on Thomas McEvilley

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Inevitable Liminality

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Oscillations of Sense in the Historical

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Symposium presentation by McEvilley, 2004

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[Originally written for the annual convention of the College Art Association, New York City 2007, and delivered on the panel "Artists Talk About Art History" (Chair: Reva Wolf , SUNY New Paltz; other panelists: Faith Ringgold and Peter Halley).]

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I am an “artist” who has thought of himself as a “poet” since, at age 15, late one night, hearing a friend suddenly read out loud without explanation the words:

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Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

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I didn’t understand what I’d heard, but I was, as they say, wonderstruck, and I responded, “What was that?” He said simply that it was the opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” from Four Quartets. And I said, “Well, whatever that is, I’ll be doing it for the rest of my life.”  And, basically, I have.  I see now that the attraction was to language calling me to its half-known message, yet holding me in suspension, cutting me off from the familiar and stranding me in my own performance. The message seemed to be: wake up inside language, however impossible that seems.

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Many years later, following a declared life in poetics, the world of poetry as such no longer quite felt like home, at least in the way it once seemingly had, and the acts of language that came naturally to me had ceased to fit the going specifications. So, while continuing to write, edit, and publish books, some fifteen to date, I also did performance, first as a sound/text poet, then in ways involving text, sound, movement, video, etc.  mostly in collaboration with Charles Stein, but also Jackson Mac Low and Franz Kamin, and eventually Gary Hill. Along the way I had discovered a principle of immediate open transformative experience within a given medium –– a principle I first called “poetic torsion.” In my mid-20s, while teaching at Stony Brook, I took the term “torsion” from biological morphology in the work of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson concerning the growth principle of a vine or horn, and I used it to account for the dynamic poetics of William Blake, which, encouraged by teacher and colleague, the great Blake scholar David Erdman, I published in a Princeton collection he edited, Visionary Forms Dramatic (1970) [see Orc as a Fiery Paradigm of Poetic Torsion]. Turning away from a life in scholarship and to my own emerging work, I eventually came to call this principle, more broadly, “the axial,” as in the way things turn or come to rest on an axis, the open center of possibility.

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My work in language now embodied this principle ever more clearly and intentionally, eventually comprising a work called Preverbs, currently some 5,000 one-liners long, disposed in what I call poem complexes.  These one-line language events are “poems” in the sense of self-contained and self-deconstructing syntactic units. When I put them on walls in a museum they became installation art. As this work developed, a strange thing happened: the working process leapt, as if across a gulf, to non-verbal activities like drawing, video, body-movement, sound, and sculpture, all happening more or less side-by-side, or sometimes interactively with language, but independently as well. I realized that a principle is not medium-dependent but potentially generative within any medium. So, language, poetics, sculpture, drawing, music, and so on, could all be entered by way of a single principle––beyond skill and mastery, and outside judgment in the familiar sense.

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So what does that make me?

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I’m not going to answer that question, although circumstantially I do so a lot, and indeed already have today by virtue of being here on a panel of artists; yet such answers are strategic. And the reason for avoiding answering, as far as possible, is that art for me in the broadest sense is a release from the need for fixed identity, and a freeing of the space in which one identifies, whether oneself or others. Accordingly it’s a space or process or activity in which self and other cease to be separated by conventional boundaries, so that self and other are not necessarily oppositional, although they are always somehow functionally contrary as a condition of discovering what is actually the case, namely, that things show up in their distinctions.

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I say this not merely to draw attention to inevitable endless complications in the question of identity, but to lay the ground of considering what kind of interest art history and criticism hold for me, that is, the artist as I can use the term. I offer here at best a shorthand sketch of a single instance of what and how I find an art historian to be material to my concerns, namely, in the work of Thomas McEvilley. He’s surely one of the most complex and difficult to characterize writers in art, transgressing identity lines in unpredictable ways. Both in what he writes and how he writes it, he offers a challenge, often a provocation, and sometimes, indeed, a full-scale polemic. I am hardly competent to evaluate the man or his work, and happily I have little interest in doing so. What I’m after is consequential dialogue.

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A few facts: Thomas McEvilley at the time of this writing was still head of the department of Art Criticism and Writing at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, and has since moved on. From 1969 until 2006 he taught at Rice University in Houston, Texas, to which he commuted from Manhattan. A Ph.D. in philology, with competence in Greek, Latin and Sanskrit, he has taught in many aspects of Greek and Indian culture, history of religion and philosophy, as well as art. 2002 gave us his great work of three decades in independent scholarship: The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies­. This 730 page book effectively altered the very foundation of how we think of the classical origins of Western civilization, showing that the earliest major thinkers in Greece and India, including the great works of the Pre-Socratics and their Indian counterparts, were in profound dialogue and mutually influential. The long-presumed autonomy or superiority of one culture or cultural aspect over the other is undermined. Indeed, the underpinnings of what has been variously discussed under the names Western Colonialism and cultural hegemony, namely, the supposed superiority of Western civilization from ancient times, is complexly and seriously called into question.  McEvilley tracks the swing of the cultural pendulum, which at one extreme can be characterized by Gandhi’s notorious response when asked what he thought of Western civilization: “It would be a good idea.”

