Chapter 5. About the Arts.
Technical problems prevented me from publishing my last series of posts over the last 4 weeks. The problem is finally solved.
I'll now be publishing, the 5 final posts of this winter series, on the coming Fridays...
Sorry again for the interruption.
Table of content.
5.1. Clarification of the concept “the arts”
5.2. The origins of the arts
5.2.1. An acquired predisposition
18.104.22.168. A biological predisposition for beauty
22.214.171.124. Art satisfies an individual thirst for comfort in social interrelations
5.2.2. Life uses the arts to ensure its reproduction
126.96.36.199. Inaccessibility of reality to human reason
188.8.131.52. Societal approximation of reality
184.108.40.206. Art finds its substance in knowledge
A. Visual arts
5.2.3. Biological evolution to societal evolution
220.127.116.11. Social brain hypothesis and Dunbar number
18.104.22.168. Worldviews, rituals, and the arts
22.214.171.124. The arts at the service of life
5.3. Evolution of the arts though history
5.3.1. The arts under tribal societies
5.3.2. The arts under imperial societies.
A. The road to power & specialization
B. The arts as a regulated trade
C. The sanctification of the arts in Early Modernity
A. Who are the artists?
B. Specialization of the different functions of the shaman
C. Unification through centralization & standardization
D. Evolution of the arts under empire
5.3.3. The arts under Modernity.
126.96.36.199. A rapid sketch
188.8.131.52. No valid artistic answers
5.3.4. The arts in Late-Modernity
184.108.40.206. Visual art & meaning - societal sense
220.127.116.11. An Artistic Renaissance
18.104.22.168. Many contemporary ideas about the future.
22.214.171.124. The future is probabilistic
126.96.36.199. The arts as a narrative about life and reality
188.8.131.52. The world’s Late-Modernity & the arts in China
5.4. The arts in what comes after Modernity
5.4.1. Knowledge under After-Modernity
184.108.40.206. The world is stuck in a European trap
A. Sanctification of the arts
B. The context that made Modernism
C. From Modernism to the confusion of Late-Modernity
D. Escaping the confusion and a Vision about the future
220.127.116.11. Humanity is confronted with a choice
18.104.22.168. Knowledge in After-Modernity
5.4.2. The arts under After-Modernity
22.214.171.124. The biological predisposition
126.96.36.199. Individual thirst for comfortable & warm social interrelations
188.8.131.52. The principle of life
184.108.40.206. The organic is the new worldview of After-Modernity
220.127.116.11. The arts under After-Modernity
I became a thinker by necessity. Painting was always my preferred field of doing but I gradually felt dumbfounded by most of the contemporary productions that the art world imposes on our societies. At first I thought that this was because I was dumber than a rock, but without asking for it, my mind had started bouncing ideas around and this is how I became involved in a thinking process that after many years led me to conclude that the art world is decidedly very sick. But I never was satisfied with that conclusion. A nagging question was indeed haunting my mind “what is it exactly that sickens the art world? ”. As you can imagine such a question has opened a can of worms and I found myself following them in all fields of human knowledge. For years, no for decades now, I have been running through books in all fields of knowledge and along the way I have gradually become more selective and formed my own vision about the reality we live in today.
I discovered indeed that the arts are interrelating with a multitude of other factors at work in the principle of life and in our societies and not only are all these factors interrelated they are interdependent which means that the arts just can’t escape them. The arts are human activities and as such they are components – of the principle of life (species) and – of our societies:
What this means is that the interactions between the individuals and their society constitutes the dynamic of life and the arts are an integral part of that dynamic of the life of the human species. In other words the arts fit within that dance between the individuals and their society. I reproduce here under the graphs given in chapter about consciousness.
This chapter shows how the individuals fit in the cycle of life. See part 1, part 2, part 3.
“the cycle of life”
“the dynamic of the life of species”. See here
The conclusion I arrived at here above is that art fulfills a role in the life of the human species and in our societies which are the intermediaries between the human species and the individuals. But at this point of my reasoning things are starting to become complicated because there is no agreement on what role the arts are fulfilling – or in life – or in societies – or in both simultaneously. Sure we know that people like watching paintings, listening to music and watching dance. But why is it that they watch and listen? Simply because they like?
