25 Jul

Catching Up with the ET’s in Art and Culture

Life on other planets is a concern that people have had for many years now, even more so since the “space exploration age” started in the 1960s. Aliens have fascinated people because they are the ultimate mystery: extraterrestrials can be imagined in any way, shape or form, given that they are one of the big unknowns of life. Recent revisionist semi-conspiracy theorists have claimed that aliens were even represented in medieval paintings.

However, in recent decades aliens have been on trend and off trend, depending very much on the happenings in global culture and, more than that, on the developments of technology.

 

 

Back at the end of the 1980, during the 1990s and even in the early 2000s, one could see a plethora of stories of UFO sightings, alien kidnappings and alien meetings. Extraterrestrials were in fiction (the X-Files), in magazines and even in many prime-time documentaries. People were filming UFOs with their VHS cameras and others gave in-depth testimonies of how they had been in contact with gray or green creatures with big eyes from other worlds.

In a way, from a science-culture point of view, this boom is explainable. As more and more people owned VHS or beta video recorders, they were able to record more and more and, of course, besides birthday parties and bar mitzvahs, people also want to record the mysterious. Bigfoot was another big trend during those decades, but seeing Bigfoot is not as accessible as spotting aliens is: you need to be in a cold, mountainous area and preferably to have a night vision cam to capture him. The fact that people gained more and more access to advanced technologies during the late 1990s and 2000s made nature more exotic and strange – this is how the Bigfoot phenomenon could be explained but also movies featuring aliens that were coming to destroy the world as which was in opposition to how aliens were often portrayed before in films such as “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” from 1982, where aliens were making friends with people.

Also, the testimonies about alien life forms people gave were in tandem with the freak show trend that Western television was experiencing at that time. Overall the aesthetic of the 80s and 90s was one of hidden things, of shadows and the underground. For example, looking at music videos from the time, one will notice that almost all of them are placed in a dark setting: a club with glowing neon lights here and there, an alley or some sort of undefined place. These come in high contrast to what followed, in the 2000s, when it was all about public living, the suburbs and public openness.

But back to the UFOs, these almost disappeared from the mainstream collective mindset in the mid-2000s or a bit earlier. They were replaced by historical conspiracies and secret truths, which had nothing to do with extraterrestrial life. This, of course, can also be explained on from a science-cultural point of view. The new communication avenues – mobile phones and especially the Internet – made it possible for people to not only read about things that they then connect them in any way they want, but also to have access to imagery that supports a culture that claims to connect things that might not be connected. This idea is also visible in the high arts, as collages were very much in fashion in the late 2000s and especially in the lower arts, where whole “documentary” movies were made from archive footage and pictures from many sources and where the “cut and glued together” aesthetic dominated everything from advertisements to book covers.

The rise of digital equipments and technological possibilities – namely the fact that anyone had access to a digital camera and software such as Photoshop; made the alien culture disappear from the mainstream. Consumers quickly understood that not only can anyone photoshop a picture to make it seem that there is a UFO in it, but given that anyone had digital cameras, people understood how easily it is to fake a picture, sometimes even unintentionally. For example, if you toss a coin in the air and photograph it with a flash you get an instant mysterious sky sighting. These could be only one explanation why extraterrestrial beings and machines disappeared. Another could be that UFOs and aliens were generally depicted as highly advanced, yet the technologies described by abductees quickly became upstaged by the technologies that were available to anyone in the industrialized world. For example, cell phones, sensor-operated doors, video communication are just some examples.

Also, in the context that there were no government-confirmed alien encounters during the 1980s and 90s, it was pretty expected for these cultural productions to fad.

 

Recently however, just as it appeared that UFOs had disappeared from the global cultural and entertainment horizon, one can notice that we’re seeing a new rise in the presence of these concepts in our culture. Now, we don’t see much of people claiming to be kidnapped by aliens – again, the science-culture aspect explains it – if you go on camera on a documentary and claim to have been kidnapped by aliens becomes your biography and identity. And today, biographies are created online, on social media websites, so once somebody goes on camera claiming to have been abducted by aliens, they can become a meme, which will be more than their ID. Of course, these mediums also allow people to discredit and attack the testifier in casue, making the act of exposing yourself more risky than it was in the 1980s and 90s. Wanting to avoid this or to be considered crazy by a potential future boss who searches for you online makes people be hesitant to sharing their alien stories with the masses. There is also the possibility that many of the alien stories told during the 1980s and 1990s are in a way self-induced, the cultural climate combined with some sort of physiological experience can generate an involuntary imagination process, taken by the body for real. Of course, this opens the discussion of what is “real” – is reality based on the outside reality or on your own individual perception of it? This is a discussion that philosophers have always had.

