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Chaos and cosmos: the search for meaning in modern art.

The Modernist Moment

Does art bring any sense of order, meaning, or understanding to the artist or to the audience? Can art bring order or meaning to an artist or an audience in chaos? Do art and artist reflect a world out of order, or an underlying harmony? Can we discover a transcendent, unifying quality by examining the continuum of order and disorder, meaning and confusion in modern art?

More than any preceding artistic style or aesthetic, Modernism epitomizes the emergence of a deliberate cultural and social agenda. Philosophical and psychological tenets pervade (and even undermine) the artist's work. In the Modernist movement, scientific discoveries, psychoanalytic concepts, existential philosophy, photographic techniques, and other social and intellectual inventions exploded onto canvases, inspired dancing feet, and surfaced on film and page as artists attempted to capture cosmos--meaning and order--in a rapidly changing world of seeming chaos.

The Minimalists believed that less is more but eventually concluded that it was still not enough. The Dadaists exalted absurdity and incongruity, the art of non sequitur, in works that surprised, shocked, and seethed with anti war and anti society sentiments. The Cubists challenged the traditional notion that an object, a form, had only one true identity, one reality. Their works unveiled the multiple planes, angles, and geometric constructions that merge in the perception of an object.

The Surrealists, reacting to Freudian psychology, approached meaning through the expression of the unconscious mind and produced dreamy, fragmented, multimedia revelations of the hidden, the mysterious, the unknown but perhaps knowable. Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali said that in filming the seminal Surrealist movie, Andalusian Dog (Un Chien Andalou), their technique was to shoot a scene until it made no sense! Out of nonsense arose a new, more potent, perhaps more meaningful sense.

Even popular cinema embraced the psychoanalytic/surrealist mode in portraying the search for meaning from disorder. A classic example is Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, in which a beautiful psychoanalyst (Ingrid Bergman) helps cure a handsome amnesiac (Gregory Peck) by interpreting his dream, the window to his unconscious. The much celebrated dream sequence was stunningly designed by Salvador Dali and vividly captures the unorthodox bent of the Surrealist mind. The artist's ability to evoke meaning from image was also movingly demon strafed by early twentieth century German Expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, M, and Metropolis. By disclosing an underlying meaning or order, the style of an image became a means of emotional or cognitive evocation. Thus, in its many forms--paintings, film, prose, poetry, and performance--Modernism emerged as an at tempt to better reflect, reveal, and explore a hidden order of self and world.

Primitive art adapted natural images, seeking truth through eternal, static, perceptively real, and concrete forms, lines, pat terns, and objects. Primitive art exposed the "retinal" truth: art was adapted from nature and its parade of images. The urgency was to find order in the chaos of the natural and to reproduce this order as it was perceptually organized. Yet when Hans Hoffman admonished Jackson Pollock to eschew subjective expression and stick to the natural world, Pollock succinctly replied, "But I am nature" Ironically, it was Hoffman who altered his approach: his work blossomed in intensity and meaning as it took on Surrealist qualities.

Surrealists in all media provided a glimpse of cosmos from the seemingly murky confines of repressed, unconscious thoughts. When Marcel Duchamps' painted glass piece entitled "To be looked at (from the other side of the glass), with one eye, close to, for almost an hour" was accidentally cracked, Duchamps insisted that the cracks were an integral part of his design and must be left in! Both Surrealists and Dadaists used impossible, incongruent images to provoke unexpected truths and sentiments through metaphor, mistake, absurdity, spontaneity, and serendipity.

At the other extreme, Andy Warhol and other Pop artists painted hyper-real images of soup cans and similarly mundane, ordinary objects, forcing the viewer to look again and carefully at objects of common perception. The ironic upshot of these two polar opposite approaches was that the Surrealist object was praised for its strangeness and the Pop Art object for its unstrangeness! Yet both approaches lie on the continuum of chaos and cosmos, skillfully and seductively reveal ing aspects of our selves and our world by lifting artist and audience to another plane of contemplation. Can a meaning gestalt, an intellectually unifying concept, emerge from such paradoxically opposing views?