I never was satisfied with such an answer. It is simply not good enough for the good reason that it explains nothing. If we say that people watch and listen to the arts because they are submerged with pleasure then we are onto something a lot more interesting. Pleasure and suffering are indeed incentives that we can’t resist. Pleasure is nature rewarding us for doing something that is useful for life while pain is nature punishing us for doing something that is inadequate for the principle of life. Pleasure and pain are nature’s way to make the individuals do things in a way that is beneficial to the principle of life; the Chinese say that it’s the nature of the Tao.
The fact is that if we don’t get a regular shot of pleasure we end up suffering and the pain forces us to search for ways to satisfy that need in one way or another. We know, for example, that eating gets us pleasure and if we do not eat our stomach will contract of hunger and the pain will oblige us to find a way to eat. This closes nicely the loop of a biological necessity and the same goes for sex. We go wild for the pleasure that sex procures and sex also ensures that the individual will reproduce his genes. Without sex we soon feel ill at ease and after a long time without sex we feel frustrated which forces us to find a way to satisfy that need. Again nature has found a nice trick to close the loop of a biological necessity. But at this point I’m afraid that political correctness will try to reform my thoughts. “You are justifying the actions of rapists”! No I’m not. The fact is that biology has its ways which are not societal ways. If you think that those ways are out of sync then you have to correct society; there is indeed nothing we can do to change the course of our biology. In sum we have to change society in such a way that it manages those biological needs that impinge on societal ways.
What about the arts? We say that the arts procure us pleasure. But what does the pleasure procured by the arts bring about? We know that food ensures the reproduction of the individual and sex ensures the reproduction of the species but what do the arts ensure? If we don’t know what the arts are for then the question becomes why do the individuals spend so much time producing and enjoying art?
At this point we have reached three questions that have to be answered in order to make sense about the reason, the place and the function of the arts in the life of the individuals, the life of our species, and in our societies:
It is my thesis that the content of art works, or the narrative they convey, constitutes this something that is vital for life itself. This something is so fundamentally vital for life for the very simple reason that it is what ensures the reproduction of the species. In other words life uses an existing individual predisposition for the pleasure procured by artworks in order to instill in the minds of the individual that which ensures the reproduction of that individual and of his species.
In this sense the arts are figuring at the top of the list of priorities for life and for the human species. The present times of high uncertainty are perhaps the right time for humanity to rediscover that immemorial truth. It contains indeed the seeds of the solution to get humanity over its predicament as it is manifesting in Late-Modernity. But we have to keep in mind that the factors provoking the descent of Modernity have reached an advanced stage of development already. In other words the baking of the cake is well advanced and so there is no way any longer to reclaim the flower we mixed with water initially.
This was a rapid and very sketchy overview of the thinking that has animated my mind along the last 4 decades. It has definitely had an enormous impact on my painting. In summary I found myself being questioned:
Such a conclusion entraps painters and other visual artists in a field of total confusion that by Late-Modernity has unfortunately engulfed the entire art world. Over the last 3 decades I have dedicated my life to clear that fog of confusion by thinking, writing and painting. I think in order to understand the reality we are living in. I write to clear the thoughts coming to my mind through thinking and I paint to enlarge the horizons of my thinking. From my personal experience I can attest that the triad ‘thinking, writing, and painting’ acts like a booster on one’s consciousness.
I feel that in the absence of a worldview shared by society at large the trio 'thinking, writing, and painting' have become a necessity to keep my sanity. Thinking, writing, and painting are complementary to me; thinking about what is reality, writing about that thinking, and painting with all that in mind. My painting is thus like an extension of the thinking and writing. Painting helps me to clarify my ideas and projects a deeper and richer meaning in my thoughts. While in my thinking I delve into something I’m conscious about my painting is more like a subconscious exploration that expands that thinking in areas unknown which at times brings me in startling places.
The subconscious sets our minds free from all the stop signs to knowledge that we have accumulated along the path of our socialization, societal conditioning, and personal self re-enforcement. The subconscious lets us see out of that box and discover dimensions of reality that are hidden to our conscious selves. But the use of such hidden dimensions, and their integration inside a narrative that can be shared with others, implies the command of a good knowledge base. Leonardo was making the same kind of observation some 500 years ago apropos the “marvelous discoveries” that emerge out of irregularities in the canvas or in the stains on the wall. He was pointing to the knowledge that is necessary first to be able to see these discoveries and he was also pointing to the technical skills that are necessary to complete the rendering of these discoveries (2). The same goes with the dimensions of reality that are hidden to our conscious self. The absence of a good knowledge base simply blinds our unconscious to these dimensions that are invisible to the conscious self. And if our knowledge base lets us discover these dimensions we still need a sufficiently good command of the technical aspects of this representation in order to avoid being stuck in technical matters.
