Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Uncertain Truth, Certain Art

Maria Kalman's ironic response to nihilism is an existentialist endeavor to craft meaning—through art—out of the supposedly meaningless world around her. In doing so, she recognizes that one can never understand complete truth. Any attempt to find meaning will be marked by uncertainty.

“A quote by Bertrand Russell: 'All the labor of all the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction …' So now, my friends, if that is true and it IS true, what is the point? A complicated question” (Kaiman 175).

And a complicated author. How are we to interpret Kalman? Is she an absurdist who enjoys presenting disparate portraits, events, objects, and facts in order to convince us of the meaninglessness of life? Or does she truly find deep and meaningful connections between every incident in her day and throughout all of history? Kalman doesn't have a traditionally religious perspective on life, so even the phrase “Finding God in all things” probably doesn't encompass her attitude towards the world. However, her love of Bertrand Russell and Frederich Nietzsche seems tempered by an optimism that allows her to venture through life without despair. Is there an ultimate purpose to everything? Kalman is agnostic on the final answer to this question. But as an artist, she accepts her own role in making meaning out of disparate life events.

“Between now and five billion years from now, someone will look out of this window. / Someone will admire this yellow vase. / And someone will remember that I did buy a completely sensational hat. Completely” (231-233). Kalman writes these words, accompanied by her own illustrations, after a chapter made up almost entirely of photographs of people (typically elderly) walking through the city. Kalman's fascination with the elderly and with death is important, but this chapter's use of photographs rather than paintings is equally as important. It's one of the bleakest chapters in the book, as Kalman repeats, with variations, that “The sun will explode five billion years from now. Set your watches” (216). Photographs undoubtedly change our perspective on the world even in the act of taking them. However, for Kalman, they represent the first step in a process of ownership that culminates in painted art and narrative. When she is only showing us a photograph, it suggests that she hasn't fully owned this moment in time. As the chapter comes to a close, Kalman includes “photographs” of Austrian bedrooms which were gifted to her. Ironically, these photographs are her own paintings—perhaps because the photographs were gifted to her, she can paint them; she can own them. The photographs in this chapter are strangers who are walking, their back to the photographer. Kalman can't “own” someone who she doesn't understand and who is constantly one step ahead. The man in angel wings she has previously painted—from the front, when he could be understood (171). From behind, a mere photograph will have to do.

But in response to the destruction which awaits our world five billion years in the future, Kalman ironically asks: “That really changes everything, doesn't it?” (216). Of course it doesn't. These people keep walking, even floating, into the future. And so does Kalman, while simultaneously reflecting on the past and owning everything around her (by means of painting) in the present. The book's title, Principles of Uncertainty, captures the problem of art as a tool for memory. For a physicist, the uncertainty principle describes the problem of measuring the smallest particles of the universe (at least, what we believe to be the smallest particles). The act of measuring unavoidably effects a particle in the same way that taking someone's temperature requires opening his mouth. However, taking someone's temperature is not a precise science like quantum physics. Kalman's use of this idea in daily life suggests that the true measurement of life can never be pinned down—that is, that any attempt to examine the world undoubtedly involves redescription. There is always a subtle difference between the way that a camera captures the world and the way in which the human eye sees a scene. Additionally, Kalman's own paintings—some of which we can compare to photographs—display even more of a difference between the original memory and the reproduction.

Kalman helps me to reflect on my own methods of “crafting meaning” in my life. I'm less than agnostic about the ultimate foundations of truth within the universe, but I don't think that the meaning of one's own life is as clearly evident as the musings of a philosopher, the assumptions of the theologian, or the discoveries of an astronomer. For many years, I carried a Nikon D40 DSLR with me wherever I went. My laptop is still filled with hundreds of gigabytes of memories, memories which may be preserved only in the external location of my hard drive. If I lose those pictures, the record of some incidents will disappear from human consciousness altogether. In my late teens, I stopped taking as many pictures, preferring to write, journal, and collect scraps of information. At Loyola, I was introduced to the Examen, which is, among other things, a spiritual practice of narrative. The Examen refuses to see the actions, emotions, and prayers of one's day as disparate events, but part of a larger narrative that Jesuit Hans Urs von Balthasar called the divine “theo-drama.” My desire to capture and re-experience the events of my day hasn't disappeared but has taken other forms. Ever since the invention of painting, we've outsourced our memories to the outside world. In 2014, I think that Facebook serves as one of our primary tools for collective memory, while Twitter is a record of collective thoughts.

I think that for most of us, one of the scariest scenarios imaginable would be to forget our entire past. Our selves are contingent in our histories, in our memories. Losing all of our photographs, diaries, emails, and recorded conversations would be nothing compared to the actual loss of memory of one's history and sense of self. Kalman's fascination with obituaries is proof of her desire that one's history not end in death. And her response to the apparent meaninglessness of this life is to capture, through her art, her experience. The artistic principle of uncertainty is that the truth of experience can never be recaptured. But perhaps, as classical philosophy would argue, art perfects life. Our experiences are mere disparate events; art strings them together in a meaningful manner, even in the face of impending destruction.

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