Artists of Entropy

By M.K. Styllinski

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So, where does the power of art come into Official Culture?

The answer is that it is bound by the same strictures as anything else and thus largely funnelled into the narcissist’s and psychopath’s perception of art –  a commodity of mediocrity. That does not mean to say that “art is dead” or that there are no beautiful and inspiring works  available (though it could be said that the notion of what constitutes art is now very, VERY broad indeed) only that the potential of art – to heal, communicate truth, to initiate change, to emancipate and to even act as a spiritual and emotional conduit – is generally absent from our daily lives.  Art could be so much more.

Creativity could be said to be the furnace in which the highest aspirations of human endeavour are forged. Without creativity life is stale, joyless and bland. By extension, art has come to represent something quite different in our “civilised” societies about which we are so proud.  This is best illustrated by art critics who seem to able to turn anything into a marketable cause whilst maintaining the veil of seeming profundity, even when there is an obvious lack of any merit, artistic or otherwise. For instance: “The photographs of Ulf Lundin are almost entirely devoid of visual interest … it is … their very mediocrity, their monotony, and their emptiness that attracts us.” [1] No offence to Lundin’s art but this critic believes that mediocrity is attractive and sustains us, even sets us free.

This is the point we have got to in much broader terms: the attraction to mediocrity and monotony. And this is distinctly different to highlighting a hidden beauty in the seemingly pedestrian. For some, this kind of abstraction is not a black narcissistic hole but an essential truth. Yet to say such things, is to be accused of being a philistine, where the nuances of the artist’s vision have yet to be appreciated. Perhaps this is true and the problem is simply one of art history and intellectual rigour?

What is artistic merit anyway? Is it just a subjective, personal acquisition that can never be pinned down?  Or does true art transcend entirely the whole concept of an individual artist hanging his photo or painting in a gallery and thus his own ego?


“Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.”

~ Pablo Picasso


We can go to a gallery and see the latest conceptual masterpiece from an acclaimed artist for whom the placing of a pile of washing on the floor or tea-cup on a table means an artistic statement. We might view it this way: If we are unwilling to see that this self-proclaimed “artist” is forcing us to do 90 percent of the intellectual effort in order to vindicate what is frequently a money-led consensus of intellectually-focused unoriginality, then no matter how well intentioned, we are buying into the gullibility that keeps the greasy wheels of market-led art inexorably turning. It seems to be a case of “art for art’s sake” rather than “art for life’s sake.”

Perhaps “Art” back through history had a different role rather than today’s reflection of viral self-importance?

In the ancient past, art was once the creative “glue” that gave meaning and a sense of the sacred to communities still living a harsh but closer existence to nature. Now, the disconnection from the natural world has left us devoid of meaning and psycho-spiritual knowledge; where the application of practical skills which were both an art and a function are lost in virtuality and urban chic.  The SMART human has largely embraced the march toward a post-modern, narcissistic assurance; the scientific dogma and shellac of New Age philosophies has further replaced the prospect of learning from genuine ancient wisdom which must be applied creatively to be truly understood.

The above may seem like a tree-hugging cliché, but there is truth to it. Don’t you get the feeling that art is simply regurgitating  reproductions of endless self-expressions for the market place? And digital technology has made this conveyor belt even quicker and more instantaneous.


“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”

~ Aristotle


Nowadays, concepts of art often lie very much in the realm of the intellect where the viewer must do much of the work for the artist by imbuing it with meaning due to a paucity of talent and creativity. Is it merely a lack of education regarding the nature of art or has the practical relevance of art simply ceased to exist because it has … lost its soul?

“Police on Friday removed the corpse of a man believed to have hanged himself at least a year ago after builders and students at Budapest’s University of Arts had initially mistaken it for a modern sculpture.” [2]

Or, over to the dustmen in Frankfurt, Germany:

“… they were a mess that needed to be cleared from the streets of their spotless city. The yellow plastic sheets were swiftly scooped up, crushed and burned. But the diligence of the rubbish collectors was little consolation to the city’s prestigious art academy, which is now ruing the loss of an important work. Unknown to the binmen, the sheets were part of a city-wide exhibition of modern sculpture by Michael Beutler, a graduate of Frankfurt’s Städel art school. Thirty of the dustmen are now being sent to modern art classes to try to ensure that the same mistake never happens again.” [3]

Although this example is humorous it is also a tragic representation of a class and cultural schism. Perhaps we can see in the above just how de-linked and disassociated art has become from the values and meaning of everyday life. Again, what relevance does art have in the world today compared to its potential that lays waiting in the shadows, tied to our perceptions and the current materialist paradigm?

