From Modernity to After-Modernity. (20)

Part 2. Theoretical considerations
Chapter 5. About the arts

Dear readers,

Technical problems prevented me from publishing my last series of posts over the last 4 weeks. The problem is finally solved.
I'll now be publishing, the 5 final posts of this winter series, on the coming Fridays...
Sorry again for the interruption.


Table of content.

5.1. Clarification of the concept “the arts”
5.2. The origins of the arts
        5.2.1.  An acquired predisposition
         A biological predisposition for beauty
         Art satisfies an individual thirst for comfort in social interrelations
        5.2.2.  Life uses the arts to ensure its reproduction
         Inaccessibility of reality to human reason
         Societal approximation of reality
         Art finds its substance in knowledge
                               A. Visual arts
                               B. Music
                               C. Dance
        5.2.3.  Biological evolution to societal evolution
         Social brain hypothesis and Dunbar number
         Worldviews, rituals, and the arts
         The arts at the service of life
5.3. Evolution of the arts though history
       5.3.1. The arts under tribal societies
       5.3.2. The arts under imperial societies.
                                A. The road to power & specialization
                                B. The arts as a regulated trade
                                C. The sanctification of the arts in Early Modernity
                                A. Who are the artists?
                                B. Specialization of the different functions of the shaman
                                C. Unification through centralization & standardization
                                D. Evolution of the arts under empire
      5.3.3.  The arts under Modernity.
        A rapid sketch
        No valid artistic answers
      5.3.4. The arts in Late-Modernity
        Visual art & meaning - societal sense
        An Artistic Renaissance
        Many contemporary ideas about the future.
        The future is probabilistic      
        The arts as a narrative about life and reality
        The world’s Late-Modernity & the arts in China
5.4. The arts in what comes after Modernity
       5.4.1. Knowledge under After-Modernity
        The world is stuck in a European trap
                             A. Sanctification of the arts
                             B. The context that made Modernism
                             C. From Modernism to the confusion of Late-Modernity
                             D. Escaping the confusion and a Vision about the future
       Humanity is confronted with a choice
       Knowledge in After-Modernity
       5.4.2. The arts under After-Modernity
       The biological predisposition
       Individual thirst for comfortable & warm social interrelations
       The principle of life
       The organic is the new worldview of After-Modernity
       The arts under After-Modernity

I became a thinker by necessity. Painting was always my preferred field of doing but I gradually felt dumbfounded by most of the contemporary productions that the art world imposes on our societies. At first I thought that this was because I was dumber than a rock, but without asking for it, my mind had started bouncing ideas around and this is how I became involved in a thinking process that after many years led me to conclude that the art world is decidedly very sick. But I never was satisfied with that conclusion. A nagging question was indeed haunting my mind “what is it exactly that sickens the art world? ”. As you can imagine such a question has opened a can of worms and I found myself following them in all fields of human knowledge. For years, no for decades now, I have been running through books in all fields of knowledge and along the way I have gradually become more selective and formed my own vision about the reality we live in today.

I discovered indeed that the arts are interrelating with a multitude of other factors at work in the principle of life and in our societies and not only are all these factors interrelated they are interdependent which means that the arts just can’t escape them. The arts are human activities and as such they are components  – of the principle of life (species) and  – of our societies:
  1. if the arts are human activities, for a minimum, they must fulfill an economic function otherwise the individuals would not invest their time in them.
  2. if the individuals produce art then it must fulfill a role in the life of the species or in our societies otherwise there would be no reason to have art productions in the first place. In “Chapter 4: About societal evolution and societal governance” I state the following that applies here:  “The graph of the cycle of life allows us to determine the parameters that are activating species. Species have two poles of energy  – the strong or positive charge = the individual atoms  – the weak or the negative charge = societies (groupings). The societal-individual polarity-play constitutes the essence of the dynamic of species. In other words the species internal life is in reality what, the play or dance of the polarities society-individuals, is all about“.

What this means is that the interactions between the individuals and their society constitutes the dynamic of life and the arts are an integral part of that dynamic of the life of the human species. In other words the arts fit within that dance between the individuals and their society. I reproduce here under the graphs given in  chapter  about consciousness.

