2005/03/14

Painting (12)

About Postmodernism.

Postmodernism is an old concept used to indicate what follows the modern age but it has been associated with so many different ideas that the concept ended up being foggy and perceived as some kind of metaphysical rareness. I'm using the concept "postmodern" in its narrow sense of "what follows the modern age". Another denomination shall eventually impose itself out of the practice of what comes after modernism but only the future will tell.



1. Preliminaries. (post Painting 10)

2. The context of the new societal paradigm in the forming (post Painting 11)



3. On the road toward a postmodern societal paradigm.

= The result of a worldwide economic rebalancing act.


Four heavily determining factors, about the shaping of our future, are well on their way toward intersecting: "The road of humanity" + "the axioms of civilizations" + "science and technology" + "globalization". The point of intersection of those factors is where our future shall be determined including the future of visual arts that interests us more particularly.


Sketch of the rebalancing act.

West
atomization
....
competing worldviews
....
educational mess
+
falling work ethics
....
downhill economic muddle-through towards economic irrelevance
....
coming under the cultural spell

Asia
societalation
....
shared worldview
....
educational excellence
+
strong work ethics
....
uphill economic build-up towards economic dominance
....
establishing cultural hegemony
The industrialized countries of the North are engaged in a similar societal pattern that grew out of Europe's liberation of the genie of greed and want for material possessions that took place around the time of the Renaissance and intensified ever after. In short the loss of control of the systems that unified the individuals into common beliefs behind their societies has launched an ever increasing individualism that led Western societies to atomize. But this has taken place in the absence of any collectively accepted values that would later resist the scrutiny of rationality. The consequence has been an ever growing materialism leading individuals to believe in their own centrality. Eurocentrism has made place for indivicentrism and social wilderness became the societal norm. The present religious craze in the US changes nothing to that reality it is indeed a religiosity of form, of individualistic form, and not a religiosity of philosophical substance, in other words a marketing religiosity and not a Jesus religiosity. Furthermore it is a worldview of the past that finds itself more and more at loggerheads with the real world of the rationality of the logic of capital + science and technology + globalization. Western societies are characterized today by the simultaneous presence of all kinds of worldviews competing for the adherence of the individual atoms. ("communities of interest"+"communities of practice"+"communities of purpose" )

Practically the sole unifying element of all Western individual atoms is the "unconscious belief" in the founding building blocks of the Western civilization:
- opposites on a mission to eliminate the other (good versus bad)
- and a starting point / ending point of the principle of reality (god the creator sets reality into motion and each individual capturing god's love is on a mission to reciprocate that love in the hope of being admitted in the promised paradise of eternity).
I describe this in detail in Painting 5: "the axioms of civilization".

In the meantime other societies succeeded to keep a firm control on their cultural unification mechanisms and this factor has a decisive impact, today, on the way those societies are entering the age of capitalistic globalization.

* ........One group of nations among those societies is resisting and refusing to accept the ways of the industrial world. Having succeeded to keep intact their cultural unification mechanisms it's their societies as a whole that resist Western ways. This group is the one that has the most to lose. Their resistance to modern influences is impeaching them to adapt to overwhelming changing realities that impact the whole world. I'm speaking here basically about the Muslim world that represents not far from 25% of the world population. Their non-joining in the rationality of the logic of capital implies a defenseless societal weakness that roots the "back on the wall" weapon of terror.

* .......Another group is composed by those societies that experienced an indigestible cultural shock that left them very sick.

- The states of Black Africa have been erected by Europe's whiteman as physical borders delimiting their national economic interests in colonial Africa. Africans saw their cultures, economies and political systems destroyed by whiteman who then imposed, on them, economies depending on one crop export agriculture, the Christian religion and political systems cloned on the system of the European colonial power. All this resulted in a societal catastrophe without any precedent in human history. The Africans could not resist the destruction of their traditional systems and simultaneously they could also not erase their past and allheartedly adopt the system of their masters. What ensued has been a mishmash of African traditions mixed with imported European ways but those were non-complementary and resulted in a devastating economic and cultural shock that is today destabilizing the demographic structures among Africans: irresistible growth in natality leading to a fast growth in population that is accompanied by an astounding fall in life expectancies.

