A Search For Meaning & A Hat Tip To Metamodernism
‘When I get to heaven I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years on painting, so to get to the bottom of the subject’ - Winston Churchill
If you’re reading this, you probably shouldn’t be. For if an artist has to rely on essays and writing to explain or interpret their visual creations, then the objects they create aren’t exactly functioning as they should. Yet our modern age of rationality and professionalism has birthed an environment where the ‘artist statement’ is a necessary part of an artist’s presentation. Explanations rooted in personal interests or cultural theory abound as modern midwives to the creative impact of an artist’s work.
However, it would seem that the very concrete and absolute nature of an artist statement runs contrary to the very essence of art itself. The creative impulse is one that bubbles up from the depths of the unconscious intersection between the soul of an artist and the time in which he or she lives. There should be no easy ‘why’ to the ‘what’ an artist makes. Art making that draws from the human condition should not be easily categorized or digested. It should linger in the human mind, akin to the way an uncanny event gnaws at the subconscious.
Therefore, this writing doesn’t aim to provide a simple roadmap to my creative undertakings. It is more intended to describe ‘the water’ from which they arose. For this I believe is more appropriate (and necessary) than explaining why I did one thing or another at any given time. The water I speak of is the current (and past) tides of Western society I suppose. The modern brew of cultural separation, economic upheaval, and sweeping technological change has resulted (or maybe exacerbated) what the late psychiatrist and thinker Viktor Frankl coined the ‘existential vacuum’.
The term existential vacuum refers to a pervasive feeling of emptiness and lack of purpose for many individuals in Western society. Essentially it seems that over the past fifty years, it has become harder and harder for many people to find meaning in the lives they are living. This is the notion that I believe is the main ‘thread’ (or narrative) to the time in which we live now. It is this search for meaning that has shaped much of my own life and informed all of my work. And it is the idea that I will try to expand upon in this writing. For illuminating the genesis of things is usually more insightful than examining their after effects.
Our Liquid Modernity
‘Gadgets can be engineered, programs can be designed, institutions can be built, but belief has an organic quality, and it cannot be called into being by fiat. Once a faith is shattered, it takes a long time to grow again’ - Daniel Bell
Out of the many times in graduate school (at Brooklyn College) that I interacted with the late artist and professor Vito Acconci; there was one time I will never forget. It was the spring of 2013, and Vito was paying me a late night, midweek, studio visit as part of a final semester independent study I was taking with him. In preparation for the visit I had emailed him something that I’d written in the hopes of discussing it during our meeting. The writing was an attempt to flesh out what was missing in our current culture, and what the role for painting should (or could) be in modern times. My graduate school induced intellectual fever had led me to believe that I had stumbled upon some great revelation that Vito would instantly recognize and tout as a great achievement.
My studio at the time was tomb-like to say the least. Atop one of the college’s main buildings, and pretty much sound proof with a heavy metal door - it was almost a world unto itself. Though my classmates and I were granted 24 hour access to the campus, it was pretty much a ghost town after 9:00 pm. This resulted in late nights in the studio resembling voluntary banishment to some kind of castle tower or solitary confinement. Except in this case, the rest of the castle or jail was pretty much empty. Being in a such large structure pretty much devoid of other human beings was at times disorienting. But it also focused the mind in such a way that was useful for a time of growth and study.
This was the setting as Vito entered; dressed in all black with his familiar bag slung across his shoulder, he walked with the weight of a long day. Even at this late stage of his life, his schedule was full and tiresome. He had been too busy to read the missive I had sent him via email, so he decided to read it on the spot as I pulled the writing up on my laptop. Seated at a desk in my studio, Vito read quietly as I stood and waited anxiously for his reaction. With my initial feelings of intellectual confidence wavering, I began to have a feeling that Vito would raise some areas of disagreement. Having been his student for the better part of two years at this point, a free and honest discourse between us was routine and expected.
However, it did catch me by surprise that as Vito finished reading he turned to me and said, ‘I understand what you are saying, and I don’t agree with any of it’. With this, Vito stood up, I threw up my hands in dismay, and we began to pace back and forth. I spewed reasons why I was right, while he kept countering and telling me why I was wrong. Our volleying about what has happened to our society, and whether it was good or not, reached peak intensity when I mentioned something about ‘values and tradition’. This prompted Vito to fire back saying something to the effect that, ‘traditional values are what people used as an excuse to discriminate against black people!’.
I understood what he meant of course. For a man who lived through the tumult and upheaval of the 1960’s, the idea of ‘values and tradition’ was a loaded proposition. The social movements at the time in the United States were a response to certain values and traditions that had become stale, outdated, and even oppressive. The WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) grip on American life had begun to crumble as minorities and women demanded an equal role in the society. In addition, many began to see the religious values that wove through American social life as disingenuous and contradictory. The eventual disintegration of these values would pave the way for sexual freedom and increased societal tolerance towards homosexuality.
I don’t think any reasonable person can argue against increased rights for minorities, women, gays, or lesbians. Nor would any reasonable person want to go back to a time where their sex lives could frequently fall under righteous judgement. However, this was not the argument I was trying to make that night with Vito. I wasn’t talking about going back to the old values and traditions necessarily. I was trying to make the case that as a society, as human beings - we might just need some sort of notions that define our lives that have nothing to do with capitalism or material wants. In other words, it’s okay to break down the cultural rules and norms of a society; but if they are never replaced with anything, there might be a problem.
In Daniel Bell’s 1976 book the ‘Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism’ he wrote about how the ‘Protestant ethic’ and ‘puritan temper’ sustained the American value system before their ultimate demise in the 1960’s. He would write that ‘the breaking of this ethic and temper owing to changes in social structure and cultural changes had undermined the notions of work and reward in US society’. Bell’s basic argument was that as the old values faded, they were replaced by an untethered capitalism which was devoid of any kind of value structure. ‘Hedonism’ or self indulgence became the cultural glue, while consumption became a kind of cultural tradition. The problem with this of course is that these notions of capitalism are ultimately devoid of any ‘transcendent’ meaning. By which I mean they are ultimately empty and useless when it comes to the human condition.
Human beings can find meaning in a myriad of ways. However, four of the main areas in life where individuals can absorb meaning are their family, their community, their vocation, and some kind of spirituality. For an individual who has a healthy family life, a vibrant community, a job which provides them not just money but a certain measure of satisfaction, and a level of spiritual introspection (whether that comes from religion, atheism, or whatever); should be positioned for a full, meaningful life. Yet as of this writing, for many citizens in Western, capitalistic societies these areas of meaning have fallen into a certain kind of malaise.
Generally speaking, marriage rates have declined while solitary living has increased. Community life has become a group of individual households and dwellings, rather than an intertwined system of mutual shared interest and activity. The world of work is an area of cynicism and unfulfilling survival, rather than a place of pride and satisfaction. The religious realm now seems to vacillate between those who can see no use or time for it in the modern age, and those who are 100 percent sure it is 100 percent true, 100 percent of the time. The dissolving of these areas of meaning has lead to modern society becoming what the late philosopher Zygmunt Bauman coined ‘liquid’. Free flowing; without the indicators of norms and traditions to guide the way.
The liquid society we live in has its benefits of course. Entrepreneurs have more control over their ideas and multiple ways to further them. Individuals can express themselves in ways nobody thought possible even twenty years ago. Information has been democratized, and personal freedom abounds. Yet there is one important thing to remember when considering all of this. Most of the lasting benefits of our modern liquid society have gone to what many have described as the ‘new upper class’. And though it might sound sinister, the reasons for this I believe are more innocent than malicious.
One of the things that modern, liquid societies lend themselves to is meritocracy. Basically this means that a society that is open and democratic allows ‘high achievers’ to rise as far as their talent will take them. So a kid who is highly intelligent will be able to go to Harvard, MIT, or Oxford University no matter where they live or who they are. Whereas many years ago, the doors to the upper reaches of high achievement were closed off to many unfairly because of those ‘values and traditions’ that were mentioned earlier in this writing. Allowing individuals to fully realize their potential is a wonderful thing of course. Yet it seems hard to ignore the consequences of the resulting class separation that has taken place.
We’ve seen major metropolis’ in the West become havens for gentrification, sky rocketing real estate prices, and luxury condo development. We’ve seen the cultural divide between the new upper class and their fellow countrymen breed resentment that has resulted in political earthquakes like Brexit in the United Kingdom, and the Trump presidency in the United States. We’ve seen the world of work open its arms to the creativity, multi-tasking, tech savviness, and flexibility that lends itself to college achievement. While the world of work that encompasses job security, labor, manufacturing, and simplicity has become outdated and economically inadequate.
One of the ultimate consequences of this modern class separation, is that the new upper class has been pretty successful at constructing meaningful lives out of our liquid modernity; while much of the rest of society has struggled. This is not to say that life is perfect for the new upper class, or that they have stumbled upon the recipe for a certain utopia. It should be noted that the human condition is often a miserable one, and the new upper class is not exempt from this timeless truth about humanity. However, it does seem that in relation to the rest of their fellow citizens, they have more tools, avenues, and resources to arrive at meaning and fulfillment.
This was one of the few points that garnered a moment of agreement between Vito and I during our discussion that late night in my studio. As our discourse was winding down, I mentioned to him that it seemed like the new upper class had figured out a successful way to function in the new age we were discussing. After I mentioned this, he paused for a moment, then said quietly, ‘yes, yes they have’. A lifelong New Yorker, Vito had seen the city evolve from the ‘bad old days’ of the 1980’s to its present day capitalistic and gilded glory. We might have disagreed on the dynamics and quality of the changes; but we both agreed on what we had seen from the results.
I have witnessed much of what I have described here through experiences in my own life. My time in college and my realm of employment have given me insight into both sides of the class divide. I have seen college classmates go on to live amazing lives full of meaning and purpose. While I have seen co-workers struggle through the remnants of the old values, the old traditions, and the old economy. I have seen my college peers build amazing companies and careers, while I have seen my co-workers struggle to simply meet ends meet. It is not as binary as it sounds of course, for as I mentioned before; every human being struggles in their own way - this is a universal truth. However, at the end of the day, in this time of liquid modernity; I can’t help but feel that I have seen more people drown beneath the surface, than sail free with the wind at their back.
A Mental Dark Age
‘The medium is the message’ - Marshall Mcluhan
Irregardless of class, culture, or tradition, there is one aspect of our liquid modernity that has affected us all in a similar manner. The digital age has swept over human civilization like a force of rapid geological change. The speed of this exponential, technological advancement persists despite the slow, grinding pace of human evolution. If only these two disparate developmental timetables moved at a similar pace, then one might then be able to say convincingly that we as human beings have full control over the digital tools and worlds we’ve created. This is not to say that we are completely helpless in the face of some sort of digital overlords (at least not yet). It is simply to say that the digital age has affected us as individuals (and our society) in ways that we might not have been fully prepared for.
The great Marshall Mcluhan wrote in his seminal 1964 book ‘Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man’, about how any new technology gradually creates a ‘new environment’. He would also write that the ‘message’ of any medium is the ‘change of scale or pattern that it introduces into human affairs’. Well it would seem that the question for our own time would be whether our digital explosion of the past twenty years has created a ‘better’ environment for human beings in Western society; and whether the new ‘changes and patterns’ in modern human affairs have been welcome ones.
As a young child growing up in the 1980’s, my experiences were filled with drawing, legos, books, and playgrounds. Televisions were bulky and low definition, movies were watched on clunky VHS tapes, and music was listened to on cassette or the earliest compact discs. ‘Twenty four hour news’ was considered the daily newspaper delivered to our house, while the idea of an ‘internet’ was confined to the pages of science fiction. Video games were two dimensional and superficial; compared to today’s super immersive, hyper realistic incarnations. Basically, it was a time in which human life seemed to move at the speed of a slow cooker rather than a microwave. Like a road trip down a long straight highway, the patterns of life seemed contained and oriented.
The pre digital age was a time when the human mind seemed aligned appropriately to the modes of communication it had created. It was still a world based on the ‘Gutenberg technology’ (the printing press) that Western society was built upon. Or as Marshall Mcluhan noted, the print society was what our ‘values and institutions’ were based upon. Daniel Bell would note that print media allowed for ‘self pacing and dialog in comprehending an argument’. He would also note that print not only emphasized the ‘cognitive and the symbolic’, but also the ‘necessary mode for conceptual thought’. Bell and Mcluhan wrote their thoughts on the impending digital age decades ago; long before the tsunami of digital modernity had begun to wash over our society. It is rather remarkable to think that their reservations about what ‘electric technology’ could do to the human brain, and mode of being were generated so long ago.
While Bell and Mcluhan both offered prophetic views on the subject, it is helpful to draw from someone who was actually able to examine the digital age in real time. Nicholas Carr’s 2011 book, ‘The Shallows: What The Internet is Doing To Our Brains’ sought to uncover the effect digital technology has had on the human mind. Carr basically sought to extrapolate on Mcluhan's notion that the medium is the message.
In comparing text in an actual book versus text read on a screen, Carr would note the ‘tactile, visual, and multi sensory’ nature of a book. Basically the nature of the ‘book medium’ is one which allows a human being to have a concentrated mental experience. While text on a screen changes the amount of ‘attention we give to it, and our depth of immersion in it’. Carr would explain how the nature of digital mediums lend themselves to shifting our attention, and how the internet ‘delivers the exact cognitive and sensory stimuli (intensive, interactive, and addictive) that has been shown to deliver rapid alteration in brain circuits and functions’. Carr would warn that a medium that forces the mind to ‘decode’ and become a ‘mechanical task solver’ is a medium that erodes the ability of human beings to have the ‘calm minds’ essential for deep thinking. And that as the mental mode of being for deep thinking and comprehension falls away; a ‘mental dark age’ ensues.
The notion of a mental dark age is an important one. For if the natural and ‘healthy’ mode of human existence requires the ability of the human mind to frequently reach a state of reflection and contemplation, then our current world of digital distraction can be seen as problematic. We have access to a wealth of more instant information than any human beings in history; yet the shortening of our attention spans leads us to mistake information for knowledge. The democratic flattening of communication dissemination seems wonderful on its face. Yet it has lead to a public realm that can no longer discern between what is true and what is false; for everything now is just a sea of rolling data. And speaking of what is true, we are all able to create our own truth now. Social media and smartphones have allowed us all to become masters of our own little universes. Places where our perspectives are narrowed and our core beliefs and certainties are reinforced day, after day, after day.
