2005/02/23

Painting (6)

SOCIETIES STABILIZE AROUND WORLDVIEWS:

.....= a society is unified and stable when a large majority of its citizens make
........theirs a given worldview.
........*....This gradual and evolutionary process follows 2 tracks:
.................--> the road of humanity. [05/14/02: Painting (4)]
.................--> the path given by the civilization's axioms. [05/02/17: Painting (5)]
........*....Humans are social animals who, historically, assembled into larger and
.............more complex groupings
........*....The unification of larger groupings and their preservation necessitates
..............the sharing of a similar understanding of reality by all the members of
..............the group = view of the world = vision of reality = worldview.
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I my 2 last posts I dwell on our human "founding" background conditions.

- Organic compounds present in the universe assemble into more complex molecular systems ....that evolve some basic properties leading to the emergence of life.

- All living organisms are driven by their physical properties. Among those the search for more ....complexity, that is written in the genetic code of all cells, gives the general direction of the ....changes life is undergoing.

- To our best knowledge, on our earth, the human race constitutes the most complex form of
.. life. Being social animals our collective organization underwent successive changes leading
....to vaster assemblings of local groupings.

- .The assembling of those groups was always very fragile and to assure its survival it was
....in need of a binding glue that took the form of belief systems accepted by all individuals.
....Over time those belief systems translated into coherent sets of axioms gaining their societies
...a unified interpretation of the principle of reality. Such unquestioned axioms form, the
....roots, the foundations of all civilizations.

______________________




The evolution from great apes to the human race is a scientific hypothesis that has received ample verification. This hard fact is confirmed by hard discoveries but what is more difficult to pinpoint is the process setting humans on the road of visual representations of their cultural values and ideas.
We now know that animals communicate between themselves, they have cultures that unify all the individuals in one group to behave according the values of their culture. But what brought the human animal to draw, paint and sculpt? I think that the answer to that question has to be derived out of the act of representation itself. Nature and the process of evolution do not generate unnecessary functions in a specie. Everything that is there is there for a good reason, it is there to answer an existing necessity. So the functionality of visual representations has to be seen as an evolutionary answer of the human specie to a necessity it was confronted with.
We know for a sure fact that human societies were producing visual representations since early on. We know this for the archaeological discoveries of a few of those representations. What we also know is that the societies that produced those early representations had belief systems that have come to be known under the term "animism", a worldview, that had common traits anywhere and at any time. The question that now arises is what did an animist worldview fulfill as function for the societies where it was in practice?

That worldview was one view of the world, one vision of reality, among many possible views. Nonetheless it had similar traits anywhere and at any time for it was based on the realities of human life: nourishing the body, reproducing the specie, harmonizing in one's environment and respecting the power of the sun that creates the days and the seasons. The visual representations of those traits can be observed in the "art" productions of any animist society. (primitive art)
So what was the role of those representations? Again I come back to this idea that if something takes place in nature the reason why it takes place has to be found in the function that it exercises. The only plausible function that I can see is that the shaman who was the man of knowledge of his group, of his tribe, used visual signs to share his vision of reality with his fellow tribesmen. The survival of the individuals was dependent on the survival of the group and this could only be guaranteed through a unity of views shared by all members of the group. Disunity of views would have destabilized the group and impeached its fulfilling of the necessary tasks to assure the survival of its members.

