The Power of Art

Art is both a reflection of the spirit of the times, and a means by which the spirit of the times may be shaped.

Art is misunderstood (by some), underestimated (by many), and entirely overlooked (by a great many more). But art acts on us, nevertheless, even if we are unaware of how it influences us. Art is powerful because it shapes the way we think. Different expressions of art not only reflect a different manner of thinking, they foster a different way of thinking.

 

The name given to each of these 'isms' reflects the mode of thinking it expresses, and engenders: Abstract (removed from reality) expressionistic (imposed on reality), impressionist (an impression of reality), realist (an attempt to reflect reality). We begin here, as Regionalist artists, by resisting the postmodern, post-structural notion, that there is no objective reality, only subjective experience:

 

From the film Cloud Atlas:

Sonmi-451: "Truth is singular. Its 'versions' are mistruths."

 

It's fascinating to see a work of popular culture present such an idea; one that completely refutes the central tenet of postmodernism. In this relativistic, hyper-subjective age, of course, many would disagree with this notion; but here, as I mentioned in the previous email, the  'dialectical imagination' is free to explore all ideas.

I also referred to the book Fahrenheit 451 last time. Was the author of the Cloud Atlas screenplay inspired by Ray Bradbury? 451 °F is the temperature at which heated paper burns, Bradbury explains; Sonmi-451 sets the world on fire in quite another way. It is interesting how writers weave their ideas together. Bradbury's dystopian novel was published in 1953, and we'll see why this is significant in a moment (whether or not Bradbury himself was ever aware of this fact). Rather like the Publication of Kenneth Galbraith's book Money: Whence it Came, Where it Went, the year Canada's money system came under the influence of external monetary authorities. Artists, of all kinds, consciously or unconsciously, are aware of a deeper reality, and this awareness informs all the most inspired works.

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For now though, I'd like to step back to the point at which I started this exploration of art. Three years ago I was asked to speak to a local art group at the Art Gallery of Burlington, and this was the first time I tried to explain how, and why, art matters (beyond the five points listed by Alain de Botton in 'What is Art For?').

 

I drew extensively on Marshall McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage, of course, because he understood that art had some deeper role to play. While he defines postmodern Art as 'anything you can get away with,' he felt that art, and artists, had some rather more important function in society. He understood that artists saw the world differently and that some were able to communicate what they saw; most importantly, he understood that artists found ways to help others see. 

While modernism was obsessed with 'flatness' and postmodernism almost fetishized 'surface appearance' - 'It's all on the surface,' General Idea famously stated - we know, instinctively, that art has profound depths. But the product of postmodern culture, according to Herbert Marcuse, is the One-dimensional Man. The one-dimensional man (or woman) does not see beyond the surface; in the postmodern mind, surface appearance is all there is.

 

As books (and the word) disappeared (in Bradbury's dystopian future), television screens as big as the wall channeled a manufactured reality to the homes, and minds, of another 'post-literate society' (McLuhan's vision of the future). It is well documented that official culture is, quite literally, a PsyOp (as outlined in the Psychological Strategy Board's 1953  'Doctrinal Program' - directive PSB D33-2), so this  should be no surprise.

 

Culture can (and should) nurture and enrich, rather than manipulate, diminish and impoverish. As we make our way through the wasteland of postmodernism – which Theodor Adorno called an 'anti-enlightenment movement' – to the brink of a technocratic Dark Ages, the time has come for another cultural rebirth; another Renaissance.

I have often spoken here of Iain McGilchrist's The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The British Psychiatrist writes at length of the connections between art and 'ways of thinking.' 

Art is traditionally thought of as a right-brain function (and more traditional art is) but the current understanding is that both sides of the brain perform all functions. Both side do art, just as both sides do math; but each side of the brain has a very different perspective on the world, and a very different approach to life. These ways of seeing, and these ways of engaging with the world, are what shape our world. They can bring about a flowering of culture – a renaissance, democracy and civil society – or they can give us anti-art, nihilism, post-structualism, deconstructivism and, ultimately, decline. The way we think can manifest a living, thriving, egalitarian society, or it can destroy everything we have aspired to, and struggled for, for hundreds of years – in just a couple of generations..

All of this, McGilchrist suggests, has been the result of a constant back and forth in the primacy of one side of the brain to the other. In cycles, throughout history, civilizations have risen and fallen, as cultures moved from balance to disequilibrium, and back again, mirroring the state of the collective mindset - the Zeitgeist.
 
Is it our fate to repeat this pattern over and over? 


This time, I would suggest, we have a very different understanding of the process of decline that civilizations experienced in the past. The fall of Rome is always the first to be mention, but most illustrative here – as it more accurately reflects our experience today – is Byzantium. This history is enshrined in the very structure of our 'administered society' today (to borrow another phrase from Marcuse). The Capital of Byzantium, Bursa, is the root of bureaucracy, a word that lives on today in a most utilitarian way - stripped of its most important meaning. The word Byzantine, however, serves as a warning still; although the people of Byzantium would probably have been shocked at the scale of our  'civilization's' rule-bound complexity. 

