PreCubist art and time


As an academic outsider, I’ve always been suspicious of the word semiotics, since I’ve only ever seen it used by someone about to commit an act of art criticism. But apparently it has a legitimate use in the annals of philosophy as a way to signify signifying.

Lewis Carrol, in a remarkable feat of clairvoyance, provided a commentary on the semiotics of postmodernism more than a century before it existed in these stanzas from The Hunting of the Snark:

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
  Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
  A map they could all understand.

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
  Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
  “They are merely conventional signs!

“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
  But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best—
  A perfect and absolute blank!”

Humans are born with mapping built-in. The lens of your eye focusses an image on your retina – that image is a two dimensional representation of the scene before you. Processing begins instantly. The image has its edges enhanced even before the signal enters your optic nerve. Edges, borders and boundaries are thus fundamental to the way we see.

The signal then travels all the way to your visual processing center in the back of your head. There the map has many copies made, each running through a series of transformations. One set for example registers vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines respectively. It seems evident that this has to do with maintaining your orientation with regard to the scene. (If you move and tilt a video camera around, what is produced is a wildly tilting and shifting image. But when you see, the scene stays put while you register an awareness of your orientation relative to it.)

Other processing modules deal with color, boundaries, movement and who knows what else. But once all that processing is done, then obviously that information has to be reassembled and compared to a different kind of map, a map of concepts. We carry in our heads a complex map of the three dimensional world and all the familiar things in it – trees and cars and people and houses and so on.

There are instances of people who have been blind since birth, and then have had their sight restored surgically. Their visual apparatus starts working normally, but they still can’t see anything – it’s all just a blur. They haven’t been painstakingly assembling maps of the visual aspects of physical reality since birth, so they have no guide to understand the relationships and meanings of the contrast and colors that they see.

Nature loves maps. We make maps of our maps, and maps of those maps. Perhaps what we call human consciousness consists of a very high order map.

I mean seeing here as a stand-in for every other sense and thought process as well. We continually revise our maps as we see or think of something that doesn’t seem to fit, some anomaly – or reject the effort and then we don’t see — the adjustments cascading through all the higher order maps as necessary to maintain their integrity.

The essence of every kind of map is that it consists of boundaries (one thing is not another) and relationships (everything is connected). The artist Frederick Franck wrote a book called The Zen of Seeing the main point of which is that we mostly don’t see. We go through the day predicting what we will see based on our maps, and then comparing the information arriving via our senses to those maps. If the fit is good enough we accept that as reality. It takes a particular kind of effort to really see anything.

But – so very important – the map is not the territory, as Alfred Korzybski famously remarked. And here we finally arrive at my subject for this ramble; how in the end, the modernist movement in art derailed and spilled its contents onto the desert of postmodernism.

The modernist movement in art started in 1907 with the invention of cubism by Pablo Picasso. It started petering out somewhere in the 1970’s with the two Andys (Warhol and Kaufman). The profusion of “isms” under the modernist umbrella (e.g. expressionism, surrealism, dadaism, and so on) are connected by a common thread – they all are explorations in one way or another of the internal, an artistic mapping of our internal maps.

The artist who sparked this, although not really a modernist himself, was Cézanne. Both Picasso and Matisse said that they considered him their spiritual father. Cézanne claimed that “Art is a personal apperception, which I embody in sensations and which I ask the understanding to organize into a painting.”

All the personal exploration of modernist art and thought produced a wild ride of sometimes amazing work. But taking it to its logical destination, we arrive three-quarters of a century later at a dead end of complete detachment from reality, the meaninglessness of no structure - a map of the sea without the least vestige of land.

So Andy Warhol could say, after being shot in 1968 by an unhinged author and putative collaborator:

Before I was shot, I always thought that I was more half-there than all-there—I always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life. People sometimes say that the way things happen in movies is unreal, but actually it’s the way things happen in life that’s unreal. The movies make emotions look so strong and real, whereas when things really do happen to you, it’s like watching television—you don’t feel anything. Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television. The channels switch, but it’s all television.

All we can really know about reality is contained in the maps that we make from our sensory input, as we “make sense” of what we perceive. The map is not the territory, or as the statistician George Box wrote “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” (The word model in this sense means multi-dimensional and especially mathematical maps.)

But for our maps to be useful, they must have some relationship to reality, the dance we do with our map-making on one hand and experience and observation on the other. Otherwise we have become detached from reality, delusional, insane. When, as a society, we arrived at the final destination of modernism, which was all map and no territory, we got postmodernism and all the concomitant nihilism, despair and insanity that constitute world affairs today.

When you reach a point on your path when you realize you are lost, and there is no way forward, the only thing to do is retrace your steps back to the last place you were sure of. Thus precubism - stay tuned for more.