Tribes were sometimes affiliated with other tribes in some sort of loose confederacy sharing some particular values that allowed for a smooth coexistence among them at least in times of plenty.
For reasons that still have not been fully understood, at a given time, one tribe could go on a rampage and by force of arms unify all the other tribes around it within what then came to be called later as a nation. (a modern concept)
Tsongstan Gambo unified militarily the Tibetan Tribes in the 8th century and introduced Buddhism as the unifying worldview of his newfound kingdom. Over the next centuries Buddhism will compete with "Bonism", local animist worldview, for acceptance by the "Tibetans". Buddhism will finally be imposed as the official religion in the 13th century by the conquering Mongols.
In the end of the 12th century Genghis Khan had been on a rampage finally unifying the various Mongolian clans in 1206. His rampage extended then to the adjacent lands and thus Tibet conquered by Khubilai Khan, Genghis' grandson, came under the umbrella of the Chinese empire that Khubilai had conquered and was leading as its emperor. The unification of the Chinese tribes had taken place much earlier, sometime, AD 3000.
This process of unification can be seen at work in all parts of the world. Local tribes, clans, sharing a similar animist worldview were unified by the force of arms. Some will never be unified and continue to live to this day under an animist worldview except that our modern worldview is making us to steal from them their natural habitat. The unification of local groupings has generally coincided with the adoption of:
- a religion (gods)
- a central authority (politics and military)
- the idea of being the center of the world
- a written language
All those elements somehow combined to give the newly grouped nations a new worldview where religion generally took center stage. Competition was now between nations and turned out to take variable forms. If the general traits of animism were globally shared by local groups anywhere around the world things took a new turn with the birth of nations. These were times of differentiation and the observed differences helped to solidify the bonds between "nationals".
The process of change from animism to religions that I try to describe here is inscribed in the long haul history. The worldviews did not change overnight. It was more as a centuries long competitive process where religions borrowed much of animist practices to gain acceptance. The same went for the structures of power. Nations that succeeded to survive over the long haul were affirming and deepening the content of their proper set of views about reality and thus differentiating even further with the other surviving nations. This describes basically the formation of civilizations.

A civilization is somehow like a house. Foundations are laid in the ground upon which the house is then being build and once the house is built the foundations become invisible like hidden in the ground. We live in houses and forget about their foundations and, when a house has structural problems, only building technicians remember about those foundations.

Societies are vastly more complex than houses but basically the analogy stands the test. Their foundations are unknown to most of the individuals who have no clue at all that what they think and how they think is founded in those unknowns. Only a few thinkers are conscientious about the civilizational foundations that formed the ideas and belief systems of our societies and how they continue to shape the formation of our ideas in the present.

If we can understand that foundations are hidden we do nonetheless not necessarily know what our civilizations are all about . Everyone can see a house but a civilization remains largely invisible, indeed, it's not a material construct. We all can observe some of the components of its branches in the form of our cultures but most of us fail to see the tree. For example we all can see that Chinese, Japanese, Indian, African or Muslim paintings do not belong to the sphere of the Western civilization and we all, kind of instinctively, know that the works of Leonardo, Rubens, Van Gogh and Picasso are part of the Western civilization. But what is a civilization, and what is the difference between culture and civilization, remain questions whose answers are largely unknown and ignored. We can abstractly understand the principle of our civilizations having foundations but we have difficulties to describe the house of our civilizations for the good reason that our civilizational house is never completely built. Generation after generation we build add-ons to it and what we are conscientious about as individuals, who are part of a generation, is the cultural add-on we are participating in and not the civilization as a whole. What we all, in various degrees, know something about are the ideas and values that shape our present day culture but how our culture participates in the building of our civilization remains largely a mystery.

A civilization is the building, over its original foundations, of snapshots of the cultural behaviors of the different human generations throughout its history. It is the addition of the successive cultural moments of societies sharing the same foundations. In that sense, the civilization of a given society can encompass a very large variety of cultural values and behaviors. It can even encompass what appears as opposite values: one extreme pole on the ladder of behavioral possibilities at a given time and the other extreme pole at another given time.

Culture is the result of the ways of behaving and of doing by societies and individuals at a given time. For example, present day culture is our present day way of life: the goods and services that feed our consumerism through mass marketization, the merchandization of all that touches human life and our dependence on salary and debt. This implies that culture is kind of a historic snapshot of the way of a society at a given time.

