Only once we have properly grasped something can we begin to judge it. Likewise, only when we understand something can we know if it is beautiful.
So, beauty can only be found by trying to grasp the things before us, but also, approaching this idea from the opposite direction, we can say that understanding phenomena helps us to preserve the beauty of it.
Understanding is a method for transcending the essential ephemerality of existence.
1. THE AESTHETIC PATH FORWARD FOR HUMAN ADVANCEMENT
The principle reason for the existence of human societies is the need to ensure human survival. Once we can cover our needs for survival, and only once those needs are covered, human beings are allowed to make choices. Freedom, therefore, is conditioned by the obligation of having the problem of survival properly cared for. It is enclosed in spaces of time that are not occupied by the chores required to guarantee our continued existence. These survival-task liberated spaces are commonly called periods of free-time. It is the temporal area in which we are able to apply our faculties of judgement to activities and concerns that have nothing to do with the problems of survival.
Because of this basic dynamic, underlying all complex human societies, the educational programmes of our called civilised communities have to deal initially with teaching survival skills and secondly with the fields of activity emerging in the area of freedom, which is the space of freedom to make judgements, which, in principle, are high-aesthetic judgements, by which we mean judgements that are free from the burdens of survival needs.
In our civilisation, this simple separation between the necessity for survival and freedom from those necessities, has been complicated through the development of economics. By confining our sapiens instincts to the needs of the homo economicus, humanity has been moulded into a being capable of survival in the complex structure of the economic matrix. Within this area dominated by the marketplace, time spaces enveloping survival needs and those other spaces of freedom are no longer clearly defined. Economics has spread necessity out rather than reducing it, and this of course pushes survival needs into the spaces of free time, putting stress on freedom and diminishing the system’s functionality in an anti-civilising way. If civilisation should be geared to reducing our concerns for survival in order to liberate our time for judgement, then we must begin to accept that our current civilisation is not a civilising process at all. The spreading out of necessity occurs through our dependency on money to survive. A dependency that encourages necessity to seep into the area of the superfluous. In fact, the homo economicus is never satisfied with the mere covering of authentic survival needs, he or she needs the superfluity of an ever-expanding survival-need field, and is prepared to sacrifice freedom in order to dedicate themselves to gathering the superfluous, in order to obtain more and more superfluity.
Superfluity closes doors into the area of high-aesthetics judgements and by doing so actually reduces freedom as well by enslaving us to new, superfluous necessities, many of which are falsely imagined to be necessary for survival. This is of course a decadence. The superfluous world is always a decadent one.
To be human (sapiens) is to know that one is. The principle desire of all living things is to keep living, what we call the survival instinct and the first profoundly felt conscious desire of human beings is the first time one is consciously aware that one wants to keep living. A desire and will that is constantly with us, albeit in a subconscious way. Even the choice of eating an ice-cream has a profound, subconscious basis to it, which is incipiently one of judgement and therefore moral: I want to eat something in order to energise my existence or even perhaps survive (my hunger indicates that I must) but if this is so why not eat something that will be enjoyable; if I am going to survive in this world I may as well do it in an enjoyable way, by eating ice-creams for example, although then again, the nutritional value of ice-creams is limited, whilst the sugars and fats in an ice-cream could depreciate my health, so perhaps I should eat something else … Through this example of ice-cream eating we can see how judgement is embedded into our world of desire. We are no longer subject to the necessity of survival alone – although the ice-cream carries a vestige of survival it transcends it. Ice-cream exists not for survival but for pleasure, and so it is basically an aesthetic decision that we are making when we desire it, complicated in an aesthetic way by the decision we need to make when we choose the flavour. So, beyond the necessity for survival we immediately enter the terrain of freedom and of aesthetics. Yes, what we are asserting here is strange: no-one, surely, could seriously consider ice-cream eating an aesthetic act, and yet, really we can see no reason why it should not be.
There is certainly a great difference between Van Gogh’s decision for the colours and brush strokes applied to his Starry Night and the decision someone makes as to the topping given to their vanilla ice. A difference that resides primarily in the purpose of the result embedded in the decision, and secondly in the permanence contrasted with the ephemerality of the outcome in accord with that result.
For example, the purpose of the decisions related to ice-cream eating are related to the pleasure of the senses (primarily taste) in what will essentially be an ephemeral event. Ice-cream eating is like watching theatre, the pleasure and the beauty of it reside in the moment of its consumption (and, if it is good, in the desire for that moment to endure). Memories will linger and more ice-creams will probably be enjoyed later on, each recollection competing with an ideal reconstruction of something which is considered the best of all the ice-creams ever consumed.