So we have this kind of addictive, isolating, and mental shortening stew of human existence. This helps fuel the fires of tribalism that are currently eating away at the foundations of democratic societies in the West. It undermines the social fabric and civic ‘togetherness’ that democracy requires in order to function from the bottom up. The political realm becomes a place for settling personal grievances rather than a place for addressing public needs. Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook function almost as broadcast systems for the darker impulses of our nature. And in an especially devilish twist, our digital modernity has helped usher in more complex societal problems that require reasoned and well thought out solutions; while at the same time undercutting and diluting our ability to adequately address problems that lend themselves to complexity.
Yet at the end of the day, the big question in all of this would seem to be, how has the search for meaning that all human beings share been affected by our new digital reality? After all, considering the amount of time we spend on our smartphones, or immersed in some other digital realm, it's probably safe to infer that we are absorbing some kind of meaning from our hours of experience. However, the important fact to remember is that not all reservoirs of meaning are created equal.
The late writer David Foster Wallace once spoke about entertainment and culture in terms of ‘high calorie’ and ‘low calorie’. His basic point was that if your daily diet consisted of high calorie or nutritious food, your overall health would probably be pretty good. But if you were constantly consuming low calorie or junk food on a daily basis, you would probably become sick. The painter (and my former professor) Archie Rand spoke about this same concept, except he used the term, ‘cultural nutrition’. With much of the modern experience being consumed through digital mediums, it is wise to remember Marshall Mcluhan’s sage words that the medium is the message. If we as human beings are drawing more and more meaning in life through mediums that offer inherently shallow, hollow, and addictive experiences, then it can be no wonder that many human beings seem unhappy with modern life.
It doesn’t matter whether we pour through Dostoevsky novels in online libraries, spend hours watching mindless cat tricks on YouTube, or search for love through digital courtship; our brains have been changed forever. We can beam our eyes to each other through digital imagery, transmit our thoughts through digital communication, broadcast our inner feelings to the world, and encounter other people without actually meeting them.
These digital extensions of our human consciousness seem appropriate and normal on their face. After all, we just kind of went along with the technology and accepted its benefits and efficiencies. Yet as the prophetic Marshall Mcluhan noted, we have to be wary about technologies that extend our ‘central nervous system’ or our consciousness. For when these things are extended beyond our bodies they become vulnerable to numbness and apathy. Thus our very being becomes separated and confused, our ‘old’ evolutionary inner existence tries to contend with our ‘new’ shallow digital reflection. Our innate search for meaning becomes scrambled and redirected. And like a digital message lost in cyberspace, we click, swipe, and scroll through digital landscapes never really reaching a solid destination. Ever in flux, our liquid modernity flows via the currents of our digital creations. And as human beings we can only hope that the meaning from life we all seek hasn’t been dissolved beyond recognition within this sea of digital liquidity.
In closing, it would be wise to recount a simple example about the effect new technology can have on human life. I do not remember whether this story came from Mcluhan's ‘Understanding Media’, but it might have. There was a small Indian village that was devoid of running water. Eventually, through some means, pipes were finally installed which allowed the village to enter the modern world of indoor plumbing. After a short amount of time however, the villagers requested the pipes be removed. What was the reason behind their odd request? The social life of the village had become impoverished when the villagers no longer had a need to congregate around the communal well. The villagers had divulged meaning from engaging in a human task that was removed by efficient technology.
We as human beings would be wise to remember, every technological improvement comes at a price. And that the human search for meaning is just that, a human search. Our avenues to meaning have evolved over tens of thousands of years, and we cannot just flip a switch and expect them to mesh seamlessly with the exponential advancement of our digital creations. It seems all but certain that future generations will succumb to some form of Nicholas Carr’s aforementioned, mental dark age. The real question will be whether future human beings set out to engage in a mental renaissance, or will their mental landscape forever remain unmoored from its natural past.
The Existential Vacuum
‘It’s all a big nothing’ - Livia Soprano
Up until now we have touched upon a few of what I believe to be the main drivers of the situation concerning meaning in modern life: our liquid modernity, fueled by cultural, economic, and social changes; along with our new digital lives, which have reoriented our brains and perceptions.
It would seem appropriate now to expand upon the notion concerning the actual human search for meaning itself. This is the kind of topic (including existentialism) that could be researched and contemplated for an entire lifetime. There are countless authors and texts that can be used to illuminate one’s theories and beliefs. However, for the purposes of this writing, we will use one of the most clear and concise thinkers behind the subject; Viktor Frankl. Frankl’s book, ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’ (originally published in 1946) is probably one of the most accessible and timeless writings about the human condition and its need to find meaning in life.
