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Art does not want to be told. Without art, man becomes alienated from himself, because art is his way to be freely himself. As art pulled man many thousands of years ago from unremarkable eons of life and death, rebellious, promethean, so it gave a moment of humanity to the enslaved black man when he sang, or a straw of defiant hope to the inmate of a prison camp when he wrote a verse on paper scraps. Yet art is as wide as man's soul, and tyranny may grasp at art, while at the same time the oppressed may rebel with art against it. Man's way to be freely himself is beyond good and evil. How so?

We begin here: There is skill in art, necessarily, and technique. Art proper is always improbable, underlined by the time and talent required to achieve proficiency. Remarkably, the conscious and prolonged refinement alone of humdrum skills may give rise to new art-forms. In Japan we find a traditional understanding of this alchemy, where taking tea and arranging flowers or shooting arrows and pruning trees have become art-forms. Necessarily, too, and deliberately does the refinement of artistic skill avoid the trap of all comparatives: making things faster, more elaborate, hotter, more in quantity, smaller, more powerful: none of this is ever art's aim. Art consciously avoids being caught on any such ladder to nowhere. It is a common experience that ever larger canvasses or sculptures, more expensive installations, ever more radical and shocking productions leave us cold quickly, because they are literally aberrant, leading nowhere. Art is then, necessarily, improbable and unmeasurable on any scale. Art is not a sports contest.

The improbability of art employs the original sense of the word which says that art is not provable, that it cannot be tried and tested. Art is not algorithmic. It is not open to replication by controlled experiment. It does not reliably fulfill an intended function, such as making things beautiful to increase sales, or lifting the spirits of sinners reliably to the welcome of heaven. Repetition as a common practice of artistic skill and technique is not the close-ended search of faithful replication and final confirmation but the open-ended search, again and again, of what can happen if skill and technique have become masterfully subtle and open to the world as opposed to being weighed down by their own execution. Indeed, the improbability of art is the result of it always being subtly collaborative with the world, subtly opportunistic as opposed to principled. When making art, the world around finds ways to join in and to bring to the artist, right in front of him there and then, opportunities that are or are not taken up by the artist as he works. The slanting of light, the rhyme of verse, the grain of the stone or wood, the constraints of his tools or his canvass or his time, the fault of his brush, his hunger or pain. The world whispers and the artist listens, whispering back in collaborative dialogue.

The interaction with art generally follows this basic pattern of dialogue and collaboration. It is not the place where you get what you see or what is stated on the label of the tin. Just as you cannot typically tell where any live dialogue is headed, so you cannot tell what you will hear or see when approaching a work of art. Art does not monologuise, it does not preach, it does not inform. Dialogue with art becomes possible because the art work always leaves room for the collaborative imagination. The artist subtly collaborates with the world and captures this dialogue in his art-work. The admirer of art in turn takes this art-work and may begin his own subtle dialogue with the world, or the world begins it with him. The art-work is a catalyst and the language of such dialogue between a man and his world. Art is the immortal Hermes between world and man.

We can now see that art breaks isolation, because it is dialogue, that the art-work can take on life of its own, because it is always collaborative with the world, that art can address us, because through it the world speaks to us, that art is liberating, because it fundamentally defies measure or algorithm, that with increasing mastership of an art the sense of control over the art-work paradoxically diminishes, because it subtly becomes more open to the world, that art can be healing, because it re-connects with the world in dialogue. May words flow from world again, says our poet.

The twin attributes of unmeasurability and improbability map out the way of art, a method in the unfamiliar literal root sense of meta- as mid-, therefore a middle-way, meaning not only more narrowly a way that steers a middle between extremes of scale and order, but more fundamentally a flow that spans, opens and closes, an unfragmentable midst. In this specific sense, analogously, blood flow appears to be a method of biological life as we know it, credit flow is a method of a monetary economy, and communication is the method of society. The pursuit of the unmeasurable and the improbable is thus a method of wakeful human life, maybe the only one, man's way to be freely himself. What flows in this method of art is my dialogue with the world, becoming your dialogue with the world, becoming the world's dialogue with him and her, round and further. It opens man to the world, and it binds men together, spanning in this way the midst of a common humanity, the space marked by art where man lives.

