Naked before ghosts
“The easy possibility of letter-writing must — seen merely theoretically — have brought into the world a terrible disintegration of souls. It is, in fact, an intercourse with ghosts, and not only with the ghost of the recipient, but also with one’s own ghost …Writing letters, however, means to denude oneself before the ghosts, something for which they greedily wait.” – Franz Kafka
Kafka, prophetic as usual, was writing about Social Media, decades before its invention. And one could say he was writing about art as well because what is making art but posting a letter to everyone and to no one? We, artist all, want to have “intercourse.” But wait, Kafka probably used verkehr here and it means not just sexual intercourse, but also means traffic, commerce, even communication. Yes, we want to communicate; not with ghosts, but with our intended recipients, other souls and minds.
Kafka talks of a letter after it is written but before it is read, when it is being messed with by ghosts, voyeur ghosts who get off on seeing it naked. Not Ghosts who are the dead but who are alive and as real as nightmares. They are psychological complexes, imagos, even, who are who are usually invisible, as they can’t be easily seen when they are congruent with the generally accepted real world. Ghosts, in the process of letter writing/receiving, per Kafka, and my expansion of that to art in general, don’t line up with the real world and are quite visible.
Contrary to most schools of art thinking, I believe that art, for the most part, is an affect made concrete. First as art-as-process it is the gesture of the art-creator; second it is the created art-as-object. The art-as-object is a thing that contains the affect, which is transferrable to the art observer. There is a gap in space and time, between the creator and the observer when the former has “tossed” the art and the latter has yet to “catch” it. That’s where the ghosts get involved.
I know to “denude oneself before the ghosts” is an odd metaphor, but it’s from Kafka to what do you expect? The affect is clothed, private, protected by the art-creator’s gesture and it can be again by the hoped-for, but certainly not inevitable art-observer’s gesture of taking it as her own. In between toss and catch, the art-as-affect is naked, not “nude” in any sense of innocence or aesthetic purity, but forcible, cruelly exposed for judgment and ridicule.
Look at the “art” on the left. A billboard and an anthropomorphic fountain pen, ancient technologies combined in an even more ancient style, crosshatch. Then look on the right, look at the partiers. No, they are not the pen man’s intended recipients, they are his ghosts. They are his memories gone awry, memories of hook-ups and deals never consummated, drawn here as an imperfectly mirrored image of his anachronistic, obscure art. The ghosts party on, oblivious to it.
In that gap, here between two buildings, two worlds, two epochs, after art-as-process is over and art-as-object has yet to begin the pen man has no control. It is the dark here, and bright there, the real world, where the ghosts have taken over. The pen man’s final gesture, thinking that for the art-creator, art is nothing but the process, is not to toss the thing and watch it disappear, but to watch it at a distance, naked and ridiculed by the ghosts, to be embarrassed, too. Doing so, he realizes that it is painful for him to imagine there is a real world art-observer; for she, too, is an imago, a ghost. So…
“Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames?” “I would prefer not to.”
– Herman Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener”