Once upon a time there was a man who was alive.

Location: Hattiesburg, Mississippi, United States
St. Cuthbert and Disciples in a Boat


Divorcing the Referent & The Transformation of Text


Our local art museum is hosting an exhibit of modernist art from the 40's through 60's that was collected by the Poindexters of New York and eventually made its way to Eastern Montana (Mr Poindexter thought that places like Eastern Montana tend to be under-represented in terms of art). Most of the paintings were abstract impressionist, though the degrees of abstract-ness varied. The exhibit was very nicely done, which has almost always been my experience with this museum.

I have never been a great 'fan' of modern art, though some of it I find myself enjoying. I can appreciate, to a certain extent, what the artist is trying to do or say. But therein lies one of the chief 'problems' I have with the modernist: the art is constructed in such a way that the meaning of the art is subsumed in the artist's private vision. Now, all art must include a certain amount of ambiguity- all human creation will be shrouded in a certain amount of uncertaintity as to its meaning, for the vision of the maker is not directly and completely communicated in his work. While I cannot concede the radical deconstruction advocated by postmodern thinkers, it remains true that no creative work- painting, literature, music- can be 'put in the dock' and asked what it means. And even the interaction of the maker cannot fully arrive at that meaning, for even in making we find ambiguity in ourselves.

Abstract- abstract at its 'pinnacle'- goes further however, in that it purposely seeks to divorce the referent from the sign at hand, so that whatever referent exists- perhaps only in the inner subconscious of the artist- is private and innacessible. It does not, I think, deny meaning to a work, and could perhaps allow for there to be some 'absolute' meaning: but one hidden in the private workings of the artist. This is profoundly problematic, for it entails a sundering of reality from the art, which implies a sort of nihilism at work, denying conjunction between the act of making and the world-as-is (though of course a complete deconstruction of such a conjunction is impossible: colour, form, shape, etc, are still elements of the world, even if highly abstracted). If all art, all making, is imitation of God, so that we become 'subcreators' as Tolkien once wrote, then the temptation of modern art is to exalt oneself alongside God, not under Him. The subcreator takes of the world-as-is and does not seek to sunder his reality from that-which-is; instead he creates out of the elements given to him, to forge something new, yes, but under the recognizable mode of referent-with-sign, in imitation of God, not in opposition.

This is not to suggest that all modern art is nihilism and somehow anti-God; but rather, the temptation to completely divorce reality, the (visible in some way that is recognizable to the instructed viewer) conjunction of sign to referent- that is the drift into nihilism, into usurption of God, as art's meaning breaks down.


A second item, not really related to the above: while at the library this afternoon I browsed through the New York Times Magazine (went looking for the Oxford American which was missing for some reason today) wherein I read an article on the big project current among the Google people and others to digitize all of the world's books.

Not sure what to think of this project, and its implications for books, text, and authors. The article took the tone of 'it is inveitable and we may as well accept it with the problems and advantages'- though I'm not entirely certain anything is inveitable, per se. Things, remarkably enough, can change and not fall within our predictions. Nonetheless, it is more than likely that eventually all books will make their way onto the internet. Is this an entirely good thing? Perhaps it will encourage literacy, but I'm not sure of that. I do know that while I use the internet as much as anyone, including for 'serious' research, I still prefer a flesh-and-binding book in my hands to an article- or online book- on the computer.

But besides that there are more profound issues at hand: how will authors continue to make money? If they don't, what will the result be for writing quality? How does digitalization affect our experience of the text, and what does it change for the relation of author, text, and reception? And so on. I don't really know, but I do know (cliche ahead!) that the internet is definitely changing, profoundly, our experience with text and information, and through that, our culture and very mentality and world-picture. Interesting times...


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