Sometimes words alone are not enough to express and reveal; sometimes it is necessary to transcend language if we are to find meaning, to unveil order from chaos, and to dislodge chaos from gestalt. To explain art is never enough. Modern artist Robert Rauschenberg expresses this frustration, yet implies a contextual "truth," in writing:

I find it nearly impossible free ice to

write about jeepaxle my work. The

concept I planetarium struggle to

deal with ketchup is opposed to the

logical continuity lift tab inherent in

language horses and communication.

My fascination with images open 24

hours is based on the complex

interlocking of disparate visual facts

heated pool that have no respect for


Or as Pablo Picasso once noted, "Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird?"

Abstraction and Reality

The first totally abstract painting was created by Vasily Kandinsky in 1910. Art historians have reminded us what a courageous act of resolve and imagination this was. In his brief autobiography Reminiscences, Kandinsky mused:

In many things I must condemn myself,

but I have always remained true

to one thing--the inner voice, which

set my goal in art and which I hope

to follow to the last hour.

Both artist and audience seek beauty, understanding, emotion, or integrity from the artistic performance or object. Both artist and audience seek hidden, unsayable "truths" from both chaos and cosmos in an inexorable dance of recurrent attempts at synthesis, analysis, resynthesis, and reanalysis. And if words are not enough to express, to explain, to reveal, then perhaps we should look to numbers.

Kandinsky certainly thought so. In his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky wrote: "The final abstract expression of every art is number" Number! The concepts and connotations of number, proportion, organization, geometry, and related mathematical concepts permeate the Modernist aesthetic. Paul Cezanne once suggested to a student that he look for geometric forms--circles, cones, cylinders, triangles--in the world around him. The Cubists apparently took this notion seriously--and to its logical extreme. Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase stands as a seminal example of the Cubist deconstruction of object into geometric, mechanistic attributes--yet it clearly retains an appealing and revealing gestalt. From the chaos of disparate parts--movements, symbols, shapes, planes, and fragments--emerges a context for under standing, simplification, and order.

Piet Mondrian's oeuvre represents the quintessential attempt to explore the reality of order from the deconstruction of geometry, space, and color. Mondrian sought to organize reality into the purest of patterns, hoping to transcend the retinal world of sensation and discover a hidden world of intimate organization. Clarity and discipline were means to an end. As E. H. Gombrich notes in The Story of Art, in his pursuit of deconstructive truth, "Mondrian, like Kandinsky and Klee, was something of a mystic and wanted his art to reveal immutable realities behind the ever changing forms of subjective appearance"

The search for "immutable realities" is one of the obsessions and defining qualities of Modernism. Those who have been lulled into accepting the common notion that "everything is relative" not only misunderstand the concept of relative (it may just as meaningfully be said that nothing is relative) but also underappreciate the insights that absolutes can provide. In artistic expression and appreciation, "absolutes" are integral: the point, the line, primary colors, right angles, proportion, form, and shape, as well as perceptual principles such as interposition, linear perspective, figure ground organization, reversal, and shape, size, and brightness constancies--all are "absolutes" which must be explored and manipulated in the search to reveal "truths" of both order and disorder. In Mondrianis most influential essay, "Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art,' his extremism and aesthetic purity are apparent:

Art shows us that there are

constant truths concerning forms.

Every form, every line has its own

expression. This objective

expression can be modified by our

subjective view but it is no less true

for that. Round is always round and

square is always square. Art makes

us realize that there are fixed laws

which govern and point to the use

of the constructive elements, of the

composition and of the inherent

interrelationships between them.

Art is the expression of true reality

and true life, indefinable but

realizable in plastics.

The Modernist approach can also evoke these absolutes by challenging the conceptual mystique of ordinary objects. In The Object Transformed, common objects are dissorted and manipulated in unexpected, absurdist ways: a cup covered in fur; a book inundated with pins, razors, knife, and scissors; chairs distorted, full of holes and wires; forks with tines bent in every direction; an umbrella made of sponge; a burned mattress on a barren floor. Similar challenges to the nature of objects are suggested by the exaggeratedly large, "soft" sculptures of Claes Oldenberg--typewriter, french fries, electrical plug. The result is to throw the viewer into a state of philosophical questioning. What exactly is an object? What are its inherent and defining qualities? What is the relation of cosmos and chaos?

