about the author

Laura Nicoara is a PhD student in Philosophy based in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared, or is due to appear, in Areo, The Collagist, Necessary Fiction, Rain Taxi, and Heavy Feather Review.

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(On when it is appropriate to feel it)

Laura Nicoara


Carmen has become much happier since cheating on her previous boyfriend with Tom. Now, together, she and Tom make art. Or, more precisely: they live the art. When she first met him, she thought he was superior to anyone she had seen before, including herself.

There have been changes in her ideology since then. For example, love is not a two-way relation between a lover and a beloved with a direction from the former to the latter, but a four-way composite relation. It stems from the beloved (1) and directs the lover’s gaze (2) toward the entire world (3), altering the nature of the latter so as to be permeated by beauty and the drive to create (4). Her theory of beauty and creation (she no longer makes much of a distinction between them) is closely related. They are not a property and an activity, respectively, but a space; not one in which anything occurs, but one from which concrete artworks emanate, as natural byproducts. One can be a painter who has never painted a single thing, as long as one lives as a painter should. In this narrator’s opinion, Carmen’s theory of love is a philosophy equally informed (consciously) by traces of Platonism and (organically) mainstream neoliberalism. There is a stylised kind of solipsism at work too, atavistically fed from classical Romanticism: art and creation consist in making the entire world into mere input for the devouring artist’s ego.

The first time her new aesthetics informed Carmen’s moral life was when she and Tom became lovers. There was cheating involved, but it was nothing but the practical rejection of a spurious model of love in favour of an amended one. Nowadays her aesthetics continues to manifest itself in concrete ways. She writes very little, for example, in relation to how much she thinks. Her magnum opus is all planned out in her head, and she enjoys discreetly this knowledge that belongs to her alone. She resents (and is in simultaneous awe of) the immediacy of Tom’s craft. There is a felt nature in putting pen on paper, layering oil on canvas. Two extremities of the body are involved in the process of making paintings. Trading in concepts and thoughts is slippery, exhausting when it comes to making them artwork-shaped; and inevitably alienating, given the asymmetry between the artwork and one’s internal complexity. She has attempted photography in her quest for embodied intimacy, but that requires one extremity too few; pushing buttons on a camera does not satisfy her thirst for the richness of touch she imagines must reside in giving birth to shapes with one’s own hand. In high school, she liked song lyrics, as one does; she spent hours meticulously writing them out in her notebook.

Still, she is now a different kind of person, one who wakes up in order to think about art and doesn’t concern herself with practical things except as means to buy herself more time to think about art. They live on very little. Tom paints incessantly, like a factory, but nevertheless he has only sold two paintings in his life; he receives money every month, Carmen knows not from where. She is forced to work a customer support job. For four to eight hours a day she answers phones in her cubicle, and, like a dash of salt in a sweet dish, the time spent there sharpens her identity of being what she is. She is disciplined; she writes a thousand words every day before work, and two thousand in the evening. She dislikes writing, but goes on with it; one day, she will transcend this state where her putting art on paper is on a par with her day job, and become a perfect, impersonal channel through which the art she bears inside will find its way into the world; luminously, immaterially.


Tom likes to paint mostly landscapes. Today he is making a still life of sorts; he is painting their table, crowded as it is with unwashed dishes and a teapot and a few peaches, because she was too tired to tidy up the night before. She is still too uneducated in art and art history to judge (but she is learning), so for lack of better vocabulary—one day she will have it—she can only describe what he does as a watered-down neo-Impressionist style. To amateur eyes like hers, most of his paintings look rather similar; as though they are various (otherwise continuous, natural) bits of reality passed through the same filter. She cannot wait until she will become able to discern all the small traces of uniqueness, skill and learnedness, the transcendence and distancing from the historical origins, sometimes good-natured and sometimes critical. She leaves for work thinking about him; how he is so unlike anyone she has ever met, and that she would willingly be his maid out of sheer awe at his thirst for working so tirelessly.

During the last hour of her shift she becomes impatient. She is going to the pub right after work to meet Clara, who is in town for an exhibition. It will be an odd meeting; she and Clara are not friends, only acquaintances from their last year of university, and they bumped into each other yesterday. She scrolls down Clara’s website and reads, just to pass the last ten minutes of the shift:

My art and research revolve around the problem of consciousness. The digital hyperreal has not displaced old-fashioned first-personal subjectivity; it has instead decentred the classical concept of consciousness by forcing it to face, analogically and metonymically, its doubles, traces, imitations and precursors, and destabilise the assumption that there is a difference of kind between all these categories. Stripped bare of its fictional essence, consciousness is therefore revealed as a performance, both a representation by the non-existent humanistic subject in a non-existing Cartesian theatre, and a mis-representation, the simulacrum of unity and spatiotemporal continuity across multiple unconscious subsystems. My current project in progress reenacts the prototype of such a trajectory across the biological and symbolic spectrum. Using motion tracking software, I capture and convert into digital images and sounds the gradual decomposition of various materials that synechdochise our world (plants, items of fast-food, small rodents) over a period of a month. Far from constituting a sublimation of a fictional Real, this conversion is, ultimately, the mythical preservation of the soul reconceptualised in a post-Judeo-Christian framework. Each image and sound yielded through this process constitutes a lexeme—digital modernity’s counterpart and response to Platonic abstraction from the concrete—which, embedded in the overall digitally-determined syntax, encodes a multiplicity of narrative meanings.

