2007/09/12

What now in painting? Part 2: The visual form of meaning.



Summary of Part 1:
= Art as an illustration of the worldview of the men of knowledge of the day:
........... but who are the men of knowledge in late modernity?
........... artists have to build up their own knowledge base
= Knowledge as the outcome of:
........... an accumulation of knowings by scientists.
........... a philosophic vision of the human atom as particle of an unattainable whole.



........... our human ideals and visions of a better tomorrow.
= The outcome of knowledge:
........... the future is not a given. It is probabilistic. It is the materialization of one possible among many possibilities.
........... human ideals about the future are one among an ensemble of determining factors and the stronger those ideals the stronger they'll impact the setting of the future.
........... human ideals are visions of a better tomorrow they convey an image of beauty.


Abstract of part 2
It is in the nature of art to express beauty in the formal rendering of a work. Non-beauty, ugliness, inharmony are the results of the artist's envy, greed and most importantly his will. The artist can overcome those by letting the content of his creations flow out of the material of his support and what he'll discover there unmistakably will reflect upon the conditions of his time.






Part 2. The visual form of meaning.


2.1. Beauty is the reflection of successful evolutionary changes in the principle of life.

In "The meaning of what to represent" I try to convey this idea that the meaning of life is to be found in thinking about what is reality. I would now like to posit that reality is beautiful for the simple reason that it materialized into existence. Many more other possibles have failed indeed to materialize along this immemorial road of evolutionary changes that constitute our human reality. The failure of all those other possibles to be retained by the principle of life, or its synonym evolution, in our minds evokes something visually akin to non-beauty or ugliness.

The principle of life stores in its DNA (its program) the entirety of its evolutionary road and passes this information down to the next generations. In opposition to the ugliness that casts the rejected possibilities of change the successfully retained ones appear fantastically beautiful for no other reason that they appear to be the direct causes of our being here today. We are here today as the result of a chain of cascading successes, as the result of so many successful links in a chain of evolutionary changes that started sometime 4000 million years ago. Each of those links of changes were like emerging miracles and the miracles multiplied and multiplied in an endless chain. This whole process built of additional successes suggest a certain magical beauty of life being at the pinnacle of its glory. And this beauty is reflected in our DNA's memorization of all forms that have been successfully retained along the four billion years of evolution of the principle of life on Gaia our earth.

This begs the question of the nature of beauty. If beauty is the characteristic of successful evolutionary changes in the principle of life than beauty is something objective and is in no way connected to human subjectivity. What we call ugliness is then simply our unconscientious feel of something (lines, forms, colors, rythms, harmonics and sounds) evolution did not retain. Being thus encoded in the DNA of life beauty remains indeed largely inaccessible to the individuals who carry it. At best the individuals experience an unconscientious feel that something is ugly or beautiful without being able to express anything more than platitudes about the reason for their feeling. Some artists were lucky enough to touch that beauty at the top of their talent and their creations were applauded by all who unconscientiously came under the spell of those artists' reflection of the miraculous beauty laying at the hart of successful evolutionary changes in the principle of life.

Other artists tried to theorize about the artistic necessity of beauty. Kandinsky came the closest to this realization of an artistic necessity in "Concerning the spiritual in art". (1) He called this artistic necessity of beauty "the inner need for inner meaning" and defined it as "the inevitable desire for outward expression of the objective element... If the artist be priest of beauty, nevertheless this beauty is to be sought only according to the principle of the inner need, and can be measured only according to the size of that need. That is beautiful which is produced by the inner need, which springs from the soul". Kandinsky seemed clearly aware of the existence of something objective out there that defines beauty. But, not understanding the nature of that objective element, he equated his intuition with an act of the soul and his following step was thus to posit that art has to reflect the spirituality of the soul. I bet, had Kandinsky known that the entirety of our evolutionary road is stored in our DNA, he would have equated "the inner need, which springs from the soul" with the inner need we feel to respect life as the beauty resulting from a chain of cascading evolutionary successes.

So if "The meaning of what to represent" lays in the knowledge of the men of knowledge of the day about the meaning of life then we have to conclude that artists, in late modernity, have to give visual signs of such knowledge while reflecting that meaning in the miraculous beauty laying at the hart of the chain of successful evolutionary changes in the principle of life. So it seems that for the first time in the history of visual art form and content are meant to join in the same object. This should be great news for all of us and for art lovers in particular.



