2007/05/01

About the ways of seeing reality.

I first published this article on my Saatchi blog and on The way things are on 2006-07-05. What follows is a doctored version of that article.

I just had an interesting read in The Guardian, an article by Jonathan Jones titled "Ways of seeing" (lost the link). It concerns the passage from a religious imagery to the modern imagery and how science and art inter-played in this process of change. This article gives us also food for thought about the state of our present-day imagery.

In modernity there was first a recognition of the "truthiness" of the image projected on the retina which after transfer to the brain induces conclusions in the mind. This "way of seeing" was limited to seeing this first degree image that was projected on the retina and absolutely nothing else. Such first degree images have been the only accepted images from the Renaissance till near the end of the 19th century.

During the period of religious hegemony the dominant idea had been that god was the ultimate creator of everything and reality was thus conceived of as being shaped through god's will. Humans had thus to show their respect for god in all their undertakings and avoid any personal enquiry about reality.

Modernity revisits this postulate. An initial accumulation of richness and luxuries undertaken through plunder and violence since the crusades imposes the logic of capital on its holders. This complex economic-like process spreads over a few centuries and will gradually impose its own cultural set of values in the form of the idea of private property and the idea of the primacy of the individual over the collective.

Individualism unleashes the rejection of the religious edicts in favor of the logic of capital that is thought to be more reasonable than blind belief. This process of rationalization also establishes the primacy of vision, of what the eyes are given to see, over belief. Vision takes thus precedence and in such a mindset "in Renaissance Italy, there was no separation between art and science. Artists were at the forefront of scientific research - Leonardo da Vinci championed experiment a century before Galileo, and even anticipated, without a telescope, his observation that light reflected off the Earth illuminates the moon" (from Jonathan Jones' article).

So came about the reign of the image projected on the retina which after transfer to the brain induces conclusions in the mind and so thus has been opened the road toward philosophic rationalism that would appear a few centuries later.

Under the hegemony of individualism and private property the next centuries will champion visual signs representing portraits of the family members of the new rich, landscapes surrounding their mansions as well as stills of what lay on their tables. All signs that were like a glorification of their newly found values.

Some 6-7 centuries after private property and individualism popped into Western Europe's consciousness, around 1900 to be precise, the thinker-artists of modernity rejected such first degree images (Kandinsky, Miro, Masson, Breton,...). But force is to a-knowledge that they did not succeed in forcing their way into a new visual paradigm... they have indeed been stuck in tricks, in formalism and without any doubt they did not reach the new content they were searching for.

Only recently is a new visual paradigm emerging, not at the hands of artists but, out of scientific endeavor. First there were those images from the macrocosm (telescope) and from the microcosm (microscope) or from scanning what is there (body, materials,...) then came images as illustrations of abstract reasoning or of patterns detected from long series at the hands of computers (Internet network visualizations, cellular automata's, etc).

This kind of visualization comes to the eye not as a first degree image of what is there that projects on the retina but as an illustration of something that is not directly accessible to the eyes, something that appears as a dimension of the mind.

Visualization is now acting as the illustration of processes initiated by the mind.

Those images are being used to gain a better grasp on the existing level of scientific abstract reasoning and also to help scientists project their abstract reasoning a step further. This is most visible in the neurosciences where scientists are observing how the brain reacts to this or that stimulus through scan "imaging". The image of the scan gives them the location where an action takes place in the brain and from there they can zoom into the molecular structure in order to understand the biochemical processes at work at the micro-level.

The lessons from what is going on in the scientific world have vast implications for visual artists. Unfortunately the art academies are still rooted in past realities and are thus not preparing the brains of future artists for this new age. As Marcel Duchamp famously said this leads to "being dumb as a painter". What Duchamp meant was that artists need more than just the knowledge of brushes and pigments. They first and foremost need a deep knowledge in science for being able to put their feet on reel visual steps towards a representation of the worldview of our times.

But scientific knowledge is not enough. Science is one of the drivers towards post-modernity, that's a fact, but it is not the only one. A cultural mutation is also been generated out of economic globalization that will have an impact as important on the fashioning of our understanding of reality as science itself.

Modernity has been conceived inside the mold of the Christian worldview.

Globalization unleashes the economic renaissance of China, India, South America and Africa that in turn will unleash a new kind of cultural mold on the world. The "ways of seeing" of 85% of the world population are inevitably bound to have a dramatic impact on the future understanding of reality by those privileged 15% of the world population that have been living in advanced industrialized societies. This seems an absolute evidence but it is nevertheless so badly understood.

I believe that, in the same fashion as the real artists of the Italian Renaissance were also the scientists of their time, today the real artists have to absorb the content of science and of the Asian worldviews in order to keep themselves afloat in the maelstrom leading to the real future. Those who succeed to do just that could well appear, in the future, not just as artists but as the men of knowledge of postmodernity.

"Whatever" has no place here any longer.

Now is the time of the brain. The brain giving to see to the eyes. At the image of the "primitive accumulation" of financial capital the present revolutionary process starts with the "primitive accumulation" of knowings in science and worldviews.

Necessity shall act as a catalyst on the emergence of that process.
The side-effects of modernity are indeed so severe already that we can say without a shred of a doubt that the survival of life on earth, in the not so distant future, will depend on our capacity at realizing a fast and dramatic "primitive accumulation", of knowings in science and in the worldviews of the different cultures of the South, out of which a postmodern worldview would then emerge that rejects the diktats of the logic of capital and its mechanist rationalism.



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