Notebook > Live Wires of Modernism
Historical background. By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the black plague had killed 75-200 million people in Europe, economic pressures grew, while power struggles developed between monarchs and the church. A major change was needed which was filled by a new understanding of the world. Cracking the previously unified medieval world into two, Descartes' thought gave rise to “dualism”. The long-held worldview of an organic, personal, holistic place of belonging and meaning was increasingly fractured into this new worldview that was inorganic, impersonal, isolated, and without meaning---the great machine. The metaphysical assumptions underlying science were never intended to describe everything, such as the personality and the workings of the mental world as they have come to do in our age, but they did provide the foundation for industrial exploitation and modern inventions.
Around 1750 the movements for democratic revolution gave rise to the concept of the avant-garde, signaled around 1850 with Courbet, an important figure in the Paris Commune and painter of the notorious Origin of the World. He was part of the committee who pulled down the Vendome Column, symbol of imperialism, and spent time in prison for it. As the industrial age gathered force in the nineteenth century, the machine ideology heavily imposed itself on the psyche and subjectivity of the people, and instigated the oppositions of modern movements in art, opposition which continues to have ideological, psychological, and aesthetic dimensions.
Utopia. One live wire of modernism is Utopianism and political power. Capitalism was a radical new innovation in the history of political power wherein discipline, control, and domination became economic rather than armed authoritarianism. One worked in obedience to an impersonal market or starve to death. Capitalism changed in fundamental ways how human beings related to one another. Humankind lost the ancient concept that society has a purpose more than the ground rules for individual striving of egoistic individuals. Karl Marx democratized the idea of utopia. One of the main consequences of the socialist movement in recent times has been not socialism but a more humane, rational, and intelligent capitalism, usually in spite of the capitalists. The current world apocalypse, situated now in the conditions of climate change, nuclear weapons, disease epidemics, and population explosion, harbors within it an opposite, an alternative. One vision, states Slavoj Zizek, is that agape is political love, egalitarianism, the idea of communism and solidarity. In contrast, there is non-love which is not-thinking or buying a cappuccino that helps the rain forest in the price.
Aesthetics. Modern aesthetics entertained such qualities as the ugly, novelty, strangeness, spontaneity, surprise, scandal, montage, collage, new processes, unusual materials, experimentation, political radicalism, integrity, and primitivism. Meanings, values, intentions, and purposes are embedded in sets of aesthetic qualities and symbols and reflect types of awareness despite the inherent instability of these meanings. It is partly the context of an image that focuses its meaning and also that symbolic associations are interrelated in a spectrum. Jonathan Fineberg says in Art Since 1940, that the wish to revolutionize mainstream values is the defining role of the avant-garde, inseparable from modernism.
The normal Western worldview is matter-oriented in a framework of cause and effect, linear thinking, industrialism, where meaning is absent except for utility. Aesthetics that mirror these qualities, whether deliberate or unconscious, support this worldview. The architect Leonard Koren discusses middle modernism in his book Wabi Sabi. He says that it includes most of the slick, minimalist objects produced since WWII, plus the glass, steel, concrete box buildings like MOMA itself. It implies a logical, rational worldview, expresses faith in progress, is future oriented, believes in control of nature, romanticizes technology, and has people adapting themselves to machines. Its ideal is geometrically organized with sharp, precise shapes and edges, uses the box as metaphor along with manmade materials, and reduced sensory information. The aesthetic is intolerant of ambiguity and contradiction, is cool, light and bright, with perfection in materiality, governed by masculine desire and power, an egocentric rationality that serves political agendas that conceal intrinsic violence, removed from life, serving the interests of corporate finance instead of the community.
One contrasting aesthetic, gleaned from Koren's life in Japan, is rustic beauty emerging from the Buddhist worldview. Wabi sabi visuals include the incomplete, irregular, and contradictory. This quality directs attention to psyche who prefers the bent, twisted, wrinkled, earthy, tactile, awkward, or dim enabling the eye and mind to adjust its perception to the ambiguous, mysterious, and symbolic. It can pare things down to a poetic essence, but is never sterile.
