O is for Ontological

| April 29, 2014

To what degree might artistic engagement be of some help in finding our way out of a world which we seem to instinctively structure along lines of subject-object dualisms, fact-value distinctions, and the stark division of nature from culture? And how might we go about using it to such an end?
This is the central question I have taken from this class so far, and what I will ponder in the next few blog posts.

There is an early fork in the road that we often fail to notice when either discussing or pursuing artistic agency. This fork requires that we distinguish between two kinds of agencies, ontological and behavioral. This distinction may help to sensitize ourselves to their differences in the hopes of improving prescriptive approaches—to know more explicitly what our journey hopes to find, and what we need to bring with us in order to find it. Something like behavioral agency includes practices such as ‘arts and social change’ activities and the arts-based research movements we’ve discussed. Such practices and approaches are structured in such a way as to prioritize questions of research and social agendas over aesthetic outcomes.

Distinguished from this approach is what I would call ontological agency – the broad and disparate practices of creating art with expressive, aesthetic, and imaginative priorities in mind. When Heidegger talks about art as “a push that enters history”, when Marcuse claims art can offer us a “new rationality”, when Iris Murdoch discusses art’s “radical decentering”, and Dieleman identifies the capacity of art to extend “ontological reflexivity”, it is ontological agency that is being described, that capacity to shift conceptual framings of self and world in transformative ways.

At the risk of embarrassing myself within scholastic precincts, I offer my own phenomenology of this capacity where it seems useful. For example, certain pieces of music are, for me, consistently transformative. On any given morning, I might step out into the world brimming with ambition, ready to conquer adversaries and out-hustle competitors, but if you play for me Rachmaninov Vesper opus 37, no. 2, any truculent sense of self or competitive sense of reality vanishes. Instead of calling for some degree of aggression, the world of strangers with which I am surrounded, calls for care. Any sense of being ‘owed something’ by this world is instantaneously replaced with a sense of being blessed by it. Is this just mood? A fleeting emotional effect? Is it opportunistic to call this transformative?

I do not think so, for a few reasons. To call something ‘consistently transformative’ is obviously evidence that such effects are impermanent and malleable. However, I suggest this is, in fact, an ideal calibration for artistic agency, a challenge to inhabit a space of ontological possibility rather than seeking irrevocable alterity. Arguably, art has earned our collective indulgence precisely because of its malleability, its impermanence, its temporary ‘make-believe’. But this does not mean that such ontological agency is a spell that inevitably wears off, leaving no trace.

Cumulative effects at the level of the individual are likely the result of repeated exposure, a deeper embedding of a transformation. Bruno Latour gives a nice characterization of this in his most recent work Inquiry into Modes of Existence [2013], where the “beings of fiction” (i.e. art) are of primary concern.

Someone who says “I love Bach” becomes in part a subject capable of loving that music he receives from Bach, we might say that he “downloads” from Bach, the wherewithal to appreciate him. Emitted by the work, such downloads allow the recipient to be moved while gradually becoming a “friend of interpretable objects”. If listeners are gripped by a piece, it is not at all because they are projecting their own pathetic subjectivity on it; it is because the work demands that they, insignificant amateurs, brilliant interpreters, or passionate critics, become part of its journey. [241]