Chapter 5. About the arts
China and the countries in the TriContinentArea ("Middle-East: in Western European parlance) experienced a radically different transition from tribal societies to empire. In one word the countries in the TriContinentArea, as well as those that later adopted one of their worldview like Europe and its colonially forced geographic extensions for example, experienced a rupture with their tribal and animist past. China on the other hand experienced continuity. I exposed the reason for this radical divergence in “4.7.2. About the emergence and development of China's institutions of governance".
Rupture means that empires discarded anything relating to tribes and developed a new governance structure and a new worldview from scratch. Continuity means that empires grew organically by adopting animism and by growing it further with add-ons.
This rupture versus continuity principle implies two radically different paths for the arts in Europe versus China.
A. Who are the artists?
We have seen that in Europe religion hired specialized image maker craftsmen to illustrate the creed and that it recognized them a very low social position. In China the men of knowledge remain in charge of crafting the images in the early imperial stage of the sage-emperors from 3000 to 200 BC. Only later will specialized and professional image makers be hired to illustrate the new emerging needs of the court and of the nobility & the rich.
I developed my ideas about the process of knowledge formation and the evolution of China's societal governance in "4.7.2. About the emergence and development of China's institutions of governance. 220.127.116.11. The context. B. Worldview and cultural context ". Chinese arts evolved within that particular context.
In summary, with the Tianxia unification (1) under the sage-Sovereigns the tribal men of knowledge remained in charge of the arts. Their practice integrated 2 dimensions:
"The retreats of the men of knowledge from their tribes, often took place inside caves, deep inside forests, or high in mountains. They were seen as ritual ceremonies during which the men of knowledge and their apprentices sharpened their knowledge base as well as their practices. These ceremonies were also high moments of "artistic creation". But we have to be counscious about the fact that the term artistic creation is a modern term. What was going on during these ceremonies had nothing to do with our contemporary understanding about the arts. What we call arts, visual – music – dance, for the shaman represented no more than methods used to:
What remains visible today of those artistic expressions are nearly exclusively the expressions realized during the shamanic retreats. Evidently very few of those works, dating ten to tens of thousands years, have been preserved for us to see in Late-Modernity. Among the best known are the cave paintings. But paleolithic cave paintings are unknown of in traditional China. The nearest paleolithic Cave Paintings are located in Khoit Tsenkher in Mongolia. If Cave paintings are unknown of in China many sites are known for their paleolithic rock carvings. It is my contention that some of these sites were shamanic retreats in the same way as were the caves where paintings have been found. These sites were not habited. They were mountainous and arid areas located at a distance from tribal passageways or agricultural villages that offered the men of knowledge the necessary privacy from their fellow tribesmen.
"Everywhere on earth such retreats by the men of knowledge from their tribes consolidated such notion of the whole known territory (all under heaven). They were also seen as an opportunity to focus on knowledge which means that they were unifying the belief systems within the territory and simultaneously they were an opportunity to participate in the rituals to venerate the knowledge of the sage men of knowledge.
So during Late tribal societies and their transition to Early-Kingdoms the men of knowledge started developing a knowledge about:
The further the territory was expanding the further the idea of "all under heaven" in the worldview had to be accentuated in order to solidify the sense of cultural unity within a growing territory. One has always to remember the context of that period. Transportation was limited to walking and a day of walking meant moving 100 km (60 miles) at the most. So a problem rapidly emerged. How to foster the cultural unity of a territory that expanded over hundreds of kilometers? The ancient books indicate that this was realized through the sharing by all within the territory of the symbolism represented by the sage. That era is referred to as the “Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors” in the ancient classic books.
The Chinese mythology about the creation of the world gives Pangu as the creator who separated the earth from the heaven. After that “three great rivers successively governed the world” (2) which are the 3 Sovereigns. The ancient classic books mention slightly different variations of who classifies as the 3 sovereigns. Here under is a classification that is based on my own interpretation of the various sources:
But who was Huangdi? If he vanquished a line of flames he was not a flame himself. But who was he then? The classics refer to the flame emperors and their 5 successors as sages and masters of the knowledge of their time. So Huangdi was a man of knowledge who had not attained the status of flame and who triumphed most probably for the simple reason that no shaman had attained sage-hood or the status of flame when Shennon had reached old age.
