The “Crisis” of the Traditional Means of Expression in Modern Art and Culture

[a very old thing I am re-publishing here now]

“Means” – the word itself suggests a relation of instrumentality, usefulness, aim. “Expression” also means relations – what is being expressed, by whom, to what audience. All those relations change in meaning across cultures and time.

For example, the Byzantine artistic Canon, from our point of view, can be seen as a practical means for constructing an image. In fact, the relations I listed above were completely different in the Byzantine culture from those, for example, in Modern Europe. In Byzantine culture, the painter would be a means to the Canon, which itself would be a means to God. That is to say – God re-present himself by means of the Canon and by the hand of the painter. Looks like the opposite of the Modern European understanding of the creative process.

Just having stated the cultural difference between Byzantine art and that of Modern Europe, now here is a contradiction. Vasily Kandinsky happens to also think that the painter is just a “hand”. But how does that happen? Why would Kandinsky go back to such a medieval understanding of the relations between painter, medium, and meanings to be expressed?

One possible explanation is discontent with current cultural circumstances, feeling of crisis. Let’s go back to the statements of two key thinkers who play active roles in the modeling of the late 19th century problematics. Kant declares that the aesthetic satisfaction is useless and sets it apart from morality and knowledge. Hegel defines art as the lowest form of knowledge and predicts its decline and disappearance. Of course, despite the huge popularity of both, we cannot hold them responsible for art’s problematic situation – which, in Hegel’s view, can be defined as “situation-limite” – before death.

In fact, these statements just happen to be in unison with the structure of the emerging bourgeois culture. Basic oppositions of that culture were:

useless <<< >>> useful
amoral <<< >>> moral
emotional <<< >>> rational
madness <<< >>> reason

It is easy to spot the “right” side as positive. Let us write down Kant’s and Hegel’s oppositions:

art <<< >>> science
art <<< >>> morality
art <<< >>> reality

Now, the position of art in bourgeois culture is clear. Art is:


I will not go deeper into the so-called “crisis of content” which led to this rather grim situation for art. But, in a few words, this was the progressive paling of the ideal referential horizon – namely, the decline of Christianity. The cultural sphere, which was keeping people together, was vanishing. People were used to commune in God and through God – not directly with each other. The notorious closeness and non-alienation of religious people has always been internally mediated. The communion’s structure (through God) used to be tripartite (referential) and because of that – stabilized (meaningful).

“God is dead” (Jean Paul, early 19th century), the communion fails, the meaning disappears – precisely – the “spiritual” meaning. With the disappearing of the Spirit, the ties “in” and “through” Him fall apart.The alienation is accompanied by a feeling of soullessness. With the disappearing of the Creator, life itself disappears. Under the “emptied” skies, people and things seem “empty” and spiritually “dead”. At least this is how they looked like seen from the traditional “spiritual” point of view. This is what was incorrectly termed a “crisis of bourgeois consciousness”.

This is the situation which provoked the Romantic rebellion in early 19th century. Rebellion of feelings against reason, of soul against soullessness, but also of a-morality (under empty skies) against bourgeois “hypocrisy”. Revolt of meaning – “deep”, “transcendental”, “ancient”, “natural”, “authentic”, “original”, “intuitive” – against everyday, today and here, bourgeois meaninglessness.

Art – placed in a “situation-limit” by a soulless society and Hegel’s predictions – came up with a response. Forced to be outsiders, “starving” artists invented a new, elite, leading role for themselves – Avant-Garde. Against the perceived meaninglessness, they would start inventing “new meanings”. Defying the stifling bourgeois Present, they would begin contemplating more “authentic” times – the Past, and eventually – the Future. Searching for new references, they would explore a variety of ideological frameworks – Philosophy, Nature, History, Christianity (again), Theosophy, Anthroposophy, Science, Sociology, Engineering, Psychoanalysis, Socialism, etc.

Some of them however, like Delacroix for instance, would try Art itself – as a reference for art, or as it is well known – l’art pour l’art. The possibility is discovered for art to express not something else but itself.

