Call me wolfman


Billy, the Magical Dog, in Los Angeles

Billy, the Magical Dog, in Los Angeles

This is an interesting Boston Review¬†article that not only buries the lede, but obscures its thesis a bit by talking in circles around it. The core of it is the notion that dogs can teach us to eliminate the boundary between physical and mental through a different order of attentiveness and “obedience” to what’s actually happening around them. In other words, dogs are models of mindfulness–which never gets said in quite that way. The easier and more attention-getting point it keeps making is that dogs aren’t people–since most of us mistakenly treat them as if they were. By anthropomorphizing them, we diminish their greatest virtues and so on. The real point of the article is that people aren’t canine enough. People should strive to be more like dogs:

Dogs live on the track between the mental and the physical and seem to tease out a near-mystical disintegration of the bounds between them. Their knowing has everything to do with perception, an unprecedented attentiveness that unleashes another kind of intelligibility beyond the world of the human.

Unleashes. (That must have been too tough to resist.) “Another kind of intelligibility” comes and goes here, but that phrase made me stop and smile. “A knowing that has everything to do with perception,” not reasoning or conceptual thought, is what, for me, painting is all about. The ideas, the concepts, the implications of a painting beyond what perception alone conveys (and the point in this article is that perception alone can convey a world of immediate understanding and reaction that doesn’t require thought) these chimera can attach themselves after the fact, even with a purely perceptual painting, yet for me that’s the proper order. First the painting; then the idea. I’d like to think that Duchamp’s Fountain happened at the moment when he found himself involuntarily admiring the curving forms of a urinal, despite himself, and then probably realizing that a sculptor could have made it, and exhibited it, and then . . . well, Pop art followed with all of its preconceived ironies and poses, generating the flood of work it has produced. Yet it began with a simple perception, an awareness of how difficult it can be to differentiate between life and art. And even that thought was after the fact of the simple perception of beauty in the forms of something Duchamp was conditioned (by thought) to see as nearly the exact opposite of art, the lowest object imaginable, because he knew its purpose. So he turned his perception into a highbrow joke. It really is a fountain, and the more you think of it as a fountain, the more laughs you’ll get out of Duchamp’s humor, yet the more you think, the further you get from the original, unsullied perception of the formal qualities in that porcelain object that set in motion the whole notion of exhibiting a urinal. What has bothered me about art, at least since Duchamp, is how perception, which is the heart of visual art, has so often been subordinated to the ideas that arise around it, or that, at its worst, art becomes merely an illustration for an idea, a visualization of a thought. The ideas should be at the end of the process of struggling with the formal challenges of a medium, not at the start, in my humble opinion. It’s the pursuit of “another kind of intelligibility” unavailable to the calculating, reasoning mind: Duchamp had that at the moment he paused to keep looking at the urinal . . . and then his calculating mind took over and we’re back in the world of commonplace intelligibility, and a “stance” about art and the art world in general, implied in the humor and scandal of exhibiting a urinal as a work of art.

Painting can dissolve the boundary between mental and physical and produce, as it happens, a different kind of exuberance about life that has everything to do with having more awareness than opinions about it.¬†So, all of this only confirms what my wife has often thought: yes, I’m a dog.

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