The Process of Subtraction

         I heard somewhere once, years ago:

‘Art is a process of subtraction.’

As phrases go this is one of those rare expressions that casts a real magical effect upon utterance* – for it removes a great deal of dross from the mind if one hears what it is saying.

The artist who said this was referring to painting, but the truth of his statement becomes more obvious in sculpting or carving – where ‘removing the excess’ to reveal some beauty underneath is implicit with every knock on the chisel or draw of the knife.

For a long time I let this phrase languish. It wasn’t until I had read a great deal of material referring to one’s life as a work of art – of artisans working on themselves as they honed their craft, of the two being one and the same – that it’s broader meaning impressed itself upon me. It wasn’t until I had read twice as much again the things written by the aesthetes of the Old World, how fasting and deprivation refined their spirits and purified their hearts, that I had sufficient vocabulary to say anything about it.

         There is, in the Modern Malaise, an overwhelming tendency to add rather than subtract. To discover oneself, one is always exhorted to taste new things, date new people, acquire more funding, travel to new places… to try all sorts of expansive behaviour suited to childhood but quite often un-becoming in adulthood. People have been told, in effect, to discover their limits by forever pursuing excess. By spilling over our boundaries and becoming amorphous, we are somehow supposed to define ourselves.

That this doctrine of intense liberality coexists with a rigid and authoritarian government – a world where sex changes are encouraged but refusing drugs is grounds for expulsion from public society – may seem paradoxical, but it is all one see-saw upon its fulcrum. To lift up one end brings down the other.

Recall that the ‘20s, that is, the ‘Roaring 1920s’ infamous for its indulgences and licentiousness, coincided with Prohibition – the absolute constitutional ban of alcohol (the very substance of dis-inhibition)** in America. At the same time people ceased to control their own behaviour, they asked the government to clamp down on it for them.

In the most extreme cases this gave over to the Totalities of Fascism and Communism – both of which are the abdication and sublimation of an individual’s body and responsibility into a collective body and authority.

         In an upside-down world, the correct course of action can sound like mindless contrarianism. In this case the clear, opposite course of excess is to practice restraint instead. To begin a process of subtraction.

I can remember the mindset of the excessive man. One worries that he is encountering – not the true natural limits of his self and his abilities – but rather some obstacle he is suppose to overcome. There is a real and chronic torture that comes from this perspective – for one never knows if he fails for lack of trying or if he is a fool for trying again.

That technology furnishes us with so many augmentations: steroids, pharmaceuticals, and soon genetic manipulation, means every ‘obstacle’ is potentially surmountable – but it comes at a tremendous and unavoidable cost. Much like the ‘disadvantaged minority’ who gets in on Affirmative Action, how can the augmented individual know if he truly made the grade?

Was he merely at a ‘temporary’ disadvantage he needed help for, or did he jam a square peg through a round hole? Even more frightening, has he disfigured himself into a cylinder, just so he’d fit in? He passes the test, and yet learns nothing. Worse than that, he is more confused than before – because it’s no longer clear just who or what exactly passed the test.

         Let’s contrast this with the man who – rather than taking some amphetamine so that he’ll stay up late and study longer – gives up some vice that he knows robbed him of that time to begin with. The former pushes outward from a boundary to see how much it will give way. The later pushes inward on the same boundary to see how much resistance it will encounter. The chief difference here is that the man knows he is somewhere inside the boundary. Pushing outward might change him – perhaps even break him – but pushing inward will help define him. The greater the resistance, the stronger the definition.

When we are children it is fair and right to learn by expansion and exploration – we are even physically growing as we do so. Seen as a work of art childhood is something like gathering all your materials – all your substance – into one place. But after puberty has settled down we become artisans of our lives – adults tasked with drawing out the essence found in that substance, and doing away with the extraneous material.

And one does this not by asking ‘what can I do?’ For that stretches into infinity, but ‘what can’t I do without?’ for that is a finite and discoverable list. Moreover, there is no room for fantasy in asking what you can or can’t do without – because it is a question about things already in your possession. How many days have men wasted, pondering what they could do – if only a pile of money fell into their lap or a lucky connection put them in the right social circle? Meanwhile the question of what they’re actually made of, and thus best suited for, goes unanswered; even though ‘what should I do with my life?’ Is one of the most dogged, soul-gnawing questions of the human condition – and one of the most profitable to answer.

         As you may have guessed, Lent (and my current deprivation thereby) is what prompted this article. Lent is, in part, the pruning of vices – which is probably why it coincides with the pruning of orchard trees in late Winter / early Spring; a pruned tree, after all, blossoms and fruits more fullsome.

It is the broader calamity that finally made me flesh these thoughts out though. On the one hand, the global economic contraction underway will force people to likewise contract – which will inevitably restore some sanity in the West. On the other hand, when people are this far beyond the pale, they do not regain their senses without first undergoing some bloody paroxysm.

It is one of those inviolate laws of the world: ‘the remedy for disorder will be pain’, and the measure of pain is proportionate to the scale of the disorder. If we reintroduce order to our lives voluntarily we can pace out and render the pain bearable. But those who let their errors pile up await a most excruciating torture.

*Another magic phrase I’ve long been fond of is ‘I am the smartest person here;’ because even if true – to say so aloud in company transforms the speaker into a complete idiot.

** From the latin habeō – ‘I have, hold, keep.’ Will you inhibit – hold it within yourself? Or must we prohibit – hold it for you?