Wednesday, June 3, 2009

What is real?

Michael Karwowski in an article for ‘Contemporary Review (2005)’ defined art as dealing with the nature of reality as it affects man, and science as being concerned with the nature of reality as it affects matter. The article highlights the fact that the long-standing debate on differences and similarities between creativity of scientists and artists continues relentlessly.

This difference in the two ways of understanding how we function as human beings was stated clearly in Jean-Paul Sartre's novel La Nausee (Nausea), published in 1938. The narrator discovered a new reality whilst sitting in the park:

“The root of the chestnut tree plunged into the ground just underneath my bench. I no longer remembered that it was a root . . . Words had disappeared, and with them the meaning of things, the methods of using them, the feeble landmarks which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, slightly bent, my head bowed, alone in front of that black, knotty mass, which was utterly crude and frightened me. And then I had this revelation.

Faced with that big, rugged paw, neither ignorance nor knowledge had any importance; the world of explanations and reasons is not that of existence. A circle is not absurd, it is clearly explicable by the rotation of a segment of a straight line around one of its extremities. But a circle doesn't exist either. That root, on the other hand, existed in so far that I could not explain it. Knotty, inert, nameless, it fascinated me, filled my eyes, repeatedly brought me back to my own existence . . . I saw clearly that you could not pass from its function as a root, as a suction-pump, to that, to that hard, compact sea-lion skin, to that oily, horny, stubborn look."

Here is a dramatisation of the gap between scientific and artistic endeavour, which is particularly acute when considering both behaviours as the outcome of evolution to boost human social relationships. Perhaps an awareness of the dichotomy may be traced to Picasso’s inventions of methodologies for expressing nature non-representationally. It is significant that the non-representational scientist, Einstein, and the abstracting artist Picasso came of age at the exact moment in history when it was first becoming apparent that classical, intuitive ways of understanding space and time were not adequate. Each in his own way - Einstein with relativity and Picasso with cubism - was striving for a deeper, more satisfying way to represent space and time. In the most important cultural sense, they were both working on the same problem. Picasso enthusiastically embraced the media of photography and film to evolve as a cubist. In order to derive and present multiple presentations of a subject on a two-dimensional plan, he took thousands of photographs and literally sliced and pasted them together. This was part of his efforts to refine forms by abstraction and distortion from their context in order to convert them into luminous and mysterious entities. There seems little doubt that these artistic inventions were taken from the conventions of the realities perceived by African native artists, where faces are symbols, eyes, mouths, noses and genitals are placed for impact, not naturalistic representation, and human figures are flat planes and geometric shapes.

The origins of abstraction as a vital force in Western art may be dated to the spring of 1907 when Picasso was visiting Gertrude Stein at her Paris apartment. The story goes that Henri Matisse stopped by with an African sculpture he had just purchased. According to Matisse, the two artists were enthralled by its depiction of a human figure. Soon afterwards, Picasso went to the Trocadero Museum of Ethnology (now the Musée de l'Homme) with another artist friend, André Derain. That visit, Picasso later claimed, was pivotal to his art.

"A smell of mould and neglect caught me by the throat. I was so depressed that I would have chosen to leave immediately," Picasso said of the museum. "But I forced myself to stay, to examine these masks, all these objects that people had created with a sacred, magical purpose, to serve as intermediaries between them and the unknown, hostile forces surrounding them, attempting in that way to overcome their fears by giving them colour and form. And then I understood what painting really meant. It's not an aesthetic process; it's a form of magic that interposes itself between us and the hostile universe, a means of seizing power by imposing a form on our terrors as well as on our desires. The day I understood that, I had found my path."

