November 8, 2010 / Art
In 1980 the young artist Jeff Koons presented his first major solo exhibition, a window …
September 12, 2019
If you were handed a completed painting, your options for what to do with that painting are limited. The best thing may be to find a fitting or unique spot for it to hang. What you are hanging is an object that has its own visual and narrative logic. It has its own history, and the formal and conceptual elements within the painting work together both to enable an interpretation and limit its interpretative framework. If you were handed paint, brushes, and an unfinished painting, however, then you would be invited into a creative space of new possibilities that provokes constructive engagement. You’d have a responsibility to extend the painting’s interpretative framework. This would be possible only because you had become one of the painting’s authors.
Authority belongs to those who help construct interpretative frameworks. They are the ones who set the parameters that must be followed in order to interpret the work. They are the rule-givers. When a person is handed a completed painting, they are also handed its rules of engagement. Some artists, however, challenge this notion of authority by breaking down objects’ rules of engagement. They break things down and generate new possibilities, functioning as what I call a cultural weak force.
As a fictional arts organization, the Marcel Maus Hermeneutical Think Tank (MMHTT) is a cultural weak force. The MMHTT utilizes humor to explicate and intentionally ambiguate philosophical homilies concerning ontology and epistemology and political concepts such as power, authority, and authorship. The organization is operated by the semi-anonymous conceptual artist Brent Everett Dickinson to destabilize cultural constructions, while sanctioning an endless array of new readings of what might develop out of their premises.
The MMHTT gets its name from Marcel Mauss, a French sociologist and anthropologist who developed an idea of the gift through analyzing the practice of exchange in archaic societies. Mauss describes gift exchange as the transfer of goods or services that necessitate giving, receiving, and returning. Mauss highlights the social rather than economic functions of the gift, claiming that reciprocal social relations build up relationships between humans.1 The MMHTT participates in the gift-exchange process by offering fresh and often ridiculous takes on difficult and important matters.
Through a method of destabilization, the MMHTT creates a generative space for the emergence of previously concealed possibilities. The intentionally misconstrued philosophical concepts are known wryly as “art-i-facts.” These art-i-facts are more than mere facts in that they fully comprise legitimate facts and unreliable tangents. The stories are built up from the facts (equating to the whole) and from an extra half of absurd speculation. This extra 50 percent twists the facts like a sesquilinear form. Thus, the art-i-facts comprise 150 percent; 100 percent of the facts, plus 50 percent that extends the interpretative phase of fact analysis. Hence, the MMHTT is a “hermeneutical” think tank that offers interpreted facts. Dickinson sees art-i-facts as parasitic, feeding on “the life blood of a fact, (thereby becoming filled with the fact) and then swelling larger than the fact.”2 The notion of art-i-facts functions as an indictment of biased news sources that intentionally offer spin to audiences and also highlights the inevitability of bias as all facts must always be interpreted to some extent. There are no cold hard facts. Instead we are destined to hover around a concept without getting a definitive sense of what the concept entails, and, more significantly, implies.
Perhaps the best example of the use of art-i-facts is Dickinson’s website, which was co-opted, or “emancipated,” by the MMHTT. The new site is organized according to a Deleuzian rhizomatic structure that expands out horizontally through a complex system of hyperlinks. The pages are numbered 1 through 7 and titled, respectively, “BEGIN,” “OUTSIDE,” “INSIDE,” “OBJECTS,” “EVENTS,” “PRESS RELEASE,” and “ARTIST IN RESIDENCE.” An eighth page, “END,” is numbered 1, just like the first page “BEGIN,” closing the narrative loop like an octave in music. Each page contains small bodies of text that wax poetically about the coming of art, gift-giving communities, object-hood, radical entanglement, and limitrophy.
The text of each page on Dickinson’s website can be seen as a mini manifesto with endless implications. In “BEGIN,” for example, some of the implications can actually be traced through a system of hyperlinks that highlight key concepts, linking a phrase to other sites or videos that concurrently nuance and broaden the concepts. A visitor can follow one of these “lines of flight,” or return back to the site whenever they please. Knowledge here conveys broad implications, but it is contained within the site’s interconnected network. Just like melodies are made up of the notes between the octaves, the many lines of flight convey seemingly endless—but still contained—informational combinations.
For those sensing a socio-theological undercurrent running throughout the MMHTT project, this kind of self-contained story may evoke theologian George Lindbeck’s concept of the cultural-linguistic system. Lindbeck developed a nontheological method for conceptualizing religions by evaluating their social functions within their cultural-linguistic frameworks. Religions carry the cognitive and behavioral dimensions of culture, and they postulate their own languages that correlate forms of life. As cultural-linguistic systems, they shape “the entirety of life and thought.”3
Entering a cultural-linguistic system entails learning the formative narratives of the framework “well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms.”4 It does not utilize an equivocal sense of translation but requires a full immersion into the system. Changing frameworks requires an actual conversion experience, where the adherent is no longer an outsider looking in; rather, they become an insider who is able to think, function, and understand feelings and experiences as interpreted within the system. A cultural-linguistic system is—to use a Christian theological term—a verbum externum that structures all dimensions of existence. The interpretative framework is not a mere set of propositions that one can choose to believe but a “medium in which one moves.” A cultural-linguistic system extends a worldview and makes life comprehensible. It supplies the means for expressing experiences.5
A person can fully function with a real sense of the world as interpreted through their own cultural-linguistic system. Notions of ultimacy are possible, but they must be understood as existing within the cultural-linguistic system. In other words, claims for objective reality need to cohere only within the internal logic of the system. Although there may be an objective reality outside the system, there is no need to find the one claim that is true in every separate system. In fact, finding an objective cross-systemic truth is unmanageable because people cannot step beyond their own cultural-linguistic frameworks. These are the limits of creaturely finitude.
