Wednesday, March 25, 2009

ESSAY: The Spell of the Sensuous

by Riki Moss

One of the high points of this year arrived when the NY Times declared – finally! - the death of the Art World, Capital A, spewing its thousand or so now homeless inhabitants back into all those lower case art worlds that have all along been quietly, humbly, spinning everywhere outside of lower Manhattan. The fantasy is over, the offices are closed, the furniture sold. For me, it’s deeply liberating, for there’s no longer any point yearning - always unconsciously, of course - for a Chelsea gallery to validate my work and to make me as rich as Julian Schnabel. In this new cultural implosion, it’s OK to be a player in your own back yard once again; with so little to reach for, you might as well stay home. For me, that means Vermont, in the landscape, in community with what is human and what is not human.

Which brings me to "The Spell of the Sensuous", by David Abram, published in 1996. The book speaks to a quality of being in the landscape, the loss of which has moved our culture out of the natural world into one defined only by the particularly human considerations of exploitation, consumerism, conquest, commodity as represented, for my purposes here, by the "A"rt World. In Abrams' terms, we're no longer under the sensory "spell" of the landscape and non-humans; we can’t feel the water moving under the soil, or imagine our feathers beating through air or look an animal in the eye and feel the thrill of its unfathomable lucidity. The result of participating only with other humans and with our human-made technologies is a sensing body seen as a closed system; incapable, uninterested in participating with what is not us.

But the boundaries of the sensing body are not closed, we are porous, open and receptive, making endless adjustments to a constantly shifting world outside us. So it’s all about perception, about how we see.

As a teacher, I've always led with the "seeing" card. I would say, there's no way to draw "right." We need to learn how to see. Yeah, awesome, my students would answer, text messaging in their pockets, and I'd be left holding the empty leash, having to admit that very possibly I had no idea what I was talking about. But now, David Abram suggests that when I’m seeing as an artist, my pores are wide open to the klaidoscopic shape shifting of the world around me. It beckons, I wake up, it calls, I yell back and with skill, I can call forth an appropriate response. I can't define the quality; it resists codificatin - but you always know when you come across it. While many wonderful Vermont artists come to mind, I'm going to play it safe and offer Vincent Van Gogh: