The social role of Art (China Biennale, September 2005)

Michalis Papadakis, sculptor                                      
President of the Chamber of Fine Arts of Greece (Biennale, China, 14/9/2005)
The Social Role of Art
Humanist-subjective elements in Contemporary Art
In the beginning I would like to pose some presuppositions.
First presupposition: when I use the word “Art” in this paper, I am referring solely to the visual arts in their timeless essence, which is man’s ability to create images by means of which he visualises the substance of things, their relations to man and the relationships among human beings. I am ignoring altogether any differentiations in the use of these terms historically. By the term “Work of Art” I mean solely the work of visual art.
Second presupposition: I will be speaking as an artist formulating theory on the basis of his artistic experience and reading. Therefore, I will not tire you with references, although this does not mean that I haven’t borrowed ideas from somewhere else.
Third presupposition: The History of Man, I argue, could not exist without Art, even though Art does not appear to have influenced History, but merely describes it. From one point of view this is the main position that I will attempt to uphold in my speech.
And finally, the fourth presupposition and starting point of my speech is that I am one of those who advocate the view that in the end the only science is the Science of the History of Nature, and all the other sciences are just branches of it. This means that Social History, meaning the History of Man, is part of the History of Nature.
According to this view, the History of Man – his humanisation – starts with tools. The tool stands at the point where Social History meets Natural History, and this tool is the foundation on which man’s special distinction as a species– his humanisation – and his evolution is built.
With the tool as starting point, first Art and then Philosophy elaborate the results of human activity into Concepts and Categories, which in turn will constitute the basic instruments of Thought (Noesis), through which the sciences will appear and develop.
So, beginning from the fourth presupposition set out above, and placing Art in the becoming in the History of Man, and indeed playing a prominent role, we automatically and inevitably lend it the determinist character of the History of Nature, and of the History of Man as part of the former. Art inevitably operates under the same general laws that govern the historical process that generated it.
One cannot consistently deny the determinist nature of Art, without denying its historical nature at the same time.
But Art, like every other human function that has become differentiated from the others (functions) during the evolution of human history, does not operate solely within the context of the general laws deriving from humanity’s historical Becoming, in which it belongs, but it also functions in the framework of the special precepts that it itself creates in its self-evolution. These special precepts contribute in turn to the further understanding and deepening of the general laws of the historical Becoming that generates Art.
In this way, Art contributes to creating the Whole of the History of Man, which, in the final analysis, is the main criterion that fulfils it.
I am arguing that it has been the work of Art which, over the millennia, has strongly and discernibly sustained the historic essentialities and the laws that gave birth to it, as well as the precepts of its own self-evolution, so that – apart from the distinction between the Work of Art and every other product of human creativity, and in addition the relationship of the work of art with every other product of this creativity – it maintains above all the role of authentic representative of this creativity, in general. This creativity is expressed in the descriptive and sufficient way in Freehand Drawing (to which I will refer later).
Let us look now at the origin of the visual Work of Art, or the process of its appearance.
The shapes of objects (weapons, perhaps, at the beginning), whose effectiveness is proven in the survival of the group, are endowed in man’s consciousness (and not without reason) with attributes belonging to the objects on which these early tools have an effective influence, and fascinate him as such. As shapes, I mean, representing the mind’s conquest on the essence of things, and this is the reason why he prefers them. In this way, what we call aesthetic judgement begins to be formed.
 The shapes of the stone spear tip or the stone axe, for example, outline abstractly in the mind the mind’s ability to arrive at the truth about the attributes of the animal they kill or the tree they cut down, as well as confirming this truth.
In the tool, the relationship between Matter, Shape and Form condenses, in an abstract, simple and economical way, the level of the knowledge about the objects that man influences.
Shape and Form appear to contain the greater part of this knowledge, since they are not provided by Nature as directly as Matter is, i.e. they represent the part of the intervention of intelligence and intelligence as such.
For this reason, Shape and Form can be separated from their material content and from the functions for which they were first made, and can be presented as entities (material images), that represent man’s relations with his environment in an abstract way and also become symbols of these relations. The development of the first tools created more complex and demanding conditions in the communication between members of the group. The role of Shape as a symbol acquires greater autonomy for this communication and performance becomes a way of transmitting knowledge.