- The other region that came under a severe cultural shock is composed of the territories forming the old USSR. The fate of Russia illustrates quite well this mechanism of severe non-digestible cultural shock that I'm referring to. After the fall of the communist party around 1990, under the leadership of Yeltsin and the theoretical input of US development economists such as Jeffrey Sacks who proposed a plan for Russia to accede to capitalism in 500 days, the country literally imploded and disintegrated. The economy collapsed and Russian resources came under the control of bureaucrats who transformed in robber barons. The Russian economy finally started to redress its head around 2003 only for the combination of autoritarian policies and the sharp increase in income from abroad due to the price of oil that peaked followed the American adventures in the Middle-East. But in the meantime the cultural shock experienced by Russians in their daily lives was so intense that the total population of Russia started to fall and is projected to fall further:
1992: 148.7 million.
2004: 143.5 million ......(but 1992/2004 includes a net influx of 5,5 million people !)
2015: 134 million .........(projection by the Russian State Statistical Committee)
2050: 85 million .....................................................( " )
2075: 50-55 million. ..............................................( " )
With the help of its vast underground resources it is expected that a highly educated Russia could make a comeback but the fate of Africans is unsure. High natality rates with economic misery and cultural drift all result in the fall of the average life expectancy of Africans. It seems as if Africa had no future and whiteman's acts surely do not bode well but perhaps African resources attracting Chinese investors could unleash Chinese wisdom to save Africa. The future will tell.

*,,,,,., By the time of late modernity another group of nations among those societies that succeeded to keep intact their cultural unification mechanisms voluntarily adapted the rationality of the logic of capital: China, India, Brazil, South Africa,...

A turning point has been reached, in the globalization of the rationality that is derived from the logic of capital, with the initiation of political reforms by Deng Xiao Ping in China. The economic success of China has been built upon the success of its agricultural reforms in the 1980th that relied on the following earlier policies:

- monumental irrigation works had been undertaken from the fifties till the seventies: water reserves in artificial lakes and water canalizations had maximized the growth of crops on a vastly increased acreage.

- the systematic destruction of cultural traditions during the cultural revolution had eliminated the cultural and social barriers towards societal change and entrepreneurialism.

Those were the factors that guaranteed the success of the agricultural reforms and the accumulation of capital in the countryside has then been put into use in industrial endeavors. What is called the "township enterprises" has indeed been financed with agricultural surpluses and those township enterprises have assured a steady stream of very cheap parts and components that State owned and foreign ventures then assembled into finished products ready for export. This historical process is unique to China and can't be reproduced anywhere else.

The historically competitive nature of the relations between India and China drove India to follow the industrial lead of China. But India's conditions are vastly different. The weight of traditions is acting as a barrier to an even development of the countryside: religious strife, caste system, and cultural traditions in general. India could thus not follow China's path of development from capital accumulation in agriculture to industrial development. But it made the wise choice to rely on a highly educated and English speaking minority to attract high intellectual input activities from the West which resulted in a fast increase of exports that in turn spawned pockets of prosperity.


China and India, among themselves, represent nearly half of the world population! There is just no way that the world can ignore half of its population. This is not going to last; the ignored half will simply not allow it to last.
So what are the lessons, one should glean, in term of cultural values that will make a difference between that half of the world population and the 10% of the world population that are living in Western advanced industrial systems?

*...... Atomization versus societalation. (I did not find a better word than societalation)
I describe in detail those axioms on which is built the Chinese civilization in Painting 4: "The axioms of civilizations". These are the foundations upon which Confucius and his followers devised a pragmatic organizational model for the functioning of the Chinese society. Later emperors imposed this system as the knowledge base of China's education system that lasted for the last 2,000 years:
- The basic structure of the Chinese society is the family that regroups 5 levels of relationships: father, eldest son, other children, mother, friends.
- The world outside of those 5 relationships is presented as dangerous and tricky so all relations that one has to entertain with the outside world have to be undertaken under the model of "guenxi" meaning that one should only relate with outsiders who are in relationship with one of your 5 levels of relationship. In other words you don't make business with someone you don't know, or if you have to, you have to take all necessary precautions so as to avoid being ripped off but this somehow also gives you “carte blanche” to cheat someone you enter in relation with and who has no connection with one of your 5 relationship. Cheating in such conditions is not considered as evil it is only a sign of the stupidity of the one who accepts to be cheated.
- The national society is considered as the family of all families and the emperor was considered as the father of all families. In Chinese Confucianism the first value of all individuals is the family and society comes second. In Japanese Confucianism the first value of all individuals is society with the emperor as the god and family relations come second. This explains the stark differences observed in the attitudes of Chinese and Japanese behaviors; Chinese are extremely individualistic at the image of the French and Italians while the Japanese are more collectively driven at the image of the Germans.

