‘An Artist’s Focus’ (1982)
The 20th century has marked a major historical transition for mankind. No earlier time has ever witnessed such formidable growth in every area of human concern. Be it conceptual, creative, inventive or constructive, the cultural orientation of man has been entirely revamped from the ground up. Whole new political ideologies have reshaped the frontiers of society, the World Wars have reduced the immensity of the world to incredibly small time/ size proportions, science and technology have expanded human knowledge exponentially. The basic fabric of the human character is of a very different color.
The roots of this explosion may not be easy to pinpoint, but certainly the liberation of the individual had a most powerful influence. The freedom from land, State and Church combined with the burgeoning growth of industry, urbanization and social organization prepared the bed for modernity.
Of all the great forces at work cradling these revolutionary changes in society at the beginning of this century, perhaps painting had the most substantial influence. Painters struck down with one fatal blow the stylized art of the past and seized the revolutionary spirit of self-expression. Indeed art itself at the turn of the century was the very embodiment of revolutionary transformation. The art movements of Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, to name but a few, were conceived in the hotbeds of the individual’s drive for liberation from convention and formality.
At this time, however, as we near the end of this century, there seems to be a hesitation among artists as to direction, as if a cooling-off or burnt-out stage has arrived. I believe the culprit for this impasse in the artistic stamina is the sensational growth of science and technology. Society in general and artists in particular have been dwarfed by the intoxicating momentum and the constant parade of marvels that science and technology have been churning out over the last few decades. All eyes are turned to science to see what spectacular new insight is next. Artists have found themselves competing directly with scientists for the vanguard of discovery.
Although the breath of science has galvanized popular attention, I believe it can go only so far without a strong participation from artists. It is my intention in this paper to make the argument that artists must not only embrace the challenge of science, but must be instrumental in fanning its growth. The scientific formula is the business of the future. It will radically transform not only the material world on mankind, but also his entire inscape of perceptions. When artists land back on their feet, they will in liaison lead the way into a modern new love affair with life.
This new love affair that I speak of will demand from us a radical transformation of sensibility of thought. The genius of human invention during the last few decades has far exceeded the genius of human adaptability. We have developed tools to peer into both microscopic cell life as well as the infinitude of space. The volume of knowledge and information is expanding four to seven times every few years. And yet mankind has still not been able to develop for himself any basic model of harmony. I believe that there are pressing needs for some underlying changes to the human consciousness. As earlier mentioned, artists at the turn of the century were vital in liberating man’s talents for self-expression. That artistic freedom inverted its vision in the shape of a deeply personal intimate search. There is presently, however, an overwhelming need to continue that search outside of the self to find a common expression of universality and unity of man.
As Meyer Schapiro spoke in 1957 of modern art being modern “not simply because it is of our century, but because it is the work of artists who take seriously the challenge of new possibilities and wish to introduce in their work perceptions, ideas and experiences which have come about only in our time.” In our time the world has collapsed into a globalized information society. We are constantly being exposed to the realization of how undeveloped we are as a collective intellectual and emotional body. Artists must grasp the concept that information is our new wealth, that technology is the source of new life for mankind. Perhaps technology and the human potential are the two greatest challenges facing humankind today.
If we examine the differences between our lives today in modern society with those of yesteryear, we see that some remarkable unusual developments have occurred. Since our very origins, the survival of the human species has depended on being able to adapt to the external forces of nature. Homo sapiens not only excelled in surviving his foes and the exceedingly harsh elements, but went on to control them in varying degrees. Developing a social order, a complex culture, language, and a literacy enabled man to build a world entirely his own, increasingly more sophisticated and complex in itself. People today, especially in modern urban centers, live inside a man-made cocoon. Virtually all aspects of modern life are synthesized, from the products of our manufacture to our thought processes and associations. This cultural creation is entirely encompassing, we dream, think, work and aspire within the broad spectrum of human artifact. I call this state of man’s development ‘human synthesis’. It is the conscious determination to actively influence and control all factors affecting human life. Perhaps it can be seen as a nature parallel to Mother Nature. It is, at any rate, a positive ingredient to human survival and growth. Without ongoing change, and much more importantly, the conscious will for that change, stagnation and death would set in.
This artificial or man-made world is enthusiastically represented by the new breed of explorers in science and technology. It is time artists, in all their disciplines, aggressively rallied behind this crusade of modern evolution. Artists have historically been the trumpeters of men’s passions through their images. Sir Kenneth Clark has rightly said “it is an incontrovertible fact of history that the greatest art has always been about something, a means of communicating some truth which is assumed to be more important than the art itself. The truths which art has been able to communicate have been of a kind which could not be put in any other way.” The urgent truths begging for communion today are the universal aspirations to tap the enormous potential of human creativity, human invention, human construction. The soul must be given impetus to expand, otherwise it will concentrate of itself. Science is the vehicle artists can use to aid our reach over the horizon. It is a catalyst of liberation, and creatively communicated it will fire humanities imagination.
Five hundred years ago Leonardo da Vinci’s brilliant imagination mused “I shall not refrain from including among these precepts a new and speculative idea, which although it may seem trivial and almost laughable, it is none the less of great value in quickening the spirit of invention. It is this: that you should look at certain walls stained with damp or at stones of uneven color. If you have to invent some setting you will be able to see in these the likeness of divine landscapes, adorned with mountains, ruins, rocks, woods, great plains, hills and valleys in great variety; and then again you will see there battles and strange figures in violent action, expressions of faces and clothes and an infinity of things which you will be able to reduce to their complete and proper forms. Today’s stained walls are the shining painted surfaces of computers, satellites, radio telescopes, CT scanners or spaceships. The pictures you will see when you stare at them might launch you into an orbit sailing past a civilization only imagined to exist in space yet so advanced that we would be to them what an earwig is to us. You may see a printout of extremely complex statistics and diagrams first stimulating and then pinpointing specific disease viruses, or indeed you might imagine someday in the future when men and women are no longer burdened with physical labour, instead their minds are pure energy sources. These painted surfaces already exist – where are the artists to interpret them?