But the poem speaks about the unrelenting light that man shines into the world, harrying it, preying on it, the object of interrogations. The dialogue between world and man appears here to aim asymmetrically at that of master and slave, at reliable control of the world, no night, and at hushing up the world's whispering noise. Yet, we know from art that man and world are not opposites, because man is in the world. If man therefore attempts to enslave the world, then he attempts to enslave himself with it. Man does not sleep anymore, man is harried, there is no night for him either. Man's attempted mastership over the world ends up enslaving him. The preposterousness of man's controlling ambition, the flimsy glow of his headlights, is as striking as the many hundreds of years of his blind eagerness. Ours are apparently the times to reflect on this, mysteriously.

Every action is interaction, taking the form of a dialogue. Every plying and re-plying in dialogue, folding things over and over again, origami-like, is both question and answer at once, leaving something open for the other side and at the same time linking up. We all know from experience that proper dialogue is very hard, and ultimately unrewarding, to control by one party. In his attempt at it, man can try and make the world answer always the same; but then dialogue would cease all together and with it the world and man; indeed, it is impossible according to the experiments of microphysics. The most controlling form of dialogue then remains an interrogation where the other side is limited to stuttering answers of yes or no. The poem says stuttered, which I interpret in the ungrammatical passive mode of the verb, as opposed to its past tense: the world is forced by man to stutter. In the words of J.A.Wheeler, this is dialogue in the simple form of it from bit.

It is dramatically ironic that man set out, with his experimenting hands and prying eyes, on a quest for firm evidence that would sort out the conspiratorial whodunit, and he ends up finding a random stutter that keeps taunting him with a subtler and vaster orderliness beyond his hand's reach and beyond his controlling manipulations. It is a fledging tyrant's worst nightmare; the prisoner has apparently gone mad, but his eyes are shining bright. And while with every question, the tyrant hopes for a confirmation of what he knows already, one that keeps things in law and order, he also craves refutation that would reveal something left to conquer or control.

Man's mind presents him with the concepts of all and nothing, always and never, in seemingly ideal noiseless perfection. But these concepts live at the edge, as limits, where this and that and these and those only in the limit lead to all. Suspended from this edge, mathematically, are then built numbers and scales as sets of sets of nothing. But as with Mercator's flat map of the round earth, there is distortion here relative to the world, as noted clearly by the logicians of the last century, and the measurable stands on a tight rope between the limit concepts and inherits the same distortions. Mercator's map is very useful, and so are measure and number, but we must remember that the earth is not flat, that nothing is always utterly the same under the sun, that everything is never utterly different under the moon. As a reminder, there is art, which is, necessarily, unmeasurable.

The world is apparently not squeezable into eternal order. Yet in this same world there is man with his limit concepts and measures, with his rockets and polymerase chain reaction machines. The world attempts to measure itself and order itself; and at the same time the world resists being squeezed into order. It orders and evades, evades and orders. Man, too, attempts to measure himself and order himself; and at the same time he needs to resist being squeezed into order.

Without art, we are then on a highway without exits, as prisoners of monotony and of progress that is measured in miles, and of the light of our own device. As we ride along, thrilled by the speed and the shimmering lights and the cool wind in the hair, we may hear a famous song floating across from far away:

Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
Relax, said the night man,
We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave!

We pause and sing along - and in the waking twilight, horizons begin rounding out the shadow night: Art is man's way to be freely himself.

Valete, Amici.

William A. Wayman
Chief Editor
MAY 2011

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Thumbnail of the June 2009 artwork that forms the basis for the editorial on this page.