Art in the Early 21st Century


The following is the last of several attempts I made over a year and a half ago to put together my thoughts on how art and culture might change in the coming years and decades as Post-Modernity seems to be losing its effectiveness in describing the complexity of the contemporary world. In the time since then, and even after launching this site last summer, I have simply not felt ready to publish it, most likely because it shows me making a public commitment of sorts, which is something I rarely do because I forever doubt my ability to follow through on anything to my satisfaction. That is most likely the same reason I remain reluctant to discuss my software work, which is something that will never be complete no matter how long I work on it. It’s entirely different from posting episodes from Verity, which I never really intended to finish, so there was no real way for me to fail. But I think I’m on to something here, and I think it’s important, even if I’m wrong in the details, which would be entirely unsurprising. It takes great effort for me to see individual trees within the forest that consumes my attention. But for some reason right now I feel like sharing it, and I suppose I really ought to do so before the feeling passes and I decide to think about it just a little longer, you know, just to make sure it’s really what I want to say.

For a Post-Post-Modern Avant-Garde

Allow me to be blunt: the Post-Modern mindset is thus far the single greatest achievement of human culture, bar none, greater than any scientific or technological advancement, even if there is a feedback mechanism between technology and culture. Post-Modernism and its pluralist perspective gave rise to the civil rights movement, the equal rights movement, and more recently the marriage equality movement. Never before in human history have so many people (and yet still too few) been able to take the viewpoint that a person on the other side of the world who looks different, speaks differently, and behaves differently is nevertheless just as entitled as we are to the same right to live peacefully and to make the most of their life. Such a perspective is immense, and it is a triumph of humankind.

On the other hand, Post-Modernism is at its core little more than an emphatic “No!” to the Enlightenment and Modernist ideals of positivism and humanism which claimed that man is entirely in charge of his own destiny. I use “man” here instead of a gender neutral word because those movements did the same. Post-Modernism was absolutely correct to reject a belief in man’s ultimate self-determination, though it took until after the horrors of Auschwitz, to reference Adorno, for thinkers and philosophers to recognize that it simply could not be the correct answer. However, a significant part of their legacy is little more than that word “No!” — No, mankind is not perfectible; no, you are not entirely your own master; no, there is no ultimate meaning. Not-incorrect or inevitable as it might be, that’s a terrible place to be, that nihilism and uncertainty, and it has gotten to the point where the entire world is reeling on one hand from the apathy that such relativism engenders, on the other hand from the fear, dread, and anger born out of seeing a formerly safe ground of pre-Post-Modern certainty and assuredness crumble away. Nobody enjoys Post-Modernism, despite its profound gifts.

Post-Modernism has only been a legitimate cultural movement, a cultural age even, for some fifty years. That is a ridiculously short period of time as cultural ages go – Modernism itself, the culmination of the project begun by the Renaissance, took five hundred years or more to come about. It seems preposterous to claim that we are already on the cusp of moving beyond Post-Modernism to something else, and yet that is exactly the claim I make, because I am not alone in feeling down to my marrow that something else is on the horizon, or rather, that the direction in which society is going cannot be sustained much longer in its current form. The two observations are merely two views of the same phenomenon.

To rephrase Marshall McLuhan, every cultural age eats itself. It continues along with its core defining mode of action until all of the space in which to take that action has been filled and there is no more room to continue. Then things start to become chaotic and unmeasurable, as per John Boyd, who claimed that the only solution is to find a broader perspective. Ultimately, and again from McLuhan, those same defining actions “overheat” and become their opposite. Post-Modernism’s resounding “No!” to Modernism is a perfect example.

The question, then, is what comes next, what comes after Post-Modernity’s nihilism, relativism, and uncertainty? It should be self-evident that I cannot predict any specifics of how this upcoming transition will play out, but I will assert that there are some general contours that we can expect along the way, for which we must turn to the field of adult cognitive, ego, and moral development, which has grown out of and expanded upon Jean Piaget’s earlier work of identifying and measuring child development up through adulthood.