American poet Stanley Kunitz once suggested that chaos can be conceptualized as the absence of time and space. The Modernist explores the chaotic world not through the concrete but via abstraction. Spatial temporal destruction has been a deliberate strategy in the works of Modernist authors, playwrights, painters, choreographers, poets, musicians, and designers. Well known examples of this include Franz Kaflka, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, e. e. cummings, William Burroughs, Merce Cunningham, Jean Genet, Georgia O'Keeffe, Italo Calvino, Mark Rothko, Jorge Luis gorges, Pablo Picasso, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and John Cage. Even punk rock music has echoed this theme. The punkers sought the essential and fundamental beat, tonality, and musical structure that epitomized rock music.

Avant-garde historian Greil Marcus has chronicled this history in his marvelous book Lipstick Traces: The Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Marcus introduces readers to an underground milieu of music, attitudes, style, and order (disorder?) which emerged from disparate forces within the Modernist context. Similarly, Alex Cox's film Sid and Nancy documented the rise and fall of the Sex Pistols' bass player Sid Vicious, as well as the alienated, pathetic lives suffered by him and his peers in the English counter culture. Unlike Marcus' book, however, the film failed even to hint at the social and intellectual forces that contributed to the de generate, languishing ethos it portrayed. There may in fact have been more integrity in those broken, rebellious lives than in the social morass to which they were reacting. Erich Neuman has pointedly noted that, "In our age, as never before, truth implies the courage to face chaos."

The search to reveal "absolutes" is an attempt to deconstruct not "meaning" but an underlying "reality," and then to reconstruct a gestalt pattern by manipulating the roots of reality into new realizations and new patterns of emerging meaning. One of the most ambitious and deeply moving--even poetic--examples of this is the work of con temporary artist Jennifer Bartlett. Her work Rhapsody, consisting of hundreds of squares of images, flows like music with a continuity and vitality that captures our imagination and turns our mind's eye toward the inherent power of lines, shapes, forms, and elements which, when decontructed, create a nonlinear emergence of meaning. The chaos of the moment, of the image, becomes the order of the mind, just as when blended tonal notes form a musical chord or unified images emerge from the independent, disparate elements of a mosaic. Unlike the Conceptual Minimalists, Bartlett's intention is to use orderly structure--rules, mathematics, geometry, number--not as a means to a programmatic end but merely as a means. The musical compositions of John Cage often share the same sensibility and directness.

The Advent of Post-modernism

Surrealism was a reaction to and affirmation of Freudian ideas: the uncovering of unconscious elements moving us closer to self understanding. Dadaism initially developed as an anti war attitude; artists were disgusted and chagrined by European society's inability to deal with contemporary problems. Structured society was viewed as meaningless and inconsequential. Absurdist art was created to express a mocking disregard for rationality and the status quo. Dadaism subsequently subsumed a broad range of styles and media: Dadaists, Action painters, Abstract Expressionists, Pop artists, and New Wave filmmakers all showed a passion for commenting on the underlying social relations and on the cynicism, ennui, and disillusionment inherent in the struggle to relate ourselves to a world of unparalleled and unchecked technological advance and information explosion and a social order still buried in barbarism and discord. Satire, parody, absurdity, stark realism, and abreaction all became tools in the Modernist's at tempts to untangle social, moral, and spiritual "truths" The Modern artist manipulated objects and concepts in abstract ways to produce cosmic or chaotic reorganizations of our philosophical constructs.

The evolution of the Modernist aesthetic reached a milestone with the work of painter Jasper Johns. Johns showed us the object as we had never seen it before: the symbol self consciously rendered as symbol--flag, map, bullseye, number. Eventually neither the object nor the representation of the object was enough; the artist had to reveal the connecting tissue that seals the bargain between symbol and symbolized. A kind of mete modernism was born. Perhaps this can be our signpost for mark ing the beginning of a Post modernist expression.

