Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 1, Chapter 3: “The Testimony of Modern Art”)

In the previous post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, I explored Part 1, Chapter 2: The Encounter with Nothingness, where Barrett gives an overview of some of the historical contingencies that have catalyzed the advent of existentialism: namely, the decline of religion, the rational ordering of society through capitalism and industrialization, and the finitude found within science and mathematics.  In this post, I want to explore Part I, Chapter 3: The Testimony of Modern Art.  Let’s begin…

Ch. 3 – The Testimony of Modern Art

In this chapter, Barrett expands the scope of existentialism, its drives and effects, on the content of modern art.  As he sees it, existentialist anxiety, discontent, and facing certain truths resulting from our modern understanding of the world we live in have heavily influenced if not predominated the influence on modern art.  Many find modern art to be, as he puts it:

“…too bare and bleak, too negative or nihilistic, too shocking or scandalous; it dishes out unpalatable truths.”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that these kinds of qualities in much of modern art are but a product of existentialist angst, feelings of solitude, and an outright clash between traditional norms and narratives about human life and the views of those who have accepted much of what modernity has brought to light, however difficult and uncomfortable that acceptance is.

We might also be tempted to ask ourselves if modern art represents something more generally about our present state.  Barrett sheds some light on this question when he says:

“..Modern art thus begins, and sometimes ends, as a confession of spiritual poverty.  That is its greatness and its triumph, but also the needle it jabs into the Philistine’s sore spot, for the last thing he wants to be reminded of is his spiritual poverty.  In fact, his greatest poverty is not to know how impoverished he is, and so long as he mouths the empty ideals or religious phrases of the past he is but as tinkling brass.”

I can certainly see a lot of modern art as being an expression or manifestation of the spiritual poverty of our modern age.  It’s true that religion no longer serves the same stabilizing role for our society as it once did, nor can we deny that the knowledge we’ve gained since the Enlightenment has caused a compartmentalizing effect on our psyche with respect to reason and religious belief (with the latter being eliminated for many if the compartmentalization is insufficient to overcome any existing cognitive dissonance).  We can also honestly say that many in the modern world have lost a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives, and feel a loss of connection to their community or to the rest of humanity in general, largely as a result of the way society (and in turn, how each life within that society) has become structured.

But, as Barrett says, the fact that many people don’t realize just how impoverished they are, is the greatest form of poverty realized by many living in modernity.  And we could perhaps summarize this spiritual poverty as simply the lack of having a well-rounded expression of one’s entire psyche.  It seems to me that this qualitative state is tied to another aspect of the overall process: in particular, our degree of critical self-reflection which affects our vision of our own personal growth, our ethical development, and ultimately our ability to define meaning for our lives on our own individual terms.

One could describe a kind of trade-off that has occurred during humanity’s transition to modernity: we once had a more common religious structure that pervaded one’s entire life and which was shared by most everyone else living in pre-modern society, and this was replaced by a secular society that encouraged new forms of conformity aside from religion; and we once had a religious structure that allowed one to connect to some of the deeper layers of their inner self, and this was replaced with more of an industrialized, consumerist structure involving psychological externalization which lended itself to the powers of conformity already present in the collective social sphere of our lives.

Since artistic expression serves as a kind of window into the predominating psychology of the people and artists living at any particular time, Barrett makes a very good point when he says:

“Even if existential philosophy had not been formulated, we would know from modern art that a new and radical conception of man was at work in this period.”

And within the modern art movement, we can see a kind of compensatory effect occurring where the externalization in modern society is countered with a vast supply of subjectivity including the creation of very unique and highly imaginative abstractions.  But, underneath or within many of these abstractions lies a fundamental perspective of modern humans living as a kind of stranger to the world, surrounded by an alien environment, with a yearning to feel a sense of belonging and familiarity.

We’ve seen similar changes in artistic expression within literature as well.  Whereas literature had historically been created under the assumption of a linear temporality operating within the bounds of a well-defined beginning, middle, and end, it was beginning to show more chaotic or unpredictable qualities in its temporal structure, less intuitive plot progressions, and in many cases leaving the reader with what appeared to be an open or unresolved ending, and even a feeling of discontent or shock.  This is what we’d expect to occur if we realize the Greek roots of Western civilization, ultimately based on a culture that believed the universe to have a logical structure, with a teleological, anthropomorphic and anthropocentric order of events that cohered into an intelligible whole.  Once this view of the universe changed to one that saw the world as less predictable and indifferent to human wants and needs, the resultant psychological changes coincided with a change in literary style and expression.

In all these cases, we can see that modern art has no clear-cut image of what it means to be human or what exactly a human being is, for the simple reason that it sees human beings as lacking any fixed essence or nature; it sees humans as transcending any pre-defined identity or mold.  Lacking any fixed essence, I think that modern conceptions of humanity entail a radical form of freedom to define ourselves if we choose to do so, even though this worthwhile goal is often difficult, uncomfortable, and a project that never really ends until we die.  Actually striving to make use of this freedom is needed now more than ever, given the level of conformity and the increasingly abstract ways of living that modern society foists upon us.

Another interesting quote of Barrett’s regards the relationship between modern art and conceptions of the meaningless:

“Modern art has discarded the traditional assumptions of rational form.  The modern artist sees man not as the rational animal, in the sense handed down to the West by the Greeks, but as something else.  Reality, too, reveals itself to the artist not as the Great Chain of Being, which the tradition of Western rationalism had declared intelligible down to its smallest link and in its totality, but as much more refractory: as opaque, dense, concrete, and in the end inexplicable.  At the limits of reason one comes face to fact with the meaningless; and the artist today shows us the absurd, the inexplicable, the meaningless in our daily life.

This is interesting, especially given Barrett’s previous claim (in chapter 1) about existentialism’s opposition to the positivist position that “…the whole surrounding area in which ordinary men live from day to day and have their dealings with other men is consigned to the outer darkness of the meaningless.”  Barrett’s more recent claim above, while not necessarily in contradiction with the previous claim, suggests (at the very least) an interesting nuance within existentialist thought.  It suggests that positivism wants to keep silent about the meaningless, whereas existentialism does not; but it also suggests that there’s some agreement between positivism’s claim of what is meaningless and that of existentialism.  Both supposedly contrary schools of thought make claims to what is meaningless either implicitly or explicitly, and both have some agreement as to what falls under the umbrella of the meaningless; it’s just that existentialism accepts and promulgates this meaninglessness as a fundamental part of our human existence whereas positivism more or less rejects this as not even worth talking about, let alone worth using to help construct one’s world view.

Barrett finishes this chapter with a brief reminder of the immense technological progress we’ve made in modern times and the massive externalization of our lives that accompanied this change.  But there is a growing disparity between this external power and our inner poverty; an irony that modern art wants to expose.  Tying this all together, he says:

“The bomb reveals the dreadful and total contingency of human existence.  Existentialism is the philosophy of the atomic age.”

And that pretty much says it all.  Originally, life on this planet (eventually including our own species) was born from the sun, in terms of its elements and its ultimate source of energy.  Now we live in an age where we’ve harnessed the power that drives the sun itself (nuclear fusion); the very power that may one day lead to the end of our own existence.  I find this situation to be far more ironic than the disparity between our inner and outer lives as Barrett points out, as we are on the brink of wiping ourselves out by the very mechanism that allowed us to exist in the first place.  Nothing could be a more poetic example of the contingency of our own existence.

In the next post in this series, I’ll explore Irrational Man, Part 2: The Sources of Existentialism in the Western Tradition, Chapter 4: Hebraism and Hellenism.