For the artisan creating the ices, the ephemerality is a bonus. His or her purpose is to sell as many ice-creams as possible and his or her skill is to create a positive memory and through this a desire to repeat the experience in the minds of those who try one of these works of art.
Yes, the ice-cream is a work of art, but the purpose behind it is the profit obtained by selling as many examples as possible. It is art in the world of the homo economicus whose basic purpose is accumulation of wealth. The process strives for a permanence, but a permanence (wealth) gained through replication (commercialisation). To be successful, each batch of strawberry ice-cream must taste like the previous one. Of course, the art of ice-cream making is vastly different to what Van Gogh was doing.
Van Gogh painted in the realm of beauty, to produce that which defies the ephemerality of the experience of its discovery. In other words, he wanted to make paintings that people would want to be preserved and made available for all to see, forever. The art of Van Gogh is the art of creating an original singularity which demands to remain throughout time. The Starry Night can be copied, but it is not the same when it is, and the informed spectator knows this and will yearn to experience the beauty of the original.
This art is hugely different to ice-cream making. Its purpose lies in perfecting an original masterpiece that demands permanence. It is anti-replication. However, despite the difference in value between the Starry Night painting and ice-cream, let us not presume to say that one is more valuable than the other. The loss of ice-cream or the loss of the Starry Night would be equally disappointing for humanity. The homo economicus could make a calculation and show us that more money has been made from the selling ice-creams than from all of the auction sales of all of Van Goch’s paintings, and conclude from this that ice-creams are more valuable, whilst art lovers would demand the originality and impossible repeatability of Van Gogh’s opus elevates his art’s value far beyond that of any ice-cream, but again, let us stress the idea that the loss of either would be a tremendous disappointment and always a sad loss for humanity itself. Humanity is the sum of what it has created and managed to preserve.
However, in order to understand the real, abysmal difference between making ice-cream and the works of Van Gogh, we need to return to our original premises that: (a) artistic choices are judgements; (b) artistic choices are a demonstration of freedom; and, add a new element (c) judgements are formed through questioning.
From the latter, we can easily find the difference between manufacturing ice-cream and painting Starry Night, we merely have to ask ourselves: What questions are being asked here? Once we do, we find that we have to ask quite different ones. The questions involved in ice-cream making are centred around what pleases the senses?, whilst the questions that Van Gogh was asking were metaphysical and existential ones as Starry Night was painted during a crisis period when Van Gogh was suffering from hallucinations with acute depression and suicidal thoughts. Ice-cream needs to please us, but it will not actually change us (except perhaps to make us fat). On the other hand, Van Gogh was examining who we are and what our relationship with the universe is, and the answers to that kind of questioning can change us – they can even improve us.
Through these examples we have found two vastly different purposes for aesthetic judgements: (i) to please the senses, and (ii) to change and improve us by enquiring into our existential nature. The first has no pretensions of changing or improving us, only rather to make our experiences of the world more pleasurable. It is the kind of aesthetics that can be most profitable for business ventures and its creations are usually elaborated with the idea of a massive replication aimed at enormous sales and profits. The art of ice-cream making is profoundly commercial and aesthetically pornographic. It is a form of aesthetic prostitution.
Van Gogh’s kind of questioning, however, hardly ever brings great profit for its creator (but then again, that was never that artist’s intention). The work involved is centred around creating original works. It does not forbid replication (in literature, for example, replication of the original is a normal and desired result), but its replication is never the main purpose behind the creation as it is in ice-cream making. If it is involved in the sensual realm, it will be erotic rather than pornographic. It abhors prostitution.
That which pleases the senses is far more successful than that which strives to change and improve us. This is due to the replicating nature of sensually pleasurable objects, and also because immediate, ephemeral pleasure is far easier to produce and its creations are more visible and perceivable than anything designed with the intention of durable satisfaction or long-term improvements. Likewise, the will to luxuriate is one of humanity’s strongest drives, and this, mixed with the capitalist system of consumerism and conservative political ideologies that concentrate on the day-to-day experience of life rather than a progressive view of the future, traps society in the present continuous moment where the ephemeral can thrive.
