In her discussion with German-born American sculptor Eva Hesse (1936-1970), Cindy Nemser mentions Morse Peckham's book, Man's Rage for Chaos (of course, it could be titled Humanity's Rage for Chaos orWoman's Rage for Chaos, but that's a whole other issue). First published in 1967, the book didn't ring a bell, so I read some reviews to familiarize myself with its central premise: Art does not unify and order experience. Instead, art is an area where we involve ourselves in chaos. In this way, art breaks up one's ordinary orientation by frustrating and weakening a tyrannical drive to order.
When Van Gogh first did his paintings, that was fantastic chaos. Now it's so conventional. Jackson Pollack showed us that. What is more chaotic than those drips, but he made his order out of that, so it was the most ordered painting.
The world of experience, as it is revealed to our senses and our understanding, is always chaotic. Each one of us must seek to organize so many conflicting facts, impressions or sensations in some kind of understandable synthesis...which will allow one to face the world as an individual, without being overwhelmed by the kaleidoscopic flow and swirl of phenomena...It is the task of the artist to organize the chaos of the visible world in patterns from which some meaning can emerge.
I don't recall ever thinking of art as either creating order or unleashing chaos, but when I stop to consider what I'm generally drawn to, it's art that imparts a quality of serenity or quiet beauty, that understands space is as important as form, that depicts light as a powerful force but not in a glaring way. I'm attracted to a certain elegant simplicity, economic rather than overly ornate expression. A few brush strokes on paper or cloth can portray so much more than what is actually painted. This is probably why I'm highly interested in an aesthetic that I call "Japanese," though I can also sense it in non-Japanese artists, including some Westerners.
I've pondered why I prefer this kind of art. Maybe there's so much internal chaos that I seek art which provides calm. Perhaps because I'm regularly stirred up by my ongoing and changing experiences of people, places, and events (Kokoschka's "kaleidoscopic flow and swirl of phenomena"), I don't feel a need for art to engage me in yet more chaos.
I often find theories narrow when they assert "this rather than that" or "that rather than this." Yes, we all have to meet fundamental human necessities in life, but we also then vary in other kinds of needs and at different times. Maybe some people need to be jolted awake with a shot of cognitive dissonance while others need to smooth out with art that inspires harmony. Maybe there are eras in which art needs to play a role in breaking up conformity and complaisance, but that doesn't mean it can't also be instrumental in fostering peacefulness. It doesn't have to be only one or the other. And maybe I don't truly understand what Peckham means by "chaos" and thus should read his book, rather than reviews, to find out.
Questions and Comments:
What kind of art are you drawn to?
Do you find it more important that art shock us or help us integrate?
How would you characterize your own art?
If you've read Peckham's book, what are your thoughts about his theory on art and chaos?