Art and the Void

When I was younger people used to say “all the great artists are crazy” and that used to scare me a little bit, because I wanted to be a great artist but I didn’t want to lose touch with reality. People say artists must suffer, and that scared me too, because I like suffering about as much as the next girl, which is to say I don’t. Give me a cozy fire and fresh sheets and tasty food and good company and I promise you I’ll be happier than naked alone in the forest. I didn’t want to sign up for the life of a pariah just to learn to speak my understanding of the truth.

Then I was around people who claimed the opposite. Madness and art were not related, I learned, when I finally met artists, including those who society would prefer to label mad. We make art despite our divergences, not because of them.

Then I realized it’s both, and different for everyone.
For some artists, and theorists, the first step is to go outside the realm of rationality into the realm of possibility. Just as importantly, the second step is to come back. The goal is describe what they have found out there, to incorporate it into our understanding of reality.

That’s the shit I’m interested in, anyway.

* * *

I’m going to try to avoid using terms like “crazy” and “madness” or even “mental illness” when I can throughout this essay, because these things are stigmatized heavily by society, and because despite my uh… quirks… I’m capable of relating with society and presenting myself as comparably “sane” so it is only partially my struggle to represent. If I use these terms in the short term, please understand that I invoke them to talk about, and critique, how society views those they label in that way. I far prefer the framework of “neurotypical” and “neurodivergent” to describe whether someone’s brain is functioning similar to most people on any given axis or not. This isn’t because I desire specifically to avoid offending people—though I also desire to not offend people when I can help it, and don’t understand why people would desire the opposite—but because this framework reinforces what I’m discussing.

* * *

Imagine us all on an ice floe, floating in an infinite sea. We’re safe on that ice floe. We aren’t going to drown, most of us. Sure, holes develop here and there and sometimes there are cracks big enough to fall into and sometimes whole chunks of it break off but it’s mostly pretty safe up on this ice floe. I used to call it a raft, but it’s important to realize that the thing that is keeping us afloat is made out of the same basic stuff as the sea that threatens to swallow us.

The ice floe is reality, the sea is possibility.

We, more or less all of us, live on the ice floe. We, more or less all of us, are constantly in the process of making and fixing and expanding it. Without our continued work, the ice would break apart, or it would melt, and we would be swallowed by the sea, by the void, by the infinite possibility. That is to say, we are constantly in the process of making and remaking reality. We do not do this alone. We do this collectively.

“Reality” is therefore socially constructed. Reality includes: what roles we might consider taking in our lives; what ethics we might hold; what ideas we can express; what constitutes music; what kinds of behavior are reasonable; what color objects are—even what colors we can see; what is enjoyable, what is detestable; how one can go about “knowing” things; what metaphors we use for divinity, or if we believe in divinity at all. All socially constructed.

This might or might not extend even into things we consider the fundamental laws of the universe. I’ve read convincing arguments, including those founded in science, that claim either position. But at the very least, everything about how we interact with the material world comes from our social construction of reality.

This is easy enough to understand, if you’ve ever spent a long enough period alone, or isolated in a small group. We constantly check ourselves about what is happening by comparing notes with the people around us. From “did you hear that?” to “how does this food taste?” to “what is the best way to handle this situation?” we share our experiences and let those of others inform our own.

Small groups in particular create an echo chamber effect. When you run ideas past the same, non-diverse, group of people over and over, you end up being able to warp reality in impressive — and often horrible — ways. It’s wild what we can justify to ourselves if the other people around us are justifying those things with us too. This of course also happens in society at large — like how so much of the world supports an economic system with its origins in chattel slavery that requires constant growth in order to remain stable that funnels wealth to the people who already have wealth.

There’s no inherent value in supporting the ideas that underpin the existing reality, and no inherent value in toppling those ideas. It is the ideas themselves that determine their value, not their position as mainstream or fringe.

If reality is an ice floe, it’s is monstrously large and varied. I used to refer to reality as “consensus reality,” a reality we all more or less agree upon. I tend to call it “majoritarian reality” now to better get at the idea that, well, we don’t all more or less agree. People who don’t experience reality in quite the same way as the majority are forced to participate in the majoritarian understanding of reality or face oppression and be ostracized or worse. I’d prefer, of course, to live in a consensus reality instead, where we agree on the things we agree on and put no specific pressure on people to conform to our views, to try to force one single view of reality on the entire world.

There is not even an inherent value in participating in majoritarian reality at all. That’s an individual or collective decision to make. Personally, I aim to stay a part of reality. I aim to influence it and be influenced by it.

So here we are, on this ice floe. The ice is thickest under the ideas that we constantly reinforce and thinner out at the edges. Our goal, as people engaged consciously or subconsciously in the shaping of reality, is to pick what aspects of reality we want to reinforce and what parts we want to let melt away back into the sea of possibility.