Our activities are heavily constrained by social issues as well as the grip that economic power has on those same factors. The societies we are born into are already stringently organised and individuals have to learn how to interpret the flow of those societies in order to be able to navigate themselves through the tricky currents of their waters. There is a public interpretation of reality that must be accepted by the individual in order to fit in. This interpretation is nearly always conservative and any artist who tries to see beyond the mask of our public-opinion created reality is rare, while the one who is actually able to step outside and truly see ways of changing and improving our reality is much rarer still.
Our social interactions only seem possible whilst they remain superficial and this is made possible through the profusion of small talk, which is the normal way of communicating. Small talk is in fact a release, a way of interacting with others and touching on topics without ever really developing our understanding of what we are dealing with, which means that small talk protects us against the need to ever practice the most human of all our skills: our ability to know.
It is as if we are ashamed of our most original organ and the Judaic myth of the expulsion from Paradise could be seen as a justification of this otherwise seemingly inexplicable shame. Original sin lies in the act of eating from the Tree of Knowledge, which symbolically represents the human brain: “From there thou must not eat!” It is as if God gave Adam and Eve a magnificent mind and then said: “Thou must not use this mind.” To make it honest there should be a verse in Genesis that says: “And when they had eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge Adam and Eve felt great shame every time they had an original thought. And God gave them Small Talk to hide their shame.”
Our language is so confined by social factors and constrained by our fear of sounding too profound that it forces us to make banal conversation, full of generalisations and untruths, and by doing so, pulling us away from the essence of ourselves as human beings, as homo sapiens sapiens, the species that knows.
Most people will want a good life and, whilst the definition will be subjectively formed creating millions of interpretations, this idea of good could be generally interpreted as meaning a comfortable life, or at least one lacking in too many uncomfortable experiences. Of course, these concepts of good and comfortable are totally conditioned by relativity and their semantic inflections will change in each person’s lifetime according to the opportunities offered them, but in general it is a conservative outlook based on making the best of what is available for reproduction rather than making what can be available better and the better things that could be possible a concrete reality. To achieve the latter requires changing what is in order to produce what will be, while the former adapts to the present continuous. Only when what is seems bad or wrong, or lacking, or dangerous, will a large part of society be inspired to change it for something better. But in the rare moments when that does occur, the small talk also changes and becomes deeper, deepened by indignation and a desire for improvement.
Heidegger said that conversation was “participating in the revealing”. Through conversation we reveal what we know and discover things that others know. Even small talk participates in this revealing process. Conversation therefore has the potential to either reinforce reality or change and improve it, or make it worse. What we talk about is an aesthetic question, or a question of judgement. It can replicate what it is or change it. It can support what is, or condemn it. It can be a motor for support, or one of demolition.
Kant’s main work on aesthetics is The Critique of Judgement, which is basically about aesthetics and purposefulness and we think that Nietzsche would have had to have had Kant’s associations somewhere in his mind when using the term in Beyond Good and Evil, after all the bracketed note he makes defining the falsest judgements as that to which synthetic judgements a priori belong, is using purely Kantian terminology.
Kant’s book begins with a Critique of Aesthetic Judgement and an analysis of beauty. Kant argues that it is important to understand that something is beautiful only because we judge it to be so and that it cannot be beautiful until that judgement is made, and this is the basic idea that Nietzsche is leafing through in The Will to Power when he argues that, despite the idea that the world astounds us, we basically ignore the fact that there is nothing awesome at all in the world except that which we ourselves infuse it with. Kant attributed four distinguishing features to aesthetic judgements: subjectivity (that the beauty and ugliness we find in the world is disinterested and therefore its appreciation depends on our subjective interpretations); universality; necessity; and purposiveness. Now what Nietzsche does in his own critique of religion, is stress the subjectivity without completely falling into the traps of Berkeleyan idealism, as seen when he ironically makes his hero Zarathustra cry out to the sun: “Great star! What would your happiness be, if you had not those for whom you shine!”[i] The great star, the sun, exists, but its meaning can only come through the meaning granted it by the sapiens observer, and this is what Kant was saying. The sun is only happy because we, or someone, perceives it that way, and, on a larger, metaphysical scale, this means that the Universe is given meaning through being perceived and being analysed judgementally. Or, in other words, the meaningfulness of the Universe is an aesthetic, judgemental construct that we are playing an active role in – and it is this awesome idea, not the idea of God, that needs to inspire humanity if we are ever able to overcome our indifference and incredulity towards human advancement in the world.
