not as a finished product or end in itself, though I always want them to serve the purpose that I intended during the making. But I also want them to be taken up as dialogic objects, used for further communication, with all the particularities and nuances of how that can work in Compendium (which I have been trying to get and extend and improve for the past 14 years).

As Dewey talks about, it is not external approval (though I do want that too) or measurement against some standard that motivates me and keeps me at this. There are potentially thousands of people who could make better Compendium artifacts that I can. I have seen spectacular things from Simon, Ale, Clara, Nick, and others. I am not trying to be better than them or even measure what I produce against theirs (though seeing beautiful work can inspire me, give me ideas, and it is always gratifying to me personally because I know those works would not have existed in that form without my contribution to getting the tools and methods where they are now over the years). It's more that there is a degree or kind of Compendium creation out there --- maddeningly elusive -- that pulls in all the things the medium is capable of. We will never be as good as what the potential is, it's a supermagnet in front of us, continually pulling away. There may well be some geniuses of the medium already working or lying in wait out there -- Compendium Shakespeares -- who could do something measuring up to this ultimate standard -- but even then they would never use it up. "OK now that this is done there's nothing left to do, except to imitate it". In that it is the same as any other artistic medium. Many (or most) people would now not even consider Compendium as a real or worthy medium, for whatever reason -- it's not enough of this, it's not seen enough as that -- but that is irrelevant to me. I would want to do this even if no one else did (though at the same time I passionately want more people to).

"Indifference to response of the immediate audience is a necessary trait of all artists that have something new to say. But they are animated by a deep conviction that since they can only say what they have to say, the trouble is not with their work but those who, having eyes, see not, and having ears, hear not. Communicability has nothing to do with popularity." (Art as Experience, p. 109)

Dewey really gets at the inseparable emotional (as well as intellectual) aspects of aesthetic production, the intensity with which someone caught up in the making and doing feels it, sees it, thinks about it, grapples with it. Almost anywhere I open up Art as Experience something leaps out at me as being exactly and poetically stated about the experience (which, as he also points out, is or can be common to both making and perceiving). Like the following:

"Sense qualities are the carrier of meanings, not as vehicles carrying goods but as a mother carries a baby when the baby is part of her own organism." (p. 122-3)

Why did he think to write this, and know to write it that way? The book is full of that stuff -- so direct, so lacking in gobbledygook. If all philosophers and theorists could write with that kind of clarity, maybe I would be able to read and understand a lot more of it.

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