“The hand is the blade of the mind” ---Jacob Bronowski
The five digits on the ends of our arms are more complex than any other paw or flipper or hoof or fin or tentacle out there in the natural world. Even the hands of other primates don’t compare, which is what allows us to play Bach fugues on the guitar, or to cut the complicated joinery required to make a Shinto Temple. It’s no overstatement to say that because of our fantastically dexterous hands we have managed to not only survive as a species, but to thrive. Over the course of many thousands of years we have been able to use our hands to make things such as weapons and shelters, which successfully kept far stronger and faster animals at bay. Realizing we were on to a good thing (and with our survival somewhat assured), we began to make countless other things that stagger with their complexity, beauty, and utility.
Of course, our brains are telling our hands what to do. So isn’t the evolution of our brain a more important point? And the answer is, surprisingly, probably not. It turns out that clever brains and hands are inextricably mixed, and you can’t have one without the other. Anthropologists such as Sherwood Washburn have written that the modern human brain might have evolved because of tool use, rather than tool use appearing because of our brains. As he says: “From the evolutionary point of view, behavior and structure form an interacting complex, with each change in one affecting the other. Man began when populations of apes, about a million years ago, started the bipedal, tool using way of life.” The structure of the arm and hand of the Australopithecus species in particular (from which Lucy sprang), allowed for gripping and holding things that until that time was completely unique. That meant that eventually, our big brains could write those fugues for the guitar, but only because of the possibilities represented by, and as a direct outcome from, our hands manipulating whatever was in their reach. That helped push the development of the brain that sits nestled in our heads today.
Making things is how we got here. It was our evolutionary good fortune, a lucky adaptation that ultimately stamped our ticket to the pinnacle of the food chain. As we evolved, our ability to make things evolved with us. Behavior and structure form an interacting complex after all. Now we have really clever hands being directed by really clever brains. We make dams across raging rivers, we link continents with interstate highways, we travel under the seas with submarines, above the clouds with airplanes, and even enter outer space now and again with spaceships. But while we are able to make these things, less and less of our population are directly involved in the process. In fact, today we live in a world that most of the time no longer requires us to make anything. We are free of the bondage of physical labor in the contemporary world, (except if you are a Mexican living in the U.S., as a visit to any farm, restaurant, or construction site will show), and for the most part we’re pretty happy about that. Making things is hard after all, and when we became smart enough to invent machines to do it, we jumped at the chance.
We have moved away from the brute labor that marked the industrial revolution, and moved towards a service-based economy that for most people has banished a physical interaction with the world. A version of the same thing has happened with our ability to creatively influence our surroundings. As more things are made for us, the more we have become accustomed to plain old buying rather than making. As Marx said, we have gone from ‘Being into having’, as we transition from seeing ourselves as ‘producers’ in a modernist sense, to ‘consumers’ in a postmodern one.
As we lose the notions of how things are made, we also lose the ability to engage in the complex conversation it took to make those things in the first place. We are cut off more and more from the world not only physically, but creatively.
Now I know what you’re thinking: We can still be creative outside of the physical world. Think of all the software writing, and the game making, the website designing, and the 3-d modeling going on. Aren’t computers actually expanding on the idea of what creativity is in the first place? And the answer is: Yes! And that’s good. But this observation misses the point. I’m talking about a creativity that exists in what my code writing friends call ‘the meat space’, or ‘the blue room’: the physical world. This distinction is important because tangible skills are important. Try living in a virtual house, or eating virtual food, or wearing virtual clothes. All of these virtual things, I’m sorry to say, are unnecessary. The real versions of food and shelter however, are non-negotiable. Not having a clue about the basics of that non-negotiable reality is what I’m talking about.
If we agree that we are cut off from the physical world, the irony is that from an artist’s perspective this shift has meant a certain kind of freedom. Art making has shed its physical skin to become ‘conceptual’, which means it’s an activity that creatively interacts with ideas rather than the making of objects. It stands to reason that art would follow the same arc as everything else did in the transition from ‘Being into having’ that Marx describes, and get itself out from under the drudgery of production, and away from objects in general.
Art historians might interject at this point with a more descriptive explanation about how the visual arts became modern. How the Impressionists saw mimesis as redundant in the era of photography say, or how a new awareness of art from other places like Japan and Africa was an influence as well. The story is indeed intriguing, and long. However, the granular details of the modernist turn in art fails to explain the over-arching modernist narrative that also affected science, medicine, the military, the economy, literature, and so on. In each field the transition was slightly different, and at a slightly different time. But modernism was the paradigm that covered them all. For that reason it’s important to see art as part of a larger cultural progression in which it was merely a facet. And in that progression, art very much followed a modernist arc rather than led it, away from the handmade towards the industrial, away from the mimetic towards the abstract.
