An Era of Ideology: Cultural

and Political Conundrums

(An artist’s attempt to understand our times)

George Sakkal

August 2007

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We have come to believe that art is prophetic by nature. This has particularly been the case with the avant-garde, the leading edge of art.  Historically it has offered the ultimate in both prediction and originality.   Perhaps one of the most noteworthy examples of art’s propensity to predict is evidenced by Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, painted in 1937.  This avant-garde work evoked the agony of total war.  It was inspired by the terror- bombing of Guernica, the Basque capital in northern Spain.  It expressed a prophetic vision of doom.  The work signaled the inhumane devastation of saturation bombing which was to be employed extensively in the following decade during the Second World War.[1]

In accepting the prophetic nature of art, it is assumed that art is indelible to an event stream continuum. Art lives now and in the future. Suppose, however, the avant-garde declares art to be dead.  If art is understood to be dead, how could it offer a prophetic vision of tomorrow?  The avant-garde movements of the second half of the twentieth century referred to as Post Modern advocated nihilism and declared that art was at an end.  This sets one to wonder whether Post Modernism also annihilated art’s historic prophetic propensity. This question is worth examining.  To fully appreciate the extent of the question being ask we are first obliged to briefly review the inherent character of the Post Modern avant-garde era.

  Post Modern Art:

The direction that the avant-garde took for much of the second half of the twentieth century can be traced to the theories and writings of the French expatriate Marcel Duchamp.[2] Duchamp was the first to deny the importance of visual or “retinal” art as practiced by most artists during the first half of the twentieth century.  Instead, he advocated that it was the mind or the concept that springs from the mind of the artist that serves as the primary source for creativity.  He dismissed the process of methodology as being significant in the act of creativity. In place of method search or composition development, where the artist relies on his unconscious intuition for creative direction to visually form and shape a work into a harmonious whole, Duchamp offered the “ready made”.[3] Duchamp considered art to be everywhere. All that was needed was to apply one’s mind to identify it. Art could be acquired off a department store shelf. A massed produced item, slightly altered by the artist, served to be the new art.  As a consequence, easel painting involving a labor intensive methodology where the resulting work is visually composed was rendered obsolete.[4]  Why bother to methodically search for “truth” through composition?  All that one needed to do was simply to think of an idea, to discover the truth with one’s mind and to select and choose art instantaneously.

Art as practiced during much of the first half of the twentieth century was declared dead in the second half by the followers of Duchamp. Ideology replaced the unconscious mind as the artist’s primary source for creativity. The leading artists of this era espoused the belief that they knew the absolute objective truth of art as expressed by their work[5].  It has been noted that Barnett Newman closed the window, Mark Rothko pulled down the shades and Ad Reinhardt turned off the lights.[6]   Thus, ideology formed by the conscious mind rather then intuition of the unconscious inner self became the modus operandi of America’s Post Modern art.  

  Art, Science and Ideology:

Has the presumed death of art affected its traditional relationship to science?  Art and science have always shared an essential commonality.  Many of America’s institutions of higher learning combine the disciplines of arts and sciences into the same schools. Historically, there is a significant reason for this connectivity. Both areas of learning are invested in methodology, the means or process used in knowledge discovery. By examining the scientific method of learning perhaps we may better understand the importance that methodology has historically served its sister discipline in the arts.

The two most important questions for science are, “What can I know?” and “How can I know?”[7] “What can I know”, is the question asked by a religious ideologist – a person mainly occupied with concepts and ideas. Religion, and to a lesser extent philosophy, focus their attention on the question of, “What can I know?”  Traditionally, for most religions the answer to this question ultimately comes down to the way God ordered it. Religion is inherently conservative.[8] Truth is what God proclaimed it to be.  The scientist, on the other hand, is concerned with the question “How can I know?  For him, truth can not be assumed in advance. It is discovered by a method or process of trial and error.

Addressing either the “What” or the “How” question is not simply an academic pursuit. The answers derived may well have to do with how a society chooses to structure and govern itself, how its citizens choose to live.  By addressing primarily the “What” question, a society presupposes that it knows the truth and that it need not question its belief. Such a society is more likely to enforce rigid decrees from narrowly defined criteria and be less likely to adapt to change.

