The Way We Are
...the abandonment of a traditional artistic style is an indication that the civilization associated
with that style has long since broken down and is now disintegrating. Like the disuse of an
established technique, it is the consequence of the breakdown, not the cause.
— Arnold Toynbee (1)
Several specters currently haunt the culture of the visual arts. Certainty as to what exactly is what in the making, submission and consumption of images, objects and "events" of art, is now suspect with regard to the objects or images quality and value. Relativism — and its intimate ally, doubt — have reached vertiginous heights. Digital information technologies, like virtual reality and hypertext, are promoted by technophiles as a panacea, poised to subsume all previous image-making methods. Politically inspired fragmentation has displaced "elitist" notions of beauty and connoisseurship. Historical amnesia runs rampant. The meaning of Meaning itself is now up for grabs.
Depending upon one's ideology or point-of- view, the above developments are either exhilarating or demented. The ground of relevance is seen as either liberation from constrictive cannons or the perversity of aesthetic intent and purpose. We are under the sway of either a brave new world or a very steep decline. It is either/or—as this argument has evolved that way. And this is, in itself, a reflection of the current zeitgeist.
Under the harsh light of this zeitgeist, emerge several core questions: How is one to think through the spectrum of issues circumventing the intent and activity of making art? What exactly is sacrificed by embracing either one of the polarities? What is gained by attempting to articulate and achieve a synthesis of these apparently incompatible views? Finally, since the term "postmodern" has now devolved into a cozy buzzword — spawning fleets of sub-ideologies — is it desirable or feasible to define oneself as either outside or beyond its terms?
Providing convincing answers to these core questions is a task unloaded on the generation now emerging as the next round of practicing artists. This "timing" is perhaps a simple twist of postmodernist fate, a necessary, if not sufficient, condition under which art is now made. In any case, the making and submitting of works of art is now inevitably under the unavoidable press of these and their related questions.
The postmodern condition, with its deliberate mixing of codes, has been around for almost a quarter century. Nonetheless, its celebration of relativism and aporia (discontinuity, contradiction, disparity, irony, discord, perversity, opacity, chaos) has achieved a virtual monopoly on "serious" aesthetic discourse in the last decade. It has now reached a deafening pitch, such that this generation of practicing artists is per force confronted with a novel atmosphere of doubt.
It is a doubt that is both ubiquitous and non-selective, sanctified by Deconstruction's relativism, while screw-driven by sectarian opportunism, the Culture of Complaint (2), and anticipations of hyper-technology's next wave.
And there is yet another layer of doubt hovering, like some menacing penumbra, over all the rest: The authentic possibility of ecocide. Will we or will we not drive the Earth crazy with the toxic consequences of global industrial civilization? This question is no longer academic. It is breathing (or rather, coughing) down our collective necks. Is it possible to construct aesthetic counter-statements to this prevailing condition? Or is it beyond the domain of Art to engage, to formulate, or even intuit sufficient responses to it? Is it possible for works of Art to make a difference? A difference affecting the way in which human consciousness grasps the necessity for successive modifications in its collective behavior.
Those who fail to govern themselves will be given other masters. — Socrates (3)
There appears to be scant respect for any perspective which assumes a strict continuity with a past prior to the eruption of postmodern sensibility. As a viable option, this position is well beyond the pale. The issue is: how to incorporate postmodern sensibility while advancing over or above its mark. What kicks in, however, when one accepts the sundry terms of postmodern relativism and its subsequent doubt, is a political (anti-aesthetic) judgment as to the pertinence of any and all values associated with that past. For example, can and should the Parthenon be written off because it was built by a slaveholding society? Are we to reject the artistic achievements of the Incas because they were employed in human sacrifice? Should we dispose of Picasso because he was misogynist?
The essential role of doubt in the present equation is thus highly problematic. Doubt is no longer the singular preserve of a suspicious skeptic. It is now endemic to any consideration concerning the influence of all past art on the actual conditions defining the present. This is so, especially with respect to any stripe of politics reigning in and shaping the context of art making.