But we no longer live in a modernist era. Another shift, and a new paradigm has replaced it. No longer do we share the modernist’s faith in a logical progression forward, replaced instead with the confusing set of possible paths of postmodernism. It’s important therefore to describe the shift away from a modernist perspective, towards a postmodern one, because postmodernism provides a more complete portrait of who we are now, whether we like it or not.
If you are uncomfortable with the idea of ultimate truth, or of objective knowledge, then you are postmodernism. If you understand and laugh at ‘South Park’, because they make fun of everyone, and never chose a side, then you are postmodern. (Basically, if you watch and enjoy television you are postmodern). If you see creativity as bricolage rather than the search for pure originality, you are postmodern. If you see the world retreating into enclaves of people promoting their own versions of truth, because there seems to be ‘proof’ of any position imaginable, then you are postmodern. If you are uncomfortable seeing yourself as postmodern, because you don’t really believe in labels, you are postmodern.
In stark contrast to that, modernists had no problem at all with labels. The visual artists of that era enjoyed nothing more that coming up with definitive versions of art, and engaging in the resulting blood-sport of defending them. "Modernism, overall, was the age of manifestos", as Arthur Danto writes, and each new movement set out to quash the others that came before it. The historian Phyllis Freeman has counted as many as five hundred such manifestos, some of which, like the surrealist and futurist, are “Nearly as well known as the works themselves”, again, quoting Danto. Pretty much all of them defined themselves in opposition to what came before, and pretty much all of them described themselves as the real essence of art, and all others to be false.
Danto one more time: “ In 1913, Malevich assured Matiushin that “the only meaningful direction for painting was Cubo-Futurism.” In 1922, the Berlin Dadaists celebrated the end of all art except the machinekunst of Tatlin, and the same year the artists of Moscow declared that easel painting as such, abstract or figurative, belonged to an historically superseded society. "True art like true life takes a single road" Piet Mondrian wrote in 1937. Mondrian saw himself on that road in life as in art, in life because in art.”
It should be noted that Mondrian severed his relationship with his friend and collaborator Theo van Doesburg, because van Doesburg believed that diagonal lines were valid in abstract art, an idea totally unacceptable to Mondrian. Definitions as rigid as that are nearly incomprehensible to artists today, because art can be anything an artist says it is, an open-ended definition that has only existed in the minds of postmodernists. Which is to say, us.
If modernism springs from the Enlightenment, than our current take on things springs instead from Existentialism. This flies in the face of what had come before it, which was a belief in a steady progression towards better things. We are unsure of that idea today, to say the least, and it’s easy to see that profound change in perspective all around us. A few examples: Isaac Newton described a universe that was run on immutable laws. And then Einstein came along and said that everything was relative. Heisenberg identified the Uncertainty Principal. Now scientists look for Dark Matter, which can’t be seen, and debate String Theory, which can’t be observed (much less proved) because much of it happens in other dimensions.
Global finance used to be run by central government banks that pegged their currency to gold. Now currency is literally an abstraction, beautiful etchings on paper, whose worth is based on fiat. Wealth is run through corporations trading complicated financial instruments made up by math majors. People used to make money by providing tangible things, and now they sell Futures, or Derivatives. Wealth often times is in the form of stocks, whose worth is pegged to the vagaries of an ever-shifting consensus.
Societies used to take for granted their own regional versions of architecture, food, and language. Now the effects of colonization, war, technology, and global immigration have created a massive diaspora that has re-shuffled formally homogeneous societies in to something far less so. That has led to a re-thinking, or even re-definition of social hierarchies, beliefs, and traditions. Regional food and architecture are the stuff of theme parks and chain restaurants now. Even the roles people play within these new societies are in flux. It’s not just new languages and food we are accommodating, it’s new versions of parenting, gender roles, work relationships, and communication itself. The fracturing of recognizable things into their less clear parts is not merely a trope of postmodern art, it is a reflection of almost everything around us.
Along with that fractured and unraveled feeling is something even more unsettling, which is this: we have it within our grasp to fuck everything up for good. This ability is derived not only from our technological know-how, but the way we wield that know-how to extract, kill, mow down, dredge up, emit, burn, use, and otherwise run roughshod over the things in our way. We live in an era described as the ‘6th great extinction’, with massive loss of animal and plant species. The other five great extinctions were caused by things like ice ages, asteroids, and volcanic eruptions. The 6th is being caused by us.
