ART AND THE PEACEFUL GAZE
In order to make long-term plans in any given context, it is essential to have an integrated understanding of the broader conditions of that context – and to be able to trust that these conditions will not change dramatically. In past eras people could take it for granted that their current practices and knowledge would continue to be useful in the future. This trust in the future has now partly disappeared because of the highly changeable nature of our world. Habits, customs and traditions are breaking up, partly due to a new perception of the future, which I have described as ’empty’.
In network time, the awareness of history itself is in danger of disappearing. With the illusory collapse of the dimension of time, the very idea of a future is in danger of disappearing. ’Here and now’ becomes the new temporality, replacing sequential time and duration. From this follows a radically open future in which nothing is certain. An open and undecided future has come to dominate our perception of time.
However, the collapse of the dimension of time is precisely an illusion because the future remains a reality: what we do in the present inevitably has an effect on the future. A condition in which the future is neglected is potentially disastrous, since the responsibility for the future disappears with it: “we can plunder and pollute it with impunity. We can forget that our future is the present of others and pretend that it is ours to do with as we please” (Adam and Groves 2007 p. 13). In other words, there is a chasm between the human understanding of reality and reality itself – because naturally our actions have consequences.
This lack of responsibility for our environment, which can at least partly be traced to a distorted view of time, and especially of the future, comes at a critical moment in history. Our actions have had consequences on a global level. The perception of a future emptied of content tends to subvert the potential for a critique of linear time and enables the acceleration, escalating production, and whatever else follows in terms of increased pressure on the ecosystem, to continue.
Serres describes the atmospheric system as a historically “inconstant but fairly stable [system], deterministic and stochastic, moving quasi-periodically with rhythms and response times that vary collosally” (Serres 1995 p. 27). The question is how these rhythms change as a result of growth-oriented short-termism: “What serious disequilibria will occur, what global change must be expected in the whole climate from our growing industrial activities and technological prowess, which pour thousands of tons of carbon monoxide and other toxic wastes into the atmosphere?” (Ibid. p. 27).
Based on these descriptions, we might call the Earth’s atmospheric system, which is a crucial part of the overall ecological system, a eurhythmia. And to stay with Lefebvre’s terms, the escalating human intervention in this system is so powerful that it may potentially transform the eurhythmia into an arrhythmia. To put it in more temporal terms, the linear and short-term human understanding of time, and the actions that result from it, are in danger of collapsing the buffer systems that allow the system to remain eurythmic.
In other words, our current way of living and experiencing time may have immeasurable consequences, both for ourselves and for the environment in which we live and which we cannot live without. In finding other ways of living that integrate and respect nature’s temporalities, art has something important to tell us.
The sphere of art and the shield against soft pollution
Art ’knows’ something about time. Like everything else, works of art are shaped in time: the time a work of art lasts, the time it takes to work on the mind or body of a spectator and its internal rhythms are all temporally constituted. And often artists are very aware of this aspect of their work, perhaps most tangibly in the so-called temporal arts: music and cinema. But beyond the temporalities related to the artwork itself, there is a special relation to time built into the realm of art as such.
Art is a sphere in which many societal demands can partly be suspended. Historically, art has often been seen as an activity that can enact a kind of free space – a space as free as possible from rationales other than those of art itself, especially economic rationales. And since economic rationales have been a driving factor of the general acceleration of society, it may be that art has been less affected by this acceleration than other spheres of human activity. In any case, art offers the possibility of being less affected by acceleration. It may therefore be possible to encounter rhythms and temporalities in art that do not exist in very many other areas of society.
The relative temporal autonomy of art, as one might call it, is also reflected in exhibition and performance spaces, such as galleries or concert halls. Here the ideal is often the exclusion of all other modes of time than those of the artworks themselves. Thus the audience is usually required not to talk too much, to turn off their mobile phones and to behave discreetly in the gallery space or during the performance. In line with Serres’ concept of pollution, one could say that the exhibition or performance space, with its specific habitus requirements, forms a kind of shield against soft pollution. The audience is invited to focus as much as possible on the artwork itself and hence the artwork’s own rhythms.
When, for example, a film is projected or a concert is performed, the audience usually knows roughly how long it will take: the time to view the work is set aside in advance. A concert may last an hour and a half, and if you want to experience it fully and show respect for the work, you will of course make sure in advance that you won’t be doing anything else during this period of time. Thus the audience itself also creates a free period of time to devote to the work.
Moreover, a work of art takes the time it needs. It wouldn’t make sense, for example, to play a Mozart adagio in twice the tempo to save time. This would change the experience totally. The artistry lies precisely in finding the ’right’ tempo for a given interpretation. Nor does it make sense to play a film at a different speed, unless it is for the sake of artistic experiment. Even a poem can be said to have its own reading pace. A given work takes the time it needs. In a societal perspective, this is a rarity.
