2007/06/04

The plight of the visual artist in late-modernity.

Seen from a historical perspective the form taken by visual art appears to have greatly evolved over time while its function has nevertheless remained constant, indeed, along 99.99% of its timespan visual art has been the visual representation of the worldview of the men of knowledge of the day, by the artist, at the attention of his fellow citizens.
From early on humans understood that they could not survive by themselves alone in the wild but that they needed to be part of a societal grouping to assure their reproduction and that of their children. Societies were thus a fact of life for humanity since way back in time as it is also for most other animals. But once in existence societies behave like ensembles on their own and devise strategies to preserve their own reproduction. It's inside those societal strategies of reproduction that visual art finds its roots.
Through adaptation and evolution the eye evolved as the most important human sensor. Since millions of years each individual has been bestowed with vision to protect himself from the dangers lurking in his immediate environment and this, in turn, has shaped the foundations upon which humanity has developed its understanding of reality.
Under animism, along far more than one hundred thousand years, primitive arts have represented the worldview of the shaman. The role of the shaman (the man of knowledge within the tribe) was the formation of knowledge about what reality is all about, that means about all aspects touching the existence of his tribe. He then used visual illustrations, symbols, and signs to transmit the essence of his acquired knowledge to his fellow tribesmen. The sharing of those visual signs and their content was unifying the tribe behind a common set of beliefs and the tribesmen reinforced that belief through the use of those visual signs as decoration of their daily use utensils. Both the visual creations by the shaman and the functional creations by the tribesmen constitute what is commonly called "primitive arts" or "arts premiers" (following their decision to open a museum especially reserved for "animist arts" and in order to avoid being criticized for Eurocentrism, the French lately termed those arts "first arts" or the ones that came first on the human societal evolutionary ladder).
It always struck me that there seems to be such a strong resemblance in the content of animist works. African, American Indian, Indian India, Chinese or anywhere around the world animist works may vary in their form, the materials they are realized in but the story they represent for the observer to see are invariably identical: the interconnectedness of all living and inanimate elements present in the environment forming like so many yarns woven together in the gigantic tapestry of the one thing all fell they were part of, I mean, the ultimate reality; the Whole, the One.
Under religion, during a few thousand years, the creed has been the exclusive object to be represented visually. With the unification of tribes as a consequence of the larger population densities unleashed by agriculture the unity of content found in animism vanishes and is replaced gradually by parochial foundational stories used by the local men of power to strengthen their control over their subjects.
This is the time when the illustration of the worldview of the men of knowledge started to specialize and gradually the making of visual signs established itself as an autonomous societal function. But this autonomization has been a very slow process that was only completed, in Europe, during the late Middle-Ages.
The separation of functions between knowledge production and its diffusion through visual signs was initially realized amongst the monks. Some specialized in learning and developing the creed while others specialized in spreading the foundational story through speech and visual signs. Seen that the only literate beings were the monks and priests visual signs took preeminence in the diffusion of the creed among the populations of Europe. When cities started to develop at the interstices of freedom on the periphery of the manors, commoners gradually took over this image making function from the monks which thus established the craft as one among the many others.
What is remarkable in this process is the extremely low social esteem that was recognized to the image making craftsmen. This stands in sharp contrast to the role of the artist under early modernity. The entreprizing aristocrats and new rich merchants accumulated their wealth against the will of the church which was forbidding banking activities and greatly discouraging the accumulation of material possessions. This acted like a powerfully incentive on the new rich to start spreading their own worldview. Image crafters were then hired to represent the virtues of individualism that ultimately procured the wealth of private property (portraits of those living in the mansions, landscapes around the mansion and stills of what lay on the tables in the mansions). One can easily imagine that the inquisition did not see with a benevolent eye its image making crafters passing at the service of the infidel, the enemy, and its punishment through fire acted as a severely inflating factor on the remuneration of those image crafters who dared brave the inquisition by jumping over board in the camp of the new rich. This incentive of very high remunerations fast changed the perception of the social status of the image crafters. Wealth for themselves procured them also gradually a high prestige and their craft soon was to be called art and themselves artists. This is indeed the origin of the words art and artist as we understand them under modernity.
Nothing is being meant to last eternally and so the high remuneration that went with the exercise of the artist's craft, in early modernity, would soon be memory. From the wealth and prestige of Rubens history surfs indeed very fast towards the misery of Van Gogh.
The combination of the logic of capital and philosophic rationalism extending in applied science eventually ensued in industrialization and democratization. This process that expands approximately along two centuries resulted in the separation of the men of power from the men of knowledge which, by the way, procured to the visual artist the freedom to represent whatever he wants. The new men of knowledge, the scientists, were left to compete on the "level playing field" of the free market with anyone presenting a foundational story about reality.
