While many salient forays have been made into the world of aesthetics in this age of proliferation and poststructuralism, there remains a rupture in the way we think about and practice art. This is due in large part to the predations of the Spectacle in which we are immersed, but it is also the symptom of specific neuroses that we have carried into contemporary culture by failing to adequately engage with that culture’s manifest premises. The rapid complexification of our lives and perspectives, the radical plurality of conception and conceptual schemas revealed by the modern sciences to say nothing of critical, social, historical theory, and more specifically the transcendental disjuncture that inheres in all these projects, makes them seemingly fathomless and thus fragile, porous, and ultimately negative in a manner that Adorno would never have countenanced. From this emerges either a willful conservatism or a naïve, headlong dive into the self-effacing mode of conceptualization opened up by a radically subjective notion of experience, knowledge, and perspective. What we have failed to do is not only recognize the ways in which the material and social apparatus of oppression has engaged these liminal trajectories, with their illusory claim to the Outside, but to recognize the more corrosive ways in which the listlessness of modern human self-conception has undermined the development of artistry and its affects. What is needed then is not merely creativity–easily co-opted, easily rendered inane, a word that invokes the dreaded ‘participation trophy’–but metacreativity.
Metacreativity is specific to art. It involves first disclosing and then addressing the modes, the registers of articulation in the creation of art in general, it’s explication and experience. Insofar as art is aesthetic practice, and aesthetics covers a much broader set of experiences and relations than art itself (nature, judgment etc.) I mean that metacreativity always involves the recirculation of aesthetics qua experience to aesthetics qua synthetic objects and concepts (things-we-make). Metacreativity necessarily involves construction, and while this in turn involves the resources used in that construction (the domain of aesthetics) the act of conscious structuration renders the product unequivocally what we would call art. This is a crucial point to make, because metacreativity is not delimited the way our conception of art is, and so it does not (and can not) take the shape of a singular given format, discrete genre, or medium, much less a single work.
This would seem to gesture towards a problem of abstraction, but not only is this threat of stultifying generality no more problematic than the kind we already confront when we talk about aesthetics, it is in fact precisely the motivation for this move against the nihilating impulses involved in artmaking and sensemaking more generally. Metacreativity involves activities usually considered non-artistic: this text, for example. However metacreativity is distinct from the philosophy of art as such–even a single individual’s articulated philosophy–because it is embodied in the art itself, and thus always involves explicit intervention in the abstract in a way that bare philosophy does not.
Metacreativity is the intellectual work involved in conceptualizing one’s own artistic practice, one’s own artistic life, if you will. It is the conscious attempt at uncovering, making explicit, and synthesizing the structures present in and constitutive of one’s own creative work. This is perhaps already a provocation: is such a concern with elucidating one’s own work (in ordinary language no less) not counter to the vital, forceful nature of art? Would such an undertaking not to some extent negate the very nature of sublimity that lies at the heart of all artistic or aesthetic experience? I strongly disagree, but except insofar as this piece contains my argument against that specific perspective I’ll not detail it here. Suffice to say that the conception of consciousness to which we are subscribed–like it or not–is not so naïve as to pretend that intelligibility is ever totally proscribed within the manifest being of self-consciousness. We live in and of the Kantian wound; those who take it in its most puerile form–centered around the ineffable rupture of the thing-in-itself–remain committed to history’s God and his curse. Negative theology will always be there for those parochial enough to ensconce themselves in its prison, to say nothing of those who lack the cunning to outwit the long fingers of a church that has disguised itself as capitalist secularism.
Metacreativity formulates axioms and applies doxa unique to its practitioner’s World in order to explicate the totality of that practitioner’s semantic lexicon. In this way, it safeguards the evolution of one’s lifelong creative project against conceptual autophagy. The function and validity of these formal structuring elements is informed by but no means constrained to the practices that have evolved in the natural and social sciences, the elements we find scattered most consistently throughout our fragmentary picture of the superstructure that contains mathematics, logic, computer science, and other rigorous frameworks of knowledge and conception as applied at the outermost layers of inductive science and general experience.
Mythology is a primary subject matter for metacreative practice, as well as a likely feature of its product in a given artist’s case. Perhaps it is better to say that something that resembles mythology is a likely output of metacreative conceptualization. Mythology refers not only to the actual anthropological/historical conception of aesthetic human imagination at the collective level, but to a model or format that is emergent in human cognitive conceptions of their worlds. It follows that mythologies (as grand and potentially unconstrained narrative totalities with material/historical existence) are a reasonable way to frame metacreative work. The degree to which such potential mythologies are hypostatized by practitioners is not of immediate concern.