But in this process, thrust is given to Thought to consider the results and forms of its own operation, i.e. to think about Thought.
Art creates material images and the performance of their Logic; through them, Thought, with the help of Art and Philosophy, thinks about itself.
Philosophy works on Concepts, Categories and the Logic of Thought, while Art works on their Image and Logic.
Together they develop the tools of Thought, with which Science investigates and analyses its object.
Images of the elements of the reduction process, their Logic, their content and the Logic of this content are the desirables of artistic expression, as well as its Criteria.
Here I should like to digress for a moment: I am using the word Criteria to “provoke” those who call themselves Art Historians today and nevertheless claim ponderously that in Art there are no criteria, or that the criteria are purely subjective. Do they not realise that with this claim they are abolishing first the criteria of the science they say they practise, and therefore of their science as such, and consequently their own status. This may not bother them. But they should not be paid for work they do not do unless they are being paid for some other reason… The digression ends here. I continue:
I argued above that human creativity is generally expressed in a sufficient and descriptive way in Freehand Drawing. In this subject’s function to recast stimuli from a three-dimensional and multicoloured world into an image composed of simple monochrome lines on a surface, i.e. in two dimensions. Right from the start, the very function of drawing sets reduction-abstraction as its absolute prerequisite. From the multiple to the single, from three to two dimensions.
Moreover, from the very beginning of the drawing, the natural process of the vibrant relationship between the subject and the object and the different angles of our eyes define the orientation of the act of drawing as the rendering of the relationship of the subject to the object, and not the faithful representation of the object.
When drawing, we start out from something that happens every moment our eyes are open: the stimulus generated on the eye by the objective world, in this case, the object. Through this stimulus, with the intervention of Imagination – which is the ability to combine this stimulus with our primary experiential knowledge – the object is transmuted into a mental image in space, beyond the eye. From the viewpoint of physiology, we ought to be seeing the object in our retina. Despite this, we see it in space, thanks to our Imagination.
Imagination as power, and not just human power, has combined the experience of our movement in space with stimuli from the things that constitute it as a Whole which, in cooperation with memory, comprise what I have called primary experiential cognition.
If, to the concept of experiential cognition, we add the differentiation of man as a species – the element that distinguishes him from other animate beings – we immediately have the historical element in this first sensory experience which lends it indescribable richness, so that it is not a mere image in the thought, but an image that embodies all the stages in the evolution of the relationship between the subject and the object. That is, what we call Instinct or instinctive cognition. The construction of the mental image is the first abstraction-negation. It is the moment of the Living Perception, where the stimulus from the object (positive) is its primary component.
The moment of the Living Perception, like subsequent moments to which I will refer later, has many important subdivisions that cannot be explored here owing to the limited time available.
On this basis of the Mental Image, which is constructed by the Imagination and Instinct, the artist thinks and explores the essentialities that make up the Substance and character of the object. In doing this, he humanises the powers of the animate being and focuses his attention on essentialities, the Concepts and Categories that constitute the meaning and logic of the subject’s relationship with the object and vice versa. In this way, he arrives at the Abstract Idea. He necessarily overlooks anything else that does not further this Idea that represents the abstract idea of the whole of the object. This is the second moment of abstraction-negation when the subjective Abstract Idea dominates, and will also create the impulse that moves the hand holding the pencil on the paper.
But when this second abstraction, which has the form of an Abstract Idea on the level of subjective thought, starts being transformed into a thing outside Thought, into the lines of a drawing in progress, it produces new mental images and processes of Thought, where the participation of the Imagination and Instinct are activated again, this time as criteria of both the Abstract Idea and the first abstraction, the Living Perception.
The result of this function of Thought and the motion of the artist on paper (praxis) is the drawing in its development as reality. The real image of the moments of the Living Perception and the Abstract Idea that reactivate the Imagination, Instinct and Cognition, also stir up the subject’s subconscious material that acquires the appearance of the special cognition that we call Intuition.
