“The erosion of cultures – and of “culture” as a whole – is the theme that runs through the last 25 years of my artistic practice,” says Québécois artist Guy Laramée. His four-page CV details only a portion of his artistic career, which has included exhibits, collections, essays, interdisciplinary performances, and sculpture, stands as a testament to his dedication to art as a style of living.
I first learned of Laramee’s work through his photogenic Great Wall project. For this project, Laramee carved sculptures and landscapes into the books (photos of which are interspersed in this piece) comprising a hundred-volume historiographic series about the so-called “Great Wall of America.”
I contacted Laramee to ask if he would be open to a conversation about his work, and the work of art in general. What follows is the first part of a four-part conversation culled from a month-long e-mail interchange between Laramee and I where we talk about ideology, culture, belief, and most importantly, existence.
Q: In your artist statement, you talk about the difference between progress and primitivism. What do you see as problematic about the ideologies of progress?
First, let me say that it is the ideology of progress that I question, not change itself. Well… “progress” is already quite ideological, but let’s start with the word “ideology.” My home-made definition of ideology is: a world view that does not see itself as such (as a worldview amongst other worldviews, that is). “Worldviews” are very close to Myths, in the sense that they are practices and paradigms as much as they are stories about the world. It is true that, to a certain extent, all myths have to forget that they are myths, otherwise they collapse. But most myths include a certain level of self-reflexivity. They see themselves as stories. Ideologies don’t. Science, for example, has become very ideological to the extent that it became a dogmatic religion – the religion of the objective. Nowadays, the pretense of Science is the belief that what is describes the world itself, not a certain point of view on the world.
So this being said, let’s go back to progress. “Progress” is itself a judgment of value. You state that some things are better than others – quite legitimate and inevitable as belief – and you state that through these things we are going towards the Better. Well, if you try to find one sole thing in the history of humanity that is objectively good, and you’ll find its drawbacks. We live longer than our ancestors, but so what? You might live until 150, but if you spend this time in a trance in front of your TV set, maybe half of it would have been enough. Thoreau died at 44, but what a heritage he left! Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and Cage all claim to be his heirs.
Evolution is inevitable. Change is permanent. But to claim that we are changing for good should be cooled down by a healthy dose of modesty. After all, the 20th century was the bloodiest century in the history of humanity, which should give us a warning. Ideologies of progress now have us chained to ‘techies’ [scientists]. It is amazing how much power we let these people have. We dropped the Why for the How. Now you can justify anything if it is “innovative.” We have entered, technically speaking, a Technical Dark Age, very similar to the dark ages in Europe before Renaissance.
This is what is so interesting with worldviews like Buddhism, for example. Some authors argue that Buddhism is fundamentally anti-evolutionary. What they mean that Buddhism questions what anthropologists call “unilineal evolutionism,” or progress. This worldview states that although nothing lasts – because nothing fundamentally IS (no thing, no self) – the results of this permanent impermanence are meaningless. They do not alter what we are at a most fundamental level. But then, Buddhist ideas were misused by people who misunderstood the radical nature of Buddhism, and wanted to justify the rat race. Zen master Robert Aitken summed it up very nicely:
“I think the true cause of distress – in Japan, in the United States, and everywhere – over commercialization and so-called development lies in the sense of losing the ancient. Loss of the ancient means loss of the realization of the timeless in the present […] Currently one hears a lot of nonsense about nonattachment to things. We should be free of the need for particular forms and experiences […] It is with the old that we touch the timeless, the dimension that is neither old nor new.”
This sheds some light on my book project: I’m not interested in the least about what lies in those books. I’m not interested by the content of consciousness. I’m interested in the FACT of consciousness. This is not about WHAT we think; it is about THAT we think. The title of one of my pieces is “All Ideas Look Alike.” Look within every idea and you’ll find this quality of an ‘idea.’ Ideas are just…ideas. There is a world outside ideas, and if art still needs a mission, here’s one: to get ourselves back into this sense of presence. Making us more alive. That does not mean to stop thinking, which is impossible, but it means putting thinking into perspective.
Now I’m not an advocate of a fake nostalgia, the kind of sentimentalism that would have us going back into the good ol’ days. My undertaking of romantic landscapes was not so much a statement – “we still can paint as Friedrich,” as Richter said – but simply the expression of a love affair. It is true that I had to fit this in the culture of contemporary art, where nothing can be naïve anymore. Everything has to be explained – or better said, all art has to look as though it is the demonstration of a thesis, which brings us back to Illustration 101, now the illustration of ideas.