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And herein lies the basis of McEvilley’s long journey to reassess many fundamental assumptions of art history right up into the present. Several of his major works in contemporary art history have built on this base, including two indispensable collections of essays: (1) a 1999 book, Sculpture in the Age of Doubt, comprising an analysis of the transition from Modern to post-Modern through the work of twenty-five artists, beginning with a revelatory reassessment of the meaning and importance of Marcel Duchamp and the special significance of “doubt”; and (2) a 2005 book, The Triumph of Anti-Art: Conceptual and Performance Art in the Formation of Post-Modernism, which carries on the post-Duchamp perspective of the previous collection with more specific attention to conceptual and, especially, performance art.

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What is most striking in these works is a certain double focus, simultaneously macro and micro.  He gives the big picture in the movement from Modern to post-Modern, the strategic movement beyond cultural certainties and the advent of multiculturalism, pluralism, and relativism. At the very same time he maintains a detailed and intimate attention to the work of each artist. One does not get the feeling that he chooses artists or aspects of their work only to prove his major thesis at the expense of the artist, even though the thesis, as they say, has teeth.  In fact, artists whose work he has written about, even hard to please ones like Carolee Schneemann, often report that they feel deeply understood—not an everyday acknowledgment among artists!

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McEvilley is above all a writer, a maker of extraordinary language.  An early work begun in the late 1960s but published two decades later in 1987 by McPherson & Co., North of Yesterday, is designated novel, yet belongs at once to a tradition of experimental fiction and a quite ancient genre of hybrid writing mixing radically different rhetorical and poetic forms.  Poet Charles Bernstein called it a poem-novel, which pleased the author, noting that the prose contains a range of verse forms originating in ancient times; and in fact McEvilley writes poetry without publicly presenting himself as poet. He also acknowledges that he writes with his ears, which is a poet’s approach, even when he’s writing art criticism.  If, as I think, poetry can be defined in one way as writing with listening, McEvilley can often be said to be connected to poetics even in his most straight-forward texts; and the importance of noting this, beyond celebrating that rarity in art-historical writing, namely, conscious language with a living ear, is to notice that writing with listening implies thinking with listening.  Responsive thought, embedded in a living world. And one of the most attractive aspects of his work, from an artist’s perspective, is its willingness to be in touch with living issues as they arise in the actual work of artists.  Although he is highly theoretical at times and often polemical, he never loses touch with the actual working quality of the artists he discusses.  To be sure, he digs in very deep.

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By his own account, at a time when his life orientation was mainly as a classics scholar, he began writing about art in response to requests from his close artist friends, Eric Orr and James Lee Byars, and his writing about these artists in fact embodies such extraordinary empathy and understanding that a reader feels in touch with the artists themselves and their world of performative art thaumaturgy. From an artist’s perspective this is the optimal way for a writer about art to begin–– out of a sense of necessity, to tell what is the case with a directly known reality in art to which one has extraordinary access.

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What is curious here is that the writing he does in the three genres mentioned––scholarship, fiction, and art criticism––are so remarkably different, yet realizedThe Shape of Ancient Thought will seem to some dryly argued as it methodically and patiently accounts for pretty much the range of what is reliably known about the historical and philosophical evidence of interactions between ancient Greece and India, laying out in some detail the thinking of both major and minor thinkers. The fairness of mind, the care and respect for nuances of difference in thinking styles and methods, is awe-inspiring. The cool even-handedness over hundreds of pages has an interesting effect: it actually brings to life the vast range of possibility in human thought in its irreducible richness. And for me it signals a domain that I believe is of fundamental importance in locating the value of the history of philosophy and art, namely, the poetics of thinking. What this suggests is that there may not be a clear line between philosophy, art, and poetics, that no one domain ever fully escapes the reality of the others, and that acknowledging this truth might lead to a truer understanding of the generative process and social function of each. When the innovative poet and art critic David Antin was asked many years ago if he considered himself a poet, he replied: “If Socrates was a poet, I’m a poet. If Wittgenstein was a poet, I’m a poet. If Robert Lowell is a poet, I’m not so sure.” Antin, in fact, may be a contemporary relative of what McEvilley, drawing upon the radically unprecedented Diogenes of Sinope (4th century BC), characterizes as “performance philosopher.”

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In reading McEvilley, considering a poetics of thinking suggests a high-oscillation interdependence between art and art history, something problematic for art professionals who still believe in objective judgment and definitive assessment. A true believer in objective judgment in art harkens back to the Kantian aesthetics that McEvilley sees as central to Modernism, articulated at its most uncompromising in the formalism of Clement Greenberg. The heroic view of non-relative value in aesthetic judgment and superior artistic mastery has a social equivalent in Colonialism and cultural hegemony. Post-Modernism (as well as what he calls pre-Modernism), in McEvilley’s demonstration through the work of many artists, stands in broad opposition to those historical tendencies and their devastating impact worldwide. It advances instead relativistic values that make art the site of new awareness, including not only multiculturalism but a wide openness to radically new approaches to social engagement.

