2013/06/22

About the meaning of art.

"Long distance history" finds its roots, most often, in chance archaeological discoveries. Those discoveries, at least regarding art productions, relate to objects that go as far back in time as one hundred thousand years (very rough approximation based on the present state of our knowledge). This distance could well be pushed back further down in time after more chance discoveries in the future. But objects spanning one hundred thousand years of artistic practice should suffice, for us here, to come to valid conclusions regarding what is art.
We know that art is a function of societies for the good reason that during the first 99,900 years of the last 100,000 years or so of our history societies acted as the active energetic polarity of humanity while human individuality constituted its passive polarity, and societies thus all naturally strategized that to ensure their reproduction over time they needed a high level of societal cohesion. 
During the first 99,900 years of our "long history" visual art acted as a tool to solidify societal cohesion by giving visual signs of the worldview of the men of knowledge of the day in order for all to share the same understanding of what reality is all about. That sharing was practiced by giving each and every member of society to see the same images or "visualizations" of the knowledge of the men of knowledge of the day. The sharing of images of the worldview of their men of knowledge, it had been observed, acted like gluing all citizens of a society in a common mindset that maximized the cohesion of the group. 
Historical distinctions in societal forms and modes of organization, as well as the recruitment of the men of knowledge and the formation of their worldviews, all this sheds light on three distinctive periods along the historical span of the evolution of human societies: 
- animism: shaman under tribal societal organization devised "animistic" worldviews all around the world. From the earliest of times, around 100,000 years ago, till the development of agriculture, around 10,000 years ago, the human worldview was animism. Moderns labelled its visual representations as “primitive arts”. To circumvent the negativity of such an Euro-Centrist view the French lately converted their labelling of such art to "art premiers". 
- religion or philosophy: starting with the earliest kingdoms, that build on increasing populations following the adoption of agriculture and expanding in the great empires, priests or wisemen proselytized or taught a worldview that later would be named religion or philosophy. In the Middle East the religions of the Word gave way to religious art that was practiced by craftsmen who were recognized very low social esteem. Chinese philosophy gave way to Shieyi and Gongbi painting that was practiced by the men of knowledge themselves... 
 - early modernity: Starting with the first crusade long haul merchants and bankers, over the centuries, developed a worldview consecrating individualism and private ownership that conflicted with the established religious worldview. Their power in gold and the assets that gold could buy finally ensured them societal recognition in the form of architecture (mansions and palaces) and the "3 art subjects" (landscapes around the mansions, portraits of those living in the mansions and stills of what adorns the tables in the mansions). Such art was destined primarily to solidify the belief in the new values of individualism and private ownership. Notice that those 3 imposed subjects are the exclusive subjects of painting from the Renaissance, 1400-1500, till around 1900. 
- high modernity (modernism or 100 years at most on the 100,000 years of art history): the sanctification of the individual into the active polarity of modernity emerged in early modernity with "long distance trade", an offshoot of the crusades, that unfolded in a systematic conversion process over the following centuries. But it is only with the advent of economic massification (mass market) between 1800 and 1900 that individualism finally displaced the societal structures of knowledge by bringing the men of knowledge on the level playing field of the market for ideas where they had thus to fight against all kinds of charlatans for the ears and eyeballs of the masses. By 1900 the mass market had imposed itself as the generator of the bulk of all profits and surpluses in Europe and the US and thereafter it permanently strives to expand its reach to newer goods and newer geographic locales. But to succeed the mass market needs to give each consumer the power to chose what product he wants to purchase and to establish the symbolism of consumer choice, Europeans thought that, they first needed to break two stumbling-blocks by generating the illusion in the eyes of the masses that they: 
- controlled the political process of decision making (democracy, one people/one vote). Power had not vanished. Gold and the assets that gold can buy still had the upper hand and would henceforth manipulate the "democratic" designation process of the representatives of the people. Nothing has changed to this very day and Public Relations thus emerged as the instrument of manipulation par excellence. 
- controlled the ideation process by relegating the “men of knowledge” to the level playing field of the market for ideas. But here again power did not vanished. Gold and the assets that gold can buy would easily manipulate the people to follow the ideation of their owners; an agenda that nowadays is being called propaganda. 
It's in that particular context (high modernity) that the "avant-garde" emerges: 
- rejecting past ways of painting (rejection of the 3 obliged subjects of modernity) 
- searching for a deeper meaning of reality to depict visually. 
Looking at the last hundred years of visual creations force is to recognize that the avant-garde failed to achieve the goal it had set for itself. It did not discover a deeper meaning of reality and the works, of whatever its schools, have not enlightened individuals nor societies during high modernity or today in late modernity. 
We still are searching today for a deeper meaning of reality. And thus the necessity I feel of "Thinking about what reality is all about, writing about that thinking and painting along the lines of that thinking." 
As I see it: 
- in its enthusiasm, to adopt the new, the avant-garde soon was blinded and forgot about what art is all about. 
- the task of searching for a deeper meaning of reality that the avant-garde had set for itself was an impossible task indeed. 
Over the last millena the artist's role had been to create visual signs of the worldview of the men of knowledge for all to share. The artist had specialized in the technical act of image making while being supplied with the content to illustrate. With High-Modernity, all of a sudden, the men of knowledge vanished on the level playing field of the market for ideas where their voices dissolved in the brouhaha and the noise of the market place. In reaction artists had tasked themselves to act as their own men of knowledge. But having never been trained nor taught to think about what reality is all about they soon fell in esotericism or worse in whatever the market would gobble. It was thus no accident that the whole adventure would conclude in the absurd. - while artists were losing themselves in the field of meaning scientists plunged into the microcosm, the macrocosm, and abstractions devising ever more elaborate operational knowledge shedding light on the "systemic complexity" of the principle of reality. 
The following images stumbled upon us like by luck in the last 10-20 years. They are the results of visualization techniques that scientists use to get a better grasp on a reality that emerges at levels the eyes can't see. In other words those images illustrate a deeper and hidden meaning of reality. 



