SOLVING THE PUZZLE
By Amal Alhomsi
1935, Walter Benjamin asked a question that plagued the arts for years; Can art exist in the age of Mechanical Reproduction? Benjamin, unfortunately, couldn’t find an answer, not because he failed to arrive at one, but because he couldn’t decide whether the disadvantages of mechanical reproduction outweighs the benefits
of it or not. On the one hand, Benjamin claimed that mechanical reproduction exorcizes what he called “the aura of a work,” which is the product of both “authenticity (uniqueness) and locale (physical and cultural),” while on the other hand, he observed that the reproduction of art also emancipated it “from its parasitical dependence on ritual.” Mechanical Reproduction, as Benjamin understood it, allowed artists to achieve unprecedented reach at the cost of sacrificing proprietary. The question, however, must be reassessed as the scale has tilted dramatically since then. In Benjamin’s time, mechanical reproduction meant something entirely different to what it means today. Now, one must ask: can art exist in the age of Consumer Capitalism?
By definition, the function of art is to disturb, its medium is ambiguity, and its value is its uniqueness. The capitalist market profoundly contradicts these three tenets. Consumerism is predicated on the idea that the more familiar something is to us the more likely we are to gravitate towards it, or, in other words, buy it. The notion that a Tim Hortons cup of coffee is more appealing than an unknown brand goes back to our primordial instinct to favor the tried over the unknown. Consumerism sells us the experience of a thing before the thing itself, making it seem familiar to us prior to any knowledge of it. While globalization takes consumerism across borders by making downtown Toronto and downtown Dubai interchangeable. This is because familiarity and convenience constitute the ideal environment of any market.
English theorist Terry Eagleton writes that “what we consume now is not objects or events, but our experience of them… The experience is already out there, as ready-made as a pizza, and all we need to
do is receive it. It is as though there is an experience hanging in the air, waiting for a human subject to come along and have it. Niagara falls, Dublin Castle, and the Great Wall of China do our experiencing for us. They come ready-interpreted… we buy an experience like we pick up a t-shirt.” If Benjamin was right– that authenticity and locale are what makes art genuine– then the majority of people can no longer look at The Mona Lisa and have an experience; they can only have an expectation. In the age of Tiktok, Alltrails, Goodreads, and IMDB, everything is already experienced on our behalf– reduced to small golden stars and heart buttons. We don’t buy movie tickets, we buy the promise of a trailer. We don’t travel to places, we arrive at ‘destinations.’ We are sold books and art as if they were toasters. “Experience,” Eagleton laments, “was once a way of resisting the commodity form in all of its rich specificity. Now it is just another species of it.”
Enter the artist, an individual who attempts to create new experiences while simultaneously having to advertise and replicate their work. Benjamin wrote that prior to the industrial revolution, “works of art were received and valued on different planes. Two polar types stand out; with one, the accent is on the cult value; with the other, on the exhibition value of the work.” Benjamin believed that when we reproduce a work of art, we force it out of the citadel or the museum and into our bedroom walls, resulting in voiding its sanctity and ‘aura’ and depriving it both of its cult appeal and cultural importance. Capitalism, however, does not void value, because what has no value has no place in the market. What reproduction does now, rather than omit meaning, is to replace or reintroduce other meanings to the work. Consumerism turns the value of art from appreciation to acquisition. Van Gogh and Da Vinci’s paintings have been obsolete for years. It is the constant renewed story of their art that keeps bringing us back for more. It is not the art, but its marketing, that keeps the Louvre’s doors open. Odin and Hercules were forgotten until Netflix and Disney made them relevant again. That is why Yahweh makes it a commandment to “not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing.” The Jews refused to reproduce their God in order to maintain his meaning. Nowadays, the majority of art exists within a capitalist system, a system where demand is the main indicator to value. Art, on the other hand, is a medium that derives its value from its inherent uniqueness and irreproducibility. Artists become trapped in a suffocating contradiction between the desire for uniqueness and the need for replication, between the medium’s necessity to obscure and the market’s demand to make familiar, between a feeling of hypocritical success and the reality of righteous poverty. The genius of capitalism is that a refusal to participate in it will exclude you from being able to change it.
