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.

A Scientific Perspective of the Arts

Science and the arts have long been regarded as mutually exclusive domains, where many see artistic expression as something that science can’t explain or reduce in any way, or as something that just shouldn’t be explored by any kind of scientific inquiry.  To put it another way, many people have thought it impossible for there to ever be any kind of a “science of the arts”.  The way I see it, science isn’t something that can be excluded from any domain at all, because we apply science in a very general way every time we learn or conceive of new ideas, experiment with them, and observe the results to determine if we should modify our beliefs based on those experiences.  Whenever we pose a question about anything we experience, in the attempt to learn something new and gain a better understanding about those experiences, a scientific approach (based on reason and the senses) is the only demonstrably reliable way we’ve ever been able to arrive at any kind of meaningful answer.  The arts are no exception to this, and in fact, many questions that have been asked about the arts and aesthetics in general have not only been answered by an application of the aforementioned general scientific reasoning that we use every day, but have in fact also been answered within many specific well-established branches of science.

Technology & The Scientific Method

It seems to me that the sciences and the various rewards we’ve reaped from them have influenced art in a number of ways and even facilitated new variations of artistic expression.  For example, science has been applied to create the very technologies used in producing art.  The various technologies created through the application of science have been used to produce new sounds (and new combinations thereof), new colors (and new color gradients), new shapes, and various other novel visual effects.  We’ve even used them to produce new tastes and smells (in the culinary arts for example).  They’ve also been used to create entirely new media through which art is exemplified.  So in a large number of ways, any kind of art has been dependent on science in some way or another — even by simply applying the scientific method by hypothesizing a way to express art in some way, even through a new medium or with a new technique, where the artist experiments with that medium or technique to see if it is satisfactory, and then modifies their hypothesis if needed until the artist obtains the desired result for what they’re trying to express (whether through simple trial and error or what-have-you).

Evolutionary Factors Influencing Aesthetic Preferences

Then we have the questions that pertain to whether or not aesthetic preferences are solely subjective and individualistic, or if they are also objective in some ways.  Some of these questions have in fact been explored within the fields of evolutionary biology and psychology (and within the field of psychology in general), where it is well known that humans find certain types of perceptions pleasurable, such as environments and objects that are conducive to our survival.  For example, the majority of people enjoy visually perceiving an abundance of food, fresh water and plush vegetation, healthy social relationships (including sex) and various emotions, etc. There are also various sounds, smells, tastes, and even tactile sensations that we’ve evolved to find pleasurable — such as the sound of laughter, flowing water, or rain, the taste of salt, fat, and sugar, the smell of various foods and plants, or the tactile sensation of sexual stimulation (to give but a few examples).  So it’s not surprising that many forms of art can appeal to the majority of people by employing these kinds of objects and environments within them, especially in cases where these sources of pleasurable sensations are artificially amplified into supernormal stimuli, thus producing unprecedented levels of pleasure not previously attainable through the natural environment that our senses evolved within.

Additionally, there are certain emotions that we’ve evolved to express as well as understand simply because they increase our chances of survival within our evolutionary niche, and thus artistic representations of these types of universal human emotions will also likely play a substantial role in our aesthetic preferences.  Even the evolved traits of empathy and sympathy, which are quite advantageous to a social species such as our own (due to them reinforcing cooperation and reciprocal altruism among other benefits), are employed by those that are perceiving and appreciating these artistic expressions.

Another possible evolutionary component related to our appreciation of art has to do with sexual selection.  Often times, particular forms of art are appreciated, not only because of the emotions it evokes in the recipient or person perceiving it, but also when they include clever uses of metaphor, allegory, poetry, and other components that often demonstrate significant levels of intelligence or brilliance in the artist that produced them.  In terms of our evolutionary history, having these kinds of skills and displays of intelligence would be attractive to prospective sexual mates for a number of reasons including the fact that they demonstrate that the artist has a surplus of mental capacity to solve more complex problems that are far beyond those they’d typically encounter day to day.  So this can provide a rather unique way of demonstrating particular aspects of their fitness to survive as well as their abilities to protect any future offspring.