The notion of Avant-Garde appeared around 1820. Hegel was very important for the institutionalization of the avant-gardes. His philosophy of historical progress offered a template for all kinds of “avant-garde” ideologies (Marxism included). But there was a peculiarity – as Hegel’s system posited its positive pole in the Future – that is to say in a still-emptiness, there were no rules: no instructions could possibly come from the Future (the Christian “history” was fairer in this respect – the “becoming” at personal level was informed by the presence of an eternal supernatural “boss”). This obscurity of principle additionally oppressed the “cursed” artists. One of their neurotic reactions was the form of the Manifesto – defining a desired Future, writing down laws and rules for themselves, creating a contract between themselves and society. The Manifesto worked as a substitute for the missing patron, for the missing guardianship (B. Tschumi).

As we know, outsiders are often pushed toward a very hard internal work combined with a compensatory contempt for people around. Delacroix initiated a development characteristic of Modern art – concentration on the specific sphere of art itself (independent of a meaningless environment), on the medium itself as engendering specific, intrinsic meaning of the work of art, and on creative work itself as giving meaning of the artist’s life.

There is, however, a third way – besides searching for reference outside art and in art itself. It is the indirect ideologization of art. A discipline outside of art, philosophy for instance, induces an hierarchical model of relationships into the arts. Arts are ranked into an hierarchical order which gives “superior arts” the status of referential realm for “inferior” arts. This explains the domination of music in the 19th century. Music fits perfectly the romantic aspiration for an unclear, intangible, immaterial referential horizon.

At the same time, a very old idea gained new popularity – the so-called “correspondence” between different arts or different media. An ancient idea based on the belief in the existence of a universal cosmic order which, of course, makes very desirable the “harmonization” of all human creation with this order. Accordingly, all arts turn out to be telling the same story in different media. The popularity of this idea among artists is very often underestimated by those writing about art from the “scientific” point of view. Anyway, the important consequence of this search for “correspondence”, happening in the second half of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, was a quite real effort for mutual re-coding among arts – musicalization of painting and poetry, narrative structures in music, pictorial ambitions in the novel, etc… This, of course, meant mutual deconstruction of traditional disciplines.

I will jump here directly to two mature and very characteristic offshoots of these developments – Picasso and Kandinsky. Not because they are the inventors of the two perhaps most popular “isms” in the 20th century art (abstractionism and cubism), but because they represent two not so obvious tendencies – opposite in their response to the “situation-limite” of art in the 19th century.

There is, in my opinion, a very important difference between Kandinsky and Picasso regarding the Modern understanding of the so-called means of expression:

admitted rhetoric <<< >>> non-admitted rhetoric

Whether the denial of rhetoric is conscious or not is not important.

Picasso admitted the rhetorical nature of art: “Art is not truth… The artist must know how to persuade people in the truthfulness of his lies… Through art, we express our conception of what nature is not… That we need these lies… is beyond any doubt, because through them, we form our aesthetic perception of life.”

Kandinsky talked about “spirituality”, “inner necessity”, and about the hierarchy of what must be expressed:

The Eternally Artistic
The Zeitgeist
The Individual Personality

He called these hypostases three mystical causes – suggesting top-down causality and dependency. And correspondingly, he talks about an hierarchy of composition, a language of lines and colors – a whole reference system. Quite logically, according to the hierarchy of “contents”, the painter turns out to be just a “hand”, a medium through which higher levels express themselves. Kandinsky also talks about collaboration with the Numbers – probably because, since Pythagoras, Plato, Plotinus, Proclus, and Pseudo Dionysius, the Numbers have been placed on one level below the “One”. So they are a kind of sanctioned “way” to the transcendental.

Kandinsky’s idea of “progressive expression of the eternally-objective into the transitory-subjective” structurally corresponds to the Byzantine icon of a saint where the transient passional (the periphery) is juxtaposed to the central eternal image. But, with Kandinsky, the eternal is in a Hegelian way not-yet-become – so, it cannot be “seen” as whole, as a recognizable image. What the painter expresses on the canvas is always but a fragment – unclear and incomplete.

Now, interestingly enough, even this “historical” (Hegelian) explanation of the image-less art (abstractionism) has its analogue in Byzantine thought – the so-called apophatic theology. According to the apophatic theology, every next higher level in the world’s hierarchy appears as infinite, unknowable, and imageless when looked at from below (a bottom-up vision).

Avant-Garde transcendentalism turns out to be structurally analogous to the Byzantine theories of the image. Not by chance then, one of the highest episodes in avant-guarde art would happen in Russia – with cultural and religious traditions rooted in Byzantine theology. And not by chance was Kandinsky a Russian.