Here are some images of works illustrating the process I’m talking about. They reflect my personal evolution in painting over the last 45 years. These images are given in the historical order of their creation so that you can see the evolution of my observation and rendering.
1979 Morcelle. Landscape at Morcelle.
1981 Morcelle. Looking into the future.
Beijing 2001. Terry praying.
2004 Waukesha. Soundwaves.
2007 Waukesha. The emergence of life.
2012. Milford. At the threshold of nature’s wrath.
2015. Milford-Beijing. The grand project. 2-04.
2015. Beijing the grand project (a work in progress).
First 20 canvasses. 3 x 3.6 m
The picture on top of this page: 2-04 is located in the 2nd column from the left
at row 4 from bottom or 2nd row from top.
5.1. Clarification on what we call the arts.
Art is a West European concept that came gradually in use sometime during the transition between the Late-Middle-Ages and Early Modernity (12-16th century). The word should not be confused with its earlier French understanding as “a diverse range of human skills” which is best rendered in the German word “Fach” that contains the implication of “a job executed with skill”. This French and German use of the word art refers to an older more general application of the principle of skill or job executed with skill that had no artistic connotation but was understood as a craft that was regulated by a “guild”. “In medieval cities, craftsmen tended to form associations based on their trades, confraternities of textile workers, masons, carpenters, carvers, glass workers, each of whom controlled secrets of traditionally imparted technology, the "arts" or "mysteries" of their crafts. Usually the founders were free independent master craftsmen who hired apprentices” (2).
The emergence of the word art in its modern artistic meaning refers to the specialization of a job and a skill that applies uniquely to the narrow field of creating “High-Culture” which means the culture of the establishment that was considered more noble, more dignified more important, than the culture of the people or street culture. Let’s remember that Early-Modernity is the historical era when the new rich long distance merchants emerge as a force of progress that contrasts with the old traditional components of the establishment, I mean, the clergy and the aristocracy.
This progressive force wanted naturally to affirm its new value system which was based on the economic reason at work within capital and the cultural values attached to individualism. The cultural affirmation of individualism acted as a moral justification for a set of new social values excusing social inequality and justifying the newly acquired private property of those long distance merchants. We have always to keep in mind that in this new social dynamic of Early-Modernity the merchants represented the progressive forces within their societies and they had to defend and justify the new economic and social paradigm that their activities were trying to impose on Western European societies.
In other words the merchants were on a mission to project a new worldview that starkly contrasted with the religious worldview of Christianity. This implies that the merchants were engaged in a competition for dominance with the priests. This was a risky undertaking indeed. The priests presided over the inquisition which was an instrument of repression that threatened to burn at the stake anyone who dared to disrespect their rules. Over the centuries the merchant’s project transformed into the creation of a modern high culture that was powered by propagandizing their new ideas through the production of works of fine art. Fine art was conceived as the production of the finest, most refined, works meant to project their modern high culture in the minds of the citizens of their societies. In this sense the arts were used as modern high culture tools to propagandize the worldview of the new rich merchants and this unmistakably differentiated them from the arts of the street. This differentiation subsists to this very day even if nearly everybody is incapable to explain why the arts are more than crafts.
No wonder that the new rich merchants acted as financiers and commissioners of such works. This also explains how 3 subjects soon were recognized as the obliged and exclusive subjects of Modern art: landscapes around the mansions, portraits of those living in the mansion and stills of what lays on the tables in the mansion. The reason for such paintings was self evident but it is never talked about as if to hide their true social nature. They acted as a glorification of the exceptional new way of life of the new rich and their social class the bourgeoisie. But why do so few people dare to speak about this reality? Or is it simply crass ignorance?
Before Early-Modernity the situation was as follows :
In the eyes of the social class of the new rich long distance merchants art was a glorification of their exceptional new way of life. But what about the artists?
The artists who entered at the service of the new rich earned a lot more than what the church paid them traditionally. So by entering at the service of the new rich artists were becoming well-off. But one can imagine that leaving the church to jump at the service of the new rich did not go without trouble in the environment of the inquisition. This is what explains the higher remunerations offered by the new rich. Becoming well-off themselves the social standing of the modern artists participated in spreading the myth of the exceptionality of their productions.
