3. Late-Modernity (5)
3.5.3. A cultural shift
It's diffuse like fog that envelops everything and hides it from our view. We can't point our finger at it but we know it's there. We just don't know what it is and how it looks like. Surprised sometimes by a ray of light illuminating a corner of our reality, that we have no time to register, our consciousness awakens nevertheless to a feeling of indescribable beauty that charges our batteries.
The cultural landscape is shifting somewhere on the cloud and the spectacle of the commercialization of absolutely everything is all engulfing. Sometimes I'm wondering when we'll have to pay for the air we breathe. Hey we already pay a higher price for water than for gasoline! Try to make sense of that and then paintings that kids would trample upon fetch millions but where is the art they pretend to sell?
Sometimes the financial crisis or is it the great economic redistribution or climate change or life extinction or resources that are peaking notwithstanding their enormity something diffuse, I'm not sure, like a ray of hope perhaps confirms in our minds the fact that things are changing.
I have the feeling that the answer the avant-garde missed in the 20th century is now bubbling at the surface, lightly for sure, bubble after bubble on the web as I described in 3.3.5, and our senses slowly awake to a new vision of reality; a cocktail mixing animism with spices of Modernity.
That is what charges my batteries.
220.127.116.11 Under economic, social, and environmental stress the urge for societal cohesion grows exponentially.
I spend my life between the US, China, and Europe. In other words I didn't stay put in one place. I like to witness how things evolve in those 3 places that, I feel, are acting as the cornerstones of the transition from Modernity to After-Modernity that the world is experiencing. Over the last decades those 3 places have seen a dramatic shift in their cultural mood. People feel very pessimistic about their future economic realities in Europe and the US while assisting at reducing incomes and nonexistent jobs for the youth and in consequence they largely distrust their political elites. In contrast in China everyone rushes optimistically forward creating their future that looks very bright to all indeed and they largely trust their political elites. Europeans and Americans feel uneasy about their political system and look in their rear mirror unable to keep their eyes on a cloudy future while the Chinese are proud of their political system and are all eyes on the sky that expands into the future.
The contrast is simply shocking. It is as if the modern societal music had stopped to play in the West and everybody was staring at his feet not knowing what path to follow while in the East the societal music has gained a new energy and is reinvigorating all individual atoms in a national run towards the finish line of Modernity.
The Western mood is surely understandable. Incomes are declining, jobs are disappearing, youth unemployment is reaching the dangerous level at which, history shows us, social explosions eventually occur. Their institutions of power are mired in over-indebtedness that sparks vociferous calls for deleveraging but if a dust-up of expenses is necessary everyone feels that austerity policies are plunging their countries deeper into trouble.
Let's look at the USA. These last 7-8 years the new debts that the federal government contracted annually fluctuated around 10 % of GDP while GDP itself was growing at the pale figure of 1% on average. What that really means is that if the federal government had not contracted those debts the GDP figures would have tanked! Such a policy is not sustainable. It is like a curtain painted with an illusion that hides the reality on its back. Comes one day when the creditors strike back and the cost to borrow money is jumping to the roof. The day this happens shall be the day of reckoning for the US federal government because:
In a nutshell this is what plunges the Western mood in such a chagrin. People are not really aware of the reality of the problems but they feel that something is sorely wrong and are preparing to knock down some untouchable symbols that they feel embody the causes of their misery. Trouble is approaching on the road of transition. No doubt about that. In such times societies need to strengthen the level of their cohesion in order to survive. But one does not see, for now, how such strengthening is going to come about in Western countries.
In its jubilant mood China suffers from the opposite than Western countries. Everyone is so busy making money that many of them are forgetting that there are societal bounds that should not be crossed. Contrary to widespread belief in the West the Chinese have always been the most individualist people on earth but that individualism nowadays reaches sometimes the height of horror (1). Their self-absorption does nevertheless not bring them peace of mind and people feel uncomfortable. They are disoriented by the rapidity at which changes are imposing their will on them. As a result the flocking to religious practice is exploding. It is not so much that the Chinese are searching for a good explanation of reality to share with others, it's more that they are yearning for the participation in a group and the warmth that emanates from the sharing with others. In other words what is shared is less important than the act of sharing and the feeling of unity it procures. What people search for is the assurance that one is not alone in all of this. Out of very short periods of its history religious belief has never in China really coincided with the interest of power. Both went their own but separate ways. But today the authorities are well aware of the deficit in societal cohesion that is being imposed by a reinforcement of individual self-absorption due to the frenetic pace of the economic pull and while strictly controlling the activity of organized religion they are tolerating its expansion. Religious participation has undeniably a societally quietening effect but it is not a real answer. The country is urgently in need of sharing a renewed worldview with its citizens that would bring everyone in line around a common conception of societal behavior.