Art...can and should upset reality, take it apart into elements, build illogical new worlds of it and
in this arbitrariness is a hidden law, which in disturbing sense has it, so that the madness that
destroys our external sense leads us into our internal meaning. — Witold Gombrowicz (4)
Shall we take up a nihilist's temperament and just cremate the art of the past, then scatter its ashes onto a gaping and infertile field of appropriationist options? Or, on the contrary, is the inexplicable "present" deeply indebted, in some accessible way, to every turn and flip of art making in, or from, the inherited past?
...any artistic experience comprises two levels of an inseparable psychological whole dealing with
intuition and cognition. These opposite yet complementary halves are identified as having control
over the rational/logical side of the process and the nonlogical / intuitive side. Harmony is
attained where the halves are balanced... — Asghar Minai (5)
Enter historical amnesia into this steaming cauldron. Not unlike a partial rainbow around the sun, historical amnesia seduces the viewer into believing that the past is a convincing illusion, to be liberally interpreted or forgotten; have it as you will. Then the viewer is further seduced by the notion that forgetting this influence is an interpretation of the past.
Thus, as an ideology, historical amnesia forgets that it has forgotten. It installs forgetting as an attitude of mind that guarantees to be sweeter than honey, more comforting than mother's milk. It lulls its adherents into a cul de sac of here-and-now. It trumps the past and affirms any and all negations which purport to supplant it, with an urgency festering in the now.
The past becomes whiskey in a jar. Sip from it to the extent that it confirms the immediate details of the present — ignore or refrain from its temptations if, to any extent, it invokes a competing vision of the present. This is the soft, pliable tyranny of historical amnesia.
The creation of genuine meaning in the visual arts is a rare and magical occasion. When it occurs, it generally defies the apparent logic of its initial reference and proceeds to interpolate its context, its origins, and its influence in distinctly separate terms. It confabulates while expanding the initial reference's meaning. It exaggerates and distorts. It eludes, only to turn up elsewhere without an alibi.
We are, however, at the present juncture, confronted with a concept of meaning independent of the usual suspects. What precisely is the meaning of meaning in the current equation of the visual arts? It appears
to be without precedent. Meaning, along with variants like value and quality, in the current existential and operational sense, reduces to a condition of political utility or shear ideological gumption. The two classical definitions of meaning (signification or that which a thing designates or is intended to express, and explanation or the reason why a thing is what it is) have been co-opted and transformed by an overzealous and sectarian aroma of contingency.
And "contingency" is the key word. It is an overarching conceptual framework governing the assignment of verifiable meaning. Meaning in a work of art is now contingent upon values that are external to any aesthetic qualities of the statement made. The relevance of the beautiful, for instance, is now relegated to the dank bunker of retrograde interests. It is politically dismissed as a vice and a depredation, as clear evidence of moral turpitude and callous disregard for the inequalities, private ills, and plagues which afflict the social order.
Thus, we are in the midst of a time laying heavy, if not exclusive, emphasis upon the social import of works of art; even if this social emphasis is directed towards embodying end game nihilistic conclusions. Its preferred recourse is to offer solutions or, at least, registries of complaint with regard to the way we are.
What is one to do with (or react to) these conditions for the making of art in the present time? It seems that there are three options: (1) accept them whole hog, (2) reject them whole hog, and (3), take those elements of the present climate which can be plowed back under, and employ them as fodder and grist for a vision which has yet to be fully defined and articulated.
April 4, 1994 / Lecture delivered to the Graduating Seniors at Florida State University
1. Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, abr. D.C. Somervell (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 260.
2. Robert Hughes, Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America (London and New York: Oxford, 1993)
3. Traditional paraphrase based on summarization of passages from Xenophon’s The Memorabilia [Or The] Recollections of Socrates.
4. Allen S. Weiss, The Aesthetics of Excess (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1989), p. 149
5. Asghar Talaye Minai, Aesthetics, Mind & Nature: A Communication Approach to the Unity of Matter and Consciousness (Westport, CT
and London: Prager, 1993), p.298