In terms of the arts what is important to remember is that during the entire transition from tribes to empire the flame sovereigns and their 5 successors participated with the other men of knowledge in:
And in between feasts the recitation of the memory of those artworks was solidifying a united cultural vision in the minds of the tribesmen and later the villagers and cities. Numerous products of such recitations reached us in the form of excavated pottery.
This model of the men of knowledge as a shaman and an artist will change drastically with the dynastic transmission of power that was initiated around 2,000 BC.
B. Specialization of the functions of the shaman
Things changed sometime after the emergence of the Xia dynasty, founded by Yu the Great, around 2,000 BC who fell for the cult of individualism and the glorification of the ego and transmitted his charge to his son. This was the start of the transmission of power through family line which suggests that an institutionalization took place of the inequality that had started to appear already at the end of the Yangshao culture between 4000 and 3000 BC.
This was for sure a radical departure from the animism of the past tens of thousands of years and it initiated a conflict between the newly venerated ego and the self. The shamanic tradition had always encouraged the cultivation of the self while totally rejecting the ego. By glorifying the ego China’s power societies made the self a sure loser and with this loss the communication with the spirit of the universe was in trouble thus creating an opening for the earthly spirits (ancestors and totemic animals or plants).
The sages, men of power and emperors, knew about this conflict and turned the contradiction around by advising a specialization of the different fields that had traditionally been among the functions of the men of knowledge or shaman:
The communication of the Wu with the spirits gave them powers that were feared by the sages-men of power who I reality had transformed into scholars-men of power. So, over the next thousands of years, the ancient books show that the men of power avoided coming in direct contact with the Wu and they also feared his communication with their ancestors. In other words the memory of the tradition renders the Wu necessary but he is also feared and this explains how the most important function of the traditional animist men of knowledge is being marginalized in China’s power societies. Depending on one’s views, about the spirit of the universe, Animism+ has been:
There should nevertheless be no doubt about one handicap that specialization bestowed on the knowledge of animism+. It took the spiritual (the subconscious) out of the traditional shamanic fields that henceforth were being the preserve of specialists who had to submit to the men of power. This is how the cultivation of wisdom in the mind under religious Taoism cook have taken such a back seat to the cultivation of the body. Men of medicine and scholars thought that “firing the stove” and “fine tuning the body” (4) would procure them eternal life and this belief in eternal life became proof in their minds of their wisdom. In reality the transformation of knowledge under dynastic rule gave way to a cult of power:
All these taoist expressions relate to the focus by the patriarchs (men of power) on reaching immortality. These expressions give us a feel of how radically Chinese society had been transformed after the animist sages, acting as symbols of a unifying and expanding Tian Xia, started to transfer their charge within their blood line. The result was:
C. Unification through centralization and standardization
The specialization of the knowledge tasks introduced by the dynastic system of power transmission remained largely intact till the fall of the empire in 1911.
Between 230 and 221 BC Qin Shi Huang broke the confederate union of kingdoms by conquering them and ripping apart their power structure. For the first time the Chinese territory was being unified solely under central power. Qin Shi Huang also standardized the written and spoken language, the money and the weight and measures and so the most important forms impacting peoples daily lives were suddenly unified by force.
The unified and centralized empire also evolved a specialized art system:
Chinese are largely immune to metaphysical speculation. They have no need for such speculation seen that the pragmatism imprinted in their traditional animist culture is reflected in most aspects of their daily lives: the yin-yang working of reality, food, medicine, social interactions,… And there is no doubt that this animistic culture is reflected also in their art. This reflection is the function of Xieyi painting.
