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If you want a “graphic” description of the trouble humanity is in, just look at especially the world of the graphic and plastic arts: it is a no-holds-barred, unregulated presentation of basic human process. In essence we are desperately trying to do something new all of the time. Nothing has intrinsic value. Difference has conflated with worthy. Utility has emptied of meaning. One need only think of these same forces working in other regions of invention and human action to realize the widening gap between what is grounded in Reality, functionally and joyfully, and our actual human product.
This dislocation began relatively slowly. For about a million years all “higher” hominids made the same basic tool kit of about ten items, the primary outlet for material creative expression, then a slightly expanded kit, still very similar; and then, about 70,000 years ago, the basic set of tools from different human groups began to change, in paleontological terms, rather rapidly – over thousands of years. In the last 30 thousand years the variety of both types and design of all manner of tools has increased first to hundreds, then thousands, to the millions of today.
What makes the comparison to the art world so compelling is that there can be no illusion that a work of art today is essential to human survival – as there is the illusion that “new” technical or economic “instruments” offer new essential “tools” of growth and power in the world. The art world stands out naked for the glare of consideration; today our attachments to the world of art are manufactured from the money economy and not from the essential meanings of the soul.
No one needs the paintings, sculptures and related objects – and increasingly no one is informed by their content. They are the trivial made profound by acts of human confusion and aspiration, but this has not always been so; human imagination devoted to the exploration and creation of evocative objects, manifesting those imaginings, has long served an adaptive function in human communities. And a very similar thing can be said of our penchant for creating tools and directly functional objects. What the art world is pointing out so poignantly is how that process in all areas of human endeavor has over-run itself.
The devotees of the present art world would likely, rather violently, disagree. And this is another illustration of the functioning of the analogy. Once sufficiently confused and infused with the aspirations of imagined worthiness, it is impossible, and uncomfortable, to realize one’s uselessness. This is further exacerbated by the attachment of the art world to the money economy, which is just another form of the same thing.
It is not the cognoscenti that must inform the artist – they define the conflated, complexly imagined landscapes of inbreed idea; inspiration by substitution – but the masses of humanity with their needs, hopes and dreams as inevitable raw surfaces exposed to every event and movement around them. This most powerful human force is, today, given no more recognition than if it existed on the surface of Mars.
The artist is to be the vessel within which the inconceivable is mixed with the possible and then poured into the mold of unsparing Reality, but when the artist’s source is polluted, when the possible must be bought with cash controlled by pinched and hostile minds, the result is predictably trivial and foolish. (It should be noted that the scientist can be given the same description.)
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Humans eventually create what they imagine, or the nearest facsimile that the rules of chemistry and the laws of physics will allow. Human flight has been imagined since the first time that a feather was tied into the hair. When was that? 50 thousand years ago? 70 thousand, 100 thousand years before sustained, controlled flight above the surface of the earth? We imagined stopping an animal at a distance with just our eyes tens of thousands of years before the rifled gun. We imaged endless food supplies long before agriculture, stored grains, various chemical preservatives and refrigeration. We imaged telepathy before writing, books, telephones, Facebook and Twitter. We imagined impunity long before discovering its true nature and exercise in concentrated wealth…and the inescapable destruction of community, social and economic order.
The arts are again, in a convoluted twisting of form, pointing the way forward: they are showing that when all we have left is imagining about the products of imagination, the result is painfully empty; no matter the brilliance of the mind doing the imagining, doing the creation. It is only the waste left over from an earlier fecundity.
It is not that there is something to do that is being missed – not if only we were smarter, more creative, more brilliant, more sensitive, more imaginative. It is that the umbilical has been cut and we are on our own, born into the void. But, as the cutting of the real umbilical cord only appears to be a literal separation, our attachments to our biology and community are not to be severed; as with so many things left up to our imaginative ramblings we have carried the figurative too far.
And as it is, so obviously, with our desperate world of art, it is with our desperate technology, economics, religions and politics. The foundations for our actions have disappeared, we have imaged them away replacing them with the imaginary solidity of religion, economics and realpolitik; yet the biophysical, biological and consciousness foundations are all still there, formed no longer as firm basis for order and life, but as dead-fall traps or untimbered mine shafts dug too deep, too fast.
The art world clearly demonstrates that we create what we imagine and that that imagining can go baseless and fallow when it only seeks difference from the last imagining. It has been said that art leads the way, but perhaps it more often lays bare, or more bare than other activities, the current state of the human condition, even when it, too, has lost its own way.
And yet, and yet again I say it, the great and terrible condemnation implies its own solution: Humans create what they imagine. If we do not actively imagine equity, social justice, ecologically based living, lives of event and engagement, sufficiency rather than abundance, all in the face of their opposites, then the behaviors that arise from these imaginings will never happen. But if we do press on with the imaginings that form out of the common need and the valuing of all life, if we realize the true place in the firmament of the needs, hopes and dreams of the earth’s billions there is, at least, the chance that we might eventually, first, clearly imagine them and then manifest them. It will take the courage of the artist.