(CONTINUED IN PART THREE
[i] Friedrich Nietzsche, THUS SPOKE ZARATHUSTRA, Prologue, Section 1
In his Critique of Religion in The Will to Power, Nietzsche begins with an original insight into the psychological nature of aesthetics (the beauty and sublimitybestowed upon real and imaginary things), calling it our fairest apology[i], and insinuating that through our admiration and worship of things we are actually humbling ourselves as we do not want to admit to ourselves that the world is as it is because we alone have created it to be that way. The idea he expounds here is a kind of Berkeleyan (albeit atheistic), subjective idealism, that the world is the creation of the (human) perceiver, and that it does not take a meaningful shape until the perceiver begins to understand and define what is perceived. But Nietzsche’s original twist to this old idea is that the awesome power granted by the realisation of this concept is, in fact, paradoxically, an ultimately debilitating force. As Nietzsche says: “it raises in him (humanity) a doubt about his own person: he does not dare to think himself the cause of this astonishing feeling – and so he posits a stronger person, a divinity, to account for it.”[ii]Or, in other words, Nietzsche argues that because we cannot cope with the responsibility of our power as creators, we need to invent the idea of God as a greater than human power in the Universe. In this way, the God we make can bear the brunt of the responsibility of creation, while we humans get on with leading the irresponsible kind of life we enjoy the most.
Now, although Nietzsche never actually uses the term aesthetics in these passages, the beauty and sublimitybestowed upon real and imaginary things should almost certainly be considered a simple definition of an aesthetic process, and so the association being made here is between aesthetics and religion, and that is another great Nietzschean insight. While he makes his proposal in order to simply critique humanity and religion, we have found a much deeper insight buried here. Nietzsche is describing a psychological attitude which not only colours our attitude to religion, it also effects the question of our capacity for freedom and, because of that, inhibits our ability to make true moral and social progress in the world.
If Nietzsche was right, embedded in the development of both religions and aesthetics lies an enormous irresponsibility – the denial of ourselves as supreme creators. This denial exposes a human immaturity, a fear of accepting the responsibility of the awesome nature of what we are, and a nihilistic pessimism that negates any attempts to develop our human potential to its fullest. Likewise, it is the fundamental reason behind the domination of classes: by creating a mythical idea that we are subjugated to the will of the gods or God it opens the doors to the possibility for one section of the tribe, state, empire to dominate the rest of us by taking control of that subjection and exploiting it.
This process is quite easy to discern when we compare the development of the priestly-caste and witchdoctors into the mammoth monotheistic church congregations we have today alongside the evolution of Wealth and the great class-divide between rich and poor, but while this exploitation of the human fear of our awesome creativity is easy enough to find in the history of religions, what does it tell us about the history of aesthetics and, ultimately, about what aesthetics potentially means. While in these passages, Nietzsche is merely pointing to the fact that both the religious and aesthetic sense of awe originate in the same negation of human responsibility, by doing this he opens up a can of philosophical worms that reverberate back through his earlier writings on aesthetics, creating a seemingly contradictory dialectic within his own arguments … but then, being seemingly contradictory is a typically Nietzschean trait; it is what makes his writings so interesting and awesome.
To unravel this contradiction, let us start with section 4 of Beyond Good and Evil. In that passage he discusses the virtues of false judgements: “The falseness of a judgement is to us not necessarily an objection to a judgement … The question is to what extent it is life-advancing, life-preserving, species-preserving … the falsest judgements (to which synthetic judgements a priori belong) are the most indispensable to us, that without granting as true the fictions of logic, without measuring reality against the purely invented world of the unconditional and self-identical, without a continual falsification of the world by means of numbers, mankind could not live – that to renounce false judgements would be to renounce life, would be to deny life.”[iii] From this fragment of his earlier writing, his earlier thinking seems to be a complete antithesis of what he states later: if by judgement he is talking about aesthetics and religion (don’t worry, this link between judgement and aesthetics will be explained in due course) , instead of seeing a tragic human irresponsibility, he sees it as the most indispensable trait for humanity’s survival.
For those who know Nietzsche this contradiction probably comes as no surprise, he was antithetical to philosophical systems and his thoughts are mainly expressed in aphoristic or short-essay-long snippets which mitigate cohesion, but why are we presuming there is any relationship between the Critique of Religion from the Will to Power and passage 4 of Beyond Good and Evil at all?