Is Kandinsky’s abstractionism a rhetoric? Of course, it is. As a rhetorical move, abstractionism reappears periodically in the 20th century – sometimes under a new ideological cover – ch’an philosophy, for example. But ch’an is an almost admitted rhetoric.

What do I mean by rhetoric? Rhetoric is the free, by choice, but plausible, linking of points in the semiotic space. The plausibility is defined by the disciplines co-operating that space. When unexpected, unusual (but plausible according to at least one discipline) links are realized – while producing/perceiving an artifact – new meanings, new mutual designations appear. The disciplines define what is usual or expected and what is not. But, operating the same semiotic space, they contradict each other. This is why the rhetorical freedom exists and can always find some kind of plausibility or – institutionalization. And this is why disciplines change too – constantly.

Admitting this mechanism of meaning-production – or not – makes for an important distinction. When admitting it – the artifact is being produced with a clear understanding of its openness in principle: the artifact is seen as a beginning of an endless and unpredictable process of meaning-production. In other words, understood is the impossibility to control the meaning.

When the rhetoric is not admitted, the unavoidable re-coding processes eventually decontstruct and debunk the original “meanings” (intended ideology) of the artifact. Paradoxically though, the suggestive power of an ideology feeds off this fundamental discrepancy between intended meanings and a deconstructive reality.

The difference between Kandinsky and Picasso is the same as the difference between Modernism as ideology and Post-Modernism as admitted rhetoric.

Here is what Gleizes and Metzinger say in their treatise on Cubism (1912): “…the variety of the relationships of one line to another must be infinite as a potential: on this condition only, it can express the quality, the immeasurable sum of discovered links between what we perceive and what is pre-existing in us – on this condition, the art work moves us.” These words could easily be attributed to Umberto Eco.

Picasso did, in a way, a visual “textual” analysis of the object. More precisely – an analysis of the visual signifiers, so tightly intertwined in our cultural memory as to form that solid, opaque visual whole – the object. The rigorous cubist geometry came as a necessary discipline for ordering and controlling the overwhelming complexity of what Picasso perceived. His analytical technique was a superimposition of a series of viewpoints and a resulting mutual “blowing up” (deconstruction) of the intrinsic order decreed by each of them separately. This results in the untwining of visual codes and their mutual re-coding. The transposition (re-framing) of this process in the painting’s space causes a secondary “explosion” of re-signifyings. A kind of “nuclear fission” of the internal referential energies of the object takes place. The process is open for endless renewal in the context of every new spectator’s specific set of cultural references and frameworks.

In the beginnings of Modern art, we find the same technique and even the same ideology which are now being thought of as Post-Modernism.

Picasso looked at the present calmly. His answer (with him, it was precisely an answer) to the false “situation-limite” of art was remarkably conscious and quite relevant to today’s discussions of “lost” meaning. With Kandinsky, we have a reaction, dependency, subordination. But this is on the ideological level only. In fact, the various external ideologizations of art are just an unintended way of creating new rhetorical situations which produce new meanings.

A particularly interesting result of this development was the rethinking of traditional formats and practices of art as kinds of meaning-production machines.

For example – “le choix de l’artiste” as stated by Duchamp. A very powerful mechanism was defined – the transporting of a non-artistic, non-beautiful, non-noble object (or person/character) into the “high” artistic space. The beginning of this technique was Manet’s painting “Olympia”. The impact on the public was highly offensive which, seen through the avant-guarde ideology, was meaningful by itself. “Les demoiselles” of Picasso – spirit-less, “ugly” characters are transported into the painting’s space. The result – a “resuscitation” of dead bodies, corpses drawn out of “low” and dark social spaces. Mutilated female characters are propped up to look straight into the eyes of the spectators. Offense for the public again. Picasso was accused of depicting a massacre.

Other examples of such an “unauthorized” identifying of the spiritual (animated) with the non-spiritual (soulless, dead) were the couplings “home-machine” (Corbusier) and “man-machine” – the mechanical theatre of Oskar Schlemmer, “Le ballet méchanique” and the “robots” of Léger.

Similar “illegal” transports underlie much of Modern art – Theater of the Absurd, Living/Process Theater, Pop-Art, etc.

Art learned how to produce meaning on its own and I prefer to say it in plural – new meanings-media, in and through which people can commune. The despair caused by the predicted “inevitable death” produced Modern art as an autonomous cultural practice – as we understand it today.


Originally published in ARHITEKTURA, 3-4/1989, Sofia, Bulgaria