Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bryant Watch: McArt

Levi Bryant was discussing cave art in the comments to one of his recent machinological manifestos (a mech manifesto or McManifesto?) and elicited a critical comment from a friend of his. He decided the matter required more elaboration than is typical of a comment. So he fired up the boiler, set the gears in motion, and cranked out another post. Here’s a couple early lines:
While I readily acknowledge that the cave painters were the cause of the paintings, I strongly disagree that the painters are a part of the being of the painting. Just as ones parents are the cause of one’s being while nonetheless the child is an autonomous being, the painting is an autonomous beings that have its own power that exceed any particular cultural or historical context.
Both sentences merit close attention. Let’s start with the first.

Just what does he mean by the being of a painting? There is no doubt that the pigments of a painting, whether on a wall in a cave or on a canvas in a museum, exist independently of the artist or artists and independently of any observers. That is a truism, and an utterly uninteresting one at that.

In his original post, Machinic Art: The Matter of Contradiciton, Bryant had asserted: “The art work does not represent a percept, affect, or sensation, it creates a percept, affect, or sensation that has now become an autonomous material being in its own right, liberated from dependence on the sense organs.” This is just confused.

In the first place, a work of art doesn’t represent a percept, affect, or sensation, it represents an object, person, or a scene; if it is abstract, then it presents a patch of neon green on an aubergine background or a swirl of multicolored lines, whatever. The sense in which it creates a sensation is merely metaphorical. Can a painting make a blind man see? Can it illuminate itself in the absence of light? How is it possible for a sensation to be “liberated from dependence on the sense organs”? This can be done by direct electrical stimulation of the brain; it happens in dreaming; but paintings, material arrangements of pigment on some surface, cannot do it.

Further, is a pattern of pigment a painting in and of itself, or does someone have to see it as a painting in order for it to be so? How that pattern came into existence is irrelevant, as Duchamp demonstrated with his infamous urinal. The urinal exists as a ceramic and metal construct regardless of where it’s hung; but it exists as art only when it’s hung in a gallery and seen by people scratching their heads: Is THAT art?

As I write this lots of people are flocking to a Ginkgo biloba tree in West New York, N.J. That tree has knots in it, as trees do, but one particular knot, so these people believe, is an image of the Virgin Mary, specifically Our Lady of Guadalupe. Priests from the Archdiocese of Newark say that it’s merely a natural occurrence. Still, hundreds claim it is an image of the Virgin.

If people see it as an image of the Virgin, then is it not an image of the Virgin? But is it an image of the Virgin if no one sees it as such? Just what is the being of that knot? That knot no more creates the perception of the Blessed Virgin than clouds create perceptions of camels, pears, moon rockets, atomic nuclei and famous heads of state.

Bryant is seeing things. But those things aren’t forcing him to do anything in particular. They could care less about him. He seems to be buffaloed by the mere fact that paintings are physical things and, as such, can persist from moment to moment independently of human care and attention.

Let’s move on to the second sentence from the original quote. It takes the form of an analogy: as a child to a parent, so a painting to the painter. In each case the second created the first and the first, upon being created, is then autonomous from the second.

But the comparisons are quite different, no? A child is the same kind of being as the parent. To a first approximation, the child has the same powers and capabilities as the parent. This is not true of the painting and the painter. They have radically different capabilities.

The painting cannot eat a pear, nor can it drive an automobile and get a speeding ticket. It can’t breathe and it can’t recite a poem. Nor can it create another painting. The painting can’t do much of anything but maintain its existence from one moment to the next.

If Bryant is arguing for no more than that, then, sure, it’s autonomous. But so what? Big (metaphysical) deal.

I suppose we might say, following Bryant’s notion that objects—whoops! excuse me—that machines are active, that individual bits of pigment ‘choose’ which wavelengths of light they’ll absorb and which they’ll reflect. But this choice is fixed and a pigment particle cannot change it through an act of pigment will. If a particular pigment particle ‘favors’ 450 nm (nano meters) and there are no 450 nm waves incident upon it in a given moment, it cannot change its choice to, say, 539 nm. It’s stuck and will have to be dark for that moment. Nor can pigment particles perigrinate from one point to another in a painting. The particles we see as the Mona Lisa’s smile have no power to reconfigure themselves into a frown, a diagram of the solar system, Shakespeare's last will and testament, Magritte's pipe, or the cat’s pajamas.

Compared to those of a painter, the powers of the painting itself are quite restricted. They do not have the powers Bryant attempts to confer on them by the bogus analogy of parent and child. His current belief that (metaphysical) objects are in fact best construed as (metaphysical) machines doesn’t change that. That both the painting and the painter are machines doesn’t give them equivalent powers any more than a Turing machine can pull a freight train and a locomotive can calculate any calculable function.

The autonomous painting has only the power to persist from moment to moment. It doesn’t become art until someone sees it as art, just as the knot in the biloba tree didn’t become an image of the Virgin until someone saw it as such. “Arthood” is conferred on an object by human consciousness. The position Bryant is arguing is empty of any significant content.

But then that seems to have become his mission, to empty his philosophy of significant content. Perhaps he's but a machine masquerading as a philosopher.


  1. your view opens a very relativistic "view"

    "but it exists as art only when it’s hung in a gallery and seen by people scratching their heads: Is THAT art?

    anything that can be declared 'art' is art?
    (I surpass the view that anything hung on a museum is art as maybe unfortunate phrasing - plus the above statement is self-contradictory)

    is that your personal opinion or are you being equianimous and adopting the general social art world view 'that I declared the urinal to be art so it's art'?

    of course we can separate the material from the art but the bottomline: is the urinal art?

    I believe it's not - it's stunt that has been perpetuated by the so-called art world

  2. I think Duchamp's urinal is a very interesting stunt. Simply declaring something to be art by putting it in a gallery or a museum doesn't make it art. The people who see it there must also accept it as art, and not simply as an aesthetic stunt. But technical virtuosity in realistic rendering doesn't constitute art either, despite the rather common belief that it is both necessary and sufficient.

    The question of what constitutes art is a tricky one, and too subtle for Bryant's McPhilosophy.