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To a social scientist who might attempt

to approach the current "crisis in the


arts" by relating it to the nature of the
contemporary society, the initial clue
is that no single style or group of styles
has emerged that could be regarded
as the essential and relatively enduring
expression of the various fantasy
dispositions shaped by the contemporary
society. * )
A possible reason for the lack of a dominant
stylistic system today is that, while older
modes of visual perception have broken
down, no definite new manner of
perception, however pluralistic, has yet
developed in the advanced industrial
societies. Instead, a negative conditionwhich I will call perceptual disorientation
-appears to have become prevalent
among art-using people.

1.1.

>-

The quick variability of styles suggests


that, instead of having "our own" modes
of perception, "we" must still do with
laboratory exercises in perception (even
when we can, however infrequently,
agree on ultimate values). Perceptual
d isorientation gives priority to experimental
novelty over the perfection of an artistic
statement.
Since it is impossible, in the absence
of definite modes of perception, even to
feel intuitively what artistic statements
should be like, it is impossible also to judge
how well they are expressed. Hence,
tendencies to reject criteria of quality in
art criticism, possibly a reduced capacity to
appreciate differences in quality.
Perceptual disorientation leaves only
physical sensation unquestioned.
One possible explanation of perceptual
d isorientation m ight be to view it is as a
consequence of identity diffusion an uncertainty about t he nature of one's own
personal ity. Identity diffusion has tended
to occur in other periods of "psycho
cultural d iscontinu ity"- that is, in periods
of rapid change and societal crisis, such
as the late Roman Empire, the century
preced ing the Reformation, and the age of
Romanticism.' But, judging from the
evidence of visual art from those periods,
definite perceptual structures appear to
have remained available then, as they
are not today.

205

Another explanation of the perceptual


disorientation evident in contemporary art
would be to view it as a consequence
of the development of a consumer's society,
an affluent society concerned no longer
with production, but with consumption .
Economies of abundance generate a sense
that everything- mystical experiences,
friendships, revolutions, and works of art
- a re in ample, inexhaustible supply
and that nothing therefore needs to be
"hoa rded," taken care of as a precious
and enduring value. When this attitude
permeates the artists, they become
psychologicall y unfitted to produce precious
and enduring values. Instead , they are
transformed into consumers of their
own experiences, shopping around for
casual satisfactions.
The consumers' attitude toward objects is
related to disorientation in their perception.
A convinced producer must perceive
sharply and with a commitment to his
mode of perception. Consumers- as well
as artists who assume the role of
consumers with regard to their art- can
be "sold" ever-new modes of perception
and discard them easily after slight use.

206
The ideology of art as a consumption
good is supported by t he increased
prom inence of the middlemen (art dealers,
critics, museum directors) in the
organization of the artist ic enterprise.
The middlemen are, especially in market
economies, in a stronger position to
influence the consumption of art than to
stimulate the production of aesthetic values.
The magnates of the past who ordered art
to immortalize themselves, or the
churchmen who required it to celebrate
a myth, had inherently more need to
be concerned with the production of lasting
values than the modern salesman, critic,
or exhibitor of art does. An artistic
enterprise dominated by middlemen is
concerned primarily with the supply of
momentary consumption experiences.
When the contempory avantgarde conceives
of works of art as obsolescent immediately
after the artist has experienced t hem
("th row-away art," "self-destroyin g
art"), it aligns itself with the
intermediaries rather than the users
of art. In this respect, the artistic ideology
of people like Lichtenstein and Kaprow
has been shaped by the economic

ethic of the salesmen of the quickly


obsolescent goods of the industrial system.
The ethic of the obsolescent prod uct has,
of course, influenced the self-image
of contemporary men generally, and not
only the self-image of avantgarde
artists. Expressing this image in art results
in a kind of authenticity and in culture
historical documentation , but not in
great art. Great art is, by definition, that
which endures. It may be impossible
to create great art today. But one
reason for this impossibility is the
acceptance of the ideology that man
himself is a quickly obsolescent product
of a system designed for wasteful
consumption. There is something of an
intellectual "failure of nerve" about
accepting this ideology.