Today’s aliens are quite different than those from the 20th century: they are more mysterious, obviously, but they are also more abstract (no IBM chip-shaped crop circles anymore and very little to no AI). If you look at how aliens are presented today, you will notice that they are seen as transhuman beings. They have surpassed their original, biological state through technology – some of them come from the future, others come from other dimensions. It is possible the next wave of aliens will be one that has a more anthroposophical approach, meaning that the aliens are spiritual beings. However, this will be connected to technology in a way, like a transhumanist 2.0 version.

Interestingly enough, the discourse about aliens itself is more prominent today than the visual aspect. The web is full of so-called “leaked” videos, but nobody seems to care that much altogether. Many people have accustomed their minds to automatically dismiss this type of information, especially when, as most of them do, come from an “unreliable” source.

The concept of “aliens” in recent visual culture is a very complicated one. Between the extremely high number of ideas, voices and thoughts, there’s a lot to think of.

One more thing that is noteworthy when it comes to aliens is the way in which these are portrayed in the blockbusters of today. In Avatar 1, we can see how the aliens, reached through some transhumanist processes, connect their bodies to plants and other natural elements. In the recent “Alien Covenant” film, the plot involves a merger between plants and animals. Obviously, these are a reflection of the ecological, biotechnical and technical advances made today.

 

There are many contradictions when it comes to aliens, space and science in the arts and in other cultural products. Are there secret alien bases on the moon or have we not even landed there yet? This contradiction, however, is part of the reflection of today’s society: for any statement made, there seems to be a contrary statement. It’s maybe part of that “post-truth” we hear so often about.

And that raises the question again: what is reality? Is it what we perceive, is it the exterior world or is it a combination – can it be? The truth of the matter is that until there is no credibility attached to aliens and UFOs, the field will remain open.

 

 

21 Jul

Discovering Reality: An Analysis of “Alice in Wonderland” (1951)

“Alice in Wonderland” is a classic animated film directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske. The movie, adapted after Lewis Carroll’s novel with the same name is a production that has been seen by millions of children (and, why not, adults) from around the world. The story, while it may be packaged as an easy children’s journey, can be seen as a philosopher’s exploration of the real world, in a way similar to Plato’s cave story, of a man who goes outside the cave where he and his fellow people could only see shadows on the walls, thinking they were reality and then telling them about what the world really looks like, its colors and shapes but is disregarded and mocked by his people.

 

 

Right at the very beginning of the film, when Alice is sitting under a tree, she is reading a book. The book is a book on history, a choice that tells the viewer that Alice is, more or less by choice, interested in discovering the world, but that she is presented only a controlled, superficial version of the world, as history can be correctly described as the current establishment’s view of the world.

 

It’s not long before the beginning that Alice starts chasing the rabbit that is always late and soon enough she finds herself going down the rabbit hole. As she falls, she is first passed by objects of art, the highest expression of people’s emotions and living and then she is passed by everyday objects that compose the medium in which humans live.

 

In order to be able to pass through the door she encounters, she drinks what others call poison. It can be said that for ages the truth has been seen as something that is not be wanted and presented in a negative light. The first encounter with something different is of course a negative one: soon enough Alice is sad and floating on a sea of her own tears. She regrets it because it’s not what she expected or wanted, but there is no going back, regardless of what she may want.

Looking for the white rabbit who is in a hurry, she enters the forest, a clear symbol of the mysterious and the natural. The first characters she meets are Tweedledum and Tweedledee. These two characters, which appear human, but immediately show that they are not are trying to keep Alice from going further, they want to lure her with their actions and words and the reason is not apparent. They are the distractions one meets along the way: they make crazy images and sounds, they morph and don’t get hurt when hit and act silly and foolish making an illusion of interest, when in fact they are just there to keep a philosopher from going. The “razzle dazzle” is something a veritable philosopher always encounts: the flashes of the world, of arts and culture that seem to be full of meaning, but are not more than an empty way of spending time trying to make sense of them.