Western societies are on a path of atomization since long. The rationality of the logic of capital gave anyone this idea, perception or right to chose what one thinks is rational. Further democratization into free choice of purchase and free choice of political representation led to an accentuation of the individual's perception of the centrality of his person. The atomization of Western societies has advanced to the point that societies have lost control over individual thinking and behavior. In parallel marketization made the freedom to enjoy oneself the center of its publicity campaigns. The result is a societal air of permissivity and of laxism that encourages the individuals to relax, to enjoy and to let go.

The contrast between the Chinese and Western attitudes is radical. Chinese, and this is valid for Indians too, share their societies' traditional visions about the necessary respect for authority and the need to make an effort to accumulate knowledge that, by the way, is not considered as an abstract entity but more as a practical way at knowing the workings of one's society and thus directly rewarding. In China upbringing children has always placed education at the center of all preoccupations. So we are faced with a system where the father has absolute and uncontested authority over the children and the education of his children is the central preoccupation of the father who thus naturally has a high respect for teachers and professors. The individuals are thus accepting the binding rules of society and the societal dynamic is just opposite of the Western atomization.
We should thus be confronted with something as a "Western atomization versus an Asian societalation".

* ........A shared worldview versus competing non-functional models of worldviews:
The individual atoms of Western societies came to believe in their own world centrality but somehow they were at a loss. They can't let go this feeling that they are only particles of the whole they belong to and they are permanently longing for inclusiveness. This thirst is then exploited by a multitude of groups, religious or other, that compete for the inclusion of the atoms in their belief system. Here lies one of the biggest differences between today and a few centuries ago. Then the men of power simply imposed the worldview of the men of knowledge on all while today, the men of power having lost that power, a multitude of "interests" compete for gullible and exploitable followers. For sure the temptation is always present to re-use the old autoritarian ways but the resistance by civil society is great and so our modern men of power are left with the only possibility to manipulate public opinions out of their knowing.
The consequence of the men of power losing their power to impose a common worldview on all has been dramatic. In this adventure, Western societies lost their cohesion; some believing reality is this while others believing reality is that. The competition between so many holders of different worldviews for followers became the central act and it gradually displaced the traditional forms associated with the belief in a common worldview resulting in:

- the loss, of the societal functionality of the visual arts to illustrate the worldview of the men of knowledge of the day at the attention of all, that left wide open the door for the rationality of the logic of capital to impose "whatever" as art.

- the loss of a unified set of images about reality that left the door open to multiple visual approaches and ultimately the choice of "whatever" by financial speculators imposing their preference for a neutral and aseptic cultural environment. This aseptic diversity took root, not only in visual arts, gradually all sectors came to be fair game for the rationality of the logic of capital: housing, interior decoration, textiles and apparel, communication, transportation, ... they succeeded to hoard the water we drink and soon perhaps we'll be obliged to pay for the air we breathe.

- the loss of a unique worldview opened the door to various visions of economic reality that obliged Western societies to come up with a compromise between capital holders and the workforce. This compromise took the form of democracy and minimum social security. But the compromise would be discarded by capital holders once they found available armies of working slaves willing to do the work at only a fraction of what Western workers had succeeded to gain from them earlier. That's when capital unleashed the globalization of its reach.


The globalization move by the capital holders coincided with the move by the Chinese communist party towards reforming its Stalinist industrialization approach and the Chinese communist successes somehow, how to say, paradoxically pushed big capital and Chinese communists leaders in an embrace. I guess that 50 years from now this embrace will be seen by historians as the threshold point when the world toppled over and really was set on the path of unification under the rationality of the logic of capital.

