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The Center of It All

June 30, 2015

A sketch of a theory of art and everything else

Every work of art presents itself as the center of the world, the heart of the cosmos, the origin point of reality; it succeeds as much as its audience accepts it as such, experientially. This is It, art proclaims. If we do not find it so then the work has failed us or we have failed it or, most charitably to all parties concerned, the relationship has just not clicked, maybe next time. But often it succeeds and becomes the focus of our apprehension.This is a common occurrence. And yes, we will usually say of the work — story, song, poem, performance, picture, movie, sculpture, or what have you — that it has simply become the object of our attention, the center of our consciousness. And this gives it no special place in Reality/Cosmos/World, a much bigger thing (thing? see, there is a problem right there) that can hardly be expected to revolve around just any human made gewgaw that comes along. But then we are stuck with some alienating, dryly theoretical construction of It All — Platonic Form, Cartesian Grid, Vedic Hum, Turtles All The Way Down. Better simply to stick to experience and say that when we perceive a center it is because we have found a center.

In a critical mode we place and contextualize works. This is a minor example of early Romanticism. That came out of the socio-political situation of fin de siècle Belgium. Over here we find an expression of existential despair or misogyny or an opium dream. Which can be fine as a way to make to make use of art, to treat it as the means that it undoubtedly can be. But not to treat it as the ends it demands to be. Instead of placing it within a context we can allow it to create its own context, to make the world surround it, spreading out from it, like Stevens’ jar in Tennessee. If we are to truly honor and love it, and to receive from it all that it has to give, the artwork must be allowed to be no less than The Center of It All.

But if we grant that to art we must grant it to everything. Artwork is not special in its centrality, but only in the way, in the perceptible strength and freedom — sovereignty — of its being, it calls attention to that fact. The general lesson of art is: every thing is the center of everything. To be is to be at the center of a world. This is the ontology I am proposing. Reality as a pleroma of infinitely overlapping magisteria. Not a universe but, in the term of William James, a pluriverse. Not the All as a Unity within which things find their being, but the All as composed by sovereign beings, each the center of all it surveys. No foundation, no ground of Being, no God’s Eye View From Nowhere. A perspectivism, but not an epistemological perspectivism, which implies a deficit of reality, but an ontological perspectivism, which grants a fullness of reality to all things. Nothing is shunted off to the periphery. Everything is allowed its centrality.

In his essay “The Fearful Sphere of Pascal” Borges traces the recurrence through history of an idea: God is an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. (Pascal substituted Nature for God in his formulation.) My own thinking here is not reaching for God. But maybe for kind of reverence. The reverence we feel toward the art that moves us, and that, by its example and with some leap of faith, we might extend to other things, to — if it were possible — all things. This is It… and this… and this… and this… and this…

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