The Future of Art

Excerpted from Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future:

Essential leadership tasks: Given that part of the function of art has always been to give voice to the newly possible, those in the arts have some particularly fascinating roles to play going forward. And the fact that thinking more creatively is so central to Cultural Maturity means that there is a new way in which we all, in the broadest sense, need to become artists.

It is important to give some extended attention to domains where left-hand sensibilities play the stronger role. Such realms have always been more elusive to fully grasp—such is the way of the archetypally feminine—and Transitional dynamics make them decidedly more so. Culturally mature perspective invites us to understand the contributions such domains make with new depth and detail. The artistic—painting and sculpture, music, dance, literature—represents one of these more left-hand domains.

Art’s Question of Referent asks just what makes something art, and more, what makes a piece good or even great art. Framed more systemically, it asks about how art serves us and what is going on when it serves us most powerfully. Art’s significance has been a question of eternal debate, and final definition inevitably escape’s us. But culturally mature perspective makes art’s function newly amenable to scrutiny.

Art would still be of value if its purpose were simply to create things of beauty. But mature perspective suggests that its significance is deeper—and in ways with particular pertinence to culture’s emerging tasks. Art’s deeper contribution follows from the fact that art takes expression from the most germinal of intelligences—the body, the imaginal, and the more internal aspects of the emotional. That deeper contribution has a couple of parts. First, art functions as an “advocate” for, and reminder of, the more germinal realms and values tapped by the artistic endeavor. It provides us with a collective ongoing link with left-hand sensibilities. The second kind of contributions is less obvious, but it has particular importance for this inquiry. I’ve noted how art fulfills a visionary function. It connects us with new possibilities. Rainer Maria Rilke counseled the artist: “Fear not the strangeness you feel. The future must enter you before it happens.”

We find the most familiar example of this visionary function in how the art of the Renaissance anticipated advances in science and government that we did not see until centuries later. This visionary function is a product not of exceptional capacity on the part of artists (though exceptional art requires exceptional capacities), but rather of the creatively germinal intelligences that predominate in the artistic personality. When we call something art, we claim that in some way it gives voice to truths just peeking over the horizon. Good or great art is art that serves this anticipatory function in especially powerful ways—in the psyche of the individual, but also, and particularly, for the “psyche of culture.”

Art’s developmental/evolutionary story confronts us immediately with an apparent contradiction that we find with all more left-hand contributions. A person could argue equally well that early forms or modern forms are most significant—early forms on the basis of the preeminence of the underlying sensibilities, and modern forms on the basis of the stage in cultural development. It is hard to disagree with the assertion that the artistic had its most dominant significance in times well past. The central role that dance has played in tribal societies and that mythic imagery played in the daily lives of ancient Egypt or ancient Greece reveals a decidedly more defining presence for the artistic than we find in today’s world. But, at the same time, it is also clear that Modern Age forms reflected an aesthetic “sophistication” we had not seen previously.

This apparent contradiction follows quite “logically” from how the relationship between left-hand and right-hand sensibilities evolves over cultural time. I’ve described how history to this point follows a progression from more left-hand dominance toward increasing right-hand dominance. Domains where left-hand sensibilities are strongest have greatest influence early on. But, as with all spheres, such left-hand domains manifest with particular refinement in culture’s “finishing and polishing” stages.

A more detailed examination of why we see this apparent contradiction adds further nuance to our now-familiar developmental/evolutionary progression. And art’s origins in sensibilities of a more left-hand sort means that a closer look at the story of art through history will provide important further insights for understanding Integrative Meta-perspective’s specifically integrative changes:

I’ve described how, early in culture’s evolution, the sensibilities that underlie artistic expression are primary. In tribal realities, it is difficult to separate art and cultural identity—particularly art that takes expression in movement and sound. To not know the dances and songs—the most direct voices of bodily reality—is unthinkable. Artist Barnett Newman proposed that “man’s origin was that of the artist.” Arguably, the birth of art—in cave paintings and the like—is synonymous with the birth of reflective consciousness.

Somewhat later, with the rise of early civilizations—and imaginal intelligence now primary—we see art at once becoming a bit more distinct and reaching its greatest visual preeminence. We can’t picture classical Greece, the ancient cultures of Mesoamerican, or the artistry of classical China or Japan without also imagining sculpture that many would say has not been equaled, and deeply compelling written and painted images—of gods and goddesses, harvests and rituals, heroic deeds. Art in these early times is not quite truth, but it is venerated as a direct route to truth.