D. Evolution of Chinese art under empire
Early animist painting was ornamental it consisted of patterns or abstract designs rather than representations. The earliest forms of painting are seen on pottery which was painted with spirals, zigzags, dots, or animals. Artists only began to represent the world around them with the Warring States period (475-221 BC).
At the image of Chinese society as a whole painting evolved slowly by absorbing new subjects of representation: landscapes in the 4th century, birds and flowers in the 9th century. Figure painting was already popular in the Neolithic era, first on pottery, then on tiles, and tomb walls. Li Kung-lin developed an original figure painting style in the 11th century the Pai Miao style or pure line drawing. It was said that his style merged painting with calligraphy. Pai Miao has been a favorite style of painting in China ever since.
During the Tang dynasty (618–907) a painter named Wang Wei invented Xieyi or ink and wash painting. It was realized with the same tools as calligraphy. So the scholar practiced Xieyi, calligraphy and poetry very much as one way of expression to the point that poetry was calligraphed on Xieyi paintings. Xieyi emphasized spiritual qualities and the painting’s ability to reveal the inner harmony of nature as perceived by Taoist philosophy. The Xieyi painter is a philosopher, a seer, who tries to discover the true hidden nature, or the Tao, of the object he represents.
5.3.3. The arts under Modernity.
Modernity is a worldview that the whole of humanity willingly or unwillingly is sharing today. Past worldviews have not been eradicated. They survive in the form of religions, philosophies and ways of life. Modernity has simply been imposed on top of these traditional ways of thinking and doing. This means that the penetration of the values of Modernity differentiates from one society to another. In other words our present reality is one of co-existence between Western Late-Modernity and traditional worldviews that willy nilly integrated the reason at work within capital. Such a reality is highly unstable for the good reason that traditions are threatened by the reason of capital which provokes the opposition from the most conservative quarters and so societies assist at the dissolution of their cohesion.
18.104.22.168. a rapid sketch
Along Early-Modernity (a European phenomenon) the combination of individualism and the sanctification of the arts gave a new impetus to the image craft. Images started to relate to the individuality of the new rich:
The form of the works’ content was vastly influenced during the Renaissance by the rediscovery and reading by the monks of the Greek Classics. Visual perspective imposed itself in landscapes while numbers and the Golden Mean imposed themselves as the canons of portraiture.
Things started to change again with the waning of the cycle of early modernity and the emergence of high modernity in the 19th century.
High Modernity was the consecration of:
Those general principles were not, and are still not, visible to the naked eye. What was visible, and is still visible today, are the changes in daily life provoked by the introduction of always newer offers on the market. What was not visible, and is still not clearly visible today for many, are the consequences such offers are inflicting upon the principle of life. So the people of the nineteenth century, and first and foremost the most sensitive among them the artists, saw their lives change to the rhythm of the introduction of new offers. Cotton socks were so cheap that everybody, or mostly everybody, could now wear socks. This was a great change indeed but it did not impact the way people perceived reality. The train, the telegraph, electric lightning, electric motors and other offers were another matter altogether.
The notion of distances for example must have taken a beating. Forever people had traveled on foot or on the back of an ox, a donkey, or a horse. The speed was slow and the eyes had grown accustomed to see things at such speeds. But with the advent of trains the eyes lost their traditional bearings. Things appeared different more furtive, or should we dare say, more impressionistic perhaps? The advent of the telegraph was even more troubling. Words, sentences, messages could now be sent or received at great distances without the need to move. This does not seem impressive in our contemporary eyes but for nineteenth century people this must have had a lot bigger impact than the Internet is having on us and on our societies nowadays. The cultural shock was considerable.
Now think about the impact that the introduction of electricity, electric lights and electric motors must have had. A force coming from nowhere for the eyes to see must have appeared like magic or for the better educated science was creating the magic. But only very few scientists really understood the principles at work behind that magic. For the first time in history a human production was powered by something that was not accessible directly to the eyes. The eyes were failing man so, for visual artists, an explanation of reality had to be found at that causal level that was inaccessible to the eyes and herein in essence lays the root of Modernism.
