“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.”
– Pablo Picasso
Long ago, artists were called on to, more or less, represent the world around them in some form that ennobled the subject at hand. In the Baroque Era, paintings usually depicted either the ruling class or the saints in ways that made mythologies of power real. Music was used to provide dignity to a setting or to magnify the glory of God himself to every heart that pounded along with the moment. Not today.
An artist today is supposed to be someone who pushes the boundaries of our world by creating a new understanding of what it means to be human. The mythology is something otherwise dormant within us. That makes the statement by Picasso, a creator and master practitioner of this view of art, even more troublesome.
The roots of Popular Doom appear to reach back much further than the current economic crisis, climate crisis, or any of the other situations that seem dire today.
When the first generation of Romantics tried to paint or sculpt or compose art that laid bare the inner essence of humanity, the act of destruction was one of the most appealing parts of the process. They were rebelling against the authorities of the time, the very people that employed artists just one generation earlier. The creation of what we’d call a “Rockstar” was easy enough because artists were more interested in what made people than what made great figures of authority – the adoration of the masses was a validation that they were onto something. Who needs the ruling class, anyways?
The creation of mass media brought literature, visual art, and eventually music into everyone’s life within a century of the first blossom of these ideas. By the end of World War I, inherited nobility was more or less dead, killed off because they were no longer needed. Art moved on to react to the world that it had helped to create, often depicting how people stood up to grey oligarchies of the industrial world. Once again, forward progress by rebelling against the establishment was easy because the flaws were obvious. Destruction of what we had was still desirable.
Today’s world is much more complicated in part because the visions of so many generations of artists and romantics has been largely realized. Mass media tends to come from a part of the world we call “industrialized”, and in this world people are freer than they have ever been before. They make most of the decisions that influence their lives, elect their leaders democratically, and generally can be anything they want to be. The popular mythologies do not involve power or glory but images of freedom.
If an artist is going to explore the boundaries of what it means to be human, as they have been called on to do for about 200 years, they necessarily have to contrast a new idea with what people experience in their everyday lives. They have to rebel. They have to destroy, or at least be wiling to destroy. What is the opposite mythology of universal freedom?
Crumble up that piece of paper and start over. No one said art was easy.
Let’s assume that Popular Doom is nothing more than one mythology that is a reaction to a feeling of powerlessness. Other reactions include false nostalgia and, hopefully, a desire to organize and get to work fixing the problems at hand. In all of these cases the central problem appears to be that people don’t generally have the kind of control over their lives that they thought they have been promised by popular mythology built up through two centuries of creative expression.
One thing about Popular Doom is clear – it’s been with us more or less constantly since the Cold War. Episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and “Star Trek” presumed that, sometime before about now, a nuclear holocaust would have vaporized much of our civilization. When that didn’t happen, Popular Doom moved on to climate change, over-population, Y2K, government takeover, economic collapse, and more recently a bizarre cocktail of pseudo-Mayan prediction and geo-solar events. All of these have some basis in reality, yet all of them take it to a mythology that stresses destruction rather than creation.
Perhaps Picasso was very wise. If we are on the verge of developing a new mythology that gives us a new reason to be hopeful, perhaps we have to endure the destruction of the old ways first. It’s not pretty, it’s not a lot of fun, but it might be necessary. Let’s wallow in the Popular Doom, false nostalgia, and other ways of feeling sorry for ourselves just a bit longer. Who knows what will come of it?
As usual, I’d love to know what you think.
I don’t know. I want to think that there are people out there who can create great art that says something about our time, but I can’t think of any examples right now. Is that what you mean?
What you seem to be suggesting is a major shift might be at hand when it comes to how society works. Perhaps this is where the “restructuring” begins with regard to re-making systems that respond to people. We seem to understand that operating as we currently do is “doomed” but we’re not quite ready to envision what the next renaissance might look like.
Yes, you’re both right. I’m being vague because I don’t know if I’m thinking this through very well, but it seems to me that we’re a long way off from a good counter to the Popular Doom – or any other reaction to feelings of powerlessness. So why not just deal with it?
OK, I think you lost me. I get the idea of popular doom, but I don’t see where it’s an ‘art’.
It seems like you are talking more about philosophy and politics than “art”. I know you don’t see a lot of difference between them, but they are different. Maybe not as much as people think but there is some.
I’ll think about it. I agree that people have thought the world was going to end for a long time. I remember talking about “nuclear winter” in school and what would happen after an attack. They made it sound like it was survivable, but I don’t think anyone really wanted to survive it.
You got me. I might be pushing it a bit, but the more I think about this topic the more I’m convinced that there are some deep roots that deserve exploration. I was also thinking about the big “Chariots of the God” and Bermuda Triangle fascination in the 70s, but I chose to leave that out.
I call it “art”, others might want to call it “popular culture”. Hey, the advise each other. And all that other stuff like … well, eventually politics, too.
If I didn’t push it in this humble li’l blog, where would things get pushed? 🙂
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Art seems always to be going through a paradigm shift. An existential crisis is what creates great art in my opinion, which again is what art essentially is, opinion.
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I do not think that art as we usually know it is all that relevant anymore. That is a real shame.
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A quiet meditation on an existential topic. Thank you.
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