At the beginning of the twentieth century a revolution was underway in the sciences that coincided with the birth of modern art.  Both disciplines were focusing on the same question, i.e., “How can I know?”  In addressing the question both disciplines came to the understanding that the importance lies in the way one goes about answering the question. Indeed, methodology that is chosen and utilized to answer a question is as important as the question itself. It was realized that it was the method of inquiry that is used that results in knowledge discovered.  Methodology matters more that anything else.[9]   Without methodology the act of discovery, the pursuit of knowledge and the advance and progress of civilization merely become coincidental. “Both art and science disciplines came to realize that a society that leaves room for doubt about the truth is more likely to be free and open.”[10]  It was in this context that art was created in the first half of the twentieth century.

We now return to our original question. Can the Post Modern ideological art movements of the second half of the twentieth century that declared “method” art to be dead offer prophetic insight into the character of societal behavior in the beginning of the new century? In answering this question we need first to examine existing societal circumstance so as to better draw the appropriate conclusion.

  Politics and Post Modern Ideology:

In the year 2000 when George Bush was posed to assume control of the federal government, he was quick to announce that he intended to restore “God” to both the White House and the deliberations of government. Upon securing control in January of 2001 George Bush issued the first of two executive orders of his administration. They established a new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and instructed five cabinet departments to establish similar centers inside their bureaucracies. This ideology based action enabled federal revenues to provide support for religious groups, which would not have qualified under long-established procedures protecting separation of the affairs of church from state.  [11]

We have seen that at the end of the twentieth century ideology had come to dominant American culture. Now, at the onset of the twenty- first century with a faith based chief executive, ideology would also come to direct and influence the political life of the country. In the past several years this ideological approach to government that emphasizes the “what” as opposed to the “how” question has had a chilling affect on the scientific community in America. We shall therefore, focus attention on the current condition of the art’s sister disciple, the sciences.

 Science and Post Modern Ideology:

Much of the funding support for research in the sciences comes from the federal government by way of research grants. A considerable portion of the work of research is conducted by numerous operating scientific agencies and departments of the government.  It is here, therefore, where ideology has the potential for significant impact.

Recently, it has come to light that political appointees to numerous Federal agencies have tampered with and altered scientific research findings to ensure that such results were consistent with presupposed White House political based ideology. A most significant example of data manipulation concerns the revisions made to scientific findings on global warming. The case reported concerns James Hanson, a 39 year veteran with the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA). His reporting on greenhouse gas emissions which did not coincide with predetermined positions emanating from the White House was purposefully manipulated and edited to “fit” preferential conclusions.[12]

“What’s more, NASA, isn’t the only Agency beset by allegations of scientific censorship. In surveys by the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass., more than a third of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration respondents and almost half of Fish and Wildlife Service respondents reported political interference in scientific determinations.  Federal lawmakers have heard similar complaints from scientists at those agencies and others, including the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Administration.” [13]

The Bush-Cheney administration’s extensive record on the ideological manipulating of scientific findings has prompted a strong protest from America’s scientific community.  On February 18, 2004, more than sixty leading scientists, including Nobel laureates, university chairs and presidents, and former federal agency directors, signed a joint statement condemning the Bush-Cheney administration’s ideological politicization of science.  Since then more than eleven thousand other scientists have added their names to the statement.[14]

 Foreign Policy and Post Modern Ideology:

Bush’s political appointees seeded throughout the bureaucracy filled  new faith based created offices and positions that would come to also influence foreign policy.  These appointees were given White House authority to make certain that grant officials in the State Department embraced Bush- Cheney ideology. At the United States Agency for International Development, for example, political appointees wrote rules to permit missionary groups to hold church services in the same spaces they used for handing out food or medicine, just prior to or just after dispensing taxpayer- funded foreign aid, putting a Christian stamp on American assistance to many foreign countries[15].

Foreign policy decision making in government has traditionally relied upon a methodology of policy science analysis. The acquisition of pertinent data are examined, compared, and tested against other data and their sources. The analysis of various data collected must originate from responsible and reliable sources to provide government decision makers with a competent objective base from which to formulate policy.