The new paradigm of reality that imposed itself in the second part of the 19th century is that, what the eyes can not see, the mind can eventually understand. Science, mathematics, physics attracted artists and so they started to befriend scientists.
Picasso was a friend of the mathematician Poincaré and from his very limited understanding, of the scientific discussions he witnessed his friend engaging in, he devised cubism. At first glance cubism is an esoteric system to depict reality, draped in the colors of science, but its relationship to science was not withstanding close scrutiny. Picasso has been stuck indeed repeating the same tricks during the rest of his life; 20-25 paintings per year that look similar but totally empty of any sensical content. That’s how cubism was being criticized by the other members of the Avant-Garde for being nothing else than a trick.
The Surrealists, interested in the unconscious befriended the psychoanalysts Freud and Jung and devised automatism. Breton wrote a surrealist manifesto that got some traction with critics and other artists and for some time the movement amplified but it fell prey to what Masson later called the “absurdity of whatever” at the hands of the likes of Dali and Magritte who nevertheless remain the best known representatives of surrealism to this very day but are its least interesting representatives.
Duchamp tried his hands at cubism but found that it was a farce based on a repetitive trick. He then got some success with futurism but he found that it was no more than an impressionism of movement and so he quit that fashion to go flirt with the dadaists. In pure Dada fashion, with the intention to ridicule the critics and the art world he installed a toilet seat that he called a “Ready-Made”, in an exhibition in NYC, but to his surprise the critics in their naiveté jumped on the “Ready-Made” with high praise. Duchamp felt cornered and soon decided to abandon painting altogether to spend his time playing chess. The 20th century had just lost one of its most creative artists.
In Germany and in the Eastern corners of Europe the expressionists depicted what they fell was the harshness and Kafkaesque condition of their societies. Germany was coming out of the first world punished by France and Britain with unpayable reparations for its loss in the 1st world war that dragged its economy into shambles. This was a fertile ground for revanchist nationalism to sprout and Nazism was sticking its head out of the commotion! Soon artists, musicians and intellectuals were suffocating under its cloak and many of them felt that they had to leave the country.
Kandinsky is one of the rare artist who left us something interesting to think about; something that remains intellectually refreshing to this very day (5).
The second world war gave way to a stark differentiation between what was going on in New York City and the rest of the world. In short:
While New York had imposed itself as the world center of finance and art European artists were simply ignored by that market. Seen from the perspective of those at the helm of the art market it was as if nothing was happening out of New York.
But European artists had been busy doing really serious stuff, on the margins of the art market, that would transform their societies in the years ahead. In their dreams of the future the artists of Cobra and existentialist writers in Paris left no place for life as it had been in the past. The barbarity inflicted on the populations of Europe during the 2nd world war had been so traumatic for those who had a brain that the idea of a repetition of such a barbarity in the future was simply intolerable. The artists were at the forefront of that battle against barbarity insisting that a new societal way had to be found that would guarantee the impossibility of something that atrocious to ever repeat.
What ensued was a process that drove European nations on the uncertain path of incrementally building an economic and political union akin to a United states of Europe. But from the start the process of building this union has been hijacked by the US which did not want Europe to possibly become a competitor in power projection. The unification was thus conceived as a union that would remain captive of US force. In other words, under the cloak of complexity, Europe was not allowed to develop as a federation of states as the US had done after its revolution but was kept on a con-federal path that assured trouble would ensue as soon as the context became a little rough and uncertainty unfolded. This is what we unfortunately observe today.
Today's debt crisis of the countries on Europe’s Southern flank is such a moment of uncertainty in the incremental build-up. And the flow of immigrants seeking refuge from Western policies that threw their countries into chaos is compounding the uncertainty. Europe’s past experience shows that all advances of the unification dream have been realized under the urgency of a solution to a crisis in last minute deals. But we are no longer in times of continuity. The great game of world power has started for the redistribution of the cards on the level playing field of the world and in its confederal form Europe is ill equipped to play at that game.
