The Arts

Adapted from a manuscript draft of Creative Systems Theory;

“Fear not the strangeness you feel. The future must enter you before it happens.” —Rainer Maria Rilke

Defining Questions

What is the purpose of art?  And what ultimately makes something good or great art?

How will the forms and esthetics of art be different in times ahead and why?

How in the future will we understand the relationship of art—at least its underlying sensibilities—to other spheres: science, religion, government, health, education?

The future

The significance of the arts (visual arts, music, dance, literature) as we face the challenges of Cultural Maturity can seem a bit schizophrenic. At times art’s contribution has been most profound. As often it had seemed irrelevant and absurd.

Certainly a lot in art of the last century has addressed the tasks of Cultural Maturity quite directly—as I have noted. In the chapter on uncertainty, I described how the emphasis on multiple perspectives in Picasso’s cubist works removed any final place to stand. The theme of responsibility touched on how the writings of Becket, Joyce Lawrence, and others introduced a newly participatory esthetic (where what we see is explicitly as much about ourselves as what we might be looking at). Addressing the changing realities of change, I reflected on Dali’s melting watches and the impermanence of much performance art. With our look at systemic complexity, I described increasingly dynamic relationships between once separate artistic disciplines, and also between the artist and the viewer and between art and the everyday. Our examination of the concept of Reengagement included observations on reconnecting with rhythm in the sensibilities of jazz, rock, and modern dance and the inspiration Kandinsky, Copland, Reich and others found in the artistic expression of earlier cultural times.

At the same time, art, at least in a capital “A” sense, has for most people had a diminishing role through the last century. Few people can name major figures in the visual arts of the last fifty years. And much of twentieth century visual art that people recognize can seem baffling if not ludicrous. (Campbell’s soup cans and toilets as art?) The arts that do have effect in people’s lives today tend to be either classical forms that appeal to a limited audience or expression (mostly musical) that is highly commercialized, often more a product of mass culture (who will be the next blond teenage pop-diva?) than anything that serves art’s traditional cultural function. Hands-down the dominant art form today?: advertising (a major Transitional Absurdity to which we shall return).

Art’s Question of Referent

To make deep sense of what Cultural Maturity has to say about art’s future, we need first to pause and step back. Understanding requires a degree of preparation not so obviously necessary with previous cultural domains. As we move toward the more left-hand end of the creative spectrum, both the cultural functions of domains and how those functions work become less obvious. It is fairly clear, at least superficially, how science or government benefit us, less so for art—or for religion, at least in the same sense. There is also how left-hand-domain contributions become nearly eclipsed with Transition. To make useful sense of what we see, we need to look with particular care at the cultural roles a domain plays, and examine that domain’s story to this point. (We did this preparation for religion in the dialogue with Jonathan.)

Art’s Question of Referent asks just what makes something art, and more, what makes a piece good or even great art. Framed more systemically it asks about how art serves us and what is going on when it serves us most powerfully. Art’s significance has been a question of eternal debate, and final definition will always elude us. But a culturally mature meta-perspective makes art’s function newly amenable to scrutiny.

Art would still be of great value if its purpose were simply to create things of beauty. But mature perspective suggests that its significance is deeper—and in ways with particular pertinence to culture’s emerging tasks. Art manifests from close to creation’s extreme left hand, taking form from the most germinal of intelligences—the body and the imagination.

Art’s dual role follows from this fact. Art functions as an “advocate” for, and reminder of, the more germinal realms and values tapped by the artistic endeavor—providing an on-going link with left-hand sensibilities. And it fulfills a visionary function—connects us with new possibilities—Rilke’s “future … [entering] you before it happens.” This visionary function is a product not so much of exceptional capacity on the part of artists (though exceptional art requires exceptional capacities), as the creatively germinal intelligences that predominate in the artistic personality. When we call something art, we claim that in some way it gives voice to truths just peeking over the horizon. Good or great art is art that serves this dual function in especially powerful ways—in the psyche of the individual, but also, and particularly, for the psyche of culture.