Frankl’s views and beliefs were shaped by his time imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II. Frankl’s time spent in Nazi concentration camps led him to the belief that human beings can find meaning in even the most dire and disastrous of circumstances; and that even suffering itself is meaningful. Frankl lost his wife, brother, and mother in the Holocaust. Yet the horror he experienced would help him form the basis of what would become the third school of Viennese Psychotherapy; otherwise known as logotherapy.
Logotherapy operates under the premise that whatever unhappiness or emptiness an individual might be feeling, the root cause of the problem lies somewhere in how that individual is interpreting or receiving meaning in their life. Logotherapy believes that the ‘will to meaning’ is the primary driving force for human beings; taking priority over the Freudian ‘will to pleasure’, or the Alderian ‘will to power’. After all, how many times in modern life have we seen individuals become consumed by sexual impulses or capitalistic greed; only to realize that these individuals are trying to create meaning in their lives through sexual conquests or financial accumulation. All these people are really doing is trying to fill a void within themselves; a void Frankl liked to call the ‘existential vacuum’.
Frankl wrote that he believed the existential vacuum to be a ‘widespread phenomenon of the 20th century’. This is rather amazing when you think about it, considering the age of digital distraction hadn’t even begun yet. And it would be hard to argue that the phenomenon hasn’t continued and intensified into the 21st century. Frankl would write about how at the beginning of human history, the idea of an ‘animal paradise’ was ‘lost to man forever’. I would take this to mean a kind of ‘ignorance was bliss’ for prehistoric human beings. For it would be hard to have an existential crisis if you are a creature incapable of realizing your own mortality, or your small place in an infinite universe.
Yet Frankl would also note that human beings faced another change as we moved into the more recent modern age; a change which in turn exacerbated the existential vacuum. In words that echo the ideas behind Zygmunt Bauman’s earlier discussed ‘liquid modernity’, and Daniel Bell’s ‘The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism’, Frankl would write about how ‘the traditions which buttressed human beings behavior are now rapidly diminishing’. He would add that ‘no instinct tells a person what to do, (and) sometimes they do not even know what they wish to do’.
I am not sure if this sentiment was in Frankl’s original 1946 version of ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’ or a later version closer to the 1960’s. Either way, his words about the subject seem prescient in relation to the modern human condition. For Frankl would note, that the loss of ‘tradition’ (remember those values and traditions Vito Acconci and I argued about) as a reference point can have some dire effects. Remember this line of thinking is not about the ‘good or bad’ nature of such traditions and values, it is simply about losing something without a replacement. For as Frankl would note, without old traditions for guidance, human beings tend to do either what they see other people do (conformity), or what other people want them to do (totalitarianism). These two modes of being currently play a big role in the lives of modern individuals in Western society. Many in the West are currently falling victim to the allure of totalitarian impulses and sentiments. While the notion of conformity or ‘group think’ has been enhanced by social media and our digital lives.
Modern individuals also fall victim to what Frankl described as ‘the mere gratification and satisfaction of drives and instincts’. This shallow existence has been buttressed and reinforced by the mental dark age and our new digital modernity discussed earlier. Yet according to Frankl, true meaning in life is found in ‘the self transcendence of human experience’. This basically means that human beings need to orient themselves toward something other than their personal impulses or appetites. However, when one remembers that our digital modernity encourages and aids the creation of our own selfish digital universes, the task of an outward focus can become a daunting one. Yet according to Frankl’s logotherapy, there are three ways one can discover true meaning in life - by creating a work or doing a deed, by experiencing something or encountering someone, or by the attitude taken towards unavoidable suffering.
Frankl would write that ‘the more one forgets themselves, by giving themselves to a cause to serve, or another person to love - the more human they are and the more they actualize themselves’. This very human and authentic sentiment is one that seems to run contrary to the headwinds of modern mass consumer culture in the West. If there was a consumer creed that ran parallel to Frankl’s notion, it would probably be something like, ‘give yourself away to something you can buy, only then will your life have meaning’. This modern pursuit of meaning or happiness through material (or digital) means is a fraught one. For as Frankl notes, happiness is something that cannot be pursued, it must ensue. Frankl adds that ‘a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness, but rather in search of a reason to become happy through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation’.
This idea of finding dormant meaning in a given situation goes hand in hand with Frankl’s ideas about being able to find meaning in the face of terrible suffering. However, for many in the West (especially the United States), ‘suffering’ has taken on a different meaning. For some, it has become a kind of malaise, rather than a life and death struggle. There might be food in the cupboard and shelter overhead, yet for many individuals their station in life seems stuck and unmovable. Their past seems a hazy mix of lost traditions and certainties. While their future seems filled with meaningless employment and goals beyond economic reach. Add to this feelings of resentment fueled by economic and cultural separation, along with the toxic digital whirlwind of political discourse; and one can see how Frankl’s notions can seem alien to the modern citizen.
