Using cultural and disciplinary difference as a driver

IFICAN Debate: Beyond the Eye of Reason


St.Georges House, Windsor Castle 8th June 2011

Transcrip of Provocation by Ansuman Biswas

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Ansuman shows regularly in major museums, galleries and non-arts institutions around the world including Tate Modern, South London Gallery, Whitechapel Gallery, Institute of Contemporary Arts in London; the IIC New Delhi and the Headlands Centre, San Francisco. He recently completed art/faith residency funded by the Arts Council, organised by Difference Exchange. Ansuman is an artist-in residence at Portsmouth Cathedral. His recent Arts Council funded residency, organised by Difference Exchange, was to research Greek Orthodox monasteries.

Mr Ansuman Biswas

Good evening. Thank you very much for inviting me to provoke you. I hope I don't go too far. Here's a picture, taken in 1930, of 'faith and reason' [laughter] It's not necessarily obvious which is which, it may not even be obvious who they are. Does everyone know who they are? Put your hands up if you think you know. One of them will be easy. You can shout out the names. Einstein is easy, the other one is Tagore; Rabindranath Tagore who was the Bengali poet, nobel prize-winner, returner of the Knighthood to Queen Victoria during the British Empire. So, my hero.
One of them a mathematician brought up with the ideals of the European Enlightenment project, the other a poet steeped in Vedantic philosophy and art. They diverge widely in their approach to a theme that is common to science, art and religion: 'Are truth and beauty absolute, existing independent of any observer, or are they dynamic processes changing relative to our position?'
'Truth then, or beauty is not independent of man' Einstein asks in their recorded conversation
'No,' says Tagore.
'So, if there were no human beings any more, the Apollo Belvedere would no longer be beautiful?'
No,' says Tagore.
'I agree with regard to this conception of beauty' Einstein says, 'but not with regard to truth.'
'Why not?' Tagore replies 'truth is realised through men'.
To which Einstein's response is 'I cannot prove my conception is right, but that is my religion'.

The theorist of relativity cannot quite believe the consequences of his logic, but fails back on a hunch. Is this perhaps what's meant by the title of tonight's meeting? 'Beyond the Eye of Reason'?

So I'd like to share some thoughts I had during my recent Difference Exchange residency in Greece. I was there to study Greek Orthodox monasteries, but rather than being obliged to produce any objects I was given the opportunity to float free of whatever I believed were my most pressing concerns (economic, ideological, professional...). I lived like a monk for a few weeks, putting aside the immediate imperatives of earning a living or preening my reputation. I was briefly freed from the marketplace of goods and personalities.
Speaking of faith we might think of something unshakeable, something sturdy, unassailable. Reason on the other hand gropes along by questioning, breaking apart, rejecting. Doubt is reasonable. In the classical world of fixed objects, orthodoxy and heresy were pitted against one another. Faith was a rampart against doubt, skepticism a challenge to power. But in a relativistic world, a world of quantum indeterminacy, perhaps faith and doubt are more fluid, more interchangeable.

I confess I'm not sure what Benjamin Franklin means when he says that 'The way to see faith is to shut the eye of reason' It seems to be even if I peer and stare and strain my eyes there are still many things I can't quite make out in the gloom. So, should I give up and stumble about blindly, or should I make a guestimate and hope for the best?
Should I stop trying, or strive to understand as much as I can, try to minimise my errors and then trust that things will work out. Is that science or religion?

The Buddha was once approached by someone whose father had died. He came with great faith in the Buddha's power and begged him to help his father to get into heaven. The Buddha saw that talking wouldn't help much, so he told the son to bring two clay pots, to fill one with stones and the other with oil and to throw them both into a lake. 'Ah, a wonderful ritual,' the son thought 'a magical act to save the soul of my dead father'. The Buddha then told him to take a big stick and smash the pots and then sit by the lake and chant 'Oh stones, rise to the surface. Oh oil, sink to the bottom.' The son sat there trying for a long time until he finally understood. Gnashing and wailing, wishing and praying cannot change the laws of nature. The routes to heaven and hell are as clear as gravity. If his father's deeds had been like stones nothing would be able to lift him up. If they'd been like oil, nothing would have been able to hold him down. It stands to reason.

By exercising reason as far as possible, I can discern some of the laws of nature and act accordingly, knowing I might be wrong. But trusting in my present judgment, faith isn't seen by shutting the eye of reason, on the contrary faith keeps its eyes open, even when the light is failing and waits for the dawn to make things visible once more.