The Chinese are sharing a common worldview since millenniums and what is absolutely stunning is that modern science has been driven recently along the same lines of understanding reality as the Chinese worldview. I bet that this will be seen 100 years from now as one of the most worldchanging events of our human history. I described the difference between the Chinese and the Western worldview in Painting 5: "the axioms of civilizations".

* .......Two diametrically opposed visions about education and work ethics: rote learning and obedience in Asia versus creativity and critical spirit in the West.
For sure the Western ways are better adapted to the economic realities of late modernism I guess that nobody seriously questions that. Very complex societies need more and more individuals who have the problem solvers skills and this implies individuals who are groomed to be critical and creative. But Western societies represent just over 10% of the world population and our economies being more and more intertwined we are becoming ever more dependent upon commodities produced by the 90% who are just entering "early modernity". The rationality of the logic of capital has presented all of us with a "fait accompli" : they knew how all that would work out; delocalizations of blue collar jobs would be accompanied by our white collar hegemony. In other words we would think the products at a very high cost and they would manufacture it at a very low cost. But this kind of logic simply can not work for long. Having taken over manufacturing, the Chinese now want to take over the conception and the marketing. How are we to respond to their challenge ?
Chinese universities are churning out over 350,000 engineers a year; this compares with a paltry 50,000 engineers in the US. The two graduate degrees offered in the United States are the master's degree and the doctoral degree. Check out the evolution of the Doctoral degrees distribution among US and foreign recipients:

Foreign recipients ....................................... 1977................1994................2000
Doctors %............................................................11.....................27 ...................34

Foreign Born Doctorate Degrees
.........................................................................Table 1 (1993).......... Table 2 (2000)
Engineering .............................................................40.3 ..........................61.1
Mathematical ...........................................................31.1 ..........................53.5
Physical ,Chemistry , Astronomy ...........................25.9 ..........................47.7
Economics ...............................................................23.6 ..........................37.5

In 1995, over 50% of those doctor degrees were distributed to students from China, Korea, Taiwan and India. The proportion of students from those countries has been going up since but I did not find anyhere the exact figures. For sure, until 2001, most of those foreign doctoral degree recipients decided to work and live in the US but things are starting to change. The perception of the US policy on one side and on the other side the rapid internal development of China and India are pushing more and more Chinese and Indian doctors back to their homeland.
Those figures about China's internal engineering degrees and US doctoral degrees do invalidate the idea that delocalizations of blue collar jobs would be accompanied by our guaranteed white collar hegemony as the rationality of the logic of capital had presented the rebalancing of work under globalization.

Education fills young brains with knowings produced by the rationality of the logic of capital, as such, it is a unification factor within the societal dynamic. Another unifying factor is language. When you combine the increasing number of Chinese getting university degrees with the fact that Mandarin is the first spoken language on earth you start to understand that Mandarin is establishing itself as the first language used on the internet. This also means that the most used language in terms of transmission and creation of knowings is definitely going to be Mandarin. Time has come for english speakers to learn a second and third language....

The following seem to shape what points on the horizon:

- life conditions in Chinese cities are rapidly reaching the quality of life in American and European cities.

- the maturation of demand on the Chinese market will give China such scale economies that its prices will be over-competitive for some decades to come.

- the qualitative maturation of education in Chinese universities will give rise to first world class endogenous research.

- the Chinese will gradually impose technological applications, on the market, derived from their own scientific endeavors.

This process transforms China into an "economy-world"1 that is bound to dominate the world economy and in this process, that in finale is no more than a question of quantity of money in circulation, Chinese culture and the elements of the Chinese worldview will become hegemonic.
When I write about the process toward the establishment of the hegemony of the Chinese culture I'm thinking about a gradual process that start with the absorption by the Chinese culture of elements of Western culture. For the Chinese the 20th century has basically been a time of observation of the visible characters of Western economic and cultural strength. This has also been a time of introspection and analysis of their own civilization and culture with the aim to isolate the factors that kept China economically backward. Without any doubt, with the help of Marxism, the Chinese adopted the rationality of the logic of capital. They imported not only science, technology and capital but also merchandization. It should nevertheless be pointed out that they kept a firm grip on the founding elements of their own culture: "a market economy with Chinese characteristics" or to say it more bluntly "the surveillance and guidance of the rationality of the logic of capital by Chinese culture".

