“Modern Art” In Contemporary Society

Ask the average twenty-something what ‘modern art’ is and apart from an indifferent shrug, the response heard most often will be along the lines of “Oh, you mean Warhol and the soup cans?”

Warhol’s take on art was considered by many to be “the end of art”. Within the last year I have begun to realize the unintentional meaning this phrase carries in the ’00s.  To the average consumer, kid, adult and American, “art” is whatever is on television, our favorite films and the video game of the moment.  Traditional art, paintings, sculptures and the idea of a museum has become completely irrelevant apart from those who actively seek it out.  Art has faded into the background as a hobby at best and an unnecessary, exclusive, expensive and outdated luxury at worst.

Some might say, “Well, it’s simply been redefined” — this is ignoring the issue.  Paintings and the idea of putting art upon a pedestal for viewing has vanished from contemporary society and from the practical consumer’s mindset.  Sure, it has been replaced by flashier culture, but it’s only on a metaphorical pedestal, not a literal one, that we view video gaming and television.  What does a painting mean now?  If the term “modern art” means something that is half a century old (‘soup cans’), it’s clear that the very term is hypocritical.

Personally, art has meant album artwork.  This is a medium which many could toss up to containing a cohesive and beautiful statement once every 300 album covers.  Regardless, I have thrived off of my last remaining attachment I have to traditional paintings, even though the pedestal said album art is viewed upon is my laptop.

There is a poster on my wall containing the album artwork of Animal Collective’s 2009 album, “Merriweather Post Pavilion”.  When moving from college dorm A to college dorm B, I had forgotten to take down my posters.  My friend, Ryan, kindly took the posters down and stored them in his car, where they collected dust all summer long.  These posters were rolled together in a messy clump, rendering most of them ruined from being stuck together for such a long time.  However, there was one interesting effect to the Merriweather Poster.  In addition to several white tears, the sunlight had created a fantastic faded blue streak across the bottom of the image.  It gave a precise effect that looked as if it could have only been created digitally — or perhaps by leaving a poster exposed to three months of sunlight.

With no real desire to seek out far-less stimulating culture, the place for massive and vibrant paintings, sculptures and installations has been moved to one of two places:

  1. There are enthusiasts, many of them, who will never say goodbye to the wonder and subtlety that “true” art, found in a museum, provides.
  2. The second place this art has gone to (and the place which gets far more attention) is upon Flickr accounts, various impersonal Tumblr pages and occasionally upon a Google Image search.

If art was an experience to help transcend the trivialities of daily life, if even for a moment, and said experience no longer takes place outside the stream of our lives — what does that say for art?  We no longer have to visit museums to experience a plethora of styles; all we need is StumbleUpon and perhaps a search string.  Such ease allows us a whirlwind of culture, but at the same time, it is easy to under-appreciate the magnitude of the culture itself.

Conceptually, the artist is dead, because there are no longer pedestals for each artist to showcase their work upon.  All art created gets thrown into the digital void, upon one unified pedestal.  This pedestal is shared amongst all artists and with this sharing, artistic individuality has been lost in the digital stream of consciousness.  The artist is no longer relevant so much as the audience, i.e., you, as you have the power to skip to the next image or share it on your Facebook wall.  This is about as much praise as one can practically expect as an artist on a mass scale, apart from the occasional PR puff piece and blogosphere commentary.

The poster on my wall does not ask for my attention, yet it exists outside the internet, in its own museum (my room) on its own pedestal (the wall).  The audience (I and whoever is in the room at the time) is not forced to look upon this poster, but when they do, it captures the overstimulated attention span, if just for a moment.  Modern art is individually-oriented and based around personal narratives — one glance upon the poster reminds of a story.  It calls attention to something I have no control over (sunlight, the forces of nature, destroying my perfect replica of a favorite album) and in its own subliminal way, reminds of my own impermanence.  One may think that this is all a bit hyperbolic, but that’s just it!  There is nothing that is going to exist in our lives which will live up to the mythical shadow cast upon by pre-internet society, when it was impossible to fathom the audience even touching the pedestal, let alone controlling what was seen upon it.

This is why I can look to a sun-faded Animal Collective poster as the highest example of contemporary art imaginable.  This is why the definition of art in practical, contemporary society is exactly what you as a viewer, view it to be.  While artists will continue to make thought-provoking work to be seen in small scales, the masses are still left scratching their head, thinking to 1962’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans” as the only example of modern art — before tuning back into the daily programming.  Today, artistic relevance depends completely on what you personally find relevant.  Traditional art made by others will always have beauty, but it will never catch the eye as the heirlooms our lifetime will, however insignificant to an outside observer these may be.