If we look at the final part of passage 4 the idea seems even less plausible. The section continues with: “To recognise untruth as a condition of life: that, to be sure, means to resist customary value-sentiments in a dangerous fashion; and a philosophy which ventures to do so places itself, by that fact alone, beyond good and evil.”[iv]
This seemingly quirky idea of the indispensability of false judgements is suddenly exalted by championing the title of the entire book; insinuating that the central idea around this collection of essays is the motivation for a new philosophical thinking that can embrace untruth and by doing so create the kind of thought that can transcend the concepts of good and evil.
However, the subtle ironies that this passage is full of become clearer when seen in light of the seemingly contradictory passage from The Will to Power: the untruth of Beyond Good and Evil is the falsity of the conventional truths created by religion and aesthetics to “conceal from himself (humanity) that it was he who created what he admired.” In this way it becomes clear that the untruth is the revealing of an older truth long hidden by the human failure to embrace our own awesome capacities.
Seen from our 21st century perspective, Nietzsche’s thoughts take another twist. The nihilism that Nietzsche had resolved himself to as a negative but necessary state that had be endured before any revolution of the Overman (Übermensch) could come about, has now become entrenched in our global civilisation with tremendously negative consequences for any harmonious development of humanity. Instead of paving the way for the Overman, the nihilist century behind us has inspired an upsurge in religious fanaticisms and evangelical crusades that threaten to become a new dominant power in the chaotic condition of this budding century. In fact, what we are witnessing now is a tendency to reverse the process of false judgements that Nietzsche envisaged. An irony over Nietzsche’s own ironies in which religions use their lies to reinstate the old untruth, injecting it into the gaping vacuum opened by the unbearable relativity of the everything-is-nothing truth of the nihilistic world. In 2020, the recognition of untruth as a way of life is now the normal state of things, but there is no positive transcendence beyond good and evil here. By embracing lies as a way of life we have thrown civilisation into an existence-threatening, barbaric state.
But the irony of this situation does not stop there: Nietzsche was right, the only way forward for humanity is its awakening into the realisation that we truly are the great bestowers of judgement on reality and that the Universe is meaningful because we are able to give it that meaning; that it is time for humanity to stop apologising for itself and be itself; but that this step forward is impeded by the nihilistic civilisation that Nietzsche himself has been an integral part of creating.
The question now is: Can the awakening allowing a great revaluation of purpose still take place and save humanity from itself? But first we have to deal with another query: What does any of this have to do with aesthetics? To answer that we need to look back to an older pre-Nietzschean philosophy and sift Nietzsche’s concepts through the sieve of Kant.
(But that will be dealt with in Part Two …)
[i] Friedrich Nietzsche, THE WILL TO POWER, Ed. Kaufmann, Vintage, New York, 1968, p. 85
Ugliness shares the element of discovery with beauty, but opposes it in the sense that it is that which cannot bear to be discovered, or that its discovery is an unbearable experience. Art can therefore use ugliness to amplify the impact of discovery – the feeling of rejection for something is more powerful and obvious than an attraction.
We want ugliness to be an ephemeral discovery and the prolongation of ugliness can have interesting psychological effects on the beholder that artists can manipulate and exploit. Likewise, as we saw with beauty, the impact of discovery is a waning phenomena and a lengthy exposure to ugliness begins to render it more bearable. To create horror, for example, the discovery of the monster must be as fleeting as possible. The more we are exposed to the beast, the more the discovery melts into a normality, taming the beastliness, and, if the artist wants to, the initial terror can be rendered even desirable. Perhaps the most classic example of this is the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, especially Jean Cocteau’s magnificent film version of that tale.
What is beauty? We’ve seen beautiful landscapes, have met beautiful people, and have experienced the awe of standing before a beautiful art object, but what do these examples of beauty have in common? Or is beauty an illusion? From an objective standpoint this can easily be argued, for beauty (and ugliness) are subjective judgements, opinions. Beauty is bestowed by us on the objects or forms that we perceive and so to say what beauty is we have to look at the nature of the judgements being made whenever we apply the term beautiful to anything.
Beauty possesses a positive value, and it is something worthy of being discovered or experienced, but it is through its association with discovery that we find beauty’s apparent weakness for, after the initial impact of discovery wanes, so does the beauty. Nevertheless, it is this flaw that provides us with a possible definition of beauty: Beauty is an awesome discovery, the impact of which begins to dissolve upon making that same discovery.