I have found it interesting that developmental researchers readily make the comparison between the stages of development of individuals and the stages of development of the culture in which those individuals live. Traditionalism and things like the medieval Catholic church correspond to what Robert Kegan calls the “socialized-mind” of the individual, where one’s ties and responsibilities to one’s closed social group or community is of utmost concern. Modernism is the societal representation of the so-called “self-authoring mind”, which name should have a clear relation to the positivism and self-determination of Modernity. Kegan even said something along the lines of “That to which Post-Modernism is ‘post’, is the self-authoring mind itself.”

Cultural observers and philosophers seem not to make the opposite observation, that the phenomena they describe are societal reflections of the mindset of the mass of its constituent individuals. Thinkers such as Marshal McLuhan, John Boyd, Mario Costa, Charles Jencks, James Carse, or even blogger Venkatesh Rao speak at length about topics that have clear ties to human development, and yet never make use of the resources provided by researchers in that area. It is a missed opportunity.

The insight that developmental researchers offer is the following: society as a whole reflects the mass of individuals’ stages of development, perhaps in some sort of Gaussian distribution, so there are and always will be people ahead of the center of mass and other people behind the center of mass. Although there have been eras of collapse and regression, which in fact is part of the process, overall the direction of societal development has been towards an ever broader and expanded perspective, effectively accounting for more of the variation we experience in life. The path taken by society is the same path as taken in the development of the individual, albeit in far greater complexity. Putting this together, we can look at individuals, or at least theories of individuals, who are developmentally “ahead of the curve” (and all of the researchers have data about such people) and then from their behavior, which has already been measured and interpreted, we can attempt to extrapolate to how society at large might behave if enough people within it were to have that same broader perspective.

So then what is a Post-Post-Modern mindset within an individual? Robert Kegan calls the next perspective the “self-transforming mind”, where individuals actively seek new conclusions about who they are and how the world works, and then just as quickly choose to drop those conclusions in order to search out new ones. Over and over. Susanne Cook-Greuter and Bill Torbert describe the so-called “Autonomous” stage of development, where the individual not only begins to see how deeply interconnected we all are, going even beyond the pluralistic belief that everyone has the right not to have someone stand in their way, but then to realize as a consequence that we have new and different responsibilities not only to others, but to ourselves as well. We create this world together, whether we are aware of it or not, and whether we like it or not. As such, my very ability to thrive depends on your ability to thrive, and the reverse is true as well. Such is the basis of James Carse’s so-called “infinite games”. Beyond that, Autonomous people apparently feel a much decreased sense of anxiety about going against societal norms of whatever kind, which is not about consciously flaunting conventions in order to shock and elicit a reaction, but quite simply a recognition that how things are done is entirely arbitrary, and why should the result of that arbitrariness be sacred?

The project we are just now starting of moving beyond Post-Modernism will not be completed within any of our lifetimes, but that’s okay. It was Eric McLuhan who said that we were entering an era as significant as the Renaissance, and that project took centuries to complete. We won’t get to see the end, but what we do get, and this is monumental, we as artists or as what Mario Costa calls esthetic researchers, we get to be there at the beginning, the equivalent maybe of the quattrocento, and if we keep our eyes open, we can watch it unfold. Not only watch it unfold, but be active participants in that unfolding. This is an amazing gift and opportunity. But it does come with a terrible cost, and I mean terrible not only in its strictly negative sense but in its other sense of overwhelming and terrifying grandeur.

The cost is this: moving to a new stage of development, or simply moving to an entirely new perspective within a stage of development, takes an enormous emotional toll upon us. It’s the terrible twos, adolescence, the quarter-life or mid-life crisis. Michael Lamport Commons has extended Piaget’s so-called dialectic of stage change to a multi-step process of first recognizing the failures or short-comings of one’s currently held perspective of the world, going through a period of rejecting that viewpoint and having no firm ground on which to stand, like the nihilism and relativism of Post-Modernism, then through a period of oscillating between competing viewpoints of the same level of complexity, to repeatedly failed attempts to “smash” those alternate viewpoints together, and then only finally to fusing them together in a “non-arbitrary” recombination, thereby creating something entirely new that could not have existed solely through the earlier viewpoints. John Boyd described the exact same phenomenon, albeit in very different terms. It’s never fathomable how the process will turn out, and yet once someone has gone through it and shown others, it seems immediately obvious and intuitively correct to everyone. But it is amazingly difficult work to do.