2.2. Greed envy and will are the shapers of ugliness in human creations.

Will is shaped by desire and desire emerges out of envy and greed. All acts forged out of will reflect an innate rigidity in their form. They are set in the concrete of envy and greed and the lust they profile through the eventual satisfaction of the desires they evoke initially. And thus is eradicated any possibility of spontaneity and naturalness.

When will is absent we discover harmony. Harmony is something objective, it is what all great religions and philosophies strived to illustrate. Harmony can't be deranged. Whatever happens in the cosmos, in our human societies or in our personal lives, harmony is always resulting. It's kind of being the prevailing state of life around our universe. Disharmony in the whole is simply an impossibility, it is a creation of our egos that are driven by greed, want for possessions and glory that trick us to try imposing our will over the harmony reflected by the principle of life. Will is the shaper of disharmony.

As human creations paintings, and other fine art works, are subjective renderings and in consequence they are not automatically harmonious. Our driven egos are more often than not playing tricks on us resulting in subjective preferences that are blinding us. In a painting, of whatever style and by extension in whatever art form, some objective rules apply that are acting as the parapet protecting us from falling in the precipice of confusion that lays under the bridge leading towards harmony and beauty. THE HARMONIZATION OF THE CREATOR's SUBJECTIVITY, freed of his greed and glory driven ego, WITH THE OBJECTIVE RULES OF BEAUTY, the principle of life that is at work throughout our universe, THIS IS WHAT ART IS ALL ABOUT. In paintings, or for that matter in all fine art works, content and technique are blend into form. What I mean to say is that whatever technique is being used to express whatever content, the form of the resulting work must be harmonious or in other words that it must blend with the objective rules of beauty derived from the prevailing harmony that flows throughout our entire universe. Harmony is the general state of our universe, and the memory of its historical forms is stored in the DNA of life, that's how we call it the prevailing harmony. It is not something static, all the contrary, it is permanent change. It is an infinite chain of transformations.

These last centuries, western artists and thinkers concentrated on the idea of an absolute truth and they lost themselves in this Sisyphean act for a snapshot FOR truth leading more often than not in the deep valley of absolute certainty where they drowned under the passions arising with these very certainties.

We should now make the jump to a superior level of understanding and discover how to fabricate snapshots OF truth un-encumbered by greed, envy, and the ideologies founded on such. I firmly believe that to keep in tune WITH THE OBJECTIVE RULES OF BEAUTY, the principles of life at work throughout our universe, we have to concentrate on the sequences between the snapshots while freeing our SUBJECTIVITY from our greed and glory driven ego that tricks us into the desire or the preference of some outcomes. By design outcomes emerge as the conclusion of a process and are not destined to endure. We should thus not bow in contemplation of them. What really matters is the process leading to a successful outcome, for, whence such an outcome emerges it is bound to weaken in importance in light of the non-ending search for more complexity by the principle of life. Successful outcomes are indeed like the links in the long haul chain of the complexification of the principle of life. This chain is like the metastasize of the principle of life throughout the body of reality and once a link is welded, as the successful outcome at a particular moment in time, a process of change sets in that'll conclude with the welding of the next link.

For the observer, the sequencing of changes is what ultimately is making sense of each particular moment. The same goes for the art observer. It is indeed the sequencing of changes between colors, between sounds or between ideas and words that ultimately makes sense of those same colors, sounds, ideas and words in the whole of a work of art. In the understanding of this simple truth (universal principle) lays a unique chance to leave the heights of our past searches for certainties. By their very nature, changes don't let us the time to focus on certainties, indeed, the best we can do is to try to surf on the waves of changes, to try to be IN the reality of the situation or to say this otherwise, to try to be in the reality of each moment.



2.3. A way of enhancing and arousing the mind to various inventions. (2)

"I shall not refrain from including among these precepts a new aid to contemplation, which, although seemingly trivial and almost ridiculous, is none the less of great utility in arousing the mind to various inventions. And this is, if you look at any wall soiled with a variety of stains, or stones with variegated patterns, when you have to invent some location, you will therein be able to see a resemblance to various landscapes graced with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, great valleys and hills in many combinations. ... But although these stains may supply inventions they do not teach you how to finish any detail. Therefore painter, you should know that you can't be good if you are not a master universal enough to imitate with your art every kind of natural form, which you will not know how to do unless you observe them and retain them in your mind."

