In high modernity a collision occurs into visual artists' minds between the disappearance of the men of knowledge in the traditional sense and an emergent subjective necessity to represent reality differently. It appears evident for the avant-garde that continuing to represent worldviews of the past makes no sense any longer. But this results in doubt and uncertainty in artists' minds:
- about what to represent (content of the work).
- about the technique of representation to use.
Today in late modernity, after nearly a century of trials and errors by the avant-garde, it is fair to say that it did not succeed in attaining the target it had set for itself. I mean that the avant-garde did not succeed to devise a new vision about reality that integrates the knowledge of the day. On the contrary its trials and errors concluded on a landscape of confusion. And in the midst of this intellectual confusion art has first been presented as being whatever the artist wanted it to be but that, in turn, engendered more than confusion, for, it was a direct conduit leading to cynicism and art then became the vector of finance. But as we all know finance is no art nor does it have any knowledge about what art is all about.
After a century of avant-gardism we artists are faced with the same questions that arose with the emergence of the avant-garde:
- what to represent or what meaning to give to the content of the work of art.
- what form to best dress the substance of our content.
- what technique to best represent, in our time, our content and its form.
The level of confusion in artists' minds is assuredly deafening but this does not eliminate the necessity to find answers to those questions that were first expressed nearly a century ago.
1. The meaning of what to represent.
In this blog and in my book Artsense I posit that since the cultural dawn of humanity visual arts had a societal functionality. That function was to create visual signs, for all to share, about the worldview of the men of knowledge of the day. That functionality has been un-interrupted along tens of thousands of years and, the more archaeologists succeed in digging further down in history, the more it appears that it could well have been the case along hundreds of thousands of years. Or to put it otherwise this societal function of visual arts has been in practice over more than 99,9% of humanity's cultural span. High and Late modernity appear to have derogated to this societal functionality for less than 0.1% of humanity's cultural span. The least we can say is that what has been going on during the last 0.1% of the human time should by no means be considered as the norm of what is to come.
But who are the men of knowledge in late modernity to inspire the artists in their production of visual signs?
It was thought, for a time, during the swing of High modernity that science and rationality were the producers of the knowledge of modernity. This was effectively right but we start to discover that such knowledge was not really knowledge but an amalgamation of knowings that, in finale, are responsible, albeit indirectly, for the side-effects of modernity: 6th mass extinction of species, poisoning of our drinking water and our land bearing crops, climate change, over-population and rarity of raw materials, fossil energy, as well as those effects that are still unverified but that we somehow instinctively feel could well appear soon to be worse even than the ones we observe today: biological manipulations of plant, animal and human DNA, dispersion of nano-particles in the environment and so on
Furthermore the rise and expansion of modernity have been driven as a totalitarian push to convert to rationality. But that rationality now appears not to have been very reasonable after all. Its recipes are directly responsible for having caused:
- the poisoning of the oceans that ruptures the balance of the eco-systems sustaining marine life.
- the poisoning our arable land for the industrialization of our foods that is responsible in the last instance for the degrading quality of what we daily eat, drink, and for the disappearance of insects, bees, birds and so on.
- the poisoning of the air we breathe that is responsible for the increase in cancers, juvenile diabetes and so on.
- the rupture of the equilibrium between the multitude of parameters at work on earth and in the atmosphere. But that equilibrium, let us never forget this, is the source of the sustenance of life on earth. The rupture of the earth climate equilibrium leads to destabilizing changes; the species' equilibrium leads to declining variety that in turn leads to declining possibilities for the principle of life; the rupture of the human population equilibrium leading to over exploitation of material and energetic resources and so on and so on.
Now that humanity is on the verge of self-annihilation sirens are being heard from all quarters and capital, in a hurry, is positioning its ideology of rationalism as the answer to the very real problems it initially created.