This chapter shows how the individuals fit in the cycle of life. See part 1part 2part 3.
“the cycle of life”
“the dynamic of  the life of species”. See here
“25 feedback loops  about the working of societies” See (1)4.6 (2)4,6 (3)

The conclusion I arrived at here above is that art fulfills a role in the life of the human species and in our societies which are the intermediaries between the human species and the individuals. But at this point of my reasoning things are starting to become complicated because there is no agreement on what role the arts are fulfilling  – or in life  – or in societies  – or in both simultaneously. Sure we know that people like watching paintings, listening to music and watching dance. But why is it that they watch and listen? Simply because they like?

I never was satisfied with such an answer. It is simply not good enough for the good reason that it explains nothing. If we say that people watch and listen to the arts because they are submerged with pleasure then we are onto something a lot more interesting. Pleasure and suffering are indeed incentives that we can’t resist. Pleasure is nature rewarding us for doing something that is useful for life while pain is nature punishing us for doing something that is inadequate for the principle of life. Pleasure and pain are nature’s way to make the individuals do things in a way that is beneficial to the principle of life; the Chinese say that it’s the nature of the Tao.

The fact is that if we don’t get a regular shot of pleasure we end up suffering and the pain forces us to search for ways to satisfy that need in one way or another. We know, for example, that eating gets us pleasure and if we do not eat our stomach will contract of hunger and the pain will oblige us to find a way to eat. This closes nicely the loop of a biological necessity and the same goes for sex. We go wild for the pleasure that sex procures and sex also ensures that the individual will reproduce his genes. Without sex we soon feel ill at ease and after a long time without sex we feel frustrated which forces us to find a way to satisfy that need. Again nature has found a nice trick to close the loop of a biological necessity. But at this point I’m afraid that political correctness will try to reform my thoughts. “You are justifying the actions of rapists”! No I’m not. The fact is that biology has its ways which are not societal ways. If you think that those ways are out of sync then you have to correct society; there is indeed nothing we can do to change the course of our biology. In sum we have to change society in such a way that it manages those biological needs that impinge on societal ways.

What about the arts? We say that the arts procure us pleasure. But what does the pleasure procured by the arts bring about? We know that food ensures the reproduction of the individual and sex ensures the reproduction of the species but what do the arts ensure? If we don’t know what the arts are for then the question becomes why do the individuals spend so much time producing and enjoying art?

At this point we have reached three questions that have to be answered in order to make sense about the reason, the place and the function of the arts in the life of the individuals, the life of our species, and in our societies:
  1. is the artist being pleasuring himself by producing art? Sure he is but then what is the mechanism that procures that pleasure? Here under I’ll show that the individuals are predisposed psychologically to appreciate the arts for the pleasure they procure.
  2. is the viewer or the listener pleasuring himself by enjoying art? Yes, for sure, she/he does but then what is the mechanism that procures that pleasure? The same goes for the viewer or the listener as for the artist. We are predisposed to appreciate the arts.
  3. as we have seen pleasure is an incentive that nature uses to drive our behaviors; it is an integral part of the Tao. The principle of life leaves indeed no place for things that are of no use. Life costs a lot of energy that’s why it rejects anything that pumps energy while being itself of no use. So the question pops up again, for which we have to find a valid answer, “what is it that the pleasure procured by art ensures to life or societies?“. I’ll show here under that the arts flow on the individuals predisposition in order to satisfy what is most sacred to the principle of life. I mean that art serves to reproduce human life by ensuring the reproduction of our societies.
Following this intuition, and applying down to earth logic, a few more questions can be added here to clarify the nature of the arts:
  1. it seems logical to think that the artist, at the least, is producing art in order to satisfy the thirst for pleasure of viewers and listeners. This would answer the economic rationale for producing arts. But are artists really caring about satisfying the pleasure of viewers and listeners? I would venture to say that this is not high on the list of priorities of contemporary artists, I mean, those who have the pretension to produce high art and not some commodities. But is this a wise attitude? Must high art by definition be detached from daily life? Or is it the confusion of artists about the nature of high art that detaches them from daily life?
  2. if, as was implied in 3, viewers and listeners are thirsty for the pleasure procured by viewing and listening to art then we have to conclude that such a pleasure has an outcome that relates to life which means that this outcome relates  – or to biological evolution  – or to societal evolution  – or to both at once. At the least artists should try to understand what such an outcome is about. This would awaken them to what makes artistic productions attractive to the viewers and listeners which should give them the knowledge about how to adapt the form of their works in order to make them attractive for as many eyeballs or ears as possible. I’m referring here to Tolstoy’s idea that the form of artworks must necessarily satisfy the tactical principle to catch the attention of a maximum viewers or listeners in order for art to possibly satisfy its strategy which is to drive meaning and shape feelings in the minds.
  3. Life, or more precisely the existence of the human species, is what frames the behaviors of the individuals. Could the principle of life  be using this individual predisposition for the pleasure procured by artworks to instill something more vital for itself in the minds of the viewer or the listener? Tolstoy referred to this something more vital for life as being the strategy of artworks. This something more vital is to preserve and reproduce life by driving meaning and shaping feelings in the minds of the individuals? But what is the mechanism by which the arts satisfy this strategy? I’ll expose here under that reality is inaccessible to human reason which exposes the individuals to anxiety which, in turn, weakens the cohesion of the group. Societies answer these shortcomings by fashioning narratives about the working of reality, also called worldviews, for the individuals to share. The  sharing  of a worldview by a group eliminates individual anxiety and increases the trust between individuals which ensures the strengthening of societal cohesion which, in turn, helps societies to ensure their reproduction. Lastly societal cohesion and its reproduction ensure the reproduction of the individuals and of the species and life is thus prospering...