Nevertheless, the awesomeness of the discovery of beauty defies the ephemerality of the experience of its own nature. Beauty is a discovery that wants to be prolonged, although it itself is incapable of such a prolongation, it needs a psychological and emotional effort to preserve it through feelings like nostalgia and love, or the practical effort of preservation that comes through the process of art. The creation of beauty through art, therefore, is concerned with prolonging the impact of discovery. Through love and art, beauty challenges the ephemeral, as if it has a longing for permanence. Whether or not the romantic, the existentialist, or the classical theory applies, once the artist takes beauty into consideration during the process of creation, he or she is wrestling with the struggle between permanence and ephemerality.
BEAUTY AND ART
Is beauty an essential ingredient in art? When artists reject beauty, what they are doing is rejecting the idea of whether or not their work should be considered worthy of discovery. For such an artist this question is irrelevant as they are looking for something in the work that transcends the importance of its discovery. The aim of such a work is not to be exhibited or published, and its worth might lie quite simply in the process of the elaboration. Artists can, have, and do ignore beauty. It is not essential to art. Nevertheless, art and beauty are tied together in the fact that both of them are things worthy of being discovered or experienced. The work of art can be given the same definition we gave to beauty, but its relationship with discovery may not be the same as beauty’s.
Art can revoke the need for permanence and reinforce itself in the uniqueness of the moment of discovery. This can be seen in live theatrical performance, because the experience of seeing a piece of theatre is empowered by the fact that it can never be exactly repeated. Each night on the stage is a unique, unrepeatable experience. Theatre is as much a dialogue between the actors and the audience as it is a dialogue between the protagonists and antagonists of the drama themselves. Likewise, despite the efforts to preserve theatrical productions by videoing them, the filmed-theatre is never the same kind of discovery as the theatrical experience itself. Theatre is ephemeral art par excellence.
And because of the nature of beauty, ephemeral art could also be seen as that most faithful reflection of beauty’s character, which is that once it has been discovered its impact has already started to wane. In this way we find that the ephemeral art of performance has a direct link to emotions of loss like melancholy and nostalgia.
The essence of the post-pandemic debate is that between necessity and possibility. What do we need to preserve and perfect, and what do we need to throw away in order to open space for the possible Utopia to evolve?
Postpandemic thinking is ‘anti-systemic’ because it sees through the lies of the system and the way the system restrains real progress whilst spreading deeply harmful and destructive ideologies and modes of living.
With the confinements ordered by governments as health-security measures during the 2020 pandemic, many artists have found their forced isolation to be more of a welcome discipline than a restriction.
Discipline leads to inspiration in all creative fields, and when the discipline comes with no other stipulations other than one has to stay at home, then the scenario is perfect for the artist. The experience of pandemic confinement is the first conditioning factor for post-pandemic art. Post-pandemic production, therefore, is nurtured on the artistic values of discipline, frugality, and an autocratic or self-sufficient approach to the art form.
The postpandemic artist comes from the confinement of the lockdown.
The revelatory importance of the pandemic resides in the fact that it managed to put the entire global system on hold for several months. Post-pandemic thinking, therefore, takes this revelation as the basis for its creative inspiration. The post pandemic artist sees through the illusion of reality that says this is how the world is, in order to envision far greater possibilities of how the world could be. In many cases, the solitude of confinement has forced humanity to think about how a better future could be fashioned, and for this reason, the post-pandemic reality is forward-looking and utopian. It understands the fragility of the system and wills to change it.
The pandemic experience was one of limited consumerism and, consequently, post-pandemic art transcends all commercialism.
Aesthetically, the form is unimportant and the essence of postpandemic art is the content, which is always forward-looking, utopian seeking, anti-consumerist and deeply critical of the pre-pandemic world we are emerging from. Postpandemic art strives for depth and is cerebral in nature and because of that it rejects shallowness and cheap sentimentalism which are questions of content not form.
Subsequently, postpandemic art can adopt any form as long as its content is postpandemic.
If the dawning post-pandemic era is not going to fall into the constraining negativism and wall-building, anti-human authoritarianism of the far-right, and for the future to be a positive step forward from the disaster of the global affliction, it is necessary that we comprehend the real nature of the system we are emerging from. Dismantling the Paradigm was contrived before Covid, but it has become even more imperative that it finds readers in order to imagine the world coming next.
Dismantling the Paradigm is now available from the Amazon online store:
In his book of essays, The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera discusses the death of that particular art form. Such a death, he argues, is brought about when the novel removes itself from history, as in the literature of the Soviet Union where novels could only confirm the official line of things and by doing so remain entrenched in the status quo. For Kundera, therefore, the spirit of the novel depends upon its historical position, a place that allows it to reveal the human condition to us from beneath the mind-numbing effects of the actual. Novels are, Kundera says, “part of a process which is the conquest of being,” participating in a “succession of discoveries” that are related to the historical process itself.
