Postmodernism and the Question of Meaning
For a New Spiritualism
By Suzi Gablik
Eds. Note: The following article is based on a presentation at the Fall 1986 Mountain Lake Symposium. Papers prepared for this and subsequent conferences will appear consecutively in Dialogue by arrangement with the Mountain Lake Consortium of the Professional Development Foundation of Virginia. The upcoming Symposium IX is entitled Artists in Locale: Beyond a Regional Critique and will take place November 17‑19 in Pittsburgh. For more information about the annual Mountain Lake Criticism Conference, contact Ray Kass, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Department of Art, Blacksburg, VA 24061.
I have seen many people die because life for them was not worth living. From this 1 conclude that the question of life's meaning is the most urgent question of all.
Meaning has an inherent curative power. Meaning makes a great many things endurable‑perhaps everything. ‑Carl Jung
If it is true that the creation of meaning is vital to our well‑being‑that the human organism does not fulfill even its essential biological functions when it does not feel a framework of meaning‑I would like to argue that postmodernism, with its appropriated images and its "open and drifting" intentions, has hardly begun to deal with the problem. Indeed, the new state of grace achieved by deconstruction seems to be the dispersal of all frameworks of meaning: to see the union of signifier and signified as essential
David Salle, Din, 1984, oil, acrylic, fabric, wood, on canvas, 62/0" x 87". Photo courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, promised gift of Ralph I. and Helyn D. Goldenberg.
to symbolic functioning is now obsolete. According to the dominant discourse, emancipation of the sign (reports Baudrillard) releases it from any "archaic" obligation it might have had to designate something; every sign (according to Derrida) can be put between quotation marks, and so can break with every given context, engendering an infinity of new contexts in a manner which is absolutely illimitable. Since signifieds and signifiers are continually breaking apart anyway, and reattaching in new combinations, trying to pin down and fix a specific signified to a given signifier violates the nature of language. In postmodernism, anything goes with anything, like a game without rules; the game is just to stay in free fall. Meaning, too, is like a game without rules, subject to any and all possible interpretations.
"Is the meaning of art, then,
linked to the meaning of life?
And if life supposedly is without
meaning, does that let art
off the hook?"
The more one reads poststructuralist criticism, the more it seems that all its discussions take place under a glass bell. The writers may adopt up‑to‑the‑minute theoretical models‑rhizomatics, semiotics, grammatology, hermeneutics, diegesis (the list goes on and on, mostly incomprehensible to me)‑but they all seem to share the same dark desire to undermine the legitimacy of specific meaning. Our whole belief‑structure is pervaded by skepticism which questions all assumptions and points of view that allegedly perpetuate illusion. Meaning, according to deconstructivism, is one of those illusions; to see the world as in different to meaning is to see it "truthfully," without distortion or projection. "Even before Auschwitz," writes Theodor Adorno, "in the face of historical experiences, it was an affirmative lie to ascribe to existence any meaning at all." Is the meaning of art, then, linked to the meaning of life? And if life supposedly is without meaning, does that let art off the hook?
Our present confusion results in part from a failure to think clearly about what, exactly, it is that art is meant to do. Does it provide an aesthetic experience, a new world view, or does it seek to provide something else? Modernism was the .:sat impulse to freedom, but in the end, it was a step into negative freedom. Modernism severed the bond between art and society; it drove a wedge between nature and culture; it negated the possibility of transcendence. It certainly left unresolved the vexed issue of whether art has a social purpose, or is a self justifying end‑in‑itself. Postmodernism
expresses the consensus that the modernist impulse has exhausted itself, but it makes no predictions about where our culture is going, or what will take modernism's place. The painter David Salle, for instance, denies that his paintings intend any commentary on the state of our culture, claiming that his subjects are important to him not as social commentary but "in their own mechanistic ways ...in a detached way." Image‑appropriation involves a refusal to claim for oneself the authority to speak, to be the author, the creator. As viewers, we are expected to experience these images as if they were
without intrinsic value, as if their existence had no particular meaning. The ironic detachment of the artist suggests that his choice of images implies no particular commitments or consequences we can admire the paintings without be being convinced of their necessity. Obviously, throwing ourselves into an unbounded sea of free choice does not in itself give freedom, but is more apt to produce a crisis of meaning. What is the critic to make of this open but totally arbitrary set of possibilities?
