2005/03/02

Painting (8)

Modernity.

As I wrote, in Painting (6): SOCIETIES STABILIZE AROUND WORLDVIEWS, the turning point between the age of the gods and the modern times has been engendered as a direct consequence of increased trade combining with the newly discovered desire for luxuries, by the aristocracy and then the new rich, that had been stirred at the contact of more advanced societies during the crusades.
"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. "


This shifting of the worldview of the Europeans towards MODERNITY occurred over a few centuries. Three periods characterize that evolution:

- Early modernity: 14th-19th centuries.
- Modernity: 20th century
- Late modernity: 1975-2020 (arbitrary setting only for the purpose of facilitating the visualization of history on the move)
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Modernity



This is basically the story of 20th century industrialized nations that can be summarized in 6 points:
- Double market expansion: more consumers and a wider range of goods.
- First instrument of that expansion = science and technology.
- Second instrument of that expansion = globalization
- Growing irrationalities out of the rationality of the logic of capital.
- Speed of changes + irrationalities unleash a deep cultural shock.
- The search for sense by the visual artists.

During the 20th century different factors intermingle and interact upon one another: economic factors, social factors, political factors and cultural factors. One set of factors is only bringing answers to its own very narrow field and is totally incapable of making sense out of the global systemic reality. Market expansion is about economic realities, science is basically about thinking in a rational manner which is modern culture in action while technology is the application of science to practical uses inside the economy. What I just described here is like a storm (market expansion) putting the waters of the seas into motion (science) that shape relentless waves (technology) that break down against the hard reality of the land. The seas (societal realities) are driven into life one storm after another. Market expansion is followed by a storm of social instability that is followed by a storm of cultural build-up that is followed by the next storm of market expansion.
Societal change is unmistakenly more complex than what I describe here but I think that to approach this complexity in a valid fashion the best way is to use analogies describing simple but well known patterns.


All the ingredients came into place around 1800 that exploded into the mass marketization of cloth and socks. It took nevertheless some time for capital owners to find out that a mass market of cheap stuff could eventually reap for them extremely large returns. After the explosion of textile we'll have to wait over a century for the next boom. The textile revolution muddled through the 19th century expanding geographically (first wave of globalization under the guise of free trade and open borders) and pulling behind it the steel and machinery sectors that first gave trains that broke the barriers of speed and than cars that broke all financial records of mass marketization.

This economic reality of the textile storm through the 19th century has been accompanied by a social reaction that culminated with the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. The principle of social reality exploded in the hands of the class of capital owners that landed in a face to face struggle with its opposite polarity the working class. An incredible quantity of energy has been unleashed at the contact of those polarities. Unfortunately the story of the class wars has always been presented in the medias and then in history books as a kind of pest that was to be avoided at all costs. But, and that is what amazes me most, the clash between those 2 polarities of industrializing societies has in reality been one of the most fertile moments of mankind's history. The drama of modern societies is that the ideologies that were derived out of the steaming actions from both those polarities have come to blind their holders to the deep reality of societal evolution.

What we call democracy today is one of the outcomes of the contact between those 2 polarities. It is no accident of history that the "one person, one vote" principle has started to be legislated after the 1st world war only, just at the time, when it became evident that the future political reality would be democracy or social revolution and "communism". 1917 has acted as an awakener and the 2 polarities made a deal. It would be "one person, one vote". The vote has then been supplemented by policies guaranteeing a minimum of social security to the weaker pole as if to balance the repartition of material goodies. Time passing this system has proven its resilience and its utter flexibility in situations of economic, social and cultural change. But there is more to it. The acceptance of this polar nature of our modern societal system has also solidified the idea of individual freedom that is so central to a mass market consumption society. If there was to be a mass market there was indeed a need for freedom to chose what to buy and political freedom of choice appears thus to have been a natural extension of economic freedom. Let me repeat this unspoken modern reality: the two poles of our industrializing societies need each other. The capital polarity needs the demand engendered by the consumption power of the working class; blue or white collar does not change this basic societal reality that is driven, let us never forget it by the rationality of the logic of capital. The working-class polarity needs the offers brought on the market through the financing by the capital polarity and vice-versa. Take one pole out of the game and there is simply no game any longer to speak about. All this seems so simple but in daily realities this principle is nevertheless mostly forgotten leading to drastic consequences that make up the substance of our news bulletins.

This process, that I here describe of economic realities engendering their own set of social realities, does not stop with its political conclusions.