So in sum the artists’ production were sanctified by the interaction between these two factors:
So the combination, on one side, of the new “exceptional” way of life of the new rich and, on the other side, the newly gained social standing of the artist that was spreading the myth of the exceptionality of their productions; the combination of these 2 factors imposed, in the minds of all, the idea of the exceptionality of the productions emerging from the skills of the artists. The traditional meaning of the arts, as production skills at the attention of the street, got instantly dignified and sanctified once these “Arts” were produced at the special attention of the rising social class that soon would be the dominant force within the establishment.
We have to try to imagine for an instant what was going on in the minds of the European establishment, once it started to conquer the whole world and started to steal its resources, in terms of their perception about the exceptionalism of their social class, the exceptionalism of their countries, the exceptionalism of Europe. It is indeed in this very peculiar context of immense financial fortune that the Arts acquired their status of productions at the attention of the bourgeoisie which appeared as the most progressive and successful social class in the time of Early Modernity that goes roughly from the 14th till the 19th century. It is this context of rapid accumulation of capital and the ensuing private accumulation of fortunes that shined an aura of exceptionalism on the artists and their Arts.
Europe considered itself to be exceptional and in the minds of Europeans the arts were so many signs of their exceptionality. They viewed the practices of other people simply as crafts or religious artifacts to be traded in antique show rooms or in interior decoration boutiques but not in art galleries or museums. Europeans never attributed to those foreign objects the same artistic exceptionalism as they did to European artistic productions. This attitude has an appropriate appellation that political correctness censures us to pronounce. But truth seekers should not embarrass themselves with such trivialities. The facts are simply the facts. This European attitude is called Eurocentrism and in our globalized eyes this “ism” looks like it is covered with a thick layer of dust. The time has come for both the ism and the dust to be wiped from the face of this earth. And all present and past productions of all the cultures on this earth have to be recognized on par with European artistic productions. I know that the art world, in Kuspit’s definition as the sum of all the intervenors in the art market, is still not ready to let go the privilege of a dishonestly gained hegemony. But however we look at our world the fact is nevertheless that their time is running out.
Having said all that the concept “art” relates to visual or auditory works whose beauty or emotional power resides in:
What I mean here by content or narrative refers to a meaning that entitles a wider range of representations than the traditional stories, logical and philosophical expositions, realistic depictions of what the eyes can see, or the suggestion of emotions. In other words what I mean to say is that the content of an artwork refers to a presentation of reality from whatever angle that best fits the artist’s strategic ambition to communicate his society’s worldview to the minds of the viewers or listeners. What is important in term of content is the strategic goal to communicate the worldview of one’s group to the minds of all the members of that group. But the illustration of what is communicated varies necessarily with the societal and historical context; or to say this otherwise the communication must register the societies’ vibrations in that particular time. I mean by this that visuals and sounds vary in time and space between total abstraction and hyper realism and as such the gamut of possibilities is nearly infinite with no one of these possibilities being superior to any other.
But what I really mean to say here goes even further. This near infinite range of possibilities that I refer to does not derive from the artist’s individual freedom of choice but rather it is the general context that imposes that choice to the artist. The air of the time is indeed not a question of personal preference for the good reason that the general societal context, at any given moment over the span of time, is commanding the contours of what best matches human life in that specific time. In conclusion the contour, or the reality, of a specific time is what determines the choice of shade between abstraction and realism.
What distinguishes the artists is related to how they render the vibes of their particular societal and historical context and this transpires in:
Great art, in whatever society and in whatever historical period, necessarily contains these two things --intelligence of content and skill of execution-- all at once.
In this sense the arts have no geographic borders nor any historical boundaries. They should thus not be judged by comparison with a presently dominant or hegemonic culture. In other words their value should not be appraised by so called authorities belonging to other societal cultures. The value of the arts resides indeed exclusively within the boundaries of the societal cultures where they are produced. For example it is my contention that the selections by Western collectors of Chinese contemporary paintings, at the start of China’s opening, have no significance whatsoever for China’s society.
