2. Power molds worldviews
Starting from the detailed operation of its nuts and bolts risks indeed to put us on a thinking path that contradicts how the studied phenomenon inserts in its containing ensemble. So, I think, we have to start thinking about the ensemble-system first and only after that do we try to understand the working of the parts. At first sight the evidence of this statement appears so strong that it may look to the reader like a banality. But it is not. Such a thinking path is not rare. It is very common indeed in all sciences, in philosophy, and in daily life. Having said that I was very surprised one night awakening from a dream in which I had been observing myself asking why my awakened self was not blown away by the big picture contained in the narrative of those concepts I wrote about in my last post. How could that be? How could I have failed to see the strength of the evidence that civilization had unleashed a scourge on humanity in the form of power? I knew about the emergence of power but this dream awakened me to the fact that power took such a central place in civilization that it relegates all the rest to the margins.
2.1. Power relations emerge in civilization
Civilization created societal institutions that reproduced over time and gave us religious or philosophic worldviews that differentiated those societies. But the most salient trait of civilization is its institutionalization of power relations between the citizens within their societies:
2.1. Tribal societies were free of power relations
Tribal societies had been matriarchal societies without any institution of power for tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of years. This has best been documented by the young French anthropologist Pierre Clastres in his book "Society Against the State" that was first published in 1974. In this book Clastres rejected the theses of his mentor Claude Lévi-Strauss and other Western models of tribal life. He died in 1977 aged 43 but had already exerted a profound influence on Deleuze, Guattari, and others. Referring to the title "Society Against the State" Clastres wrote: "What the statement says, in fact, is that primitive societies are missing something - the State - that is essential to them, as it is to any other society: our own, for instance. Consequently, those societies are incomplete; they are not quite true societies - they are not civilized - their existence continues to suffer the painful experience of a lack - the lack of a State - which, try as they may, they will never make up. Whether clearly stated or not, that is what comes through in the explorers' chronicles and the work of researchers alike: society is inconceivable without the State; the State is the destiny of every society. One detects an ethnocentric bias in this approach; more often than not it is unconscious. ..."
Eurocentrism has painted a one-sided ideologically negative narrative about primitive societies and animism that tainted the understanding of many generations. But there is another disingenuous practice that is even worse because it touches larger segments of the population. It is the impressionistic form of reporting about conflicts in different areas of the world. Take whatever Arab country and the image conveyed is invariably that it has a weak political system because the state is at the mercy of the whims of its different tribes. This is pure propaganda to manipulate public opinion. The reality on the ground is indeed vastly different. Tribal life in those countries vanished since a very long time. Their populations practice agriculture, don't have a clue any longer about what is animism, and entered the power dynamics of Early kingdoms since thousands of year. The ethnocentrism presenting the other as inferior as primitive essentially resulted from our unfeasible questioning of our own model: civilization, economy, culture. Our questioning was unfeasible because our shared worldview had frozen our minds under the spell of the ideological cloak instilled in us by power.
But anthropology and other sciences gradually broke that spell and we gained a different and more accurate understanding. Tribal societies were matriarchal societies for the simple reason that men were very often gone for extended periods of time on hunting or trading trips (hard stone for tools, raw mineral pigments and oxides to make visual signs for any kind of purposes, and so on). Women stayed back with the children and the old so it should surprise no one that they were in charge of what was going on at base camp and when men returned they blended in the camp's existing living arrangements. Tribes had no institutions of power whatsoever but tribesmen were practical people and designated a coordinator whenever a circumstance arose that asked for a rapid and organized answer. That function was temporary and vanished once the circumstance that called for it initially disappeared. Tribes had one institution in its man of knowledge or shaman as they were called in Siberia. The man of knowledge had no power over his fellow tribesmen. He was tasked to answer all their questions related to knowledge: curing illness, invoking rain in case of drought that reduced the food supply, forecasting the weather, and so on. But his most important task was to foster the cohesion of the group by organizing feasts. During such feast all tribesmen came together to eat the oldest food reserves in the granaries so as to make space for newer ones, to practice music and dance, all that in an environment saturated with visual signs realized for personal, aesthetic or spiritual reasons. Those feasts were one of the most potent instruments at the hands of the man of knowledge to shape narratives into the minds of his fellow tribesmen in order to transfer in their minds his worldview about the working of reality and thus strengthening, by the same token, the cohesion of the tribe. Those narratives formed what is called animism or the worldview of tribal societies. That's how visual signs, music and dance, emerged as a very important function in tribal societies.