The end of art meant the end of established artistic norms, of an invisible world telling you what you could and could not find aesthetically pleasing.  It began with Warhol realizing that art could be found anywhere, even in the supermarket.  If a supermarket is a pedestal, then it’s obvious that the museum is the human mind and whatever we attach ourselves to can be transformed into a gallery, flimsy posters included.

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Interpretations of the “Monolith” (2001: A Space Odyssey)

The marbled monolith represented exactly what it was — a massive slab of obviousness.  It was something that could not be ignored if one was consciously present within the room.  However, it represented something more.  It hypothetically put forward how we evolved from apes to humans, as despite it being so obvious, one does have to be consciously aware to detect a change in one’s environment — to detect a spontaneous black slab that appears out of nowhere.  What I think Kubrick may have been illustrating was how we transitioned from a lesser state of awareness and into something more.  The apes saw the world from a primal and survival-based intelligence level.  Then, one day, they saw something in a way which they could not describe.  It captivated them in a manner which superseded all that in the background.  The apes had their first intelligently conscious moment.  The black slab was so sudden and so out-of-nowhere, that there was no way to not perceive it with intense reactional response, elevating one’s self from a lower conscious level to ultimately realize human potential.  The apes realize that one can use objects as weapons and begin to interact with the world in an evolutionary manner.  Kubrick was describing the birth of conscious intelligent life.

Just as the apes, the bones-as-a-weapon realization and the rocky, wild and unconquered landscape acted as an allegory for where conscious awareness found itself, the ending “room” is the same.  We see a fully civilized, cultured man surrounded by a pleasant bright white light in an ordered and structured room.   Whereas before the sun was the only source of light, now the source is fluorescent and man-made.  The world in which the apes found themselves was completely out of their control and foreign, whereas the room the ‘futureman’ finds himself within is completely of his (in the species sense) own creation and understanding.

Just as before, this man sees a black slab appear out of nowhere.  He chases it around the room and finds himself getting older and older in the very process.  As with the apes (‘dawn of man’), the black slab represents something in which to call attention to and inspire evolutionary reaction.  However, as a being already evolved, it is perplexing to understand its context in this room.  The man is chasing the meaning to his own human life, representing the human species as a whole.  His drive and inspiration is personified as a cold, impersonal metallic slab.  The futureman is chasing this until he dies, but with every realization, he finds himself ending up at a goal, with no memory of how he got there.  His only memory is standing at his previous position, looking out at the end-goal.  He then finds himself at the end-goal, only to not have actually ended anything.  Ironically, he finds himself once again on the chase, immediately focusing on the end-goal, until his physical body runs out of life — the entire process fueled by the monolith.  Yet even on his deathbed, at the very last moment, with his very last ounce of strength, the futureman sees this black slab once more and MUST reach out to it.  He is determined despite knowing that there’s no way he can possibly do such a thing, as he is confined to his bed and limited by his old age.  However, he must reach the end-goal and is always searching for an answer that simply cannot be reached.

This man represents what we are as a human species at the present moment — 1% away from complete control but somehow we still find ourselves unable to reach this remaining percentage.  Kubrick’s only explanation is indirect, as he eventually zooms into the black slab and transitions into space.  We live on earth and we look at space, a massive beautiful black slab, and it drives us.  Space isn’t the actual root drive of humanity; it just represents something that makes us realize our own subjectivity and scale.  It represents something so massive and so incomprehensible — its existence is a symbol for human ambition.  Like the black slab, space is unexplainable, yet we must understand and decode its mystery.  As illustrated in the final room, though, we see how the pursuit will kill us.  It is only in our last moment in which we will ever feel complete, as death is the only end-goal that can be reached with complete satisfaction.  Upon death, we go once again back into the chaotic world which we so often, in life, pretended did not exist.  We are so afraid of the unknown, that just to live we have to build white rooms of cutting edge architecture to hide us from the scary black space.  This space, like the monolith, represents the majority of existence which we do not have wrapped around our finger.  We hide from chaos and disorder, but it always exists.  Death exists, space exists and everything beyond our perspective exists and it is out of our control.  As the apes did in the beginning of the film, we go insane at these realizations — just as the futureman drove himself to death in pursuit of an explanation for what is inherently unexplainable and chaotic.  All perceived order is nothing but one flower in a field of trillions of weeds which are slowly creeping in on our shell of artificial order.

