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Friday, January 15, 2016

Post-Humanism–Is Art Dead And Does It Matter?

Leon Wieseltier writing in the New York Times Book Review (1.7.16) contends that in the current desire to quantify the non-quantifiable, the subjective, and the affective, art is receding as an essential element in the human experience. 
Meanwhile the discussion of culture is being steadily absorbed into the discussion of business. There are “metrics” for phenomena that cannot be metrically measured. Numerical values are assigned to things that cannot be captured by numbers. Economic concepts go rampaging through noneconomic realms: Economists are our experts on happiness! Where wisdom once was, quantification will now be. Quantification is the most overwhelming influence upon the contemporary American understanding of, well, everything. It is enabled by the idolatry of data, which has itself been enabled by the almost unimaginable data-generating capabilities of the new technology.
David Brooks agrees and avers that art is not only important for better understanding the world, but for understanding ourselves.  “Beauty incites spiritual longing”, he concludes.
John O’Donohue, a modern proponent of this humanistic viewpoint, writes in his book “Beauty: The Invisible Embrace”: “Some of our most wonderful memories are beautiful places where we felt immediately at home. We feel most alive in the presence of the beautiful for it meets the needs of our soul. … Without beauty the search for truth, the desire for goodness and the love of order and unity would be sterile exploits. Beauty brings warmth, elegance and grandeur.”
The art critic Frederick Turner wrote that beauty “is the highest integrative level of understanding and the most comprehensive capacity for effective action. It enables us to go with, rather than against, the deepest tendency or theme of the universe.”
There is no doubt that objective analysis has never been more prominent as a way of deciphering the world.  Aided by sophisticated algorithms and powerful computers, researchers in all fields can more accurately identify the causes of events and the variables that affect them.  By so doing they are increasingly able to predict the results of these events.


The opinions of pundits, commentators, and critics are being devalued as result.  Why should anyone listen to the jabber at political roundtables when crowdsourced big data and betting markets have been proven far more accurate.   The ability to process unimaginable amounts of data in seconds enables the most comprehensive investigation of phenomena ever.  Historical data now digitized and recorded electronically can now provide concrete, objective evidence of trends.  Crime either is or is not increasing in Chicago. 

While issues of invasion of privacy are ever more a concern, we love our cookies and have willingly ceded our rights to doctors, businesses, and government.  We are monitored every time we speak, type, talk, or drive.  All of this data is being used for analytical and predictive purposes.   GPS-enabled cell phones record and transmit valuable data on our movements.  Transportation planners can use this data to improve traffic flow, adjust parking regulations, and target infrastructure investments.   Highly-targeted and personalized online advertising can eliminate waste, improve consumer satisfaction, and increase profits.  Medical diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment of individual patients has improved significantly thanks to the trillions of bits of collective medical histories.

The examples of the benefits of wide scale data collection, high-speed processing, and increasingly sophisticated software are too many to mention.

The question is not whether or not big data is a social good; but whether or not the expansion of its use somehow impinges upon the subjective areas of life, such as art and its appreciation.  

There is no doubt that market forces are in play in terms of the valuation of art; but the more sophisticated market research available today has only made the assessment more accurate.  Sotheby’s has been in the business of appraising art for the market for almost 300 years.  They still put paintings and antiques up for auction, but they have a very precise idea how to direct the bidding.

Image result for images sotheby's auction

There is also no doubt that the art market demands focus on well-known artists, and their continued worth is a function of the rate and amount of sales.  The art market, therefore, is a closed system and young, talented artists are left out.

While this may be true, the fault is not with the art market but with the buying public and private foundations.   If consumers have neither the experience in appreciating or valuating works of art; and if donors are niggardly with their cash, then works of art will continue to be traded as a commodity and nothing more.   Wieseltier goes after the wrong partridge.

Let us assume that all of this is true – that the art market is highly restrictive and predictable and only trades well-known and easily-valued works; and that new artists are few and far between because of public indifference and the crowding out of foundation money by health and social welfare issues – it by no means limits the amount of artwork available. 

Thanks to three online ‘art’ sites, there are  more paintings, sculptures, crafts, and designs to look at than anyone can fit into a day.  They come in regular waves over the social media – the Pre-Raphaelites, the Renaissance, Picasso, Degas, minor Danish landscape painters, Greek antiquities.  Pinterest monitors viewer clicks and selects paintings from the particular periods in which they are interested.  We are flooded with art.  The  technology exists to reproduce these electronic images in real size and quality.  Anyone can create a virtual museum with a few clicks on the computer and a trip to Best Buy.