Artistic expression (as well as other displays of intelligence and surplus mental capacity) can be seen as analogous to the male peacock’s large and vibrant tail.  Even though this type of tail increases its chances of being caught by a predator, if it has survived to reproductive age and beyond, it shows the females that the male has a very high fitness despite these odds being stacked against him.  It also shows that the male is fit enough to possess a surplus of resources from its food intake that are continually donated to maintaining that tail.  Beyond this, a higher degree of symmetry in the tail (the visual patterns within each feather, the morphology of each feather, and the uniformity of the feathers as a whole set) demonstrates a lower number of mutations in its genome, thus providing better genes for any future offspring.  Because of all these factors, the female has evolved to find these male attributes attractive.

Similarly, for human beings (both male and female), an intelligent brain that is able to produce brilliant expressions of art (among other feats of intelligence), illustrates that the genome for that individual is likely to have less mutations in it.  This is especially apparent once we realize that the number of genes in our genome that pertain to our brain’s development and function accounts for an entire 50% of our total genome.  So if someone is intelligent, since their highly functional brain was dependent on having a small number of mutations in the portion of their genome pertaining to the brain, this shows that the rest of their genome is also far less likely to have harmful mutations in it (and thus less mutations passed on to future offspring).  Art aside, this kind of sexual selection is actually one prominent theory within evolutionary biology to explain why our brains grew as quickly as they did, and as large as they did.  Quite simply, if larger brains were something that both males and females found sexually attractive (through the feats of intelligence they could produce), they would be sexually selected for, thus leading to higher survival rates for offspring and a runaway effect of unprecedented brain growth.  These aesthetic preferences would then likely carry over to general displays of artistic ability, thus no longer pertaining exclusively to the search for prospective sexual mates, but also to simply enjoy the feats of intelligence themselves regardless of the source.  So there are many interesting facets that pertain to likely influential evolutionary factors relating to the origin of artistic expression (or at least the origin of our mental capacity to do so).

Neuroscience & The Arts

One final aspect I’d like to discuss that pertains to the arts within the context of the sciences, lies in the realm of neuroscience.  As neuroscientists are progressing in terms of mapping the brain’s structure and activity, they are becoming better able to determine what kinds of neurological conditions are correlated with various aspects of our conscious experience, our personality, and our behavior in general.  As for how this relates to the arts, we should also eventually be able to determine why we have have the aesthetic preferences we do, whether they are based on: various neurological predispositions, the emotional tagging of various past experiences via the amygdala (and how the memory of those emotionally tagged experiences change over time), possible differences in individual sensitivities to particular stimuli, etc.

Once we get to this level of understanding of the brain itself, when we combine it with the conjoined efforts of other scientific disciplines such as anthropology, archaeology, evolutionary biology and psychology, etc., and if we collaborate with experts in the arts and humanities themselves, we should definitely be able to answer a plethora of questions relating to the origin of art, how and why it has evolved over time as it has (and how it will likely continue to evolve given that our brains as well as our culture are continually evolving in parallel), how and why the arts affect us as they do, etc.  With this kind of knowledge developing in these fields, we may even one day see artists producing art by utilizing this knowledge in very specific and articulate ways, in order to produce expressions that are the most aesthetically pleasing, the most intellectually stimulating, and the most emotionally powerful that we’ve ever experienced, by design.  I think that by putting all of this knowledge together, we would effectively have a true science of the arts.

The arts have no doubt been a fundamental facet of the human condition, and I’m excited to see us beginning to learn the answers to these truly remarkable questions.  I’m hoping that the arts and the sciences can better collaborate with one another, rather than remain relatively alienated from one another, so that we can maximize the knowledge we gain in order to answer these big questions more effectively.  We may begin to see some truly remarkable changes in how the arts are performed and produced based on this knowledge, and this should only enhance the pleasure and enjoyment that they already bring to us.