One reason for the artists' lack of resistance


to the notion of art as a quickly
obsolescent consumption good may be
a deficiency in motivation for producing
significant art. Historical stud ies- on
which I have reported elsewhere' - suggest
that artistic creativity is enhanced by
intense tensions in a society between
contradictory motivations of approximately
equal strength -achieveme nt agai nst
self-expression , Sensate against Ideat ional,
ascetic against erotic. When these
tensions subside because one mot ivation
has become overwhelming ly dominant,
art is overcome by the monotony of
dogma; when all motivations become
blurred, ambiguous, and none comes into a
sharply defined conflict with another, art
is overcome by the boredom of
amorphousn ess- of not having anything
worth saying for so long as it ta kes
to complete saying it. Only random ness and
the suggestivenes s of technological forms
remains. Th is seems to be the direction
in which the contemporary avantgarde is
headed.
The artist s' motivations are also
unfavorably affected by the bureaucratization
of his society. In a society dominated
by large-scale bureaucracies . artists tend
to become psychologicall y
"bureaucratiz ed"- preoccupied with
impersonal application of techn iques and
rules of composition rather than with
solving substantial existential problems in
terms of a visual medium. The o bvious
alternative to submitting to the

bureaucratization of the mind is rebell ing


against it as the ultimate danger.
Rejection of all order and reasonable
application of rules is the result. In visual
art, these two alternativ es take the form
of either rigid geometric ism or a wild
explosion of form and color. Both
alternatives cant a in innovative pate nti a Iities,
but either, taken by itself, seems to
inhibit the balanced perfection of
artistic statemen ts.
And yet the existential problem of the
tension between advancing rationaliz ation
of social organizat ions and increasing
"disorder in the soul" is precisely the kind
of problem that artists might help
resolve, and in the process gain vitality
and significance for their art. But many
choose either the rational ity or the
disorder, as if lacking confidence in their
ability to arrive at symbolic resolution s
of the tension between the two.
The most hopeful element in the attitudes
of contempo rary artists seems to me
the refusal to accept arbitrary hierarchie s of
values, ethnocen tric rigidities, perceptual
provincialisms. This is the positive side
of perceptual disorienta tion. It might
indeed release unexpected sensibiliti es.
But the rejection of what has been taken
for granted accomplishes anything of
value only when combined with motivatio n
to search for a coherence beyond
mere rejection.
Celebrations of the sacred disorder of
one's soul are artisticall y convincin g
when there is too much traditiona l order
in the world outside. When the world
becomes perceptually disoriente d, the task
of the artist might be construed as the
search for convincin g limits to
amorphousness, for structure beyond
libera t'ton, for a sense of the "permane
ntly
treasurable," to be gained from committe d
craftsmanship. The decline of the
avantgarde since the 1930's - or in
America, since the 1950's' - seem's
0
!t m~ due to a failure to understan d that
1s h1sto 1
nca role to press against
conf
tnlng structures has lost its pointnot everywh
.
ere but prec1sely where the
avant-ga d
r e culture is created and
appreciated Th
rega .

e avantgarde can probably


In Its vt
l't
I a 1 Y only by reversing its
0
wn trad't'
.
1
own
~on. by pressing now against its
anomie and its ritualism of innovation .

In its golden age, the avant-garde has


produced much of its achievem ent in the
context of artistic movemen ts which
helped to synthesize collective perceptua l
dispositio ns capable of sustainin g
significan t styles. But it might be argued
that in the internatio nal centers of
visibility the quick publicity of the electronic
age has, at long last, made the developm ent
of artistic movemen ts to their mature
stage virtually impossibl e. The innovative
impulses still come from the "hysteric
cultures" at the center, but they have
to mature - and be integrated into viable
patterns -somew here else. My hope is
in the revival of the creativity of
provincial cities and of the smaller
nations; of margins which are shocked
into awareness by a center, yet refrain
from imitating it.
What is increasing ly needed to sustain a
creative post-mod ernity, is coalitions of the
identifiab le small, refusing to be either
impressed to self-extinc tion by the goings-on
among the indistingu ishable big, or rest
content with the comforts of a modest
provincial ism.

207
NOTES
*) Read the at 27th annual meeting of
The American Society for Aesthetic s on
October 23, 1969, in Charlotte sville, Va.
') Nathan Adler, "The Antinomia n
Personali ty: The Hippie Character
Type," PSYCH lATRY, 31 (Novembe r,
1968), pp. 325-338.
2
)
Vytautas Kavolis, "Econom ic Correlates
of Artistic Creativity ," THE AMERICAN
JOURNAL OF SOCIOLOGY, 70
(Novembe r, 1964), pp. 332-341;
"Religiou s Dynamics and Artistic
Creativity ," INDIAN SOCIOLOGICAL
BULLETIN, 4 (January, 1967), pp.
133-145; "Sex Norms, Emotion ality, and
Artistic Creativity : Psycho-H istorical
Exploratio ns," THE PSYCHOANALYTIC
REVIEW, forthcom ing.
.
') James S. Ackerman , "The Demise of the
Avant-Gar de: Notes on the Sociology
of Recent American Art," COMPARATIVE
STUDIES IN SOCIETY AND HISTORY,
11 (October, 1969), pp. 3 71-384.