Modernist Art and Avant-Garde Cinema
The European Enlightenment, which developed empirical, quantitative science as well as civil law, considered the power of reason to be penultimate. Reason was seen as the basis of civil order, beauty, and morality. The period spanning the years 1850 to 1950, called Modernism, spawned a radical re-evaluation of Enlightenment values.
A key principle in the Enlightenment scientific program holds that all the secrets of Nature can be uncovered by methodical, rational inquiry. During The Great War, developments in the applied sciences created new horrors like mechanized warfare and chemical weapons, seemingly in violation of the promise of Enlightenment Rationalism. Movements within Modernism — like Dada and Surrealism — came to reject dogmatic rationalism outright. These Modern artists probed nature through the operations of chance rather than method, and explored the mind through dreams and the unconscious, instead of reason.
New, technological marvels like photography (beginning in the 1850’s) and motion pictures (beginning at the dawn of the 20th Century) gained recognition as new art forms during Modernism’s broad re-evaluation of Enlightenment social values and aesthetic conventions. This re-evaluation touched on notions like “art for art’s sake,” traditional boundaries between artistic disciplines and the applied arts, and the role of technology in aesthetics. This Modernist re-evaluation of Enlightenment social and artistic values was inextricably tied to the development of new aesthetic conventions for the new art forms found in photography and film.
Today, many artists combine computer mediated aesthetics and the Modernist fascination with “the new.” Media like digital video and the Web provide new opportunities for artists to explore the historical relationships between art and technology as cultural productions and, ultimately, as social discourses.
Media Literacy and Intellectual Property Rights
One of my interests as a media artist is in the art of editing, selecting and curating. In particular, I seek to engage with appropriation as part of a larger discursive practice in Western culture.
Considering appropriation as a general artistic practice, I find a number of interesting parallels with traditional American music: the blues, for example, frequently recycles melodies, riffs, and phrases as part of a discursive tradition. In Western civilization, this practice may be associated with a familiar cultural milieu by viewing the Bible as a “compiled” text. It is plain from browsing the Bible’s table of contents that the book quite conspicuously incorporates contributions from multiple authors, and re-interprets citations or “samples” from multiple prior sources. This “compiled” mode of composition can be compared to the art of copying, or illumination; or contrasted to, for example, the “inspired” verse from Homer’s Muse. Within the lyric tradition also reside the scriptures of various Taoist sects and especially the Qu’ran, which are understood as having been “revealed” fully-formed by a supernatural power.
This view of appropriation relates to ongoing debates regarding contemporary intellectual property law. In essence, many of the same cultural practices that produced the blues and the Bible are today criminalized or suppressed in favor of corporate copyright interests. This affects not just video artists, but also musicians and many non-artists who upload YouTube videos to engage with popular cultural discourses. In this light, remix and compilation as modes of personal expression are being unduly censored. Various technological trends reinforce this form of censorship: for example, although DVD players are marketed (and popularly understood) as being more advanced than VCR’s, most commercial DVD players marketed as “set-top boxes” are unable to create new recordings. This turns a home video appliance into a less flexible, strictly consumer proposition.
To these ends, I am an active participant in various Open Source communities. My interests in Open Source initiatives involve both software and artistic cultural productions. “Free culture” solutions to problems with copyright law and industrial commercial practices have been codified in the Creative Commons License and the GPL license. I have both studied and distributed work under such licenses.
Deep History of Western Science
Western science largely grew out of a set of esoteric religious traditions in the Renaissance, specifically, the Hermetic tradition, and Kabbala. By the dawn of the European Enlightenment, philosophical and mathematical methods from these traditions fused with the experimental arts to produce the Mechanical Tradition. As thinkers within the Mechanical Tradition — such as William Gilbert, Johannes Kepler, Galieo Galilei, Christian Huygens, and Isaac Newton — developed increasingly complex mathematical tools and instrumentation, the Enlightenment gave birth to a new social ideology of Progress.
Progress teaches us that the future will be better, and that technology always improves. Yet, this is a very recent, distinctly European Enlightenment notion, with very little history behind it to demonstrate its stability. For most of human history, very little changed, and remote antiquity was often considered better than the present. In the Christian tradition, things were better once upon a time in Eden; the Greeks and Romans wrote of a lost Golden Age (i.e., Lucian and Seneca).
Even Francis Bacon, considered by many today as the “father” of empirical science in the secular West, viewed the new science as a way to restore humankind to a Christian, pre-fall state (like in Eden). Bacon expounded his vision of Progress in his treatise, The New Atlantis — even in the title, hearkening back to remote antiquity as a model for his vision of the future. In issuing such utopias, Bacon was joined by others — most famously Thomas More — including the likes of Tomasso Campanella (City of the Sun), Johann Valentin Andrae (Reipublicae Christianopolitanae), and Samuel Hartlib (A Modell of a Christian Society).
Much of this speculation about the moral and rational planning of society took place under the influence of the views and priorities of Cosimo Medici and Marsilio Ficino, who were responsible for uncovering and translating texts containing the lost wisdom at the heart of the Renaissance.
Today, we unquestioningly attribute great value to Progress in such diverse fields as entertainment, medicine, and computer technology. Yet technology and science began as moral enterprises, bound up with religion. They have since become profoundly a-moral, an end unto themselves, divorced from the social cost of the resources they consume. A deep historical perspective is an effective way to “see around” the marketing, advertising, and passive enculturation associated with “technological advancement.” In a world increasingly caught up with the forces of diminishing returns and planned obsolescence, this broader perspective reveals the biases and flaws in the ideology of indefinite Progress.