In the past, multiple generations were sharing roughly the same culture over the long haul. A good example of this state of affairs is found in Western Europe where culture, in the form of Christian ideas and values imposed by Rome, was transmitted largely unchanged, generation after generation, from the 4th-5th century till around the 15th century. A turning point is reached with the Renaissance (15th-16th centuries) that establishes ideas and values celebrating private ownership, individualism and the rationality emerging out of the logic of capital. Cultural change will then go accelerating in parallel with scientific, technological and economic changes and the founding values of the Renaissance will be spreading around the world giving hegemony to the rationality of the logic of capital.
Observing China's history one finds identical patterns of cultural change at work. The age of the hundred schools of thoughts (AD500-200) were succeeded by the re-unification of the warring kingdoms under an imperial dynasty and the imposition of Confucianism upon the Chinese society which itself imposed one particular potential version of Chinese culture on generation after generation of individuals from BC 200 to AD 1900. A turn is reached around 1900 after China's cultural certainties had been weakening for two centuries at the contact of more advanced Western canons. The idea that generally was adopted by all Chinese intellectuals at the time was to integrate Western scientific prowess with Chinese traditions. Another turn is reached with the decision to industrialize the country (1960-1990) that will culminate with Deng Xiao ping's "reform and opening" policies.

It appears thus that cultural change is not following a regular clock-like mechanism. Seismic cultural ruptures seem indeed to have been followed by long periods of "relative cultural stability". Those seismic cultural ruptures correspond to a shift in the worldview of the individuals within a civilization. The term worldview was coined from the German word Weltanschaung (look onto the world) which denotes a comprehensive set of opinions about what reality is all about. Worldviews were only achieving wide and unquestioning support very slowly over time.

The foundations of our present day civilizations were established in pre-history times, by this I mean that, their emergence has not been acted in written accounts and in consequence we remain largely in the dark about their formation. But notwithstanding this gap we can clearly identify their founding axioms. I gave a relatively detailed account of those axioms for the Western and Chinese civilizations in my post "THE AXIOMS OF CIVILIZATIONS = the founding building blocks upon which societies build their future".
It seems that civilizations start somehow with the political unification of local groups and with "the invention of the gods" or with the waning of animism. The transition from animism to the creation of the gods takes place historically at different times for each center of civilization. China and Sumer invent their first gods sometime 5-6,000 years ago or earlier. Other centers will follow up later on and some ethnic groups are still living in animist cultures today. What all this shows us is a deep differentiation between the people of this earth in their levels of societal development. This reality does not imply, in any way, a judgment about the people who live in different stages of societal development.

Animism corresponds to an early worldview giving humans to glorify the elements that visually appeared to them as commanding the phenomena that directly impacted on their survival: the sun, the moon, the animals and plants that nourished them and sex and their reproduction. Because they were not or did not cut themselves from their environment they could directly experience and hear the song of the earth, the song of life and feel being one with their environment. That this worldview was the result of conscientious thinking or not does not matter. What matters is the result or the consequence of this conscientious or unconscientious behavior: a deep respect for everything in nature, a limitation of the species' taking from nature limited to the satisfaction of the primary needs of its members to reproduce their existence.

Visual arts were not perceived in the age of animism nor in the age of the gods in the same light as they are nowadays. They were indeed not considered as art, those productions had a direct functionality, they were illustrations of the ideas and values of the men of knowledge of their day: the shaman in animism and the priest under the gods. The artists were simply image makers, illustrators, publicists of the ideas of others.
The worldviews of the men of knowledge were imposed by the men of power and the artist's job was to illustrate those worldviews. The freedom of the artists was limited to form, content was imposed on him.

Things will start to change with the Renaissance. Towns and cities were developing at the non controlled and wild intersections between manors generating demographic growth and the need for more craft productions and trade. On this particular West-European reality will be superposed the consequences of a brutal and primitive urge to impose the Christian creed upon the Middle East:
- ..advanced Arab sciences and the long lost Greek classics made their entry in the rooms of the literate, I mean the clergy, all others were indeed illiterate including the laymen painters. Clergymen being the buyers of images their reading the classics and the Arab university publications will unleash their demand for change in the rendering of the form of their new image orders.
- ..the aristocracy had a taste for the luxuries of more advanced lands and long distance trade took root to satisfy their needs and desires. Walls that had been left bare until then will now be decorated with mirrors, tapestries and paintings. Interior decoration was born to satisfy the desire of the aristocracy for luxuries.