History has repeatedly shown us that the most active centers of artistic creation follow the power of money:

- following the crusade eye-opener on the luxuries of the Arabs the financial power accumulated by the Italian City-State merchants though "obliged trade" financed the works of the Renaissance masters. (Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian, Botticelli, Raphael, ...)

- by mid 15th century the wool industry of Flanders establishes the economic power of Bruges. (the Limbourg Brothers who painted “Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry”, Van Eyck who perfected the newly developed technique of oil painting, Memling, Rogier van der Weyden, Dierick Bouts, ...)

- when the last Burgundian Duke was defeated in 1477 Burgundy ceased to exist; Flanders and the rest of the Netherlands passed into the hands of the Holy Roman Empire whose seat of power was in Castilla/Spain and under pression from the Castillan inquisition Bruges lost its protestant rich entrepreneurs and merchants who established themselves further north-East in Antwerp (Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Joachim Patenier, Durer described him as a "good landscape painter" , Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, ...).

- the Spanish inquisition sacked and burned Antwerp around 1570 and again in 1590. The capital holders, artists and intellectuals fled to Amsterdam that transformed into the new economic capital of the Western world till around 1750 and the bankruptcy of the Dutch East India Company
( Rembrandt, Jan Vermeer, Jan Lievens, ...)

- the English East-India Company benefited from the retreat of the Dutch Company from Asia and from newly made-available Dutch capital that found its road to Britain. Great Britain will be the center of the capitalistic economy from around 1750 to 1940 (Thomas Gainsborough , William Turner , Francis Bacon ...) Britain always remained in the shadow of France culturally and more particularly Paris that had transformed into the cultural capital of the European aristocracy.

- the second world war helped the US out of its thirties recession and propulsed the country at the center of economic power. ( Pollock , David Hockney , Mark Rothko , Andy Warhol , Jasper Johns , Edward Ruscha , Keith Haring ) Since the 1980th globalization of capital + the conversion of Communist China to the rationality of the logic of capital are unleashed a whirlwind of changes that are engendering a rebalancing of the economic forces around the world.

- China is projected to become the highest GDP-figure economy on earth sometime between 2030 and 2050. But its GDP per capita will still be largely inferior than the figures in the US, the EU, Japan and many other places which means that China has the potential to grow a lot larger than any other economy. The economic weight of China will be felt around the world this makes no doubt and the names of its artists shall take predominance in the art market; that seems self-evident....

Some will argue that China has many internal problems and that it easily could collapse before transforming into an economic giant. It is true that social eruptions could topple the communist party but we should never forget that more than two millenia of bureaucratic management experience have taught some things about political power to the Chinese that we in the West have all the pain in the world to even start thinking about. But I guess that my point is ultimately that even if the communist party collapsed one day; the Chinese economy would not follow. Industrialization in China is now the fact of the Chinese people who are taking their fate into their own hands.
The State controlled economy shall gradually be limited to a few hundred companies benefiting from massive State capital installments. The stated goal of the Communist party is to create a group of champion companies that can take on the biggest multinationals in vesting the control of whole-world economic sectors.
My bet is that the outcome of this specific strategy shall outline the form of China's coming hegemony and not the internal problems that the country will face and solve.

My next post shall be: The postmodern paradigm.


(1). A concept developed by the historian Fernand Braudel to illustrate how the Renaissance developed "The Mediterranean region" into the center of the world economy and how the characteristics of its "economy-world" status were then taken over by the rest of the world. This concept indicates how an economy that absolutely captures the attention of the world, at a given time. can eventually morph into something as the beating heart of the world economy, as an economy-world. China appears to morph into something as an economy-world: the prices on the raw materials market are today determined by China's demand and the prices of oil are going up in parallel with the increase of the Chinese demand for oil. When the Chinese government speaks all capital holders of the world are listening... For sure China has still not reached the status of an economy-world but it is well on its way to appear as such tomorrow in the eyes of all.

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