In one word the rest of the world has had enough of Western hegemony and, for the first time in the history of Modernity, some non Western countries have accumulated the capital as well as the military means to counter Western dominance. In the meantime Europe has been cornered as vassal of the US master and its hands are cuffed. As long as Europe agrees to be handcuffed the present debt trap, that has been compounded by the refugee problem, appears simply unsolvable.
Europe has a way out of this quagmire. It can join China and Russia to build up an Eurasian area of co-prosperity. Europe and Russia have the technology and China has the capital and the factories. Only trouble Uncle Sam does not want to hear anything about that Eurasia thing.
The artists of Cobra had been right but their vision was unfortunately recuperated and denatured by US power. The question that arises now is can European countries go back to their institutional forms as before the second world war? Yes they can. But it would mean the rapid fall of Europe out of the economy-world. Now this could perhaps not be a problem after all because as I explained, in “Book 1. 01, 02“, the present context of the great convergence will soon enough impose localism or communalism as an urgent economic and political necessity.
Hundertwasser stands tall for generating a real popular awakening to ecology that today is flourishing among the European continental public. Hundertwasser acted as the conscious mind of Europe informing about the dangers of unbridled capitalism. US artists missed out on this and their society now bears the consequences of their absence but this was somehow to be expected since the art world, based in NYC, had been shunning Hundertwasser all along and had also been doing all that is necessary to strangle any US artist who could have sticked his head above the consumerist commotion.
Whatever Late-Modernity’s contextual differences there is no way to miss the artistic differentiation that was carved out between Europe and the US after the 2nd world war. The market and the money settled in the US and imposed a kind of artistic sterilization that detached art from anything relating to life and society. Art identified with form shunned the idea of substance and its productions transformed into luxurious commodities for interior decoration at the attention of financial speculators.
In the meantime nations were left craving for answers to their problems.
22.214.171.124. No valid artistic answers
If intellectuals and thinkers had understood what had happened to the US art market starting just after the second world war their analysis would have been prophetic of the economic direction the country would engage in along the following decades. But intellectuals were nowhere near the action. They were entertaining themselves at their favorite pastime which is empty talk. Even the Club of Rome’s 1972 report The Limits to Growth was not sized upon but was criticized by all quarters. Observing today that the predictions of this report have come true is nevertheless no consolation to its authors nor to those who were receptive to its ideas.
Financialization started in the art market just after the 2nd World War. It was the discovery of making money from a money play on the scale of the entire economic sector of the arts. Financiers discovered that the financial control of a whole economic sector (financialization) gave them the latitude to generate unlimited and risk free surpluses. Compared with what they had done till then (direct investments in real productions) financialization appeared as a boon and so all their efforts would henceforth concentrate in devising strategies to financialize the whole economy.
Such a strategy was put up for adoption in the seventies when US financial leaders decided that the time had come to multiply the volume of their activities. That's how the ideas of globalization and financialization were proposed for adoption by the elites of all nations on earth through international associations like the Trilateral Commission.
The world would soon be swept under a campaign falling like an avalanche on an unsuspecting public in all the nations on earth. That campaign addressed:
Those who don't subscribe to that art-creed are simply ignored and left to fend for themselves on the margins of the market where they experience huge difficulties in finding a remuneration for their work that in normal circumstances would ensure the subsistence of their families. And whatever they do on the margins of the market they are ignored by the whole art market bureaucracy: critics, curators, etc...
The hegemony of the market is nearly total. But the fact is that it is not complete. Our period is rich in people trying their hands at creating visual signs and while only a handful make big bugs, many have to endure scarcity and the great majority has to find the means of their subsistence through third activities. Many of those creators have their own space on the web where their works are free to be viewed by all and that's what renders the hegemony of the market incomplete.
There is quality art out there but it is ignored and is thus shadowed. The only way for those artworks of quality to come to the fore is through a popular awakening to what art is all about. But this can only possibly happen after an intellectual understanding of the societal function of art emerges and matures in the minds of artists and intellectuals. My writing is a personal small contribution to such an understanding.