As economic globalization expands the problems mentioned above are bound to multiply exponentially. The freeing of the genie of greed under the global assault of the values of modernity is going to make sure of that. But how could we, the 15% or less of humanity who have been reaping all the sweats of modernity until now, reproach to the other 85% to desire to share at the same table of modernity; come what may.
Necessity begs for answers and solutions. History is full of examples and the necessity that we feel in late-modernity is no different. Answers and solutions at the global level are slow to come by and slower yet to implement. But coming they will, imposed on us through the power of nature. The gravity of our late-modern problems is going to make sure that “non-rational” holistic solutions shall be implemented, solutions that emphasize the organic or functional relation between parts and whole.
One of the segments, in this all-encompassing range of problems to solve, concerns the re-balancing of the dis-equilibrium of the polarities of humanity itself: individuals versus societies. The re-balancing of that particular dis-equilibrium could very well be the central most pressing task that awaits us if we seriously want to save ourselves and our children from self-annihilation. Individualism in late-modernity has grown to such a point that it forms the sole substance of the societal dance between polarities. One of the two polarities, the societal, has been shuffled to the margins meaning that no actioning restraint mechanism functions any longer against individual excesses. In those conditions societies are simply incapable to determine solutions and if one particular group of interest wanted to impose its own perceived solutions it would never find the power to implement their application other than recoursing to totalitarian political adventure. The logic of capital has succeeded to impose the individual as the sole acting substance of its rationality but this has been reached at the expense of the loss of societal knowledge about its reproduction. Societies want to preserve what is there in order to guarantee their reproduction but that was going against the search by the logic of capital for growth and as a consequence the societal polarity has been sacrificed and thrown into the dustbin of modernity.
Whatever we might think about the limitation by society of individual rights and freedoms fact is that necessity shall impose the return in force of the societal polarity. Societal cohesion shall indeed be required to speed up the execution and implementation of the answers and solutions to our present state of necessity. And societal cohesion means first and foremost the sharing of a common worldview by all... This is where we close the circle, coming back to my initial definition of visual arts as being the representation of the worldview of the men of knowledge of the day for all to share.
By no means do I suggest that visual artists collaborate with authoritarian powers to be. The power elite has indeed no clue about any valid knowledge about our global reality. They know about force to coerce, capital to invest and science to generate new avenues where to invest. They will eventually try to re-impose a past religious worldview that does not qualify as a workable worldview in the present and even less, in times of necessity, as a worldview that all could share.
The intersection that we observe starting to operate - between globalization, climate change, species' extinction, over-population, rarefaction of material and energetic resources and the other side-effects of modernity - is making for a messy process. A process that asks from us to respond, on the fly, with valid answers to the multiple urgencies. It goes without saying that pragmatism is the only valid key to open the doors on a livable future for our children.
I don't suppose that visual artists will transform, as by magic, into men of knowledge. Nowhere is the visual art education system preparing artists to think or to search for knowledge. And seen that knowledge is dispersed and not residing in any particular group of individuals, my best guess is that here and there we'll see some knowledgeable individuals having some practice in a method of representation starting to offer their take on reality for others to share. Those who search for meaning and more particularly meaning through visual representation can already experience what I try to expose. There is without any possible doubt an increase in quality meaning in the visual arts nowadays. For sure only a trained eye will detect and recognize such rare creators among the multitude of would-be artists.
The creative process toward meaning is akin to a process of sifting the grain from the shaft. Once someone succeeds to sift an appreciable quantity of grains then those grains start fast to interbreed bringing about fast personal improvement for their discoverers and that in turn is fast emulated by many others to create a line of pure-breeds in quality meaning. This process is somehow akin to what was going on under animism when the shaman created knowledge for his tribe and also the visual representation of that knowledge for all to share.