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During and beyond the often polemical opposition of post-Modern to Modern, McEvilley writes art history in what I call the performative indicative mood—that is, he looks at what is there and indicates what can only be seen performatively, through an act of mind equal to the art it sees.  His reader is enlivened by the invitation to live an artist’s work, to be renewed in the act of perception.  At the same time his sharp presentation of the facts of the matter and the harsher truth of history closes the escape hatch that art appreciation also tends to offer.  I am drawn to McEvilley’s respect for the precarious.

At least two exemplars of transformative view abide in McEvilley’s rather activist stance in guiding art history to accommodate a self-renewing course he tracks in contemporary art. These two are foundational:

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The first is first by dint of its ancient date, and also because it derives from the scholar as philosopher as art historian as poet, namely, McEvilley’s evocation of the already mentioned Diogenes of Sinope. Enter the Cynic conceptualist as performance artist binding art to the daily texture of lived reality. McEvilley opens his recent The Triumph of Anti-Art with a Prelude on Diogenes as “Patron Saint of Conceptual and Performance Art,” a veritable paen to the anti-art stance of the art thinker (hear Conceptualist) and the life-liberating function of performative philosophy (hear Performance Art). Diogenes’ idea of giving a lecture was to laugh for the time allotted him to speak. McEvilley as art historian celebrates “gestures [that] have dissolved the traditional boundaries of art activity and set new ones at the limits of the life-field.” No wonder this art historian has so many fans among artists,  drawn to a sense that the critical mind can accommodate their most art-heretical gestures.

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The second foundational instance is Marcel Duchamp.  In his powerful reassessment McEvilley points to the several well-known limiting critical assessments of Duchamp and then proposes a view of his infamous “readymade” break with art as, not an attempt to destroy art as many have thought, but an act of clearing such that somehow art can be renewed in a quite radical sense. Here McEvilley invokes another ancient Greek philosopher, Pyrrhon of Elis (c. 360-275 BC), himself first a painter who turned to philosophy, noting that Duchamp in 1913, having ceased to paint and taken a job in a library, evidently read and identified with the Pyrrhonist stance of radical skepticism––a way beyond belief and opinion.  Here McEvilley illuminates a path in art founded in doubt rather than dogma, one that resonates with the earliest thinkers of Greece and India, indeed the great Madhyamika tradition of the Buddhist Middle Way, a space whose negation is a clearing force that opens each thing to its empty core of discovering what it is to itself. Duchamp, we learn, was not claiming a shovel as art but acting within the art space in a way that would be difficult to co-opt.  Yet he did express a  wish greater than making one thing art at the exclusion of another, namely, that every breath could be a work of art.

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There are apparent contradictions of attitude and argument throughout McEvilley’s work, but how could it be otherwise in one whose sympathies and generosity of spirit range so far afield?  If there were time it would be fun to share with you my own winding journey through his thought, and what we would be doing is enjoying the same edges he does, and perhaps electing a related state of liminality amongst emerging contraries.

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Here liminality takes on a special sense: the willingness to ride the edge between incommensurable differences, occupying two sides of an emerging issue without reducing either in the interest of finding a resolution.  This relates no doubt to the poet John Keats’ Negative Capability so important to poets from T.S. Eliot to the very different Charles Olson.  And like the latter, but not the former, it goes beyond purely aesthetic resolution.

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The liminalist view is obviously related to many nuanced philosophical and art-centered views, but its emphasis is on something very particular in the art way of thinking. It is indeed a “middle way,” but its way of being that way is not merely by rejecting possible positions as rationally unsustainable, nor is it a disguised form of asceticism or purity. Instead it lives with, in a non-attached sort of way, the attractions of life but without either affirming or rejecting attachment as such; it stays the middle way between warring opposites by recognizing that both are indispensable for an embrace and renewal of life itself, yet it does not resolve differences or negotiate a fixed peace or pretend to end the strife.  Its antithetical stance is antithetical also to itself, thus to open the space of spontaneous emergence of the inevitable unknown that shows itself only through the most accurate attention.  As Blake said, “Without contraries there is no progression.”

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And here McEvilley’s scholarly commitment to fair-mindedness joins his passion for art, thinking, and energetic performance in a state of circumspect openness.  In his essay “Beuys and Warhol: The Poseur’s Mantle,” for instance, he balances, and in doing so reveals, these apparent contraries as two necessary roads through art’s troubled renewal, and in so doing demonstrates an oscillatory liminality.  There’s a precarious, even vertiginous, beauty in these strangely self-sustaining critical acts very like the reality of which it speaks.

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