5.3.4. the arts in Late-Modernity
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 that it's there. We just don't know what it is. We are surprised sometimes by a ray of light that illuminates a corner of our reality but we have no time to register it in our consciousness. We are nevertheless under the spell of a fleeting feeling of indescribable beauty there on the margins and for a short time this powers our batteries.
The cultural landscape is shifting everywhere on the cloud but it is difficult to catch its patterns. It’s as if it was an unattainable task for the individual mind to grasp the fluctuations of the societal mood of the day. The cultural landscape is indeed caught up in the spectacle of the commercialization of absolutely everything. Sometimes it makes me wonder 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, in their innate wisdom, would trample with rage fetch millions. But where is the art they pretend to sell? It’s as if the talk about the works had suddenly become the metric of value. Reality has been displaced by the narratives of the slaves of capital holders.
Sometimes the financial crisis or is it the great redistribution or climate change or life extinction or resources that are peaking, I'm not sure; notwithstanding their enormity these crisis appear as a ray of hope confirming that things are really going to change whatever spiel capital is playing.
I know I'm not ready for the asylum. Too many share the same kind of feelings. After all who is normal here? Is it us or is it the flock that is running to the slaughterhouse?
I feel that the answer the avant-garde missed to find in the 20th century is now bubbling at the surface, lightly for sure but bubble after bubble, on the web and outside of the artworld, something is emerging that makes sense in my mind and opens the future to many possibilities. In the end only one possibility will materialize as the future we are going to live through. But knowing that the germs of this possibility is right here, amidst that emerging something, this is definitively powering my batteries.
126.96.36.199. Visual art in search of meaning and societal sense
The commodity-fication of fine arts in NYC's art market after the 2nd world war was never a mass market phenomenon and as such it was thus not really a commodity-fication that took place but something more narrow in scope. There was the propaganda effect of pushing works that were out of the accepted norms which would enhance the myth of Western freedom versus the bureaucratic control of the minds in the communist countries and then there was the financial interest of capital holders who were proposed to speculate on a limited range of names.
In retrospect the combination of propaganda and speculation was a wining proposition that consecrated NYC as the world capital of the arts.
How the early selection, of the rare names that were pushed, took place and is still taking place is anyone's guess. What is certain is that the High Arts have been re-routed from their immemorial function and in the process they have lost their meaning and their sense. From serving knowledge to share meaning in the minds of the citizens the arts henceforth exclusively serve capital to generate financial surpluses. In this process High Art literally died!
In parallel with financial speculation the mass market proposed a democratization of the arts. What was meant by this big word is that everyone would henceforward be able to own works of art. Multiples filled the decoration and furniture show rooms and soon after works by third world artists started to compete with multiples.
Over the last fifty years these two trends have also been accompanied by a flow of creations by the people or should I say by the street? Late-Modernity is paradoxically 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 make the calculation of all people having been artists in the whole of humanity's history, before Late-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 30 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. One should guess that the very small number of successful artists have been those that came out on top in a quality selection process. But no this is definitely not what happened. The selection process was 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 likely that the selection combined a set of 3 factors that have to reassure capital holders and speculators that their games will not be overwhelmed by a debate of ideas by lunatics on the fringe of consumer society:
Whatever is 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 diversity of the art productions realized during that time. It is as if the selected works treated about anything but societally significant matters. Moreover what about what happens out of New York?
I don't hold my breath that anything will change as long as the music goes and the financial speculators are supplied with the paper money to finance their dance.
But hidden from the art market stunning works are nevertheless being produced. Works that speak by breathing the air of our times and reflect on what is in store for humanity in the future. It is a shame that the creators of such works remain in the shadows. Their works not being recognized by the market those artists live from side jobs and often in dire poverty. If I had to give one sign of a decadent society it would surely be their non recognition of real artworks or real artists. In other words those are societies whose present choices will undeniably be rejected in the future.