After getting away from the two, Alice meets The Dodo. While he is a cheerful and polite character, The Dodo is also absent-minded and quite aggressive. He is the reflection of a politician whose main problem is that he does not know where his job begins or ends. The confusion that is in his mind leads to a lot of harm, for which in a way, he cannot be directly blamed.

Alice is now slowly making sense of the world, she is confronted with all the appearances and obstacles that compose the world. No wonder that at this point, every time she eats something she becomes either very big or very small. Every truth she comes in contact with, every decision she makes is taking her on a rollercoaster. A philosopher either feels on the top of the world for conquering things or small as an ant in the face of the discovery of what is yet to be discovered.

After having faced entertainment in the shape of distractions and politics in the shape of collateral damage, she needs to be faced with one of the biggest challenges: the talk of the town. While some people have physical power over you, the chatter of the community can “talk” you to non-existence quite easily. To express this, Alice meets with some flowers who mistake her for a flower, lacking the ability to see beyond their world. While they appear to be friendly, as most moralists in life do, the flowers become quite aggressive and condescend towards her quite rapidly, only one young and innocent flower being able to see Alice for who she is and saying she liked her.

 

After dealing with the three blocking entities, Alice starts to meet the holders of the truth. She first meets with a caterpillar. Pretentious and wise, the caterpillar is resembling a guru who knows things, but whose overconfidence can do him harm. He asks Alice who she is and she says that she is not herself anymore. To our heroine, everything is confusing, but not to the caterpillar. What is remarkable in the conversation between Alice and the caterpillar is that she says she doesn’t remember things the way she used to. And that is a sign of a strong philosopher, who, after dealing with the façade of the world and coming in contact with truth speakers, does not see the world, and more specifically, their own world the way they used to. A truth seeker does not get stuck in the way they perceived the world when they were younger, he reconsiders his past and his present, seeing them through a different prism.

 

After taking the big step and overcoming her caterpillar-caused frustrations, Alice meets with one of the deepest characters of Wonderland. She meets the cat. The cat, whose presence is mysterious and captivating, is a representation of the detached “madman”. He knows so much about the world, that the world would see him as the complete outsider. And the cat is OK with that – he knows that he can’t dumb himself down for the world and that those who refuse his truths won’t grasp them, regardless of how much he may try. This is why, he has no intent to make himself like the others. Alice is scared, she says she does not want to go among mad people, but the cat explains that there almost everyone is mad. If the outside world is fake, then the underworld, or Wonderland is the truth. However, given that in Wonderland the creatures use the same language as they do in the outside world, one needs to understand that “madness” in Alice in Wonderland actually means “right”, “correct” or “true”.

 

Meeting the cat is just an introduction to “madness” , as the next characters she meets are the Mad Hatter and the rabbit who were having the maddest of mad tea parties. Right from the start, the couple seems odd: they celebrate when somebody doesn’t have a birthday, an indicative of the fact that people can be more than it says on their birth certificate. The fact that the Mad Hatter celebrates any other day but one’s birthday shows that a person who sees the truth can choose very well who they are. A philosopher selects and makes his own choices about who he is, he does not follow society’s dictates. It’s about choice rather than giving in to defaults.

Alice is asked whether she wants “more” tea, but she replies that she cannot ask for more, given that she did not have any yet. However, the Mad Hatter replies with a deep thought, that you can have more of nothing. With this, he puts the pin on life as acceptance: this sentence is a brief, but compelling discourse on the nature of the anti-element, of the fact that an element can have two types of opposites, the non-element and the anti-element and that they are not equal and the same.

When Alice mentions the cat, mayhem breaks and it takes some time until things cool down. The rabbit tells Alice that if she does not think before she speaks, she should not speak. This remark is in relation to the fact that language is extremely important, not only in the Looking Glass, but everywhere and that words are the tools which we use not only to understand, but also to shape the world and establish its boundaries.

 

Tired and fed up, Alice wants to go back home and she finds a path that she thinks will take her home. However, a dog shows up and sweeps it away. The dog is a usually a symbol of trust. In this case, it can show the creator’s thoughts that one needs to trust the road to cohesion in thought and that once that way is taken, there is no going back.

At this moment, Alice realizes that there is more to the truth than wisdom. As she is angry and sad, she says that she gives herself good advice, but has a hard time following it. She thus understands the difference between the abstract knowledge and the actions one needs to take. At this moment, the cat appears again, being the right companion for a mood where you have a hard time taking things seriously.