With each succeeding stage, while art has arguably gained in its refinement, it has also stepped further from center stage. In medieval times, art still commands great appreciation—what could be more inspiring than the aesthetic intricacy and monumental power of a Romanesque or Gothic cathedral? But at the same time, art’s influence in the Middle Ages becomes secondary. The institutional church and the crown now hold sway. Art exists to proclaim their wonder and dominion.

With the Modern Age—and archetypally masculine preeminence—we see a dramatic further refinement of aesthetic and some of history’s most significant artistic accomplishments. The Renaissance (Late-Axis Europe’s Early-Axis substage) witnessed an artistic exuberance not seen since classical times. But art also moved to a still more secondary role. It became something separate, something to give pleasure, to decorate—a treasured but ultimately subordinate function to those of commerce, science, government, and culture’s other harder endeavors.

With the Modern Age, we also see right-hand sensibilities influencing artistic expression in a variety of more specific ways—to art’s benefit or diminishment depending on one’s view. Art became increasingly an activity of experts. (All children make art—in childhood, the more germinal aspects of intelligences are primary, irrespective of cultural stage. But in modern times, growing up means setting such activities aside, unless a person makes the dubious choice of becoming an artistic professional.) Also art became much more the expression of the individual as opposed to an expression of collective (animistic or divine) forces. (For the first time, we find the larger portion of visual art signed and musical composition, at least of an upper pole as opposed to music of the more folk/traditional sort, attributed to specific composers.) We also saw more specific changes that directly impacted the art itself. For example, we witnessed the advent of three-point perspective, and with it visual art reflecting a more material and objective vantage (more similar to that of a photograph).

As we venture into Transitional times and face the challenges of Cultural Maturity, expression in the arts can seem schizophrenic. At times, art’s more recent contribution has very much reflected its past visionary function. But just as often, art has come to seem irrelevant, even absurd. As with other spheres at Transitional times, we commonly encounter overlapping realities.

A lot in the art of the last century gave articulate expression to essential aspects of Cultural Maturity’s new challenge. I think of how the cubist works of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque emphasized multiple perspectives. The writings of Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and others introduced a newly participatory aesthetic (where what we see is explicitly as much about ourselves as what we might be looking at). We see truth’s new dynamism reflected in Salvador Dali’s melting watches and the impermanence of much performance art. And we recognize what I’ve called Reengagement in the inspiration that Wassily Kandinsky, Aaron Copland, Stephen Reich, and others found in the artistic expression of earlier cultural times.

But at the same time, for most people, art has had diminishing significance through the last century. Few people can name major figures in the visual arts of the last fifty years. And much of twentieth century visual art that people recognize may seem baffling if not ludicrous. (Campbell’s soup cans and toilets as art?) The arts that do have effect on people’s lives today tend to be either classical forms that appeal to a limited audience or expression (mostly musical) that is highly commercialized, often more a product of mass culture (who will be the next blond teenage popdiva?) than anything that serves art’s underlying cultural function.

Even with its diminished significance, however, art’s cutting edge has often continued to reflect art’s primordial task. Part of that task in our time has been to chronicle its own demise—or, more accurately from the perspective of Cultural Maturity, the predicted effect that Transitional dynamics will have on artistic sensibility (and left-hand understanding as a whole). Twentieth century artists challenged art itself—both what makes something art and art’s role in culture—certainly art with a capital A. We hear Dadaism’s proclamation: “Art is dead—long live art.” Pop art’s claim to status as high art left us to ponder whether everything is art, or perhaps nothing.

Creative Systems Theory proposes that the reason such art has left most people baffled is only in part that good art always does. Some of what more in involved relates to what we find at Transition with any domain. Art becomes increasingly existential—its strength that it effectively challenges what before has been mythologized, its weakness that it is yet unable to really replace what has been taken away. But as much or more of the reason reflects Transition’s odd requirement of art that it take expression from a reality in which the more archetypally feminine sensibilities that have been art’s primary source have become nearly absent. We can understand the triviality of much of art today as an expression of Transitional Absurdity.

