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Thoughts on a Personal Manifesto

Study for Monument 2009

Transcendence, transcendent, and transcendental are words that refer to an object (or a property of an object) as being comparatively beyond that of other objects. Such objects (or properties) transcend other objects (or properties) in some way.
transcendent |tranˈsendɘnt| Adj. beyond or above the range of normal or merely physical human experience : the search for a transcendent level of knowledge.
• surpassing the ordinary; exceptional : the conductor was described as a “transcendent genius.”
• (of God) existing apart from and not subject to the limitations of the material universe. Often contrasted with immanent .
• (in scholastic philosophy) higher than or not included in any of Aristotle’s ten categories.
• (in Kantian philosophy) not realizable in experience. (Wikipedia)
The status quo has a great talent for leveling our playing field.  Membership to the club of 4.0 GPAs, high SATs or the Ivy League ensure one thing and one thing only — that you are at the top of the ordinary.  But eventually you must take a chance – a leap of faith — to transcend — or to fail.  There is no safe way to achieve enlightenment.
The theologian/physicist John Polkinghorn said, “Novelty always occurs at the place where chaos and order come together.”   The examples are, of course, black holes in space and undersea volcanic vents.  One must walk some kind of edge that separates chaos and order.     Order is the ordinary (the status quo) and chaos is all that threatens order.  To the priest, order is good and chaos is bad – to the banker order is predictable and chaos is not.
For Sorin Kiekegaard, using the ordinary tools of philosophy always left certain questions unanswered — thus the “leap of faith” (inspired by Abraham), which breaks the stalemate and takes a side — a side that is not fully supported by reason and logic. It is a belief that aspires to transcend ordinary reasoning.

In Japan there is a saying  Koketsu ni irazunba koji wo ezu  (If you don’t go into the tiger’s cave you will not catch the tiger cub).  In other words, if you are not willing to take a chance and endanger everything that you have struggled for — you will always be limited to unexceptional results.  You will never transcend “the ordinary”.     Artists who are called “even” (as a compliment by gallerists and writers) are almost never exceptional – they are high functioning ordinary at best.
To transcend is of a very high order in the realm of high expectations.  It is not something that we do, but something to which we aspire.  Even if one has never succeeded, there are markers that identify this quest, and the first of those markers is the leap.  Of course mostly failed leaps — but leaps nonetheless. Philip Guston took that leap in his mid-career. Picasso took it again and again, fearlessly — as did Louise Bourgeois who walked the edge for her entire life.

Am I a postmodernist or a modernist?

From 1991 to 2003, I showed at Bernice Steinbaum Gallery.  She was a leading gallerist who prided herself on shows that shattered the glass ceiling.  Many of those shows were about identity — identity in the postmodern sense.  In any historical context I would be considered a postmodern artist.  But am I a postmodernist?  I don’t think so.  I was raised Roman Catholic by a German Irish mother and a Japanese American father.  I studied with Jesuits, Franciscan and other priests and nuns for 18 years.  When I studied philosophy, it was mostly Aristotelian Thomism with a touch of Kant.  I love reading almost anything about philosophy or theology. The awakening for me was Sorin Kierkegaard, who won me away from the security of Thomistic philosophy, opening for me the possibility that most of my beliefs were built on quicksand.
In the modern era, profound friendships existed between critics and artists.  When poets saw that painters and sculptors were experiencing a renaissance, they stepped in to act as apologists for the zeitgeist of that time.  Someone was needed to announce the genius was burgeoning because of a unique existential relationship between artists and their tools. Not that the painters were inarticulate — modernism certainly included some very smart people.  But someone was needed from outside — a person who did not hold a brush or a welding torch, but a person who could comprehend these tools and their importance to the big idea of modern art.  I began painting in 1964 at the tail end of all that excitement.
Somewhere around 1980, a fracture occurred that destroyed the harmony between artist and critic.  My suspicion is that academia was in part to blame. It may have been the formal joining of art history and art criticism within academia that struck the final blow.  Some would point the finger at Duchamp and his admirers — John Cage, Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman, etc.  I personally would not lay the blame at the feet of any artists. It was the genius of Duchamp that laid out a riddle that could be deciphered (or confounded) into a brilliant art scenario for the next fifty years.  A period that would not produce many new ideas, but would bury itself in an archive dedicated to a quest for figuring out what artist and critics need to do next, rather than spend time on the noble act of doing.  The act of creation and wonderment was dismissed as passé, leaving to the artist the role of an actor in a performance imagined by Duchamp. These actions were directed by a cadre of academics, critics and intellectual mobsters who would police the enforcement of the status quo via critical theory.  Added to all this was the power of an economic environment that was no longer willing to permit the market to be subjected to the will of artists and galleries.  Suffice to say, the market solved this simply by buying and dominating the art world.

So here we are today.  Art is no longer about creativity and transcendence. It is a corporatized institution thru which a kind of pornography is produced to fulfill the demands of the rich and famous. It is not holy, it is not transcendent — it is not even special. It is as expected at the high functioning peak of the ordinary.     It is no different than fashion — and like fashion it can (on an annual basis) control what it is that we are “allowed” to accept as hip and high ordinary.     So — using some very good ideas learnt at prestigious colleges, the cadre of the art mob maintain control by assuming that the masses cannot possibly comprehend their proclamations coded in the language of continental philosophy. However, the masses have understood the big idea — the real idea that is contained within the seeds of German and French philosophy. The masses have always had a healthy distrust of academic and philosophic language.  We, the real artists, are interested in the power of these languages and how they have controlled the world and the world of art and fashion for eons.  We are aware that art historians study these ideas and that there is much validity and truth to them.  We are also aware that the language that forms the matrix of postmodern philosophy in art can be used for us or against us.  We are keenly aware of a genuine truth in the hostile corporate takeover of art by perverting postmodern ideas to reverse the roles of form and content.  It is clear that aesthetics has been sent to the back of the bus in order to allow content its seemingly rightful place in the front.  On observing the intellectuals in their ivory towers, it seems so kind that they should allow us minorities to complain and call our complaints works of art.  I must say that I too, like that part of the new world order of postmodern art.
I had this modernism vs. postmodernism discussion with the critic a few years back.  He said something that proved enlightening to me. “You can’t go back.”   Meaning of course, that while you may not like this thing called postmodernism, you cannot go back to modernism.  You have been “enlightened!” The errors of modernism have been exposed and  it was not so wonderful after all.  Postmodernism has a track record that is even worse.  So I proceed into the future like a modernist who has had a postmodernism epiphany.   But no, I am not fooled by it.
I don’t know many artists who will admit to being postmodernist.  It is a moniker that is not easily worn by artists because it is usually assigned to them by the art mob.  I don’t think of it as an honorific, because in my mind it gives power to the written language that “discovers” the art rather than understanding that the real power exists within the work itself. The explanation of art is done by the brush and not by the mouth or pen.

Tom Nakashima

Tom Nakashima is included in numerous collections including The Smithsonian Am. Art Museum and The Mint Museum. He has won numerous awards including The Joan Mitchell Award and AVA11.

Volume 31 no.6 July / August 2017 pp 25 – 26

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