The web is barely 20 years old in the form 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 before was forced to stay in the shadows 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 start to take note and some have even jumped in the fray trying to recuperate this energy at their own benefit. Charles Saatchi's website is a good example of what I'm speaking about. His site already garnered the pages of tens of thousands artists from around 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 few years are merely remunerating their owners but not much the artists who create these websites’ pages with images of their works. We are still it seems prisoners of our past ways:
188.8.131.52. An Artistic Renaissance
People feel overwhelmed in Late-Modernity. They have been imposed since a few decades to consume financialized pre-packaged cultural and artistic products that don't resonate in their deepest fibers, and calls for an artistic renaissance are reverberating from the walls of one room on the web to the next. There is like a vague malaise floating around, particularly in the fine arts, that unearths fundamental questions reminiscent of the questions that bogged the Avant-Garde around 1900:
With the benefit of hindsight it is now evident that the Avant-Garde did not answer those questions in any satisfying way. Their premise was certainly correct even if it was not formulated in a valid analytical way. They basically declared that the old ways had to be discarded. They despised past visions of reality and rejected realism as the first degree image that projects on the retina. They wanted to discover a deeper reality than what the eye can see. But in the end they did not really understand what it was that they rejected nor what it was they were searching for.
Among all the artists composing the Avant-Garde Marcel Duchamp is certainly the one who attained the deepest understanding of what art is all about; at least in his old days. “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 very serviceable as a purgative but there was no thought of anything beyond the physical side of painting. No notion of freedom was taught. No philosophical outlook was introduced. I thought of art on a broader scale. There were discussions at the time about 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 'bête comme un peintre' or 'stupid as a painter' ” (6).
Duchamp was nevertheless not aware of what it was that the literary aspect of painting was after. “This is the direction in which art should turn: to an intellectual expression, rather than to an animal expression.” Yes but an intellectual expression of what? This is the question I tried to answer in “Artsense”, albeit unconvincingly, and it is that same question that I try to frame in a larger context in “From Modernity to After-Modernity”. Going forward it is essential that artists understand what art is all about in order to be able to project meaning in the content of their works. The failure to understand, what art is all about and its function in societies, is the reason why the Avant-Garde erred and finally landed in the whateverland of Absurdistan.
Once we understand what is art and its function in societies, as I have laid out in earlier pages, the scope of the artistic search is radically narrowed. Such an understanding should encourage artists to search, among all the signs of a crumbling modernity, for those first signs of the worldview of After-Modernity that are sprouting here and there in front of our eyes but that, in our total unconsciousness of this happening, our eyes simply don’t see. The input of such a meaning in their content has the potential to reinvigorate works of art thus shaping a new area of artistic and societal sense that should attract observers' eyeballs.
I'm well aware that this is still not a satisfactory answer to the quest of the Avant-Garde for “a deeper reality than what the eye can see”. The worldview of After-Modernity and the first signs of it that are emerging in front of our eyes nowadays are merely abstractions of something tangible that still is escaping our comprehension.
Out of the ideological trappings of religious and early modern works the Avant-Garde also rejected traditional realism that was chasing the reproduction of images that the eye can see. A kind of first degree visual representation that originates in the fact that our human primary sensor is vision. Vision became our primary sensor in order to ensure our survival. The mechanism works something like this: the eyes observe what is in our nearby environment and transmit this info to the brain for synthesis and eventual orders of operation when an action is required to ensure our protection from some outside danger.
Traditional realism is a first degree visual representation in that it takes what the eyes see and reproduces that image on a support for others to see. Immediately a question jumps at us "what's the sense of reproducing what everyone can see?" There is a good reason for that. Because our minds accustomed to register images, over the long haul, they have developed an "inner understanding automatism" about what those images entail for life. By extension that automatism was then put to use by the brain in order to extract meaning from all drafted images reaching the eyes of the observer. This is where societies jumped at the opportunity to strengthen societal cohesion and thus also their own reproducibility. Drafted images convey their meaning to the brains of all who watch them and if all the members of a society watch the same kinds of images then all will be sharing a same meaning about the story of "us". In other words art in its first degree representation of what the eye can see has been put at the service of society in order to glue the minds behind a common story about reality.
