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, supported by new visions of the world. The thinking of Descartes cracked up the previously unified medieval world which gave rise to “dualism”. Then, the shift from the world as an organic, personal, holistic place of belonging and meaning was increasingly fractured into a worldview of the great machine, a place that was impersonal, atomized, and without meaning. The metaphysical assumptions underlying the new math and science were never intended to describe everything, such as the personality and the workings of the mental world, but we have come to that in our age. Dualism proved itself as the foundation for industrial exploitation, the scientific method, and modern inventions.
Around 1750 Western movements for democratic revolution gave rise to the concept of the avant-garde, personified by Courbet around 1850. He was an important artist in the Paris Commune and painter of the erotically notorious Origin of the World. Thoroughly political, he was part of the committee who pulled down Paris' Vendome Column, a symbol of imperialism, and paid for his idealism by imprisonment. 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 continue to have ideological, psychological, political, and aesthetic dimensions.
Utopia. One live wire from modernist origins is illuminated by shifts in political power and Utopian movements. Capitalism was a radical new innovation in history. Discipline, control, and domination of the many by the few became economic rather than by armed authoritarianism, changing in fundamental ways how human beings related to one another. Under capitalism, people worked in obedience to an impersonal market or starve to death, and humankind lost the ancient concept that society had a purpose beyond individual egoistic striving, that there was a common good.
Karl Marx democratized the idea of utopia, a figurehead of decades of resistance to capitalism. As time went on, one main consequences of the socialist movements was 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 such utopian 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 engaging in trivial tokens such as buying a cappuccino that put a penny in the cup for the rain forest.
Aesthetics. The 18th century conception of art was centered on mimesis, the imitation of reality. Modern artists sharply veered away to establish creativity as central to art, considering new ideas such as the ugly, novelty, strangeness, spontaneity, surprise, scandal, montage, collage, new processes, unusual materials, experimentation, political radicalism, the unconscious, and primitivism. For the moderns, a primary value was authenticity that involved originality and a revolt against convention.
Violently contentious positions have defined art ever since the 1980s explosive expansion of art sales. The early days of Modernism were radical in their aesthetics and were notable for an intensity of feeling, originality of expression, and psychological penetration. Different qualities of taste still exist, complicated by masses of commercially manufactured culture, social movements that proclaim their aesthetics by fiat, and nihilistic, anti-art branches of art. The high culture of modernism is currently overshadowed by billionaires with their predilection for kitsch, the spectacular, and easy to consume.
In architect Leonard Koren's original book Wabi Sabi he discussed two contrasting aesthetics in terms of their implicit values. On the one hand, American mid-century modernism's ideal was geometrically organized with sharp, precise shapes and edges, and used the box as metaphor along with manmade materials, and reduced sensory information. This aesthetic is intolerant of ambiguity and contradiction, is cool, light and bright, with material perfection, governed by masculine desire and power, an egocentric rationality that served political agendas that concealed their intrinsic violence. He said that this includes most of the slick, minimalist objects produced since WWII and the glass, steel, concrete box buildings like MOMA itself. It implied a logical, rational worldview, expressed faith in progress, was future oriented, believed in control of nature, romanticized technology, and required people adapting themselves to machines.
In extreme contrast the wabi sabi aesthetic was uncovered by Koren from living in Japan, a rustic idea of beauty that emerged from the Buddhist worldview. Wabi sabi visuals include the incomplete, irregular, and contradictory. This quality directs attention inward to psyche, a perspective that 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 importance of the unconscious mind. Jung's position was that the unconscious is by nature creative, in part unknowable, unpredictable, divine, and demonic. It has been widely recognized that our conscious awareness is confined to the top shelf of the mind's attic while the other floors and basement are unknown to us, a relevant factor in the clash of worldviews that underlie cultural expression, politics, and history. Tied to the idea of the unconscious is the idea of expanded consciousness that received a surge of interest in the 1960s when LSD was used on a large scale and scientifically studied until it was made illegal for both. Politics slammed the lid on the study of expanded consciousness for decades leaving its nature one of science's biggest mysteries.
In 1898 William James wrote that consciousness may be field-like, proposed similarly by contemporary biologist Rupert Sheldrake whose morphogenetic fields join mind and matter in a common totality. The Upanishads of 5th to 2nd centuries BCE originally expressed this continuum of nonlocal intelligence that permeates space and time. These unusual states can be accessed through psychedelics, meditation, dreaming, and art, revealing a field in which animals and aboriginal people are at home and navigate. 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 to enable one's ability to access and form a relationship with some vast, more complete and spiritually holistic level of ourselves and nature.
There is an additional political dimension to our culture's constricted views of consciousness. Riane Eisler in The Chalice and the Blade discussed a historic transition around 4000 BC from partnership cultures to ego-dominator cultures, connected to the rise of patriarchy in history. Crete was the last old partnership model of culture, persisting for 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 took command of the self, it blocked energy from 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 the mechanical. The search for the primitive is an attempt to define and access lost primary human potential and transform it into cultural use.
When modern artists are inspired by pre-historical art, it is not to copy their style or to strip mine aboriginal cultures in an attempt to gain what ours lacks. Far from cheaply won, a connection requires the process of accessing larger, deeper dimensions of inner experience. Such transformative depth-journeys distinguish the this art from decorative creativity, commercial culture, and formalism.
Modern artist 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 and, “I don't produce things continuously. There must be a certain level of intensity, otherwise I don't make it.” Lacking this flexibility and dimensions of consciousness, people see our environment with its ubiquitous cars, production methods, capitalist money system as the only option.
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.