Along the road of this process the perceptions of the participating individuals are stirred in the same manner as different liquids being stirred into a cocktail by a barman. Chance, randomness but also the will of the individuals is what makes the taste and coloring of their perceptions. The ingredients that are poured in our perception glasses are not only taken from our own free-will. We are born in different social, cultural, geographic and civilizational environments from which we'll each inherit a specific set of perceptions, ideas and values that make us unique. This random uniqueness does nevertheless not forbid us to grow the necessary elements or ingredients that later could unleash our free-will. Yes it takes an effort to build-up those ingredients of free-will and it is easier to speak about the necessity of such an individual effort than to do the right thing and to make the necessary effort. I know this all too well but, how to say, nature perhaps does not want all of us to have a free-will; we would indeed all be weighing on the same arm of the balance of reality and as a consequence we would be creating for ourselves a very messy and imbalanced social, cultural and political reality. We are thus confronted with this basic societal reality that we are all different individuals different atoms, in a very massive reality, who are searching to bond with similar individuals or particles. Whatever we are we'll in any case bond with similars. But we still have the choice to be what we want if we accept to make the necessary effort. What I want to show is that, in finale, we have the means and the freedom to do what it takes to bond with the ones we decide to bond with. Oh la la was that difficult to spit out.

Artists are no strangers to these different layers of reality. The economic and technological realities of the 19th century impacted directly on the perceptions of all and the introduction of speed and long distance communication sort of broke the early modern vision of reality that was given as a representation of space from the perspective of the single-viewpoint of the eyes of the observer. Furthermore the social realities of the times were never absent from artists' minds and the new scientific ideas were seen as a confirmation that reality was changing and that past certainties had to be ranged in the closet. From mid 19th century till the first world war visual artists searched something new in the form of their creations. Brighter colors were being used and different techniques were experimented in their application. Gradually the single-point perspective rendering was abandoned and artists were attracted for a time by the primitive-arts' layering of multi-stories in one creation. Cubism proposed the intellectual exercise of decomposing the reality projecting on the retina in its basic components, triangles, squares and circles, and then to re-assemble those components into a visual approximation of the initial image that had impacted the retina. But one thing is certain: visual artists did not reject the representation of the first degree image projecting on the retina, before the first world war, they simply tried to give different renderings of that first degree image. Coming out of the first world war the idea of rationality had received a deep blow and many perceived rationality as another absurdity. The first degree image that projects on the retina was not trusted any longer to be representing reality and that image as well as all other signs of past certainties were now rejected. Those artists felt that form was unimportant they were concentrating all their efforts at understanding the meaning, the sense, the working of reality and thus the content of art works was now taking center stage in all their debates and writings. In the meantime, the expansion of the market was draining always larger amounts of unused capital to the fringes of the economy where exchanges take the form of speculation. Making an easy buck in the purchase and sale of paintings was becoming like pack-hunting, the same rush of adrenaline and fresh air, the prize was only infinitely larger. In this process the product that was the object of the art market mutated from an art work to a market work for the art speculator. All artistic considerations had vanished in this market game for a level playing field of market operators served by an "all-knowing art bureaucratic word machine" and "whatever" thus eventually became the object of the art market.
But deciding to be an artist does not mean to be able to do "whatever". From the perspective of the creative and of the artist art has a meaning and a specific societal function to fulfill. "Whatever" has thus no place in art but if "whatever" is the only thing that one can do one better try one's hand at the art market where the actors are not concerned by art's societal functionality but by marketing with an eye on a quick buck.

