Is There a Crisis in Our Culture?
By John Marcucci
From time to time we have offered Artist-in-Residence programs for three months during the summer. This year we have decided to forego the customary exhibition schedule to have instead an Artist-in-Residence reflect on the future. Although I will assume that role, I encourage everyone to participate with her or his own expressions, which will be posted on the Haley-Henman website. Please send your words or images to firstname.lastname@example.org. With much gratitude I thank Anne Marie Evans for her thoughtful editorial assistance. Also, I appreciated the comments by David DeSalvo, Madeleine Terry, Henry Biber, and Midge Lynn.
As we ponder the many situations that influence our understanding of the future, the concepts of culture and art will be paramount for our orientation. I define culture as a way of life. It includes everything we make, think, and dream about. Culture is cognizant by overt behavior, but it is also tacit, meaning a way of living that is so engrained to make it invisible in our daily life, such as a habit that makes our life safe, secure and comfortable. It is something we do not question, “It is the way we always do it”.
One way of understanding culture, our own and others, is Art; be it song, dance, music, storytelling, poetry, plays, painting, drawing, pottery, sculpture, architecture, and other forms of material culture, such as weaving, and body art—those traditional forms dating back to around 500,000 BCE or earlier. Today, our contemporary visual art expressions include digital, video, film, photography, performance and installation. We humans have expressed ourselves through art—in a way that we might accept it as an intrinsic part of being human, either in the role of artist, or as a participant viewer. It is a universal human experience. Jules Simon citing Rosenzweig in “Art and Responsibility” (2011:51) tells of the importance of artists as having the ability to establish the beginning of human language, which created primordial revelations reflected in our historical and contemporary art expressions. The art experience is indeed this relationship between one human to another. As Martin Heidegger in the “Origin of the Work of Art”, calls Art “a community’s shared understanding”.
In the dynamics of rapid change, is this relationship threatened? Is there a crisis in our culture? Adorno writing in 1970 says, “It is now taken for granted that nothing which concerns art can be taken for granted anymore: neither art itself, nor art in relation to the whole, nor even the right of art to exist” (in, Lyotard, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
In terms of Early Modern (1500-1800) visual art, prior to the nineteenth century, the patronage of religious and political institutions created a community’s shared understanding. These master artworks still captivate the attention of art viewers, but we might question what is the shared understanding. Does this traditional artwork pertain to a community as it was at the time of its creation, or is it on the tourist list of “must sees”, for example; Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”?
We might postulate an assumption that modern and postmodern art has not established a community’s shared understanding, except from elite communities with educational benefits in how to appreciate art in its many manifestations. In European cultural traditions of painting the break with the past started with the Impressionists who were scorned and mocked during their early exhibitions. From the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, the modern era of the Enlightenment, there was an explosion of different styles and expressions, such as abstract art, reflecting the changing world due to technological and scientific revolutions, particularly the mechanized technologies with concomitant psychological effects (Edward Munch, “The Scream”, 1893).
As artworks advanced into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the connections to communities and shared understandings might only exist as “marketing bravado” about the attendance records and not truly reflect the meaning viewers give to their experience of an artwork. Numerous studies note that eight seconds is the most time spent when people view art in museums and galleries (see, Arden Reed, “Slow Art: The Experience of Looking, Sacred Images to James Terrell”, 2017). The Tate Modern has instituted “Slow Art Day” (April 6, 2019) as an initiative to extend viewing time to ten minutes for one piece of art. Thus, when a viewer passes by an artwork in eight seconds or less, there is very little opportunity to process meaning. Such viewing does elicit judgments: I like it, or I don’t like it——deduced within seconds!
Some argue contemporary art acknowledges the cultures of the world as a dynamic structure viewed not as separate entities but in terms of global culture, not as regional ones. Globalization is a significant change that is altering our relationship to art as demonstrated by international art fairs and auction houses and their commodification of art as investment. With this comes a breakdown in the experience of a “community’s shared understanding”. Has the shared understanding been shattered and broken in a skeptical world of “how long did it take the artist to make it”, and its investment value.
The apparent contradiction of record-breaking prices for an artwork and the simultaneous devaluation of art among those who express the sentiment that the next generation will be worse off than the last, contributes to the increasing disconnection. To counteract this condition, museums, and art fairs, and wealthy artists themselves are presenting art as spectacle, transcending the ordinary in terms of scale and experience. Many of these works are for a limited time only. There might be a momentary period of excitement, but overall it is like the champagne that flows on opening night—eventually, it fizzles out. It is not sustained.
The sustainability of the relationship of art being a universal cultural construct in human culture—an increasingly global community’s shared understanding— is at the crux of my argument. We are experiencing rapid change in many arenas of life. The Anthropocene, our current geological period influenced by human activity, marks the period of technology that has altered the ecological balance of all life, with rapid extinctions occurring at an alarming rate. Robert Watson warns us “The health of ecosystems on which we and other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever…we are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life world wide…with rampant consumption and pollution the primary drivers behind nature’s decline” (UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services, IPBES, May 6, 2019).