According to the philosopher Karl Popper scientific knowledge consists in the search for truth, but it never arrives at certainty. 'We must distinguish sharply between truth and certainty' he says. 'All human knowledge is fallible and therefore uncertain. We can never be completely certain that we've not made a mistake.' Even the most sincere and reasonable of scientists can fall into the trap of scientism; the dogmatic assertion of scientific knowledge whereby truth is reified then deified. Science exists, not in any particular model of the world, but in a critical method of error correction. To believe in the truth of a model is to succumb to a form of idolatry. If science is not to become blind faith, it must be constantly open to being proved wrong. With eyes open, I see that I do not know. My faith is not in my knowledge, but in the fact that I'm wrong.

The world is constantly changing in ways that I can't predict. No idea about it can be final. Trying to control it with my knowledge is difficult and disappointing. In the absence of knowing is the opportunity to learn and in humility I'm able to respond skillfully to change in circumstances.

Such fluidity of faith and doubt is also the ground of art. Emily Dickinson, the American poet called it nimbleness. 'On subjects of which we know nothing' she said, 'or should I say beings, we both believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour, which keeps believing nimble.'
'The only thing you can be sure of' she says, 'is that you are unsure'.
Here's one of her poems:
Go not too near a house of rose...
...Nor try to tie the butterfly;
Nor climb the bars of ecstasy.
In insecurity to lie
Is joy's insuring quality.

Jean Francois Lyotard who wrote the bible of the postmodern movement spoke of a state of incredulity towards 'Grand Narratives'. If contemporary artists have any kind of credo, this might be it; incredulity. But believing in nothing is not the same as nimble belief. If anything goes, if it means whatever you want it to mean, what's the status of truth? Is value only determined in the marketplace? Now, after post-modernism, instead of being simply incredulous, perhaps art needs to stand up for what it believes. Doing nothing might be fine if there were no suffering in the world. So, can art heal religious wounds?

A possible etymology of the word religion derives it from the latin word ligari to bind, or link, or connect. It's the same route which leads to the modern English ligature or ligament. The word yoga has a similar route, being related to the English words yoke or unite. So here's an image of two things being tied, being bound together. A bond of love perhaps, drawing together in devotion. And if they're tied closely enough they might become entwined as one. And then come even closer, straps sliding over their surfaces, wrinkling the skin, pulling tighter. And then catching against the flesh, knots squeezing into the softness until fat and muscle breaks open and chord is drawn against bone. Bindings constricting more and more until even bone splinters and marrow is juiced out. The tie tightening until all movement is stifled until there is nothing left but a hard empty knot. If wounds come from being wound too tightly, lets loosen up.

Relax the knots, allow some play in the joints. A playful grip is quick to let go of an idea, to see things from a different point of view. A playful imagination can make this into not this. Things do not need to be tied down. When we play, we not only put up with difference, but actively celebrate it. A joint with no play in would be snug and solid, but some looseness in a joint introduces inefficiency and also creativity; different planes of movement, squeaks and rattles. Heat.

Art, skips over the rope and escapes literalism, opening up new dimensions. And art might bandage old wounds, but only if it closely attends to them. Too loose a connection and it can be dragged away by any passing connection. The trick is to stay tethered while the kite flies free. The multifarious designs of our individual flags all dancing in the same wind.

Something's got painfully tangled up and it seems to me that the knot that needs to be loosened is the one that binds me to my own viewpoint. What needs to be grasped more firmly is the fact that we are bound together. We are interdependent. My actions have consequences for you. Feeling something, or clenching it in a fist is the difference between devotion and bigotry. Faith is what I believe will ensue if I act in a certain way. Perhaps if I remembered my childish play, my sanctimonious moralising might abate. Play is the recognition that what I believe is made up. Perhaps if I grew up and shouldered my responsibilities, art might actually make a difference. If I loosened the chords that are too highly strung and tightened the ones that are slack; if the strings are tuned just right, the whole thing might resonate in harmony. Not once and for all as some monolithic answer, but in an unfolding music of suspensions and resolution. A living dynamic interplay of doubt and belief. And this whirling waltz could be exhilarating. If only religion could learn to relax a little and art hold on more tightly.

Reason then, science, can harden into mean-spirited doubt and the revelations of religion can lead us into dogmatic faith. Of course, science can also spin out the most wondrous stories and religion can also teach humility. But it's art which celebrates playfulness and can thus dance between the extremes of rationality and faith. So much of the suffering in the world, environmental destruction, human rights abuses, personal misery, comes from too tight a hold on the world as an object. Or from too loose an engagement with it. Let's harness our creativity to imagine another kind of touch between these two extremes. The great zen master Dogen travelled for many years in search of teachings. When he eventually returns to his fellow monks in Japan, they ask him eagerly what great wisdom he had learned. His answer 'I've come back with empty hands. All I learned was a little gentleness'.

Supported by Arts Council England, London Centre for Arts and Creative Exchange and St.Georges House