Andy Warhol showed us the hyper real, ordinary object (a soup can, a Brillo box) as art. To the pedestrian viewer, Warhol's work seemed like mockery, foolishness, nonart, even anti art. But to the thoughtful observer, this work represented an awakening, a metamorphosis, an important transition into a new realm of reasoning about the nature of art itself. Warhol's work required a new definition of art, a modified philosophy. The distinctions between object, sense, symbol, and meaning were being blurred and even questioned. The oeuvres of Johns and Warhol offered a changing perspective--a new, slightly off-kilter glimpse at the world of chaos and cosmos. Abstract Expressionist painter Willem deKooning echoed the dismay of many Modernists and Modern art connoisseurs when he said that Warhol was "a killer of art, a killer of beauty" The Modernist moment was passing and a new mode was evolving. In commenting on Warhol's "Brillo Box" painting, Columbia University philosophy professor Arthur C. Danto wrote:

It is the mark of Modernism in painting

that painting critiqued itself.

How is it possible for something to

be a work of art when something

else, which resembles it to whatever

degree of exactitude, is merely a

thing, or an artifact, but not an art

work? Warhol's object showed that

the philosophy of art was going to

have to be begun all over again,

since the question Warhol raised

had occurred to not a single

philosopher in the canon of

esthetics . . . it brought an end to a

period in which art could be made

in ignorance of its philosophical


We might well say that artistic works in the vein of Johns and Warhol heralded an era when the Modernist mode was giving way to a potent new Post-modernist style, and, with it, introducing an exciting new direction in philosophical perspective and interpretation.

From our cosmos we seek unity, order, sequence, relationships, connections. From ourselves we seek truth, beauty, peace, contentment, actualization. Yet the Post modernist is thrust into a transitional world where everything is challenged, doubted, and questioned, where even the symbol is nothing. Once symbols had meanings: pride, honor, love, obedience, duty. But advancing science, technology, philosophy, and social evolution have stripped the representation from the represented and denounced both. The medium isn't the message--there is no message!

Perhaps in a future world, there will be a new basis for hope and meaning; but for now, the Post modernist cognoscenti find themselves adrift without bearings. Religion, myth, and all manner of truths have been questioned and found wanting. The Post modernist is naked, without even the protective illusions of the pre-scientific world. Pre modernists might have warned us to clutch our illusions dearly, for they once meant our salvation. But it is our destiny now to realize that "disillusionment" is a necessary beginning for a new, more honest, more genuine, more "true" emerging reality. As Erich Fromm warned, "Knowing begins with the shattering of illusions, with disillusionment."

A stunning example of this Post modernist style is Mike Leigh's film Naked, which successfully captures the decay, depravity, and violently pathetic manner in which the underclass Post-modernist relates to self, ideas, social institutions, and other individuals. That such a movie has been written and filmed--and has touched such a large segment of thinking people--is testament to a burgeoning aesthetic that desperately needs examining. Film Professor Amos Vogel has reminded us that "poetry and nonlinear art are more suitable to the complex fluidities of the modem world view.... Dissolution, fragmentation, simultaneity, de composition--these are words in the service not of obfuscation but of clarification."

Other filmmakers have also explored the themes of alienation and chaos, of the need for cosmos in a contemporary world in which myths are dissolving. The deepest and most metaphorical example is director Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avuentura, LaNotte, and, the finale, L'Eclisse (The Eclipse), which concludes the trilogy with a long series of empty, lonely cityscapes. Very, very moving. Wim Wenders' films Wings of Desire and the sequel Faraway, So Close also evoke the lost, lonely nature of modern life. When Cassiel (an angel) falls to earth (becomes human), he is faced with the universal conundrum of finding a way to be good, kind, happy, and productive in a disorienting, chaotic society. Wenders' denouement is presented as a a combination of living life to the fullest (sensing, seeing, appreciating the ordinary) and finding hope in the knowledge that salvation may seem faraway but is in fact so close.

The films of Ingmar Bergman are also good examples of how style, context, and dialogue can portray the search for order in an empty, chaotic existence. In Through a Glass Darkly, a family must deal with a young woman's schizophrenia. Her brother is dismayed by this confusing, torturous inner world of disorder. After witnessing a psychotic episode, he emotionally relates his fears to his father: "Reality burst and I fell out. It's like in a dream, though real. Any thing can happen--anything, Daddy!" This brief scene beautifully captures the sensation of floating disconnected in a world of chaos--the isolated, frightening awareness that "any thing can happen"! In the film's resolution, the father assures his son that hope lies "in the knowledge that love exists as something real in the world of man.... Every sort of love . . . longing and denial . . . disbelieving and being consoled . . . suddenly the emptiness turns into wealth, and hopelessness into life."

