A work of art is a perfect vehicle for demonstrating the issues involved in the ideas I have been developing about the human living environment. For centuries, a painting was a vehicle in the West for creating a fixed eternal image, a realistic subject, a totally defined discrete figure or series of discrete figures, with firmly depicted boundaries and features that separated the figure or figures from the ground surroundings. In truth, the background could be as fully defined as the subject. This, of course, is different from the way humans naturally view things, in which focusing on the subject leads to a blurring of the background.
The effect of creating such a hyperfigurized painting was to create a defined transcendent entity that truly stood apart from and rose above the organic perishability in the traditional living environments of the time. In these living environments, it was a constant struggle for a person, as the figure subject of his own life painting, to stand apart from all the ground elements. The threat of undifferentiation, of being swallowed up by the ground through natural calamity, accident or disease, or psychologically, through degenerating into a more primitive mammal, was constantly present. A highly figurized painting was a situation that one could enter through his imagination and live within it as a reality that seemed eternal. Such a painting was a psychological defense against undifferentiation. It is no accident that so many of the scenes depicted in these Realist paintings were related to the transcendent reality involved in religious and mythological scenes, scenes involving an eternal non-material world. Many of the images were portraits that could give the subjects a sense of surrogate immortality in the imprints that their images left on canvas. The subjects were usually wealthy and powerful people who were very conscious of trying to deal with their vulnerabilities as mortal humans through a surrogate immortality of a portrait. Another subject of these realistic paintings was historical events that people wanted to memorialize such as battles. Still lifes were a perfect way of shrinking the perishable world down into a subject matter that could be captured and immortalized. And landscapes were a vehicle for trying to capture the transitory ephemeral images of natural scenery and making them permanent on canvas.
These highly figurized realistic images were the basic stuff of painting for hundreds of years in Western art. That is, until the Impressionists came along. The Impressionists created what appeared to be a purposeful sensory distortion of their images, such that figures blended into their ground and into each other. One justification for this was that with the play of light and shadow in the natural living environments, this perception of reality was actually how it was. Figures actually never stood out from their surroundings the way Realist painters would have had us believe. But Impressionism was new and was initially soundly rejected by the established interests in French art circles. Time, however was on the side of the Impressionists. As well as the Neo-impressionists, the Cubists, the Surrealists, the Abstract Expressionists, the Magic Realists and all the other different movements of art that broke with realism. These movements captured the imagination of collectors and museums.
An important question to consider is why did the Impressionists come along when they did? As well as all the other diverse groups that followed them? Why did they appear at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth? Perhaps it was that people needed paintings for different purposes than they did during the time of the Realists. The Realists needed their paintings as vehicles for fixed real images, transcendent figures that rose above the organic perishability of the traditional living environments in which they lived. Aesthetic anchors to which they could cling in an environment of organic impermanence.
Then technological development came along in the West and started to thoroughly transform living environments. With machines and machine-made environments, people created living environments of understimulation and overstimulation, vacuum and tension-pocket environments where people could no longer feel totally comfortable with their mammalian human natures.
In the new environment that began to evolve, the kind of indeterminate stimuli that came from traditional more natural environments and that blended and merged with other stimuli, gradually started to disappear and what remained were the determinate defined discrete stimuli of machines and technological products, stimuli that stood apart unto themselves. It was the indeterminate organic blendable continual stimuli from grounding that people needed to feel fully alive and to have the means to make the imprints that not only led to rich vibrant experiences but also to preparing for death. These indeterminate organic blendable continual stimuli with blurry boundaries are not measurable by math or science, but they are what our minds experience. We do not experience the world as pinpoints of visual stimuli, but rather as a seamless free-flowing panorama. When science turns the whole world into pinpoints of data, it is distorting, it is affecting the flow of experience. There are phenomena and stimuli that have only blurry boundaries, and they do not easily lend themselves to measurement or manipulation by science.
It is these phenomena and stimuli that the French Impressionists unconsciously wanted to salvage from the onslaught of technological change in Europe. They did not need transcendent figures to cling to in order to protect themselves from organic perishability. They needed to recapture grounding and organic blendable continual stimuli in order to feel alive as humans again. And they did this by creating paintings of only partially differentiated figures still somewhat embedded in the grounding that surrounded them and still somewhat infused with the organic blendable continual stimuli of light and shadow that allowed them to bond well with other people and with the places where they lived. In general, these paintings mirrored for the Impressionists the more organic mammalian human side of themselves. The painters painted more organic images which, in turn, stimulated them to be more human in a mammalian sense.
What is it that these different modern art movements had in common? They all broke or blurred experiential boundaries, thus opening the opportunity for more organic blendable continual stimuli in the encounter between the artist and the viewer, on the one hand, and the painting on the other. Cubism broke the boundaries that existed between different perspectives of a given subject. This highlighted the way people actually view subjects over time. Surrealism blurred the boundaries between the world of dreams and the world of reality. Abstract Expressionism blurred the boundaries between shapes with symbolic meaning and shapes that had no meaning. Magic Realism blurred the boundaries between magic and mythology, on the one hand, and reality on the other. By blurring boundaries between phenomena, painters created the spaces for blendable continual stimuli that allowed them, the painters, to feel more organically alive. In today’s world, a painting does not serve the purpose of creating transcendent figures that rise above the organic perishability in the world. If anything, many of the modern art movements after the Impressionists have primarily served to find a way to restore the organic grounding that was seen as potentially so treacherous, at least on one level, by the old European salon artists. We don’t need art to preserve imprints anymore; we have science and technology to perform that task.
But as science and technology move into more and more areas of life, there are fewer and fewer places in the field of human experience where painting, and the arts in general, can find vulnerable spaces that are available for blurring new boundaries. Science and technology are creating a tight seamless whole structure of knowledge, architecture and artifact. There is less and less left to play with experientially. To pull people out of the rigidity of this structure, some of the extremely contemporary Western art is now created for shock value. Give a person a shock of overstimulation through abrasive images or abrasive designs to pull him out of his growing numbness and robotization. Put in the context of the desperate purpose of this contemporary art, the Impressionists can be seen, in their attempt to capture the immediacy of primary experience in nature and in ordinary everyday life to have fought a laudable but difficult battle. If only we could recapture some of the immediacy captured in their paintings and reimplant it in our own increasingly isolated robotic lives.
(c) 2013 Laurence Mesirow