Thomas Lawson, writing in Artforum about Salle's work, has this to say: "Salle records a world so stupefied by the narcotic of its own delusionary gaze that it fails to understand that it has nothing actual in its grasp. Amid seeming abundance, there is no real choice, only a choice of phantasms. The world described in Salle's work is a jaded one, rife with a sluggish melancholy. The steady leaching of meaning from objects and images breeds an enervating
Andy Warhol, Marllyn, one of six serigraphs, 36" x 36".From the collection of the Dayton Art Institute.
uncertainty. Artist and viewer alike stumble through a maze of false clues and incomplete riddles, coming on the same viewless arrangements and empty repetitions in the search for a coherent identity. Signs and props are ritually shuffled like so many commodities on the floor of a department store of the imagination, with a compulsive repetition that offers a dwindling satisfaction."
Obviously, for Lawson, Salle's multilayered images have all the resonance of paper clips clashing in the night. No patterns of meaning, no flashes of insight are being revealed. An image must be understood to be valued; only then do we know how to react to it. Disinterested aestheticism anesthetizes us; the heart has no reaction to what it sees; only the eyes respond. Since we all pattern ourselves and our world view after our culture, if our mode of culture is faulty or disordered, we ourselves are often disordered in precisely the same way. Looking at art becomes similar to our stupor before the TV set, as we aimlessly flip from station to station. Unless the idea of choice carries with it the possibility of making a difference, it negates the very freedom it claims to uphold. "Let us hope," Lawson concludes, "we can figure out some better way to represent our dreams, or we will continue to see them turn nightmarish."
Robert Hughes has similarly berated Andy Warhol as an unsuccessful artist because he fails to "discriminate between experiences, which is what artists are meant to do for us." The assembly line of duplicated images is like a "blank mirror which refuses all judgments." Even in art, power is either assumed or abdicated. Disinterested aestheticism is the very opposite of waking up, looking at events critically, seeing reality, and feeling responsible‑that is to say, of responding to what goes on. The basic difficulty is an impaired capacity to feel and to give inner order to experience in general. If, power is the capacity to carry out intentions, to know the ramifications of one's own choices‑then passive images (such as Salle's or Warhol's), which are devoid of intention, have no power. Such art cannot see itself as a force for. meaning in the world. It is consciousness that gives the world a meaning. Skillful use of power depends on a willingness to take responsibility for the consequences of images we put out into the world. Responsibility implies that one is carrying out intentions, shaping the environment, and influencing others. The question is, how much responsibility are we willing to take for exercising intentionality in the world?
"Skillful use of power depends
on a willingness to take
responsibility for the
consequences of images we
put out into the world. "
"The artist," says Georg Baselitz, "is not responsible to anyone. His social role is asocial; his only responsibility consists in an attitude to the work he does. There is no communication with any public . whatsoever. The artist can ask no question, and he makes no statement; he offers no information, message, or opinion. He gives no help to anyone, and his work cannot be used. It is the end product which counts, in my case, the picture." The modern egoic self likes to think of itself as separate, independent, and in control of things. I have used this quote many times, because it embodies for me the modernist aspiration for a totally "free" art, which can only be realized, when all is said and done, at the cost of social alienation. There is a necessary correlation, I would argue, between this quest for autonomy and
Andy Warhol, Mickey Mouse, from the "Myths" series, 1981, ten screen prints, 38" x 38". From the collection of the Dayton Art Institute.
art's lass of meaning and relevance. Meaning emerges from context and connectedness; without context, nothing makes sense. Pluralism and art‑for‑art's‑ake may lead to increased freedom, but it can only be had at the cost of social resonance. As Charles Newman points out in his essay, "The Post‑Modern Aura," if an artist proclaims himself as isolated and responsible to no one, he should not be surprised if he is ignored, uninfluential, and perceived as irresponsible. The failure of modernism stems from its failure to ask that art be accountable and not simply another self‑justifying enterprise detached from all other values. Certainly the "anything goes" of the moment is no more than a stopgap and a compromise. It expresses the contradictions of our situation without offering any resolution. Remapping the modernist paradigm will entail much more than the recent reshuffling and multi‑layering of aesthetic styles. Post‑modernism, like the criticism that goes with it, resembles a self‑protective dodge of consciousness more a symptom than a diagnosis of our alienated condition. The obvious first step in any re‑evaluation process is to comprehend fully what, as artists (or critics), we believe‑where we stand, now, in relation to our culture. For it is our relation to our culture that will define for us our concept of art.
