“Art and Submission” by Matthew Ballou

Art inspiration

“Think about this: we go to the doctor’s office and an hour or so later we’re still reading two-year-old magazines. Despite the wasted time and the fact that it’s going to cost you, you still patiently wait and at the appropriate time remove your clothes, lean back, and completely submit. We submit in a lot of places in our lives. If you can’t submit to art, to hell with you.” – James Turrell1

Submission is a Key Aspect of Artistic Experience

One of the thorniest issues with which we must contend in the creation and contemplation of art is the problem of our response to the idea of submission. Submission: to willingly – or under duress – relinquish some determinative capacity within the self, giving it over to the authority of another, be it person, circumstance or paradigm. Submission: to recognize – again, either voluntarily or under duress – the power and prevalence of some significant structure over the personal sovereignty of impulse and will one might normally conceptualize as private and essentially personal.

As a cognitive activity, submission is integral to the full experience of any art, whether in making or viewing. While our initial relationship to works of art may indeed be an intuitive, pre-cognitive movement within us2, the deep appreciation of art assumes an intellectual and logistical commitment that is indistinguishable from submission. Any profound knowledge of a work of art, any honest apprehension of its reality, requires significant humility.

If we merely apply our perceptive powers to an artwork and enforce our will upon it, squeezing from it some hackneyed, free-associative, piece-meal interpretation, we limit the potential of any work of art to our own whims. An active knowledge of art is full of pressure, full of change, and these forces hail from outside our own conceptualizations. Knowing art is a challenge to us, an acknowledgement of an energy or evocation to which we come and seek a perspective on what and who and how we are. Making, contemplating, or knowing art all come at the cost of a willing submission.

Yet many who are drawn to art either as makers or viewers are likely to reject the very concept of submission. This is a fundamental paradox of the artistic mind since their artistic endeavors invariably function within that frame of reference. Most artists describe their artistic impulse as something they must follow and have to get out, something about which they greatly obsess, something around which they orient their lives and for which they make sacrifices. They speak of time management, studio discipline and creative practice. When they do not make time for their work, choosing jobs and entertainments over the creative unction, they experience psychological and emotional punishment for their failure to obey the impulses that drive their creative minds. This is the very language of submission. The way we talk about our work is indicative of the reality beneath our talk of self-expression and the transgression of taboos: that submitting is integral to the making and understanding of art.

Authority, Autonomy, and the Jurisdiction of the Self

There are many forms of submission in the world and many levels at which it is manifested. Obvious outward examples are the basics of traffic laws, the various monetary systems we use, and structures of language to which we subscribe. More deeply embedded are the vagaries of social interaction; even those who reject broadly accepted normative structures and average social contracts subscribe and submit to their counter-cultural equivalents. We accept the formats of reading and writing in our given culture with very little grievance. It is surprising that most people fail to question these two extremely influential structures given how strongly tied they are to our ability to know (and the manner in which we know) anything at all. The vast majority of us, even those wishing to pursue alternative lifestyles and practices, espouse countless norms that range from meaningless social conventions to deeply rooted mores. Furthermore, and on a much more precognitive level, we each submit to our body’s requirements for food, drink and sleep and its shifting saturations of dopamine, serotonin, adrenaline and other hormones. Additionally, we have to take the time to learn our bodies, experience what they can and cannot do, grasp these propensities, and shape (or fail to shape) them according to the predispositions of various parts. From top to bottom, from our conscious awareness to our involuntary movements, we are submitting.

Intellectual growth is an area where our willingness to submit is fundamental to development. It is obvious that to know anything one must admit ignorance, submit to knowledge, accept information, and earnestly investigate to discern and parse the nuances of that material. The result of this procedure is an increasing assuredness in the growing knowledge and awareness, even when total certainty is not the goal. Why then is the concept of submission met with so much resistance?

The issue is not one of mere dogmatism alone, since traffic laws are certainly just as dogmatic as the rules espoused by institutionalized religions, for example. The difference is the jurisdiction claimed by each. Your eternal soul does not go to hell simply because you run a red light or commit some social miscue; you pay some cash or feel some embarrassment and move on. Citizens do not have the authority to claim an autonomy that allows them to consistently reject traffic laws or use fake money. When they do, they are punished in more or less effective ways. Most people view the benefits of giving over specific areas of their self-jurisdiction to the state as worth it in that it affords much in terms of stability and security.