Rather than saddle metacreative projects and constructs with the colloquial ornamentation that the word ‘mythology’ involves, I will refer to such constructs as Edifices. The point of bringing mythology into the picture is to show the degree to which metacreative work is narrative, self-coherent, and constructed from cultural, historical structural material. What does the development of an Edifice entail? Firstly, of course, creative flair. However creative flair is itself a function of conceptualization. In the same way that a given album must present some sort of coherence, or a novel must unfold a story that hangs together without obvious inconsistencies, so must one’s metacreative work be based in conceptual rigor. I already gestured toward the kind of general scientific rigor necessary for the development of a compelling Edifice, the crucial point here is that creative flair is implicated not in some surrealist flamboyance or superfluity of their ideas but in the aesthetic value of a construct that is simultaneously highly self-coherent and highly modular. It’s value is in its existence as an articulated, recursive vector for the refinement of an artist’s body of work. As Brian Eno has pointed out many of the most influential artists, himself very much included, essentially iterated on a specific, semi-describable personal concept throughout their creative lives, expanding and exhausting that concept and accessing new territories and avenues as they do. While the extreme univocity of focus/concept specifically found in Eno’s work is not necessarily implicated in metacreative practices, the profundity of the impact that he (and other pioneering minimalists) had is an obvious example of just why a formalized metacreative approach to art is so crucial given the accelerating character of culture and history. One might say that it is easy to pigeonhole figures like Beckett, Tarkovsky, or Eno in particular, but simplicity of concept clearly presented no obstacle to their canonical status in the book of the world.
However metacreativity does ultimately involve more complexity than what is described by genre (i.e. “minimalist” or “ambient” as categories rather than just descriptors). Nelson Goodman lays this out nicely for us:
“The style of Haydn or Hardy or Holbein does not proclaim itself to the casual listener or reader or museum goer, and is seldom to be recognized by following explicit instructions. Styles are normally accessible only to the knowing eye or ear, the tuned sensibility, the informed and inquisitive mind… Overall design may be ignored for or distract attention from fine detail. The perception of any pattern not fitting the structure of the search often takes great trouble. Yet the more complicated and elusive the style, the more does it stimulate exploration and reward success with illumination. An obvious style, easily identified by some superficial quirk, is properly decried as a mere mannerism. A complex and subtle style, like a trenchant metaphor, resists reduction to a literal formula.”
The quality of an Edifice is thus not a function of its simplicity or complexity, but the relationship between its manifest conceivability taken together with its capacity for subtlety, both for its audience and for its benefactor, the artist. The necessity of articulating gaps in the holistic fabric of one’s artistic practice by providing them stories and explanations that disclose or develop the nature of the Edifice is motivated by our objective of making the larger shape of it visible, understandable, and, ideally, relatable. In doing this we make it reducible, collapsible into everyday language rather than some language of obfuscation that makes a habit of invoking the status of radical subjectivity to validate itself. Metacreativity is a process of engineering that engages with the cognitive black holes that remain the prime subject of the artistic subject by populating those aporias with sculptures and locating them, anchoring them in frameworks. An artistic life is not a porous membrane around an empty void but a spiderweb that traverses and negotiates that void.
Reza Negarestani articulates an idea similar to the one articulated in this essay for developing our conception of mind (specifically theoretical general intelligence) using a “toy” model of the structures involved in thought and minded interactivity. He writes:
“Toy models are simplified or compressed models that are capable of accommodating a wide range of theoretical assumptions for the purpose of organizing and constructing overarching narratives (or explicit metatheories) that change the standard and implicit metatheoretical interpretations according to which such theoretical items are generally represented.”
This compression is a necessary part of expanding the capacities of art to interact with our articulated views on and experiences in the world, traversing the rupture between “sublimity” and minded experience. It is also the part that normative artistic culture instinctively balks at–nobody likes a label. Yet as any curator knows labels are not only useful but necessary, and not only necessary but inevitable, emergent. The aesthetic fetishism of unintelligibility–our cultural emphasis on an idealized lacuna from which we draw our vital selves, all too often serves as an excuse for lazy artistic work that at root relies on a valorization of paradox and immanent contradiction incapable of achieving anything that wasn’t achieved a century ago by some dadaist or another. This antipathy to labels and intelligibility, to well-tuned semantic fields that are honest about their ideas and goals, is an obstacle to the process of complexification that has defined art for the entirety of its history, a process that appears to be reaching escape velocity. This necessary reconfigurability of artistic understanding and practice underscores the significance of concrete articulation, of labels, descriptions, and axioms, and their application to our worlds and practices.
Artworks have a temporal life, and metacreative work produces the totalizing concept of a world of artworks as a spectral structure that exists in and through time as its continuity renders it in ever more tangible semantic character. Even artworks that are physically nothing more than directions (scripts, sheet music) until they are encoded in performance have a temporal life. Each new venue, scenario, audience, and set of actors is an event in the continuous life of any theatrical piece, to say nothing of those committed to the digital world, made (and changed) into provisionally immortal events as single-paned videos. This temporality must be recognized if we are to understand the ways in which artworks are features of culture and indeed geist itself, to understand the spiraling cycle of interpretation–conscious or otherwise–construction, adaptation, and critique. This is what John Ruskin referred to as the “golden stain of time” (with regard to the aesthetics of architecture).