If human beings have a natural propensity for aesthetic behaviour or creative play [4] then there is a well spring of action that can be constructive and useful that naturally benefits the “organism” as a whole, rather than the strictly humanist, individualistic force of the past several hundred years. Without wishing to paint an overly romantic picture, it is true to say that many of the indigenous peoples of the world had a natural culture that was both creative and meaningful even while daily existence may have been often challenging. Craftsmanship was extraordinarily refined and intimately bound into the life of the tribe or community. In many ancient and indigenous cultures such as the Maoris, and the Eskimo tribes of the Inuit they confirm the Indian idea from ancient Sanskrit writings that there was no word for “art” precisely because the idea that artistic endeavour could be separated from life was non-sensical.


“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

~ Pablo Picasso


In over a thousand languages spoken in Africa there is also no word for art.  There are no separate words for “create” or “make” nor is there a separation between right action and daily activity that is by their nature, an expression of a “divine art.” “Participation” is often the essential prerequisite for artistic endeavour where every action means something; every dance, every pot and ear-ring and temple. In the Western alchemical tradition the real art was the transformation of base metals into gold, the rebirth of the self – the true artisan.

In the words of Alistair Shearer:

As an individual, the artist does not consider himself fundamentally different from or opposed to society at large; he is the limb of the body, a cell of the organism, acting as a single entity yet inextricably part of the indivisible and organic whole… Stable in this identity his role is to transmit those forms which preserve and continue the inherited structures and beliefs of his society; his brief is conservative not innovative, social as opposed to individual, educative rather than diverting. His concern is not to invent new forms, but to rekindle the vitality latent in the ancient ones. [5]

At the present time we have turned away from the signposts of the past and become consumers rather than participants. Wal-mart, Nike or the Universal symbol of the Tao – it’s all the same. From religious iconography to esoteric symbols and mandalas, all have been subsumed into the continuum of market pop re-made to suit the less than altruistic intentions and actions behind them. We can say that now in the information age of manipulation anyone can produce “art,” and the reality of this possibility is flooding the market-consciousness. Everyone can make music in their bedroom and engineer sounds and samples from past musicians to create copies of copies of copies. Musicians can now engineer and paste whole samples of another’s work into their own if they so wish. In fact, one need not study music at all. If we do not have the ability or will to learn an instrument technology gives you the freedom to do it all for you. All we need to do is engineer sound where the elemental nature of the piano, guitar and drum or any other crafted instrument is now a graphic in a programme suitably distanced and perfectly conceptualised with polished realism and digital satisfaction.

Similarly, we can make digitised pictures and create virtual worlds of beauty and grandeur even if they seem to lack the soul of organic influence. We can all divest ourselves of a thousand meanings and project them into the outer world, exorcise our demons and “self-express.” Now everyone can dance until the sun goes down on diversity and creation as it fast becomes a bland monotony where every sampled beat sounds the same; where the ecstasy of dance is cut off from sacred meaning and still ensconced in an urban environment of a cultural dystopia.

A harsh, simplistic indictment of art in the “21st century?

Perhaps it’s more about our perceptions which give rise to what we consider to be art. It is indeed true that we humans have produced astonishingly beautiful and awe-inspiring examples of artistic vision so often tied to religious and devotional ecstasy or some form of spiritual yearning. Yet, as with all human endeavour it depends entirely on how this sexual / creative impulse is filtered into the material world. For instance, psychopaths do not have a creative bone in their body. They are mimics and masters of lies. So when pathological constructs begin to dominate societies then we will inevitably see its reflection in art and the methods by which it is produced. The difficulty comes between distinguishing the line between the real messengers that impart truth and those that merely regurgitate dead forms. Each will have its effect on the consciousness of the observer.


“Life doesn’t imitate art, it imitates bad television.”

~Woody Allen


Indeed, art and post-modern intellectual escapism seems to offer a unique possibility for those with serious pathologies to mimic attempts at creativity and pass it off as art for the public. When the psychopath or pathological narcissist is cut off from emotion and the fact that s/he cannot truly share, the world of art delivers self-aggrandisement and instant “specialness”; a natural environment in which he can foster his aloofness: the lone and misunderstood artist forging new and original visions… If his “originality” pushes new barriers of sensation and shock he can subsume his psychological issues into a protective facade of superior intellect and convince himself that his disdain for natural human interests comes from an elevated vision. Such “Art” like many of its offshoots, becomes a substitute for life itself. All this is willingly catered for in the art world should the artist hit on a suitable vehicle for his “self-expression” and the market in which it is best suited.

In a pathological world slipping into SMART society’s version of a digitized art this new media lends itself to the common denominator of the times. A “community producing great art…does so, not by its ‘love of art’ but by its ‘love of life’.” [6] Therefore, if art has no intrinsic relation to our lives where an accessibility of concepts is absent as well as the functional and practical appliance of art that is life, then can a process of true creativity be born? If pathological currents dominating Western societies have no ability to truly create it is logical that they should supplant an authentic cultural diversity with fake ideas bereft of an emotional connection though heavy on intellectual visions which we are obligated to furnish – the Emperor’s clothes with a paintbrush and keyboard. Since a culture dominated by pathology will naturally determine the quality, accessibility and visibility of that creativity surely it is inevitable that those who function as their designated artists in such a culture will merely be reproducing what is deemed an acceptable expression of that pathology?

