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Ethics of the Form - José Ramón Otero Roko


“Everything that is valuable in human history –the great achievements of physics and astronomy, of medicine, philosophy and art, of geographical discoveries – are the work of extremists. Those who believed in “absurd things”, who dared to attempt the “impossible” and, in the face of reaction and denial, yelled: “eppur si muove!”

Herbert Read, English art critic and anarchist.


Aesthetic emotion”, which is repeated like a mantra in the social organization of Art, has become a way of vetoing common values. This concept, which was originally described by the composer Arnold Schoenberg in his book “Writings on Musical Experience” (1978) and who, three decades ago, realized what it was all about by appreciating works beyond “what is contingent, tangible and relative”, is today the alibi for a cultural hierarchy based on interests and arbitrariness which arise precisely when the species of critic and commitment in the West seemed to begin to run out of fuel, becoming extracted from antagonism by integrating into the social and liberal field of ideology, or by becoming pure evasion thanks to the hard drug offered at the story’s end, withdrawing to the spaces already designated as being institutional: in other words, conveyor belts of the “decorative emotion” of the rich and powerful that justifies itself without requiring any integrity. Networks of interests that so often support an apparently evolved art, while being deeply conservative, the bastard of soft thought, explained more successfully in relation to traditions and whims rather than corresponding to the future.


In “Education through Art” (1942), Herbert Read described a concept which did not have a whiff of neoliberalism and received many accolades from critics and teachers. He referred to “haptic” as a way of designating all the emotions that did not come from what was seen or heard to understand and create art works. “Haptic”, the science of touch, had to be nourished by self-learning in school from an early age while also understanding the ethical apprehension of the works. The artist was called to relate sensitively with the materials, textures and instruments. The public could establish a tie with the material sense of the creations that they were shown. The public were encouraged to enter and touch things in museums and galleries, to take part in their existence, to feel and consider them part of this world.


Conversely “aesthetic emotion” in the way it is processed today, an idea that is distant from Read’s, who preferred a much more proactive and less projected word than ‘sensitivity’, stems from what is visual and heard and is highly conditioned by the limits imposed on it by the prevailing ideology. The work becomes what we hear in it, what we should see in it. “Emotion”, contrary to what Schoenberg said, is the realm of all things contingent, tangible, and relative, isolated from the rule of cause and effect in common things. The hegemony of certain productive forms subjected to an ‘amount’, the market price, and submitted to an arbitrary reason that is held up by a social body that reveres but ignores it, or traffics it, so that the product, its value, becomes its cost.


Perhaps the challenge to extend Read’s haptic is to make beauty rational, while being certain that we are unable to, as this is not our job, and to conquer this idea completely while being aware that the more we progress in achieving the clarity, everything we see, feel and touch, will save us from suggestion and conceiving another life. Beauty could be a synthesis of moral categories. Conversely, today’s public find things beautiful according to a meaning that they often ignore because it has been presented to them as something “normal”, unquestionable, and rests hidden in some cloudy corner of instincts. How we treat things often seems beautiful for we are part of a society and culture that has marked our ethical premises and our intuitive impulses. And the more able we are to sensibly submit ourselves to the judgement of what we actually perceive, the closer the objects will be to feelings and the ideal concept of giving our lives some meaning.


Form is a kind of ethics. The note, colour, surface, inside, outline and writing are all the result of apprehension in a world which finds space within a structure that moulds it and is, above all, the thing that makes us exclaim what we like and dislike. For this structure speaks for us, it gives us internal coherence although we may have to bear an infinite relativism, and it leads us along while managing to stay invisible to our conscience. This is the conspiracy that divides the world into what is relevant and what is not, as if something were not. It embellishes the chains when we use it, or frees us from them when it belongs to us.


Herbert Read said that “art must be the basis of all education since it provides an instinctive knowledge of the laws of the universe and a habit or behaviour that is in harmony with nature”. The words “harmony” and “nature” spoken by an anarchist and focused on “education”, remind us that idealism is not unattainable, but unattained. What prevents us from allowing art to become the standard of society? And ethics from becoming the standard of art if justice is the intimate design of harmony? Why should “moral emotion” be impossible? Why are we still confounded by forms that are a reflexion of what we challenge?


José Ramón Otero Roko, critic and poet.




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