The idea of the historical process as a succession of discoveries that unfold and enrich humanity, is a humanistic perspective, and literature, and the novel, are without a doubt art forms driven by humanity-enriching purposes. Nevertheless, in our own analyses of the historical process, we have seen that history has never been a humanity-enriching progression. In fact, what we have discovered is that historical evolution has taken humanity further and further away from itself into the segregating tribalism of the national state or religious sects. History has been a process of dividing humanity instead of developing its potentials through unity. For this reason, we talk about the anti-human historical process – but if history is anti-human, what does that tell us about the novel’s role in that development? And, if we agree that our historical process needs to be redesigned in order to eliminate its anti-humanism and make it authentically human for once, what should the novel’s role in that revolution be?
In the first place, however, Kundera’s perception of the nexus between the novel and the historical process is a limited one. He is right to point out the way the novel’s evolution has reflected social changes, but he is mistaken in seeing that reflection as the means itself when the real nexus is the analysis of what it sees, and, through that analysis, its power of being critical.
What dictatorial censorship, like the Soviet one, must do is castrate the novel by chopping out its ability to criticise. Made impotent in its critical faculty, the novel is thereby rendered useless. Kundera’s argument, therefore, is that chopping in any form, even by well-intentioned capitalist editors, is potentially deadly for the novel itself. But a very dangerous question arises here: Is criticism only possible, therefore, because the anti-human historical process is so humanly flawed?
If this is so, then we have to ask ourselves if a truly-human process of progressive history would eliminate the need for criticism, which in turn would create a debilitating process for the mind akin to those created by dictatorship?
Or, in other words: Is the novel important to us only because the System (civilisation) we are immersed in is so defective?
We believe that Kundera, from his experience with Stalinism, would agree that it would. However, beginning an authentic-human historical process is not the same as completing the historical process, which was the purpose of communism.
By understanding the creative forces of humanity in a positive, universal way, guided by art, science and technology rather than ideology and religion, would be far more transformative than the evolutions and incomplete revolutions that have so far been produced by any anti-historical processes we have.
Rather than dying, the novel would be in the front line of this pro-humanity transformation: both as an analyser and a critique of the new process. The novel, therefore, will not die with authentic-human history, rather its current moribund prestige will be rekindled and rejuvenated as wider appreciation will be made of its essential role in human (Sapiens) evolution.
Kundera admits in his book that the novel itself could have had a different history. He points to the different callings that the novel makes: The call to play (Tristan Shandy and Jacques the Fatalist); the call to dream (Kafka); the call to think (Musil and Broch); the call of time (Proust). There are other calls: the call to freedom (Joyce’s Ulysses); the call for justice (Zola, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy).
But the novel, like humanity has been more fettered than liberated by the anti-human historical process and our novelists now need to imagine new callings that can transcend the anti-human and embrace the calling toward an authentic Sapiens humanity. Yes, an evolution toward human authenticism, centring history as a process of human-progress, would imagine more callings as the abstract and conditional perspectives of individuals are opened up. One of the major victories that humanity would gain through an authentic-human historical evolution would be the liberation of minds beyond the actual and into the abstract and conditional realms of the potential.
Where Kundera is most definitely right and acute in his book, is when he speaks of the Spirit of the Novel, and that Spirit needs to be analysed and continually vindicated in opposition to the spirit of the market-place or the spirit of selling books. Novels are meant to be written, published and read: and this implies distribution and/or accessibility, but it does not imply sales. A novel’s success has to be measured by how much pleasure it has produced by doing what novels do best, which is … to stimulate the mind. But even here we need to be careful of over-simplifying success: A novel that can stimulate the minds of millions might be considered more successful than another which only managed to reach a handful of readers, but the quantitative degree of that success is no real reflection of the qualitative importance of the two books. A book that is never read may be qualitatively far superior than another that is consumed by billions. We see here the importance of accessibility and distribution: a great, human civilisation would be geared towards ensuring the accessibility of quality. An authentically human ethics would have to always prioritise the production of quality above quantity in art.
Kundera says that “the spirit of the novel is the spirit of complexity,” a spirit which is also antithetical to the reductionist spirit of the market-place and its demands for simplicity.