It is my thesis that the content of art works, or the narrative they convey,  constitutes this something that is vital for life itself. This something is so fundamentally vital for life for the very simple reason that it is what ensures the reproduction of the species. In other words life uses an existing individual predisposition for the pleasure procured by artworks in order to instill in the minds of the individual that which ensures the reproduction of that individual and of his species.

In this sense the arts are figuring at the top of the list of priorities for life and for the human species. The present times of high uncertainty are perhaps the right time for humanity to rediscover that immemorial truth. It contains indeed the seeds of the solution to get humanity over its predicament as it is manifesting in Late-Modernity. But we have to keep in mind that the factors provoking the descent of Modernity have reached an advanced stage of development already. In other words the baking of the cake is well advanced and so there is no way any longer to reclaim the flower we mixed with water initially.

This was a rapid and very sketchy overview of the thinking that has animated my mind along the last 4 decades. It has definitely had an enormous impact on my painting. In summary I found myself being questioned:
  • what is painting for? Whomever exercises an activity knows what need that activity has to answer. A surgeon, for example, knows without any possible doubt that if he opens a patient it is to correct a problem deep inside his body. I suppose that it would look highly absurd, in anyone’s eyes, if the surgeon were as confused as artists are nowadays and was not knowing any longer the reason why he goes to the hospital every day opening patients. But to my astonishment this is what artists are doing. They can’t any longer answer that basic question and if you find this baffling and insist for an answer they just tell you “Ah! It just makes me feel good to express my feelings. Art has no need for answers”. I personally feel that this attitude is an out of this world way to look at things. To put it otherwise when the artist accepts the fact of not knowing the reason why he produces he necessarily falls into nothingness and becomes absolutely irrelevant. This kind of artistic fatalism is a sign of utter stupidity that Duchamp referred to as “being dumb as a painter“ (1). But nowadays we could safely expand Duchamp’s saying to the whole art world and speak about “being dumb as an artist” as the condition fostered by the refusal to answer what is the deep meaning and function of one’s own activity. Fortunately there are always exceptions. Some artists are indeed deep thinkers who try to find valid answers to the questions I just mentioned. But unfortunately they represent a very slim minority indeed.
  • what should be represented on the canvas?  To answer that question one would first need to have a valid answer to the first question “what is painting for”. But such an answer is not available which is blocking the imagination in its track and the perception of what is a valid representation becomes thus an impossibility.

Such a conclusion entraps painters and other visual artists in a field of total confusion that by Late-Modernity has unfortunately engulfed the entire art world. Over the last 3 decades I have dedicated my life to clear that fog of confusion by thinking, writing and painting. I think in order to understand the reality we are living in. I write to clear the thoughts coming to my mind through thinking and I paint to enlarge the horizons of my thinking. From my personal experience I can attest that the triad ‘thinking, writing, and painting’ acts like a booster on one’s  consciousness.

I feel that in the absence of a worldview shared by society at large the trio 'thinking, writing, and painting' have become a necessity to keep my sanity. Thinking, writing, and painting are complementary to me; thinking about what is reality, writing about that thinking, and painting with all that in mind. My painting is thus like an extension of the thinking and writing. Painting helps me to clarify my ideas and projects a deeper and richer meaning in my thoughts. While in my thinking I delve into something I’m conscious about my painting is more like a subconscious exploration that expands that thinking in areas unknown which at times brings me in startling places.