The first image above is titled "Stained-Neuron" and the lower one "Fractal genome". I lost the references to their authors. Sorry for that. 
To observe at the micro and macro levels scientists basically use lenses and cameras. From those they derive multiple techniques. For example Scanning Electron Microscopy, Translational Microscopy, Magnifying Microscopy, Laser Scanning Confocal Microscopy, etc. A good introduction to all these techniques is available on the site "Molecular Expressions" a treatise on optical microscopy. The "Cell Imaging Centre" at the University of Alberta published another very useful PDF document on the subject titled "The Basics". 
Describing their philosophy, the members of the “Eye of Science” state: “Our commitment is to the evidence of scientific investigation but also to the use of color as a creative and harmonious tool to achieve beauty. In the combination of the aesthetics and the science we hope to inspire the public.” 
 Such images are the results of scientific observations. But do they constitute art? 
Using the definition of art I gave here above they are unmistakably art. "During the first 99,900 years of humanity's "long history" visual art acted as a tool to solidify societal cohesion by giving visual signs of the worldview of the men of knowledge of the day in order for all to share the same understanding of what reality is all about. That sharing was practiced by giving each and every member of society to see the same image or "visualization" of the knowledge of the men of knowledge of the day." 
There is no doubt in my mind that scientific visualizations are representative of the knowledge of our contemporary men of knowledge or at least of one section of our contemporary men of knowledge. As such when images of scientific visualizations are spreading around it makes no doubt, in my mind, that they act and function like real art objects. They fulfil the traditional societal functionality of art that always has been to share visual signs of the worldview of the men of knowledge of the day with all. 
Science is largely viewed today as the exclusive domain of real knowledge. But the deepening of the side-effects of modernity, that scientists themselves are telling us could very possibly plunge humanity on the path of collapse, shines a negative light on this idea that science is the domain "par excellence" of real knowledge about reality. The scientific ideas upon which modernity has been built and also the solutions that have been put in application in the real economy were all largely the doing of the scientific community. So science, unmistakably, bears a large share of the responsibility for the present fate of humanity. Seen the severity of humanity's plight in late-modernity we should be asking ourselves, it sounds to me, if it is really wise to continue to put all our trust in science. Not that we should reject science but is it not time to frame science within the context of a more globally encompassing societal framework of knowledge that could, act like a parapet along a bridge and, protect humanity of scientific ideas that ultimately could spell the demise of the principle of life on earth? 
This is where I think something societally bigger than science eventually appears on our horizon. A globally encompassing vision of the interactions between the societal polarities that would give humanity a deeper consciousness of its own reality and how it relates with the whole. This shall be the subject of one of my next posts.

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