The Contingent

Another important concept stressed by Stephen Jay Gould, one that is very much relevant to art, is contingency. He is talking about the possible pathways of evolution, but in art we could say that all works begin contingently and move toward an appearance of necessity. We assume that the parts all belong after the work is finished, just as we assume the survival of the fittest when the evolutionary battle is over. Gould explains that the choices that life makes are all contingent, so we are not at all necessarily the crown and purpose of creation, and further, the so-called Darwinian struggle is an artifact of our retrospective view. The surviving phyla represent a much narrower range of anatomical possibilities than once existed, and diversity grows within a limited range of basic plans. Is that what has happened to art? Not sure. As a piece is worked, and successive decisions are made—or not made—possibilities shrink, so the parallel holds for the individual work, but perhaps not for art in general. But the sense of contingency at the beginning of the process is liberating for an artist, for it means that anything is possible and history has no power. To assume the same liberty within the working process is even better, but very rare. De Kooning was an artist who tried to keep contingency alive at every moment, so finish or resolution was almost non-existent in his work. This is one of the topics I discussed with Richard Shiff in an interview about his recent book, Between Sense and de Kooning.

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