At this point I should like to make it clear that human powers such as Imagination, Instinct, Cognition and Intuition function all together at every moment of man’s existence. The distinction I make in the stages at which they appear is a matter of convention and signifies only the greater role in each moment of one power in relation to the others. For example, in the action of Drawing, which is what we are talking about at this moment, Intuition, in my view, plays the most obvious and significant role.
In the finished drawing, we have the third phase of abstraction, which as Image-Object realises both the ability of humanised powers, now the power of man to discover the essence of the object.
In the third stage we have the appropriation of the Object by the powers of the Subject, as self-knowledge and knowledge of his capabilities.
All these amazing things happen on this piece of paper with the lines on it that is called Freehand Drawing.
The above process is what makes Freehand Drawing directly (or indirectly, as inherent) the essential component that lends the image the attribute of a Work of Art. On the contrary, Linear Drawing, or its counterpart in three dimensions, describes an idea, i.e. is identified with the Abstract Idea of the second abstraction, and simply represents it, illustrates it (see Conceptual Art). But in this way it removes the possibility of the two stages completing into a third one, with the result that there is no self-existence of the entity in itself but it must always refer directly to the idea.
The material realisation of the Abstract Idea as such results in the illustrated objective idea being put forward as the dominant object in relation to the subject.
The expressive element provided by the subject’s gesture in Freehand Drawing is that the infinite gradations-quantities of the object are preserved in the condensed abstract values and qualities of the lines. The line retains its substance in itself as the manifestation of quality.
On the contrary, in Linear Drawing, the line has no substance in itself. The only thing it does is demarcate the limits of the Abstract Idea (quantity), in order to give it objective substance.
In Freehand Drawing, the concept of the infinite is emitted as quality rather than magnitude-quantity.
Through gestural activity, the artist lends the finite forms of universal concepts that he outlines in the drawing, the infinite qualities of the content of these concepts that exist in the objective world.
On the contrary, in Linear Drawing (or their products in three dimensions), in which the demarcation of the limit of the idea or its symbol dominates, everything not included in this description is unacceptable, is “noice”.
Linear Drawing follows Freehand Drawing, in order to stylise and translate concepts gained by freehand drawing into measurable magnitudes (quantities). This is why it is integrally linked with the applications of decoration or the production of objects intended for mass consumption.
Through the above, I am arguing that the Visual Arts belong above all to the process of cognition, before any other attribute that we wish to give them. And it does this in some special way, the way of the realisation of the powers of Cognition in the third stage-moment of visual creation, which nonetheless has a universal validity as regards the development of scientific knowledge, since in the Work of Art both the Mental Image and the creative powers (Imagination, etc.) are cultivated, the prerequisite for scientific thought.
In addition I am arguing that Art constitutes the second step in this process, after the tool, together with the first world theories that are the precursors of Philosophy.
If Art and Philosophy are the second step, Science is the third great step and is the causal result of the first two, dependent on them in a permanent two-way relationship that affects them decisively.
By nature then, Art, together with Philosophy, is at the heart of shaping ideologies, but at the same time it is in a relationship of conflict with them when ideologies become transformed into closed systems concerned about the questioning of their limits.
The redemptive identification of manual and intellectual labour that is retained in the Work of Art, as I have tried to describe above, liberates the power of the Imagination, the Instinct, the Intuition and Cognition in all its historic depth, so that the object can be conquered, subjectified, or in other words, its alienation can be raised: estrangement from the object – the subject’s creation – that confronts and dominates the subject.
From a general point of view, human history is the history of the separation, the alienation, of intellectual from manual labour. Historical periods differ among themselves in terms of the modes of social organisation by which the social groups that produce social wealth are separated from it.
In this process, at its every historical stage, the alienated product (wealth) takes the form of the representative of an alien will (divine or other), confronting and dominating the producer. At every historical stage, the particular form of social organisation taken by this alienation (“will”) becomes an obstacle to historical evolution and produces social conflicts.