What I realize more and more is that the Art World is perpetually living the eternal dilemma of consciousness. You can see that ideologies of progress are bogus, but you can’t escape this pull toward “betterment,” even knowing that the expressions of “the good” – the appropriate – can never be permanent. This thrust forward, that life enacts in every new species it creates – is not only inevitable. It is life itself. Here’s the rub (or irony): in the name of life we are launched on a constant quest for new forms – new forms of expression, new ways of doing things, etc. But we then get involved in an over-attachment to the forms themselves, instead of keeping our eyes on the life force itself, which is the thing causing us to create in the first place. And thus we become slaves of innovation. We don’t need to put so much emphasis on new form. (In fact this emphasis is a mechanism of competition, nothing else. The cult of innovation was a way for neo-colonialism to destroy the cultures it wanted to invade, as it is now a way to reassert an ego position.) New forms might happen, or not. Who cares?
In the earlier stages of my career, around 85-88, when I was a composer, I used neo-primitivism as a strategy to question the massive import of computers in music. I was coming back from Africa and the trip had a massive impact on my values. People there had nothing, yet they were happier than us. When I fully delved into a career as a visual artist, I used an alleged re-activation of Romanticism to justify my landscapes above all in painting. I wanted to use art history against itself. I thought of using Romanticism to defy Post-Modernism. At some point I found that Post-Modernism defined itself as a break from Modernism, which was then defined as the defender of the “break from the past.” Lyotard had it right: Post-Modernism is the continuation of Modernism, not a new paradigm.
But then I realized once more that art is not the demonstration of ideas. We should be careful in the way we defend ideas. “Art is somewhere else” as Richter said. This why I now call a narrative an “archeology of the future.” These narratives are ambiguous on purpose because I take greater care each day not to destroy the ambiguity of art. I was not a Romantic because Romanticism never existed! It is a category, invented by art historians. It has nothing to do with what we artists do. So even my need for ANY type defiance faded away, because that’s what we do: we continue what our ancestors did. We are not pushing for new discoveries, like scientists. Rather, we are doing what other artists were doing: the daily practice of returning to timelessness.
Q: According to your definition, might the practice of art (art-making) itself be an ideology?
I realize that my definition of “Ideology” should be precise. It should thus read: The discursive aspect of a worldview that does not see itself as a worldview among others.
Maybe art has become an ideology insofar as it purports to mutate into discourse. Maybe that is the case for a fringe of artists and curators that use art as a way to bolster their worldview. The kind of one-liner-art we see too much nowadays. Art-effect more than art. Publicity for the intellectuals. Unfortunately, some would like us to believe that this is contemporary art.
But that approach is a distortion. I don’t think art is an ideology for most artists because in the promotion of discourse, art always fails miserably. Art is not fit for the job. It is a bad tool for communication. It is polysemic, whereas communication devices needs to be monosemic, or at least not so ambiguous. One could say that it is the ambiguity of art that disqualifies from communication and promotion of ideas, but then, that is still too much in the vein of what we witness today: art as content. Art is not content. Content is a very small thing in art, as De Kooning said. Right at the beginning, even before the idea becomes totalitarian, even before it mutates into ideology, art disqualifies itself as its promoter.
To shift the gaze completely and see what art really is – what it DOES – I think it is first useful to see it as PRACTICE. For example, painting will never die because it is something people like to do (Richter’s answer to Robert Storr). So art – first and foremost – is something we DO. And then, it is something that DOES something to spectators. What is it that is so pleasurable in making art? It does not have to do with the comfort of intellectual certainties. It has to do with revealing the basic ambiguity that lies at the center of consciousness. In art, things have the magic of the metaphors. They both are and are not. And through art (or magic, for that matter) we intuit that the same might be true of everything. Things both are and are not:
1- There is no continuity – no things – only a flux of appearance, some of which we take for belonging to “things.” But things are “facts” in the sense that they are man-made. This is the job of perception, which establishes a continuity between disparate appearances. Merleau Ponty and Gestalt psychology demonstrated this a while ago.
2- “Things” are nothing without us witnessing them. We are at the center of the universe. We are not in the world, the world is in us. Becoming aware of our role in the constitution of the spectacle is something art helps us do.
So to sum up my answer: what looks like ideology is not art. Art is somewhere else…