Art, like other more left-hand contributions, had its greatest dominance as a force in times well past—a key recognition when bringing historical perspective to art’s place in culture. It is with culture’s beginnings that the body and imaginal intelligences that underlie artistic expression speak most strongly. A person could argue, appropriately, that current forms are more “sophisticated.” But it is hard to disagree with the assertion that tribal dances and the all-permeating mythic imagery of ancient Egypt or Greece played a more central role in people’s lives than does art in today’s world.

Transition and Twentieth-Century Art

The perspective this stepping back provides helps us make sense of art more recently. It also—drawing on art’s function as a voice for emerging possibility—helps more generally with filling out our understanding of Transitional dynamics. For the sake of brevity I will turn specifically to contemporary art’s avante garde. We could as usefully examine Modern Age cultural forms as they manifest in current times—either the classical arts or the entertainment arts of popular culture—but art’s more formal cutting-edge provides the most explicit illustration.

Art of the last century and much that we see today, while sometimes held aloft, exists at the margins (as these observations would predict). But, however diminished, art’s cutting edge has continued its primordial function. Part of that function has been to chronicle its own demise—or more accurately from the perspective of Cultural Maturity, the predicted effect Transitional dynamics would have on artistic sensibility (and left-hand understanding as a whole).

Twentieth century artists challenged art itself—both what makes something art and art’s role in culture. We hear Dada’s proclamation: “Art is dead—long live art.” Pop art’s claim to status as high art—Andy Warhol’s soup cans—left us to ponder whether everything is art, or perhaps nothing.

Creative Systems Theory proposes that the reason such art has left most people baffled is only in part that good art always does.  It is also an expression of Transition’s odd necessity that art take form from a reality in which the sensibilities that traditionally define it are nearly absent. Art becomes increasingly existential—its strengths, that it affirms meta-perspective and surrenders known structure, its weakness that it is yet unable to really replace what has been taken away. Remember that concert of the music of John Cage in which “no one got up to dance.”

It is not that twentieth-century art did not contribute as art.  In fact it powerfully articulated changing realities. It pointed toward a world in which what we see is only a first glimpse of what we get, in which the artificially elevated diminishes rather than inspires, and in which truth becomes increasingly context-dependent and plural. But it also left us with the question of whether art as we have known it has any future at all.

Art’s Future

What lies ahead for art? A person might appropriately ask whether art as experience will ever again claim the potency of times past. Cultural Maturity proposes its now familiar answer to such questions—it will and it won’t. If the creative anamnesis predicted for other more left-hand cultural functions—community, religion, our human connection with our bodies and nature—similarly re-enlivens artistic sensibility, art should derive new attention and respect. Reengagement reconnects us with earlier sensibilities—including the specifically germinal dimensions which give rise to art.

But, as we have seen, such integration always exacts a (major) price. It challenges notions that make any one part of the whole distinct or supreme. For art, that should translate into a surrendering of special status, that “death of art with a capital A.”   If Cultural Maturity’s predictions are accurate, we will likely connect with art more deeply in the future—art in all its guises, from the most formal to the most personal or alternative. But at once such connecting will be of a more humble, less mythologized sort. Art in a culturally mature reality becomes an increasingly human enterprise, newly cherished, but at the same time no longer elevated and separate.

This bridging of the special and the ordinary that results should be accompanied by an array of more specific bridgings. We should see, for example, the boundaries that separate the artist and the non-artist becoming more permeable. The professional artist should still be highly valued. But, too, we should come to view the artistic—or more precisely the germinally creative—as something each person appropriately claims (and, as with a muscle group, learns to exercise).

We should also witness many more esthetic bridgings. Art should continue its forays across the boundaries of traditional disciplines—linking visual art with theater with music with the written word—as we have seen with performance art over recent decades. We should also encounter further creative links between the artistic work of different cultures—of both same and different cultural stages. (Digital media should dramatically accelerate both of these integrative processes.) We will likely venture increasingly across the boundaries that have traditionally separated the arts from other cultural domains. And certainly, we will see deeper links between the artistic and the technological as we witness with current explorations in new media.