For instance, are we prepared to say what the role of the artist is in a post- modern society? Or what kind of culture is the most satisfactory? Do we know what the necessary ingredients might be for making a transition between the old existential meaninglessness and new images of value? My own answers to these questions will tell you something at least about how I am thinking at the present time. Since publishing Has Modernism Failed?, I have been writing and lecturing a great deaf about the ways that ark has become a mirror for the manic materialism of our culture. And as ! came to understand how much, as individuals and as a culture, we have suffered our deep creativity and spiritual well‑being to become harmed in the bureaucratic drives for power and profit, the need to play by these cultural "ground rules" has lost its meaning for me; I find myself drawn into a redefinition of the role of the artist that is experiential and spiritual, rather than stylistic and aesthetic‑that reconnects art with its visionary function of healing and social integration. Has Modernism Failed? was my attempt to show how we have alienated
". . . if an artist proclaims himself
as isolated and responsible to no
one, he should not be surprised !f
he is ignored, uninfluential, and
perceived as irresponsible. "
ourselves by our marketing orientationto show how bureaucracy humiliates and ultimately destroys creativity under the guise of nurturing it. We tend to experience our difficulties and conflicts as personal, but often they are larger than personal: many of our present confusions are related to the framework of beliefs and standards of behavior provided by our culture to serve as guidelines for individual lives. What I have come to understand even more strongly is that modern alienation arises from the absence of the sacred in our lives, and I should like to argue that the need to re‑experience the world as sacred is a crucial factor in transforming the dominant social paradigm.
Modernism has been a culture of estrangement. Its legacy is the fall away from soul‑the gravitational collapse of the psyche that sucks us into despair as if it were a black hole and gives us the existential vision of man, rattling around alone in an empty universe. Connoisseurs of hopelessness do not breed optimism; they emphasize man's contingency, they erode his sense of belonging‑producing a blighted atmosphere, so much the essential characteristic of contemporary art and literature that we could say the spiritual void in our lives is the primary aesthetic fact of our time. The disillusioning effect of the modern world view is not simply a matter of the intellect, it is woven into the very fabric of consciousness itself. Against this nihilistic background, art has been the expression of man's estrangement‑his isolation in the world, his disconnectedness, his ultimate futility. Art has been a mirror for what Jung called the "general neurosis of our time," which, in most cases, has gone hand in hand with a sense of spiritual emptiness. As to whether postmodernism represents some kind of alternative to the disenchantment of the modern world view, we can say only that it has moved the furniture around, but has not left the room. The old mechanisms are still in place; attitudes which are essential to genuine sacred vision are missing. Formalism stops short of our spiritual needs and offers no substitute for what the visionary energies atone can supply. Modem culture seems to have reached crossroads; the choice seems to be to advance to the frontier where we can glimpse our transcendence, or else to remain entangled in our disillusionment.
This brings us back to the initial question of meaning. The experience of meaning depends on the awareness of transcendental or spiritual reality that complements the empirical reality of fife and together with it forms a whole. Car an individual work of art still be meaningful when this greater synthesis of meaning no longer exists? For the artist who is willing to turn back from the cultural program of nihilism, futility, am cynicism‑who trusts that human life a
history do not end in a nothingness that explains nothing‑the answer is yes. Indeed, at a time of threatening meaninglessness, the work of the artist is best able to meet the spiritual need of society by ‑7..king art express larger dimensions of meaning in the world‑by renewing the culture's sense of overall purpose, and providing an antidote to the metapathologies of purposelessness and alienation that are our legacy. Then the symbol as an active, evocative power becomes possible again, even in a culture where belief has collapsed.
James Turrell's observatory at Roden Crater, to be constructed on the top of an extinct volcanic crater north of Flagstaff, Arizona, is such a symbol for me. Roden Crater, according to Turrell, is a place where you feel geologic time; you have a strong feeling of standing on the surface of the planet. Four lower rooms will eventually align with the axis of the northernmost sunrise and the southernmost moon set; the fifth room, s=t above the others, will be open to the s.1‑y. A large bath at the center of the space will allow one to hear, by lowering one's head beneath the water's surface, the sound of astrophysical sources many light years away. "Within that setting," writes Turrell, "I am making spaces that will engage celestial events. Several spaces will be sensitive to starlight and will be literally empowered by the light of stars millions of light years away."
Turrell's intention is to focus that point around which nature whorls her
James Turrell, Rodeo Crater Project. Photo courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum.
symmetries, where stars can stream forward and out into the diamond surfaces of the eyes. In this state of entranced understanding, our senses will begin to receive an amplified vision of the world, and we will be able to experience states of consciousness, through the vehicle of art, beyond the limiting patterns built up by the socio‑cultural environment in which we live. To see the entire universe thus,
"The experience of meaning
depends on the awareness of a
transcendental or spiritual reality
that complements the empirical
reality of life and together with it
forms a whole."
as an unbroken whole, is to conceive, or vividly remember, that our connectedness with the world is built into our very cells. It is to intuitively re‑envision the foundations of our being as coming from the universe and to evoke the first function of a living mythology, in the sense of Rudolf Otto's definition in The Idea of the Holy. to waken and maintain in the individual an experience of awe, humility, and respect, in recognition of the hidden and incomprehensibly great mystery in and around us. "If everyone were able to have this kind of experience," writes Count Panza di Biumo about Rodeo Crater, "the use of drugs would disappear, no one would commit suicide, and violence would stop. Unfortunately, few people will make this journey‑if they did, the world would change. We spend huge amounts of money for re‑education centers and many other institutions devoted to the solution of social problems, but his one place would provide the best education, giving real hope in front of the greatest reality. If this endless and boundless existence is forever, _ something of us must live on."