2.3. Early power societies were unstable
The power societies that started to build up following the emergence of agriculture were largely unstable. Agriculture had emerged as a consequence of a warmer climate that melted ice caps over large masses of land. The annual and regular surplus of food allowed to feed more people and populations started to grow out of bound with what had been the practice over the past tens of thousands of years. This destabilized societies and it took a very long time for the situation to stabilize. That instability lasted for millena and in the meantime the men of power kept the men of knowledge at arm's length which explains why the role of worldviews to foster increased levels of societal cohesion was gradually lost. It had eventually to be rediscovered later on. In consequence when kingdoms and empires' stabilized and succeeded to reproduce anew over the span of generations the men of power had gained the upper hand over the men of knowledge and the artists. Instead of being tasked to foster societal cohesion "per se" the religious or philosophical narrative was now being tasked to "propagandize" the authority and interests of the men of power. In other words propaganda had become the equivalent of the traditional worldview that had been practiced over the past tens of thousands of years. That equivalence worked. It helped foster societal cohesion but in a qualitatively different way than under animism. Fear of authority had replaced tribal communion. Practiced over thousands of years one comes to understand that this power drilling penetrates deeply the minds and consciousness of all citizens of power societies. The qualitative difference between animism and the worldviews celebrated by power societies relate primarily to the form of distribution of the outcome of labor. Animism equally benefited every tribesman while power societies benefit first and foremost the power elite while the mass of citizens was living in abject poverty. Artists were relegated to the lowest social status and this lasted till the Renaissance of the culture celebrated by the Greek classics that had been lost along the dark ages that followed the collapse a thousand years earlier of the Western Roman Empire.
2.4. Power in Early-Modernity
The Renaissance corresponds to the cultural and artistic consolidation of a new paradigm that arose during the phase of commercial capitalism that had been set in motion a few centuries earlier by the crusades. The transformation in the merchants consciousness of the money that was invested in their long distance trade ventures into capital launched a new belief system in "the reason of capital" that acted like the seed from which later would sprout philosophic rationalism. After 5 centuries of practice that new belief had converted all "bourgeois" or citizens living in burgs or towns and cities to that reason. Capital enriched the merchants who thus defended the legitimate nature of their riches by promoting a culture of individualism and private property. To consolidate their emerging worldview in their own eyes and to propagandize it to the rest of society the new rich proposed high remunerations to painters working for the church to create visual signs of their successes. That's how:
Only the rise in the 19th century of philosophic rationalism, science and technology, and industrial capitalism finally crashed the monopoly of the 3 obliged subjects of the bourgeoisie and opened the path to Modernism.
2.5. Power in High-Modernity and Modernism
High-Modernity is this period stretching from late 19th century till sometime before the 2nd World War that saw the rebalancing of economic might from Europe to the US. Initially tensions arose between European nations for economic supremacy that were settled by the 1st World War. The addition of a rapidly industrializing US to the world market, at the image of what globalization is unleashing today by expanding the market to the four corners of the world, was temporary contained by the shackles of US recession. The 2nd World War would then break those shackles and consecrate US economic hegemony.
That period of fast economic growth and economic transition was accompanied by the rapid rise of rationalism and science and their derivative in the form of technology. The massification of the economy was literally exploding the figures of World GDP and of population which kind of brew an air of contagious optimism that was accompanied by a broadening debate about power redistribution and about the vision of reality. This was a period of questioning which shook power into accepting reforms (universal suffrage, social redistribution policies and so on). The advances of science pushed the philosophic questioning to the forefront. The scientific method had taken central stage and limited certainties to what is verifiable. It now appeared that the intellectual certainty, of the societal worldview which was procured in the past by the men of knowledge, was not operational any longer. That opened the philosophic field to some foundational questions which acted like a fertilizer on the creativity of philosophers. In the absence of a recognized worldview artists felt like orphans. The avant-garde thought it was its mission to give visual signs of an interpretation of reality that reached deeper dimensions. This really opened a can of worms that would shock well established traditions into rejecting the worms crawling out of the can.
From 1748 to 1900 the greatest annual art event in the Western world had been the Paris Art Salon. Artists not backed by the "Paris Académie" or without political backing had practically no chance of being accepted. In response to the rigid traditionalism of the Salon some artists began to search for independent avenues to show their works to the public. The first 'Salon des Indépendants' took place in 1884 and showed more than 5000 non-curated works by more than 400 artists. Modernism's success is largely due to the existence of that salon.
