by John Vieira
Ink on wallpaper
The web is a broad landscape of many different horizons visible to us everyday. And what those involved in literature and art consider to be “real” can, and does, look a lot of different ways. Within the grid of these myriad points of view, there is a lot of room—room for us all, in fact.
Overall, the media for the writer and artist has changed a lot from mechanical devices, paper, ink, papyrus, botanical and mineral stains, styli, stone, the plainspoken voice, etc. (that man has used historically) to something new that also has potential for being newer everyday. Yet, because the adding of electronic technology as media has been so giant a step (probably because this change has been from more material/elemental media to something also virtual), this step has garnered a lot of attention and enthusiasm.
Nonetheless, through whatever changes, we are still obliged to find through our art—for ourselves and for others—the things that can be touched, felt, loved, known, etc., as art has always been obliged. A screen saver needn’t only be that, it can be my lifesaver, too—looking at it every day as a source-point of something personally significant or intentional that month or week or year—and so, also, any piece of e-art, e-literature or any web page. After all, we are usually not making wallpaper (even though computer software makes good wallpaper—and also bad wallpaper).
Anciently, those who did what we now call literature and art did not do it merely for a living, or to express themselves—to tell us what their egos had to say, or to talk around what was still largely uninspected in themselves. Rather, what they (like Orpheus) did was considered to have a necessary function within their group (culturally necessary usually, but also sometimes practically necessary): To contemplate the beautiful and the true at a depth and to draw others to feel that.
And, traditionally, even when something that was apparently hideous or grotesque needed to be represented, that object or performance was somehow, mysteriously, still associated with this total feeling of the beautiful and the true. (Cf. Gertrude Stein: “…[I]t is ugly. But the essence of that ugliness is the thing which will always make it beautiful. I myself think it much more interesting when it seems ugly, because in it you see the element of the fight.”)
And through this contemplating, drawing everyone to true feeling and not just reportage of our ego’s obsessions and addictions, but going a measure deeper (or a place further), by allowing ourselves to step aside, even if only for moments at a time, from the thinking-mind/conceived-self while making a work—in other words, letting ourselves, instead, come into a true ecstasy in the act of creating (the etymology of “ecstasy” from Webster’s Eleventh: “[F]rom ex-, out + histanai, to cause to stand”). So, in this sense, the term “ecstasy” is less about us being “high”, and more about us being outside our selves, our egoic points of view.
We already know this pretty well, after all, when making love: How it’s usually never the ego/mind that is predominantly operative in that activity (and those whose minds are very operative in it are usually not considered to be that good at it). And, just so, in making work: The mind may be there as a tool but that doesn’t mean it necessarily needs to predominate.
In considering the web, maybe the history of the art of television becoming so pedestrian in the midst of its technology is an obvious caution to bring up. While it has made, and continues to make, exquisite displays for our wanting and buying of consumer goods, to the point where economics is almost its main purpose and not just something it’s adjoined to,; still a brand is not art, consumerism is not culture. So economics (including branding, etc.) may definitely be served by TV, but as for art (i.e., that feeling ofecstasy and mystery in the act of making)—much less so.
And while it is our hope that the web holds more potential for art and writing, and there is already much evidence of this, still this will require vigilance and responsibility on everyone’s part. And just as the ancients used their media to write, and those who came after them, theirs; post-modern man uses digital technology. (And so suggesting a “responsibility with the technology” is not at all the same as being a reactive “chauvinist” upon technology, as if it is somehow not a valid media for man’s literature into the future.) Chance, for example, can often produce exceptionally striking, mysterious work. And technology can be programmed to produce much more random generation than a human can produce. (And randomness can also produce a lot of junk. So it’s not as if the art lay in the technology, the art actually lies in the relationship to the technology—as it always has using any medium.)
While the web may never suffer such an exact fate as TV, that doesn’t mean we are therefore automatically out of the woods. And so, certainly for the human part in this paradigm, our responsibilities easily become more clarified: The conceived ego is pretty much on automatic all the time so participating in doing what I’m suggesting here is a genuine sacrifice. But all of life is sacrifice, it’s just that we don’t usually choose to participate in its sacrifice consciously: Our selves tend to deteriorate over the years, or (even without forewarning) we can die suddenly. (Cf. Henry Miller: “Madame, there are always two paths to take; one back towards the comforts and security of death, the other forward to nowhere.”)
So, when we really allow this sacrifice in making a piece at hand, this, in turn, allows any participant(s) in our work—immediately or down the line—to experience through that piece (to some extent anyway) that same “stepping aside” of self-referential thinking and drivenness that we allowed ourselves while making it. In other words, that psychological liberation, if real, coheres in the piece itself.
Possibly the way writers and artists can most embrace this cultural mandate is in terms of understanding our human tendencies toward self-importance and self-interest (self-advancement at all costs) and, as I noted above, the acquisitiveness of consumerism. And, because this defines us all so mightily, it’s probably best to address it more indirectly rather than head-on, with the focus on service (to others and to ourselves) through our art, easing up on egoic “ownership” of the creative process and its results, and not using our art and writing work solely as a means to our own celebrity. (In other words: Curbing these tendencies.) Very few of us achieve any degree of celebrity through our work anyway, and even if we do, isn’t it better to be involved in an actual, living process with creating, rather than what otherwise could be only a mental/emotional cleverness/fakery? And, truly, if never achieving fame, that real process is the thing that will sustain us in our art (and certainly not any kind of posturing). (Cf. Jack Kerouac: “Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.”)
In sum, if the maker doesn’t “step aside” from him- or her-“self” while making a piece, then there’s nothing of that mysterious process to be taken in by the viewer/reader/listener of the piece—no matter how digitally good or dramatic it may be—and the “group” is not essentially served by anything greater than what it already knows and to which it is already addicted (cf. TV).
John Vieira is a poet (page-based, visual, digital), artist, performance artist, playwright, singer by ear, and essayist. His work has been presented at many institutions, including several of the annual “Lowell Celebrates Kerouac” festivals (Lowell, Massachusetts), the Grolier Poetry Reading Series at Adams House at Harvard University, The Writer’s Center (Washington, DC), The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church (NYC), The Sackner Archive of Visual and Concrete Poetry (Miami), the Pace/MacGill Gallery (Midtown Manhattan), the X-Initiative (Chelsea district, Manhattan), Artpool Art Research Center (Budapest), and The National Museum (Accra, Ghana). He divides his time between the Washington, DC area and New York City.