“It is in that golden stain of time, that we are to look for the real light, and colour, and preciousness of architecture; and it is not until a building has assumed this character, till it has been entrusted with the fame, and hallowed by the deeds of men, till its walls have been witnesses of suffering, and its pillars rise out of the shadows of death, that its existence, more lasting as it is than that of the natural objects of the world around it, can be gifted with even so much as these possess, of language of life.”
Having underscored the role of consistent subsistence, it must also be added that modularity is of paramount importance here because modularity is a measure of what makes a rigid and continuous structure reconfigurable. Edifices must be endlessly reconfigurable to count as such–they have page breaks but they categorically do not have conclusions. A text written as an explicit comment on one’s own Edifice (which we can understand as footnotes to the literature itself, a codex to the descriptive content) may have been created at a certain time but its topics continue to unfold, indeed the evolution of these topics is further influenced by the thrusts articulated by the text itself. An Edifice is a concrete metatheoretical framework that is constantly subject to not only it’s creator’s ongoing process of design but also the conceptual territory’s own self-catalyzing evolutions.
This point brings me to a useful analogy for metacreative practice, that (tellingly) is drawn from mathematics and more specifically, for our purposes, from Category Theory (CT): Monoids are single object categories, they lack multiple interactive objects, but due to the axioms of CT these singularities require identity morphisms. In the same way, Edifices are singular totalities, but ones that evolve over time by generating motive forces via multiplying feedback loops as the various conceptions of the artist both concretize and shift along with the substance of their aggregated creative work. Monoids perform an essential function of concatenation (among other things) in CT, and it is this kind of concatenation between topics, themes, subjects, objects etc. that is the core activity of metacreative practice. As mentioned previously, these kinds of models reflexively change the implicit frame of reference used for their own representation.
It is worthwhile to extrapolate further on the relationship metacreative work might have with CT. Note that in the previous analogy the monoid is a single-object category representing the singularity of a given (individual’s) Edifice and its necessary self-engaging/recursive features. But CT in general (with regard to multi-object categories) lays out a valid way to go about developing the elements and deeper structures of an Edifice. In a sense it is reasonable to view mythology and CT as, if not binary poles, certainly useful representations of the mutually productive tensions involved in metacreativity. If mythology is decidedly “soft” as a science, given it’s straddling literature and anthropology, CT is decidedly hard given that it can pass muster as an alternative to the set theoretic axioms most commonly used as the foundation for mathematics. The goal of CT is to preserve mathematical structure out to greater degrees of abstraction. This is precisely the application of rigorous conceptual structures (i.e. CT, geometry, constructed languages) to aesthetic structures (i.e. mythologies, artworks, catalogues) that we are looking for.
In a sense the goal of this practice is simple–to articulate the reasons and meanings of our artistic work to ourselves in ways that are not totally unsatisfying (particularly in light of our [post]modern paradigm). This has consequences across several dimensions. It involves a potentially productive explication of the way art practice conditions mental health by disclosing the concepts at work both in one’s artistic product and the fundamental worldview that informs that product and its practice. It also involves the capacity to concretely improve and refine one’s own intelligible relationship with one’s work in ways that can have positive ramifications for the quality of the work itself. Developing one’s own concrete aesthetic identity involves refining one’s view of and articulation of aesthetics as such, thus developing one’s ability to make and defend value statements in reference to art and aesthetic objects and experiences in general. That this kind of activity is generalizable to all other aspects of human life is a point I will champion.
Ultimately, perhaps most invaluably in my view, metacreativity involves willfully and rigorously carving out stubbornly self-coherent structures in territory usually deemed purely subjective. This concerns the most fundamental modern philosophical problematic, one that is deeply rooted in the failure of secular ideology and the perceived poison in the spirit of modernity. We are far past the point at which we can allow ourselves to get hung up on the seemingly omnipresent reality of subjectivity, ambiguity, and seeming incompleteness, when we approach our constructive problems. Our critical projects are concerned with exactly this destruction of givens that reveals such ambiguity, but in failing to adapt to and properly culturally position the status of ‘objective’ claims, structures, and ends in this paradigm of deterritorializing neoliberalism, we have left open the door to a seemingly limitless refinement of the exploitation we find ourselves subject to. Passivity becomes the rule, apathy the terminal symptom. What our oppressors do not realize–what we ourselves have yet to fully realize–is that we each contain our own sovereign model of a world that is simultaneously inside and outside the Spectacle, inside and outside of ourselves, and by exploring these models we each individually subscribe to, we can draw out an ever more compelling, ever more reliable, ever more trustworthy image of the model we all share. The only way to truly wrest art (much less political will) from the machinery of capital and give it life again is to articulate it in terms that are as certain as they are self-conscious, as defensible as they are critical, and as eternal as they are reconfigurable.
 Brassier, Ray. Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom, 2013.
 Claude Levi-Strauss. Myth & Meaning, 1978.
 Nelson Goodman. Ways of Worldmaking, 1978.
 Reza Negarestani. Intelligence & Spirit, 2018.
 John Ruskin. The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849.