Yet government authority does not constrain the self so much as certain outward actions of the self. Religions and other systems of morality and ethical conduct do, on the other hand, challenge the autonomy of the self by claiming jurisdiction over the thoughts, feelings, conduct, choices, and perspectives of the individual. Nearly all human beings submit themselves to strictures of morality that impinge upon and shape the expressive possibilities of their inner selves. My contention in this essay is that the art is at least as beneficial and necessary as these are and that we may gain a great deal from a conscious awareness of our acquiescence to it. Are we willing to let go of ourselves?

The question of authority in the context of the desire for autonomy is a point on which art pivots. Often seen as the realm of singular, private expression, art is also often dogmatic and strongly ideological, making broad, absolutist statements about the world. Therefore artworks tend to claim a kind of purview of both inward (toward the maker) and outward (toward the viewer) realms. To read art at all the viewer has to be willing to go with it; to really grasp the work the viewer must become a student of it and its context. The very nature of artworks is a demand for submission. This authoritative stance makes art inherently problematic for those who disdain submission.

Furthermore, artists inherently function in a context of submission. In the course of art-making an artist becomes a filter and an inflector, accumulating outside knowledge, skills, and experiences – about the body, historical contexts, socio-cultural modes and legacies, the technical means of expression – and subsuming, transmuting, then transmitting them back out into the universe. A large portion of an artist’s education is given over to this progression. The process by no means results in the outpouring of original or new material – far from it. Instead, it amounts to the funneling and arrangement of information and meanings and evocations present in and available to conscious entities. We begin to understand the truth of submission when we realize that we do not know or create via some singular, special fountain within ourselves that is divorced from the rest of reality, but rather we manifest these things in our own individuality as a conduit through which they flow and are altered by our uniqueness and specificity. This reality of our existence as conduits is the birthright of all consciousness. Through this I know that my artwork is not my own entirely original conception. It is a projection of the vast web of intersubjectivity out of which I come, to which I have been exposed, and part of which I have the privilege to re-present. In giving up any claim to pure originality I gain the joy of essential, necessary participation. This is the amazing, profound gift of conscious submission: knowing finally that I am not separate but am made for relationship, community, integration, and continuity. I find my greatest personal expression in acknowledging this relational truth.

In this conception, the artist’s personality, interests, and facture are not the locus of creative activity; rather, they are the conduits through which a weight of understanding passes. To submit to the lessons of history, to study, to investigate, to find and thus to inform our actions with what is beyond the limits of the self – these are the things that lead to the great, meaningful expressions. This perspective results in the realization that what we need for a life in art is necessarily not inherent within us.

The relatively recent Post-Enlightenment conceit that frames the individual self as source, justifier, means, and meaning for all of life is at the center of the problem. It is not a mistake that individualistic rationalism manifested in other such philosophical arenas as existential nihilism and the denial of the possibility of true communication between entities. Once the self is seen as the central authority, seen as taking no substantive or meaningful understanding from anyone or anything else, seen as without fundamental conceptual or ideational legacies, we lose the ability to grasp common ground. Any commonality (community, relation, shared intersubjectivity) is a priori ridiculous to autonomous entities. This leads the way to intolerance; if I am the originator and arbiter of my values, meaning, and ideas why should I bother with any truly pluralistic understanding of others’ perspectives? Contrary to widespread common opinion, ideological or religious dogmatism is not the core of intolerance or inhumanity, a sense of the self as essentially autonomous and self-justifying is.

Once I sense my own contingency, however, my worldview changes. Once I know that I am a conduit, a passageway, my attitude shifts. Once I realize that all things are in relation, I must acknowledge those around me. Once I grasp the reality that there are limitations to what I know, I can work to align myself to the vast array of knowing and consciousness around me. The sooner I realize my own intellectual, physical, and creative contingency, the sooner I will understand that nothing can be what it is without the contexts in which it lives, moves, and has being. This leads me to realize that what I am is not because of my own self-sufficiency in anything, but rather because of my embedded-ness within a multivalent medium of subjective realities. There is a sense in which I must – amid the realities of any truth and faith I personally affirm – submit in some way to every human being who has ever lived in order to operate in any way at all. They have participated in manifesting the world just as much as I. This decentralized matrix of authority and knowledge may be the very definition of a transcendent human consciousness in which we all participate, to which we all submit in the course of being.