In order to do that work, we must constantly and consistently and with our eyes wide open choose to dive into that nihilism, uncertainty, and despair as we give up our previous conclusions, and then wade through the neck deep mud of trying to smash together things that don’t want to go together. Over and over. Choosing to do something like that must be a kind of madness, but for one thing, many of us have no choice, and we all do it to some extent already, though I would contend that we do it without knowing why or how we do it. To move forward, we must engage in such behavior consciously. Many of us feel, perhaps have always felt, a burning compulsion to do something, to push society forward in the only way we know how. We can’t choose not to care about that, and that’s why we’re artists. But even more than that compulsion, there is a reward at the end. The feeling of breaking through, of completing that non-arbitrary recombination of previous viewpoints, is a breathtaking and euphoric feeling. That feeling is nothing other than what philosophers mean when they speak of “the sublime”.

This is not intended to be a recitation of theory. The theory is but a foundation for the ultimate purpose of all of this, which is an entirely emotional plea or call to purpose. I believe that what we are doing is a calling, and that there is a profound even if sometimes terrible responsibility to heed that calling. Society needs people to push it forward, and some of those people might be us. But again, the work is hard, and I strongly believe that we need each other to do it. When any of us is in the depths of the nihilist part of the cycle and can’t see a way forward, or is frustrated that nothing seems to be working no matter how many variations we try, and everything seems to end in failure, the rest of us need to be there with a reminder that that’s just the work we do. Feeling that despair and frustration, that’s part of it. We can remind you, and you can remind me that there is a way out, there is a path forward, no matter how difficult it is to see. But it’s not just a group hug. It’s not supportive therapy. It’s the intentionality behind the support that’s key. It’s the recognition that uncertainty and despair are not just things that for some reason seem to go with the territory of art-making, they are in fact core components of the process. It’s the recognition that we need to go through hell over and over, but that heaven always lies just beyond. That is our responsibility first to ourselves, to each other as artists, but then indirectly through that to the rest of society.

My background is technology. I’ve been writing software professionally for almost twenty years and have been interested in computer generated imagery since my father brought home an IBM PC Jr in 1985 and I started making ridiculously simple algorithmic line drawings. People in the software community speak about some of the things I’ve written here, specifically, the idea of accepting failures along the way. Failures are inevitable, they say, but one must “fail fast” in order to minimize the cost. Partially that philosophy misses the point, but even where it’s correct, it is still principally about competition. It’s important to fail fast, and in small ways, but only so that the other guy doesn’t get ahead of you. What they fail to realize is that the stress of competition impedes truly transformative creativity. But that’s the world of software. No matter what any particular individual within that community thinks or feels, the community itself either does not believe in or cannot see the very real emotional toll of nihilism and failure, or else it is not socially acceptable to acknowledge it. I say this ultimately not to disparage, but to contrast: they speak of changing the world, and to an extent they can and do change the world, but we, we in the arts, we have a tool that pure technologists have difficulty using at a cultural level, and that tool is emotion. We thrive on it, we revel in it, even, often, when it is profoundly negative, because we are researchers and explorers of emotion. We can use it consciously as a tool to change the world, and that is exactly what we must do. In a Post-Post-Modern avant-garde, we replace the uncertainty and nihilism of Post-Modernity with the one small certainty that the continual process of discarding and reconfiguring our world-views is the path we must take in order to get where we are going. We all create this world together, and I need you to succeed just as much as you need me to succeed. It is our responsibility not only to continue to make the decision to do that terrible and beautiful work in order to advance society, but to recognize the specific inherent difficulties of doing so, to support each other when it’s hard, and to celebrate together when it’s beautiful, which, perhaps, is always.