Maybe most strikingly, we have ‘Real’ problems that need addressing, and so assessing what ‘The Best’ solutions to them are would obviously be in our interest. But absolutes like ‘Real’ and ‘Best’ have been compromised. Objective truth is just not what we do anymore. In fact truth itself has been re-defined along postmodern lines, along with everything else mentioned above, to the point that ‘Truth’ with a capitol ‘T’ now holds less sway than a murky kind of relativism.
In a postmodern world, debating one possible solution over the merits of another ushers us into a hall of mirrors rather than a clear path. Facts and truth and sincerity are suspect most of all, because we are familiar with them as strategies used in ads to sell us stuff. That means that despite the dystopian future many people believe we face, we have an inability to speak rationally about any of it, because facts and truth and sincerity themselves are compromised. They seem like relics of modernism, back when we actually believed that reason would get us through this stuff. We don’t feel that way anymore. Reason itself as a path towards a better future is exactly the thing that postmodernism rose up to challenge.
If the above seems like it undermines the basis for critical thought itself, you’re right. It’s easy to see why the philosophers who initially set out to identify postmodernism did so with a palpable sense of sorrow. In the case of Guy Debord, he actually tried to come up with a strategy to get us beyond it, via the Situationists. He didn’t get that far. In 1994, Guy Debord committed suicide.
Today we are accustomed to living a life accommodating the conflicting feelings of crises and helplessness, which together form a jittery kind of apathy. And jittery apathy describes the contours of postmodernism itself. Nobody is saying that the days before modernism were great of course, (though the thought does occur that they might have gotten a bad rap), but life in the 20th and 21st centuries clearly have some not-so-small problems attached. We managed to fight two world wars in the first half of the 20th century for example, and spent the rest under the pall of nuclear Armageddon. The irony is that many of our mistakes were brought on as the unintended consequence of trying to make things better, the genesis of the modernist impulse. The retort to that impulse writes itself. It’s easy to see how the rise of postmodernism, which sees the idea of pure reason as a panacea to our ills as a delusional fantasy, was a virtual guarantee. And so it is that we have traded the feeling of a having a single and rigidly proscribed direction forward, for the freedom of having no clear path at all.
Life today embodies a kind of mental and spiritual abstraction, with definitions of individual values and goals being up for grabs. As we settled into this postmodern state, consciously or not, we moved beyond Marx’s observation of ‘Being into having’, into what Guy Debord identified as ‘Having into appearing’. As we accommodated a world where our role is to consume, the value system shifted to what we consume.
Debord called this state of affairs, no surprise, the ‘Society of Spectacle’, which is where we find ourselves today. In a world that understands imagery as a kind of true Esperanto, it would seem to me especially important for artists to understand what Debord described. It’s their job to make images after all. But contemporary art can often be less a critique of this state, or a method of revealing it, then just another example of it in a very pure sense. Artists today become brands, and their very actions result in creating value that is often free of an object, or even any kind of tangible use. So it is that many artists have become willing participants in all of this, as any trip to an art fair, biennial, or auction will attest. It’s not crazy to see the contemporary art world as the culmination of what Debord was talking about, the true distillation of the Society Of Spectacle. The transgressive, libertine model of artist behavior, courtesy of the modernists, has turned into a postmodern brand that is reliably marketable. For that reason the idea of trying to poke holes through the spectacle wouldn’t occur to many artists today. Postmodernism has been great for business.
If Debord is correct, than the ‘prestige and ultimate function’ of anything, art included, is an abstraction twice removed from objective reality. While the truth of that assertion is worthy of debate, it certainly is correct that the idea of making anything at all has an anachronistic air about it these days, which supports at least a part of Debord’s theory. In our day, the maturation of the modernist idea of removing the hand is easy to see. And while lots of big name artists rely heavily on fabricators to make things for them at a very high level of craft, most wouldn’t have a clue about how to do much of it themselves. That lack of knowledge is orthodoxy, not only in the art world, but in the culture at large. That’s because the spectacle is designed to make sure you don’t know how to do much of anything other than to consume. To make sure you don’t creatively interact, but passively receive. And as the spectacle has gathered steam, which it still appears to be doing, our ability to make things has for most of us been willingly set aside in order to participate fully in the spectacle. Those who persist in making objects tend to be seen as mere craftsman, rather than artists following a certain traditional historical thread. But getting out of the way of the spectacle is the thread.
Response: County clerkTexas House