Everyone does that, just by living and communicating. Artists, and theorists, do it intentionally. Scientists too. And priests, and magicians. Revolutionists. All in different ways. They aren’t doing the same thing as each other, and their jobs are not interchangeable, but they are all consciously attempting to rework or reinforce reality itself.

Recognizing this has helped me tremendously in my own art. Finding a framework with which to understand my actions helps me perform those actions more effectively.

Let’s divide art into mainstream art, fringe art, and experimental art. I know those terms all have meanings people usually apply to them, but try to forget those meanings for a moment, and in particular the traditional “form” each one has ascribed to it.

When I say “mainstream art” I mean art that reinforces ideas that are already fairly well established. The “form” of this art is intentionally accessible, because it is meant to appeal to the broad swathe of humanity that already supports any given idea. This could be truly mainstream pop art that reinforces the status quo — like love songs in which someone essentially claims ownership over their partner, we have plenty of those — or it could be art that supports a large and vibrant counterculture — like love songs against codependency, which god damn we need more of.

When I say “fringe art” I mean art that explores and reinforces the tenuous, thin-ice additions to the raft of reality. This is art that speaks to an audience that already exists and helps bring people to a sparsely populated corner of reality. This is art for people who practice a minority religion, or for those who participate in some subculture. The “form” of this art will almost always be something that is used to set the fringe apart from the mainstream. You know you’re in the goth section of reality because everyone is wearing black and the music is sad and slow and dark.

When I say “experimental” art, I’m talking about art made by people who strap on a diving helmet (if they have one) and tether themselves to the ice floe (if they can) and jump directly into the sea of possibility, who step into the void and explore the infinite. Who, ideally, bring what they find back to reality. Some never come back. Some drown in that sea, others build their own sense of reality that keeps them afloat, broken off from the rest of society. Practically speaking, there are a lot of ways to step outside consensus/majoritarian reality whether alone or in small groups. Isolation, ritual, dreaming, and drugs are common. Some such artists are neurodivergent in ways where they find they spend most of their time outside what others view as reality already. The form of experimental art doesn’t have to be “experimental” in the ways people commonly understand that phrase to mean — art doesn’t have to be abstract, music doesn’t have to be freeform or seemingly random. Existing forms of abstract art and experimental noise are aspects of existing fringes. The content of the work is more likely to signify experimental art than its form alone.

Experimental art creates a fringe, fringe artists create a mainstream. Mainstream artists reinforce those mainstreams.

There is room in this framework for dynamite, for arson. Bakunin says “the destructive urge is also a creative urge” and I think that’s true. We create reality not just by developing our own corners of reality with one another, but also by waging war against ideas we oppose. An artist with a torch is still an artist, reshaping reality by deconstructing some aspects in addition to constructing others.

There is no inherent value in practicing one form of art over another.

That bears repeating.

If an idea is good, and becoming mainstream, then reinforcing it is good. If an idea is fringe, but bad, reinforcing it is bad. Art, and agreed-upon conceptions of reality, should be judged irregardless of their popularity one way or the other.

One terrible idea, that we should melt away as soon as possible, is the idea that where something lies on the axis of ethics depends on whether something is mainstream or fringe, one way or the other. You see this in mainstream politics, which focus on either being “conservative” (that is, attempting to preserve existing structures and ideas) or “progressive” (that is, attempting to develop new structures and ideas). You also see this in fringe politics, in which things are often assigned a moral value based solely on whether they are “radical” or not.

Many people, in fact most people, would prefer to stand where the ice is thickest. There is no use being mad at them for this. Not everyone wants to stand on the fragile ice at the fringes of the floe of reality. Some of us do. Some of us are comfortable only where we can hear the waters of the infinite rushing under our feet and can see the gulls crying over the sea of possibility. And some people need to swim.

Honestly, I want to practice art in every form, at every level. There are some existing ideas, increasingly mainstream, that I want to put more ice underneath: we can have a society in which we take care of one another; you can have love and commitment without assuming monogamy or codependence; gender is wild and varied; white supremacy is bad; sexual consent is good. There are fringe ideas that I want to make more mainstream: prison should be abolished; we can live without the state. There are also fringe aesthetics I want to participate in that I don’t care one way or the other if become mainstream — I make sad music because I like sad music, but I don’t care if other people share this aesthetic preference or not.

Learning how I define reality gives me a framework to start with. Knowing about this ice floe gives me a sense of where I can set an anchor point to tie myself to. Being able to communicate about this kind of thing, by describing it, helps me find the people willing to haul on the line and drag me back to reality if I’m gone too long. It helps me find the people who will nurture me with hot tea and help get the cold out of my limbs once I’m home. It helps me find the people who will jump in with me. Just as importantly, it helps me find the people that I can do that all that caretaking for in return.

As I grow older, the void calls to me. The teeming sea of wild creatures calls my name. I want to know what’s in that sea. I want to know what it has to offer. I want to learn things I don’t already know. I think this is where magic lives.

I also want to come back.

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