The Chinese already share a common understanding of reality that is explicitly contained in practical applications like their cuisine, their health practice, social relations and the working of state bureaucracy. A rejuvenated worldview has to start from what is explicitly contained in those pragmatic endeavors. In other words the Chinese have to find the ways to set Modernity in line with "Chinese Traditional Culture" (CTC).
18.104.22.168 Societal fragmentation and atomization
The background noise on the World wide Web is deafening. It seems as if everyone had declared himself a specialist in everything. The feeling of anonymity procured by staring at one's own display seems to liberate the surfer from any remnant of inhibition and gives him a sense of freedom rarely experienced in real encounters. This is very soon apparent on forums where people exchange ideas about a particular subject. What results is simply stunning. Not only is everyone liberated from any inhibition everyone soon starts to act as if he knew better than anyone else. The most startling seems to be the total absence of real curiosity to understand what the others are saying while always in an urge to contradict them. There seems definitely to be a total absence of real exchanges. Everyone says and says but most generally the saying is limited to banalities. I often have the feeling that we all have become like atoms of Hydrogen or of Oxygen in a glass of water blown up with the importance of our egotistic shit. We are so much enjoying our “individualness” that we dare jumping out of the glass as if to prove to ourselves that we are the only thing that matters. But we are superbly ignoring the fact that the atoms of H or O that would have the temerity to jump out of the glass of water, if they had the necessary free will and energy to do so, would soon find out that they just lost the quality of being a component of water and they would then discover that puff... it was the end of them.
It looks more and more as if the individuals had jumped out of their societal glass and in the process had become a bunch of retards who can no longer use sentences with more than 4 or 5 words written in phonetic rather than the commonly agreed upon vocabulary just to say some crappy banality failing to attain any substantialness. What this inspires societally is the image of a crumbling house. Yes our societal house is crumbling indeed under all this individualist crap.
I showed earlier how fragmentation and atomization result directly from the disappearance of the “men of knowledge” along modernity. The absence of the “men of knowledge” means there are no more men of authority around who enjoy respect and whose stories explaining reality (worldview) catch people's ears and minds. But how did this loss of “the men of knowledge” or better “the men of societal knowledge” happen?
22.214.171.124 Individuals search for sense and the comfort of belonging it provides.
As we saw in 126.96.36.199. under stress societies yearn to solidify their cohesion and while feeling at a loss the individual atoms are also hoping to share a worldview with the others because this ensures them peace of mind. So both sides of the equation, societies and individuals, are seemingly pulling in the same direction. One would thus expect that the satisfaction of their goal would be made easier. But this denies that the depth of the problems on both sides is wrecking havoc in the minds of the individual atoms and in the minds of those at the levers of power. As a consequence, under the assault of stress on the level playing field of the market for ideas, the minds of the individuals are torn between the available multitude of propositions.
In China people momentarily flock to Taoism, Buddhism and at the margins towards Christianity that is being promoted heavily by Western interests. This procures them a momentary comfort while being and sharing with others but this does not help increasing societal cohesion. The two sides remain as far apart as when they started. The momentary comfort of being and sharing with others quietens the minds but it does not expunge the deeper need to share a common vision about reality with all the other individuals within their society and so the feeling of insecurity and discomfort remains largely intact. Societies as the Chinese, that are so incredibly successful economically but suffer from the societal disorientation of their atoms, are torn between a historical tendency to recourse to unworkable authoritarian ways and a re-calibrated worldview that is always escaping. So the individuals are left in a mixed bag state of mind. On one side they are proud of the feat their nation accomplishes economically but on the other side they feel totally overwhelmed and disoriented by the speed at which changes sweep away past certainties and leaves them in the cold place of not knowing what's right and what's wrong any longer.
