The world had progressed eloquently for two centuries, eating itself alive.
It all started with the camera. That ineffable recording device — the idea given to us by the Arabs — enticed the minds of Western science for centuries. That is, until French inventor Nicéphore Niépce came out with La cour du domaine du Gras in 1826, the first known permanent photograph in human existence. The foggy bitumen image took eight hours of exposure to complete; this can be noted by the sunlight illuminating the buildings on both sides of the alley outside of Niépce's quarters in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes.
La cour du domaine du Gras, Nicéphore Niépce, 1826
Since that moment, reality shifted anew. Some say, coupled with the Industrial Revolution, this heralded the birth of the true Modern Age.
Until that time painting was a skill, not an art. Being a painter meant you were the supreme recorder of history, the most accurate portrayer of perceived reality. This is why to be a painter you had to be schooled in the sciences: biology, mathematics, physics, and architecture. It was no egalitarian profession. To be a master painter meant nobility that surpassed most merchants; sometimes a resident tenure at the royal palace, if you were good enough.
What was painting to do? Photography had arrived, the latest and greatest! This new invention, sought exhaustively by the bourgeoisie, was the pinnacle of modern achievement and innovation. Why spend months and thousands of dollars painting a family portrait, when you can shoot a photograph for fraction of the cost in only seconds?
The function painting claimed for centuries had been lost. It had to find a new path: art for art's sake! Painting had to evolve. Instead of making an accurate portrayal of reality, painters began to make skewed portrayals — different versions of the same reality. This is where Impressionism came in: Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Van Gogh, Seurat and so on.
Then, when Eadweard Muybridge began to make pictures move, painting could not rely on gradual evolution alone. Now, it had to compete! You see, on a Saturday night in 1860 the hip thing to do was to stroll down to the local gallery and see the latest of the art scene. But, honestly, what's more attractive? A quiet room full of still life oils you have to walk through; or, being seated for two hours in front of a moving screen with lights, sound, attractive actors, and popcorn to boot! A Saturday night in the 20th Century was a different story.
Art needed an edge. Thus, in the year of our Lord 1907, was born Cubism: Pablo Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon exploding onto and redefining the modern scene. Deemed immoral, it shattered all previously known conventions of the brush. The disjointed image of five nudes in a Barcelona brothel follows up Cézanne's experiments with perspective, as if Pablo cut the entire canvas into a puzzle and painted each piece from a different frame of reference. What Picasso introduced with Les Demoiselles, his partner Georges Braque took to its logical extreme: that of the purity of abstraction. With works such as Le guitariste and Compotier et cartes, Braque evolves Picasso's fragmented approach to the image such that the subject is barely identifiable, if at all.
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Pablo Picasso, 1907
Perhaps Cubism's greatest contribution to painting after the dawn of photography was to reinvigorate the school of analysis. Natural forms could now be reassessed, the barriers between dimensions broken and redrawn. A work of art could demand a critical exchange from the viewer, unlike the static realism of a photograph or cinematic sequence.
The ways to represent imagery onto canvas now beget other meanings, methods, and motivations: Futurism, Constructivism, Dada, De Stijl, Surrealism, and so on . . . what were salons became movements, replete with manifestos and edicts pursuing their own unblemished utopias. And so the schools were splintered, each seeking its own path for the ultimate representation of form.
Then somewhere, some when . . . maybe it was the Great Wars, maybe the end of European colonialism, the Iron Curtain, the U.N. and perpetual facilitation of international law and economic development. In whatever way it went down, the "newness" of art disappeared.
We have been trying to find it ever since . . .
Modern art was an almost entirely European phenomenon. However, the Great Wars devastated the landscape, the muses of inspiration dying from the atrophy of trauma. In a matter of four decades, the lush gardens and pastures of Matisse's Le Bonheur de vivre (1905-06) had turned into the charred, acidic wasteland of Ernst's Europe After the Rain II (1940-42). The technological fervor of modernization had wrought a justifiable dissatisfaction with utopia. So, being the victors, the Americas decided to shoulder the next phase of art's unyielding effort to stay alive: postmodernism.
