In Praise of Form: Towards a New Post-Humanist Art

Taney Roniger is a visual artist and writer based in New York. Her awards and honors in the visual arts include three Yaddo fellowships, a grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, and a traveling fellowship from the Stacey Sussman Cavrell Memorial Foundation. Since 2012 she has been a contributing writer for The Brooklyn Rail, for which she served as Guest Editor in December 2017.

Today the litany of crises we face culturally and globally has become so familiar that it needs no further recitation. Indeed, so often are we reminded that the world has gone wrong that the word “crisis” has acquired a patina of banality. But this is to be an essay of hope, so let us move on. For protests to the contrary notwithstanding, there is good reason for it: across many strata of Western culture, there is a growing awareness, uneasy though it may be, that we have at last identified the problem. The problem is not out there, in some externalized other (would that it were so, so much more palatable would this be). Reluctantly, shamefully, but profoundly necessarily, we are finally meeting the enemy, and he is us: the human animal that placed itself in the center of the universe, the one that first severed itself from nature and then elevated itself above it, and the one that in imagining that this was really possible has dug its own grave. We can call this progress.

Daniel Hill, “Untitled 37,” 2012. Acrylic polymer emulsion on paper mounted to panel, 44″ x 60″ (diptych). Courtesy of ODETTA Gallery.

To be fair, the problem is more specific, and can be located in an idea. Although for most of us in the West the word “humanism” still conjures little but benevolence (“human values,” “human rights, “human dignity,” etc.), it harbors an implicit ideology that many are now challenging. This is none other than its premise of human exceptionalism: the assumption that the human being is the source of all meaning and, even further, the ultimate reality. In light of everything we’re witnessing in our ignoble Anthropocene, it is becoming increasingly clear that humanism has been as mistaken as the theism it sought to replace, for just as God’s omnipotence reduced us to servitude, so ours has done the same to the non-human world. The call for a post-humanist worldview grows ever more compelling. Can we achieve a new way of being that honors the nonhuman world, one that acknowledges its inherent richness and restores it to its rightful place in the cosmos? Spatially, chronologically, and in just about every other way, it does, after all, rather greatly exceed us.

William Holton, “Point of Convergence,” 2010. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 35″ x 36″. Courtesy of the artist.

But what does any of this have to do with art, you may be asking. And this is exactly the point. The answer is nothing – or very little, just yet. While the so-called non-human turn has inundated the humanities, leading even to the proposal a new “inhuman humanities,” visual art has undergone nothing of the kind. In fact, it could be argued that just the opposite has happened; with art’s preoccupation with social justice and an exhausted postmodernism, it’s easy for those of us in the field to forget anything beyond us exists. Adding to this our inherited assumptions about art being “self-expression” (and lest we be inclined to dismiss this as a pedestrian notion, what is our current “identity art” if not exactly this?), it becomes clear that visual art is mired in an obsolescent human centrism. Indeed, if “everything is a social construct,” as postmodernism tells us, the human being isn’t just the highest but the only reality.

But aside from the societal orientation of much visual art today, there is a deeper sense in which art has been complicit in perpetuating an old idea. It’s much more subtle than subject matter, and has to do with our very expectations for and valuations of art. For as art becomes ever more discursive, prioritizing issues and ideas over the forms in which they’re instantiated, it is reinforcing the implicit values of the humanist fallacy.

Werner Sun, “Double Vision 1B,” diptych, 2018. Archival inkjet prints and acrylic on board, 12″ x 25″ x 2″. Courtesy of the artist.

The problem is made evident when we consider prevailing attitudes toward form. “Empty formalism,” “mere formalism,” “shallow form devoid of content”: in a time when art is expected to address this or that issue, form has become a critical embarrassment, something insufficient in itself but useful for one purpose – namely, to serve as the delivery system for the real substance that is “content.” So pervasive is the disdain for “mere form” that today’s artist’s statements often read as hyper-intellectualized apologia – discursive treatises announcing in advance that there’s no “mere” happening here. And yet in the privacy of their studios, in the presence of that trust they have only with each other, many artists will confess that it is precisely form – the interplay of shapes, colors, textures, and materials, and the tensions and rhythms generated therein – that is not only captain but also navigator: the one with the first word, plenty in the middle, and certainly the last. A tacit understanding among those who make, discursive content is to many a mere maneuver of expediency.

David Mann, “YTB III,” 2016. Oil and alkyd on canvas stretched over board, 68″ x 72.”

Why the disavowal and disparagement of form? As our attitudes about art can’t be separated from the larger culture, we come back to humanism and its hierarchy of values. One of the most pernicious assumptions of the humanist worldview was its devaluation of the body and all that is associated with it. Carrying on the legacy of the great Cartesian cleavage, humanism had reason enthroned on high, casting off as inferior the emotions, the senses, all our autonomic functions – in short, anything rude enough to remind us that we are animals. And yet as today’s neuroscience has definitively shown, the body and the emotions are not separate from cognition; far from being “soft” and secondary faculties inferior to reason, they are in fact central to it, integral functions on which reason is entirely dependent. If form is something we apprehend with our senses and discursive content that which is grasped by the mind, the inferior status granted form is a tired recapitulation of the humanist error. But it is also more than this.  In denying form its rightful place in art, art is denying itself an exquisite opportunity. For if now is the time for us to move beyond ourselves, to reclaim our fleshly relations to earth, animal, and world, what better vehicle than the power of sensual form?

Debra Ramsay, “The Wind Turning in Circles Invents the Dance,” 2019. Acrylic on acrylic panel, 19″ x 18″. Courtesy of the artist.