Abstraction as a biological behaviour, and thereby open to scientific explanations, was visited by Kandinsky two decades later in his early intellectual struggles with spiritualism, ethnology and children’s art as a consistent aspect of human development. He regarded it as a route to produce new understandings of nature and was trying to reconcile art making with human biology. Whilst retaining his fundamental antimaterialistic convictions, he drew on the theories of science and engineering in order to support his contention that there was a fundamental similarity between art and evolution. In the 1920s he had reached the following position:

“ Abstract art, despite its emancipation, is subject….to ‘natural laws’, and is obliged to proceed in the same way that nature did previously, when it started in a modest way with protoplasms and cells, progressing very gradually to increasingly complex organisms. Today, abstract art also creates primary or less primary art-organisms, whose further development the artist can predict on in uncertain outline, and which entice, excite him, but also calm him when he stares into the prospect of the future that faces him. Let me observe here that those who doubt the future of abstract art, are, to choose an example, as if reckoning with the state of development reached by amphibians, which are far removed from fully developed vertebrates and represent not the final result of creation, but rather the ‘beginning’.

This is a roundabout way of stating that making works of art is an evolved aspect of behaviour we describe as tool making. Paintings are refinements of ideas through the placing of lines, shapes and colours on a flat surface until they ‘look right’. The finished painting then becomes a tool to reinforce social communication within groups where the members share the same values and perceptions of environment. Over tens of thousands of years, the principle of using coded messages has remained. But the codes have developed from those close to real objects, to more idiosyncratic collections of pictographs, invented by talented individuals to turn their mental ideas into framed shapes and colours for sharing with others. The social aims behind the tooling of art also remain those of reinforcing group identity. Indeed, the most powerful evidence for art having this role is the fact that works, such as those of Kandinsky’s Blue Rider group, which were reviled by contemporary critics, now grace the walls of museums and are objects of group consumption through the commercial industry of museology. It is common to decry the astronomical prices paid today for abstract art. However, this is missing the point that this is evidence of the cultural position of art as the outcome of a fundamental evolved behaviour and one of the mainsprings of capitalist society.

The social role of art is only limited by the ability of the artist to match the levels of the public’s capacity to read their codes, where the common response is ‘I only like what I know’. Innovation, whether in science or art, has to overcome this threshold of innate social conservatism about how an acceptable reality can be depicted. It is not always a problem of education. Conservatism, in all things, has a survival value in holding back society from destroying its past before it has a firm platform of values for the future. As deep-thinking primates we cannot escape the need to seek new social arrangements as past values and structures disintegrate, through forces connected for the most part with advances in tool making. In this sense art movements are just one facet of social evolution, arising at an individual level, but with the potential to move society into a new cultural paradigm. Where yesterday’s mysteries become commonplace realities.

In the final chapter of his book, ‘The Art of Modernism’ published in the last year of the 20th century, Sandro Bocola makes the point that, at all times, artistic creativity runs with other cultural changes, which are mainly political and technological variations on past themes. In particular, he takes a stance that we are moving rapidly towards a global culture of capitalism, and cultural evolution is going to be increasingly bound up with electronic data processing and satellite communication of ideas. For Bocola, new methods, outputs and aesthetic norms associated with artistic creativity will emerge from computer networking;

“…. whose potential for art has hardly been explored and is far from being exhausted. These media, too, open up a variety of new creative possibilities, which- like photography and film- will probably influence future artistic developments and may even lead to the formation of new and hitherto unknown types of art”

We can be certain that this type of future will emerge, and will probably come sooner than we think. In particular, we can also be sure that the technology of digital imaging, which offers an unlimited capacity for everyone to command the entire process of image-making, from capture to display, will play a powerful role in broadening the social base of artistic creativity. A computer screen is the most potent interface with virtual reality ever created. This is particularly true for self-education of the ‘what happens if I do this’ type. We can only speculate how computer graphics would have accelerated Kandinsky’s intellectual development, and spread his ideas as an educator who questioned what is ‘real’ reality around the world at the speed of light.

Fig 1 'The Conductor': three superimposed sequential digital images

Fig 2 Models and artists: montage from a digital image

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