An Alternative Interpretation

The final scene could also be viewed as Kubrick’s interpretation of death, post-existence and post-humanity.  The starchild symbolizes the final peaceful understanding felt just before passing after a lifetime of seemingly futile pursuit.  The last scene shows this starchild looking over the earth and it is here where the individual starchild transitions into a metaphor for the human species.  We see the starchild looking over the earth in a contemplative and honorable manner.  If you could replace the earth with “a lifetime of personal memories” and the starchild with “someone passing away”, the intention would be exactly the same.  Instead, the final scene depicts the personification of the perfect human looking back upon the earth and thinking upon how far man has come.  In this state, one can only observe in reserved tranquility rather than act.  For a perfect, fully-realized species, this is the ultimate heaven — to look back on the source of our life, the earth, and marvel at how far we have come.  In this light, the ending is a love letter for the human species of the future.  We see a peaceful, beautiful, golden and intelligent fetus rather than something wrought with flaws.  Despite the journey, despite the chaos that once so defined humanity and the desire to understand everything, we float in peace at the finish line with nothing to do but bask in the odyssey of our achievement.

The “Messiah” Complex

With enough self-confidence, we all begin to view ourselves, in some degree, as “messiahs” in our own respective fields and in our minds.  Why would you not base your actions around your ideal life philosophy?  The “Messiah” complex — the notion that “I believe, despite subjective nature of my rationality, that I am RIGHT and that you should trust my judgment.”  We base everything, from positive and negative interactions, around this belief — until it changes and we become empathetic to the grander and more selfless ideas based in love.

But do we, really?  Frankly, the ones who continue being right continue to do so due to a combination of having a sense for what the whole is thinking, at least in their particular location on the planet, and being charismatic enough to convince everyone of their own reality.  The thing about conscious awareness is that we are always trying to get the most out of every situation, simply because we are aware of choice.  Additionally, we at least have some idea of what would be a better outcome relative to our own personal tastes and personality/mindset.  Thus, every action, in our own minds and at said moment, is the right one to take.

Think about how you rationalize your choices at their core — “Because I like it”, because you believe it is ‘right’, the only natural option of the moment, the only embraceable decision.  If your chosen action is proven to not be as perfect as your perceptions allow, be prepared to show the world your negative side.  Selflessness allows you to see past this, but only to a certain point.  The more you break down your actions, what you are doing, the more likely deep, core motives are actually contradicting what you would perceive to be selflessness.

If you are helping people because that genuinely makes you happy, then are you helping people to help people?  Is it possible that because your experiences with helping people have been positive ones, that the feeling is what you seek — not the charity itself?  True selflessness is not even acknowledging favors or kind acts you are doing for another — it’s considering these actions STANDARD — the DEFAULT.  To never expect a “thank you”, because anything other than selflessness is derived pervertedly from your default “HELP ALL HUMANS” outlook.

In other words, the messiah complex is an oxymoron.  Those who are genuinely selfless would never acknowledge such a thing.  Those who acknowledge their charitable actions in a manner which encourages an ego or elevates their being above the rest of the world are clearly not selfless.  There can never again be a true messiah, as if he/she exists, we would never hear from him/her.  The minute you hear of a messiah’s existence, you know it to be false, because true godliness (my definition of godliness = striving to operate at peak human potential) understands that living up to your potential is what should be expected, not something that is beyond the norm or deserves compensation.

A Tragic Dilemma

Lately I’ve been seeing rather frequent headlines for plane crashes with many fatalities. The nature of this news and it’s morbid presence amongst the rest of the news inspired the following write-up.

Background:

Every day, people die. Despite the obvious, it would seem that we view death with a rare and uncommon eye — but the advent of unprecedented connectedness throughout the world allows us to see otherwise. Many choose to ignore these headlines, primarily under the logic that dwelling on such a thing is only sure to generate negative and depressing thoughts and attitudes. What many fail to realize is that to hide such information is to delude reality. You cannot simply pretend that these horrible events do not happen, despite how hard it is to empathize with that which seems impossible to one’s own lifestyle. News-based media reports on tragedy for that reason, as it generates attention because I think, deep down, that we all wish we could make our peace with the very simple fact: “You will die.”

A Tragic Dilemma:

  1. Not everyone wants to read about death in the first moments of their mornings.
  2. However, you cannot exclude tragedy, because above everything else it’s inhumane not to, at the least, acknowledge the existence of the suffering of fellow human beings.