Another characteristic of the sphere of art is the relationship between the spectator (subject) and the work (object). The spectator uses his or her aesthetic sensibility to relate to a work. He or she ’senses’ the artwork and, to use Bergson’s expression, ’sympathises’ with it. Ideally, spectators try to forget their own preferences and prejudices to allow the work’s unique qualities to enter their consciousness. This idea bears resemblance to Kant’s concept of ’disinterested delight’ (Kant introduces the concept in his Critique of Judgement of 1790). Ideally, then, the spectators forget themselves and their own aims and rationales to make space for the artwork.
The ’riddle-character’ (This is Adorno’s terminology) of artworks means that it is not sufficient to experience them in a more or less shallow way. Such an ’experience’ simply reflects back on the spectators themselves and their own superficial satisfaction. Before a riddle can be solved, one has to listen to the riddle itself; a greater effort is required. A true aesthetic experience thus requires a ’realisation’ derived from a “dialectical exchange on the artwork’s terms” (Sangild 2004 p. 123, my translation from the Danish). This exchange takes place between a subject and object whose relationship is far from one-sided.
In this experience, the audience’s sensibility so to speak glides from the subject to the work, which in the aesthetic experience takes precedence – but always in the form of an exchange with the subject. In rare cases, the experience culminates in a ’being shaken’, in which “the objective breaks through” and “the subject moves out of himself” in a ’groundbreaking experience’ (Ibid. p. 125, my translation from the Danish). The point of the spectrum of aesthetic experience, from the simpler experiences to ’being shaken’, is the expansion of consciousness that takes places when the work ’invades’ the subject after turning his or her sensibility towards the work, and the new experiences that occur as a result.
Turning towards the work allows the artwork to lead an audience into its ’drama’, to become participants. In a temporal perspective, spectators not only observe the work’s rhythms but experience them through participation. The temporal constitution of the artwork – what it knows about time – can be so fully experienced that its rhythms become living rhythms. For the audience, then, the artwork’s temporality takes the form of bodily experienced rhythms that have something to teach about time.
Michel Serres and aesthetics
The special kind of attention that is present in the aesthetic writings of Adorno has some similarities with some of Serres aesthetic ideas. These thoughts also relates to the search for time skills that this article is partly about. The concept of beauty is, for Serres, the removal of appropriation. When ownership is removed, peace occurs. The special attention that Adorno ascribes our art experiences has some similarities with Michel Serres’ aesthetics. This special gaze is described by Serres as a form of perception that uncovers the language of things. His concept of soft pollution is linked to his understanding of beauty.
Serres suggests that the ability to see the world’s beauty is a matter of removing the ’filth’ derived from the human appropriation of the world. He uses the term découvrir, to uncover/discover. Soft pollution is one example of what needs to be uncovered to allow the beauty of the world to be perceived. In Serres’ view, all forms of communicative images, signs, languages etc. which serve as appropriations must also be removed before beauty can step forth.
This appropriation can be very fine-meshed: “we cover [the real] not only with garbage, signs, and marks but also with finer structures through which we do not see, feel, or understand the real but rather appropriate it under the name of science, technique, thought; hundreds of other maps” (Serres 2010 p. 74). ’Maps’ is Serres’s term for contexts of human understanding. It is not just soft pollution that blurs the perception of the concrete: simply having a more or less discursive understanding of context is also a form of appropriation.
Thus the concept of appropriation spreads out. As Serres writes: “Kant defined the Beautiful as disinterested. I propose dis-appropriated, relieved of filth” (Ibid. p. 73). The interesting thing is that the individual who experiences this beauty is also uncovered: “What lies underneath? First of all, beauty. As I perceive it, a peaceful ecstasy lifts me out of myself” (Ibid. p. 75). The individual is lifted out of him- or herself in ’peaceful ecstasy’.
The peaceful gaze
Beauty means to eliminate ownership. And when ownership is eliminated, peace appears. The special gaze that occurs outside of all appropriation accepts everything that exists – in an artwork as well as in the surrounding world in general. This I will tentatively name ’the peaceful gaze’. The peaceful gaze is thus an extension of the aesthetic sensibility beyond art.
To be aware of and be able to follow the logics that are constantly in play within one’s surroundings, which the peaceful gaze uncovers, is extremely useful. Most often the logics we carry around within ourselves overshadow the logics of the contexts we move about in. Ideally, the peaceful gaze can open up for a ’turning to the world’ that uncovers the logics of our surroundings.
This sensitivity to the outside world can be said to be vital in many, if not all, contexts. It is extremely valuable in human relationships, in politics (especially in the case of conflicting parties’ deafness to the arguments of their ’opponents’), as well as in science, where certain logics tend to exclude others – often because science still tends to regard itself as objective, which in the worst case can make vital experiences impossible (Latour accounts for this in his book Laboratory Life: the Social Construction of Scientific Facts from 1979).
But this peaceful gaze is particularly important as regards our relation to nature. It can be a step towards re-contextualising the individual. In our current historical situation, it has become necessary for us to learn to see ourselves as part of our surrounding world. The first step in this process is of course to recognise this outside world in the first place. As a response to the soft pollution’s storm of images, the increasingly language-determined nature of society and the types of rhythms that follow from this, acquiring a peaceful gaze can help us refine our sensitivity to our environment and learn the discipline of living in accordance with the rhythms of things.