Art and Culture

Tomasz Gil 2000

Apollo was a slayer of monsters. Dionysos was a victim of monsters. Both of those mythical figures are prototypes of the artist and the key to the understanding of the phenomenon of art. Dionysos's body dissolves itself and disintegrates at the gate of mystery while Apollo runs from the visit in the cave of monsters carrying trophies, dressed in the dead monster's skin.

Descending into chaos, risking and losing one's own individuality in the process and then emerging from the cave, gradually better self-collected with discernible features, coherent representations of chaos. Opposite to music starting out with mathematically precise notation, which loses itself in the passions of actual performance in time, the representative art, like painting, collects together the dissolute and uncontrollable flow of circumstances and generates a frozen image. The first gives life to the dead, while the second gives death to the live.

Culture puts those mutually contradicting forces into a glass jar. Culture uses the artifacts of their transfiguring struggle. Culture hangs skins of killed monsters around the house to domesticate mystery and horror. As a matter of fact culture is the social process of making the horrifying aspects of the mystery of existence suitable for common consumption. Culture is the collection of ideas and artifacts that make people feel at home in the world.

Artists are among the creators of culture, but really do not care about that honor. They are like hunters returning from the hunt, bringing home bodies of monsters they have killed. They don't decide how the trophies will be made and used. They get the glory while the monster's skin gets encased in a cultural artifact.

The reception of art can occur on the level of art or culture. In the first case the recipient tends to approach the sensitivity of the artist or poetically speaking take part in the monster hunt, while the cultural recipient is interested so to speak in the trafficking in the monsters trophies. Of course the second mode dominates on the social scale where acculturated art help warm the house built over the abyss.

American graphical artist David Salle talks about art critics in an 1987 interview. His experience of the relationship between the artist and the critic plays well within our theory whereby the critic is often just concerned with sanitizing the hunter's kill for public consumption while the artist's is the rather bitter glory.

Excerpt from "Salle" published by Vintage Books 1987

"It seems as though one could divide critics up into two groups: those who have an idea about how art comes to have meaning, and stemming from that idea, a set of aesthetic principles by which to evaluate the relative success or failure of something, whether it's a painting or a ballet; and those who write consumer-guide-type journalism. And I must say as an aside that my involvement with things on stages, and more specifically with the Armitage ballet, has given me a new access to ire that had been more or less becalmed in regards to my painting work - my life as a painter in the past few years - as my own appetite for the adversarial position vis-a-vis my own work in the world diminished. But being involved with the ballet company has given me anew feelings of confusion and frustration with criticism in our time. Anyway, about there being in my mind two types of critics, there are critics who try to establish a relationship with a work, and then there are the complaining critics. The journalistic critics in general, or I should say the complaining critics, reduce everything to a sign, and then complain bitterly because everything has been reduced to a sign. This is the essential antagonism between between artists and critics, really. I don't see how it can ever go away when the critics have one eye on the audience. That is their authoritarianism disguised as populism. They want to be loved. I believe that we as artists are not reducing things to signs; we are making things which have very specific appearances and which can have complex and sometimes fragile meanings. The complaining critics want to level everything out with ideology, or sarcasm, or social snobbery, or lousy writing, or whatever, while decrying the leveled-out, nonidiosyncratic culture they have helped shape. Artists want to cast wider nets and be more specific simultaneously. The complaining critics hold on to an image of themselves as cultural myth-debunkers, when of course that position itself is largely mythic unless we talk about specific people in specific epochs like Mark Twain. These people are just helping to sell newspapers by creating the false impression of intimacy, only in this case with culture. Another weird point of confusion among some of the complaining critics is that they want to be postmodernists and leftists simultaneously, when a real postmodernist sensibility would obviate or eclipse that stupid watchdog attitude toward art and its economics. And beyond that, there's an idea among those journalistic critics that they seem to feel their job is to warn people away from things that they might not understand instead of helping people to understand those things. There are numerous exceptions to this critique of criticism: the people who have managed through hard work and good spirit to break through this terrible enclosure of meaninglessness that criticism is in - and the mean-spiritedness of criticism toward the works of art that it criticizes."

The artist is seeking an assistant hunter in the art critic. Someone who will be there staking out the beast's grounds, observing its whereabouts and helping plan and design the action. That assistant would also be a companion and friend, reaffirming the hunter's interests and goals - a mirror of his soul. Ultimately such a critic will be able to confront the beast at the side of the artist sharing the experience of danger, terror, chaos and triumph. A critic such a this comes very close to being the artist himself - yet the artist will distinguish himself by having the supremely intimate relationship with the beast, being the one whom the monster beast picks as its enemy and in consequence its slayer or victim. When the artist and his critic friend return back to the human village they are met by the people led by the cultural critic, who ascertain the spiritual utility of the hunt's trophy for the warming of the human abode to reassure man that the battle with the divine chaos is not yet decided, is ongoing and can be won.

April-May 2000