Le Bonheur de vivre, Henri Matisse, 1905-06
Europe After the Rain II, Max Ernst, 1940-42
Of course, the roots of the postmodern ethic were seeded in European modernism. It was Marcel Duchamp, and the accompanying politically-charged Dadaists, which stripped art from its capital "A" (or the capital "A" from its art). Moving to America, Duchamp sought a redefinition of the current anatomy of aesthetics. Dubbed Fountain, his masterpiece was actually a found object, a urinal displayed with the imaginary signature "R.Mutt 1917". Causing as much upheaval as Les Demoiselles, Duchamp accomplished one of two things:
1. Art could no longer be defined as beauty, or beauty as art. In fact, art could no longer be defined as anything other than what the artist or viewer wills it to be defined as. Objectivity had been obliterated and subjectivity the new axiom.
2. The practice of found objects, or what Duchamp called "readymades", opened the gallery doors to a new technique: collage, the process of finding disparate objects in the real world, rearranging them, and presenting them in a wholly different context than their initially intended use. Dadaist Hannah Hoch mastered this process in her photomontage critique of Weimar politics, Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany.
Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, Hannah Hoch, 1919
The Dadaists may have called the methodology of art into question, but it was the Surrealists that questioned form itself.
Belgian artist René François Ghislain Magritte brought existential genius to the skill of painting. Like all Surrealists, Magritte was inspired by the subconscious as well as the challenge to capsize preconceived notions of reality. His greatest work, and perhaps the most significant painting of the 20th Century, is La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images). The 25 in x 37 in oil canvas displays a perfectly elegant image of a simple pipe suspended over a cursive inscription: Ceci n'est pas une pipe, translated as "this is not a pipe." Indeed, we are not looking at a pipe, but rather a painting of a pipe. For those who cannot cast their gaze upon the original work lies another layer of abstraction, they may be looking at the printed representation of a photograph of a painting of a pipe. And, in the words of Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim, "so it goes."
The Treachery of Images, René Magritte, 1928-29
One is reminded on Descartes' causal model of perception, wherein he represents a multitude of layers between a viewer and that which is being viewed. Take for instance a tree. When one is looking at a tree, one thinks one is seeing the tree. However, that tree is represented by photons which are bounced off of the tree and travel through many other particles to eventually make contact with the retinas in the back of the eye. Further, the data received by the retinas have to travel through the optic nerve and into the human brain where that information is then taken apart, reassembled, and verified against the database of knowledge already collected about how to identify that particular form (based on education, experience, etc.). Because of these layers of causality that exist between the viewer and the tree, Descartes suggests that one viewer's truth will be completely different than another's; though they are both still the truth.
Magritte's accomplishment lies in the intrinsic nature of human perception. His revelation? That we are imprisoned by language, held captive by our own conditioning and preconceptions. Foucault would claim this is an almost Orwellian control of our very thoughts, and that Magritte's Treachery frees us of the tyranny of identity.
So, how does this lead us into the postmodern age of post-War economics, the capitalization of democracy, and the inevitable spiral of history soon to end?
In the 1950s and 60s, it was pertinent for those in charge to foster a healthy environment for consumerism to progressively rise out from the corpses of economic ruin. All image had become commodity and trademarks were the currency of the brush. In order to sell to the populace one must assuage the populace. After all, innovative modernization is too risky to base a business plan upon. America saw promise in the sublime system of metamodernization and the phenomena of repetition.