“My residency is halfway through,” says Clara. “I’ll be happy to get back to London after it’s over, though. There’s so much exciting work I can do there. I have all these collaborators who are actual software engineers and electrical engineers and biologists. And what about you? How’s life going for you?”

“I work in customer support,” Carmen says, proudly. “I’m still starving, of course. It’s only a part time thing, because I need to focus on my writing.”

“You’re still doing that research on, what was it, I can’t remember?”

“Consciousness,” Carmen says, “I used to work on that. A bit like what you do, but it was quite metaphysical, you know, old-fashioned philosophy, without much interference from science. I ended up arguing for a form of dualism. It’s a minority position, but it seems to me the least incoherent.”

“Good old Carmen,” Clara smiles. “Always the old-fashioned academic, working within the great canon. Are you still doing that?”

“Actually, no. I decided academia wasn’t quite for me. I’ve taken to writing actual literature.”

“Writing!” Clara exclaims. “Now that’s new. I never would have imagined you as a writer.”

“I can see why; I focused on my degree when I was in university. Maybe a bit too much. But this has been what I’ve wanted to do since I was young. In a way, I think of my degree as preparation for that. It’s like I fed and fed and fed on knowledge and suddenly now I feel about to burst with what I accumulated.”

“That’s wonderful,” Clara says. “I have lots of friends who edit zines you might get your work published in. I can put in a good word for you.”

“Thank you,” said Carmen, “but not yet. I’ve to polish my writing more.”

“It must be difficult when you have to work a job like yours,” says Clara. “So much time wasted answering phone calls. It’s a shame.”

“Not at all,” says Carmen. “That’s how I get to think about something other than my art. I’m immersed in it, you know. My boyfriend and I, it’s all we do. Sometimes I need to shut my brain off; think of nothing. Just enjoy being, you know. It is then that the writing really congeals inside you. And then you can take it out fully formed.”

“Your boyfriend is still the guy who was doing, ah, what was it, economics, right?”

“Oh no, not at all,” Carmen smiles. “I met someone else. He’s a painter, you know.”

“What’s his name?” Clara perks up. “I might know him. Where has he exhibited?”

“He hasn’t,” says Carmen. “Not yet, at least.”

“What does he paint, then?”

Carmen pulls out her phone and shows her; Clara scrolls quickly through the pictures and returns it within five seconds.

“Classically trained, not bad, he’s got skills. I’ve got some friends who might want to work with that. We’ll keep in touch, OK? And I’ll let you know if something comes up. Although maybe he might want to expand. Include some interdisciplinary stuff, that kind of thing.”

“He’s had someone buy a couple of his paintings, you know,” Carmen says, she knows not why.

“That’s wonderful,” Clara says again. “It’s quite an achievement, with no exhibitions. Has he got any funding from anyone?”

“He paints for himself,” says Carmen, “and people like his work.”

The rest of the evening drags. Carmen is obviously a disappointment to Clara. They talk about indifferent things, things in their common ground, but Clara peppers her discourse with so many references to Baudrillard and Latour and Serres and oh, so many more that Carmen has never heard of and thus cannot recall, that she can barely keep up, she and her honest, upfront, plain-language common sense.


On the way home, Carmen says to herself that Clara is only a peon in the great petty game of contemporary art. What she does is nothing but existing while integrating into the great cacophonic structureless mess of capitalism, politics, tech, whatever else that Carmen can’t even name; nothing but being in it, not even reproducing it, let alone transcending or transforming or even (that low form of doing art) satirising it. There is a limitless menu of ordinariness which is given to them as to everyone alive and conscious, and their scope for creativity—hell, for agency—consists only in putting together disparate pieces of it according to principles that are called trivial similarities in philosophy, meaningful explosions of the artistic self (in doubtlessly more pompous language) in these avant-garde circles. Business acumen, and being as much a product of society as anything else; that’s all there is. But now Carmen feels ashamed of herself. She is being unfair; she cannot deny that Clara is well-read and extremely clever, that she has the same broad formation in the classics as Carmen herself does. Still, what about it? She and Carmen have different aims, that is all. And besides, Clara is privileged. Networking and exhibiting and being in residence are great, until you hit a rough patch that lasts for months. Clara’s parents must pump thousands of pounds a month into buying Clara cultural capital. Whereas success of any kind was never Carmen’s aim; internal success, at most; not being ashamed of herself for falling short of her own ideals.

