Back to Basics - 19/ Guy Gutman
This is not an article.
This is a radio broadcast, a podcast, a radio transmission from a home studio, located in the living room, to an audience quarantined in their own homes or going back to work for the first time, or back at quarantine. A broadcast from the heart of the events, in the depth of fears and hopes.
The radio is a medium of sound, of the invisible. A medium open for imagination, I write it as I speak it – as a continuum of inspirations.
Cue: Opening Theme
This broadcast is born out of Zoom conversations with friends, artists and students, revolving around concerns, doubts, euphoric ambitions and dystopic visions arising in the shadow of the pandemic, social distancing and the unknown.
I was bombarded with basic, almost way-too-simple questions.
Why do we need art? What is it good for? Is it truly indispensable? And if it is needed, what should the artist do now? Is it possible to study art at this time? To learn from art at this time?
In the next hour I will try to address – and evade – some of these questions, to formalize some intuitions, to host thoughts by those wiser than I and to play some voices and musical numbers.
Theme – Introduction
I wish to begin by defining three principles for Basic-19:
Basic is not a beginning nor end. This is not a linear story.
There is no such thing as empty, and no such thing as full.
There is no basic. Just a "return to basics".
I hope this will make sense later on.
To be home
In the past months I, you, all of us experienced what can be called "a return to basics". This Return to Basics materialized for us, in its purest form, at home. Our home. The place of our confinement and quarantine, that was sometimes just a room, sometimes a tent, a bed or a blanket. The home during the coronavirus has become an a-priori, abstract and personal existential unit. No longer the psychoanalytical, metaphorical, bourgeois home, no longer Le Corbusier's Machine – but the home as a starting point, as a state. This home state, which was seemingly forced upon us and had brought with it difficulties and pleasures, already teaches us something about the basic creative action. We moved at home, wrote at home, painted at home. The basic creative action is born from the home outwards, defines a home, sometimes even creates or preserves a home. Contrary to what we became accustomed to thinking about the artistic tempest and its commitment to breaking away from home, to venturing out to the exotic, and to the connection to the web of the hyper-social – the Return to Basics happens inside our four walls.
in the Basic – I, you, we – are sufficient to ourselves. We provide for ourselves. In the basic creative action, we are an autarkic economy, sawing, reaping, working and eating our own private field.
We are self-sufficient, self-learning, self-teaching – basically, we are autodidacts.
This is the reason the Return to Basics is frequently a return to Aristotle –
He understands the good "in each and every matter" separately – as an autarkic household – and each matter has a Good of its own. In this sense, writing, music, painting, carpentry, theatre, dance, cooking etc. all have their own specific basics.
Cue – Aristotle:
"From the point of view of self-sufficiency, the same result seems to follow; for the final good is thought to be self-sufficient."
Are we essential workers? Are we indispensable?
Questions of staple food and essential workers have recently been thoroughly shaken up. Billions of people "learned" they were inessential, that they were redundant, making zero contribution to the economic market, that they were a burden, that what they called "work" was nothing but a self-sustaining hobby or game.
Coronavirus has strikingly reshuffled the idea of essential workers: doctors, bell peppers pickers, nurses, supermarket vendors, shopkeepers, chicken farmers, workers in a toilet paper factory.
Our basic indispensability is of course an absurd question, regularly repeated in the modern political sphere in different variations. Let us take, for example, the youth labelled as "redundant" in 19th century Russia, because all the progressive ideas filling their heads were still unfulfilled. In a cruel analogy, the "indispensable" of the times were the vassals considered "baptized property", whose very souls, according to Gogol, were objects of commerce.
As in the times of Nikolai II, today we can once more turn things upside down: are the state and the market essential? For whom are they indispensable? Who and what do they sustain? How can they serve and be an essential factor in the lives of every citizen?
Unlike the essential, organized in accordance with the economic-political scheme of affairs, the indispensability of artists can already be deduced and understood from the autarkic principles of the Return to Basics: the creative action suffices in itself.
Cue – Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu (recording):
"Later, Netanyahu commented on the supermarket egg crisis, which has aggravated many citizens and resulted in an extensive importation of eggs: "The demand astonished me, until my wife explained that many of the dishes were prepared with eggs."
Regarding staple food – the most significant shortage was eggs. Because the amount of eggs a chicken can lay in one day is limited – a basic reminder that we do not exist alone in the world, and because eggs (as the prime minister had discovered) are the incarnation of the creative action in cooking – they bind, glue together, top and whip. They produce pastries, cakes and pies. Binding elements are a basic need for fusing one basic material to another.
And yet, the "indispensable", with all its pomposity, has value and meaning. It teaches us that basic is the opposite of waste. That is not to say it is a synonym of humbleness, or frugality, or god forbid, asceticism. The Return to Basics is a return to the critical; it concentrates powers, does not waste energy, puts all the eggs in one basket.
And what is indispensable in the surfers' attempts to mislead and outsmart the police? In joggers insisting on running despite fines? For better and for worse, the Return to Basics may be a way in which an action is implemented into our life, into our worldview, as a way of existence and of being. That is also true for the creative action. It practices daily, breathes in and out while moving. And that is something that is difficult, impossible, to stop.
The Return to Basics dreams of returning to the common denominator.