Once unity consciousness is seen as man's natural self, the whole idea of a sterile existentialism undergoes a profound correction. The very existence of the world itself "means" something; it is not an inert thing without purpose or significance. This does not need to imply either superficial optimism or "affirmative lies," but quite simply the recognition that man, in his innermost nature, is as a being fundamentally in harmony with his environment. Boredom and meaninglessness are seen for what they are‑cultural end‑products, not primal perceptions at all. Isolation is not a universal condition but a specific social fate. These conclusions have been corroborated by Stanislov Grof, a clinical psychologist known for administering psychedelics to patients in therapeutic situations. According to Grof, three stages inevitably occur among patients, leading to clinical improvement and cure. The third stage invariably involves religious and mystical experience: "Everyone who experientially reached these levels developed convincing insights into the utmost relevance
of spiritual and religious dimensions in the universal scheme of things. Even the most hard‑core materialists, positivistically oriented scientists, skeptics and cynics, uncompromising atheists and antireligious crusaders $uch as the Marxist philosophers, became suddenly interested in spiritual search after they confronted these levels in themselves."
"If art has the potential to heal,
and to build, culture, then we
must dare to dream those
qualities that promote cultural
and psychic well‑being... "
Can works of art still be meaningful at a time of meaninglessness? I would say yes, as long as they are not merely reactive to the received images of modem mass culture, reflecting their limited perceptions and recycling their contradictions right back into the collective unconscious. It is a mistake to suppose that our modern cultural ideals are rooted once and for all in man's nature; the courage to relinquish the modernist vision of art as nonfunctional, and to allow its uplifting, redeeming, and reconciling potential to come back into play, is what will signal the artist's fundamental reorientation. So far as our feeling for art and our experience of meaning are concerned, it makes a tremendous difference whether or not a sense of appreciation and a basic trust in reality are potent factors at the deepest level of the artist's consciousness. If art has the potential to heal, and to build, culture, then we must dare to dream those qualities that promote cultural and psychic well‑being; for surely beyond the despair and apathy of the modem era, a less pessimistic, more balanced picture of reality exists, through which individuals may again come to feel that their actions count. On this score, a metaphysical view of man is of greater value than an alienated one, however modern and however common such a view may be.
It all hangs, finally, on what kind of culture we take to be the most
James Tunell, Third Stage Site Plan with Segmented Cross Section, 1965, emulsion, wax pastel, ink, graphite on mylar, 38'/a" x 56'/a". Photo courtesy of The University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson.
Satisfactorty. In its essence, culture is psychic nutrition, so when a culture's dominant images are attractive and anticipatory challenging evocations of the good made visible‑they set into motion unconscious psychological processes and tend to direct social change. Images have an important function as conductors of psychic energy. They have an integrating potential which can help bring the world into better balance.
We have made much of the idea of art as a mirror (reflecting the times); we have had art as a hammer (social protest); we have had art as furniture (something attractive to hang on the walls); and we have had art as a search for the self. What I have tried to point to is art as inspiration‑art which activates the dynamics of hope in a culture saturated with despair, through images that empower the collective unconscious‑art which exercises its power to administrate social dreaming. We are just beginning to perceive how our development has been blocked by these existential models of despair‑how the images we have programmed ourselves by actually run our lives, unconsciously determining our actions and bringing us the negative
conditions they represent. We need to understand the real power of imagination: what we believe; the stories we tell ourselves; the images we have of ourselves, of others, of the world, and of the future, are what will guide and pull us, along with our culture, into the future. If art has any purpose beyond the purely aesthetic, if it has any meaning beyond that of fulfilling the need of artists to create, it may be nothing less than remaking the image of our time. "It is generally the creative artist," asserts the Jungian psychologist Marie‑Louise von Franz, "who creates the future. A civilization which has no creative people is doomed. So the person who is really in touch with the future, with the germ of the future, is the creative personality." My conviction is that we do not need a new aesthetic style or technique from art just now, but a special kind of artist: the visionary. If we want to participate in creating a future different from the past, we must begin by envisioning possibilities Because we have no future except what we can envision, and what we envision will draw us toward itself.
Suzi Gablik, the author of Progress in Art and other works, is London corresponding editor for Art in America.