"Close eye and gross sigh", or, "Art is Art, and Everything Else is Everything Else"


In 2001 I was invited to take part in a colloquium at Manchester Metropolitan University. The four speakers, two academics and two art practitioners (myself and the visual artist David Connearn; the critics Guy Brett and Desa Philippi) were asked to respond in some way to the proposition that “Art is art, and everything else is everything else”. The paper is reproduced below as I wrote it, for oral delivery. Thanks are due to David Bellingham and Pavel Büchler for the invitation.

My name is Harry Gilonis; and, first of all, not by way of apology, I owe you a small explanation. I have been invited here not as an art-academic, not as an aesthetician, but as a poet who writes occasionally on art. (Fortunately there's a professor on hand in case of emergencies; and I won't be quoting poetry openly – or not for a while, at any rate.)

“Art is art, and everything else is everything else”. Of course this proposition, stated like that, is inarguably true. Every separable item in the world's inventory can have the same thing said of it. The pen I wrote the words “the pen I wrote the words” with is, itself, that pen and no other; and nothing else is that pen. Nominalism meets realism. Uninterestingly. So to make it worth proceeding we must think that there is more going on. 'Art' in the sense of “the application of skill to the creation of beauty” (Chambers).… Well, we could spend a week with the OED and Raymond Williams' Keywords unpacking any of those terms. So let's not. Let's just assume we mean, as loosely as you like, the production, the making, of something thought-of-as-art; prompted by an impulse to action. It can be set apart by being called 'art' rather than 'not-art'; but, unless we want to fall for the dodgy sociologese of artworld theory – a Dickieworld* indeed – we will need to say more.

*artworld theory amounts to little more than the naming of something as art by those who are entitled to name something art. The institutionalising of Duchamp's gesture, fittingly based around a urinal.

Nor am I interested in argument ab origine; art now is what it is because of what it has been and done between the beginning of art and now; and it has, evidently, changed. Art is a verb, a thing in movement, defined by that, not by unspecified invariants. It might be easiest to define it by a negative methodology; the pen I wrote the words “the pen I wrote the words” with, and the different pen I'm writing these words with, are neither of them works of art. Et cetera ad way-past nauseam. So pondering essence can tell us nothing useful; but we might want to think about that – about use. One way of thinking about the art-object is as something entirely useless. (And, as Cornelius Cardew asked, quoting Chuang-Tze, “what is there in uselessness to cause you such distress?”)

If art were useful, it might be more like a commodity, say one of those boxes of beans that Arthur C. Danto has such difficulty telling a work of art apart from. The commodity, that curious entity which is always exchangeable, always equivalent, the same here as in Boston Lincs. or Boston, Mass.; interchangeable, and always exchangeable for what it isn't – cash. In some sense present and absent at the same time, deferring any sense of uniqueness in place or time to a multiply-grey swap-shop. Here exchange, and exchange-value, turn out to matter rather more than use-value or use. “God only knows what beans are, I only know their price”, sings Brecht's merchant: sings of a semblance of things related as equated values. Commodities hide their natural use to one or one's neighbour; it is perhaps not clear what use one's neighbour might have for art! It may be that in the academy all art-objects blur into ideal equals; maybe that component of them which is shared with the commodity means they too are exchangeable; but – use? Something not made for use cannot, surely, have a natural use - to one or one's neighbour......

Yet – if exchange is ghostly, falsely sets up the abstract spectre of identity between non-identical things (and what two things are identical, if looked at long enough?) then it is use which is concerned with the particular thing, finds value in its specific materiality. Just as I cannot hammer in a nail with the word 'hammer', so I cannot suspend “painting” from the nail – only a painting, for my purposes and to my satisfaction not exchangeable for any other. Natural use, then, applies to the useless, to art. In which abstraction things – commodities – keep no resemblance to things created, to works of art.