In addition, Cultural Maturity predicts changes in how we view the artist’s role, an observation with broader implications for our understanding of temperament. With increasing frequency, we should find people of artistic temperament contributing outside the formal bounds of art. If Cultural Maturity’s predictions are accurate, every profession should have a growing need for people who are good at the new—both comfortable with change and facile with the imaginative capacities needed to envision the possible. If business needs to be more entrepreneurial, it needs more people natively skilled at imagining the yet unimagined. And a few more imaginative types might greatly help the CIA stay ahead of the ingenuity of terrorists.

Art and Advertising

Earlier I proposed that advertising represents today’s preeminent art form.

If we define art in terms of the intelligences on which an activity draws and measure preeminence in terms of where the most money is spent, such is the case hands down. This is a reality we must better understand and address. The concept of Cultural Maturity predicts that future changes in our relationship to the sensibilities art is about will help provide tools for doing so (as well as for confronting the media’s broader two-edged potential effects).

What, if we value art, do we best do with advertising’s lock on the artistic? A person might appropriately argue nothing. If the purpose of art is to mirror what most defines culture, then advertising, given these highly material times, is just art doing its job. But Transitional realities make the situation more complicated. If art’s purpose is to presage—not just mirror but esthetically lead—we can argue equally well that advertising’s ultimate effect is precisely the opposite of art—at least as defined by art’s historical mandate. Advertising promotes extreme material values that can no longer serve us. And its purpose, rather than to provide insight and guidance, is to mislead, making it hardly a solution to today’s crisis of purpose. Advertising’s hold on the modern psyche represents a major Transitional Absurdity. (We know we are being misled, but this does not seem to diminish advertising’s effect.)

Advertising’s capacity to inform remains an essential element in the workings of a free market and will continue to do so in the future. But becoming more conscious of how advertising has its effects—and, when necessary, reigning in its excesses—will be essential to a psychologically and spiritually healthy future. Advertising’s power derives from its use of the trusted, and largely invisible grammar of art—metaphor, image, movement, sound. That power becomes predictably amplified by how far the average person today is distanced from these languages (both unconscious of their workings and hungry for their sustenance). If we succeed in being more conscious of and facile with the languages of esthetic expression, we should become more capable of such creative management (both with regard to advertising and media more generally).

Art and Future Significance

That the sensibilities that give rise to art gain new access in a culturally mature world could not be more significant. This renewed intimacy with the germinal expands our capacity to innovate—increasingly essential in our time of fundamental change. Reengagement also plays a key role in the deeper connecting with self and substance needed for addressing today’s crisis of purpose. And there is art’s historical visionary function—which when combined with maturity’s meta-perspective should play an increasingly important role in the specifically creative sort of responsibility on which our future depends. The future of art—or at least the application of artistic sensibilities—becomes ultimately as important as that of domains such as science or government that we would traditionally (at least in recent times) think of as more determining and more directly pertinent to the tasks of future leadership.

A Thumbnail Summary: Cultural Maturity predicts …

—that the underlying sensibilities of art will derive renewed importance in the future, whether applied formally in art or in the tasks of innovation more broadly.

—that while formal art will have no less a place, the artistic should be seen increasingly as a part of us all and something that a healthy life requires that we draw on.

—that the importance of integrating artistic sensibilities more broadly into culture will challenge everyone to more deeply understand the needs and concerns of people with different temperaments and contributions.

—that we will become increasingly sensitive to when the capacities that make art powerful are used to manipulate and diminish and increasingly willing to speak out when they are.

Thought experiments

How would you describe the pertinence of art—or its underlying sensibilities—to the tasks ahead?

Imagine you are a person with artistic temperament—a person with strengths in the more creatively germinal aspects of intelligence. What cultural roles would you have been most likely to assume in times past and what would have been the primary challenges involved in those roles? Are the cultural roles you might assume in the future significantly different? If so, how, and what additional challenges would assuming these new roles entail?

If the future were itself a work of art, what would it look (or sound, or move) like?