The challenge, however, is only an opportunity. The beauty of art is that it thrives on contradictions, and its aim has always been to find ways to escape the systems that bind it. That is why Benjamin viewed the problem not as a hurdle but as a push towards a new kind of art: “For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.” In recent years, artists have attempted to bring about that change through ingenious risks or, most often, ridiculous endeavors, but, I believe, few artists have truly succeeded in fulfilling Benjamin’s prophecy, one of whom is Meridth Maher and her puzzling work.
The youngest of five children, Maher grew up in Connecticut and finished her Bachelor of Economics there. While working in finance, she had sporadically worked on art projects, but only recently did her work capture the attention of millions after a video of her went viral over social media. A friend of mine sent me the video, and I instantly messaged Maher asking for an interview. We met a week after.
She sat on a tall chair where her framed work covered the walls behind her shoulders, and her chestnut-colored hair curled like question marks around her eyes. She spoke in a manner that seemed both deliberate and improvised, and when asked a question, she would pause before starting to arrange her words the way she does her puzzle pieces. Maher’s work is a collage of thrifted puzzles that she assembles into a cohesive piece of chaos. The work begins as an idea “which usually comes at night or in the shower,” then the idea is materialized as a rough sketch. Piece by piece, Maher layers her puzzles until they produce a picture that cannot be found on the back of any of her boxes. She solves the puzzle by making it her own. To Maher, the pieces do not have to fit to make sense, they only need to be what they are, mismatched and misplaced. A single framed work will take her between 6 months to a year to complete.
It started early on. Maher was helping her mother with a puzzle when she noticed that “each puzzle piece is its own world– a little piece of abstract art. I remember distinctly looking at a puzzle piece and thinking that the color scheme inside it was really beautiful. Each piece was its own work of art.” But Maher did not really pursue puzzles as her main medium until years later. The idea came to her in a dream where she saw that she walked into a gallery that had all her work on display. She woke up the next day and thought: “If I don’t do it, then I’ll never be able to see it.” Contrary to what Postmodernists believe, that “art is only for others and by others,” Maher creates her art for herself. Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish explained once that poems should never be intended to change the world, but only to change the poet who wrote them. Mahar operates on a similar ideology: “if I am going to do art, I need to do the art that I cannot get anywhere else. you have to make it yourself because there is no other place to find it other than your head.”
From her earliest piece to her latest projects, a common thread can be traced throughout Maher's work. The theme of what Maher calls “the supposed to” is successfully impeded in all her art. “Of course puzzle pieces are supposed to fit together,” Maher said;
“but my work is a rejection of what is ‘supposed to’ and an acceptance that things can be messy and scattered. I think as we keep getting older, we keep adding to our identity, we keep trying to ‘fit in’, until we no longer know who we really are behind all these identities that we kept accumulating, but beyond that you can move towards an acceptance of it, that maybe you are not fake, maybe you do have different aspects of yourself that are in contradiction with one another, or are even hypocritical, and that’s okay. They can exist together. With my own work, someone might look at it and see it as taking these missing pieces from puzzles and making something beautiful out of it, but someone might see it and have a feeling that the piece is a bastardized version of a perfect puzzle, and wrong, and not good, which I like and encourage, because both things can be true at the same time.”
Some cultures, such as Taoism and Sufism, have long preached contradiction as a prerequisite to perfection, but in a society that derives its meaning from empiricism, dichotomies become antithesis to order instead of elements of it. In the West, incongruity alienates rather than elevates. We have even coined it as a medical condition; Cognitive Dissonance. Maher’s art rejects this, echoing Whitman’s famous declaration, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then, I contradict myself. / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” In Maher’s work, discord is beauty waiting to be reinterpreted. Her art invites us to construct our lives based on an ecology of self, with each piece as integral to the whole as any other.
What is intriguing about Maher’s work is that the idea of contradiction is not merely signified but is embodied in the medium itself. Canadian philosopher Marshall Mcluhan inspired an entire field of study when he
remarked that “the medium is the message.” Mcluhan insisted that whenever we attempt to convey information, the medium we use will distract and distort that information.