The Solution:

Offer a website devoted to tragedy, thus implying that other media outlets should perhaps devote a portion of their own medium to tragedy. Create an outlet that consistently reports on tragedy, as to allow news to cater to things that affect the reader on a more localized level (and in the year 2011, localized means everything and anything anywhere on the globe that either impacts or interests you). Having a separate medium ENTIRELY for tragedy would have the potential to increase overall empathy to humans in other parts of the world, without adding a deathly slant to what’s immediately relevant to your day. This is why I’d love to see someone start a project of this nature, or at the least see news websites move tragedy to it’s own section. Such a project could easily come to life online, posting links to various tragedies currently generating discussion throughout the global community. Ideally the aim would be to provide an archive of relatively significant tragedies available to the general internet public, while being self-aware of how taboo the concept is viewed when facing such an open audience.

Organizing The Taboo:

The question is, how Meta do you take such a concept? I believe that is possible to allow for a rating system prioritizing certain tragedies over others if we are not looking at such a thing in a personal manner. If you step back and realize that death is a very common concept that seems to have been tucked away into taboo discussion, it quickly also becomes apparent that there are non(/hardly)-preventable, uncommon deaths that generate a higher interest level simply due to their uncommon nature. Why not categorize? Why not make the navigation of an archival of such events easier? It is in this light a rating system comes off less amoral and more logical. This hypothetical website could present this medium with a slight hint of self-awareness, as if to say the events reported upon the website are clearly excellent examples of unexpected tragedy that remind us of that very fact — you, will, die.

Profit:

The only way the website would be able to maintain a sense of moral standing is if all future (if any) successful profit from ad revenue would be given to a reputable charity (which genuinely gives all of its money to those in need). If there is to be any profit off a website which maintains its existence by reporting upon loss & injury, it should go directly into the pockets of the victims in need. This is why to report upon death in such a way and not donate at least a portion of one’s profits to charity is absolutely amoral.

Conclusion:

Why share this idea?  Why not simply start the website on my own?  To truly make this a successful project, one would have dedicated a significant amount of time each day to aggregating tragic news, sorting through what is most significant.  I feel that such a task would be too depressing to come back to day-after-day.  However I throw it out into the open because I believe that if someone with a decent moral standing were to undertake this idea, the end result could potentially benefit charitable organizations and thus those whom these tragedies directly affect.  Additionally, the initial observation itself (“A Tragic Dilemma”) which inspired the idea for the website is worth pondering.

Existence as system-like whole

Imagine a relationship between two concepts:

  1. The essence of existence as a functional, system-like whole, and…
  2. The perspective of one functioning part in that existence (this being realized through conscious awareness).

Macro:Micro. Creator:Creation. The “creator” is the designer, the architect, but will never be able to enjoy it’s own creation, for that is reserved for the inhabitants within said creation. Being that the universe is here and we presently find ourselves within it’s confines, it makes logical and rational sense that we use our conscious awareness to develop our sense of what’s positive and what’s negative.  This allows us to perfect the filtering of the negative to enhance our overall experience in this existence. The premise being that “The Creator” is simply existence itself, and that we can choose to see any aspect of it in any life imaginable, because the endless nature of existence allows for this creativity/freedom.

In the metaphorical sense, it makes sense for the creations of “The Creator” to enjoy that which has been created solely for unlimited experience. Suffering is undergone and enjoyment is undertaken, but clearly both are the resulting choices of each individual creation, particularly for conscious humans, as we experiment with the endless situational and reactional possibilities.

From The Creator’s perspective, it’s entertaining to witness all the variety, but to see creations so happy with the creation no doubt encourages The Creator positively. This metaphor allows us to grasp the notion that perhaps existence itself is conscious in some abstract manner which we as individual parts of a grander system could never truly understand (much like cells, bacteria, insects, and other smaller lifeforms than ourselves all either form larger life or contribute to a  grander ecosystem).

Essentially, Earth happens to be a place in the universe where everything lined up just right and existence finally had a chance to experience itself consciously (through human awareness).  There are smaller worlds within our Earth, just as we are but one small portion of life upon our planet, as it is one portion of our solar system, which is one small part of our galaxy, etc — but none of this takes away the significance of conscious existence.  From our vantage-point, it does seem as if we are in the exact middle of a scale where the smallest and largest components of our universe are similar in measurable extremes.

This is a fallacy of conscious awareness, however, as regardless where we find ourselves on “the cosmic scale”, if conscious, we would likely perceive the smaller degrees and the larger degrees of life in relatively equal proportion. Technology naturally allows us to see to our absolute limits, but this will always be seen in a relatively “even” light.  Why would we be able to traverse to the edge of the universe but find ourselves unable to zoom in beyond bacteria, or vice versa?

The underlying point here is that because of this fallacy, regardless how primitive or advanced we actually are as a global community, our existence is profound.  It is profound because without our awareness, the universe would continue to exist with all it’s mystery and absolutely no one to soak in the experience of it all.  We’re aware, and regardless how limited of an awareness, it is still very much an awareness.