If religions give the Chinese people a momentary respite this feeling is fast overwhelmed in the maelstrom that their society has transformed into. Now it could also be the case that this schizophrenic state of mind of the Chinese individual atoms is what renders them so competitive and ultimately allows their nation to jump so high and so fast in the front line of world economic dominance. But this entrepreneurial energy is so wild that it sets societally dangerous and unwanted standards. I mean the whole of society is overwhelmed by corruption and law breaking. The authorities are well aware of the problems and since a few years, to let people then time to digest the changes brought about by Modernity, they are pushing measures forward to cool down economic growth which now seems to stabilize around a more reasonable 7%. They also have embarked on a drastic anti-corruption program that reduces public spending while increasing state income with the proceeds of what is being confiscated from corrupt officials and they are preparing reforms of the state machinery to protect against any future resurgence of corruption. This it is hoped will foster popular appreciation for the central authorities' actions which they want to use as a springboard to unleash further political reforms:
In the West the general feel is one of uncertainty about what to do next. At the hands of unimaginative politicians societies are left turning around as if they wanted to catch their own tails and in consequence they go into a deepening spiral of economic malaise. Left to watch this spectacle of incompetence, and the tendency of politicians to proffering lies after lies instead of simply telling the truth as it is, the individual atoms are overtaken by nausea and disgust for the societal decision making process as a whole. Their anger is boiling as a consequence. But the only response the establishment seems able to come up with is to weigh heavily on the lid hoping to keep the anger circumscribed to the box of the individual mind instead of boiling over in the street. This is only getting the individual atoms nearer to the point of losing it. That's when they'll start to break down the societal institutions around them and chaos inevitably will ensue.
The spectacle of societal decision making in the West has become such a blind alley that it has become difficult not to think in terms of impossible solutions erupting in the coming years. In other words what was impossible yesterday becomes possible tomorrow. This impression is largely shared, in a diffuse way, by the population at large and it is thus preparing itself for the unusual to come but its attitude is more resignation then anything else. The present calm in the street is not going to last much longer before the tempest unleashes and everything is blown up on its path. There is clearly the feeling in the west that the status quo is not going to last for much longer. In their atomic isolation the individuals began to regroup already some years ago along the tribal lines of their various beliefs and hopes. We now sense that all those tribes are starting to shed their differences and coming together more along the lines of what they reject than along the lines of building something new. Apparently the past has to be done with first for the gates of the new to open to the flood.
The transition in Western countries is not going to go down the easy way. The individuals are in for a gigantic loss in term of their way of life in comparison with what had become the accepted norm. In light of this fact the attitude of Western political elites cooperating so openly with big capital is astounding to say the least and one should thus be prepared to watch the unfolding of popular violence during the later phase of Late-Modernity. But the establishment is well aware it seems that popular anger is breeding and is preparing to counter the violence of the street with the violence of the state and its militarized police services. The outcome here is uncertain. Will the street and the police come together against the establishment or will societies become battlegrounds?
One of the most important lessons of history is that over time nature re-imposes itself over culture.
By sheer necessity people will gradually adapt to the economic fall and will be going back to gardening and building up local networks of self sufficiency and cooperation that will take over from market competition. Meanwhile the antagonism with the authorities and the establishment will have fostered very strong feelings against power. The combination of cooperation and a prejudice against power will probably give way to fleeing the cities to regroup in towns and villages.
3.3.4 Competition between worldviews for eyeballs
One of the most disconcerting shows of intellectual indecency in the west is the media obsession to position any interlocutor in the presence of his so called opposite. So on one side you can have, for example, a world renowned scientist warning of what he sees are signs of societal danger and on the other side of the table is sitting someone whose only title is the title of opponent. The scientist summarizes the latest scientific findings and shows how they indicate a need for urgent decision making. His opponent answers that the scientist's message is merely an opinion that is not shared by all his peers while mentioning the name of a scientist who claims the opposite. It seems that everything is being done to hide the facts in order to project a dualistic vision that confuses people's perception. In other words information and news have been replaced by propaganda and manipulation.
What is never mentioned in such debates is that the view of the opposing scientist most often reflects the view of a tiny minority among them and that the representatives of that minority are most generally on the payroll of a corporation or a think thank financed by corporations. This communication technique is called 'trivializing an argument with media noise' and man does it work! You can thus destabilize the argument of a specialist simply by presenting it as merely the opinion of that person figuring as one opinion among many other. So the facts cited by an authority in 'knowing' are now being trashed simply by alleging that it is merely an individual opinion.