In the past our choice of being an artist would have meant to become a craftsman polishing our skill at illustrating the religious creed or later at rendering three dimensional perspectivist landscapes or ratio determined portraits for the aristocrats or the bourgeoisie. Today art has still the same societal function of illustrating the worldview of the men of knowledge but what has changed is that men of knowledge are very rare nowadays and artists are thus no longer automatically given a worldview to illustrate. Whow what then ? Well if art is to illustrate the worldview of the men of knowledge and if men of knowledge can't be found then the artist's only escape is to participate personally in the creation of today's knowledge. This is undoubtedly a revolution in the artist's role and position that I propose here. But did Marcel Duchamp not say long ago his frustration at being addressed as being dumb as an artist ? Duchamp was one of the most creative of his generation. He tried Cubism but tired of it then created one of the founding paintings of Futurism "Nu descendant un escalier". He could have made a career in futurism, as Picasso made one out of Cubism, but Futurism tired him as much as Cubism. He told that "Futurism was an impressionism of the mechanical world. It was strictly a continuation of the impressionist movement. I was not interested in that. I wanted to get away from the physical aspect of painting. I was much more interested in recreating ideas in painting. ... I was interested to put painting once again at the service of the mind. ... In fact until the last hundred years all painting had been literary or religious: it had all been at the service of the mind. This characteristic was lost little by little during the last century. ... I felt that as a painter it was much better to be influenced by a writer than to be influenced by another painter. This was the direction in which art should turn: to an intellectual expression, rather than to an animal expression. I'm sick of the expression 'bete comme un peintre', stupid as a painter."1
Duchamp was right in thinking that it is not enough to be randomly unique and different from the other individuals to be a painter. "Whatever" was never on his mind he clearly was in search of meaning to reproduce in his paintings but he seems never having been quite able to define what direction his intellectual quest should take. While having understood that painting had always been at the service of the intellect he did not pinpoint what was the nature of the intellectual quest that the artist was after, that he himself was after. Surely enough the concepts of worldview, of culture and of civilization have only taken much of their substance later and this question of the nature of the intellectual quest that the painter is after is undoubtedly easier to apprehend today than it was early or mid 20th century.
All the great painters of the 20th century were running after the same question of the meaning or the vision of reality as if they somehow intuitively were conscientious about the role the artist had to fulfill, their role, as illustrators of that vision.
Picasso devised his Cubist approach as a perception of reality that he gained at the contact of his mathematician friends but he imprisoned himself in that cubist rendering. He never tired of his tricks, as Duchamp, and seems to have fossilized in the easy financial returns that his tricks procured him. The same can be said about many other 20th century painters who did not even come clause to Picasso's initial intuition.
Miro, Kandinsky, Breton, Masson, ... , Constant, the members of Cobra and later Hundertwasser had the same questions and followed the same quest for sense in the visual arts.

Much water has flowed under the bridge of time. Much economic and social change has occurred along the 20th century. Two world wars have helped to destabilize the certainties of the past and, later, liberalism abdicated from the principle of reality finding solace in this easy idea of relativism engendering the illusion of total tolerance and the belief in absolute rights. We Westerners suddenly could afford "too much food on the table" and within one generation we fattened physically and our brains ended up like clogged in the certainties of "whatever".

In the meantime the logic, that is at work inside capital, pulled capital holders where an easy buck could be made with the least of trouble. Surely enough they perceived trouble as coming from those ideas of absolute rights in the West. Those rights gave incomes to all and thus ample demand but they were also menacing the growth of their returns. Formulated in that way we understand that the answer was automatic. "Why not keep supplying that demand and just transfer the productions where there is less trouble and more margins to make from lower costs ?" That's exactly the program that was devised by the "Trilateral" organization during the 1970th and that has been imposed as unique political macro-economic policy remedy on all the governments of the world through the ideology of "la pensée unique" unidimensional market thinking (UMT). Big capital delocalized a big chunk of its investments from the North to the South while Western governments initiated the break-down of all social security policies that had been devised in earlier times. Delocalizing investments had a sweet impact upon returns to capital holders: the market expanded geographically unleashing its tentacles towards the South and simultaneously the costs of its offers in the traditional markets of the North were reducing. Applied for some twenty years now this UMT strategy is having unexpected consequences that, I'm certain, even its promoters could not have imagined. Capital holders have seen their returns go up so their first preoccupation has been satisfied but in the process a sleeping giant has awakened that Napoleon had advised, 200 years earlier, should be left sleeping for fear of being swept out of power if he awoke. Those who initiated the UMT could not have thought that they were devising their unseating but so it appears now is well what is going on. We are assisting at a formidable worldwide rebalancing act of the powers between economic actors. The iron curtain came down with the fall of the communist idea and for a short time Westerners were left dreaming about the end of history. But the awakening of the giant nation whose population is over 20% of the world population gave ideas to another giant nation whose population is also in the area of 20% of the world population and this in turn gave ideas to a series of mid sized nations that among themselves represent another 20% of the world population. The North remains dominant in terms of capital accumulation that makes no doubt but for how long ? Furthermore, are we so sure that, the capital holders from the North will always feel compelled to side with Northern policies in the future ? Asking those questions is sufficient I believe for everyone to sketch his own idea about what is going on. What is evident is that white men's hegemony has reached a threshold from where their influence can only go waning while the vast majority of the people on this earth, by now awakened, are stressing their identities which is the instant just before they start to assert their cultures into influencing the rest of the world.

That's where we are now: in late modernity. More about that within the next few days.


1.
Marcel Duchamp, "Painting at the service of the mind", from an interview with James Johnson Sweeney in "Eleven Europeans in America" in the Bulletin of the Museum of Modern art (NY), XIII No. 4-5, 1946. Cited in Herschel B. Chipp "Theories of Modern Art". University of California Press.

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