by Jim Schnabel
'The great thing about art,' the critic John McEwan mused a few years ago, 'is that no one can define it, even if we all know vaguely what it means.' McEwan, who was writing in the crop circles enthusiasts' journal 'The Cerealogist,' asked that the circles be admitted to this vague realm of art, since 'whoever or whatever made them is an artist of genius'.
As someone who considers himself an ordinary bloke, I can seldom be bothered to argue with the pronouncements of art critics, but at the time McEwen's argument appeared in print, in the early summer of 1991, a part of my mind was inclined to rebel against the notion of crop circles as a form of artistic achievement. The phenomenon, thought tainted by occasional hoaxing, seemed fundamentally 'genuine'. To equate it with art, however abstract and benign the intended equation, was to undermine its mystery, its resonant signification of something unknown. Art was for artists and for human, overt artistry. Crop circles, and related anomalies such as unidentified flying objects, belonged to scientists and the realm of objectivity. My own 'scientific' chauvinism, ironically, was mirrored in the mainstream art world, where, according to a disappointed McEwen, the circles 'have met with scepticism rather than rejoicing. They should have been the object of an exhibition by now...'
Two and a half years on, as just such an exhibition gets underway, it seems obvious that crop circles, UFOs and their associated cosmologies can be objects, or products, of both art and science. Indeed, the boundaries of 'science' appear to be as vague as those which delineate 'art', however much the sceptics would like to qualify anomaly-research as pseudo-science - and however much the anomaly researchers would like to be esteemed as scientists. The concepts of art and science, like those in any other area of language, knowledge and culture, do not reside in something universal, 'out there'; they are grounded locally and socially - they are, for better or worse, what we say they are.
There are less philosophical and abstract reasons why art and science should be difficult to disentangle. That a human being can, for example, gaze upon a canvas covered with drips of paint and see 'a tension inherent in the constructed, re-created flatness of the surface' (as Clement Greenberg saw in Jackson Pollock's work) implies the intervention of a dramatic perceptual apparatus. Not only the appreciation of modern art but perception per se involves such an apparatus, and that apparatus is the product of social and biological forces, of agreements - between man and man, between man and his shifting environment - about what we see, or should see. That apparatus governs scientists no less than artists, so that what the scientist perceives as a scientifically valid phenomenon may be seen by the hoaxer as a work of art - and may be seen by the religious as a message from God (or an offering to Satan). Alternatively, it may be the scientist who sees a Sign, the hoaxer who is intrigued by an anomalous phenomenon, the pious one who perceives a work of art.
The artifice of everyday perception is active as well in other forms of information-manipulation; after all, if there is artifice on the way into the mind, there can be artifice on the way out. What else are we to make of the lurid tales of those who claim abduction by UFO-flying extra-terrestrials - the Space Age's answer to ancient possession syndromes? Are these tales more properly the object of sober scientific investigation, or of artistic criticism? Both, of course - the UFO phenomenon in all its intense scope provides material for exobiologists. physicists, neurophysiologists, psychologists, sociologists, historians, folklorists, literary theorists., artists, and perhaps - when it comes to drawings of alien abduction scenes and faked (or not faked) UFO photographs - art critics. I have always thought it a wonderful irony that America's Budd Hopkins, the ufologist who is arguably the chief patron of the art-form known as the UFO abduction story, is by training and profession an artist. Would that he could apply his artist's insight to the tales of his abductees, which as a ufologist he takes to be literally true. As an artist, he once recounted a gentle parable about the human impulse to confuse the products of the mind with exogenous experience and revelation: 'A kindergarten teacher asked the children in her class to paint whatever they wished. Later, she enquired of each child what subject he or she was painting. A picture of Mommy or my cat were typical answers. One child, however, said "I'm painting a picture of God." How can you paint God? the teacher asked. "No one knows what God looks like." "Wait till I finish my painting," the child replied.'
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