In this process visual artists have gained total freedom over the content of their works but the substance of that content had vanished and thus their market was gone, they had lost the societal function that had been theirs until then. But, for sure, nothing changes overnight. All movement forward continues for a while even after the energy prompting its movement has been cut. Inertia sets in and inertia conquered modernity or to be more precise the mature stage of modernity what some also call "high modernity".
High modernity can be summed up as a short period of search, by "thinker-artists", for a new narrative about what is reality. The whole enterprise was centered on content, on meaning, and form was only of marginal concern for the artists themselves. But force is to recognize that the content of most of the works from that period does not carry forward much helpful meaning and that it is their form that is being remembered in late modernity. As a direct consequence of this paradox, visual arts lost:
- any trace of a narrative: the naive belief in an "end of history" did not leave any space for another historical narrative and whatever the artist does is considered sufficient to be called art.
- any trace of a public: from the onset of a high modernity Paul Klee already noted that "the people are not with us" (Uns tragt kein Volk)
Having lost any notion of a narrative (a story about what reality is all about), having lost their public, the question that begs for an answer now in late modernity is "for who do visual artists continue to create?".
Answering this question comes down to isolate the different market segments where the creator, the artist, can try to place his wares and this should also shed some light on the content of his works.
  1. The market for interior decoration expanded from being exclusively reserved to luxuries for the rich to a mass market for the middle-class that was then satisfied by the proliferation of cheap prints and cheap originals. The profit imperative of the corporation being what it is the bulk of the prints on the market are mass copies of works that fell out of intellectual protection. Some artists experiment with limited edition copies of their works but, all in all, the marketing imperative most often leaves them in the quandary of having to decide being an artist or being a marketeer. Lately the production of cheap originals (copies or works in the style of...) has been delocalized to China and other countries of the South. You can buy an excellent copy of the Mona Lisa in Beijing for 50 US dollars frame included. Only the frame costs more that that in the West. Furthermore the level of technical skills of painters in the South is rarely seen nowadays in the West. Copies and works "in the style of..." relate to subjects of the past: portraits of those living in the mansions, landscapes around the mansion and stills of what lay on the tables in the mansions. This does not fit the content of contemporary art works. In sum the process of delocalization has left many Western painters discovering the hardship of having to sell their own wares at a Chinese price.
  2. The memory of our culture and the cultural importance recognized by history to artworks is being cultivated in Western education systems and speculators equipped with PR and advertisement exploit the memory of that cultural importance to make fast bucks by speculating on the value of works that they buy initially for a cheap price. Charles Saatchi is a perfect example of this new group of art buyers. What counts here is the generation of hefty returns. Art is of no importance. Charles Saatchi candidly describes the criteria that motivates his purchases as a certain quality to generate scandal, to shock the observer and he lately declared that English art schools have lost their prime strength and fallen behind their successes of the eighties and nineties when he bought and rendered famous just graduated art students whose crap contained the genius to repulse the observer, and provoke his angry reaction, which in finale is what made the crap to the news bulletins. So if artists want to be selected by Saatchi or his peers the lesson is absolutely clear. They need to provide substance for the news hour. Scandal leading to shock and provocation or whatever else will catch the eye or the ear of the TV news channels will do. Charles Saatchi's company will then amplify the noise which will lead to a surge in value of the works he presents to the public and when the value is ripe to his taste he pockets the fantastic returns on his initial small investment. Saatchi justifies his move by saying that the high returns he pockets will allow him to buy so many more works from beginners. I have nothing against speculators but I have something against stupidity. Scandal never will qualify as art, at least not as visual art, but perhaps could it be conceived as the art of marketing. Why can't the speculators reintroduce art and its meaning in the art market? The answer here seems to be double headed. For one it comes from the artistic illiteracy of the speculators. But again I have nothing against speculators per se. They are indeed not responsible for their own illiteracy. Western societies, as a whole, have indeed become artistically illiterate. The first to blame are the media companies that want to give their poorly educated viewers what they most want, scandal and sensation and the second to blame are the bureaucrats of the artistic institutions. They are the ones who make all the noise about art and they just don't get it. Their talk is most generally total emptiness. Only the noise of words rattling onto one another. But where is the meaning in all their speeches and writings? In the end we have nevertheless to acknowledge that no-one is really responsible, for, it all boils down to the logic of capital that drives us all. In the face of their competitors the medias have to generate returns and the artistic institutions and their bureaucrats have to please donators for the sake of their donations.
  3. Galleries live from sales of art works. Not surprisingly most owners focus their attention on what sells and force is to observe that what sells is conventional, in other words, what sells is what is already recognized. Those trying to promote artistic substance are a small minority. In the present overwhelming confusion, about what art is all about, it goes without surprise that this small minority is preponderantly poor in capital and in consequence its marketing reach is rather limited.
