In my last post, I wrote about a videogame called Depression Quest. Most of this focused on technical aspects, considering how the more traditional techniques of aesthetics, form & content mix with videogame mechanics & player agency. Of all that I touched on, the sexism, ableism & abuse targeted at its lead creator, Zoe Quinn, was only mentioned briefly. Whilst I still wish to refrain from engaging in any discussion around the events that transpired, I do want to comment on something related, coming off of this.
We are all familiar with the image of “the artist as depressive“. All of us have, at 1 point or another, engaged in the kind of trivialisation of people considered “artists”; we have all made jokes & denied the agency & self expressive nature of works of art. I am certain that we have all made remarks about Sylvia Plath, about Rimbaud or about Ian Curtis. It isn’t okay for us to have done so, but we need to begin by acknowledging it. I, myself, have done this. Equally, I have been on the receiving end of it.
Recently, I began to listen to a musician named Daniel Barrett again. Barrett suffers from bipolar. He writes music under the name Giles Corey as a way to communicate his experiences of acute, suicidal depression. I admire Barrett a great deal & I think that his work can provide us with a basis to open discussion on this topic proper. Below this paragraph, I post 2 of his songs. They are not necessary in order to understand the argument being put across here, but they most certainly can help.
The 1st song is taken from Barrett’s later efforts as Giles Corey. It is an extremely honest, almost violently so, appraisal of how he experiences depression. Personally, I think it’s an extremely progressive piece of work: it captures Barrett’s experience of depression, without making concessions to a (probably) hostile. That it is written in the 3rd person captures not only Barrett’s self-loathing, but also the hostility he has felt from our society. For any1 now wondering what I talking about when I say “our society is ableist”, I have explained why Capitalism is ableist in the past.
Now, the 2nd song, “The Haunting Presence” is taken from Barrett’s 1st release as Giles Corey. Before I give any criticism, I want to state that I think its an exceptionally beautiful piece of music, but that I have difficulties in listening to it. However, it uses a degree more artificiality than Barrett’s “Dan You Are Such an Asshole”, discussed above. Whilst Barrett is open about his suffering depression – that the lyrics are his, the chord structures his & the emotions his – when the album was 1st released, he included a degree of fictional material to supplement his work, claiming that the information was real. In order to explain this, we need to look at how this fictional material was used.
Towards the end of “The Haunting Presence” there is a section where the chord progression breaks down & the lyrics stop, to be replaced by screams. What is, in point of fact, being recorded here is Barrett asphyxiating himself & reacting to his depression in a semi-conscious state. It is poignant: he hits the piano, he screams, the music bluntly refuses to continue until this self-abuse has been realised in the recording. We don’t need to talk about what this symbolises, what it means – that should be very, very obvious. What is necessary to discuss is that it is this portion of the release that Barrett chose to fictionalise: he invented a character & claimed that they had utilised the headdress (pictured above) he was using in the past. Details beyond this were scarce. What is significant here is that Barrett has attempted to artificially remove the most contentious & most abruptly honest section of his initial work from himself. He has placed a fictional barrier between himself & his work – here, the expression of profoundly dark & difficult emotions.
So, why is it that we should think about this? In order to understand this we need to understand something about art in general, something that appears entirely abstract. We need to understand what art is & what it is not, within a given set of social parameters. In other words, we need to understand that artistic expression has definite limitations. This limitations are, importantly, concrete – no matter how difficult they are to define.
I have written before on these limitations in a, more or less, abstracted sense. Let’s underscore some important points. 1stly, let us directly state what art is: art is a commodity, produced by human labour, which finds its use-value in its ability to convey meaning & systematise emotion within concrete social circumstances; the manner which art realises this expression/content is through a socially accepted formula of aesthetics/form. In other words, art is an artificial systematisation of emotion. 2ndly, let us consider what is meant by ‘a socially accepted formula of aesthetics/form’. Aesthetics are technique utilised in artistic creation in order to guide our emotional impulses in consumption, a form utilised to realise content. The socially accepted limitations of aesthetics provide us with the definite limitations of artistic expression in a given society. The limitations placed upon aesthetics – already a problematic & limited concept – by canonisation, artistic categorisation etc are the limits to which artistic labour can systematise emotions. Certain content will not be realised, as aesthetic limitations will not allow it to be realised. Aesthetics, therefore, form a contradiction: that which is intended to systematise human emotion in abstract can, concretely, only realise a specific & limited set of content.
Barrett’s work in “The Haunting Presence” serves as a poignant example of these limitations. In the section of the recording in which Barrett asphyxiates himself, the continuity of aesthetics is lost. What Barrett is attempting to do is to systematise emotions that, within his artistic ability, fall into a realm beyond the ability of words or chord progressions. He is a attempting to systematise a form of frantic depression that, frankly, is anti-systematisation, is anti-aesthetic in the artistic sense. The manner in which he has attempted to resolve this contradiction within his own work, is by providing a further artifice, an expository dump which can make his work aesthetically legitimate. The limitations of aesthetic communication are fairly violently displayed here: the most open, honest & painful portion of Barrett’s attempt to systematise his own depression is fictionalised. It becomes nothing more than a reference, until this artifice is discarded.
We now come to the most ableist concept in artistic theory: art brut, or “outsider art”.