Leonardo tells us here that painters should use some form of automatism to discern the content of their works into the stain or the material of their support. Such an automatism implies spontaneity. It excludes will and eliminates any formal rigidity emanating from desire. And Leonardo then to insist. "Therefore, O painter, take care that lust for gain does not override in your mind the glory of art." Leonardo implies here that what is not resulting from your will is conducive "to bring honor upon yourself through your art".

Under the influence of the popes of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung the idea of automatism was rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century by the early surrealists. But as noted by Andre Masson "The tendency to allow oneself to be swamped by things, the ego being no more than the vase which they fill, really only represents a very low degree of knowledge. ... There is a whole world in a drop of water trembling on the edge of a leaf, but it is only there when the artist and the poet have the gift of seeing it in its immediacy. However to avoid making any mistakes, this revelation or inspired knowledge, and this contact with nature are only profound in so far as they have been prepared by the thought and by the intense consideration of the artist. This is the only way in which sensitive revelation can enrich knowledge." (3) Surrealism would then flow further into the irrational, the bizarre, and lose its creative power at discovering something useful to say about reality. That's when surrealism was done with.

Automatism as a practice to discover reality "in a stain on a canvas" has not lost its power at generating flowing lines and colors that starkly contrast the rigidity of a work labored under the duress of will. But as has been evidenced with Surrealism its power at "arousing the mind" is conditional to the painter possessing:
- a body of knowledge "universal enough to imitate with your art every kind of natural form" (2)
- a technique that does not hamper your representation for "although these stains may supply inventions they do not teach you how to finish any detail". (2)

Automatism by itself does not supply any meaning or any content. At best it helps painters who have a valid body of knowledge about reality to transfer on the canvas, in highly creative ways, elements of that knowledge while attaining a high degree, of naturalness, of fluidity and dynamism in their works. But as evidenced with Surrealism automatism becomes incomparably dangerous at the hands of people who do not master the knowledge of their day. Kandinsky was indeed cleverly prescient when he wrote "... the freedom of today has at once its dangers and its possibilities. We may be present at the conception of a new great epoch, or we may see the opportunity squandered in aimless extravagance." (1)

It was extravagance that won. It imposed its seal on all artworks that would be suceessfull on the market these last fifty years. This does by no means imply that art is dead. It just means that art, during an instant of inattention, has been debased to "whatever" the market deemed to carry success for itself. This meant art creations that would generate fiancial surplusses on the merit of marketing techniques alone. In this process the artistic had to be expunged of art works, for, it was distracting people's attention from what the marketing techniques intended it to focus on. So extravagance and whatever dominated the art scene for a while but art is back now and the conception of a new great epoch is at last free to emerge!



2.4. The "periodic characteristics" of a work of art.

The artist is a citizen as any other. He lives in a given historical, political and cultural context that are impacting on his attitudes, his behavior with other people, and his work. From animism to religion and then to modernity we observe constants, in each of those periods, in term of content of an art work and in term of the form in which artists render the meaning of their work. Ours is a period of change from modernity to what comes later in post modernity. In contrast to the two earlier transitions (animism to religion and religion to modernity) the passage from modernity to post modernity will be extremely fast and will take place on a global scale. The outcome of this transition is uncertain. It could conclude with the elimination of the human species from the surface of the earth but it could also promise us better tomorrows. What is for sure is that this transition will last at most a couple of centuries and it will be devastating for the human population and its societal forms of organization.

I'm very well aware of the risks of collapse along this transition: societal, civilizational and even for the human species. But this is part of the evolutionary process that the principle of life is bound to undergo; whatever this may be. We should understand that the principle of life is not depending on the survival of humanity to thrive further. Who are we to even think about equating ourselves with the principle of life? Yes we are a living species but we are only one among many other and nothing indicates that our actions as a specie are conducive to the metastatic expansion of the principle of life throughout the whole. There are many reasons to believe that, on the contrary, with modernity our specie acts more like a poison that kills life.

Whatever the outcome of the evolutionary transition we are entering fact is that in the last decades we learned some important lessons about the workings of our societal organizations and about human culture, art, the biology of life and so on. This idea that the evolutionary process of change is inscribed in each particular form of life's DNA; this allows us to have a peak at the beauty contained in each link of the chain of life. And art being the inscription of the knowledge of the day in visual signs to be shared with all; it seems to me that late modern artists should be drawing and painting nothing else than signs of the process of change from which shall emerge the beauty contained in the next link on the long chain of humanity's societal evolution.