Technological conditions put pressure on the consumption of resources, the most prominent being oil and gas, petrochemicals, the fuel of world economies. The control of this resource gives rise to economic and political conflicts resulting in war with its attendant displacement of people. The diaspora of peoples and their cultures increases the diversity and complexity of political states. The displacement is on different socio-economic levels, or class structures. The large empire economies (they who win the wars) accept migrants and investments from the displaced wealthy classes. Many of the lower classes are internally and externally displaced into detention centers, refugee camps or enter resettlement programs where they live in guarded camps for many years without any hope of a future beyond their current status.
The current sixty million refugees are putting pressure on many societies to financially feed them, etc., and to solve resettlement issues. Some of these resettlement cases are newly forming, but many go back several generations. Thousands of displaced people are at the borders of empires pleading for assistance—for humanitarian needs. They are a living testimony, survivors of the carnage from war. The number of deaths is unknown—hidden from the public—we have guesstimates. The death toll rings everyday around the world. We become disinterested in the news of more killings. Within the empire, the high addiction and suicide rates, particularly among the young, become the new normal, together with mass killings at schools.
Indeed, I can see these changes, having been born in the mid-twentieth century, after the two world wars that set the stage for never-ending war. The big psychological change: fear. The use of nuclear weapons in WWII carried the tsunami of fear around the world. The proliferation of nuclear weapons, and space weaponry, contributes to the level of fear. We shut off, shut down the reality and replaced it with entertainment.
Entertainment from media empires is another one of the forces of change. It shapes attitudes and behaviors. It is a powerful propaganda tool to obfuscate the realities of extinction. However, the unreality of media is punctuated by terroist bombings, school shootings, violent mass demonstrations, and natural disasters. In digital media the accelerating change is artificial intelligence, AI—the smart phone, a computer devise that collects information about the user and then shapes their access to information and knowledge.
This technology is one of the most revolutionary changes regarding how we see ourselves, and others, particularly on the social media platforms. It is shaping identities, attitudes and behaviors that reinforce group norms, while excluding others who are different. This technology contributes to social polarization. Today, some are using the term “tribalism” to describe the fracturing of plural societies into polarized groups who are opposed to others in terms of values and political identities (see, James Fallows, “Defense of Trumps’s Actions”, The Atlantic, November 4, 2017). Tribalism (see, Morton H. Fried, “The Notion of Tribe” 1975) is not confined to certain locations. One characteristic is fluid boundaries and heterogeneity with affinities to form alignments among tribes speaking different languages. These social and cultural changes are becoming more rapid by digital media.
How do we see and understand such changes when we are part of tacit constructs that contribute to the dynamics of change: our carbon foot print, our use of AI, our entertainment sublimations, our addictions, our polarizing attitudes? Given the un-sustainability of our natural world and the insecurity of our social world we are confronting a crisis of epic dimensions. Is our relationship to art a sign or symptom of these deep changes and developing crisis?
We are seeing in the deteriorating situation of people being detached from art a condition of how we value knowledge. Knowledge is the foundation of civilizations. Knowledge like art is part of the human experience. Knowledge is the language of experiences. If art is part of the language of experiences, has it lost its ability to communicate, or has society assigned it as a commodity for practical outcomes: marketing, finance, status symbols. Another aspect is the computerization of knowledge and the digital imagery of art (see, Jean Francois Lyotard, “The Postmodern Condition”, 1979).
Artificial Intelligence (AI) shapes, edits, and selects access to information and knowledge. How that is applied to the manifestations of art is an unknown territory. Social media tallies how many viewers one can garnish in terms of a behavioral paradigm of stimulus, response and reinforcement.
The manipulation of visual images is also being digitized as an art experience—a scroll in seconds! It is disheartening to see artists compelled to show their work on their phone, a digital experience of one second. This also affects the viewer who is essential in giving meaning. As Jules Simon aptly states: “The work only itself becomes a reality, becomes actually effective in reality, when ‘it draws humans as viewers to itself and itself creates a public’ [thus] the work of art becomes the work of the whole human” (2011:43).
At Haley-Henman we have always strived for the reality that Simon describes above. It has been one of our principles in the way we structured and moderated conversations with artists and viewers by acknowledging that both are on the same level in the equation for creating common understanding, and how the many points of view amplify the experience. The experience of art is open to all, just as when art was first humanly expressed. It should not be restricted in how it is made, viewed and understood in prescribed ways. Nor should knowledge be restricted and censured.
During the many experiences of the past twelve years, Haley-Henman has promoted artists with many different styles and expressions that have explored the diverse worlds of our interior selves and exterior worlds. Artists and viewers have gained insight about themselves and others, and knowledge about our different worlds. However, during the past twelve years of observing artists and viewers, something is changing the relationship of common understanding. Indeed, a crisis might stimulate action in positive directions and become the springboard to the ever evolving human. Or, as Lawrence Ferlinghetti writes “…the world is coming to an end for the millionth time but this time it’s for real yes sir” (“Little Boy”, 2019:161).