Aftershock: Paul Chan

Paul Chan on the US presidential election

Artforum has invited artists to share a text, image, or video in the immediate wake of the United States presidential election and will be posting their contributions throughout the next week.

Paul Chan, der Pfirsich (peach), 2020, ink on paper.

FOR A FEW NIGHTS AND DAYS AFTER NOVEMBER 3, I lost my appetite. Nothing tasted appealing. It was during then that I realized the coronavirus and the political plague that is the current administration share a striking similarity: They both deprive us of our senses.

Losing our senses of taste and smell are two defining symptoms of Covid. Social distancing has also deprived our sense of touch and of proximity to others. Over the past four years, we have had to endure a relentless gaslighting campaign dispossessing us of our collective capacity to use our common senses to understand ourselves and others.

Senses like our vision and hearing, along with what is called interoception—the suite of senses that signal what is happening inside us, like our heartbeat and intestinal health—are what empowers reason. The senses attend to sensations that underwrite experiences from which reasoning draws its value and meaning. And the more discerning the senses are, the more capable reasoning tends to be. Reasoning deprived of real sensory experiences is not reasonable at all.

Economic and political inequities are essentially forms of deprivation that regressive regimes wield to hold onto power. When the senses dim, or when one is not open to new sensings, the capacity to reason atrophies. This is how disinformation takes root and spreads. This is why one’s mind becomes susceptible to influences from authorities that go against one’s own interests and well-being.

Art is historically the field of endeavor where our senses are given the greatest freedom to experience something (either as a viewer or a maker) without fear of harm, judgment, or retribution. Exercising our senses—as we take in or make art—deepens those capacities, and makes available a wider array of thoughts and feelings, which enriches what reason is capable of understanding.

What stands between Democracy and mass deception is the genuine experience of art, because aesthetics heightens epistemic fitness if and when art is practiced and experienced with more than a return-on-investment or tastemaking in mind.

Tonight, as I write this, I am eating a tangerine. It tastes different than the one I ate a few nights before. It could be that the season in Hell just ended. I hear car horns and pots banging in every direction. The noise is nourishing, like an extraordinary atonal work. I try to savor the tangy taste in my mouth, sour yet bright, but also sweet, like honey and saffron.

Paul Chan,
November 7, 2020

Paul Chan’s latest exhibition, “Drawings for Word Book by Ludwig Wittgenstein,” is up now until December 19 at Greene Naftali Gallery in New York.