Posts Tagged ‘autism’

Beyond Face

January 18, 2009

Note: This essay was first published in Talking with your Mouth Full: New Language for Socially Engaged Art, published collaboratively by Green Lantern Press and Three Walls, Chicago. It’s sort of my definitive statement to date on the artist as Public Amateur.

In Jack London’s story, The Lost Face, two wanderers find themselves in hostile territory, on the brink of starvation. They are captured by a prosperous, belligerent people who shelter them briefly until deciding the beggars would be put to best use feeding the local hunger for spectacle. The hero of our story—I can’t remember his name, so let’s just call him Damien—watches his companion undergo gruesome torture for the clan’s entertainment and solidarity until the poor man is mercilessly exterminated and the crowd turns to him. “Wait! I know a secret potion that protects a man from death. If you give me time to prepare it, my own execution will serve to show that it works!”

Like wealthy headmen everywhere, the chief had everything he could possibly want; the only thing he feared was death. He loved the idea and for weeks, Damien demanded various ingredients and conditions. An elite circle of most loyal insiders studied his arcane procedures to learn and possess the secret. Damien enjoyed their luxury entertaining them with novelties and tales, while they provided him whatever resources he ordered to create the fabulous elixir, including a workshop, servants, the ministrations of women, and sweet time to let the ingredients age properly. The chief grew moody and at last exploded with impatience and suspicion. “Good news!” replied Damien, “everything is ready! Let’s prepare a feast for the great occasion. Tomorrow after just one swallow of this brew, I will bare my neck for you and when you bring the ax down with all your might the whole crowd will see it spring back from the force of life within me.”

The chief spared nothing for the next day’s show of his glory. At the height of the festivity, Damien sipped from the great stew of magic and knelt to lay his head on the block before the chief. The ax came down before the hushed crowd and Damien’s head rolled before them, severed in an instant.

One way or another all artists are socially engaged. However individual artists choose to acknowledge their engagement, artists generally expect and are at least nominally accorded more than the common share of autonomy. Autonomy is always conditional, always a negotiation. A persistent feature of artistic practice is that it resonates primarily in the realm of the symbolic. Often the presumed autonomy of the artist is symbolic, or imaginary.