Beyond Benjamin

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, Opus 1705, Get Off, acrylic on archival paper

Q: Do you, then. consider your work Modernist or Post-Modernist?

ReeL: Neither. No, it is quite different. Maybe not so easy to get at in an interview,  I have many more disagreements with Modernism than those we just alluded to.  Yet, Post-Modernism is tainted by other conceits that have been cleaned out of my work.

Q: Such as?

ReeL: Besides my war on its referentiality, on a more mundane level, there are a lot of patterns in Post-Modernist paintings. Notice that there are no patterns in my work. More significantly, it explicitly cannot be produced by a machine, an artifical intelligence, or any mechanism that depends on algorithms. It is fundamentally of the human hand.

Yet, it’s psychological, it deals, in part, with cognitive processing., with what underlies our mind workings.  It is pre-linguistic, if you will.

Q: I’m not sure I follow.  Couldn’t this be considered another sub-cultural approach within a Post-Modernist outlook?  Post-Modernism is devilishly broad and amorphous  in its  definition.

ReeL: I feel there is a profound and important difference in orientation.  I seek the un-machine-like. Imagery that is without pattern. This drive to differentiate from an artificial intelligence is so far outside of the questions sought after by either  Modernism or Post-Modernism that it isn’t  even on their maps. The future will demonstrate how crucial this distinction is and will be for the future of human culture.

Q: OK, so you are asking different questions. Which questions?

ReeL: I am interested in a profoundly different set of questions than either Modernism or Post-Modernism.  I am  interested in the non-machineness of art, what distinguishes us from machines. Now that we are more cybernetically aware, it turns out to not be so easy to do or see this.

Q: Why is this important?

ReeL:  Soon we will have Artificial Intelligences that will be able to mimic most of what we now call “art”.   For this reason, art, human art, is in a very real and important sense, not what anyone  says it is.   This is the Achilles heel of Post-Modernism that .Artificial Intelligence reveals,  once one more  fully understands its implications.    Machines can, and will, create much of what we now call “art”.   At some point, artificial intelligences  will call all this into question.

I also feel that these questions will be profoundly more important in the near future than they are today. For culture, for all humanity.

Q: Well this certainly puts a different spin on Walter Benjamin.

ReeL: I recently reread a lot of Benjamin’s essays. When I was studying with Rainer Crone in school we read a lot of the Frankfurt School.  This time around it seemed like a blast from a deep past. His thought now feels so old-fashioned, obsolete. True for much of what still goes on, but not for what I am looking for.

Q: Doesn’t Benjamin account for all of this? for what you are talking about?

ReeL:  No. Benjamin is responding to and critiquing an age for its inadequate understanding of machines; but for all that, he naturally assumes that there is still a human mind behind the machine.  It does not occur to him that the mind behind the machines may be itself a machine.

This was only natural; he couldn’t have done otherwise. Remember, Benjamin was writing before Turing.

Even Turing did not fully see what the future of electronics would bring, their ability to mimic, for example. He, up to the end, always characterized his machines as “calculating” machines, with very specific, mathematical, boundaries on what calculation meant, and the machines he worked with were, by today’s standards, quite primitive.

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