‘Is this art? Search me’, by Luiz Camillo Osorio

In the new critical text, Luiz Camillo Osorio, curator of the PIPA Institute, discusses the “place of art”. Analyzing the possibilities of aesthetic experience, Camillo argues that the viewer’s perspective must be one of displacement, of “being shifted from one’s place towards the not knowing”. In this displacement, therefore, there is an inclination of the individual towards another-knowledge that is presented and proposed by the artist. Only in this way can we come across the “disconcerting gestures of the artists who introduce the revelatory surprise”.

Is this art? Search me.

Let’s start by clarifying the title. It’s not cynical or intended to disqualify the subject matter. But it is deliberately ambiguous. On a first reading, search me means that we don’t know how to answer this question when it’s put to us so emphatically. There are no objective criteria or a priori formal qualities that ensure the reliability of our aesthetic judgments. Really, in this sense search me and I don’t know are equivalent, explaining an intrinsic difficulty. However, the ambiguity of search me (sei lá – literally, ‘I know there’) is that it also suggests knowledge that occurs elsewhere, beyond what we conventionally call the possible conditions of knowledge. In this other place, there, I know. Or rather, it is not an I that constitutes the knowing, but a knowing that occurs in me.

In a beautiful passage from his book You have to change your life – addressing Rilke’s poem The archaic torso of Apollo from which the title came – the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk addresses the relationship between the poetic (and religious) experience from the point of view of shuffling the notions of subject and object. According to him, “religiosity is congruent with a certain grammatical promiscuity. Where it acts, subjects and objects elastically change places.” Where we read religiosity, we also read aesthetic experience. To be affected aesthetically is to be shifted from one’s place, to be asked to leave oneself and to go, through experience, towards a not-knowing that paves the way for the establishment of another-knowing. Aesthetic experience here is not only rapture, it is also the inner process of amazement before the disconcerting gestures of the artists who introduce the revelatory surprise. The helplessness that is produced by Cage’s silence or Kounellis’s horses or Rauschenberg erasing a drawing by de Kooning or Guilherme Vaz’s paper symphony or Cildo’s Southern Cross; all, in my view, fall into this category of knowledge that is produced there, in the act of being surprised by poetry, by silence, by disquiet.

This all seems very abstract or theoretical, but it is what happens when we are really affected by the aesthetic event and, consequently, by art. It produces this movement towards a knowing there where I have to place myself to form knowledge, which is also a possible flavor. It is a form of “hermeneutic mobility.” We leave ourselves through an affect that transports us there where things are otherwise. Instead of saying they are permanently (são) otherwise, it would be better to say they are temporarily (estão) otherwise. The ontology here is mutable. As Lygia Clark would say it is the “state of the art without art”, something that in a given circumstance becomes art without ceasing to be something else beyond art.

I shall cite two personal examples by way of clarifying these statements. One comes from a controversy produced by a critique of mine in the O Globo newspaper and the other from an experience I had as a critic in the studio of an artist-hunter in the Brazilian state of Acre. What matters here, unlike in the above examples, is that there is, in them, a radical convergence of art and non-art, a deliberate rejection of the principle of non-contradiction, where something is and is not art simultaneously.

Let’s start with the first example: a critical text written about 20 years ago in O Globo about an exhibition by Bispo do Rosário. The title of this critique, produced by the person who edited the text in the newspaper, said something quite provocative – that Bispo’s work was not art. It was not exactly wrong from the point of view of what was written in the critique, but neither did it fully represent the truth of the text. It was enough to cause a huge controversy, which in the heat of the attacks ended up reducing my argument to the denial of Bispo’s artistic value; as if a critic could silence such power. That was never the point. Certainly, if I wrote it today, I would write it differently, paying more attention to the details and complexity of the theme. But the core of the text remains valid and I believe that it recalls this knowing there produced by the aesthetic experience. To some extent, that was the point: limiting what we consider in Bispo’s work to be art, seems a small matter.

Standing before the works of Arthur Bispo do Rosário we always ask the same question: what is this? You can’t just say that it’s art. It’s both more and less than art. It is less in the sense that these objects lack a connection to the game of language of art, such as we have known it since the beginning of the 19th century. This belonging is something specific to our notion of art; it is what minimally orients us when we say that something is art. Not that things that are not produced as art cannot become art, under certain conditions. Or rather, cannot take on a state of art. But to do so, these things have to be transferred into a field of artistic meaning. Outside of it, they continue to possess their own life. 

In the case of Bispo, this is more complicated, because his pieces are an open universe of meaning and exist as a brute force of invention, as a passport to contact with the divine. Bispo’s artistic process rejects historical dialogue. To demand this “awareness” from him is simply to blind oneself to the evidence. The need to invent and reveal is stronger than the consciousness and impact of his objects. Indeed, more than awareness of art, there is a power of nature, a quality of intensive non-intentionality that is the core of its aesthetic strength, of its ability to take us out of a place, to put us in the midst of the unknown, of the wonderful, the unsettling, the strange. Which is to say, from art prior to the artistic, to consciousness.

It is as if Bispo had taken Duchamp’s coefficient of art – the sum of what the artist wanted to do and could not express, and what was expressed unintentionally  –  and rearticulated everything, making the intention, the expression, chance and wanting into one thing, which is burning in front of us and which we cannot grasp and recognize, but only admire. That is what matters about the aesthetic experience, this search me which makes it art. The artist does not know, but the work knows and convinces us of this; before it, with it, we know that there is a meaning there. A meaning which forces us to “interpret it”, but this work is always definitively unfinished, intensifying our amazement.

The second example is more prosaic. It occurred when I went to Acre on a Funarte project (at the time of the ministry of Gilberto Gil and his magnificent Points of Culture) and the idea was to do workshops and visit local artists. I made this trip in the company of two beloved artists who were also doing workshops – Cabelo and Paula Paes. One of my visits took place at a studio a short distance from Rio Branco. The Acrean artist – whose name I have forgotten, unfortunately we never spoke again – said that after the visit he would prepare an armadillo for lunch. I was already excited! When I got there, I started to see his sculptures. They were small female figures made of iron, on a pedestal, pre-Degas. I took a deep breath, and asked him how he had begun his career as an artist, avoiding making direct comments. Then I saw in a daring piece a corner, made of iron, rope, tension – it looked like a miniature Zé Resende. I looked again and saw three more of these pieces in the other room, different, but equally good.

Surprised, I asked him: why don’t you show these sculptures? He laughed, half surprised and answered. That’s not sculpture, those are my hunting traps. Then the conversation shifted. We talked about why traps could not be sculptures, the way he made them, the forms they acquired, the precision, the complexity; everything there could be seen both in terms of the trap function and the plastic function. You didn’t have to separate them much. I don’t know if I convinced him: he wanted those iron dancers; I wanted the traps. 

Both the traps and the pieces of Bispo do Rosário, while recognizing the differences in their strength and intensity, are art to the extent that they lead us to a form of appreciation of the appearance of the things that removes us from the way we know how to see them. They produce heterogeneous ways of feeling and thinking. They displace us from what we already know and take us to another place of knowing, where at the same time we know that what we see is self-sufficient, striking, but we also don’t know what to call what we’re seeing. In this play between knowing and not knowing, we begin to explore meaning, to talk about what we don’t know in search of other ways of knowing. This puts us on the path of expression, of the inaugural speech that needs to communicate and that is always at risk of non-communication.  

Art is indeed, thus, a trap and a madness. It is ready to grab us unexpectedly and to take us out of knowing. This is art.

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