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A Culture of Change

Richard Powers book, Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance includes an interesting section about progress and technology. Powers suggests that, as culture and its tools changed more in 30 years than in the previous 1900, the curve of progress reached a critical moment when it was “no longer a changing culture but a culture of change”. How has this constant change changed the creation of art?

Now that change is the constant, Powers suggests that nothing has changed since that point. And when progress of a system becomes so accelerated, “it thrusts an awareness of itself onto itself and reaches the terminal velocity of self-reflection”. This produced a species capable of understanding its own biological evolution. In terms of its psychology the species has become aware of its defence mechanisms, so that the self can never again defend itself in the old ways. And “Art that was once a product of psychological mechanisms is now about those mechanisms and – the ultimate trigger point- about being about them.” (p. 81) “Art takes itself as both subject and content; post-modernism about painting…” and other disciplines about themselves.” (p. 83)

The self-reflexive aspect Powers refers to is clearly evident in, for instance, a film recently shown at the Vancouver International Film Festival called Faces, Places by 89 year old French filmmaker, Agnès Varda.

A quintessentially post-modern piece, the film, feature 2 film-makers who travel around the French countryside taking photographs of ordinary folks, blowing them up to monumental size and pasting them on buildings. It is a film about making a film of 2 film-makers who travel around the French countryside taking photographs, etc.

It was a charming film and very well done. But it was as insubstantial as the photographs that would be washed away by the first storm. Other than being a delightful portrait of the 2 artists and their working relationship, it made no attempt to touch on anything outside that frame. It was a portrait of a world where nothing is constant. so we came away from the film visually gratified and celebrating the ephemeral.

In contrast, an Egyptian film, The Nile Hilton Incident, directed by Tarik Saleh, was a riveting political allegory. Set in Cairo on the edge of revolution, this film explored the corruption that is endemic to tyranny and the near-impossibility for any of us to remain uncorrupted in a culture of greed and violence. While from a post-modern perspective, the film broke all the rules about narrative and morality, this was a piece of great art. It is impossible for the viewer not to be changed by the powerful experience of seeing the film. It was at once illuminating but challenged our complacency and willingness to comply.

This is a good example of how art can be transformative, despite the widely held belief that this is no longer possible in the jaded 21st Century. This view holds that, as self-reflexive beings, art can no longer charm us into believing in a reality that isn’t there or make us suspend our disbelief. The Nile Hilton Incident showed us that whether or not we can fully participate in the experience is not a problem because art can explore powerful ideas and reveal truths outside itself.

But the idea that there are any truths to be had or that artists can reveal truth and make us more aware is challenged by contemporary art criticism. In his essay, Doubt, Richard Shiff explores modernist and postmodern criticism. Though the nomenclature differs, the self-reflexive issue arises when he discusses the matter of identity which looms large in postmodern discourses. He also refers to the present as in a constant state of change which, to him, precludes absolutes. He then goes on to relate this lack of absolutes to the individual sense of self. if there are no absolutes & everything is relative, there can be no fixed self but a series of selves that appear according to the situation.

Shiff calls these “innumerable configurations of personality and emotion” self-differing.  He contrasts the self-differing self to the idea of a phantasmatic “all-at-oneness” that suspends the temporal dimension. Shiff discounts this idea by stating that the self always self-differs and never integrates, so that self-difference becomes its identity and that to differentiate the immediate from the temporal is pointless. He claims that all modern & postmodern art explores “orders of difference and temporalized plays of memory” then describes how some artists have have attempted to resist self-differing: “the gap between reason & emotion, mind & body, identity by name & identity by feeling”. He suggests that this is impossible based on the aforementioned constant state of change, lack of absolutes and the irreconcilable divide between belief & doubt.

The point of his argument is to critique the style of art criticism that entails a consciously subjective approach, where the critic simply relates a personal response to the artwork. A good example of this is John Berger‘s 2015 book, Portraits, in which he provides a wholly subjective review of mostly male artists. Shiff’s point is that, if there can be no fixed self, there can be no coherent subjective point of view.

So though this may be very true of art criticism, an appreciation of the irreconcilable divide between belief & doubt may not lend itself to understanding art. Shiff’s thinking about art is based on ideas about the nature of the self (a series of selves ) and art as an expression of self-differing. But in my view, the integration of the self has little to do with the dichotomy between belief and doubt as these are simply mental states. The self is not a mental state but a being of which states of mind are but a part. Integration of the self does not entail reconciling belief & doubt but is a process whereby body, mind and emotions become one with the self rather than conflicting and disintegrating states. Complete integration of body, mind, emotions and soul is clearly present when a great dancer or musician performs with total commitment and belief in the work and no evidence of an irreconcilable divide. At one remove is the experience of viewing a great painting or other artwork that is clearly the product of an artist wholly integrated during the creative process.

Then there is the integration of the self with consciousness itself – that “phantasmatic all-at-oneness” that is dismissed in this relativistic view. But by dismissing this possibility – the potential for transcendence, this view also dismisses the potential for art to reveal truths, to transcend “orders of difference and temporalized plays of memory”.

In Buddhism, the Sand Mandala painting originated in Vajrayana Buddhism for meditative purposes. The center of the mandala mostly contains a circle to represent spiritual enlightenment, freedom, or the Buddha. Mandala helps practitioners to find themselves as part of nature and become the wholeness of the universe. It may not be possible to describe this process using reason, no matter how elegantly delivered but it may be perceived if we suspend the busy reasoning mind.

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