I often trouble over the problem (is it? haha) of non-symbolic art. This is really irrational and I know I shouldn’t put effort into a thing that shouldn’t or couldn’t exist. I wonder, “If I want to do that which isn’t art at all, then why do I do art at all – at all?”

Nelson Goodman writes:

Whoever looks for art without symbols, then, will find none – if all the ways that works symbolize are taken into account. Art without representation or expression or exemplification – yes; art without all three – no.

Goodman, Nelson. Ways of Worldmaking, p 66.

And by formulating the logical inverse of the first bit, we have:

Whoever does not look for art without symbols will find all of it.

This leads me to conclude that to identify non-symbolic art we have simply to not look for it. And I think this is really comforting.

This enigmatic non-symbolic art which we aren’t looking for *wink*, I like to privately call Art 2. And if you don’t look (*wink*), you’ll find lots of it littered in the landscape of the history of Art 1. Most often alongside and between those things which are and have been regarded as art proper. And peering onward and apart from that, we find various opportunities (more-or-less evident) for its manifestations to be elaborated.

A possible synonym for non-symbolic (with considerably less bravado) is arbitrary, which at first glance appears harmless: colors on maps to distinguish territories, random strings provided as cryptographic keys, the 7 letters which correspond to musical notes. These things seem superficially to be unopinionated aids. But nonetheless they are impactful. Their presence must be reconciled as content and form along with the intentional data they support. For example, the A-B-C-D-E-F-G of the western heptatonic scale are characters arbitrarily affiliated with frequencies of sound. And as arbitrary they are applied without regard to their significance exterior to their application to music: A is for Apple, and so on. But that significance persists, albeit undetected: when I hear 440 hz and think “A”, I am impressed upon with all the significance of the A character, wether I acknowledge it or not.

This leads me to consider that the affect derived from the arbitrary is coincidental rather than strictly non-symbolic. But let’s first consider another species of arbitrary, such as the statement encountered at the start of this writing:

A message to my brother every 10 or 9 minutes – and otherwise coins falling out of the pocket. Embedded in the wall.

I want to see this statement like a piece of whatever detritus passed on the sidewalk – a bundle – something with so little prefiguration or access to its interiority that there is scarcely a starting point for serious consideration; like a zen koan. And lets avoid for now to classify this as “random” or some other such kind of happenstance, and to stick with it as arbitrary, because I want to link it back to the arbitrary of data visualization that we’ve seen with music and maps.

In both cases we see a sort of active insignificance that seems to escape the demands of rationality. And it’s in that escape from rationality that we witness a perhaps unexpected sense of authority. This is the authority of the natural, of the universal, of the always-already. It’s an authority that we’re tempted to call mystical, in that its access to absolute reality is seemingly uninhibited by figuration or structured knowledge. And you may be tempted to say, “Well, if I pass a bundle on my way I may certainly begin to unpack its history and significance,” but please avoid that. I’m not interested in your capacity to analyze something when the opportunity to do so is impressed upon you, I’m interested in your unwillingness to do so at the point of initial encounter.

But that text specimen of mine (“A message to my brother…”) is not convincingly arbitrary. By virtue of it being written on the page, the reader is immediately aware of its constructedness and some symbolic (more-or-less arbitrary!) floods in. This is the dilemma of the non-symbolic: wherever you look for the arbitrary you won’t find it. It can’t be looked at directly. If one does, it disappears... like a wave function collapse. If I asked you to look around the room now for something arbitrary, you certainly wouldn’t find it. It seems that the arbitrary is hiding just at the fuzzy edges of phenomenal experience.

The arbitrary may in fact be the frame of experience itself. Like a picture frame, it supports and lends legitimacy to symbolic content.

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