The subconscious sets our minds free from all the stop signs to knowledge that we have accumulated along the path of our socialization, societal conditioning, and personal self re-enforcement. The subconscious lets us see out of that box and discover dimensions of reality that are hidden to our conscious selves. But the use of such hidden dimensions, and their integration inside a narrative that can be shared with others, implies the command of a good knowledge base. Leonardo was making the same kind of observation some 500 years ago apropos the “marvelous discoveries” that emerge out of irregularities in the canvas or in the stains on the wall. He was pointing to the knowledge that is necessary first to be able to see these discoveries and he was also pointing to the technical skills that are necessary to complete the rendering of these discoveries (2). The same goes with the dimensions of reality that are hidden to our conscious self.  The absence of a good knowledge base simply blinds our unconscious to these dimensions that are invisible to the conscious self. And if our knowledge base lets us discover these dimensions we still need a sufficiently good command of the technical aspects of this representation in order to avoid being stuck in technical matters.

Here are some images of works illustrating the process I’m talking about. They reflect my personal evolution in painting over the last 45 years. These images are given in the historical order of their creation so that you can see the evolution of my observation and rendering.
1979 Morcelle. Landscape at Morcelle.
1981 Morcelle. Looking into the future.
Beijing 2001. Terry praying.
2004 Waukesha. Soundwaves.
2007 Waukesha. The emergence of life.
2012. Milford. At the threshold of nature’s wrath.
2015. Milford-Beijing. The grand project. 2-04.
2015. Beijing the grand project (a work in progress).
First 20 canvasses.  3 x 3.6 m
The picture on top of this page: 2-04 is located in the 2nd column from the left
at row 4 from bottom or 2nd row from top.

5.1. Clarification on what we call the arts.

Art is a West European concept that came gradually in use sometime during the transition between the Late-Middle-Ages and Early Modernity (12-16th century). The word should not be confused with its earlier French understanding as “a diverse range of human skills” which is best rendered in the German word “Fach” that contains the implication of  “a job executed with skill”. This French and German use of the word art refers to an older more general application of the principle of skill or job executed with skill that had no artistic connotation but was understood as a craft that was regulated by a “guild”. “In medieval cities, craftsmen tended to form associations based on their trades, confraternities of textile workers, masons, carpenters, carvers, glass workers, each of whom controlled secrets of traditionally imparted technology, the "arts" or "mysteries" of their crafts. Usually the founders were free independent master craftsmen who hired apprentices” (2).

The emergence of the word art in its modern artistic meaning refers to the specialization of a job and a skill that applies uniquely to the narrow field of creating “High-Culture” which means the culture of the establishment that was considered more noble, more dignified more important, than the culture of the people or street culture. Let’s remember that Early-Modernity is the historical era when the new rich long distance merchants emerge as a force of progress that contrasts with the old traditional components of the establishment, I mean, the clergy and the aristocracy.

This progressive force wanted naturally to affirm its new value system which was based on the economic reason at work within capital and the cultural values attached to individualism.  The cultural affirmation of individualism acted as a moral justification for a set of new social values excusing social inequality and justifying the newly acquired private property of those long distance merchants. We have always to keep in mind that in this new social dynamic of Early-Modernity the merchants represented the progressive forces within their societies and they had to defend and justify the new economic and social paradigm that their activities were trying to impose on Western European societies.

In other words the merchants were on a mission to project a new worldview that starkly contrasted with the religious worldview of Christianity. This implies that the merchants were engaged in a competition for dominance with the priests. This was a risky undertaking indeed. The priests presided over the inquisition which was an instrument of repression that threatened to burn at the stake anyone who dared to disrespect their rules. Over the centuries the merchant’s project transformed into the creation of a modern high culture that was powered by propagandizing their new ideas through the production of works of fine art. Fine art was conceived as the production of the finest, most refined, works meant to project their modern high culture in the minds of the citizens of their societies. In this sense the arts were used as modern high culture tools to propagandize the worldview of the new rich merchants and this unmistakably differentiated them from the arts of the street. This differentiation subsists to this very day even if nearly everybody is incapable to explain why the arts are more than crafts.

