Michael Almereyda: The reality is dreamlike and the photography is real.
William Eggleston: You know what? That doesn’t mean a thing to me.
I am really happy that Snag Films has placed some good documentaries online (for the US and Canada only, I’m afraid), including William Eggleston in the Real World. I do hope that it is the future of documentary distribution, as is claimed in the Fortune article [via]. It’s a coincidence really, because I just finished quoting/clipping some bits to discuss here. They have also released Black White and Grey, which gave me material for consideration a few weeks ago.
Eggleston’s evasions, typical in most interviews, are particularly poignant in Almereyda’s film. You get the feeling that he just might have something to say if someone asked the correct question. Otherwise, what remains except to say “no” or “I don’t think so”? The commentary he offers outside Almereyda’s insistence that emotion must play some role in what he’s doing is excitingly analogous to Aristotle’s discussion of techné and praxis in the Nicomachean Ethics.
Continuing the line of thought I started a few days ago, I was reading Nicomachean Ethics to explore Aristotle’s precise definition of techné, which occurs in opposition to his definition of praxis, a sort of reasoned “doing” that is counterpoint to reasoned “making” (techné). Aristotle’s definition of the root of praxis specifically excludes sensation, which seems to me part of the reason why Eggleston might tend to avoid connections between experience or emotion in his practices. Real or unreal, as Eggleston repeatedly claims, are just not something that he considers in his practice of making photographs. Eggleston’s photographic practice is techné in a pure sense—the art of making, while his music (included as a bonus on the DVD, btw) is simply a matter of joy in the doing. Eggleston evades discussing the experience of reality or his emotions when discussing both making and doing. Personally, I do not think he is being enigmatic, I think he is being smart.
Why do people do things? Aristotle proposes:
Now there are three elements in the soul which control action and the attainment of truth: namely, Sensation, Intellect, and Desire. Of these, Sensation never originates action, as is shown by the fact that animals have sensation but are not capable of action. Pursuit and avoidance in the sphere of Desire correspond to affirmation and denial in the sphere of the Intellect. Hence inasmuch as moral virtue is a disposition of the mind in regard to choice, and choice is deliberate desire, it follows that, if the choice is to be good, both the principle must be true and the desire right, and that desire must pursue the same things as principle affirms.
We are here speaking of practical thinking, and of the attainment of truth in regard to action; with speculative thought, which is not concerned with action or production, right and wrong functioning consist in the attainment of truth and falsehood respectively. The attainment of truth is indeed the function of every part of the intellect, but that of the practical intelligence is the attainment of truth corresponding to right desire.
Now the cause of action (the efficient, not the final cause) is choice, and the cause of choice is desire and reasoning directed to some end. Hence choice necessarily involves both intellect or thought and a certain disposition of character for doing well and the reverse in the sphere of action necessarily involve thought and character.
Thought by itself however moves nothing, but only thought directed to an end, and dealing with action. (6:2)
Aristotle excludes sensation and minimizes intellect, placing desire at the center of doing—though intellect can guide the choices, sensation simply isn’t discussed at all. Aristotle places the emphasis on “right desire,” something that seems exceedingly difficult to identify. The core concepts, obliterated by the translation, are phronesis: “practical thinking,” or more rightly “practical wisdom” and praxis: intelligent action or doing. Eggleston, when pressed on his emotional response to music can only claim “I like to do it.” His response regarding photography is substantially more complex, marking a distinct separation between the actions that one simply “does” and the arts of making (techné)
I like the idea of making these things. And I know it changed a lot of thought … what I was doing … other than that… I don’t much have an opinion … can’t really.
The interesting thing here is discerning whether he meant his making photographs changed other people (influence) or whether it changed his thoughts. I’d like to think the latter. I am deeply concerned with habits of making, the influence that the mindful practice of craft has on the individual. Aristotle keeps making and acting fully separate:
The class of things that admit of variation includes both things made and actions done. But making is different from doing (a distinction we may accept from extraneous discourses) Hence the rational quality concerned with doing is different from the rational quality concerned with making; nor is one of them a part of the other, for doing is not a form of making, nor making a form of doing.
Now architectural skill, for instance, is an art, and it is also a rational quality concerned with making; nor is there any art which is not a rational quality concerned with making, nor any such quality which is not an art. It follows that an art is the same thing as a rational quality, concerned with making, that reasons truly.
All Art deals with bringing some thing into existence; and to pursue an art means to study how to bring into existence a thing which may either exist or not, and the efficient cause of which lies in the maker and not in the thing made; for Art does not deal with things that exist or come into existence of necessity, or according to nature, since these have their efficient cause in themselves.
But as doing and making are distinct, it follows that Art, being concerned with making, is not concerned with doing. And in a sense Art deals with the same objects as chance, as Agathon says: “ Chance is beloved of Art, and Art of Chance. (6:4)
Techné is translated here as “Art” (I find the choice of a capital letter interesting —note that it isn’t consistent). The separation between making and doing is absolute for Aristotle. Making is tied to reasoned intent, which makes the last sentence utterly perplexing to me. I don’t disagree that there is an affinity for chance in art and not just in the fine arts—even craftsmen speak of happy accidents. But why does Aristotle take this as a given and offer no further explanation? Why is reasoned intent attractive to chance? This is something, as Eggleston says, that one just can’t think about I guess. Perhaps it’s because thinking about it can only lead to a false path of reasoning, which is somewhat intimated in Aristotle’s concluding lines:
Art, therefore, as has been said, is a rational quality, concerned with making, that reasons truly. Its opposite, Lack of Art, is a rational quality, concerned with making, that reasons falsely. Both deal with that which admits of variation. (6:4)
Art and chance both arise from mutability, but chance simply won’t submit to reason—and neither have anything to do with “just doing it.” For Aristotle, Art is about making, not doing. Alan Kaprow, of course, certainly would not agree.