The End of Culture

Erik ReeL blog
Mario Vargas Llosa, author of Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society, 2012

As Mario Vargas Llosa’s Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society subtitle suggests, Llosa owes a bit to Guy Debord.  No one would even think of using such a subtitle before Gallimard published Debord’s seminal The Society of the Spectacle in 1967.

But Llosa’s heart lies closer to T. S. Eliot’s much earlier, far more conservative, nay, now considered almost reactionary, Notes Towards a Definition of Culture.  Llosa is definitely not a Marxist or proto-Marxist. Though his analysis may echo some of Debord’s most widely accepted notions, Llosa’s conclusions are for the most part almost in complete opposition to Debord’s.

After a few introductory pages re-setting  the stage in the context of T.S. Eliot’s definition of culture and George Steiner’s response ten years later, LLosa starts with Foucault and Debord and traces the, what he would call, slide into the Post-Modernist attack on not only the previous notions of what culture is, but to the annihilation of the role of culture and intellectual life in our modern world and our entry into an age that is truly without culture. Llosa wants to reverse this.  His crusade and argument would be more convincing if he wouldn’t sound like such an old stuck-in-the-mud reactionary when he gets down to details, the danger here being that slippery slope into the whining of those who are left behind in the dust.

At any rate, it’s still an interesting and easy read and a primary contemporary text on this subject in the Spanish-speaking world and the Americas. In the context of recent political events in the English-speaking world, it now looms with a new-found sense of relevance.

For me to truly respond to my reading of this book, it would require a book in itself as I would have to challenge most of the assumptions made in almost every other paragraph with a level of detail capable of penetrating Llosa’s numerous hidden assumptions.  I feel Llosa only gets part of the picture, misses some very critical aspects of the current cultural situation, and has a tendency to load his argument with semi-hidden assumptions that would not hold up under tighter scrutiny.

One thing I like about Llosa is that unlike many of his sources, who tend to be overwhelmingly interested in texts and words, Llosa is definitely interested in and discusses, albeit a bit too narrowly, the visual arts. Ironically, after all, one of the key characteristics of the Society of the Spectacle is the emerging dominance of images over texts, of the visceral over the literary, and the psychological power of the subtext over the text itself; not to mention the predominance of  media, with its highly mediated messages, over simpler written and traditional arts.

Literal Minds

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1696, acrylic

Nietzsche referred to literal minds as small minds.  The videographer and performance artist, Alan Lande, preferred the term “insects.”

Tyrannized by photographs, we forget that the camera does not see what we see. Why be so literal? Today triflers talk of realism–and what a shabby reality it is. As if a machine knew the secrets of the heart. What does an instrument know of a dream? a caress? the soft whispering in the night? what is hidden from the moonlight?

What is poly-valent cannot possibly be rendered literally. Is this triangle a tree? a roof? a ray of light? a road moving into the distance? a shadow? a shrine? a pyramid? a leaf? a yoni? an arrow? a sign? a direction? a delta? Am I overlooking hills or lying between breasts? or both? or neither? Time to do something better than roar across concrete, drop onto floors, scream.


Contra Determinism

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL Opus 1992 acrylic on paper 30 x 22 inches, 2015

I don’t paint in a determined manner. I want to surprise myself.

That Coding Thing

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1294 Galisteo, acrylic painting, 54 x 48 “

I was once asked if there was coding in my paintings.

I answered “Yes.”

But it was not a simple “yes”– for coding implicitly means explicit and narrow referentiality and thus, in my terms, to be avoided or discarded.

But then, later, in the end, I actually do sneak in personal codes with explicit intentions and references, thus violating what I say I am doing.

Most of these insertions are sexual and/or personal, and thus private.

Then there’s the issue regarding believing what artists say about what their own work means: It’s called the intentionalist fallacy.

It is a true fallacy, believe me.

Geometry is Insufficient

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1293, acrylic painting

My current paintings use a highly constrained visual praxis: For the most part, I primarily use simple open and closed convex curves of genus 0 or 1. This is a severely constrained set in light of all the possibilities.

Occasionally I throw in a non-constrained deviant, or something that is more of a mess, a scribble, than a mark. Again, I have no “pure” intentions, nor reductivist ambitions, here. I am more interested in discarding the referentiality of Modernism and Post-Modernism, the baggage of the whole mimetic tradition.

This is also, of course, why this work is explicitly post-Structural and post-Conceptual.

Notice, too, that amongst the referential modes I reject are the highly regularized patterns, geometries, and rationally predictable “formats” of that wave of abstraction we first saw emerge in the late 60s and 70s and to a certain extent, still emerging in Los Angeles and later, again, amongst the Post-Moderns, especially as tilings–to say nothing of the Modernist grid, and its “formats”–are all considered references to external systems to be avoided in this new endeavor.

Geometry is insufficient.

The End of Historicity

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, #1287, The Wheel, acrylic painting

There were painters who I felt had  come close to what I had in mind such as Twombly, especially in his graphite and paint work of the 70s. But these painters and their mark-making were always eventually subsumed by historical, literary, even mythic referential concerns that I not only considered retro-grade–if not outright Romantic in a specifically unnecessary way–but as compromising the more radical aspects of the marks as marks.

Not that this is evil or anything. In Twombly’s case, for instance, it is usually a personal and  refreshing tactic to bring in latent emotional and historical content that deepens and expands our experience of the image. It works, but is also contrary to what I wanted to do.

The truth is, this referentiality, this re-presentational, representational modality detracted from the, what was to me,  more core, possibilities of exploring marks for their intrinsic mark-making characteristics as marks in and of themselves. This leads to exploring marks in terms of cognitive processing, rather than history.

Yet, there is a line not to be crossed on the other side as well: when, instead of deeper forces and cognitive processing, a sort of emotive, self-absorbed, bathos-logical processing leading to amorphous content-free therapeutic effusion is indulged. The superficiality and emptiness of the results of this approach are frequently all too apparent.

A key test: when work descends to this level, it can be exhausted in minutes, if not seconds; while people stand for hours arguing in front of mine, or call me months after buying a painting to tell me how much more they have seen in it.  In short, there is living proof of the depths, richness, and  communicable meaning to be found there..