In complex policy formulation, e.g., the decision to invade another nation, one would assume that such a monumental decision would be supported by the most stringent and comprehensive standards of policy analysis. However, when questioned by the media following the invasion of Iraq –  the Bush- Cheney Administration’s single most important foreign policy initiative – as to whether he sought the advice of his father or the experience of the policy analysts that advised his father in making the earlier incursion into Iraq, George Bush replied that he did no such thing. He said he consulted instead “divine authority”, or the “What” question in making his decision to invade.

We now know that the government’s intelligence findings presented to the American people in 2003 that served as justification to invade Iraq were obtained from unreliable sources and were manipulated and fabricated.[16]  The civilian leadership at the Department of Defense guided by the direction of the President and Vice President assumed policy preferences and predispositions in advance for the need for an invasion. They began with an end conclusion and worked backward.[17] To strengthen their conclusion to invade, they discredited and suppressed reliable opposing evidence. They deliberately corrupted the science of policy analysis methodology by acquiring fabricated, contrived intelligence.  Their approach to decision making was both ideological and irresponsible. It was used to justify going to war against a country that had not attacked us and posed no imminent threat of attack.[18] They claimed to know the absolute objective truth in advance. A search to discover the truth, therefore, was regarded as unnecessary.

 

 

FROM LIES AND DECEIT TO SHOCK AND AWE

 

Medical Research and Post Modern Ideology:

In February 2004, the administration dismissed a scientist, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, from the President’s Council on Bioethics.  Dr. Blackburn was regarded as one of the most prominent cancer researchers in the world.  She had been critical of the administration’s position restricting the use of federal funds for stem cell research. The White House denied that she was removed for political or ideological reasons. [19]

On July 19, 2006, the White House prevailed against the cause of medical research.  For purely ideological reasons,  George Bush vetoed the embryonic stem-cell research legislation passed by both houses of Congress.[20]   This was a veto of legislation that would have allowed surplus embryos from fertility clinics - instead of being tossed out as garbage - to be used for medical research for the possible cure of numerous life threatening illnesses. The President vetoed the bill because he believed he knew the absolute objective truth. Within a year he vetoed a second similar bill, firmly establishing that in an era of Ideology the “what” priority of faith prevails ahead of the interests of science and medical research.   

  Cultural and Political Conundrums:

The question posed earlier concerned whether the anti- methodology, ideology driven art movements of the second half of the 20th century that declared art to be dead could retain art’s traditional propensity to predict future circumstance. It appears that Post Modern art did in fact prophetically establish a clear vision of society’s future direction. By substituting ideology for methodology in cultural appreciation, it fore shadowed the coming of ideological dominance in the political arena.

Did the Post Modern art movements of the second half of the twentieth century consciously realize what prophetic impact their positions would have on political behavior that shaped the beginning of the 21st century?  Probably not.  Picasso could not have realized the prophetic quality attributed to the Guernica when he created it.  His motivation stemmed from his unconscious intuitive emotion. Its visionary quality was unintentional – but prophetic nonetheless. Similarly, the impact that Post Modern ideology based art movements have had on events that shape the politics of our society today was unintentional but the prophetic legacy it offers is nonetheless profound.

Just as government deliberation has been thwarted and corrupted by ideology so also has the cultural base of American art experienced decline. Post Modern art movements are believed to be responsible for diminishing and discrediting the creativity of American culture. They declared art and the intuitive methodological approaches that created art to be dead. They denied the belief that art proceeds along an evolutionary continuum. They created a cultural conundrum… a void and filled it with ideology. Unwittingly, they set the precedent in culture that served to pave the way for the entry of ideology into the affairs of State that adversely affects the pursuit of truth and knowledge today.

Can these cultural and political conundrums that the nihilism of Post Modern art influenced continue? How can a society be expected to survive and prosper in a world where its culture is considered to be dead and its scientific research is compromised by a political leadership that ideologically impedes the search for knowledge and truth?  Has our society been compromised by its culture? Has our culture deceived us?

