art made of sand

Wassily Kandinsky, Serenity Court, 1929.
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By FLÁVIO R. KOTHE*

Thoughts on contemporary art

Art today is no longer defined as a sensitive apparition of the idea or the truth. She says no more. At most, suggest. This means that its meaning is something that is only beckoned from afar by the meanings set and proposed by the work. She is more absence than presence, more a babbling than a speech.

As Paul Celan says:

“NO MORE SAND ART, no sand book, no master.
No dice throw. How many
mute?
Ten and seven.
Thy question - Thy answer.
Your song, what do you know?
snowfall,
Uonaeve,
U-e-e”.

Art made of sand is predestined to decompose and disappear. The sand that runs through the hourglass is the passage of time, but of this nothing else is worth mentioning. Masters are also no more. The bet that still existed in Mallarmé's “Un coup de dés” was that something could still be said: a throw of the dice will never abolish chance. More literally, one would have to say “it will never abolish chance”, that is, there will always be bad luck, negative chance. In each throw of the dice, one is always subject to chance, not everything is planable, not everything is under the control of the will.

The die has six sides, goes from one to six in scoring. In the sky there is the constellation of the Pleiades, known as Seven Stars, with the suggestion that, in addition to the six visible stars, there would be a seventh that would only sometimes be perceptible to rare people with a keener eye, as if it were the index of a miracle. This mystique is resolved today with a telescope. What it does not resolve is the human inability to perceive and conceive infinite spaces.

The question about “how many mutes” could be read as beckoning the question “how many worlds”? How many were mute, how many were muted? A number comes, 17, but in the form of ten and seven, two numbers of mystical tradition, one adding the fingers for the decimal count that everything intends to calculate, the other adding the days of the week, the days of the creation of the universe, the seven arts, the quadrivium added to trivia in the medieval educational system. Of course, a fanatical rightist would see in this the prophecy of the advent of a messiah, something without foundation in the poem.

There is a muting of speech. There is nothing more to say, as everything said would serve to sweeten, beautify what imposes silencing. There is a loss of language, there is a loss of worlds, of swan flights that no longer took place. What remains of language is just what testifies to this disappearance.

The question is no longer formulated as such, it is only noted that there could be a question, as well as an answer. There is no express question, no express answer. None would transcend. You wouldn't know which was one or the other. It could be any question for any answer, nothing would advance. In the question “your song, what does it know?” there is only the question and the beckoning of an answer. Points to something “deep in the snow”. What gets buried under the snow?

In the word “Fundonaneve” there is a non-word due to lack of space and silence between words. Meaning starts to be generated from a replacement of this emptiness. From the shadow, from not saying, from the unilluminated, some enlightenment begins to be generated. Meaning is sought from the absence of meaning, from the absurd. What is generated is not, however, a sensible, comprehensive language, as “deep in the snow” would be. The Portuguese translation allows something that does not exist in “Tief im Schnee”: Fundo can mean both deep in the snow and also “I sink in the snow”, that is, an art that tells the dark side of history is founded in the buried and hidden. The snow is white, as if it were a color made from the absence of color or from the conjunction of all colors. By founding something in the snow, one can deepen the sense of history and wonder if it makes sense. Every political current thinks it has it, but it is made by “blinds”, by blind followers. They are prisoners of the synecdoche that they themselves do not understand.

Celan's poetry focuses on Jews who died under Nazism, but they weren't the only ones murdered in concentration camps or the only ones killed in World War II. The Russians had the greatest losses. There would be millions of others killed in other wars and regions that perhaps did not worry the poet so much, but could be subsumed in the poems. For example, the Indians killed in Latin America under the Treaty of Madrid, the Armenians killed by the Turks, the massacres in the Belgian, English, German colonies in Africa, the Palestinians killed by the Israelis. The successes of men could also be remembered, instead of highlighting their tragedies.

Even if Celan was concerned, above all, with the Jews victimized by Nazism, this portion could be an index of something bigger: it is implied, however, that the course of all history passes through this Eurocentric funnel, disregarding other ethnic groups and populations also persecuted and mistreated. It is as if Celan's poetry were Hegel's absolute spirit, in terms of which everything had to be judged. A period becomes absolute. He doesn't want to see other paths, other paths. The notion of an Absolute Spirit, through which history would flow and converge, seems to contain a transposition of the divine into the human, as Christ would have been. It presupposes that one believes in the underlying dogmas. They continue to be in force when you are trapped in the scheme, even if in a secular form.

Hegel could claim to be the absolute spirit. In your Aesthetics he set up a scheme of artistic genres and eras that has its own internal logic, it allows one to have a vision that seems comprehensive of history, but only what his gaze encompasses enters into history. Thus, the history of architecture begins with the Egyptian pyramids to end in the Romanesque cathedrals, but in this scheme, the architecture of China, Bhutan, India, Japan, as well as the skyscraper built in the XNUMXth century, is excluded. It leaves out the dance: one might assume that it would be sculpture in motion, but those who dance realize that there are many steps that are not part of a sculptural pose. Hegel did not know cinema, but it only developed its own language when it ceased to be just filmed theater, developing techniques such as moving the camera and editing.

Silence gives consent. Unless you express your non-consent by registering that you are being silenced, there would be nothing more to say. To say nothing is, however, to let tyranny act without a voice to oppose it. The horizon of poetry lies, however, beyond the space occupied by immediate political causes. What manifests itself in the poem must be something that transcends them all.

The question is whether the poetry of Mallarmé or Celan goes towards this transcendence. If it seems so, this has demanded, however, a language so encrypted, so difficult that it seems to be formed by the denial of communication. It is the opposite of journalistic language, although “Un coup de dés” was inspired by the typography of newspapers, that is, having headlines in larger letters, subheadings a little smaller and then the bulk of the text in legible but small characters. This graphic distribution also corresponded to the symphonic principle of a main theme, secondary themes and variations around them.

What matters here is that the staging of the work stages a virtual figure, which is what the work really wants to configure. It is something suggested by the work, it is contained in it, but it is not confused with it, although it merges with it, sinks into it. It is the suggestion of an absence that is made present, like a shadow that accompanies the work, it is its meaning as well as its negation. The hermetic poem radicalizes this operation, because what it establishes is so fragmented, so elliptical, that it is more on the way to non-language than to the clear expression of something.

There is, therefore, a contradiction in the language of art: it is made between wanting to say and not being able to say, between suggesting what it cannot say and the need to go beyond the vague suggestion. The question then arises whether, on the pretext of overcoming the metaphysical tradition, the aesthetics of allegory have not fallen back again, in which there would be the concrete representation of an abstract idea, a product beckoning something divine. Instead of progressing, one would fall back into the same thing, which would return under the guise of having overcome the metaphysical duplication, of not having returned to the same thing.

* Flavio R. Kothe is professor of aesthetics at the University of Brasilia. Author, among other books, of Culture semiotics essays (UnB).

 

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