Slaying the Beast of the Known: The Artist in Our Time
In the old days artists formed groups, issued manifestos, and held their own arts events celebrating new visions. Back in the day, as well as today, mainstream art, academics, and commerce didn’t encourage artists seeking to look between the lines of the accepted meanings and aesthetics of their cultures. Today, who would question story and character as central to fiction? Who would question the validity of reducing works of art to their presumed meaning and tying that meaning down to the biographies of their creators? Who would question that artworks are intended to cloak meaning? But such given ideas should be questioned. They are the lines, the bars of a cage that prevent us from our freedom.
Our time, this peculiarly tumultuous time (of course all times are tumultuous), requires yet a new way of mobilizing art into a destabilizing force to smash open the façade of our accepted reality and to slay, as if for the first time, the beast of the known. First, understand that the artist in our time is trying to see——
Is it the face of the unseeable, the invisible, the unthinkable, the vibrant unknowable that we‘re immersed in?
In our time, we must proclaim that language and all forms of representation have been found wanting. It’s become clear in our time that the thing we most desire to represent cannot be represented, perhaps cannot even be alluded to without error. It is always hidden and besotted by the known. In our time the known in its scientific and technological guise spreads all around us like a paralysis caused by the mistaken activity of our own immune system.
The infectious beast of the known has a kingdom: the labyrinthine circuitry of our brains. The beast of the known lives at the center of this kingdom and fills our mind-caves with its blinding, chemical breath.
The beast of the known guards an unknowable treasure.
Entering the cave, the artist in our time slays the beast of the known with the sword of self-abnegation and insight. A difficult quest. From the beast’s smelly carcass grow unpredictable exotic flowers. The artist imitates these in notes, colors, or words in order to save our human souls, which have been declared to no longer exist and have been replaced by bunches of nerve fibers carrying the excitations of the known like a drunken contagion.
Understand. The unknowable is not another word for God or Truth or Inspiration. We are embodied and en-brained in the unknowable though (of course) we can’t know it. Think for long enough about anything you believe that you know and the unknowable rises up from the depths. The idea that the world is made of things is just one example. Each thing is no-thing and everything, the physicists have revealed. The known and knowledge are especially wonderful when they are destabilized and destroyed by their own presumptions. At those moments the known turns into a work of art, and the beast of the known becomes a sculpture or myth. The most serious art of our time is rooted in the unknowable and describes “nothing”; it reveals reality is a dream. The artist of our time understands that the known vibrates with the dark matter and energy of the unknowable pulling everything toward it like the no-thing timelessness of a black hole dissolving.
The artist in our time knows that on the surface of things, the beast of the known dominates the reality we live in. It is a beast made of pixels and digital gates, smart phones, genetic engineering, packaged animals in supermarket cold food shelves, global positioning devices, organ transplants (including the brain). The beast tags bears with computer chips and keeps eyes on them with drones. The known disembowels human consciousness in order to download it onto a hard drive. It brings ecophagy (eating the environment) nanobots that will make more and more of themselves, consuming all matter and turning the planet into gray goo. The known manifests itself as the atomic age, the age of the moon landing, the age of climate change, the age of human self’s genetic mutation — in fact, the age of the heroic and glorified self—meaning infinite boredom. It is the age of the growing beast made, most hideous of all, out of human psychology.
In the reality shaped by the known, nature recedes into the background and we come to live in a utterly artificial, human-made reality, like a hospital room filled with monitors and tubes and the foul deadly smell of antiseptic, which protects us from our own decay (or so we think).
The beast of the known must be slain, the artist knows, if there is any hope for human life.
The artist slays the beast by demystifying knowledge, revealing that what we know is a screen on which deluded humans have projected a cinema of certainties, all strutting, gaily dressed, absurdly full of themselves, and artificially lit. It is a screen attached to a flimsy wall behind which the unknowable boils and bubbles like the surface of the sun if the sun were made of bile and vomit instead of plasma, and was expanding all-where.
Meanwhile, the beast of the known lifts two heads: the head of the known that has become our unquestioned assumptions and the head of the about-to-be known which is everything else we don’t know at this moment but are sure we will know soon. Both heads eat minds, gobble up souls, and turn victims into zombies.