No wonder that the new rich merchants acted as financiers and commissioners of such works. This also explains how 3 subjects soon were recognized as the obliged and exclusive subjects of Modern art: landscapes around the mansions, portraits of those living in the mansion and stills of what lays on the tables in the mansion. The reason for such paintings was self evident but it is never talked about as if to hide their true social nature. They acted as a glorification of the exceptional new way of life of the new rich and their social class the bourgeoisie. But why do so few people dare to speak about this reality? Or is it simply crass ignorance?

Before Early-Modernity the situation was as follows :
  • inside Europe: nobody was using the word art in its modern artistic meaning. During the period of religious art, that started after Rome imposed Christianity as the official religion of the empire until Early-Modernity, image makers figured at the bottom of the social stratification ladder. Their role was limited to the execution of illustrations of the creed so that the flock could share the message. Before Christianity Europe was generally sharing an animistic belief system that revolved around ritualistic feasts where music, dance, and visuals were bonding the citizens in a shared belief and the resulting feel of togetherness was meant to strengthen the cohesion of the societal group. So what we call the arts, in the era preceding the European Early-Modernity, were in fact nothing else than instruments for sharing a societal value system. Some might even call this propaganda and with good reason since the projection of a narrative in the minds through the use of force by power is what propaganda is all about. Now propaganda is meant to impose the sharing  of a narrative in order to justifying the use of power but what about the arts? Art is conceived, outside of any justification for the use of power, as the production of signs about the meaning of reality as conceived by the men of knowledge of the day for sharing with all. In other words the difference rests in who takes the initiative to project these signs onto the citizens – the men of power, – or the men of knowledge. When a power society projects signs on its subjects one speaks about propaganda. When a non-power society, like a traditional tribe, projects signs on the members of the group one speaks of ritual productions. At this juncture a provocative question arises. How to qualify the individualistic productions of Late-Modernity that are being projected on society outside of any consideration for power or for knowledge?
  • outside of Europe: nobody had ever proffered the word art before Western hegemony imposed its canons of beauty and its worldview on the rest of the world. The citizens of all countries on earth had nevertheless, as far as the eye can see down the road of history, been practicing the execution of visuals signs, music, and dance in a similar manner than what Europeans started to call art after Early-Modernity. Most generally these practices acted as instruments of feast rituals as in early animistic Europe and societies with strong religious followings used carvings and paintings as illustrations of their worldview while music was used to shape the collective mood and dance to blow up the minds to the deep meaning of the narrative illustrated in visual signs. In China things were slightly different but I’ll not comment here on Chinese artistic practices since I’ll get deeper into that subject further down my expose.

In the eyes of the social class of the new rich long distance merchants art was a glorification of their exceptional new way of life. But what about the artists?

The artists who entered at the service of the new rich earned a lot more than what the church paid them traditionally. So by entering at the service of the new rich artists were becoming well-off. But one can imagine that leaving the church to jump at the service of the new rich did not go without trouble in the environment of the inquisition. This is what explains the higher remunerations offered by the new rich. Becoming well-off themselves the social standing of the modern artists participated in spreading the myth of the exceptionality of their productions.

So in sum the artists’ production were sanctified by the interaction between these two factors:
  • for the new rich long distance merchants art was a glorification of their “exceptional” new way of life and its refinement and luxury status acted as a confirmation of the power of their new class the bourgeoisie
  • for the modern artists their social standing participated in spreading the myth of the exceptionality of their productions

So the combination, on one side, of the new “exceptional” way of life of the new rich and, on the other side, the newly gained social standing of the artist that was spreading the myth of the exceptionality of their productions; the combination of these 2 factors imposed, in the minds of all, the idea of the exceptionality of the productions emerging from the skills of the artists. The traditional meaning of the arts, as production skills at the attention of the street, got instantly dignified and sanctified once these “Arts” were produced at the special attention of the rising social class that soon would be the dominant force within the establishment.

We have to try to imagine for an instant what was going on in the minds of the European establishment, once it started to conquer the whole world and started to steal its resources, in terms of their perception about the exceptionalism of their social class, the exceptionalism of their countries, the exceptionalism of Europe. It is indeed in this very peculiar context of immense financial fortune that the Arts acquired their status of productions at the attention of the bourgeoisie which appeared as the most progressive and successful social class in the time of Early Modernity that goes roughly from the 14th till the 19th century. It is this context of rapid accumulation of capital and the ensuing private accumulation of fortunes that shined an aura of exceptionalism on the artists and their Arts.