Here is the turning point between the age of the gods and the modern times. Increased trade combines with the newly discovered desire by the aristocracy and then the new rich for luxuries.
The values and ideas of the aristocracy and the new rich merchants have mutated.
They now search to establish as rights what their newly found material wealth can buy and individual ownership becomes the center of their discourse. Owning a richly decorated mansion gives them the sense of being different from the masses and this newly found perception of a differentiation infuses their minds with the illusion of their particularism, of the importance of their individualities. The aristocracy and the new rich merchants are driving the new fashion of the day and individualism and private ownership will ultimately take center stage in the European social game.
At this turning point in history the Christian church that has been hegemonic for over 1000 years is still the dominating force and it will take another few centuries for its dominance to wane. The sacred images hanging on the walls of the churches continue to illustrate the Christian creed. In this environment of social and cultural change interior decoration luxuries will try to catch up with the sacred character of the images hanging on the walls of the churches. Paintings on the walls of the manors of the aristocracy and the new rich will posit the sacrality of their newly discovered values of individuality and private ownership.
Their portraits and environing landscapes act as a stamp of sacrality adorning their walls. Here is the point when art in Western Europe takes its sacred character. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witness the assembling of large collections of paintings. Mansions, castles and palaces are filled with the sacred character of the visual representations of the shaping worldview. Those investments are not typically capitalistic they are more of the nature of procuring prestige.

Meanwhile the flow of money increases and the surpluses are invested in trading ventures and later in production. In this process something goes largely unnoticed by all the participants. Everything seems to be normal but something absolutely stunning is nevertheless happening: the logic of their invested capital is starting to dictate the actions of capital owners. They are not acting out of their own will any longer, the generation of profits, of surpluses is now what dictates their conduct. One could argue that they freely accept and even search for the consequences of the logic of capital that in last instance is engulfing them into always more opportunities of luxuries. This is absolutely true but the only problem is that the rationality of the logic of capital is thus presented as what is good, desirable and what should be encouraged by societies. And why not will you ask. Well I think that when one accepts to abdicate blindly his own right at free examination of what is to be done for the chimera of a quick buck guaranteed by a mechanical logic, well then one decides to abdicate not only the short term but also everything that comes in the future engendered by the rationality of that logic of the invested capital. I guess that I don't need to make a drawing about what kind of consequences one exposes oneself by following such a flawed logic. But what is more fundamental even is that by abdicating your free will to the rationality of the logic of capital you not only expose yourself to consequences, you expose the whole of your society. Here we are today with poisoned waters, poisoned air, deforestation, climate change, the most brutal of species extinctions, and the steadying possibility of our human extinction... and all this has been dictatorially imposed on all of us by a tiny minority of capital owners who are totally unconscientious about the consequences of their actions. Till when will humanity as a whole continue to accept such a paltry state of affairs?

Modernism concludes nowadays not only on this real possibility of our own provoking human mass extinction but also on the real possibility of a new found control of our actions that could be leading to a radically better future for every citizen on this earth. What will make the balance tilt towards one side or the other? I think ourselves and nothing else. What do I mean by that? Well we sure have ended the 20th century in the most glaring confusion in art no doubt about that and more generally in our cultural behavior but this is not in any way implying that we can't reach out for sense anymore.

Whatever the outcome for humanity, it makes no doubt that we have entered an area of change unparalleled in our history. If we succeed to glide around the obstacles before us the future could be very interesting. Never has humanity seen such an extensive range of fundamental changes interacting upon one another. This is a systemic exception for sure.
More about this in a few days.

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