Harold Skimpole is a character from Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House”. He is described as being innocent, like a child who knows nothing of time or money.
From this description we could conclude that Dickens is saying that time and money have eaten up our innocence. Dickens was writing at a time when the Industrial Revolution was pushing capitalism to its full potential and carving a new world-order designed to produce unlimited wealth on the one hand, and abject poverty on the other. A revolution that has endured centuries and continues to steam-roller forward through our own innocence-starved lives. But now, the concept of time-and-money has taken away far more than just our innocence: it has robbed us of our freedom, and, most especially, of our humanity.
In Bleak House, Skimpole has the airs of an artist: an amateur artist; a pure artist. Art, in its pure form, is always a gift – and we can see an association between the pure artist and innocence, because anyone who gives freely must be either innocent or mad. And yes, there is also an association between innocence, the simpleton, and madness. But art, as a gift, is the antithesis of capitalist ideology, because a gift is, in its essence, outside the economy and beyond the realms of time and money.
An authentically human system cannot ignore true art, and a truly human economy would have to understand the incompatibility between art (that which must be given) and the false-necessities created by the ubiquitous presence of money. A truly human economy, therefore, should be designed in a way that allows art to be created in a space beyond time and money, or, in other words, outside the money system itself.
The existence of art has to challenge the ubiquitous nature of the money system.
When Skimpole says: “… go after glory, holiness, commerce, trade, any object you prefer; only – let Harold Skimpole live!” in effect Dickens is saying that the capitalists can build society anyway they want. However, the world they are building stifles Skimpole, and if Skimpole is a symbol of the artist, then Dickens is saying that the time-and-money system is choking art.
But Skimpole is a survivor, who has still not been swallowed up by the System. Somehow he manages to maintain his autonomy, perhaps because “he still had claims too, which were the general business of the community and must not be slighted,” or because he is anti-materialistic himself: “I covet nothing”; or because: “I feel as if you ought to be grateful to me for giving you the opportunity of engaging the luxury of generosity. I know you like it … I may have come into the world expressly for the purpose of increasing your stock of happiness.” Forget your worldliness and play with me, he says, which is what any pure artist would say as well.
Art is the gift of escape, but it is also the gift of progress-through-creativity, and because of that it is not only a gift it is a fundamental feature of humanity whose essence is to become through a continual process of becoming. Only through art can humanity ever really conceive itself to be progressing freely. Art is an essential ingredient in any definition of freedom. And, as Skimpole asserts: “the base word money should never be breathed near it!”
Skimpole can only exist in the time-and-money system by being a charlatan, and as a charlatan he is unscrupulous at ensuring his survival. But Dickens is also blaming the system for Skimpole’s unscrupulousness. Skimpole has no choice, just as art or any artist has no choice. In order to survive in this world, everyone needs money, artist or not. Skimpole uses his charms to maintain his independence from the System, but the System is still there and he is still inside it. He is an impossible man, but in his absurdity resides something that the world that makes him absurd also needs: His creativity.
In the eyes of capitalism, Skimpole is a parasite, just as all artists are who cannot justify themselves in the world of the free market are parasites. But let us remember that some parasites achieve greatness as well: those who, doomed to be amateur nobodies in their poverty-stricken lives, became superstars after their death. A most poignant example is Van Gogh, whose work now brings in millions and yet he never sold a painting in his life. Likewise, Dostoevsky was a struggling unfortunate; as was Beckett.
Art in the civilised world now seems to be the heading the same way as the nomad. There is no space for the real artist in the free-money-market world. And, like any nomadic society, the artist will be forced to eventually conform to the system or perish.
Of course, the irony of this, is that art is one of the defining features in the identity of the civilised world against the barbarian. By reducing the artist to the level of the parasite, civilisation reveals a triumph of barbarism within its own walls. It has its pinacothecas and museums, but these only display its own hypocritical attitude toward the artist, who, like Skimpole, is only a parasite until proven otherwise.
The Universe is creative, capable of engendering novelty and incredible complexity as well as beautiful simplicity and harmony. In fact, when we examine the cosmos it is easy to make an analogy of its mechanics with the creative process of art: there is trial and error, perhaps even deliberation and accidental inspiration; there are moments when it destroys its own work, rubs it out and starts again; new options can emerge and it will follow them.
All art is in the Universe, and the Universe is in all art. It starts off as a Jackson Pollock and evolves into Da Vinci and then goes back to Pollock.
To be a good cosmologist, one has to study the aesthetics of the Universe.