Alice learns that all the ways are the queen’s ways and that there is no way reserved for her. She must either take the path between the roads or follow one of the queen’s paths and see what happens. Having little choice, Alice takes a path that goes to the queen’s castle. The first interaction she has in the land of the queen is with some playing cards whose job it was to paint all the roses red. The queen is angry and downright furious all the time and asks for the roses to be painted red for no apparent reason. She is a symbol of a tyrant (not necessarily a political one) who forces everyone to do as she wants, otherwise placing bad consequences on others. She is the symbol of the unhappy person who is always forcing others into her unmotivated unhappiness. The white rabbit Alice chased throughout the story finally shows up for his job at the court and we understand why he was so scared all the time. Not only from a narrative point of view – because he had a job, but also from a psychological point of view: the rabbit who can never be on time is a symbol of a person living in the shadow of a tyrant who can never be pleased and who imposes their requests through aggression and blackmail.

The king, a character who has a just heart does not seem to have much power, but he influences the way things happen in a strong manner. He is the person shaping people’s minds and events from the background, he is a symbol for the unknown people who stay in the shadows of rulers and who influence the world for good, without the tyrants to notice or to change. He is a hidden gem.

 

Right when Alice was going see the queen’s fury, she remembers that she had some mushrooms in her pockets, which she eats and grows large enough to scare the queen for a while. She then has the courage to tell the queen everything she thinks about her, before turning small again.

This is a powerful symbol, the mushroom here is a placeholder for consciousness, relating maybe to experiences people have when exploring their minds with the help of different substances. When taking in mushrooms, representing her own true consciousness, Alice not only grows a lot, but finally sees the world for what it is and dares to speak the truth in a manner that resembles the way the cat talks, detached and ironic.

But such a position does not last for long (just like the cat always quickly disappears) and Alice must run away from all the chaos that is around her. She runs through a tunnel resembling the cat (the highest expression of “madness” – again, in the looking glass “madness” being “reason” and “truth”) and finally goes back to her outside self.

 

While Alice did learn about truth in her excursion in Wonderland, she must get out or else she can end up badly. She puts order in her consciousness and structures information, but in the end, she must get out because living only inside your mind can have some bad consequences. We need the world, but we also need “dreams” or deep thoughts to be able to navigate the world. To learn about the workings of the world, one needs to go in their consciousness, that is where structured and uncensored information lies. Through systematic learning, a philosopher will get to be able to merge the two: the physical world and the truth.

 

We may not live only on one part of the world, just like we can’t have a completely careless life. In the end, if it wasn’t for problems, we would not go down the rabbit hole. In the end, this is what the white rabbit is: he is someone full of problems and dysfunction. Alice follows him and discovers the truths which will help her have a full and virtuous life. In a way, he is a symbol of the cross one bears to eventually find the truth.

 

The book and film have been analyzed in a variety of ways: as a fairytale, as a biography, as a social satire, many of the names of the characters being references to movers and shakers of the time, but also from a mythological (referencing Persephone, Proserpina and even Ēostre), theosophical, philosophical and even a mathematical point of view (for example, the cat could be a reference to the “catenary”, which is a shape of a perfectly flexible chain suspended by its ends and acted on by gravity).

 

Anyway you look at it, “Alice in Wonderland” is a profound story about how curiosity might lead to trouble, but how it is also highly rewarding, as, as Alice would say, “it would be so nice if something would make sense for a change.” And that’s the veritable mission of the philosopher.

 

02 Jun

Fantastic Spaces: An Evolution

Ever since the dawn of humanity, mankind has sought to reach or dwell in other worlds than the world that we live in on a physical level. Other worlds have always been part of the arts and of storytelling. In some cases, within the respective storylines, people don’t have access to these worlds, while in other cases; they interact in one way or another with these worlds. The results differ, sometimes the “other” worlds have a positive impact on people’s lives, sometimes a bad one and sometimes the result is mixed.

Other worlds serve not only as an escapist way of being something different in a world that hardly changes, but also a way to explore ideas and concepts of the unconscious.

 

 

The evolution of the way we perceive and think of other worlds has evolved in time and, more often than not, it has accompanied the evolution of society as a whole. The type of fantastic world has not always been created at the same time as it was in fashion. As is often the case, there were some forward thinking authors that created books and stories that came later in fashion, as in the case of many books that became movies in the 21st century, discussing contemporary 21st century topics.