But it is nevertheless an incontrovertible fact that Western collectors 30 or 40 years after their selection was realized are now trying to impose their criteria of choice on China’s society. This operation can’t be seen any other wise than as a blatant political interference in China’s cultural affairs. The way the game is being played by these collectors is to impose the idea on Chinese society that the works they bought have attained artistic authority by invoking as proof of their saying so the high financial valuations these works achieve on the market. First they operated a selection of works at a time when Chinese artists had no notion at all of value. The works they bought were thus dirt cheap and furthermore, even if this was done unconsciously, their selection was made according to Western ideological criteria. Secondly the art market in China was inexistent and to some extent it is still today. So their game consisted in playing their dirt cheap ideologically framed Chinese artworks on the Western art market which till today is largely controlled by Western capital and by Western actors and interveners like art reviewers, art appraisers, auction houses, galleries, museums, and so on…
Confronted with such a market reality Chinese artists understandably obliged in order to make a buck and produced what attracted Western collectors. What attracted Western collectors was what made a splash in the media. So selection criteria overwhelmingly favored works, that were critical of the Chinese authorities or of Chinese culture and, gained the front pages of Western media. Seen from a historical standpoint this shall, without any possible doubt, be remembered as a marginal or anecdotal Western ideological fork on the road of Chinese art that was bought maliciously with Western easy cash. I hope Chinese collectors will have the brains to stay away from these works and make their own selections according to their own criteria. Only Chinese made collections can validly reflect the vibrations of Chinese society. Western established collections can only project the ideological vision of China that their financiers, consciously or unconsciously, want to project.
This example demonstrates that there is no such a thing as an artistic exceptionalism that is valid universally. The world is not the expression of one but of multiple cultures. For centuries Europe got away with the projection of the myth of its own universal exceptionalism. This time is now ending.
Coming back to our subject matter the fact of the matter is that since tens of thousands of years all people on earth have been producing art works. But this does not explain when, why, and how art productions emerged in the first place. Humans are animals who, for different contextual reasons, some 2 million years ago came down from the trees and started to walk on their feet which resulted in the biological evolution of their bodies. The resulting biological mutations appear to have predisposed them for artsy talk and behaviors that were picked on over the last few hundred thousands years and culminated when their brains had grown and evolved to their present size some 200,000 years ago. The arts emerged as a result of these 2 consecutive evolutionary moves: one some 2 million years ago and one some 150-200,000 years ago.
The narrative about the emergence of the arts can not escape the systemic complexity of the evolution of the principle of life. Humans are biological creatures that undergo biological mutations but we are also social animals who live in groups or societies and our groups evolve at the rhythm of their cultural mutations. Furthermore biological evolution and societal evolution impact on each other.
In the case of art a cultural mutation some 2 million years ago (upright walking) fostered an answer in the form of a biological mutation (narrowing pelvis) that imposed the need for ever more immature babies at birth. This imposed a cultural adaptation (care-taking and baby-talk) that has predisposed humans forever there after to experience pleasure at the contact of the raw ingredients of aesthetics.
After further evolutionary moves such a predisposition for the raw ingredients of aesthetics became an opportunity sized upon by societal evolution to ensure the preservation of life and to ensure its further reproduction.
In what follows I try to explain how systemic complexity has put the arts at the service of the principle of life. But this implies that when the arts lose their bearings life is being endangered and Late-Modernity proves this point without any possible doubt.
1. Duchamp in an interview with James Johnson Sweeney in “Eleven Europeans in America”, cited in Herschel B. Chipp. Theories of modern art. University of California Press.
In this interview Duchamp said the following: “I was interested in ideas not merely in visual products. I wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind. ... In fact until the last hundred years all painting had been literary or religious: it had been at the service of the mind. This characteristic was lost little by little during the last century. ... Dada was an extreme protest against the physical side of painting. It was a metaphysical attitude. ... It was a way to get out of a state of mind to avoid being influenced by one's immediate environment, or by the past: to get away from clichés to get free. .. Dada was very serviceable as a purgative. ... There was no thought of anything beyond the physical side of painting. No notion of freedom was thought. No philosophical outlook was introduced. ... I thought of art on a broader scale. There were discussions at the time of the fourth dimension and of non Euclidean geometry. But most views of it were amateurish. ... This is the direction in which art should turn: to an intellectual expression, rather than to an animal expression. I'm sick of the expression ‘bete comme un peintre’ - stupid as a painter”.
While pointing to what is the fundamental disconnect of the arts Duchamp stays at the level of generalities and never really enters the field of deep thinking about the meaning and function of the arts. In other words he was trying to find an answer in the doing of art but this could never be more than a makeshift job. His use of the expression “being dumb as a painter” shows that he wanted to find answers to the arts’ disconnection with their true function. But perhaps the general context of his time was not ripe for the sprouting of a true intellectual inquiry into the historical function of the arts.
2. Leonardo in ”On Painting” An anthology of writings by Leonardo Da Vinci. Published by Yale Nota Bene. Yale University Press.