The issue is not the availability of art but its appreciation.  Everyone from a Park Avenue matron to the rural poor can have access to art.  The difference is that Mrs. Vanderbilt has been schooled in art appreciation ever since Miss Porter’s and Wellesley.  The Met is around the corner.  Art is an intellectual currency not a financial one.  Hiram Bickers rarely leaves the mountains of East Tennessee, was once on a tour of Washington and the national museums organized by the local Rotary Club but has never been since.  He works two low-paying jobs, has three children, and barely scrapes by.  When he does find time to relax, it is not surfing the web for the Rijksmuseum.

For the hundred million or so of Americans with little education, low wages, and few prospects, art is of marginal interest at best.  It is not ennobling, nor inspiring, nor spiritual.  It is simply not relevant.

If a significant number of Americans are unschooled in art appreciation and/or have little interest in it because of other more pressing demands; and if more wealthy Americans are degrading the experience by artificially attaching numbers to paintings and sculpture, that’s their problem. 

Brooks ends with an observation about ‘worldview’:
The shift to post-humanism has left the world beauty-poor and meaning-deprived. It’s not so much that we need more artists and bigger audiences, though that would be nice. It’s that we accidentally abandoned a worldview that showed how art can be used to cultivate the fullest inner life. We left behind an ethos that reminded people of the links between the beautiful, the true and the good — the way pleasure and love can lead to nobility.
As above, tell this to the Wal-Mart checker or Detroit bus driver.  His worldview has always been circumscribed by genes, environment, race, geography, market economics, and bad luck.  Nobility?

If Brooks intends this comment for the educated, privileged, and talented among us, he is also off the mark.  No one who has grown up with art and an appreciation for beauty, line, artistic grace, and style will never let numbers get in the way.

Wieseltier goes much further than Brooks and focuses on the decline of humanism, the core value of Western civilization for centuries.  it isn’t so much the erosion of an appreciation of art and beauty he laments, but the erosion of our secular home.  Its disappearance is tantamount to historical tragedy.

He defines and praises humanism as the philosophy central to goodness; and it is the erosion of this essential quality of life that is being lost in modern life:
The [humanistic] worldview takes many forms: a philosophical claim about the centrality of humankind to the universe, and about the irreducibility of the human difference to any aspect of our animality; a methodological claim about the most illuminating way to explain history and human affairs, and about the essential inability of the natural sciences to offer a satisfactory explanation; a moral claim about the priority, and the universal nature, of certain values, not least tolerance and compassion.
A  classical education steeped in art, literature, science and philosophy was designed to support humanism and to assure both its centrality and its longevity.  

It is certainly true that more and more colleges and universities, in response to consumer demand, have been reducing the number of humanities courses given. Parents want their sons and daughters to get the most out of Harvard without wasting their tuition on art.   If young people of means and intelligence are no longer exposed to art nor encouraged to make it, then there is little hope that they will be interested in Sargent or Manet, or have a sense of the relevance of Hobbes and Kant to the modern world.

But is this really an issue? Those who make public policy in America are not French aristocrats or members of the intellectual elite who have 1500 years of artistic, literary, and intellectual history behind them and for whom a respect for ‘culture’ and ‘beauty’ is almost hardwired.  Our leaders are farm boys, ranchers, ward politicians, hucksters, carny barkers, and vaudevillians.  Humanism?  Who’s kidding whom?  More importantly their smarts match their constituents.  Yalies won’t need Kierkegaard on Wall Street.

Finally, the death of classical humanism is not the end of the world.  The 18th, and 19th centuries are over, the 20th fading fast.  The 21st will be one of revolutionary change.  Wieseltier talks of post-humanism.  Americans in mid-century will be talking of the first post-human generation (http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2015/12/the-post-human-generationan-engineered.html).  Genetic modification, bionics, advanced cybernetics, and robotics will fundamentally alter the human organism and with it human society.  Twenty-first century man, engineered with a complete interface between mind and computer gene-altered to survive and flourish in any environment, here or planetary, and bionic enough to be impermeable to disease, will be unrecognizable to those living now.

Under those conditions, a new ‘humanism’ will arise.  Of what it consists is impossible to speculate.  Thanks to a symbiotic relationship with the computer, the human mind will be expanded geometrically.  Its access to all the world’s data, images, information, and experiences in a virtual world will result in the most engaged and intellectually and emotionally active life ever imagined.
Not to worry. 


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