In our age, this “alienating will” has been stripped of every subjective substance and has been reduced to a thing: the commodity and the global market that represents the relationship of the commodity to itself. The fact that some people profit from the operation of the world market appears in people’s minds to be of secondary importance, since as a result of its unforeseeable operations that are shaped by competition, each one of us may at any moment find himself at the top of the privileged class. Social activity is objectified to the extreme in the commodity, and subjectivisation disappears i.e. the social activity that takes the form of a commodity concerns human relations.
Our ordinary life is structured around this enormous abstraction, the reduction of everything to one thing, the commodity, and to its absolute form, Money. Religions, doctrines of race and morality and everything else are nothing more than flags rallying adversarial vested financial interests in the global market.
But today, in an age of the predomination of the absolute abstraction (of money), the pressure to break down theoretical-reductive thought in favour of subjective irrationalism has taken on enormous dimensions. Art could not be exempted from this pressure.
After World War II, the rapid development of the art market went hand in hand with the promotion as works of Art of products in which the subjective presence – or manual labour – of the artist has kept diminishing, to the point that in whatever is defined today by the prevailing view as Contemporary Art, it has almost vanished.
The fact that Linear Drawing is the foundation of so-called Contemporary Art, with relevant productions, like constructions of prefabricated materials, installations with ready-made material, computer graphics, photographs and video is hardly coincidental. By nature, these media refer to Abstract Ideas only, on which they depend. Abstract Ideas identify the low points in our daily life, without linking these Ideas to Nature, Structure and Reason, or to the content of our daily life, without referring on the fact that this content produces the low points.
Museums of contemporary art are full of products that are vehicles for doctrines about the aesthetic arrangement of junk (trash art), about “tolerance of differentness, of people’s religious, racial and sexual choices, etc.”, of “solitude”, of “migration” or the “modern nomadic life” (what a cosy term for the violent compulsion of populations to migrate!) and social and political criticism of this type.
The Abstract Idea in its realisation (as object), and identical with itself, is presented as a specific visual proposal, like Money, this monstrous abstraction, is presented as the only concrete element of our reality.
A theoretical viewpoint on contemporary art was expressed most successfully in the mid-1990s by Ms Johanna Drucker, professor of the History and Theory of Contemporary Art at Yale University. I am quoting from the National Gallery catalogue entitled “Art in the late 20th century”. She writes, on page 14:
 “This crisis of consciousness and powers that artists experienced during the Vietnam war showed once and for all the impotence of the abstract formal language as a force for social change. The poverty of abstraction to act in the face of real crises punctures the modernist belief system. It becomes impossible to imagine that any visual form which is merely an attack on or transformation of the established codes of visual meaning will bring about any kind of social change – let alone the long dreamed-of modern Utopia.” Her article ends on page 30 as follows: “Art now functions to call meaning itself into question and requires us to attend to the complex ways in which such meaning is produced – rather than providing a stable, universal or transcendent truth. Visual presence as pure meaning and aesthetic form is an impotent concept in a world in which hybridity, mutation, and contamination are conspicuous social and aesthetic features. […] If the early twentieth century was characterized by modern dreams of pure form and utopian change, then the close of the century is characterized by a fevered energy which drives the visual arts toward a dynamically fertile engagement with all the many contingencies of experience – real and imagined, packaged and produced, lived and recycled.”
From the pragmatistic way in which these thoughts are phrased, it is clear that Ms Drucker’s text is not a theoretical viewpoint, but a Directive addressed directly or indirectly to franchised institutions all over the world.
What has the entrenched intelligentsia to fear from Art? That which Ms Drucker has hastened to bury: the possibility that “abstract formal language” could be a “force for social change”, i.e. what she regards as the “utopian” demand of modernism.
She/they are afraid of Art’s insistence on eliminating alienation by identifying manual and intellectual labour, revealing the logic of the relationship between the Idea and everything else and giving the Subject the knowledge of the deeper needs of the world around him. And this happens independently of how and to what extent every individual artist understands this.
This understanding that Art demands in our age of absolute and objectified abstraction – with its monstrous consequences for humankind, scorning it as the subject of its own history – creates the danger that art may once again in the recent history take on the form of a social demand that concerns the whole of our human existence.

Mihalis Papadakis














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