This complex equation of meaning and happiness has been the inspiration for countless films, television shows, and books over the decades. Yet there was one fairly recent show (and character) that seemed to resonate for many audiences in North America, but especially the United States. Tony Soprano of the HBO television show ‘The Sopranos’ was a character who embodied the modern American version of Frankl’s existential vacuum.
As the depressed, psychiatrist seeing, enigmatic mob boss of Northern New Jersey, Soprano was a mirror for the existential crisis that many in The West seemed to be facing at the dawn of the 21st century. He would constantly indulge his hedonistic impulses with women, booze, and food - yet he would remain unhappy. He would bemoan the loss of tradition within the Italian mafia, and the United States as a whole. He would live vicariously through war documentaries and old western movies; longing for the perceived meaning he saw in the heroic lives those mediums conveyed. Soprano had a lavish home, a family, wealth, and his freedom; yet he could never escape the fact that he felt forever empty and devoid of purpose in life.
There were only two things that seemed to give Soprano the feeling of having the transcendent human (and meaningful) experience that Frankl wrote about; his children and a seemingly random family of transient ducks. Though Soprano’s children often caused him the usual distress that adolescents and teenagers can provide, he achieved moments of transcendence when he realized that all he did in his life was oriented towards his love for them. At times, this sentiment would act as a bulwark against the everyday creep of the existential vacuum. However, it was a wayward family of ducks that took a temporary home in Soprano’s grand backyard swimming pool that offered the clearest picture of the emptiness he felt.
The ducks represented a kind of innocence to Soprano; creatures uncorrupted by the modern world. Soprano would feed them, and look after them in a way; almost seeing himself as their protector or guardian. This made him happy, giving himself away and looking after them as he did his own family. Yet when the younger ducklings finally matured, the time came for the family to move on. And as Soprano watched them fly off, one by one, his depression and emptiness were triggered instantaneously.
In Viktor Frankl’s writing he would quote the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who said, ‘he who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how’. Like Tony Soprano, many individuals in modern times have struggled to construct a lasting ‘why’ in order to give meaning to their lives. The issue at hand however, is whether the obstacles created by modern 21st century life have left the construction of meaning such a heavy load that few are able to bear it. Or to paraphrase Viktor Frankl, we might have enough to live by, but nothing to live for; and we might have all the means we could ask for, yet nothing that truly means anything at all.
It might turn out that the more materially and digitally satiated we become in the West, the more empty we might actually feel. And if this devilish conundrum is indeed true, then one has to wonder if a society that is very good at amplifying the existential vacuum in all of us can even be reimagined (or remade) to enable the opposite.
Art In Modern Times
‘The artist can recognize the pattern of the present, they alone can do this. This is why they are indispensable. Arts purpose might not be to enable us to change, but rather to maintain an even course toward permanent goals, even amidst the most destructive innovations’ - Marshall Mcluhan
A long time ago, when our reality was a bit more solid, and a lot less digital, I went on a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As a child at the time, the trip must have been associated with school, or at the whim of my parents; I cannot remember which. However, I do remember one of the things I saw that day. The late James Rosenquist’s large painting, ‘F-111’ was on exhibit at the time, and its colors and large graphic imagery made a deep impression on my burgeoning artistic sensibilities. Yet it wasn’t simply the formal aspects of the work that impacted me that day, it was more that I realized I was looking at something that conveyed a feeling about the time in which it was created. This was not simply a painting or an aesthetically pleasing work of art; it was a portal granting entrance to a historical section of human existence.
It was a creation that could tap into the inner feelings an individual had about the world around them. This kind of interaction between artistic creation, modernity, and an individual's ‘subconscious’ is a tricky one. It is ephemeral, not something that lends itself to words, speech, or rational thought. It’s kind of like each individual has a locked vault of sentiment laying below their conscious everyday existence. The most successful art (in my view) is able to ‘unlock’ the vault so to speak. Which in turn, unleashes an uncanny feeling within the viewer that their reality has just become a bit more expansive, or a bit more ‘real’. There is a scene in George Orwell’s classic novel ‘1984’ where the main character (Winston) receives a book that seemingly confirms the uncanny feelings he’s had about his dystopian reality. Orwell would write that upon reading the book, Winston thought that ‘the best books are those that tell you what you know already’. For me, this kind of notion was always the greatest power of artistic creation.
