The early 20th-century Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno railed against the idea that we are strictly rational beings. He believed that we are first and foremost sentient or “feeling animals”. Our vaunted “reason,” he argued, was built upon nothing but “irrationalities”; our idealism and rational thought, in other words, sprang from the tumult of our passions.
At the time, the big picture issue for many thinkers were the inroads the scientific and industrial revolution — spawned from Enlightenment objectivity — had made on our appreciation for the vitality of life. In retrospect it might not seem like Unamuno’s protest was thorough enough. After all, our compulsive consumer culture makes it abundantly clear that practically everything in our spectacle society, especially our politics, is sold to our hearts and not to our minds. The mystic philosopher was, however, prescient enough to understand how his words could become twisted against themselves, and warned us against “conservatives who look upon religion merely as a means of government”. “Sin,” was for him: “taking means for ends”.
One of the problems, Unamuno conceded, in attempting to construct a polemic that pits reason against emotion, is that it might not ultimately actually constitute a “religious” or “ethical” debate, but rather one that is more accurately speaking “aesthetic”. It is unfair to blame his ideas for the way our political debates are increasingly reviewed as theatre, or the way consumer trends are measured in terms of how effectively advertising campaigns create hype and buzz. If our natural desire to empathize has been turned against us, then all the more reason to reclaim it.
Tragic Sense of Life, regardless of its mystical bias, is a wonderful book precisely because it is so replete with the kinds of contradictions that result from the struggle of a consciousness trying to free itself from stale and accepted points of view. As a model for speculation about ideas that would seem to totally oppose each other, it is a polemic full of trap doors and secret passageways that as often lead nowhere as they do to profound truths that illuminate the primary problems that beset us all as we wrestle with the great themes that make us human.
My recent paintings take inspiration from the idea that what we call “reason” is born from emotion, and is ultimately built from the vast accumulation of cultural prejudices that have come before us. Unamuno, like many of his contemporaries, believed that ideological canons repressed and demonized what preceded them, cutting us off from the vitality and beauty that are so important to our humanity. These paintings, by comparison, are the product of a post-ideological world in which all the great unifying belief systems have been relegated to the scrapheap of history. There are no more rules to break, as in Unamuno’s day. These paintings engage in a polemic of oppositions unencumbered by the past. They are intended to communicate the awkward grace of the living world, along with all its infinite contradictions, and to do so as directly as possible.
© Daniel Mendel-Black, originally published on Kulturedrome.com for my show Naked Paintings at Modernism Gallery, San Francisco, CA, 2007