It is extremely painful, for art lovers, to accept this idea that art, in its first degree representation of what the eyes can see, was at the service of society in order to glue the minds behind a common story about reality. Art as an instrument of the propaganda of power. Now that surely can't be!
But the fact is that art has been no more than this for thousands of years during the Christian religious phase of Western societal development and then during its early phase of modernity (the 3 obliged subjects of landscapes, portraits and stills relating to the mansions of the new rich merchants to substantiate the validity of their new values of individualism and private property...).
What the Avant-Garde rejected, at the turn of the 20th century, was such a first degree image that served ideologies that they abhorred: Christianity and the reason of capital in its early modern understanding before its operationalization under philosophic rationalism that the Avant-Garde idolized.
But unfortunately the Avant-Garde did not succeed to find:
The images resulting from "Visualization" techniques, generally derived from science, are not first degree representations of what the eye can see. They are representations of what can be observed through microscopes or telescopes at the nth degree in that:
While visualization was used since times immemorial it only developed into a specialized branch of knowledge in the 1990th and it is thus unknown how artists are going to incorporate the superior level of consciousness attained by scientists in step 3 of the visualization process in their own works during After-Modernity. A detour to the “First Arts” could perhaps foreshadow some of these characteristics.
The same 1, 2, 3 stepping kind of mechanism was indeed at work under animistic knowledge formation:
That superior level of consciousness is what the shaman everywhere around the world have passed on to their tribesmen. But what is stunning is the level of similarity in the shamanic stories everywhere around the world and not only in the stories but also in the imagings and abstract symbols crafted around the world during animism. They did not have the web to exchange ideas and coordinate the unification of the animistic worldview around the world. So how did this unification come about?
To start to understand the similarities in ideas, values and imagings from tribe to tribe the whole world over we have to trace the originating moment of the build-up of their knowledge. In one word observation. Or better the observation of a common given:
That the observations of shaman from North to South and East to West were largely similar is nothing strange. They were observing the same phenomena, over tens of thousands of years without wearing ideologically tainted glasses and so their conclusions logically ended up being similar. This also explains how the animistic worldview was really a universal worldview that contrasted with future imperial worldviews that were stuck in the justification of power and their particularisms: regionalism and ideology.
I’m convinced that the synthesis and further integration in the scientists' network of synaptic connections, in step 3 of their visualization of phenomena, is giving way to a superior level of consciousness that over time should lead to a unified vision about what reality is all about at the image of the systemic vision of animism. But for this to materialize it will be indispensable that scientists break their bonds of slavery to the capital holders.
But, as artists, how can we possibly switch to such a multi-level degree imaging and the superior level of consciousness that comes with it? That's the real important question of our day and I have the feeling that the answer to that question, after we ultimately find it, shall finally lay to rest the quest initiated by the Avant-Garde at the turn of the twentieth century.
It seems to me that such an answer is what is going to power the history of art during the period that comes after Modernity. But we have to remain humble. In Late-Modernity artists, as the Chinese saying goes, are only starting to try "feeling the stones in the river with their toes" hoping to find a path to the other side. We are indeed in a period of historical transition from Modernity to After-Modernity. In such a transition there is no certainty to be on the right historical path and this can be quite unsettling I admit.
1. Tianxia or “all under heaven”. The meaning of all under heaven relates to 3 elements:
2. citation in Wikipedia from Paul Carus’ book “Chinese Astrology, Early Chinese Occultism” (1974).
3. Wu, K. C. (1982). The Chinese Heritage. New York: Crown Publishers.
4. See my conversation with the spirit of Kandinsky in “Artsense” pages 201 to 210.
5. Wassily Kandinsky. On the problem of form. 1912.
6. From an interview of Duchamp with James Johnson Sweeney: “Painting at the service of the mind” in “11 Europeans in America”. Bulletin of Modern art; XIII, n# 4-5. 1946.