The unconscious. Central to Freud's thought was the primacy of the unconscious mind. It has been recognized that our conscious awareness is confined to the top shelf of the attic while the other floors and basement are unknown to us, a relevant factor in the clash of worldviews that underlie cultural expression and history. Echoing this idea, modern physics hypothesizes that at least 90% of the universe's mass consists of “dark matter” which is invisible. The growth and interest in consciousness can be traced back to the 1960s when LSD was used on a large scale until it was made illegal. Since the 1980s there has been a spike in books published inquiring into the nature of consciousness, yet the nature of consciousness is science's biggest mystery.
William James wrote about the idea that consciousness may be field-like in 1898, and biologist Rupert Sheldrake proposed a similar idea of morphogenetic fields. The conceptual roots of field consciousness can be traced back to the Upanishads which express the idea of a single underlying reality embodied in the absolute Self. The idea of field consciousness suggests a continuum of nonlocal intelligence, permeating space and time. In meditation, dreaming, and art, without verbalizing, we reconnect to this field in which animals live and navigate, as well as aboriginal people. It is an idea of interconnectedness in which mind and matter are part of a common whole.
DMT-like states are found during meditation and in dreamlike states at the borderlands of wakefulness as well as by using psychedelics. In one study more than half the subjects perceived sentient beings in the DMT state with whom they interacted in various ways who caused the volunteers to see images, feel emotions, or conceive thoughts. The beings were powerful, often overwhelmingly so. Latin American shamanic and Eastern religious models address these types of altered states directly, with or without the use of drugs. It is a common belief among Asian Buddhists that there indeed exist real, free-standing alternative levels of reality, a world of spirits, angels, or gods. All traditions of transcendence and asceticism put a great deal of stock on silence, isolation, contemplation, meditation, with a payoff of the ability to access and form a relationship with some vast, more complete and spiritually holistic level of nature.
Picasso said, "We (cubists) wanted to go deep into things. What was wrong with (the) Surrealists was that they did not go inside, they took the surface effects of the subconscious. They did not understand the inside of the object or themselves".
There is a political dimension to consciousness as well. Riane Eisler in The Chalice and the Blade discusses a historic transition around 4000 BC from partnership cultures to ego-dominator culture, connected to the rise of patriarchy in history. Crete was the last old partnership model of culture, enduring 3000 years after the dominator style--- control freaks, law and order, repression of the creative void, imagination, and fantasy--- was complete everywhere else. When the controlling ego began to form, it blocked the energy of the psyche and expanded consciousness.
Primitivism is another live wire of modernism. Since the discovery of cave art in Altamira, Spain in 1879 and Lascaux in 1940 artists have been exploring primal levels of inspiration with roots in an integrated approach to life in contrast to industrialism. A hundred years ago the Cubists, Surrealists, Cobra, abstractionists, and Expressionists discovered in African and other indigenous art a lost and intense vitality, an ease of access to the unconscious to counter the ideology of materialism and mechanical. Jung's position is that the unconscious is by nature creative, in part unknowable, unpredictable, divine, and demonic. The search for the primitive is an attempt to define and access this primary human potential and transform it into cultural use.
Shamanism can be thought of as a combination of vision and healing in a unity of being. It is not apt to illustrate shamanism, picture tribal magicians or to strip mine aboriginal cultures in an attempt to gain what ours lacks. Instead, the art and personality must access and embody in process, feeling, materials, forms, and consciousness larger dimensions of experience which mass culture, in its commercial intent, want us to forget. It is the journey to one's own self and depths which distinguishes shamanic art from decorative creativity and formalistic art. Depth-journeys encounter the shadow with its ability for transformation, known in Spain as the duende, climbing up inside you from the soles of the feet (Lorca). Brancusi said a sculpture should have the power to heal the beholder. Miro said, “Each grain of dust contains something marvelous. But in order to understand it, we have to recover the religious and magical sense of things that belong to primitive people.” Joseph Beuys said in What is Art? that intuition, inspiration, and imagination are vitally necessary to perceive the world and the inner substance of things. Lacking this ability people see our environment --- cars, production methods, capitalist money system as the only option. In another place he notes, “I don't produce things continuously. There must be a certain level of intensity, otherwise I don't make it.”
A unique opportunity at this time is to perceive how individual psychic, expanded consciousness, art, and political transformation are entwined, embracing the value of the human personality in order to extend and deepen the public sphere.