Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space explores the relationship between space and imagination. I am fascinated by a sentence on the first page: “The poetic act has no past.” If “poetic act” includes art, I wonder, how does art exist without a past?
Initially, I read “no past” to mean no causal history for creating art; the artist cannot depend upon the causal “if this, then that” relationship. If I gesso the panel, then I can paint a ground, outline a sketch, and so on. But eventually I must leave these comfortable steps to enter what I always experience as “fog”: creating with no clear route. If I don’t, the painting dies. The artist cannot depend upon the past unless she is banking on what she knows to be commercially successful.
Does the phrase “no past” suggest art need not be informed by the past? In my art, a house on stilts often emerges. I never considered why until a viewer asked at an exhibition.
Past is prologue
Looking at my painting, I suddenly realized it was a memory from early childhood, when my family of five lived over a brothel in Little Havana in Miami, after my father lost our upscale Philadelphia house in a series of poker games, my baby sister was stillborn, and my mom went temporarily crazy. But on a fun family daytrip to Key West, I discovered a house on stilts planted over the water. The ocean rushed beneath, creating a sense of magic, and I imagined us living in that house above the surf where my mother could be happy.
Looking back to the viewer’s face at the exhibition, I thought, “Oops, too much information.” If the viewer needs to know my haphazard childhood, the painting is a failure.
However, Bachelard is speaking poetics rather than literally referring to a phenomenon of the moment in which wonderment cancels everything — history and future — except that moment. What is wonderment and how does it speak directly to both artist and viewer?
The end of the outsider
In Friedrich Schiller’s 1795 essay, “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry” (both words used very differently than today), he describes the naïve artist as directly connected to nature through art not modulated with self-reflection. In contrast, the sentimental artist’s direct link is ruptured and self-reflection becomes the means to lament the loss. Does Bachelard’s poetic act refer to the naïve artist? Shakespeare and Goethe create in the naïve, whereas Mahler would later be considered sentimental.
Today, the naïve is usually attributed to outsider art in the belief that untrained artists are best at capturing an immediate response to the world. However, I recall a conversation with Sheldon Bonovitz, who donated the outsider art collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He suggested outsider art is coming to an end, meaning the art world has become too self-aware to be naïve, and anything created in the genre of outsider art would be mere posturing. I wonder if any artist, trained or not, is capable of direct naïve response to the world.
Categorizinging the Philadelphia artist Richard Ranck as Schiller’s “naïve” would do injustice to the complexity of his art. But his work does have an immediacy — an unmediated response — suggesting there is no place in it for overthinking, though Ranck appears to be an intense thinker. How does a trained artist develop this immediacy?
Immediacy emerges from the way the self is situated in relationship to art. If self-reflection interferes with immediacy, lowering the self’s profile in the process of creating does the opposite. In John Thornton's short film The Art of Dick Ranck, Ranck describes how he works through divesting what he knows, that he doesn’t edit, and follows cues from his materials. These acts intuitively lower the self’s control over creativity.
Divesting knowledge, losing control
By divesting knowledge, Ranck does two things to place him in a state of ignorance. On a trip to Australia, he immerses himself in aboriginal symbolism and art with its deep underground metaphysics, and he begins wood carving. In the hands of a lesser artist, the influence of another culture could turn to parody; I recall American artists in Mexico overusing the skull motif. In Ranck’s art, there is no parody. By divesting through a culture and medium he does not fully understand, Ranck creates without self-conscious control. His unknowing is consistent with the mystery of the forms, and his art addresses the impact of that mystery upon him.
A novice always brings abuse to a medium, doing things that trained artists would never do. But by doing so, Ranck introduces new ways of interpreting that medium. He cannot edit that which he does not assume to know. He disavows judgment, thus eliminating the strongest power of the self: its ability to annihilate through value. Likewise, he does not assign meaning to his art, knowing meaning takes care of itself. With power depleted from the self, the artist is left following the cues offered by imagery, color, form, texture, and so on, thus allowing the emergence of a “poetic act with no past.”
Creating art as such is like following insanity down a dark alley. What may happen? It takes courage. The viewer is likewise challenged to experience without preconceived knowledge, without value judgment, and without desire for knowledge and understanding. When powers of self are removed, art can be experienced through the phenomenon of wonder.