Modernism was an idealist attempt by artists to play the role of men of knowledge. No longer being supplied with a credible worldview, meaning a worldview that was operational within the actual environment, Modernists tried to conceive a truly rationalist worldview rooted in science, technology, and the absolute belief in the infallibility and infinite truthfulness of science (truthiness). But science does not offer, directly nor indirectly, an "all encompassing narrative" about what reality is all about as religions or animism do. Science is nothing more than a method of inquiry stating that an hypothesis has to be "reproducible" by others. The scientific method is like a code of conduct about how to proceed to possibly come to an agreement among all. In other words science does not impose a "worldview" on all of us. Forgetting or ignoring that basic reality, Modernists were largely blinded to the fact that rationalism found its roots in the internal mechanics of the reason of capital and the values of individualism it unleashed, so they lost themselves on a path that was leading them ever further apart from reality. It is time we came to recognize that fact because, in finale, the Modernist quest to give visual signs of deeper dimensions of reality than religious and Early Modern signs failed miserably. While intellectuals and artists remained largely oblivious to that fact it constituted the opening that power, at the hands of capital holders and their vassal political institutions, sized to re-establish its dominance over the shaping of culture and the arts. It is thus not surprising at all that intellectuals and artists were game in that strategy.
2,6, Power in Late-Modernity and financialization of the arts
At the end of the second World War power re-established a firm control of the art-scene. The US came out of the 2nd WW detaining a huge package of loans that it had issued to help Western European States sustain their war effort. In this financial operation printed money, through the economic magic of money creation, had been issued and loaned out that claimed real annual returns over the next 20-30 years in the form of transfers of economic surpluses from Europe to the US. Meanwhile European countries had been annihilated by the war. Those 2 factors combined gained the US complete economic hegemony. The department of State and Defense rushed to capitalize on that state of affairs in order to reach a similar hegemony over the arts. Public money financed numerous exhibitions of works by the NY school that gave them world visibility. This undercover expense of public money had been conceived as a propagandizing effort to imprint the idea that America is a beacon of freedom in the mind of the world population. Cultural magazines financed with public money were covertly launched by the CIA (Paris Review among other) to expand the reach of US artists and of US exceptionalism. Meanwhile European art merchants and artists were courted, often coerced, to transfer their activities to New York. As a result, within a short few years, New York was established as the world capital of the art market and the members of the New York Art School were celebrated as the leading artists of the whole world. Executed over a period of less than 2 decades that financial operation mounted by State and Defense concluded with the transfer to the US of the hegemony over the world's culture. Wow what a feat! This caught the attention of the financial industry that put this prestidigitator's trick in practice and gradually expanded it to the realm of all human activities in consequence of which nearly everything relating to human activities is financialized nowadays.
The financialization of the art market, and subsequently of everything else, confirms that the men of power are still firmly at the wheel. But what did this re-extortion of the control over the arts accomplish from an artistic perspective?
Undoubtedly Modernism supplied a big breath of fresh air to the artists. But, while the inquiry of the avant-garde has been a genuine effort to wrestle with the men of power for the control of the narrative about what reality is all about, we have also to recognize that the effort concluded in total confusion. The avant-garde did not succeed to offer a new worldview or narrative about reality. It also lost the benefit of free market access that the "Salon des Indépendants" had gained it. So in the end we have to conclude that without a shred of a doubt Modernism (the art liberation from power accomplished during High Modernity) failed miserably.
2.7. What now?
Power is in total control of the market. The web appeared for a time as a promising opening but time passing it appears only to be an opening to misery. Musicians have gradually lost their traditional source of income from selling music and to sell on the web visual artists have to offer their works at prices that barely cover the costs of the materials involved in making those works. Furthermore the traditional 20th century circuit gallery/biennial/museum has now been sanitized of content and of esthetics:
My short presentation on animism and tribal societies should be proof that a possible way out of power and its societal institutional forms are not merely illusions. Primitive arts open the artists' vision to a possible way out of the freak show of the financialized art market. Furthermore the late-stage cancers of Modernity, climate change, peak resources, mass extinction of life, poisoning of land water and air, and so on, are freeing our horizons to their necessary medicine in the form of the death of Modernity and the emergence of a new historical era. Discovering how the "Salon des Indépendants" was operational in launching the avant-garde in the public eye and how Modernism started to shape a path out of power societies furthermore observing the dieing of Late-Modernity, all that, should awaken us to the real possibility that another way of life is possibly brewing out there. Artists should not wait to project that new way of life. The time is propitious for them to realize visual signs of their dreams of a better tomorrow and the visual signs depicting tomorrow should also be beautiful. Just do it. It will answer a need of positivity in structuring our societal present and will eventually drag the emergent future to be more in line with our dreams.
But we should always remember that there is no road-map to humanity's tomorrow and chance is that we'll not build our tomorrow but that nature is going to impose it on all of us.
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