The mad world

Kate Wagner writes in The Baffler:

What makes industrial landscapes unique is that they fascinate regardless of whether they’re operating. The hellish Moloch of a petrochemical refinery is as captivating as one of the many abandoned factories one passes by train, and vice versa. That doesn’t mean, though, that all industrial landscapes are created equal. Urban manufacturing factories are considered beautiful—tastefully articulated on the outside, their large windows flooding their vast internal volumes with light; they are frequently rehabilitated into spaces for living and retail or otherwise colonized by local universities. The dilapidated factory, crumbling and overgrown by vegetation, now inhabits that strange space between natural and man-made, historical and contemporary, lovely and sad. The power plant, mine, or refinery invokes strong feelings of awe and fear. And then there are some, such as the Superfund site—remediated or not—whose parklike appearance and sinister ambience remains aesthetically elusive.

One line from my education years that I think will always stick with me was uttered, perhaps in throwaway fashion, by an excellent teacher nonetheless moving on to a larger point: “Ugliness is marked by erasure.” Wagner’s lines above suggest our need for beauty extends even to landmarks of peacetime disaster, such as abandoned factories, railway stations, refineries, etc. because their particular way of being broken and dead contains stories, and lessons, that a pile of collapsed masonry or a heap of trash would not. Apparently there is a beauty in the way they have failed, contained in features of their architecture and design that have managed to rise, or stay, above the arbitrary chaos of unorganised disaster. They are, in other words, haunted by the memory of control.

But as Wagner walks further down this path, in search of the origins of our sense of the picturesque, I’d like to turn back – to an older piece in The Baffler, by J.C. Hallman in September 2016, that questioned the role and purpose of tradition and the influence of scholarship in creating art (as in paintings and stuff). His subject was ‘art brut’, “variously translated as ‘raw,’ ‘rough,’ or ‘outsider’ art” and which stresses “that the work of individual, untutored practitioners trumps all the usual conventions of artistic legacy-building, including the analytic categories of art criticism.” After a helpful prelude – “I prefer dramatic chronicles of the shift from ignorance to knowledge, from innocence to experience” – Hallman elaborates:

… [the painters’] stories … seem calculated to undermine the steady commercial march of art as depicted in high-end auction catalogs[.] In lieu of a stately succession of movements, schools, and styles, art brut gives us an array of butchers and scientists and soldiers and housewives who suddenly went crazy and then produced huge bodies of work—most often for discrete periods of time, three years or eight years or fourteen years—before falling silent and eking out the rest of their isolated, artless lives.

He then draws from the notes of Jean Dubuffet, the French painter, and William James, the American psychologist, to make the case that if only we sidestepped the need for art to be in conversation with other art and/or to respond to this or that perspective on human reality, we could be awakened to shapes, arrangements and layouts that exist beyond what we have been able to explain, and reveal a picture unadulterated by the humans need for control and meaning.

Could this idea be extended to Wagner’s “infrastructural tragedy” as well? That is, whereas a factory embodies the designs foisted by dynamic relationships between demand and supply, and motivated by the storied ambitions of industrialism – and its abandonment the latter’s myopia, hubris and impermanence – what does a structure whose pillars and trusses have been spared the burden of human wants look like? It’s likely such a structure doesn’t exist: no point imposing the violence of our visions upon the world when those visions are empty.

But like the art brut auteurs in Hallman’s exposition, I’m drawn to the question as an ardent world-builder by what I find to be its enigmatic challenge. Just as the brutists’ madness slashed away at the web of method clouding their visions, what questions must the world-builder – the ultimate speculator – ask herself to arrive at a picture whose elements all lie outside anthropogenic considerations as well as outside nature itself? I suppose I am asking if, through this or a similar exercise, it would be possible for the human to arrive at the alien. Well, would it?1

1. This proposition, and the sense that its answer could lurk somewhere in the bounded cosmology of my psyche, inspires in my mind and consciousness an anxiety and trepidation I have thus far experienced only when faced with H.R. Giger’s art.