Europe considered itself to be exceptional and in the minds of Europeans the arts were so many signs of their exceptionality. They viewed the practices of other people simply as crafts or religious artifacts to be traded in antique show rooms or in interior decoration boutiques but not in art galleries or museums. Europeans never attributed to those foreign objects the same artistic exceptionalism as they did to European artistic productions. This attitude has an appropriate appellation that political correctness censures us to pronounce. But truth seekers should not embarrass themselves with such trivialities. The facts are simply the facts. This European attitude is called Eurocentrism and in our globalized eyes this “ism” looks like it is covered with a thick layer of dust. The time has come for both the ism and the dust to be wiped from the face of this earth. And all present and past productions of all the cultures on this earth have to be recognized on par with European artistic productions. I know that the art world, in Kuspit’s definition as the sum of all the intervenors in the art market, is still not ready to let go the privilege of a dishonestly gained hegemony. But however we look at our world the fact is nevertheless that their time is running out.

Having said all that the concept “art” relates to visual or auditory works whose beauty or emotional power resides in:
  • its content or narrative about the meaning of reality that is built in ideation or in patterns that are meant to evoke emotions and meaning in the minds of viewers and listeners.
  • its formal rendering through technical skill. The subtitle of my blog ‘Crucial Talk’ says the following about the arts: “Without technique what we express seems unfinished and without meaning it is as if what we express were shallow ”. This nicely sums up my thought about the arts.

What I mean here by content or narrative refers to a meaning that entitles a wider range of representations than the traditional stories, logical and philosophical expositions,  realistic depictions of what the eyes can see, or the suggestion of emotions. In other words what I mean to say is that the content of an artwork refers to a presentation of reality from whatever angle that best fits the artist’s strategic ambition to communicate his society’s worldview to the minds of the viewers or listeners. What is important in term of content is the strategic goal to communicate the worldview of one’s group to the minds of all the members of that group. But the illustration of what is communicated varies necessarily with the societal and historical context; or to say this otherwise the communication must register the societies’ vibrations in that particular time. I mean by this that visuals and sounds vary in time and space between  total abstraction and hyper realism and as such the gamut of possibilities is nearly infinite with no one of these possibilities being superior to any other.

But what I really mean to say here goes even further. This near infinite range of possibilities that I refer to does not derive from the artist’s individual freedom of choice but rather it is the general context that imposes that choice to the artist. The air of the time is indeed not a question of personal preference for the good reason that the general societal context, at any given moment over the span of time, is commanding the contours of what best matches human life in that specific time. In conclusion the contour, or the reality, of a specific time is what determines the choice of shade between abstraction and realism.

What distinguishes the artists is related to how they render the vibes of their particular societal and historical context and this transpires in:
  • the level of intelligence they show in their presentation of the vibrations of their time. This is without any doubt the most important qualifier of artistic quality.
  • the technical skill of their execution, for the good reason that, a work poorly executed will unmistakably diminish the capacity of the viewer to perceive the meaning that is illustrated. In the words of Tolstoy a work poorly executed technically is like a bad tactical move that defeats the strategy of its initiator.

Great art, in whatever society and in whatever historical period, necessarily contains these two things --intelligence of content and skill of execution-- all at once.

In this sense the arts have no geographic borders nor any historical boundaries. They should thus not be judged by comparison with a presently dominant or hegemonic culture. In other words their value should not be appraised by so called authorities belonging to other societal cultures. The value of the arts resides indeed exclusively within the boundaries of the societal cultures where they are produced. For example it is my contention that the selections by Western collectors of Chinese contemporary paintings, at the start of China’s opening, have no significance whatsoever for China’s society.

But it is nevertheless an incontrovertible fact that Western collectors 30 or 40 years after their selection was realized are now trying to impose their criteria of choice on China’s society. This operation can’t be seen any other wise than as a blatant political interference in China’s cultural affairs. The way the game is being played by these collectors is to impose the idea on Chinese society that the works they bought have attained artistic authority by invoking as proof of their saying so the high financial valuations these works achieve on the market. First they operated a selection of works at a time when Chinese artists had no notion at all of value. The works they bought were thus dirt cheap and furthermore, even if this was done unconsciously, their selection was made according to Western ideological criteria. Secondly the art market in China was inexistent and to some extent it is still today. So their game consisted in playing their dirt cheap ideologically framed Chinese artworks on the Western art market which till today is largely controlled by Western capital and by Western actors and interveners like art reviewers, art appraisers, auction houses, galleries, museums, and so on…