 

 

Ancient Times

In ancient times, fantastic characters and otherworldly beings used to live someplace accessible and near, yet still far out and out of reach. In many old, traditional folk tales, these lands are behind a hill, across the lake or on a mountain. Think of mount Olympus and the gods that inhabited it. Mount Olympus was a place the Greeks could see, but it was in a way out of reach. A village somewhere in the region or a valley were also common places where fantasy events took place.

 

 

Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, as populations started to engage in strong migrations and pilgrimages, the world became more open and soon enough, the mythical spaces of old times lost their mystic charge. People became aware of their environment, and yet, many “other” people and places were seen as strange and dangerous. And that was for a good reason. In the Dark Ages, people did not know what to expect from foreigners. They were a threat to their gene pool and could carry diseases or have aggressive attitudes towards them. In these times, we see fantastic worlds being described as far away. This is a reflection of the fact that people knew that there was a world beyond their own, but that they did not know what could be there. These works were mostly popular creations, in written literature allegories were the dominant ways of conveying stories.

 

 

Exploring Time

As men embarked on journeys to the East and the West to discover new lands, the fantastic stories of the 17th and 18th century often took place on fantasy islands. The illuminist character of the times also had a strong influence on the ways in which these lands were portrayed. Here we can mention works such as Tommaso Campanella’s “La città del Sole” (“City of the Sun”), or Sir Francis Bacons’ 1627 novel “New Atlantis”. Also, Margaret Cavendish’s “The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World” is another great example of a world that is very hard to reach (it can be accessed through the North Pole), but which is accessible nonetheless. The background for these had been already laid out by authors such as Thomas More, who had published “Utopia”, completely called “Libellus vere aureus, nec minus salutaris quam festivus, de optimo rei publicae statu deque nova insula Utopia” in 1516, where he depicted an imaginary island and its social and political customs.

 

 

The Era of Mechanics

The 19th century was the time of the industrial revolution. This era started out in 1760 and by the time the 18th century started, many machines and intricate systems were already in place and quite common. In this period, writers saw the potential that these machines and technology at large had, and thus the first sci-fi works appeared. It was now that characters such as the monster of Frankenstein appeared and Jules Verne wrote his stories on explorations with the use of technology. Now, unlike any other time, places that had been completely inaccessible became accessible to the mind. In 1870, Jules Verne published his famous “Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas: An Underwater Tour of the World” (“Vingt mille lieues sous les mers: Tour du monde sous-marin”), in which a team of explorers uses a submarine to hunt a mysterious sea creature. The book was very much ahead of its time, but it made sense for it to appear at that time, as, for the first time in history, people could go underwater.

Fantasy worlds now were a mix of exotic places and places found outside of the Earth or, as another Jules Verne example goes to show, inside the Earth. Fantasy was now starting to become science-fiction, the 18th century being a transition from mystical creatures and magic happenings to a mix of unknown creatures and fantastic technology.

G. Wells’ 1897 “The War of the Worlds”, in which extraterrestrials visit Earth after arriving with the help of a spaceship is another great example.

 

 

Rediscovering History

In a world that was overwhelmed with mechanical devices that were loud, rough and that threatened the human spirit; the romantics of the 18th century went back to the days of old and rediscovered the past. In this sense, as people were marching more and more towards technology, many romantic writers rediscovered stories in which fantastic stories took place in nature – as nature was becoming a new mystery. The tales of the Grimm brothers in Germany, which were retellings of folktales, are a very good expression of this phenomenon. In these stories, we often see the main character wander off in a forest to meet with humans with superpowers, witches or otherworldly creatures. The story of Hansel and Gretel, who walk off to the woods and meet a witch, or Snow White who meets seven dwarfs in a forest home are good examples of these views. Romantics also discovered the ruins of the past and old castles (many times haunted ones) were at the center of fantasy storylines.

 

 

Screen Worlds

The invention of cinema in the late 1800s and its popularization in the first years of the 20th century made way of a new way of telling stories. This can be regarded as a time when a shift took place, as the screen started to become the go-to place for fantasy and sci-fi stories.

The fantasy stories of the early cinema were an extension of the literature of the late 19th century. They were exploring at the same time scientific fantasy, as well as terror-based storylines.

The move from country life to the big cities that were emerging in that time also turned the city itself in a playground for mystery and fantasy. If you think about it, films such as the 1933 “The Invisible Man” directed by James Whale was in a way a symbol of the anonymity of people we meet in big cities.