This lamentable spectacle is daily routine on US cable TV. No wonder that the general level of knowledge has fallen so low in that country. The hypothetical example I just mentioned is not the prerogative of TV media. The trivialization with noise spreads to all media and the web is assuredly where it gained the most traction. Opinions are now spreading presented as facts. Most people just don't have the intellectual background to judge if right or false and in any case most have not the time to check out the veracity of those opinion-facts. In the meantime chapels or tribes are forming in the path of such opinion-facts and they become shared beliefs that solidify the membership of those tribes. This is akin somehow to how societal cohesion operates but in this case it is the cohesion of a small sub-group that is reinforced while entangling the cohesion of the group as a whole.
Western societies find themselves in this unique position that their societal cohesion is unraveling under the assault of a multitude of tribal groupings that find their inner-cohesion in the most erratic and non-fact based beliefs. A society that tolerates the “opinions” of its Nobel laureates to be recognized by its individual atoms as having the same weight, and often less, than the opinions of charlatans is a society that, in my opinion, is in deep shit. But this is where Western societies landed themselves in late-modernity and The Great Convergence is visibly amplifying the tribal noise.
It is difficult to see how Western societies will recover during late modernity from their tribalization. There is simply not the political will nor the vision to impulse the pull of a new societal cohesion. So political will is most probably going to be overtaken by an evolutionary push once economic conditions unravel to the point of starvation. What will result from such a push is the story of part 4: After-Modernity.
3.3.5 Visual art in search of meaning and societal sense
After the 2nd World War the US Foreign Relations establishment financed a vast Public Relations campaign (2) that had as objective to overwhelm European eyes with the productions of the New York Art School. The target was:
Soon the major trend on NYC's art market was the handling of artistic commodities. That market never really was a mass market phenomenon. Art objects were being bet on for public spectacle relayed to society at large by the media while the players were gaming fortunes. As such the whole of artistic activity had not really been transformed in the creation of commodities; it had merely been split in two different worlds:
The art market is very narrow in scope more akin to a speculation competition among the financial elites on a limited range of selected creators who for the occasion are being labeled "artists". How the early selection of those rare artists takes place is anyone's guess. But what is certain is that this selection does not relate to artistic criteria such as the content and form of the works. The selection is being undertaken by a new class of professionals that have been trained in marketing, public relations, and subsidiarily cultural theory. Their criteria for an artistic commodity's market ability relates primarily to its media noise ability. Artistic criteria are not part of the picture. By necessity content has thus to be downgraded to "absent-minded" visuals. Meaning focuses indeed the attention of the observer who then feels invited to comment and pass judgment which leads to debates and distracts from the formation of exchange value. The target of those professionals of the art talk show is to maximize the exchange value of an artistic commodity. Content must thus be neutered. It has to discourage societal discourse or debate. That means that content must focus on banalities that can monopolize the chit-chat at cocktail parties. Such banalities necessarily limit the attention of the observer to the form of the work and, seen that the work's media noise ability is what shapes its exchange value, the highest its eye and mind catching ability in the media the better the work is considered. It is a well known fact that what is shocking procures the highest eye and mind media attention and the bigger the cultural shock that is being imposed by the media on society at large the deeper its imprint in the minds and the longer that shock will be remembered.
While financial elites were frivolously playing the value of artistic commodities on the art market a spontaneous mass movement has been focusing on personal creativity. This had a real democratizing impact on the practice of the arts and the artistic quality of such works are in no way worse than the works that are quoted on the art market. The last fifty years have without any doubt been the single most productive period in the whole history of mankind in terms of the quantity of art works churned out. I suppose that if we had the necessary information to count all people having been artists in the whole of humanity's history before high modernity emerged we would be astounded to discover that the total figure would be smaller than the total number of individuals that have pretended to be artists since then.