Though I have mentioned Iain McGilchrist's talk in Toronto many time, I'll again refer to his closing comments, in which he neatly summarizes Byzantium's fate – and ours if we can't switch tracks in the very near future. Beginning at 47:50,  in the this 2012 broadcast of TVO's Big Ideas, McGilchrist describes the kind a world that would emerge should the left-hemisphere dominate our thinking as a society:

 

Bureaucracy would have a field day. Peter berger, the famous sociologist, described the main points of bureaucracy being the need for procedures that are known, anonymity, organizability, predictability, explicit abstraction; all mediated curiously enough, by the left-brain. There would be the loss of a sense of uniqueness. Quantity rather that quality would become the only criterion; because quality requires all those, what's-it-like, feelings that are only appreciable by the right-hemisphere.

 

“We would get into a world of black and white, either/or. Reasonableness – that wonderful concept – would be replaced by rationality, and there would be a failure of common sense; a by no means common faculty, especially these days.

 

“Systems designed to maximize utility would take over. There would be a loss of cohesion socially, depersonalization, and a lot of paranoia, because the left-hemisphere needs control; and if it's not in control it becomes very anxious  another phenomenon that those of us who are psychologists or doctors will have seen many times in our consulting rooms.

 

“There will be a need for total control; CCTV and monitoring of all kinds. Anger and aggression, which are the only emotions that are really very clearly mediated by the left-hemisphere, would become the predominant timbre, emotionally. We would see ourselves in this passive way as victims, and our art would become conceptual. There would be a lack of depth, visually, there would be distortion and bizarre perspectives – because the left-hemisphere doesn't understand them. Music would be reduced to little more than rhythm, which is the only aspect of music that the left-hemisphere really has a grasp of – not harmony or melody. Language would become diffuse and lacking in concrete reference.

 

“There would be a deliberate undercutting of the sense of awe and wonder, which are simply not appreciable by the left-hemisphere, and things that flow will become just an infinite series of pieces. We would discard all tacit forms of knowing. We would become tied down by a network of small complicated rules, as de Tocqueville saw we would be, back in the 1830s, because we could no longer rely on tacit understanding and trust. And, of course, all of this would be accompanied by a dangerously unwarranted optimism - but the left-hemisphere has a way of closing down options to what it alone sees. It rules out the other stuff because it doesn't mean anything. . .

 

“Now, if that rings any bells, I think it may be because we have moved toward seeing the world in a way that is governed by the left-hemisphere; this constrain the options. I'm not saying our brains physically have changed; we can use our right-hemispheres – they are there for use whenever we care to use them. What do you mean soul? What do you mean spirit? It doesn't mean anything. It doesn't compute, as they say, because it's not in that picture... 50:50.

Also See: The Divided Brain

 

Will this new understanding of psychology, combined with a new perspective on history, be enough to arrest the dissolution and decline that our society seems to be experiencing now? I spoke recently of the 'gestalt' right-brain vs. the 'technocrat' left-brain; and the latter really does seem to be the direction in which our world has been moving recently. The technocrats tell us as much, in fact: this is their plan – this is where they want to take the world. The wealthiest and most influential people in the world are moving us in that direction as quickly as they can.  But they say, also, “the window of opportunity may close quickly."


They are right to be worried, because we have art, and it gives us 'a language by which we can understand ourselves and our society,' as Chris hedges so eloquently stated.

 

I constantly return to this subject, approaching for different angles, as I firmly believe that art will restore balance again; that 'Art will redeem the world' – as the old saying goes. Perhaps this is why there are two kinds of art; because the world (as a reflection of our collective perspective) can swing too far in either direction. But art is the mechanism which keeps all in check; subtly operating to restore the equilibrium of own minds, and thus, the world around us. This, I believe, is the ultimate function of art.

 

What those with a more right-hemisphere perspective see exists beyond the immediate 'surface appearance' of the world, in an 'invisible environment.' This reality, therefore, the 'pervasive structures, and over-all patterns of environments,' as McLuhan explains, 'elude easy perception' – for many. But as McGilchrists emphasizes, we can all use our right-hemispheres” (the brain evolved with two hemispheres for a reason). This, it seems, is McLuhan's message as well. He compares artists to that little boy at the parade, the 'anti-social brat' who cannot help but to tell it as it is:

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"But he hasn't got anything on," exclaims the little boy. "[I]nnocent prattle," his father chastises. . .

 

This, of course, is what anyone who challenges consensus reality confronts. The moral of the story though, is that the spell-bound spectators eventually do see. This story has a happy ending. If this tale is to be an analogy of our world at present, however, we must recognize that we're still at that critical point, when the spectators – transfixed by a spectacle – become irritated at suggestions that reality might not be quite as it appears.

 

And on this note, I should pause. This was only meant to be a very quick interim update, and yet, as always, there is so much to explore.

 

I'll continue soon, but for now, have a most enjoyable weekend . . . and I hope you'll have a chance to take one last look at the PIBO auction.

Thank you all,

David .

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