PRINT May 2008

MAY ’68

art and logic

I HAVE SOMETIMES WONDERED how an aesthetician like myself could have ended up on the front lines of Radical Feminism. On the one hand, it seems incongruous; on the other hand, radical politics—like aesthetics—is, at its best, a process of both critiquing a problem in its most fundamental form and trying to envision a better way for human beings to organize themselves in relation to one another.

To borrow a revolutionary move from the Abstract Expressionists, the first step is to break out of the frame. But in the case of Radical Feminism, this is more like extricating oneself from a set of nested Chinese boxes: one within another and another. When have you truly reached the last box, the last frame?

First, you must eliminate the institutions that have defined women: marriage, family, prostitution, and so forth. But what underlies and in fact generates these institutions—and regenerates new ones just as onerous as those that have been eliminated? Surely, the dynamics of sex and love are obvious candidates for the sex/class system of oppression. And underlying these? Hierarchy, certainly. And that means? Power relationships. And this means? Domination—but also submission: Power cannot exist without both roles being fulfilled. If either role is rejected, the other cannot stand. Women have defined the role of submission. Yet this role is within our control, to support or to destroy.

But what is the nature of submission? What is its motivating force, its psychology, in political terms? Submission is first and foremost the glorification of mystification. It is any kind of spirituality. It is the rejection of reason, thought, and understanding. It is the acceptance of any kind of biological determinism. (Hegel was not far wrong in his Master-Slave dialectic.)

Some artists have valorized the artistic process as mindless. But most artists aim to express mental content through visual objects: The process involves the use of raw materials to construct some entity that has never been seen before, even by the artist. Much of the excitement—as well as much of the despair—in the creative process stems from discovery, from beginning at the beginning and ending up who knows where. This is a lonely venture, albeit a thrilling one.

I have often had the experience of sitting down to write a piece of feminist analysis with a feeling of dread. I know that if I explore a particular line of reasoning with anything like ruthless determination, I will end up someplace I do not personally want to go. For when I write about women as a feminist, I am ultimately writing about myself: about what I must do—and about what I must give up. (And, hopefully, about what we may enjoy as future alternatives to today’s false choices—marriage or prostitution; the virtuous woman or the slut; the Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene, ad nauseam.)

There is often confusion between the creative process and the aesthetic experience. Kant may have been right in his Critique of Judgment that aesthetic experience occurs in the space between the individual viewer and the art object; and since each individual is unique, that space will necessarily contain ambiguities—different people will perceive things differently. But it is within the creative process itself that I believe there is a useful parallel between art and radical political theory. Here, truth matters. We may or may not achieve that truth exactly, but this is the goal. As artists develop, their overall vision also develops and becomes more concrete. Critics may call this a particular artist’s style. But this is not quite what I am speaking of. An artist’s vision is a focus on the world: It is always an observation or interpretation or, in some sense, a critique of that world. Gradually, every mature artist and her/his work add up to a coherent theory about that world. This is where I believe there is an analogy between the artist and the radical political theorist.

What I have said is abstract. But theory is abstract. And so are art objects, insofar as no art object is a natural object. But all abstract objects are nevertheless real and need to be tested against some measure or standard intelligible to all who want to understand them.

The great burden of radical political theory is that its raw materials are human lives. Theoretical errors result in individual tragedies. And while any individual theory is crafted by an individual theorist, it is made meaningful only through collective implementation. This is an obvious difference between the artistic process and the enterprise of radical politics. But this difference may be tenuous, since art also has a collective dimension—insofar as it speaks to (either critically or affirmatively) the values of any given culture. Art is the endeavor of individuals exploring their unique thoughts about the world. This claim for the larger validity of art has often been seen as inherently dangerous to society. For where might it go? And whom might it influence?

There is a way of looking at things that reveals that many human activities, in fact, aim at both this creativity and a goal of truth or ultimate effectiveness (we speak of an art object as “working”). I am thinking now of Gottlob Frege’s pictograms (or “ideographs,” as he called them), which the philosopher developed in order to represent his ideas concerning the structure of logical propositions and proofs in his Begriffsschrift (Conceptual Notation, 1879). (I urge all visual artists to take a look at these, just for the pleasure of them!) Frege was attempting to explain how to achieve greater clarity and fundamental soundness for all thought. He concluded that since mathematics and philosophy were expressed on the written page, the full two-dimensionality of the page should be exploited in order to better see and understand the shape of a valid argument. This scandal was only surpassed by Frege’s impertinent assertion that mathematics had neglected to define what kind of an object a number is. Are numbers real in any sense? And if not real, what are they? (Frege goes basic here. Radical politics of any kind must do likewise.)

I regard Gottlob Frege as an artist. In a similar way, I have been trying to suggest the ways in which the activities of the artist and the radical political theorist converge. I hope this illuminates how the most important passions in my life can be reconciled: art, the philosophy of logic, and Radical Feminism. It seems appropriate to close with the first sentence from Frege’s essay “Thought” (1918–19) from his Logical Investigations: “Just as ‘beautiful’ points the ways for aesthetics and ‘good’ for ethics, so do words like ‘true’ for logic.”

Ti-Grace Atkinson has been active in the art world and the feminist movement since the 1960s, and has taught philosophy at several universities in the United States.