Confronted with such a market reality Chinese artists understandably obliged in order to make a buck and produced what attracted Western collectors. What attracted Western collectors was what made a splash in the media. So selection criteria overwhelmingly favored works, that were critical of the Chinese authorities or of Chinese culture and, gained the front pages of Western media. Seen from a historical standpoint this shall, without any possible doubt, be remembered as a marginal or anecdotal Western ideological fork on the road of Chinese art that was bought maliciously with Western easy cash. I hope Chinese collectors will have the brains to stay away from these works and make their own selections according to their own criteria. Only Chinese made collections can validly reflect the vibrations of Chinese society. Western established collections can only project the ideological vision of China that their financiers, consciously or unconsciously, want to project.

This example demonstrates that there is no such a thing as an artistic exceptionalism that is valid universally. The world is not the expression of one but of multiple cultures. For centuries Europe got away with the projection of the myth of its own universal exceptionalism.  This time is now ending.

Coming back to our subject matter the fact of the matter is that since tens of thousands of years all people on earth have been producing art works. But this does not explain when, why, and how art productions emerged in the first place. Humans are animals who, for different contextual reasons, some 2 million years ago came down from the trees and started to walk on their feet which resulted in the biological evolution of their bodies. The resulting biological mutations appear to have predisposed them for artsy talk and behaviors that were picked on over the last few hundred thousands years and culminated when their brains had grown and evolved to their present size some 200,000 years ago. The arts emerged as a result of these 2 consecutive evolutionary moves: one some 2 million years ago and one some 150-200,000 years ago.

The narrative about the emergence of the arts can not escape the systemic complexity of the evolution of the principle of life. Humans are biological creatures that undergo biological mutations but we are also social animals who live in groups or societies and our groups evolve at the rhythm of their cultural mutations.  Furthermore biological evolution and societal evolution impact on each other.

In the case of art a cultural mutation some 2 million years ago (upright walking) fostered an answer in the form of a biological mutation (narrowing pelvis) that imposed the need for ever more immature babies at birth. This imposed a cultural adaptation  (care-taking and baby-talk) that has predisposed humans forever there after to experience pleasure at the contact of the raw ingredients of aesthetics.

After further evolutionary moves such a predisposition for the raw ingredients of aesthetics became an opportunity sized upon by societal evolution to ensure the preservation of life and to ensure its further  reproduction.

In what follows I try to explain how systemic complexity has put the arts at the service of the principle of life. But this implies that when the arts lose their bearings life is being endangered and Late-Modernity proves this point without any possible doubt.


1. Duchamp in an interview with James Johnson Sweeney in “Eleven Europeans in America”, cited in Herschel B.  Chipp. Theories of modern art. University of California Press.
In this interview Duchamp said the following: “I was interested in ideas not merely in visual products. I wanted to put painting  once  again  at  the  service  of   the  mind.    ...  In  fact  until   the  last   hundred   years  all  painting had been literary or religious: it had been at the service of the mind. This   characteristic was lost little by little during the last century. ... Dada was an extreme protest against the physical side of painting. It was a metaphysical attitude. ... It was a  way   to   get   out   of   a   state   of   mind   to   avoid   being   influenced   by   one's   immediate  environment, or by the past: to get away from clich├ęs to get free.  .. Dada was very  serviceable as a purgative.  ...  There was no thought of anything beyond the physical side of painting. No notion  of freedom was  thought.  No philosophical  outlook was   introduced.  ... I thought of art on a broader scale. There were discussions at the time of the fourth dimension and of non Euclidean geometry. But most views of it were  amateurish.  ... This   is   the   direction   in   which   art   should   turn:   to   an   intellectual  expression,   rather   than   to   an   animal   expression.   I'm   sick   of   the   expression   ‘bete  comme un peintre’ - stupid as a painter”.
While pointing to what is the fundamental disconnect of the arts Duchamp stays at the level of generalities and never really enters the field of deep thinking about the meaning and function of the arts. In other words he was trying to find an answer in the doing of art but this could never be more than a makeshift job. His use of the expression “being dumb as a painter” shows that he wanted to find answers to the arts’ disconnection with their true function. But perhaps the general context of his time was not ripe for the sprouting of a true intellectual inquiry into the historical function of the arts.

2. Leonardo in ”On Painting” An anthology of writings by Leonardo Da Vinci. Published by Yale Nota Bene. Yale University Press.

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