What then is to be said of Post Modern art? Taking our cue from science we are informed that mankind has evolved along an evolutionary continuum.  Followers of the doctrine of ideology or the “what” question, accept faith and creationism as the answer to the origins of mankind.  Here, science’s determination of a natural evolutionary methodology is denied.  If, as Charles Darwin first proposed, humankind has formed and evolved from a process of natural selection, then art, which is the creative manifestation of the human experience, must also follow a similar continuum in the path of human evolution. Yet, Post Modern culture, ideologically riveted, tells us art is dead.  It denies art’s continuum.  If society is to rid itself of these conundrums, it must ask whether art is really dead or are the nihilistic art movements by their very nature, dead end movements. And is the dominance of ideology in our political affairs today really serving the best interests of America?

In the evolutionary development of the species of homo-sapiens there was a branch of man that ran counter to the mainstream. One could not, of course, ascertain this relationship at the time. This early race of man we now know as Neanderthal.  It died off because it could not adapt to or understand the forces of a changing world.  It was a dead ender.  

Perhaps in time historians may come to understand that Post Modern nihilism and the ideological art it embraced as exemplified by flat bricks on a floor, cigarette butts in an ash tray, basketballs suspended in a fish tank and black blank canvas hung on a wall were not examples of the end of art, but rather examples of the creations of misguided dead enders or dead end art.  At such time it may be understood that the movements of nihilistic art during the second half of the twentieth century ran counter to the evolutionary mainstream of art’s continuum and, in effect, were Neanderthal. 

So too, historians may conclude that the policies of an ideologically based government during the first decade of the twenty- first century that presupposed it knew the absolute objective truth, presaged very little. While demonstrating an arrogant, self righteous behavior, this government failed to properly define, address and resolve the important critical issues of the time. It inflicted enormous damage and, in effect, ran counter to serving the needs of the society it claimed to represent.

 

 

UNCONSCIOUS INTUITIVE EMOTION

 

Hopefully, we may all come to realize that a society’s art, science and government are not best serve by ideology.  Art, science and government should never be minimalized, conceptualized, or compromised. Along the continuum in the evolution of knowledge, artists, scientists and those responsible for administering and managing the affairs of State must be unimpeded to choose and to maximize methodology for the purposes of search and discovery. The arts and sciences as they influence the direction of cultural and political affairs can then be free to secure the pathway for the advance of knowledge and the search for truth as it benefits the cause of humanity.

 

 



[1] Jason, Dora, "History of Ar"t, New York: Abrams/Prentice Hall, 1967, p 525

[2] Kuspit, Donald, "The End of Art", New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004, p 13

[3] Crimp, Douglas, “The End of Painting”, October, 16, 1981,  69- 86, p 75

[4] Kuspit, Donald, "The End of Art", New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004,  p 24

[5] Ibid., p 97

[6] Rose, Barbara, "American Painting: The Eighties- A Critical Interpretation", Buffalo: Thorney –  Sidney  Press, 1979 

[7]  Barry, John, "The Great Influenza", New York: Penguin Books, 2005, p 14

[8]  Ibid., p 14

[9]  Ibid., p 15

[10] Ibid., p 15

[11]  Savage, Charlie, Takeover, "The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy", New York:  Little Brown and Company, 2007, p. 289

[12]  Dickey, Beth, “Muzzled or Misunderstood?”, Government Executive , April 1, 2006, 19-20,  p.19

[13]  Ibid., p. 20

[14]  Savage, Charlie, Takeover, "The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy", New York:  Little Brown and Company, 2007, p. 303

[15]  Savage, Charlie, Takeover, "The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy”, New York:  Little Brown and Company, 2007, p. 292

[16]  Alter, Jonathan, “The Price of Loyalty”, Newsweek, November 5, 2005, pg. 47

[17]  Corn, David & Isikoff, Michael, “Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War”, New York; Crown Publishing, 2006, pg. 108

[18]  Cole, David and Lobel, Jules, “Why We  Are Losing the War on Terror”, The Nation, Sept. 24, 2007, p.12, v.285, #8

[19] Savage, Charlie, Takeover, "The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy", New York:  Little Brown and Company, 2007, p. 303

[20]  Alter, Jonathan, “It Was the Veto of a Lifetime”, Newsweek, July 31, 2006,  p. 40