The above brief description of contemporary art is purposely a somewhat generalised critique on the impressions that inform so vast a field. The reader will hopefully understand the contextual point being made. Perhaps the task of societies today is to see that the richness of creative artistry can be disbursed across a collective network of individuals rather than being focused in any single person; where unchanging principles and fluid generational skills are oriented towards permanent truths that can also bring forth our individual and collective potential. Once art has ceased to be seen as a commodity to be seen in a gallery or critiqued by those who are “in the know” then perhaps some measure of artistry can begin to be seeded in us all and translates into society as living art-fully. Art can become an expression of the artistry within rather than merely a form of self-importance or therapy without.

From the Industrial Revolution art has devolved into something very different to what could tentatively said to be its original purpose: to activate self-knowledge at the deepest level, to offer a fusion of community and practical skills where beauty and functionality sit side by side, and this as a result of a process of creativity which is defined by love. The power and quality of that unsentimental love which is rises up through the act of creation will define how well it reaches into the observer, to the extent it stimulates many and varied relationships from that process. In this way art cannot be separated from anything that truly creates and which has the promise of binding relationships which can for example,  form communities of thought which are self-sustaining within the whole.

Art then is a living process with tangible results dependent on the creator’s quality of consciousness.


“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

~ Edgar Degas


Perhaps only the re-enchantment of Western societies can re-define art as liberator and healer, messenger and enabler. As we shall see, the general state of art will give us a broad mirror to understand what is going inside the collective mind of humanity just like any other domain. From there we will be able to tell how well the creative, artistic impulse is contributing to the advancement of human potential or merely a lifeless product.

Take an honest look on that score. What do we see?

It means that there is a battle between what Irish artist Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin calls a “socially conscious art” and market conformity which parrots what has gone before and what market fashion demands; closing the window on the opportunity for art to inform and engage in ways that go beyond cultural constraints. That is not to say that art must direct itself to any one form of communication only that it MUST be authentic ans sincere for it to truly called “art;” where the pain and/or joy of the inner world is fused with the corporeal.  When socially conscious art speaks to the collective conscience producing emotional sparks of connection – that is when we the pain and imagery truly binds us, and we realise just how interrelated we really are. This is when art lives through us by binding us together in co-linear efforts to actualise conscience, the very process and fruits of which make life itself a living work of art.

Erich Fromm had this to say about our predicament and those who feel that there is nothing “normal” at all in the current state of society:

“A person who has not been completely alienated, who has remained sensitive and able to feel, who has not lost the sense of dignity, who is not yet ‘for sale’, who can still suffer over the suffering of others, who has not acquired fully the having mode of existence – briefly, a person who has remained a person and not become a thing – cannot help feeling lonely, powerless, isolated in present-day society. He cannot help doubting himself and his own convictions, if not his sanity. He cannot help suffering, even though he can experience moments of joy and clarity that are absent in the life of his ‘normal’ contemporaries. Not rarely will he suffer from neurosis that results from the situation of a sane man living in an insane society, rather than that of the more conventional neurosis of a sick man trying to adapt himself to a sick society. In the process of going further in his analysis, i.e. of growing to greater independence and productivity, his neurotic symptoms will cure themselves.”

This sense of isolation and “insanity” when comparing ourselves to the normalised pathology in which we are all immersed is the first step in curing ourselves and gaining a centre of authenticity.  This healing is an ambitious project and remains an individual destiny, but the successes we have as we undertake to understand our emotional life will have powerful effects upon the whole. This is the awakening that lies before us and a tantalising first step in opening the door to our dormant creativity across all domains. Mediocrity and conformity will then be seen for what they are: the symptoms of a social illness reacting to the imposition of anti-human demands. It is then that Official Culture will crumble and its authority seen for what it is: an illusion propagated by a minority that live in a psychological abyss.

It will be our choice as to whether we decide to join them.

 


Notes

[1] John Tozer, Art Monthly February 1999.
[2] ‘Hanging Corpse Admired as Sculpture on Campus’ China Daily, November 15th 2003.
[3] ‘Back to school for binmen who thought modern art was a load of old rubbish’ Ben Aris in Berlin, The Guardian. January 13, 2005.
[4] Homo Aestheticus: Where Art comes from and Why by Ellen Dissanayake, The Free Press, 1992.
[5] p.8; The Hindu Vision Forms of the Formless (Art & Imagination) By Alistair Shearer Thames & Hudson 1993 | ISBN-10: 0500810435.

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