What lies ahead for art? A person might appropriately ask whether art as experience will ever again claim the potency of times past. Cultural Maturity proposes its now familiar answer to such questions—it will and it won’t. If the creative dissolving of past amnesias (Reengagement) predicted for other more left-hand cultural functions—community, spirituality, our human connection with our bodies and nature, or the experiential world of children—similarly re-enlivens artistic sensibility, art should derive new attention and respect. Reengagement should reconnect us with the germinal dimensions that give rise to art. But the integrative dynamics that produce culturally mature perspective, as you’ve seen, always also exact a (major) price. They challenge notions that make any one part of the whole distinct or supreme. For art, we would expect that to translate into a surrendering of special status, the death of art with a capital A.

If Cultural Maturity’s predictions are accurate, we will likely connect with art more deeply in the future—art in all its guises, from the most formal to the most personal or alternative. But at once such connecting will be of a more humble, less mythologized sort. Art in a culturally mature reality becomes an increasingly human enterprise, newly cherished, but at the same time no longer elevated and separate. As part of these changes, we should see the boundaries that separate the artist and the non-artist becoming more permeable. The professional artist should still be highly valued. But, too, we should come to view the artistic—or more precisely, the germinally creative—as something each person appropriately claims (and, as with a muscle group, learns to exercise). We see at once “bridgings” of the art and the everyday, and the artist and the non-artist.

We should also see other more aesthetic bridgings. Art will likely continue its forays across the boundaries of traditional disciplines—linking visual art with theater with music with the written word—as we have seen with performance art over the last half century. We should also encounter further creative links between the artistic work of different cultures—of both the same and different cultural stages. (Digital media should dramatically accelerate both of these integrative processes.) And certainly, we will see deeper links between the artistic and the technological as we are already beginning to witness with current explorations in new media.

Temperament-related Patterning in Space observations highlight a further kind of bridging. With increasing frequency, we should find people of artistic temperament contributing outside the formal bounds of art. In times ahead, every profession should have a growing need for people who are good at the new—both comfortable with change and facile with the imaginative capacities needed to envision the possible. If business needs to be more entrepreneurial, it needs more people natively skilled at imagining the yet unimagined. And a few more imaginative types might greatly help the CIA stay ahead of the ingenuity of terrorists.

One arts-related Transitional Absurdity has particular relevance to this inquiry. We reasonably ask what art’s dominant form is today. The answer: If we define “art” in terms of the sensibilities expression draws on, and define “dominant” in terms of dollars spent, then, hands down, today’s dominant art form is advertising.

This answer—at once obvious and unsettling—presents an essential quandary. If art’s purpose is to presage, to aesthetically lead, then advertising’s ultimate effect is precisely the opposite of art, at least as defined by art’s historical mandate. Advertising promotes extreme material values that can no longer serve us. And its purpose, rather than to provide insight and guidance, is to mislead, making it hardly a solution to today’s crisis of purpose. Advertising’s hold on the modern psyche represents a particularly consequential Transitional Absurdity. We know we are being misled, but this does not seem to diminish advertising’s effect.

This contradictory picture confronts us with an important follow-up leadership question: What, if we value art—and our well-being more generally—do we best do with advertising’s lock on the artistic? The question is particularly relevant to this inquiry as addressing it at all deeply requires that we venture into the territory of each of our domains—besides art, business and economics, certainly (advertising is a business pursuit); science (we need to ask about the cognitive effects of advertising); government (are there public policy implications?); obviously both education and the media (there could not be a more important media education topic); and religion (is this not one of the pivotal moral issues of our time?).

A person might appropriately argue that the correct answer to the follow-up “what do we do” question should be to do nothing. If the purpose of art is to mirror what most defines culture, then advertising, given these highly material times, is just art doing its job. But if art’s purpose is not just to mirror, but to presage, then advertising fundamentally fails at art’s task. And it ultimately fails us in a deeper way. I’ve proposed that what ultimately makes an act moral is the degree it supports and furthers life. Art in its dominant guise today not only fails as art, it fails the test of morality.

I’ve mentioned that I am a strong advocate for media literacy curriculum in schools. The importance of having a more conscious relationship to advertising’s influence is a major reason why. Advertising’s capacity to inform remains an essential element in the workings of a free market and will continue to be in the future. But becoming more conscious of advertising’s effects—and, when necessary, reigning in its excesses—will be essential to a psychologically and spiritually healthy future. If, with Cultural Maturity’s changes, we can become more conscious of and facile with the languages of aesthetic expression, we should become more capable of such creative management (both with regard to advertising and to the media more generally).