Sarah J. Stanley, ‘Unsocial Sociability’, curated by Monika Vykoukal,
Kunstraum Lakeside, Austria, 16 May – 28 June 2013
If they can survive a benighted plague of smiting, those who would argue against the existence of god will continue to struggle on with ‘mere’ vocabulary. The deep-seatedness of all things religious and supernatural in our five-to-midnight contemporary world ensures that the structured language of light and dark (of truth and falsehood; of righteousness and evil; of god and no-god) reigns in this kingdom of immaturity. In other words, it is very hard indeed to talk about positions and ideas that are anti-god or anti-the supernatural causation of the world without invoking the spectre of the very thing that you would consign to the annals of fantastical and brutal human pre-history. The positions are bound together by a damnable hyphen.
Super-anti, Richard Dawkins has been here before. Dawkins’s Brights’ Net enterprise is in part an engaging effort to break this bind. Brights sign up to the leading project principle to ‘promote the civic understanding and acknowledgment of the naturalistic worldview, which is free of supernatural and mystical elements’. Commendable in large part. Dawkins and others connected to the Brights’ Net engage in civic proselytising for civic ends and resist as far as they can a discursive position which would begin and end as only antithesis to supernatural thesis. The Brights acknowledge the power of the hyphen, and seek to minimise its presence, for they acknowledge first of all that the supernatural thesis remains alive partly because people will forever stone it to death.
Sarah J. Stanley’s work has for a number of years been wrestling with the hyphen, and with both black & white connected components. Brought up by parents who ran a conservative Christian bookshop, throughout her school years, as the pieces here betray, Stanley was immersed in the literature and culture of exclusion-in-the-name-of-the-Father. Her own reflection on that time concludes that the life she found herself in was the life of one thrown by parental happenstance into social formations tantamount to a cult. It is only really now, through inquiring, making and sharing, that Stanley is facing down the intolerance which seeps by biological necessity through the varicose veins of exclusionary religious ideological corpoinfrastructure. Stanley’s works are in one sense farewell notes to an encultured, well-organised, self-affirmingly intolerant community of haters. Such observations do not not coexist with fond memories of childhood of course: nor does an individual’s fond memories of childhood erase the reality of the contribution of the community. Aporetic.
As might not be too unusual for artworks that support a cathartic ambition, Stanley’s box of artistic tropes contains one or two tools forged from sarcasmium. And it is sarcasm effectively coupled with détournement that sees the small models adorned with slogans straight from the publications of the Christian bookshop, worthy of any airport newsagent. The righteous and bamboozling slogan-swagger of the Christian self-help book-cum-mindcontrol-manual is parodied sarcastically by Stanley then passed over to the marketeers of the dark side: ‘Staring at this dot will de Christ you,’ we read, followed by, ‘stare until your desire for the Christian lifestyle is gone’. Other statements are twisted instructions based upon real mandates for membership of the fraternity of intolerants: ‘get rid of your Christian friends’ and don’t forget to ‘get rid of all your Christian clothes.’
Candidly, after the sarcasm and the détournement have tickled your brain buds, these works make you sad. The ideology which props up the greasy edifice that Stanley assaults is for most benign, yes, if you study it as a metanarrative distant from all your worlds except for that weekday world of intellectual backgammon. Note that for Stanley the religious ideology and the practice of religious ideology were very real, all pervasive – and, we deduce, a molestation. To bear witness to these farewell notes and the artist’s commentary upon them is to be saddened by an acute sense of some forceful thing having taken valuable time from someone without their permission for intolerant ends not of their choosing.
That Stanley is a female member of all of this in her formative years adds a particular force to the cathartic works. As Anthony Giddens has explored in his 1999, Runaway World:
A preoccupation with the family, and particularly with the changing role of women, is in turn at the core of some of the major forms of fundamentalism, particularly those of a religious variety. Religious fundamentalists want to roll back modernity – and nowhere more obviously so than in respect of the emancipation of women.
For Giddens, the programme of religious fundamentalism orbits then infects the family as concept for the furtherance of intolerant ideological prescriptions and proscriptions. As with a good deal of right wing thought, championing of family serves as a shield for ideas and positions that would otherwise leave the infrastructure exposed and open to frontal attack. And for most humans forming, the family is too precious an entity to trouble with the eruption of disruptive practices of truth-to-self over adoption of inheritance. So says the Father didn’t you know.
These works are indeed saddening. But Stanley is an artist, and these melancholic models and posters, at the same time as being troubling exorcisms, are gifts to others who wish to inquire, make and share. In this way, Stanley, and others, will overcome intolerance because intolerance is simply the undiluted seepage from the black sore which is the absence of imagination. While I am very committed to seeing this particular contestation in black and white, I wonder all the same if the stand-off between light and dark between good and evil, and between Dawkins’s civic naturalism and supernaturalism & mysticism is not a little too black and white, and I’m thinking here that Stanley’s immanent experience of all of this and her practice as an artist might in fact say as much too.
More than that, and borrowing from Stanley’s now mature reckoning of her formative years, I want her practice to say as much for that would see it reach a tolerant hand to the constructive mystical side of set-menu religion as a potentially laudable contemporary social phenomenon – and one not a million miles away from the social infrastructure and vocabulary which supports the multifaceted world of contemporary art. Here the Brights will part company with me, I know, but I’ll try to quickly reconstitute an excluded middle for this inquiry with reference to a difference of opinion within Pragmatist thought.
American thinker, William James (1842-1910), contra Dawkins’s Brights, and perhaps contra a Stanley caught in moments forged of unmitigated sarcasmium, understood the strong compulsion within humans to render experience unto (in the words of academic Martin Bertman) a consummate belief to orient action and to persuade the individual of their control of their own identity. For other thinkers associated with a Pragmatist tradition of inquiry, such as Charles Sanders Pierce, James’s position was too cavalier with the now Brights-like naturalistic premium.
But art’s antidote to fundamentalism must demonstrate an openness to tolerance anathema to fundamentalist prescription and proscription. For James some views beyond evidence are permissible in a pragmatic world picture – views that would have no naturalistic foundation. Here we meet a more subjective strand of Pragmatist thought that would not foreclose a code of conduct written on views based on need not nature (if the two can really be distinct in this context). In his The Will to Believe (1897) James put this idea in this way:
Truth is one species of the good, and not, as usually supposed, a category distinct from the good, and coordinate with it. The true is the name for whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite assignable reasons.
Stanley’s work cannot swap supernaturalism for naturalism, because it is art that is the agent and art is not divorced from the mystical and the subjective and the excluded middle. Art plays with feeling and it knows it. And, of course, art can artfully play with feeling in order to persuade and proselytize. But the message which triumphs for me in this show of works, is art’s necessary openness. As a fundamental quality of art it defeats the closedness of fundamentalism and it mocks the fear of otherness core to the lumpen heart of strict and imagination-deficient conservative religion.
For me then, and for the works in this show (in a confessional moment at least) there is a crafted persuasiveness to religion and to art, and James might allow us to see them both in the same panorama. But it is the artist’s modest and tolerant and endlessly open cycle of inquiring, making and sharing that deals a mortal blow to the mandatory commitments of card carrying fundamentalists, of any colour and of any religion, namely, the prejudging of individuals and communities and the suffocating of ideas in order to preserve the family of unquestioned givens. Stanley’s art of persuasion is based on a creative inquiry, one that opens to scrutiny both the inherited given and one that matches that inquiry with an openness to the very form of art’s critique.