  4. The art bureaucracy consists of speakers and writers making noise about the works of artists. It starts with art critics and commentators in the media and finds its true meaning in the functions serving, the modern form of public art temples, the museums. Money is the language of power and speculators and merchants target those modern art temples with the entirety of their power. Having their artistic possessions find a place in those temples consecrate their value in the eyes of all... The artists who might want to target that segment of the market better be advised first to try to be enlisted by a powerful speculator. Their direct encounter with this bureaucracy could at best only result in the sharing of some charitable proceeds in the form of meager grants or other.
  5. Are there still some art connoisseurs out there? Yes they did not disappear all together. One still can find some specimen here and there but most generally they are not that wealthy, albeit, they are well educated or cultured. Those rare specimen of art connoisseurs are the best that can befall an artist. They know what they speak about and for artists they act as stimulating intellectual muses.
  6. The last segment of the artist's market is himself. He will not generate any income by pleasing himself but it nevertheless remains, and by far, the most rewarding experience for the artist to try to understand the reality in which he struggles and ultimately see his understanding becoming the generator of the content of his works. We artists gained our freedom from the men of power and the men of knowledge but in this process we lost a given content and now our only escape from absurdity is through the generation of our own knowledge base. In our present societal predicament targeting one's own productions for him(her)self has the best chance to lead to a dialog between the reason of the brain and the execution of the hand. This is also the only way for the artist to regain a clear understanding of the societal meaning and function of art.
Modernity has triumphed:
- economically: the logic of capital substantiates all our social interactions.
- educationally: economic functionality obliging; science and its applications are transmitted, to one degree or another, to all of us through our education systems.
- philosophically: we all have fallen, to one degree or another, under the charm of rationality but to our surprise we also discovered that the growth of knowledge, predicated by rationality, is also expanding our field of ignorance.
But modernity never morphed into a worldview accessible to all nor did it ever give a foundational story of itself for all to share. Max Weber noted that "scientific rationality offered us artificial abstractions unable to teach us anything about the meaning of the world". Here we are thus left spectators of the utter limitation of modernity wondering "What now?".
With modernity painters gained the total freedom to represent whatever they want but never were they been offered the intellectual tools to come up with images corresponding to the reality of their times. What ensued was "whatever is art". Marcel Duchamp had it all seen come down on the art world and ridiculed the process by exhibiting a toilet seat that critics baptized "readymade". Profoundly distraught by this recuperation Duchamp quit painting for chess.
With late modernity we witness an initial sketching of the road of humanity towards its future in the form of an interaction on a worldscale of 3 determinant factors that will gradually displace modernity:
- a process of scientific revolutionizing that is churning out ever faster new "knowings" or bits of knowledge about the working of reality.
- the impact of the side-effects of modernity on life on earth will definitely mould our ways of doing and thinking in the future.
- globalization is expanding the frontiers of modernity to the whole world and as such we are assisting at a kind of radicalization of modernity. But ultimately this will project on the whole world the civilizational, cultural, societal and other values of 85% of the world population that was until now only experiencing the destructive impact on their traditional structures of a dominating European or Western modernity.
We have entered an age characterized by a total absence of certainty that will transform into a maelstrom of destruction of our past givens and creation of new forms. This process that could well take decades if not centuries to complete will end with the sharing, by all, of a new paradigmatic vision of reality; a common worldview.
It is the understanding of this process that today offers a chance to the artist to engage into a dialog between the reason of his brain and the execution of his hand. Starting from the self the artist then regains the pleasure of understanding how his creations can fit and play within the context of his society.
That's where the artistic adventure finds a new start, a societal meaning, letting us quit late modernity and entering the unknown of what comes after...
Here are some sketchy trails into that unknown:
  1. On the front of ideas the dualistic certainties founding our views of things (beginning versus end, good versus bad, white versus black and so forth) will be displaced by more interactive, polar, circular or cyclical visions of change coming to us from the civilizations of China, India, Africa and south America as well as from advanced science and a rediscovery of animism.
  2. On the front of our environment the fact that reality is made-up of systemic complexity, or complexity within ever farther-apart ensembles interacting upon one another, will gradually be firmly inserted into our minds, albeit, under the impact of necessity.
  3. On the front of our macro universe will gradually emerge the certainty of our ultimate incapacity to apprehend the whole. Understanding the working of the parts will never indicate us if the whole, we are such a tiny particle of, is a pink elephant nor, if it really is a pink elephant, how many family members it lives with.
  4. On the front of visual representations our confrontation with Chinese philosophy and Xieyi painting (writing down the meaning) will help us reassess the link between knowledge and the act of painting and ultimately its societal function. Xieyi painting was never a specialization as such. It was a practice by the men of knowledge on a par with music, philosophy, history, strategy and other.
A vision is slowly sinking into my mind; under the urgent necessity of clarifying his own role the artist is slowly weaving the dress he'll be wearing as a kind of shaman for postmodern times.

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