In the spirit of the emerging ethos, then, can we imagine a new art for a post-humanist century? What would a post-humanist art look like, and how would it be experienced? First and foremost, a post-humanist art would be one that embraces form. It would be an art that considers form not as something that serves content, but rather as something that, like the body, possesses an intelligence of its own – an intelligence far deeper and more complex than conscious, discursive thought. In its address to the body and somatic experience, it would run directly counter to the prevailing emphasis on ideas, seeking not their propagation but exactly their cessation. For in order to gain access the beyond-human world, conscious thought, discursive thought, must first be extinguished. Rather than focusing on the contents of consciousness, then, post-humanist art would alight on its structure – all the subtle rhythms and patterns that constitute its movement. And not least, being decidedly oriented away from the self – away from personal identity, above all that of the artist – a post-humanist art would be one of transcendence. For with the thinker that thought itself into the center of the world silenced, we become living organisms again just like all others, participating in, and exquisitely sensitive to, the dynamic flux of the natural world.

Linda Francis, “Nostalgia for Messier #2,” 1994. Chalk on paper, 52″ x 39″. Courtesy of the artist.

With the affirmation of form as the powerful force that it is, the question becomes how, exactly, it delivers us to the non-human. We can begin by examining how form works on us, and why it moves us so deeply when indeed it does. Of all the arts, visual art is singular in a particularly significant way, and this is that it is physically embodied.[1] Its material presence being the first thing we apprehend, we confront in it not just it but ourselves: body to body, there is a certain carnal reciprocity absent in music and literature. Grasping the whole with an uncanny instantaneity, the eye moves in to probe the parts and their interrelations – this part to that, these to those over there, all of them in active tension with the overall organization.  Attraction and repulsion, assonance and dissonance, the ever-present tug of gravity that is the counterpoint to all visual form: whatever forces are enacted in the work’s particulars reverberate sympathetically on the instrument of our nervous system, causing subtle internal movements we cannot locate introspectively. Never fixing on any one area for too long, the eye is led by the forms in a rhythmic leaving and returning, ever expanding and contracting between the general and the particular. A kind of optical dance choreographed by the artist, the experience of viewing is far from the passive act of receiving information; rather, it is a profoundly active and participatory mode of engagement. When we say we are moved by a work of art, it is not just conceptual metaphor. In a very real sense, on every level of our organism we literally are moved. The experience of visual form is a distinct and particularly intense kind of electrochemical excitation.

But the real mystery of aesthetic form is not so much why it moves us but why it moves us so deeply. Why, when it does so, does it not merely delight? Why is it not just pleasant, the way the sound of a distant foghorn is pleasant, or the smell of fresh rain falling on stone, or the brush of a hand against the soft fur of an animal? Unlike these momentary pleasures, the experience of a great work of art seems in some way to change us, to rearrange the internal architecture on the deepest level of our being. And not only does it change us; it does so in a way that feels unusually significant. There is a profound rightness about it, a felt realignment, a re-membering of something unconsciously undone.  Indeed, so right is the feeling that is has, in the largest sense, the quality of coming home.

Ed Kerns, “Degree of Freedom in a Liquid Field; Not Overwhelmed,” 2018. Acrylic on canvas, 40″ x 30.” Courtesy of the artist.

Perhaps the experience of aesthetic form feels like coming home precisely because it is coming home. Home, that is, to the world that gave rise to us: the world of inanimate matter in all its myriad manifestations, and the whole kingdom of sentient creatures from whom we are descended. For what is the nature of this non-human world if not an endless cycle of dynamic patterns, from the rhythms of the tides to the sonic undulations of the animals to the expansions and contractions of the earth moved by forces to all manner – not least life and death – of arisings and evanescings? If the world out there is constituted of patterns of movement, it is in their deep visceral experience that we gain access to that world, moving from a consciousness of separation to one of participation. The experience of aesthetic form is an active engagement in the largest kind of communion.

It is also, and not insignificantly, an act of self-recognition. For in transcending the thinker and entering the greater world, we find not just the greater world but the greater parts of ourselves: the millions of years of evolution we carry in our bodies, and all that constitutes, unbeknownst to us, the richest reservoirs of our intelligence. We all know the feeling of being thus transported. Little else is as satisfying. The separatist ego will return, of course, to reassert its authority, but the experience of having left it lodges deep in the body, where, like a benevolent nuisance, it reminds us of something we only half want to remember – namely, that we live most of our lives locked in the smallest room in the house. Summoned on occasion by the exquisite rightness of a form, it comes back, and there we are again, and again we have to humbly concede that we really should get out more.

Yoshiaki Mochizuki, “Untitled, 6/6,” 2012. Gesso on board, clay, palladium leaf, and ink, 10.5″ x 10.5″. Courtesy of the artist and Marlborough, New York and London.

While it may not be our only means of participating in the Great Beyond, aesthetic form is surely one of the most powerful. If visual art continues to dismiss it, insisting on art’s identity as a discursive enterprise, it may end up on the losing side of our century’s catastrophe. For if the arrogance of reason is what brought us to where we are, it can hardly be expected to be the thing to get us out. What we need is reason reunited with the sensorium that sustains it and with the misconceived “other” that gave rise to it in the first place. And what is art if not an agent of integration, and what are artists if not those who know how to show us what that might look like? So let us reclaim form. Let us reclaim it as the transformative force it always was, and let us reclaim it in the name of something larger than ourselves – something beyond art, beyond culture, beyond even human history, something that, in returning us to our smallness, grants us full citizenship in the greatest largeness.

[1] Unless it is not. There is certainly much conceptual art that lacks any material component, but our focus here is on visual art that is visual – which is to say visual art that has sensual form.

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