But how to start sifting the grains from the shaft? How to recognize the grains of the plants of knowledge that could feed us in the future? We for sure know that knowledge is the only valid answer. But where to find the men of knowledge whose worldview we could make ours? Nowhere it seems. The only path to actionable knowledge, in our present day circumstances, lays inside ourselves. There is no school nor any “ism” that masters the kind of global knowledge about reality that we are in need today. Parcels can be found here and there but we have to make the effort to assemble all those parcels into a coherent whole.
Not knowing if the whole of our reality is a pink elephant, a family of pink elephants, or even a pack of families the fallacy of a compartmental approach based on the observation of a detail inside one compartment of the whole can only result in a fantasy. That's typically the story of the classical scientific approach and why our application of its fantasies concludes invariably into dramas. We'll never know if the whole of our reality is a pink elephant, a family of pink elephants, or a pack of families but this should not impeach us to devise a methodology reflective of the working of the whole and that's exactly what humanity has been trying to attain along the hundreds of thousands of years when humans observed the rhythms and patterns of the universe, Gaia and their local environments. Anywhere around the world under animism "primitive" humans understood that they were connected in a web of complexity to all other living species in the "whole" and from that understanding they derived a deep respect for the life of all living species. The theories of complexity and the studies about change from chaos to order, and vice versa, in advanced sciences come to recognize today the validity of the animistic approach towards reality. But their discourse is unfortunately only accessible to a very narrow minority.
Following this line of argument, we deduce that reality is composed of a series of concentric circles, starting with ourselves (the observer) at the innermost point and spreading outwards and inwards:
- Outwards towards the self, the family, the village market place, the homeland, humanity itself, Gaia, the Milky Way, right out to the limit of our island universe knowing that further lays an unattainable that could be vaster that all that is attainable to us, an unattainable our attainable is a part of: a universe composed of one elephant, a family or a pack of families?
- Inwards towards the parts of our body, the molecules, the atoms, the sub-atomic particles.
Those concentric circles are in constant flux like interwoven by incessant interactions between circles and between particles in and among the circles. Reality is thus complexity in motion and what appears clearly here is that we are no more than time limited particles within that complexity in motion. Time limited particles that are driven by the whole that is characterized by this complexity in motion. This does not mean that what comes is invariably determined and that we therefore should take a fatalist approach. It simply means that what comes in the future is resulting as the “materialization” of one possible among the many possibles manifesting themselves at any given time. This leads me to think with Ilya Prygogyne that “... what we do today depends on our image of the future, rather than the future depending on what we do today. We build our equations by our actions. These equations, and the future they represent, are not written in nature. In other words, time becomes construction. Of course, we have some conditions that determine limits of the future but within these limits are many, many possibilities.
Therefore, since no deterministic prediction is likely to be valid, visions of the future--utopian visions--play a very important role in present conduct. I am more afraid of the lack of utopias.” (1) Anyone who is well versed in the Yi-Ching shall recognize in the words of Prygogyne the substance of what is at work in that very old work. Prygogyne is indeed one of those scientists who close the historical loop of knowledge by re-appropriating the foundational building blocks of animism; albeit in total unconsciousness of that very feat.
I summarized my understanding of reality in the following poem that I wrote in the fall of 2000 in Beijing. It became part of a gouache that I was working on around that time.
The contact between polarities generates a burst of energy fueling changes and transformations that are as the seconds on the ticking clock of evolution. From this we know that the life of all species and their members is given by the changes occurring in the following 3 dimensions:
1. The SKY or the influences of environments, from vicinity to infinity, on each species and its members.
2. The EARTH or the influences of the hardware and software assigned to the members of each living species. This is called the drama of reproduction of the species through sex and of reproduction of the individuals through satisfaction of their objective needs.
3. The SELF or the influences of the cultural and economic works of each species upon itself, upon its members, upon other species and upon the environment.
But how to put such a vision and the knowledge it is based upon into visual signs? This is the subject of the following parts of this text.
1. Beyond Being and Becoming by Illya Prygogyne In NPQ (New Perspectives Quarterly.