For the sake of argument, let's say this notion of art’s ability to tap into our underlying feelings about modernity is indeed true. One would then have to consider the question of how our liquid modernity, and our new digital reality have affected art’s ability to do this. For in pre-digital, more ‘solid’ times, the styles and machinations of artistic creation seemed to run parallel to the cultural threads of our existence. Basically, this means that artistic movements (at their conception) like surrealism, abstract expressionism, or pop art had different inspirational elements which were sparked by the modernity that surrounded them. This led to the creation of art that was able to connect with the viewer in ways on more than just a formal level. For modernity before the digital age was more cohesive and linear. Artistic styles would come and go, responding to one another while being in tune with the world around them. Or as the poet W.B.Yeats might say, these were times when the ‘center’ was indeed holding.
Yet as this writing has discussed, the time in which we live now is not one with much of a center at all. Like millions of legos scattered across a vast empty room, artists are free to pick and choose whatever suits them to create whatever their heart desires. This is wonderful on its face, yet I do believe there have been some drawbacks concerning arts ability to speak to our current modernity in the way previous generations of art have. As Daniel Bell wrote years ago, ‘the lack of a center and the break up of culture into compartmentalized segments breaks up the discourse which sustains the culture for the whole society’. This has led to artistic creation becoming more about personal interests and beliefs than any central questions about our modernity.
Artistic languages like abstract expressionism, minimalism, or pop art have become vehicles for personal expression rather than all encompassing cultural touchstones. This has lead to art that tends to function primarily on the grounds of formalism alone. For it seems like a heavy load to ask a viewer to discover broad cultural insight in a work of art that is so deeply rooted in personal interest. One day a viewer might see an artist making beautiful surrealist paintings based on their native landscapes. While the next day they might see an artist making abstract expressionist paintings based on their personal feelings of loss and regret. While still another artist they come across might make stunning photorealistic paintings of people they have deemed worthy of depiction. The viewer might be drawn to any of these examples, or even personally moved by them. Yet the overriding reaction to any of them would be a formal one. For when there is no perceivable center, formal concerns become the primary mode of judgement.
It should also be noted that our digitally shortened attention spans have led to a cheapening of the visual experience. For art was never meant to be seen on a screen, or an Instagram feed; it was meant to be viewed in person. Remember, ‘the medium is the message’; which means the medium by which we view a work of art is more important than the work of art itself. Things like the ancient Greek notion of ‘mimesis’, representing life, reflecting humanity, contemplation, truth, beauty, and simply ‘looking’, are all notions that come from experiencing art in person. Our digital tools like virtual reality will open up new realms of experience of course. Yet for objects made by the human hand, their power is conveyed by the physical presence of the human eye, the human brain, and the human soul.
There is also another aspect of our liquid modernity that has played an important part in shaping arts ability to convey meaning in modern times. The meritocracy aided class separation discussed earlier in this writing has also left its mark on the realm of creative expression. Great artists of the past did not need college degrees (let alone graduate degrees) to create timeless works of art. Yet as Western society moved into our liquid and digital age, college degrees in art became the norm for artists pursuing their careers. The reasons for this are complex, yet the results are clear. As was discussed earlier, one of the main distinctions in modern class and cultural separation in the West is college achievement. This fact has left the art world a bit cloistered and insular when it comes to its ideas and sentiments. I don’t believe this should be viewed in a sinister vein, such as ‘the elites’ versus ‘the proletariat’. Yet it should be noted, because it is another important aspect that can stifle the ability of art to capture the underlying threads of our modernity. After all, in a world where our reality has been blown apart and atomized, one cannot rely solely on the echo chamber of their positioning to give them an accurate view of the ‘whole picture’.
So this begins to beg the question, what might be the artistic mode of being that corresponds most closely to the time in which we live now? There is no hard and true answer to such a question. Yet to my mind, the best option I have seen is metamodernism. University of New Hampshire professor and author Seth Abramson describes metamodernism as a ‘cultural philosophy’ or a ‘system for understanding the world’ in our liquid and digital age. Abramson writes that metamodernism ‘believes in reconstructing things that have been deconstructed’ with the goal of ‘reestablishing hope and optimism in the midst of a period marked by irony, cynicism, and despair’. In a time characterized by the atomization of our liquid modernity, and the prevalence of the earlier discussed existential vacuum, Abramson’s notions about metamodernism not only seem appropriate, but essential.
United Kingdom based artist Luke Turner (author of ‘The Metamodernist Manifesto’) wrote in 2015’s ‘Metamodernism: A Brief Introduction’ about a ‘yearning for meaning’ that many in his generation have felt in the face of postmodernism. This yearning for meaning seems to correspond well to the search for meaning that I’ve felt is the core story or ‘thread’ of modern times in the West. Turner also writes how the metamodernist discourse is ‘descriptive rather than prescriptive’. This again seems appropriate in a time of complexity and liquid modernity. Art cannot provide answers for a society, but it can be its ‘radar’ as Marshall Mcluhan noted in ‘Understanding Media’.