The French artist Jean Dubuffet used the term art brut primarily to refer to the artistic production of mental asylum inmates & children. Literally, art brut translates to “rough art” or “raw art”. In 1972, the art critic Roger Cardinal provide the theoretical synonym for Dubuffet’s term in the words “outsider art”. His book Outsider Art provides a panoramic of aesthetic contempt, ableism & class-hatred, if any of you fancy it. Let’s step aside, allowing the fact that the term – from its inception – describes mental asylum inmates as entirely comparable to children as a firm indictment of itself. Now, let’s remember that this is an accepted artistic term in the bourgeois canon of criticism & proceed with our analysis.
To return to Barrett, what occurs if the artifice of fiction is dropped around his asphyxiation? Put simply, the socially accepted limitations of aesthetics are broken; Barrett becomes an “outsider artist” (if he wasn’t already considered as 1) as he now overtly, in identity & artistic praxis, belongs to an undesirable group – “the disabled”. Behind this, concrete, consideration we may now begin to understand how the concept of “outsider art” is reinforced by artificial, fictionalised & removed considerations of similar subject matter.
To begin, the most important suggestion in the term art brut to isolate is its insistence that the art it describes is crude. What is meant by this suggestion, that art may be crude, is that the technique behind it is crude & incapable of expressing & systematising emotion or else that the content realised is “crude” – ie undesirable. The 2nd instance seems far more likely. Why? Consider the social purpose, the use-value of art, that we have already outlined, several times: art is only useful insofar as it is socially relevant, artistic content is realised through form. If the artistic form utilised by our punitively categorised “outsider artists”, then the content would not be realised & the artistic product would cease to be of any use. In other words, if the form were inadequate, the category of “outsider artist” would not exist, at all. Far from a declaration on the aesthetic quality of the work, art brut insists that the content of the work is crude, rough, raw or brutal. This seems to contradict a great deal of the critical discussion around “outsider art”; that is because this discourse is a lie, perpetrated & continued by aesthetic canonisation & acceptability.
Let’s get 1 thing stated, very clearly, before I wrap this up. Terminology like “outsider art”, “canon”, even “art” are utterly meaningless in the abstract. I do not advocate that “anything is art”; instead, I take the position that what we define as “art” & “not-art” is entirely concrete – it cannot be considered outside of material reality, nor without a consideration of what class politics said definitions represent. The canonisation of a term like “outsider art” by the bourgeois displays the utter rejection of a group of people, specifically oppressed under Capitalism.
Now, how does this fit with our opening concept – “the artist as depressive”? A great deal about the decadence, misery & isolation of artistic praxis could, & indeed has been, written by Marxist-Leninists. Guevara, Vygotsky, Gorky & Gramsci are all relatively famous examples. I do not particularly wish to discuss this. Instead, I argue that the bourgeois portrayal of “artist as depressive”, or fulfilling, meaningful depressive art – that not poisoned by ” outsiders” – is in fact an abstraction used to cement the exclusion of an oppressed group from artistic “canon”. I am speaking in general trends, however, I would argue that we can clearly state that the “artist as depressive” is an ableist concept, precisely because of what it does not include. The caricature is ableist in a further sense, as a ridicule of the meaning of expression in art. This consideration is less important, however, & will not be given anything but this cursory remark.
Consider the reality of most “depressing art” we have come to consider as emblematic of this trend in canonised artistic praxis. 1stly, we encounter an aesthetic construct used to limit the sphere of its influence: it is fictionalised. Consider Dostoyevsky, Camus, even Shakespeare – all of these writers express their possible experiences of depression within a fictional environment, within a closed & definite possibility space. As a necessary byproduct of doing so, the emotions systematised within, say, Hamlet are more or less alienated from the author. We are not concerned about Shakespeare, but the artificial, aesthetic construct of Hamlet himself. The author is not expressing their own self once this fictionalisation has begun. Instead, they are using their own experience – the raw materials of their lives – in order to furnish their portrayal, which has become an aesthetic in & of itself. Content is lost in this process.
Importantly, the fictionalisation of this content – depression etc – provides a political space for the author to reconcile with the bourgeoisie. As alienated from their own content, the author is now capable to purge their own identity from said content. In other words, the author is able to state plainly, once fictionalisation has occurred, that what they have written is ‘not about them’. Identity is purged from the work – the idea that an oppressed identity is writing upon dangerous matters is removed from the equation. The bourgeois canon is thereby able to sift through the aesthetic, without necessarily needing to consider it within a definite social context, as representative of an oppressed group within that context. This is why T.S. Eliot, when writing in Tradition and the Individual Talent states that ‘What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of the artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.’ This is why the “Death of the Artist” exists as a category: to avoid a discussion of context & the material circumstances from which artistic expression arises; to avoid consideration of politics.
Hand-in-hand with this denial of matter, this alienation of identity from product, there is an abstraction which occurs as part of the artistic labour of fiction. Artistic-fictional labour is systematic, it relies upon common aesthetic symbols – that is, socially defined aesthetic symbols – in order to systematise the emotions of its consumer. In such circumstances, when the author’s identity is alienated from the work, the resultant production will necessarily rely upon socially accepted, limp poetic images in order to convey the emotions of depression. What is concrete becomes lost, to be replaced by poetic platitudes. In other words, if the alienation of identity from content is a prerequisite in to execution of formally & politically acceptable art here, the content of a specific expression is lost as a byproduct. In this manner, any specific portrayal of depression etc is jettison for culturally meaningless abstraction. The limitations of bourgeois aesthetics define this, canonise it & “outsider artists” are discarded. Once more, the cliché of the “artist as depressive” is ableist. It describes only an abstract depression. It is exclusionary.