As families gave thanks to Ford and the assembly line each night over supper, art adapted itself to the current paradigm of mass media and advertising. Pop art had mutated itself out of the disorienting entropy of abstract expressionism and become the new meme. In a way incorporating Duchamp's "readymade" methods with Magritte's commentary of imagery, the Pop artists thrived on the banality of popular culture. Objects of the mundane were culled from advertising and commercial products to be kitsch reproductions, Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup paintings the iconic example of this feat. An enlarged replication of a single comic book panel, Roy Lichtenstein's Drowning Girl augments the re-presentation of images as parody; we almost laugh at the young woman sinking in water, crying in lament: "I don't care! I'd rather sink – than call Brad for help!" Everything becomes extant, a paltry imitation of itself and ourselves. The Pop artists took nothing seriously and that was their value. For, how can society rebuild itself if its people are reminded of their pain? Art becomes commercial; art fuels the gears of reconstruction.
Campbell's Soup I, Andy Warhol, 1968
Drowning Girl, Roy Lichtenstein, 1963
Whereas before culture was defined as a societal aesthetic, now it had come to be defined as a purchasing endeavor that could be bought, sold, and copyrighted. The ways of the old had died, and in their place was the postmodern dilemma: a metaphor of the past, infinitely feeding upon itself.
We define ourselves by our brands, a recycling of the same, of the same, of the same.
Andy Warhol embodies the most prolific of postmodern values. His story tells of the artist whose work is no longer the art, but that the art is the artist himself. Andy Warhol became the image worth selling, more so than the work itself. Ergo Madonna's music is a bestseller because it is Madonna, Basquiat is priced in the millions because it is Basquiat, and a Steven Spielberg movie sells out because it is a Steven Spielberg movie. The artifact no longer has value. Does it matter? Are we not the imagery of the arts that we have tried vigorously to capture for so many centuries? Are we not the subjects of the greatest poetry, painting, and sculpture since the dawn of humankind? We have made ourselves the idols of our own narcissistic predilection.
The writers of the 20th Century had their own warnings to us concerning this deadlock of being. A device such as metafiction consciously addresses the issue self-reflection of an artifact. An artifact is aware of itself as an artifact, just as we are aware of ourselves as being aware. The mystics call this the infinity within. Philosopher Robert Anton Wilson describes the mental process as meta-programming: ". . . as soon as you think of your mind as mind, and the mind which contemplates that mind as mind and the mind which contemplates mind contemplating mind as mind, you are well on your way to meta-programming awareness."
M.C. Escher's Drawing Hands (one hand drawing the second hand; the second hand drawing the first) brings to mind Hofstadter's strange loop paradox. One may find oneself back where one started in a continual loop of self-reference. Imagine a dog chasing its own tail in circles, but the circles become narrower with each turn. Inside this crux lies the existential realization of absurdity and singularity — the end becomes the beginning and the beginning is the end — all found within our own meandering selves.
Drawing Hands, M.C. Escher, 1948
The serpent swallowing its own tale, cyclicality and the eternal return. We, as representatives of history, are constantly devouring and recreating ourselves. Forever walking the Möbius strip of the human psyche, solace lies in Erwin Shrödinger's work in quantum mechanics: events are not, as we had previous thought, objective. As the Cubists had predicted, subjectivity reigns supreme. Physics has struggled to get out of this strange loop, maddened by the inevitable truth that infinity has no exit.
The camera has come back to haunt us, a foreboding reflection that time is not real and history is fabricated.
In kind, to watch ourselves in our reality television shows, to be entertainment by our own mundane existences, we are exercising a sort of Nataraja dance for which there is no end. Our recreation is expressed by looking at back at ourselves; a mirror within a mirror within a mirror. As Nobel Prize winner in Physics Niels Bohr proposed, the processes we use to define the universe do not actually represent the universe itself. They represent the mental models and operations we use to define the universe; our consciousness. As the yogi is aware of being aware of being aware, so the physicist, and the artist, and we all are forever recreating representations of our selves recreating representations of our selves recreating representations of our selves recreating representations . . . .
Daniel Moler is a writer and Liberal Arts professor in the Kansas City Metropolitan area. Check out his blog, The Daed Thread, at: http://daedalus-3.blogspot.com/