Bridget Chappell

Entry #2. 2021

02.02.2021

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Opps aesthetics

Sometimes the landscapes that grew us up seem embedded enough in our subconscious we are urged to seek them out later in life with no particular nod to logic, conscious thought or self preservation. As a grownup (if that is what I am) I find pretexts to spend time around mountains, now and then taking strong measures to do so. But too often I end up in flat places, what Thomas Hersch has called the plains country of secular society.

In 'The Mountain Archetype', Hersch maps our projection of the human condition onto mountains through the ages to eight stages of psychosocial experience. Using the prism of the Jungian archetype, motifs of the collective unconscious, we can track their place in our psyche, and ours in theirs, from the primal (1: the mountain is a god; 2: the gods live on the mountains), to the contemporary projection (6: the allegorical mountain; 7, 8: mountain symbology in modern psychoanalysis). He asks why so many of us are compelled to spend time looking at them, touching them, worshipping them, when they are also dangerous and lonely. “What counts in society is meaningless on the mountain” – maybe that’s the drawcard.

In 'The Red Book', Jung himself tells a mountain parable of Gilgamesch that makes me laugh at myself — as here I am on a mountain waving antennae at it to hear its hidden frequencies in the hopes I might project them onto a 3D space constructed in an art gallery. Gilgamesch’s approach is announced by a “booming” sound “like ore being pounded”. He “gradually swells and echoes thunderously in the mountain”. The narrator, confronted by Gilgamesch, is informed they’ve been poisoned by western science; Gilgamesch in turn is frightened by the information that the Sun lies beyond our reach.

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What then of humans’ interventions into the lives of mountains? Hersch’s eight stages assume a respect for the mountain for which many find a dialectical workaround. Another 'Red Book' passage reads as a barely-shrouded allegory for a hydroelectric power scheme:

But we thus lose direction and things no longer flow from the mountain to the valley, but grow quietly from the valley to the mountain. That which we can no longer prevent or hide is our fruit. The flowing stream becomes a lake and an ocean that has no outlet, unless its water rises to the sky as steam and falls from the clouds as rain… Our hands have been tied, and each must sit quietly in his place.

I’ve often grappled with my unwitting incorporation of the spectacle of the dam into the pantheon of the mountain: a guilty, aesthetic indulgence. I wonder about a ninth stage of the mountain archetype, in which human value is grafted onto the mountain and worshipped alongside it: it represents the final stage of a wheel, but when we arrive again at stage 1 the mountain is no longer the god.

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In his unforgiving critique 'Aesthetic Theory', Theodor Adorno condemns the immorality of aesthetic demands placed on art, which reduces it to a “pleasant or useful plaything”. Function (aesthetic or otherwise) of art should be as eschewed by its makers as its enjoyment by its audience. Any artist who’s felt more like a service provider for the audience’s nice time can relate; Adorno feels like someone I’d meet at a noise show. Dams, with their multiple social functions, are by these criteria terrible art, and I am not just problematic and a philistine for looking at them, but also a bad artist given the source material and will to create an interactive and thereby entertaining work. Maybe I won’t program the Raspberry Pi in time.

Without getting too heavy-handed in this piece of writing about art (fml) I will say that in the normal run of things I want my art to be at the least dual function which must make me pretty smooth brained indeed. Meanwhile it also irritates me when art masquerades as functional by providing commentary on stuff – beyond the tenuous immorality of aesthetics, this indulgence grosses me out most. To paraphrase Schlegel, one of two things is usually lacking in the politics of art: either the politics or the art. Despite being repelled by 99% of self-conscious “political art” for all its corny-ness, I probably keep making it myself in pursuit of the 1 percent.

Andy Hamilton describes engaging with compelling art as somehow like visiting a loved one’s grave: something we are driven to do, and do again, but are not liable to say afterwards “I enjoyed that”. The equivalent I’m searching for here is probably found in the anti mega dam movements of north east India that have blown up their targets. Despite the triple threat function of detonating a dam - by this measure compelling art is first and foremost going after your opps - I think Adorno would have appreciated this aesthetic spectacle, and Jung this line of flight from alienation from the mountain.

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