She is interrupted in her calculations by her somewhat surprising arrival at home. Tom is still painting; his still life is almost finished. She ought to make dinner now, but she is more tired than usual. Before she can think about it, she says:

“Have you never thought of getting into an exhibition? Or doing a residency?”

He stops from whatever he was doing and blinks at her.

“No, I haven’t. Why do you ask?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “It’s the way art seems to work these days.”

“I have my own way,” he says.

“No one sees your way. I wonder, what’s the point of doing art without being seen?”

“I see it,” he says. “And I’ve sold two paintings in the last month anyway.”

“To people who have known you since you were a child. The truth is, you’re as isolated from the art world as I am.”

Tom is so baffled that he actually puts his brush down.

“I don’t understand where the problem is,” he says. “Since when does isolation bother you? I thought that was what we were after. Our two-person republic of art. Like your Horace, who drank wine and talked philosophy with friends while his goats hopped away in the fields.”

“He got his fields and goats from a patron,” she says, bitterly.

She wants to say something else, but doesn’t know what. Instead, she mindlessly googles ‘how to become a published writer’ for hours. She reads and reads, and understands nothing. It is infuriating, the way some people have everything. Good birth; money; connections; cleverness; and no crippling timidity to hold them back. Everyone’s eyes are on them. It now finally occurs to her, what she was about to think about before the arrival happened, and what she wanted to say to Tom earlier but wouldn’t go past her lips. Here it is.

Thesis: Whatever new world is being built in art, it is built by people like Clara. Art is not Platonic and ante rem, but Aristotelian and in re. The channel model needs to be replaced with a ground/grounded or even constituent/constituted model. It is their minds that dictate the ideal of an era, and then, two hundred years after, those of us who have no eyes and no guts uselessly emulate that ideal thinking it to be timeless, because historicity minus sense of history equals universality.

She feels utterly crushed by the very existence of such people. She takes another look at Tom’s painting. Suddenly it is unbearable to look at; so representational, so conventional, there is nothing but a mindless, self-indulgent resting-within, a falsely solipsistic joy he has in reproducing movements long obsolete because they sway inside his mind in a way that pleases him. Meanwhile, there are those who move art forward without even occurring to them that people like her—people for whom the only measure of worth is their internal, ill-informed satisfaction because they have no eyes to discern the networks in which they are embedded—might be worth anything in the world.

She fires up all of her search engines, all of her social media profiles, everything, and looks Clara up on every single one of them.

“Tomorrow I’ll paint a church,” she hears Tom saying. “And then another still life. And then a more experimental composition, a house on a beach. And then another, and another. There are so many things to paint; they fall on me like rain from the sky; I’m being crushed.”

She finally finds a status update. Clara is at some kind of trendy bar. They organise poetry readings and photo exhibitions, and she used to laugh at that bar for being pretentious no earlier than yesterday, which now feels a whole era away. An entire world, blooming unseen by her like mould in a wall crevice. And this entire time, she was the one going unseen. She gets up, ruffles through her drawers in search of an outfit. She has no appropriate clothes.

“Are you going anywhere?” Tom asks.

She doesn’t answer. There are jeans, jumpers, dress shirts; conservative, boring clothes. A flash of inspiration: perhaps that is one way she could sell herself. There must be some ascetic way to spin it: not caring about appearances. But she has nothing to show for not caring, save for her customer service job, which is as good as proclaiming herself these people’s inferior. She has a brilliant idea at the last minute; she wears her regular jeans, but throws on an ill-fitting, paint-stained shirt from Tom, whose sleeves she rolls a few times.

As she hails a taxi outside (despite the fact that she has to overdraw her account to get cash for that), the relation of love, having lost one relatum, vanishes away, leaving her barren. The magnum opus collapses in rubbles inside her mind.

From here on I see two potential outcomes for her. Let us take them in turn.

The first starts with Carmen joining Clara at the bar. She attempts to insert herself in the conversation, but it doesn’t work; or else, she makes for a good enough conversation partner, but is unable to pursue any further the connections she made. Shame, and the memory of the time she was allowed a glimpse of the world she wanted so badly to be a part of, linger for a long time.

In the second scenario, Carmen talks to Clara and her friends. Overall, they find her acceptable. Slavishly, Carmen talks to Clara every day, and forces herself to contact the friends. More often than not, there are no responses. Sometimes she is invited to events. Slowly, bits and pieces add up. She produces some work. It gets seen out of the corner of some people’s eyes, faintly talked about. Fortunately, Carmen is undiscerning enough that she is spared seeing the full extent of the condescension thrown her way. Sometimes she does feel humiliated, but solipsistic joy easily takes over. She is happy.

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