No filmmaker has better explored the mysterious, ambiguous realm of memory than has French director Alain Resnais. In such films as the haunting, mesmerizing Hiroshima, Mon Amour and the nebulous, oblique Last Year at Marienbad, Resnais subverts time, awareness, sequence, and causality, making obvious the seductive, elusive nature of memory. We discover that chaos pervades not only the outer, physical world but also our inner, mental life. The dreamy states of consciousness, the illusions of perception, and now the very essence of memory--our storehouse of facts and events, the nucleus of our identity--is subject to doubt.

The sardonic, care less Post-modernist attitude is more cleverly disguised (and explotted) by Hollywood producers who unapologetically dispense overwrought platitudes, simplistic violence, "in-human" protagonists, and a paucity of ideas in vapid, innocuous "commercial" movies which more than live down to their moniker but ultimately and profoundly burden us with an unending insult to our sensibilities. It is a troubling omen that the public is not more shocked and outraged by what passes as in formation and entertainment in the Post modern world of news, movies, television, and the written word.

Modernism and Beyond

Modern art challenged our perceptions, our reality, and eventually our notion of art itself. It began with Impressionism, an artistic style which at the turn of the century was scorned as garish, homely, and unartistic. Ironically, among the general public today the Impressionists are immensely popular, and reproductions of their classic work adorn legions of living room walls. The Impressionists were concerned with the relationship between light and object--an artistic form of quantum dynamics! This artistic philosophy reached its logical extreme with Pointillism, best exemplified in the work of Georges Seurat. Points of light and color working in concert blossom perceptually into objects. Just as the musical notes of a literal concert merge into a symphony, Pointillism showed how a world of order could coalesce from the chaos of points.

Impressionism was followed by progressively richer and deeper excursions into the meaning of light, form, movement, color, surface, and shape, as a myriad of creative styles of expression erupted. Each style in its own idiosyncratic way explored the questions of chaos and cosmos--on canvas, in print, on stage, on film. It gradually became clear that the cornerstone that conjoined these disparate modalities was the tendency toward abstraction as a means to insight and expression. Each medium and style explored this new territory in its own moment of "truth": the rich colors of the Fauves; the surprise, incongruity, and shock of the Dadaists; the illusion and deception of the Op and Kinetic artists; the dreamy worlds of the Surrealists; the fragmented planes of the Cubists; the "plastic" search for absolute laws by the deStijl artists; the mundane and ironic reality mirrors of Pop Art; the loneliness and introspection of Minimalism; the subjective honesty of Abstract Expressionism. Each of these explored in its own way not only the reality of objects but also the more tantalizing mental world--ideas and concepts such as perception, thinking, and "reality" Perhaps the inevitable result of this exploration was the emergence of an artistic philosophy ready to challenge and deconstruct even the essence, the ultimate mean ing of abstraction itself.

The social, emotional, and cognitive shock waves of this adventure are still with us. They are blending with the social and cognitive consequences of parallel scientific advances, in particular those unsettling and provocative ideas arising from contemporary biology, physics, and cosmology. The emery ing Post-modernist zeitgeist, though disturbing in many respects, may prove to be the necessary path to a new enlightenment. The dissolution of myth and perceptual reality, the decay of symbol, leaves us without security and forces us to ask anew some difficult but essential questions. What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of meaning? And when object, image, perception, symbol, and memory have all been doubted or dismantled, what immutable reality persists?

Bruce Hinrichs is a professor, artist, musician, and author residing in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He has been a professor of psychology at several colleges and is currently at Lakewood Community College in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. He has exhibited blown glass, etched art pieces at galleries and art fairs in many U.S. cities and is currently writing a nonfiction trade book entitled Mind As Mosaic: The Robot in the Machine.
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Author:Hinrichs, Bruce
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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