What Submission Brings: Experience, Knowledge, Understanding, and Identification

The preceding paragraphs make several axioms apparent: submission to life leads to experience, submission to experience leads to knowledge; submission to knowledge leads to understanding; submission to understanding leads to identification. Identification amounts to the apprehension and appreciation of what is behind the work of art, as opposed to the mere identification of its constituents; it enfolds a sounding of what is before, within, and beyond the work3. In each case, submission is the essential antecedent and therefore founds the most important activities embedded in viewing art.

The four products of submission mentioned above are key to both the activity of the artist while creating the work and to the action of the viewer in seeing the work. We have covered much of submissive making already, so let us turn to viewing. Encouraging submissive viewing could be said to be the initial and primary goal of any artwork. That is, if the artwork is assumed to convey messages or narratives, it must first be constructed in such a way so as to elicit intentional cognition regarding the work in the mind of the viewer via his or her eye. Here enter the interwoven histories of meaning and value, of techniques and materials, of visual languages and evocative imagery. Just as submission to information is the key to knowledge and subsequent understanding, so submission to the dynamics of visual communication, of cultural expression, of the shorthand in bodily gesture, and of the structure of narrative are key to presenting information worth viewers’ submission. It is certainly plausible that some of the societal reticence toward aesthetic submission is due, at least in part, to the failure of artists to use the tools available to them to construct artwork that either invites engagement or requests submission.

If a work of art is well-made, evocative, and resonates with the deep subjectivities and multifaceted potentialities of human understanding – anything from classic meta-themes and values to the banal, small-yet-redeeming realities of day-to-day existence – I, as a viewer, will be called to submit to the contemplation of things beyond myself. However, if I reject the submission, I will be offended by the work because it is, by its very form, attempting to call me away from my infatuation with myself. It is calling me to submit to a higher, broader, less singular perspective. I will reject the work out of a need to justify and maintain my own viewpoint, my own orientation to myself as the center of my universe. As a lover of the singular, autonomous self, I will feel attacked by any artwork created for the expression of any value that seems to claim supremacy to the self – my self.

Yet we must recognize that to fully appreciate art – any art – one must be ready to move down that path from experience to identification, aiming toward an identification of not only of visual languages, cultural conditions, and historical legacies, but also of the person behind the expression. Seeing is a relational activity, and in it we move from identification of formal or conceptual elements to identification with the human condition generally and other individuals specifically. To dismiss any work out of hand is to misunderstand the procedure of seeing in art. Even worse, it is to misunderstand the reality of other people as such.

Similarly, the artist mistakes the procedure of making when he views the self as the instigation, means, and end of an artwork. This perspective results in a representation primarily of the self. The self, the ego, the personality, can only reflect itself. When we artists focus on ourselves we drown in murky circular logic. Likewise, when viewers refuse to stretch themselves, refuse to make themselves vulnerable to the power of images, objects, and ideas, they deny themselves great avenues of understanding and enjoyment. When viewers are so closed that they look only for themselves in a work of art, to the rejection of all else, they lose a chance to experience the sort of cathartic epiphanies that only art can offer. Pulling on the thread a good work of art offers is one of the best ways to get past ourselves and go to a place we could never have imagined, learn things we might never have considered, and become more than we thought possible.


In the end, submission to artworks is something that cannot be expressly measured nor fully related between individuals. To be sure, we are subjective and elaborately so, embedded as we are in so great an overlapping stratification of physical and metaphysical realities. Perhaps it may be too much to expect that submission to experience, to understanding, and to identification might be embraced (or recognized as part and parcel of what artists are doing every day) in a sufficiently broad and meaningful way. Yet one can certainly hope that each of us might find the strength to let go of ourselves long enough to appreciate and truly know works of art – to know consciousness and being, even – so that they might reveal an evocative, transformative reality to us. Ultimately, we must submit to them in order to reap their fruits.

This is a call for experience, knowledge, understanding, and identification. This is a call for openness, for evocation, and for resonance.

This is a call for submission.

1Turrell, James, Quoted by Elaine King. Into the Light: A Conversation with James Turrell. Sculpture, November 2002. Volume 21, Number 9. Page 29.
2See the works of Rudolf Arnheim and George Santayana for more on this contention.
3“Before, within, and beyond” could be said to correspond respectively to context (historical legacy and presentation, as they apply to meaning), formal realities (media, subject matter, manner, as they inflect meaning), and implications (application, interpretation of potential meaning).