For example, filming a news report for tiktok is extremely different from filming one for a TV channel. The change could be as simple as having to crop a video to fit a phone screen rather than a TV screen, but by cropping the video, the medium is changing the language in which we deliver information. But language itself is guilty of the same charge. Linguists such as Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf have suggested that we do not speak what we think, but rather we think depending on how we speak. Japanese people, for example, think differently than Italians because each language allows its speakers a certain mode of expression. Ludwig Wittgenstein simply explained this by writing; “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” If a language does not have a word to express the color blue, speakers will have to crop the meaning of blue in order to express it, therefore altering its meaning altogether. This is found in our own culture where we think of time linearly, making the future as something that is ahead of us and the past as something behind us; a random construction that is not based on the reality of time, but on the demand of language. Hence the slogan, “the medium is the message.”
One way to escape this conundrum is to change the medium to be in concord with the message. Poetry is an example of that as it is a language that is aware of itself. A poem points both to its medium and its message. This creates a paradox, which, according to critic Cleanth Brooks, is the language of truth. Just as smoke points us to a fire and distracts us from it at the same time, so does poetry, and so does Maher’s art. In his essay, “The Language of Paradox,” Brooks explores the role of paradox as a unique feature of language that allows writers to express multiple, often contradictory, ideas simultaneously. He argues that paradox is often used to create layers. A poem, like a full moon, can mean different things to different readers, and this diversity enriches it rather than mars it. Brooks explains that “the use of paradoxes in language allows us to explore the nuances and shades of meaning that more straightforward language cannot capture. It forces us to confront the limitations of language and to recognize that the world is often more complex and nuanced than words can express.” Maher utilizes puzzle pieces as her medium to achieve a compelling language of paradox that both distracts and attracts. Just as a reader will notice the language of a poem before its meaning, looking at Maher’s work, one will first notice the puzzles before anything else. “When I have an idea for a composition,” Maher said, “I want the medium to reflect the idea, and if it doesn’t, then it is not the right medium for the artwork.” The puzzles allow the art a dual status; one which is reproducible, and another which cannot be replicated even by Maher herself; “It is frozen in time like all art is, but even I am separated from it, because I cannot make it again or reproduce it. I can never get the same combination of puzzle pieces ever again.” Maher was able to achieve uniqueness by inventing her own language and then giving it autonomy. Her art belongs to no one but itself, and unlike oil paint or acrylic, painting with puzzles refuses any form of mediation.
Maher and I spent the rest of the time talking about originality, music, the artists as an environmentalist, and other conversations that can fill a book. There is so much more to say about her art; the contrast between the golden, ornate frames that contain the thrifted, abandoned puzzle pieces; the way her art utilizes Freud’s uncanny & Viktor Shklovsky’s technique; the process of gluing and layering, but one story that I think is worth mentioning is an experience she had while buying a used frame:
“My biggest challenge is acquiring frames. For the Pool Party piece, I saw a frame on Market Place and I had to have it, so I drove to this abandoned house in the middle of nowhere, and I couldn’t fit it in my car, and my door wouldn't shut, and my dog was sitting in the passenger seat, so I tried to call someone to help me, but then this stranger started yelling at me and walking towards me. He tried to open my car door. Normally I would lock the doors and stay in, but I couldn’t because the frame was sticking out of the other side, and so the man started walking to the other side of my car, so I just started driving. I drove with my door open, my dog barking, and the wind going crazy. I wrapped my dog leash around the door, and I drove all the way home holding a dog leash around this giant frame that was sticking out of my car. That was, I think, the worst experience I had. I rather not relive that experience.”
When I asked Maher if she will be sticking with puzzles as her main medium, she said, “If I am ‘the puzzle girl’ forever, I don't mind. I love puzzles.” Maher’s work can be found on her website, and some of her original pieces are up for sale.
1. Walter Benjamin and Harry Zohn, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: An Influential Essay of Cultural Criticism; the History and Theory of Art (Lulu.com, 2018).
2. Cleanth Brooks and Robert Warren, Understanding Poetry, 4th Revised ed. edition (New York: Wadsworth Publishing, 1976).
3.Marshall McLuhan, Marshall McLuhan: On the Nature of Media: Essays, 1952 - 1978, ed. Richard Cavell (Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press Inc., 2016).