Contemporary artists, like the last survivors of a slaughtered grand army, carry on the rear-guard fight to save reality from its own predictability and assurance, from its own self-absorption, from its own self-replicating nonsense that a culture calls meaning.
To slay the beast contemporary artists may cultivate flavorful and highly toxic abstractions, de-centering ideas. They may (and probably do) abandon causality, which has only a limited utility, anyway. (Hume argued in Treatise of Human Nature we have no certainty about the relationship of cause and effect; so causality is just a necessary fiction.) They may repudiate psychology. (Definition: psychology is what ties the mind into knots of complexes and defends an ego which may not even exist since it is no longer clear what the separation is between you and all that stuff out there that you think is not you).
Rejecting psychology, the artist in our time focuses, most importantly, on how we are entangled — entangled in ecology and landscapes (clouds and snails); entangled in each other; entangled inside each separate and solitary skull with its multitudinous different and even contrary selves slithering and knotting around each other like snakes that believe they are one single self.
The artist in our time works to rediscover the holistic, Paleolithic, metaprimal mind of the young child that fiction writer César Aira describes in his short story “A Brick Wall.”
We see a bird flying, and at once the adult mind says “bird.” The child, by contrast, sees something that not only does not have a name but is not even a nameless thing: it is (although the verb to be should be used with caution here) a limitless continuum involving the air, the trees, the time of day, movement, temperature, the mother’s voice, the color of the sky, almost everything. The same goes for objects and events, or what we call objects and events. It could be almost an artistic project, or the model or matrix from which all artistic projects are derived.
The contemporary artist suspects that during the last moments of life one will experience a new state of unreality like the one Aira describes. The artists of our time are used to that. They have died a thousand times in making their art by flying through the cultural froth and through the thin, viscous screen of the known, then allowing the beast of the known to devour them so they can slay him with an acute indigestion.
All this said, of course, irony governs: knowledge is mystery; the more we know, the more we don’t know. The more we know about the human mind, for example, the less we know about human nature. The more we know about mathematics, the less we understand why and how it exists.
Imprisoned in the reality of the known, the peudo-known, and the universe of mysteries hideously masquerading as the known, the contemporary artist worships in the temples of chaos, fractals and asymmetry. Finds time in discontinuity, finds inexplicable wholeness compacted deep inside each fragment, finds truth in the exposed and reflected lie. The contemporary artist worships the ice age painters, musicians, and mythmakers, who saw the unknowable close up (not encrusted and opaque with knowledge that is our current state). The artists of our time are tired of plot, tired of conflict, tired of resolutions to stories. These are all known gestures. Mostly they’re just tired of stories. They feel the world of the known and the imagined known has gone stale. Has brought life to a standstill.
What is the unknowable? A silly question perhaps, but let’s ask. Is it the whole? One would like to think so because the whole, by definition, is unknowable. (To know the whole would be to stand outside it, and make it no longer be whole. The whole is unknowable because we are “in” it or a “part of it,” so we can’t know it.) Do you think the unknowable is the whole? You don’t know.
The contemporary artist embraces this not knowing as if it were God.
Is all this a new post-post modernism? Or is it artists committed to the unrealism that has always characterized art? They hope it is the end of labels which disguise the fact that artists of all times and places have been warriors and slayers of the beast of the known, and they have killed it dead many times.
But the beast keeps regenerating in new forms and must be repeatedly slain so that from its carcass can rise the beautiful flowers with their roots in the unknowable and their heads open to the invasion and ravishment of the sun, the long-beaked birds, the pollinating insects, the butterflies already going extinct because of the reality of the known which is always growing back and enveloping human thought in its more deadly forms.
In this space we will bring to you some of the spirit of Between Lines Books & Arts. It’s the spirit of the artist, essayist or other researcher committed to challenging habitual orders and settled knowledge, conditioned perception. It’s a spirit of turning the senses toward the presence of overtones, nuance and mystery in sound, sight and thought. Gandhi said, “The more efficient a force is, the more silent and subtle it is.” The BLBA artists will share with readers, listeners and viewers the subtle and even silent whispers they have discerned in the spaces between lines.