Time Is Absurd

It’s interesting to think of time as being genuinely relative depending on which level of life you choose to focus your attention upon.  The Aquatic Mayfly lives but 30 minutes, while the Aldabra Giant Tortoise is on record for living 225 years (liver failure is what got him).  The human, on a worldwide average, lives for around 67 years.  Yet, each species lives life in the same general manner.  They are born into reality, and then they die, fading into non-existence.  The processes in-between are also similar, as each of these three species consumes food (the fly and the tortoise, primarily plants) which is processed into energy which is essential for life.  Is it so far-fetched to suggest, that if the fly and the tortoise were consciously aware of their lifespan, all three species would perceive the duration of their lives in the same relative amount of time?

Every individual process in any lifespan, has a beginning, and has an end.  Each system, however, is designed to be perpetual and infinite, fueled from collective sub-processes.  The processes within these systems are things which perish/cease to exist, but each process is always working towards the purpose of the grander system which it serves.

Think of the cells within your body forming tissue, forming muscles, forming body systems, forming you, forming the human species and finally forming the earth’s ecosystem.  Each process (let’s say, the tissue) is preceded by that which forms the process (the cells), and succeeded by the system which said processes (the tissues) form (the muscle).  Each individual system formed within this existence is the result of one singular path — one path of repeatedly successful micro-systems.  Collectively, these systems can join together, to become processes for an even grander system.

The fascinating thing about being human is that we are consciously aware of our own existence.  We can contemplate upon the very structure of such a thing.  We can gain an ego, simply because the human being is a pretty impressive thing, just like any mammal, organism or system.  We are really capable of quite a lot, but our conscious awareness allows us to get wrapped up in a perceived significance in our individual life.  Clearly, the human is just another process, resulting from several micro-systems, and the macro-system which it serves is that of the human species.

This concept is found many places — your computer, the numerical system, the formation of stars and galaxies, a musical album, cities within a state/country/etc.  You can keep filling that sentence with a plethora of examples, but the point will remain that this is a pattern which pops up all over our conscious existence.

If each process (each process resulting from succeeding micro-systems) — essentially everything — is just serving a macro-system of a grander nature, would not the details within every single process share a certain universality?  You would certainly start to see many similarities between seemingly random and non-connected processes.  Between an asteroid and computer byte, between a human and a galaxy; what each process served would certainly be very different, but everything still follows the basic “/micro-system –> macro-system/micro-system –> macro-system/” loop.  If smaller creatures and various animals could perceive existence in a similar manner to the human species, their perception of their individual lifespan would likely be extremely similar to that of a human’s.

Smaller creatures appear to move extremely quickly, and the universe as a whole seems to move very slowly — from human observation, at least.  Sure, the earth revolves around the sun at around 67,000 mph, but what does that even realistically translate to from our micro-systematic perspective?  We say “1 year”.  This really just sounds like saying “1 successful completion of a process”, in this case, the earth fully revolving one time around the sun.  On a whole, one year for the earth is quite a long time from our point of view — and this is not subjective, as our timescale stems from the Earth’s revolution around the sun.  Under this timescale, the Mayfly lives but half an hour.  We are measuring our micro-system by a macro-system’s standard, and this is clearly an absurd way to calculate our existence.  In this respect, Sun Worship would naturally make the most sense as a religion to subscribe to, as Father Time is certainly a Pagan.

Judging a micro-system’s time from a macro-system’s perspective is certainly the most natural way to perceive time, but while functional, it is philosophically delusional.  True perspective of existential duration stems from the perspective of the individual process, in relation to surrounding processes upon the same level as itself.  To really get a grasp for how significant a human being, as an isolated process, has in correspondence to known universal existence, think of things in terms of “1 Human Life” — the average worldwide lifespan is, again, 67 years.  Going back to my initial examples, a Mayfly would then live for 7 Billionths of 1 Human Life.  Our sun then, exists for about 184 Million Human lives.  When you look at things in this manner, you get an immediate understanding for the true duration-based value of your existence.

And from this, we also see that there is no way to measure time without relying upon a reference point.  This reference point, being, whatever individual process you choose to judge from — and in this we see that time as a concept is imperfect.  Completely, completely relative, and therefore one should place no philosophical or contemplative weight upon “minutes”, “hours” and “years”.  Existence is existence, regardless which system you find yourself a part of.  Hypothetically, if you could view every individual process, consciously and independently, I would imagine every lifespan to pass by with the same relative duration.