Other tenants of metamodernism described by both Abramson and Turner include, the oscillation (and combination) of sincerity and irony, the creation of new texts through existing texts, and the collapsing of distances between concepts and people. The idea of oscillation is an important one. Abramson uses the analogy of a pendulum to describe metamodernist creations. He writes about the notion of a pendulum that swings so quickly between two points (or more) that one cannot even really see the pendulum move at all. It appears as an odd, vibrating, centrally oriented object which allows it to transcend the spectrum it resides on altogether. In our age of cultural separation, atomization, and liquid modernity, it would seem that the goal of creating a work of art that transcends this balkanized stew is a worthy one. In a world with multiple centers, maybe it is wise to try and create a new center that pulsates with many of them. This in turn might allow the viewer to feel that uncanny sense of connection that only art ‘of its time’ can give them.
Considering all of this, metamodernism does appeal to me. Yet I have always been one to be wary of artists labeling themselves. For I have always believed that an artist shouldn’t really set out to be a ‘pop artist’, an ‘abstract impressionist’, or a ‘minimalist’. I’ve always believed that an artist should do whatever it is they feel the need to do, and the art historians or critics can label them afterwards as they see fit. I cannot remember who it was, but there was a well known artist who once said, ‘I am a bird, not an ornithologist’. A bird does not know whether it is a blue jay, raven, or sparrow; it is simply a creature that does what it does.
This was always my approach to making art. Not because of some virtuous intentions, but mostly because I didn’t really have a full grasp on what I was trying to make. I knew that I sought meaning, or at least some deeper truth about humanity that had eluded many in my generation. I was fascinated by the stories of people which seemed to touch upon some unforeseen truths that were elusive in the day to day of our modern lives. I was drawn to individuals who suffered through injustice or hardship. Not just out of empathy, but also because their experiences seemed so ‘real’ in a world that seemed dissolved, unmoored, and out of touch. Remember Tony Soprano looking for meaning in the projected lives of war heros and cowboys? Well in my earlier paintings I was searching for (and trying to depict) meaning through the imagined lives of those I painted.
In those early years I wanted to reflect humanity, because as far as I could see humanity was losing certain things that made it ‘human’. The advent of our liquid modernity and the digital explosion had confused the human experience; and I saw my role as someone who could depict this change in the human condition one portrait at a time. For I felt that the only true way to begin to encompass a feeling about our modern times was to go person by person, piece by piece. Each slice of humanity offering a small glimpse of our current reality. And maybe when they were brought together, the totality of their disparate subjects could elicit that hard sought uncanny feeling about our modernity in the viewer.
As the years went by, and my understanding of our current times grew, I began to feel that more was needed than simple portraiture. This lead me to add text to the pieces I created. I began to use original text, appropriated text, and everything in between. This use of jumbled and newly formed text would seem to be very metamodernist in hindsight. It simply made sense to me to draw from many sources to create a ‘new thing’. For it seemed like the only semi-coherent way to approach an inherently incoherent time.
I liked the feeling that juxtaposing portraiture and text seemed to create. I felt that it gave the work a greater chance to allow the viewer to stumble into that fleeting mental realm of contemplation. Similar to the notion of the metamodernist pendulum, I hoped that the resulting combination of imagery and text would vibrate with the combined energy of multiple ‘centers’ taken from our liquid modernity. I felt this combination of multiple centers would allow for the widest gamut of human connection possible. Thus allowing for the work to function as something that was of its time, or in tune with the threads of our modernity.
I have probably failed for the most part I suppose, for achieving the goal of art the attaches itself to the human soul is a rather difficult one. It’s a little like searching for an ‘ultimate truth’ or God itself. You can try with all your might to grasp it; yet like trying to grab a puff of smoke or fog, it will always dissolve or fade out of reach. This writing has tried to convey the world as I have seen it over the past twenty five years, and my reaction to it. Hopefully it does not come across as a sermon, or a 100% certain proclamation; for it is not meant to be. It is simply something I felt that was needed in a time which seems scattered and unfocused.
At the end of the day, I believe most artists make art simply because it is what they need to do. They find tremendous meaning in the act of making things, and for me personally this was always the case. Making art was where everything seemed to come into balance, where contemplation could set in, and where the world could reveal itself. It was a place where I could try and convey the dignity I saw in individual human beings, a dignity I believed should reside within the heart of all human societies. My mixed race upbringing taught me a lot in this regard, for when you are not confined to a particular group you have no choice but to take people as individuals, and judge them by universal concerns and values.
It was David Simon, the creator of the seminal HBO television show ‘The Wire’, that once said his show was a ‘love letter’ to the city of Baltimore, Maryland. Well for all intents and purposes I’ve always viewed my work as a love letter to the human race. It might be a love letter filled with concern, sadness, and a fleeting sense that something isn’t quite right; but it is still a letter born of affection. And it is this affection which has been the guiding force in my own search for meaning, and will continue to be, for the rest of my life.
Andrew V. Kennedy