But if making art is set apart from other making, do artworks completely escape from the difficulties of the commodity? I think not. They share features, after all. Artworks aren't wholly unique, or we could not declare them, after scrutiny brief or prolonged, to belong to the family of art. Also, although this may not be immediately evident to art students, artworks can be sold; can be exchanged for a declared equivalent in cash; do have value, even if it is exchange-value. Gold flows in unbroken circuit and induces our being – so the commodity might address us, if it had a tongue, it having already purchased our ears. In this sense of being made for sale or exchange, art is like other things; and this false equivalence damages it. This isn't a last-minute dash for art-for-art's-sake; but abstraction acts in a manner akin to metaphor, putting something that isn't there in place of what was; in the American poet Louis Zukofsky's phrase, “taking us from a precise somewhere and leaving us nowhere”. (A fine state of affairs for the commodity, which is always imprecisely nowhere.)

If we were to imagine being constrained, having no control over the making of an artwork, the notion of its inherent value alters; I think if we are honest we sense it diminishing as the object moves from 'work' to 'thing', in the end as potentially multiple as any commodity: things reflected [,...] wills subjected, formed in the division of labour.... I'd like to hope it might be possible that this was another way of looking at the artwork, as a model of making which is not subjected to the constraints of purposive making. A combination of mind and body, surely, go into making an artwork: hands, heart, not value; or, at least, not a valuation predicated on denaturing exchange. We might see the artwork, then, as the projection of a desired perfection, and in that sense pleasingly abstract, cerebral, thought-through; and also as made, shaped, material, worked by hand to delight the senses...

At this point I might, I suppose, quote Marx openly:

Only through the unfolded wealth of human nature can the wealth of subjective human sensitivity - a musical ear, an eye for the beauty of form, in short senses capable of human gratification - be either cultivated or created. For not only the five senses, but also the so-called spiritual senses, the practical senses (will, love, etc.), in a word, the human sense, the humanity of the senses – all these come into being only through the existence of their objects, through humanised nature. The cultivation of the five senses is the work of all previous history. […] [A] society that is fully developed produces man in all the richness of his being, the rich man who is profoundly and abundantly endowed with all the senses, as its constant reality.
[Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844]

But, of course, such is not (yet) the state of affairs; and the detached, autonomous artwork might be said to do little, be able to do little, to bring it about. Being neutered is the price art has paid for autonomy. A gross sigh fixed upon gain warps value erected on labour. Even artworks are induced by gold; and as for those that make them, make commodities – thwarted we are together impeded. Hope stopped. Labour speeded while our worth decreases. Treated like commodities, we are things... And yes, this is political; needs to be political; art needs theory not least because the artwork is cloaked, dis-guised; and as for everyone else, well, as Hegel observed, we need theory because there are contradictions. (If everything were fine, surely everything would be self-evident!)

So if the artwork is part of the world and partly not, partly for use and partly for exchange, partly a thing of the mind and partly manually-shaped matter, where does that leave it? Somewhere very useful, and very interesting. The aesthetic, the mode of cognition through perception and sensation, has been as imprecise and indeterminate as the artwork since Baumgarten coined the term in the 1750s. 'Aesthetics' sits between reason and sense, between particular and general, linking the material world and thought. Holding at once to matter-permeated-by-mind and mind-imbricated-in-matter, we might be able to avoid the empty categories of arid logicians and the sightless specificity of inert stuff. The artwork as animate instrument; as compass to steer by.

Which is a long-winded way of coming round to saying that if all definitions are transient, and concepts don't exhaust the things they fail to conceptualise, then, although art is art, tautologically and self-evidently, that is only so formed in the division of labour where fission and separation are the rule. It might be, as I've hoped out loud, that art, existing as it does in unfreedom, imperfect and broken, might occupy, transiently perhaps, a breathing space; a testing-ground where matter can be changed, without it mattering over-much; and where our minds might be changed as a necessary result.

I said at the beginning that I wouldn't quote poetry openly; and yet, to be dialectical, I was both truthful and lying. Louis Zukofsky, one-time Marxist and close reader of Marx, spent three years working on the first half of a short poem; it doesn't fill three pages. Yet it has the densest, richest structure – chiefly rhyme-based – of any poem in English that I know of. This is partly because it draws exactly on a canzone by Dante's friend Cavalcanti, and reproduces its metre and rhyme-scheme precisely. English having far fewer rhyme-words than Italian, the result is a real tour-de-force. In these words which rhyme [...] song's exaction forces abstraction to turn from equated values to labour.... The poem is a made, shaped thing; material – for a poem's atoms are as much a matter of fact as those in a sculpture or painting – and permeated by intellect. Hands, heart, not value, made it. Worked slowly – three years – because nearly all the vocabulary, much of which you've already met in what I've already said – comes directly from works by Marx. Not that I'm (wholeheartedly) a Marxist; not that it would matter if I was. More that this poem is the best exemplar of Baumgarten that I know; that, however briefly, to whatever small degree, it unifies the production of hand and brain; and finally that, although it is undoubtedly art, and its art is art, it, like all other art, has a profound connection to, a profound bearing on, all the everything else of which it turns out not to be an 'else' to, to be wholly other than; of which it turns out to be decidedly a part.