I think that there is no point in painting our societal demise other than eventually frightening the human atoms. That's what the members of Cobra did in Europe after experiencing the atrocities of the second world war. But they were also in search of a better tomorrow and their creations eventually participated in modulating the societal mood that led to the emergence of a process of change that could possibly conclude with a viable post modern societal organization.

The present transition is a global affair that will need the sharing of a common worldview by the individuals in order for humanity to have a chance to make it, without too much of a damage, to the next link on the societal evolutionary chain.

It seems to me that all the conditions are starting to fall into place for such a worldview to arise:
- the most advanced late modern science sheds light - on the inaccessibility of the whole through rationality, - on our interconnectedness as particles of the whole, - and on the sheer vanity at the core of modernity that is responsible for igniting a chain reaction of side-effects that have the potential to annihilate us as a species. It also helps us better understand that we have to dump our present ways of living for a more organic and sustainable approach.
- science is now awakening to a growing conscience that animism and the civilizations that were built as its add-ons (the East globally) got it right from the beginning.
- science and the philosophies of the East could thus possibly be finding common ground in devising the building blocks of a worldview that could be shared on a worldwide scale.
- people's conscience, of the dangers that are lurking for humanity as a whole, is deepening fast around the whole world foreshadowing an approaching twilight of conversion to an emerging worldwide worldview.

I try to render visual signs of this coming worldview.



2.5. The tools of the visual trade.

To the traditional techniques that had been in use over thousands of years, modernity successively adds oil painting, lithography, photography, motion pictures and lately imaging software and we can't but marvel at the power of seduction of the images produced with these techniques. It should thus not come as a surprise that along the last century the visual relay to societies at large of new ideas, new understandings and new ideologies largely borrowed from the images produced with those modern techniques.

This recourse to modern techniques of representation acted like a parking at the margins of high and late modernity of the traditional techniques of representation and this happened while visual arts entered in a general state of confusion. But we should not deduce from that simultaneity any causality out of the use of those modern techniques. The surge of images produced with those modern techniques follows indeed the failure by the modern thinking artists of the avant-garde, at the turn of and further along the 20th century, to define a valid replacement of the first degree images that our eyes give us to see... images that they so much hated.

Today in late modernity artists have first and foremost:
1. to find the answers to the questions that the avant-garde of high-modernity struggled with and that it never solved.
2. to understand that the techniques made available along the span of high and late-modernity have been conceived in the intellectual context of those periods and as such they are not at all neutral. Those techniques contain the intellectual answers of our period and drive the artists who use them on a given path that does not allow them much freedom in term of the expression of their own vision (as answers to the questions implied in 1). It is not as if the artist was not free. It is that by using these techniques the artist limits his freedom to a choice between different options that are contained in those techniques. Those techniques act indeed like multi-answer questions. In other words the choice of answers is limited.
3. to understand that the meaning expressed in the content of their works comes first and that they should thus employ the technique that gives them the maximum ease in representing their meaning.

Personally I feel more at ease on a canvas using my hands, brushes, or whatever allows me to discover the meaning that sits unplugged in my unconscious and I don't know how I ever could better reproduce that discovered meaning than by letting flow the brush along the lines of the various inventions that are already there on the canvas and that I just discovered. Once a work is terminated software imaging techniques become my means to explore further, deeper, the content rendered with my hands.
But I guess everyone grew his own set of habits and technical skills and no one technique is thus more recommendable than another. In the end the imaging technique that best renders the meaning of the creator of visual signs is the technique that he best masters.



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(1). Kandinsky in "Concerning the spiritual in art." Dover publications. 1977.

(2). Leonardo in "On painting". The Invention and composition of narratives. Yale Nota Bene Book. 2001

(3). Andre Masson. "Painting is a wager". Horizon (London). In Herschel B, Chipp. Theories of modern art". University of California Press. 1968.
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2 comments:

  1. Wow. How come nobody ever comments on these interesting posts? I understand that for Laodan the quality of visual art works resides in the meaning they express. Meaning that he correlates with the knowledge of "the men of knowledge of the day".
    But who are "the men of knowledge" of our day?

    I will subscribe to your feed.
    Continue the great work and a thousand thanks for the effort you put in your research and for sharing with all.

    Jan Van Holland

    ReplyDelete