There has been a real inflation in the number of people dabbling in the arts primarily since the last 40-50 years. But while the number of artists is assuredly high nowadays those among them who have made it into the market is assuredly very small. In a normal society one should guess that the very small number of artists selected as the successful ones is the result of a quality selection process. But no this is definitely not what happens in our Late-Modern societies. The selection process is not about the quality of the works. Had it been about quality we should be seeing today a vastly different list of names in museums and in auctions. It seems more the case that, for reason of maximizing exchange value, the market imposed a selection combining a set of 4 factors:
Whatever the case the art market and the museums that confirmed the market selection of the successful names over the last 50 or 60 years reflect very poorly on the real art productions realized during that time. It is indeed as if works reflecting on anything societally significant have been systematically shunned. Moreover what about the art produced in Western Europe, in Eastern Europe, in the former USSR, in Muslim countries, in China, in India, in Africa, in Latin-America?
Japanese artists started to appear on the art market in the eighties and Chinese artists just before 2010. The rule of the trade seems to be that when a society reaches a certain threshold of economic development Western merchants select art commodities by creators of that society, who they propose to the elite of that society only, after having built up an exchange value by initial sales to Western collectors. This looks suspiciously like a game at catching financial surpluses in the periphery to be transferred to the center.
There is no doubt that the picture of modern and contemporary art is badly skewed and in no way reflects on anything significant artistically. I don't hold my breath that anything will change as long as the music goes on and the speculators dance. But hidden from the art market stunning works are nevertheless being produced. Works that are breathing the air of our times and speak and reflect on what is in store for humanity in the future. What is a shame is that most of the creators of such works remain in the shadows. Their works not being recognized by the market those artists live often in poverty from side jobs or have full time jobs while creating in their spare time. If I had to give one sign of a decadent society it would surely be their non recognition of real artworks by real creatives. In other words those are societies whose present frivolous choices, we know for a sure fact, will be rejected in the future.
The web is some 20 years old in term of its worldwide penetration but it has already altered the way we look at things and more particularly things relating to art. Anyone can nowadays publish an image gallery of his works or publish his ideas about what art is all about or discuss with other artists about the same. An art movance has sprung up that stayed in the shadows before and that movance is questioning the relevance of what is going on in the art market, the galleries, museums and auction houses while exposing its own take on what art is all about. Galleries have started to take note and some have even jumped in the fray trying to recuperate this energy at their own benefit. Charles Saatchi's website (3) is a good example of what I'm speaking about. His site already garnered the pages of ten of thousands of artists from all over the world.
Will this movance collaborate with the art market in the future or will it find ways to spread the words and images for all to see while offering its participants a way to remunerate their work? As for today the galleries are still the only game in town in terms of remunerating the artist's work. All the art websites that sprung up these last years are merely remunerating their owners but not the artists who freely create the content of those websites. We are still it seems prisoners of our past ways:
1. Example of such horrors are daily stories in the media. For example this 3 years old little girl who was knocked down on the sidewalk by a car and then ridden over 2 more times by that same car maneuvering to leave the scene. Thirteen people were present on the scene but nobody moved to help the little girl nor to call her parents. The atrocity of this example is repeated so many times in the cases of: melanin tainted milk, used cooking oil purified to be resold as cooking oil, pollution levels in the big metropolises reaching levels considered poisonous, and so on.
2. "American modern art as an arm of US foreign policy". See:
- "American Tutti-Frutti' by Porter McCray in 'e-flux'
- "Modern art was CIA 'weapon'" by Frances Stonor Saunders in 'The Independent'.
- "Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War" by Frances Stonor Saunders (London: Granta Books)
- "The CIA and the Cultural Cold War" From Wikipedia
- "The CIA and the Cultural Cold War Revisited" by James Petras in 'The monthly Review'
- "The CIA: Funder of Trash and Terrorists" by Edward Cline in 'Capitalism Magazine'
- " Whose Art Is It Anyway?" by Peter Plagens in 'The Nation'
- "U.S. Public Diplomacy: Background and Current Issues" by Kennon H. Nakamura & Matthew C. Weed, free PDF, at Congressional Research Service 2009. See more particularly the introduction where the authors state: "The tools of public diplomacy include people-to-people contact; expert speaker programs; art and cultural performances; books and literature; radio and television broadcasting and movies; and, more recently, the Internet. ...New online social media networks such as weblogs, Twitter, MySpace, and Facebook allow individuals to connect with one-another on a global scale, providing opportunities for “many-to-many” exchanges of information that bypass the “one-to-many” sources that formally dominated the information landscape. ...The attitudes and perceptions of foreign publics created in this new environment are often as important as reality, and sometimes can even trump reality. "
3. Saatchi's web gallery
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