Never before were we, all of us, millions and billions of us, so isolated, and at the same time – in the exact same condition. Abandoned to the same fate. We have become – or returned to being – humanity. This was even more pronounced as coronavirus emerged at the peak of political rifts, of identity discourse battles, of privatization of personal and public rights.
The Return to Basics, in its essence, aims for the universal, the timeless, the human. Think of anything you would define as "basic" around you, consider basic objects, actions and needs – I believe you would notice they contain an invitation (sometimes an obligation) to become common good.
The same call for a common basic may be found in the writings of Simone Weil, through the concept of Value. Value is basic. Even though we create value individually, we deem it worthy for everyone. The value exists in the delicate point of balance between the separate and the common, Like a work of art.
Recording – Simone Weil
"Thus, all artists know there cannot be a criterium for determining that a certain work of art is more beautiful than another. Nevertheless, all artists know there is a hierarchy of aesthetic value, that some things are more beautiful than others, that there are beautiful things and things that are not beautiful, otherwise they would not make the effort required for perfecting a work of art, they would not correct its flaws, they would not keep going."
Surfaces – The White Page
The (our) new age starts with a return to Ground Zero, by means of Descartes' method of doubt. He progresses (backwards) step by step, leaving out anything that can be put in doubt, until reaching the surface of the white page, that Archimedean point from which he can confirm the world ,where he discovers the Cogito.
But "I think therefore I am" only appears in the middle of the book. On page 61. There are 46 pages to go.
The Basic is a destination, not a starting point. It arrives in the middle, only for us to depart from it yet again.
Here is another canonical example of the white page:
Malevich's white. And here is the chronicle to it and from it.
Art teaches us a few other things about the white page:
- There is no "white page". There are specific surfaces, there are narrative-saturated layers. Our white page, the A4 of every home printer, was invented in 1784. Ten years later, the laws of the French revolutionary regime are already written on it.
- The "white page" can also be black (in Malevich too, by the way), or red, or a painting. Duchamp uses the Mona Lisa as a basic layer – because the historic, too, can be a basic surface. And I can return to someone else's surface and make it my basic. The basic can be shared and transferred, it can be co-inhabited.
Cue – Music: John Adams
Returning is basic
Return and repetition are basic. And basic things are, almost by definition, things we find ourselves repeating over and over again. Like scales in western music, or eastern Maqams. They are a repetition, a pattern, a motif. Far from thoughts about singularity – the basic is reduplicated and reduplicates, copies and produces an origin and a copy. And ad infinitum. It is what gives birth to discipline, and to the beauty in discipline.
(keeping a 2 meters radius is also a discipline, and a possible choreography of beauty).
2 meters radius
In Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, the midpoint is the bellybutton, and it serves as a basis. Me and my bellybutton. Me and my radius.
I move and act within the coni, lines, spheres. The (2 meter) radius reveals additional characteristics of the basic: its tendency to abstraction, its love of geometry, of the concrete. This is the same, by the way, in Descartes, who tells us that even in a dream, the general and abstract things – the basic concepts of reason – remain true.
(It is time for a parenthetical note on the banal, implied here. The basic has no fear of the banal, or we can even say – banal is basic. In my view, this is where readymade comes from, Duchamp's pissoir, Campbell soup cans, the united states flag. Not a provocation, a sentimentality, or a decadence – but an enthusiasm for the banal.)
And where is the Vitruvian woman?
The Vitruvian woman expands outwards, to the extremes and beyond
The Vitruvian woman extends inwards, touching the invisible
Cue – André Breton (sound)
"Socialism is simply about redeeming our mental powers."
Automatic writing, in which one writes "rapidly, with no predetermined subject, fast enough not to hold oneself and not be tempted to read it."
A few years before the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, the art of the 20th century officially begins with the avant-garde movements and the Dada. A hundred years later, certain things from Cabaret Voltaire were so thoroughly implemented as to no longer be discussed. First and foremost, that the Return to Basics aims to reach something that is prior, a primary drive – to go back and precede understanding, analytical, explanative thought.
Even today, when we reflect on the basic, return to it, we wish to precede the conscious thought, to circumvent it. We turn to the automatic, the arbitrary, the dream, the sub-conscious, the repressed in its multiple forms. The Return to Basic is a return to the intuitive, an appeal to the instantaneous and the unexplained. Thus, the basic can escape towards what Deleuze and Guattari call Lines of Flight – fleeing as a constant (and repetitive!) action. Thus, the basic can elude becoming a consumer product, or becoming permanent. And this is where we wish to return.
Fin – History exists (but has no end)
Coronavirus has permanently refuted Fukuyama's "End of History" thesis, disintegrated Foucault's world of spaces and territories. To put it in a way-too-simple way: there is time. There is a before and an after. Before and after coronavirus, before and after the 21st century, before and after us. There are pandemics from 100 years ago, from 400 years ago, there is history, there is change, there is a challenge to the status quo, there is an unknown, that was and will be and is a Return to Basics.
For this reason, overcoming coronavirus is not a return. There is no return. It is from here on after.
It is a leap forward.
We were home; we were in a time machine. In a particle accelerator. And we leap forward into a world of spaceships to Mars, of social, political and environmental awakening and upheaval.
We jump into the future once again –
And returning to the future is basic.
Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Translated by W. D. Ross, book 1 chap. 7.