for Ben Watson
Harry Gilonis London 2001

Louis Zukofsky: First Half of “A”-9

An impulse to action sings of a semblance
Of things related as equated values,
The measure all use is time congealed labor
In which abstraction things keep no resemblance
To goods created; integrated all hues
Hide their natural use to one or one's neighbor.
So that were the things words they could say:  Light is
Like night is like us when we meet our mentors
Use hardly enters into their exchanges,
Bought to be sold things, our value arranges;
We flee people who made us as a right is
Whose sight is quick to choose us as frequenters,
But see our centers do not show the changes
Of human labor our value estranges.

Values in series taking on as real
We affect ready gold a steady token
Flows in unbroken circuit and induces
Our being, wearies of us as ideal
Equals that heady crises eddy. Broken
Mentors, unspoken wealth labor produces,
Now loom as causes disposing our loci,
The foci of production:  things reflected
As wills subjected; formed in the division
Of labor, labor takes on our imprecision –
Bought, induced by gold at no gain, though close eye
And gross sigh fixed upon gain have effected
Value erected on labor, prevision
Of surplus value, disparate decision.

Hands, heart, not value made us, and of any
Desired perfection the projection solely,
Lives worked us slowly to delight the senses,
Of their fire shall you find us, of the many
Acts of direction not defection – wholly
Dead labor, lowlier with time's offenses,
Assumed things of labor powers extorted
So thwarted we are together impeded –
The labor speeded while our worth decreases –
Naturally surplus value increases
Being incident to the pace exhorted:
Unsorted, indrawn, but things that time ceded
To life exceeded – not change, the mind pieces
The expanse of labor in us when it ceases.

Light acts beyond the phase day wills us into
Call a maturer day, the poor are torn – a
Pawl to adorn a ratchet – hope dim – eying
Move cangues, conjoined the coils of things they thin to,
With allayed furor the obscurer bourne, a
Stopped hope unworn, a voiced look, mask espying
That, as things, men want in us yet behoove us,
Disprove us least as things of light appearing
To the will gearing to light's infinite locus:
Not today but tomorrow is their focus.
No one really knows us who does not prove us,
None or times move us but that we wake searing
The labor veering from guises which cloak us,
As animate instruments men invoke us.

Dissemble – pledging complexions so guarded –
Cast of plied error leaves such error asserted
But stand obverted, men sight us things joined to
Change itself edging the full light discarded –
In machines' terror a use there averted –
Times have subverted the plenty they point to:
Things, we have not always known this division –
Misprision of interest, profit, rent – coded
Surplus, decoded as labor – evaded
As gain the source of all wealth so degraded
The land and the worker elude the vision –
A scission of surplus and use corroded
And still, things goaded by labor, nor faded,
But like light in which its action was aided.

We are things, say, like a quantum of action
Defined product of energy and time, now
In these words which rhyme now how song's exaction
Forces abstraction to turn from equated
Values to labor we have approximated.

First Half Of "A"-9 was first published in a mimeoed limited edition by the author in 1940; it has been reprinted unchanged in all subsequent editions of “A”.

My concern here has been wholly unconnected with the other reading of the first half Of "A"-9, namely the exegetical. Those keen to know more about the relationship between the poem and the writings of Marx (and Cavalcanti) are urged to consult Barry Ahearn's “Zukofsky's “A”: An Introduction” (Berkeley, 1983) and Mark Scroggins' “Upper Limit Music: The Writing of Louis Zukofsky” (Tuscaloosa, 1997), as well as Peter Quartermain's essay ' “Not at All Surprised by Science”: Louis Zukofsky's First Half of "A"' (in ed. Carroll F. Terrell, Louis Zukofsky Man and Poet, Orono, ME, 1979).

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