It is possible to work toward expanding frameworks or shifting them altogether. Those that expand or remint the patterns of belief, practice, or ritual within a system are prophetic figures.6 With Lindbeck’s work in mind, it’s possible to see this as the MMHTT’s ultimate agenda: to challenge and remint the prevailing patterns of beliefs in our American capitalist cultural-linguistic system. American capitalism is the religion, and the MMHTT is the prophetic voice that challenges its position of power.
The MMHTT treats cultural-linguistic systems like structures built out of Lego bricks. Systems present people with completed structures and ask people to play with these structures as is because they were already constructed. Someone along the way decided that the best thing to make out of these bricks was, for instance, a car. But if the car were broken apart, we’d be left again with the pieces. These pieces could be used to create new structures that are still authentically real and playable. Similarly, if we broke down some of the structures from a cultural-linguistic system, we could start again, connecting the building blocks differently, creating new possibilities. Different pieces can fit together in different ways, and new authentic structures are possible. The MMHTT fills its hierarchically flat Lego box with appropriated Google images as its material. Although this appropriation is similar to the postmodern postproduction of forms, the art-i-factual approach of “image-plus” is not a decontextualization of forms but a recontextualization along a flat rhizomatic construction.7
According to modern physics, there are four forces that govern all matter: gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force, and the weak force. While the first three hold things together, keeping them in proper relationships, the weak force pulls things apart. The weak force is responsible for decay, but it is also generative. Some matter would be much more stable without the weak force, but the heat from the sun only exists through the excess energy of a weak force fusion. The MMHTT sees itself as a cultural weak force, pulling apart impenetrable notions that emerge only from a consensus of the powerful. But the MMHTT does not only seek destruction; it seeks the new possibilities that emerge out of old forms. The weak force that powers the MMHTT is the generative process that exists in the midst of deconstruction.8
The limit of this project—something the MMHTT is surely cognizant of—is that the building blocks are never in pure forms. If we broke down a system, we would find that its bricks were in fact systems themselves, each containing its own components that could be broken down further still. So, it would seem that we can never get to any true or clean building blocks. But we have to start somewhere, right? The MMHTT starts in the present, taking relevant cultural idioms and breaking them down—not all the way down because that is impossible—but just enough to see different authentic possibilities emerge from what was first seen to be a completed structure.
The MMHTT’s method and politics are fundamentally critical, so it is easy for one to perceive a connection between the MMHTT and Marxism. Marxists are not primarily concerned with what reality is; instead, they seek answers to the question, “How do we make reality better?” As a result, art for Marxists goes beyond G. W. F. Hegel’s aesthetic cognitivist theory: Marxist artists should not be satisfied by the task of merely bringing the perceiver to a deeper understanding of the world—they should aim to change the world.9 Both the MMHTT and Marxist aestheticians view their projects as culturally affective, even prophetic. Both want to change the present to positively affect the future.
The similarities between MMHTT and Marxism should not be allowed to overwrite their fundamental differences. In “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” Karl Marx insists that society should move forward and not dwell on the past. Marx writes, “The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped off all superstition in regard to the past.”10 According to Gordon Graham, art for Marxists has historically been ideological, expressing a “false and distorting set of ideas in which reality is presented by those who have a vested interest in resisting radical change.”11 Because art in Marxist thought had supported false bourgeois ideology, it cannot be understood as a viable source for truth.
If Marxists understand art to be aligned with false ideology, then they understand science to be the true understanding of reality. For Marxists, science represents factual perception, which stands in stark contrast to the false constructions formed in the minds of people on the basis of ideology. Marxists seek to challenge the ideology of the powerful in order to achieve a nonsystemic telos based on science.
The failure of Marxists—a failure which the MMHTT seeks to avoid—is that they do not acknowledge the fact that every action is interpreted through a cultural-linguistic system. Science itself is a cultural-linguistic system. In looking to achieve a utopia established by the proletariat instead of the ruling class, Marxists have merely proposed the creation of a new system. The MMHTT acknowledges the unavoidability of cultural-linguistic systems and looks to challenge the systems of the powerful through art rather than science.
Art never claims to be understood as a source for empirical truth. Viewers of art understand that art comes from the human imagination and not science. Art may not tell us an empirical truth, but it does qualitatively bring us to a deeper understanding of “something which alludes to reality.”12 And perhaps this is all that is possible. Science and history both have their limits, but art is limited only by the human imagination.
It is in the imagination where worldviews are established, so if art affects the imagination, it has the weak force power to break down established ideals and erect new potentials. The MMHTT seems to see art in these terms, and perhaps this is why Dickinson chose to be an artist rather than a philosopher. If you’re ready to tear down the walls erected by our capitalist strong force, then brace yourself for the coming of art!
Steven Félix-Jäger is assistant professor at Life Pacific University and chair of the worship arts and media program. An exhibiting artist and practicing musician, Félix-Jäger is also the author of Pentecostal Aesthetics from Brill Academic (2015), With God on Our Side from Wipf & Stock (2017), Spirit of the Arts from Palgrave (2017), Art Theory for a Global Pluralistic Agefrom Palgrave (2020), and numerous scholarly journal articles about art, aesthetics, worship, and theology.