January 02, 2006

What is Art?

The essential affinity between art and philosophy resides precisely in the notion of “creativity,” that is, the creation of concepts in philosophy and the creation of what they term “percepts” and “affects” in works of art. Deleuze and Guattari’s engagement with the arts in What is Philosophy? rests upon the view that “creativity” is primarily a prerogative of the arts, in that within the arts there is a ceaseless process of countereffectuation with regard to the creative reproduction of the phenomenal real, towards a ceaseless experimental thinking, undertaken through material, of the forces of the “virtual” (the conceptless plane of immanence). So their work seeks to emphasise not the conditions under which a specific work of art is created but rather how the work of art can reveal something to philosophy about the conditions of creative activity, of creative practice itself. A constant focus of their attention with regard to the different misosophical fields of art are questions of expression, creativity, sensibility and intuition. They thus privilege in their analyses the specifically “autopoetic” forces and rhythms present in the work of art, that is, what they consider to be the intrinsic self-ordering and creative self-positing associated with the different materials utilised by artists in the fields of art—paint, stone, sound, cinematic movement-image, cinematic time-image and language. Deleuze and Guattari argue that the artist must literally “create” certain plastic methods and techniques for handling the different materials involved in the multiple practices of art in order to engage in an act of “co-creation” with the vital and “autopoetic” forces of immanence. This act of co-creation is common to all the arts, according to Deleuze and Guattari, and is to be broadly understood as involving firstly the “capture” of the virtual and invisible forces associated with the plane of immanence and then the rendering of these invisible forces as something actual and sensible, something visible, audible or legible.

Works of art must capture intensive forces (that is, from the virtual field of multiplicity) as a “bloc of sensations” which are transfigured and transcribed into the different materials associated with each of the specific fields. Specific fields of art, through their own specific material, have to create what they call a consistent “being of sensation.” Each work of art has to become individuated as (using a term borrowed from Duns Scotus) a heacceity—or a material “bloc of sensations” as an impersonal “thisness”. The work of art is thus radically non-human or pre-human yet totally inseparable from human experience. Successful works of art must be capable of standing alone, that is, they must be independent of any specific perception, affection and sentiments linked to the human. Yet they must also be capable of presenting us with an affective “fundamental encounter,” with the transcendentally empirical or the imperceptibly sensible. Thus the work of art produces, through “percepts” and “affects” (the “beings of sensation” that are extracted from the perceptions and affections of everyday corporeal experience) a “bloc of sensations” that we perceive and that affects us beyond the concepts associated with the human. It is these “inhuman” capacities that Deleuze claims the artwork instantiates. In this way the work of art is capable of addressing our nervous system directly; it thereby creates a “being of sensation” that exists in and of itself, outside the habitually human, and as such reveals to us a revitalised state of becoming-nonhuman. This notion of a “bloc” or “compound” or “assemblage” of sensation suggests a sense of independence, a “standing apart from,” a “standing alone,” of sensation. To put it another way, for Deleuze and Guattari the artist must express pure perceptions and sensations (percepts and affects) that are independent of the pre-existing conceptual identity of any given thing. These pure perceptions and sensations (percepts and affects) have the effect of destabilising us, of drawing us out of ourselves, of taking us beyond ourselves by expressing (or bringing to expression) a world, or more precisely, a plane, of potential movements and changes that associate our actual existence with something different or external to it (that is, the virtual field). Percepts are not “ordinary” perceptions: (according to Deleuze and Guattari they are “independent of a state of those who undergo them”)—thus the percept “is the landscape before man, in the absence of man”. Equally, affects do not arise from pre-existing subjects but instead pass through them, revitalising and reconstructing them. The affect is the “becoming-other,” not as a passage from one pre-existing lived state to another but man’s vital nonhuman becoming. Affects are not “ordinary” affections. “Affects are the non-human becomings of man…we are not in the world, we become with the world; we become by contemplating it. We become universes. Becoming-animal, plant, molecular, becoming zero.”

“Percepts” and “affects” become the compositional elements with which an artist creates, elements that the artist shapes and forms on a purely aesthetic plane of composition and renders as perceptible through materials that have now themselves been configured or rendered expressive. So, in the “veritable theatre of metamorphosis and permutations” of modern art, it becomes much more a matter of concentrating upon the way in which the specific material being used, such as paint, can become inherently expressive of sensation rather than merely a vehicle for a pre-existing idea of a specific sensation; thus, it is here that the genuinely “self-ordering” potentials of matter (that is, paint) are able to be “thought” aesthetically. Deleuze and Guattari argue that there are, intrinsic to the different and varied materials of art, certain vital “autopoetic” forces and rhythms; and the matter of the artwork itself is never simply a homogeneous substance that passively receives preconceived forms but is an emergent autopoetic line of divergent becoming. It is precisely these implicit or virtual intensive traits that make the self-formation of all matter possible (its ontogenetic process of becoming as the movement from the virtual to the actual), and which, according to Deleuze and Guattari, provide the means by which forms of matter can be so continually self-modulating and self-differentiating. In painting it is thus the materiality of the paint itself (that is, its multiple virtual material traits) which comes to articulate and express such “forces”—the matter of paint itself becomes the crucial expressive component in the artwork.

(Darren Ambrose)


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