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In Search of... Something

By Gabrielle Kezia

Daniele Castellano, The Big Fire, 2018. Pastel and coloured pencil, 14.5 x 19 cm. Source:

Midway in the path of my first paid job I was met with a poignant little feeling that was unassuageable. Despite having exhaustively diverted from it (and I mean, relocating, going back to school and starting over career-wise), I can still catch glimpses of memories from my “old life” which spur my hair to stand on end. Sitting in front of a computer all day, one Excel sheet after another, and hours of unpaid overtime, to do something that, even now, I can’t explain for the simple reason that I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. I told myself I wanted to do something better, something more meaningful.

This wretched infatuation of mine for the picturesque was, at the outset, part and parcel in my decision to go back to university and study History of Art insofar as my elementary knowledge of the subject let on. I thought it superior and more consequential (to me, my life and nobody else’s); wholly because I wanted to look at pretty pictures for a living, and partially because I listened to the many that revere art to be of the highest excellence. The former is not so true anymore. Since starting the Graduate Diploma programme, I’ve found more and more delight in close looking in general, but I digress. In their own way, artists and thinkers throughout history have tried to articulate why they hold art in such high regard; whether it is an issue of its function, as a means for something else, perhaps the ‘truth’, or for its own sake, art has this emblem of distinction that accords an expansive place for itself in society. It’s almost, if not precisely, like a monolithic structure – we stand before it and we observe, we inquire and try to make sense of the artwork in any way we can, all without the promise of a definitive answer. (Or maybe, our primal responses kick in and we jump up and down while beating our chests.) Here I am reminded of Morris Weitz' The Role of Theory in Aesthetics and his idea that art is an “open concept” – it cannot be defined by a fixed set of necessary and sufficient conditions, therefore no universal definition that can capture all the diverse forms and expressions that fall under the category of art. There is something comforting about the magnitude of the concept that any struggle to find meaning within it is essentially a pointless feat.

But if art imposes such significance for the individual and human existence, for lack of better words, I still find myself compelled to understand my relationship with it. Nonetheless, I feel that this personal enterprise is always thwarted by discourse surrounding art and morality. We live at a time where the way in which people interact with works of art is by scrutinizing and evaluating them based on their adherence to certain moral standards. I can’t go on my phone without seeing a polemic in the triad of social media I will not name. This is a situation I have trouble grappling with: on the one hand, I consider it empty to subject every work of art to a moral examination because it disregards what one finds appealing; on the other hand, art is not entirely disconnected from morality. It’s not at all hard to imagine one gaining moral knowledge from reading poetry.

The problem, as Garth Greenwell astutely notes in his A Moral Education: In Praise of Filth, is that we expect art to present a clear moral stance that we can easily identify and approve of. It’s rather silly, I think, to place such moral responsibility on art; the limitation in its purpose to the promotion of socially acceptable aims accomplishes nothing but the reduction of its multifaceted nature to mere strategic communications. (This is not to say that my initial outlook on art – the aesthete – is any better, it is a rather weak position, to be honest. A purely analytical aesthetic approach to contemplate works of art would, in a sense, perceive the artist just in their capacity to fabricate visual images of beauty, rather than in their role as individuals who observe and contribute to the society.) For the individual, one’s self-respect, as Joan Didion spells it in her On Self-Respect, is where I felt such inhibition would most disturb: “To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.” It would only be a disservice to ourselves if we impinge upon the discipline that helps us find certitude in our own experience.

This is why I’m most curious about the flair of aesthetic experiences to elicit emotions in the perceiver. It is as instinctive to experience sensations – regardless of whether it can be articulated at firsthand – when encountering a work of art that profoundly resonates with us, as it is when a friend whispers to us a juicy secret. These sensations mutate into emotions and feelings which in turn creates a connection – one that now belongs to you and the artwork – and is founded on the emotions induced by, taking from Greenwell, the artwork’s inherent singularity and irreplaceability. It would be a difficult undertaking to substitute this connection with something that conforms more easily to societal norms. What sweet nothings, say, the novels of Charles Bukowski and Ottessa Moshfegh, or 20th century slasher movies, whisper to me may sound like London Underground rail squeaking for others. (In any case, my contention is that we need to retaliate against idealising a sterile society and bring back imageries of the ‘yucky-ness’ of life in a less serious way.) But condemning one’s appreciation of such works, I think, is just cowardice in disguise; a way of averting one’s attention from experiencing the uncanny emotions induced by such works. (I’m in favour of the artist’s prerogative to be brutish in their art, forthright about the dialogue between their ideas and the form established.)

As someone who has gravely sought many moments of reflection – alone, in prayer, and with my therapist – to become acquainted with myself, looking at emotions as deserving of spatial quality in art discourse is familiar and restitutive in this onerous life pivot thing I’m doing. It seems to me a puissant approach for its ability to perforate a space in discourse whereby ambiguities, interests and morality can be cordial, all while I make sense of my own aesthetic experiences. In doing so, maybe, meaning will surface (If such a thing even exists.)


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