The fear of the unknown, monsters and the going wrong of technology were all fantastic topics that were explored in mundane places. As technology entered the lives of people more and more and as the outside world stepped into the lives of people through radio, newspapers and magazines, artists and storytellers realized that one does not need to go to a land far away to meet with otherworldly creatures.

 

 

The Space Age

In the 1960s, after a period of disaster and then a decade of recovery, people started looking outside the planet for fantasy-based stories. As the space race was underway and the first men landed on the moon, space became “the final frontier”. Series such as “Star Trek” and films like “Star Wars”, Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” or “2001: A Space Odyssey” were all sci-fi stories that took place in other galaxies, in space ships and so on.

 

 

Home-grown Fantasy

The topic of human exploration of outer space changed during the 1980s and 90s and went in reverse, as more and more stories about extraterrestrials exploring our world started to appear. “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” released in 1982 and directed by Steven Spielberg is a great example of how aliens entered our homes and how the quotidian life became again a place for the meeting between humans and extraterrestrials. Launched in 1993, “The X Files” was a series that continued that trend.

After 2000, however, while the home was still at the center of most media productions and stories, the focus shifted from aliens and advanced technologies to fantasy worlds where technology was almost lacking. This was most likely a reaction to the spread of technology in daily life. The combination of these two elements: the home and other daily environments and a world of fantasy, but barely any technology has given birth to stories such as the “Harry Potter” and the “Chronicles of Narnia” series, which all start out in the quotidian world, but soon move to an undefined place, to which once can arrive with the help of everyday elements – Harry Potter enters a wall to find his train and the gate to Narnia is in a closet.

The concept of the undefined fantasy place was also a big trend during the 2000s. The fact that storytellers realized that placing a film in a certain time and space would make it subject to revisionist histories, politics and accuracy criticism; as well as because things were changing so rapidly in the decade and technology was advancing so quickly that “futuristic technology” could have been redundant in a few years, many films of the 2000s take place in spaces that, while they may be defined, are generally lacking a relation to the world of planet Earth. “The Lord of the Rings” series and the “Golden Compass” movies are great examples of how this concept is expressed.

 

 

The Mind

Around 2010, the mind started more and more to become the last frontier. After this year, more and more fantasy and sci-fi movies started to appear that took place inside thoughts and imagination. “Inception” directed by Christopher Nolan, which was launched in 2010 was the stepping stone for this motif, which has been processed even in indie cinema, in films such as the 2014 production “Comet”, starring Justin Long, in which the characters go back and forth between different, alternative universes.

 

 

Forecasts

While it is hard to predict cultural trends, we can go on a limb and make a forecast for the years to come. It is highly probable that in the near future, the fantasy worlds will take the shape of robotics. As technology becomes more and more embedded in our bodies and lives, we are likely to see an increase in films and cultural products that deal with robotic worlds or, more likely a mixture of robotics and the mind. The 2009 film “Avatar” is probably the foregoer of what is next. Sci-fi worlds will discuss the concept of using technology to overcome the world itself, to exist in other worlds and have more and different abilities than you would regularly have. Technology and humans will go hand in hand. In other words, they are somehow derived or based on the concept of transhumanism, which wants to overcome the human state through technology. Space and time won’t matter anymore – people can go from one dimension to another with the help of technology and maybe even be different creatures in those worlds.

 

Worlds of fantasy are embedded in the human mind, because they fulfill a very important need. They are an expression of our imagination, but more than that, of our inexplicable experiences. They give shape not only to the things we see and think, but to the things we cannot think of. They tell stories that cannot be grasped with the means of the ordinary world and calm our anxieties about the unknown. Therefore, analyzing and understanding them is essential for the understanding of the human mind and generally of the human experience.

 

 

29 May

Curating the Mind: The Culture of Today and the Politics of Tomorrow

Many people, especially those who grew up in the 70s, 80s and 90s sometimes get a bit nostalgic about old-timey television. Well, not necessarily extremely old-timey, but for the time when television was pretty much at its peak. That world where you would wait for a show, then maybe for the rerun and when television was the source of entertainment and news seems so strange now, even to someone who grew up with it. It’s hard to imagine how it looks like to someone who hasn’t even seen it.

 

 

While it a way better experience to do it as we do it today, where everything is available at all times and you can watch or listen to anything pretty much any time and on multiple devices, there was something interesting about classic television if we can call it that way.

Television, as it was until the boom of online streaming, was curated, and that was part of what made it cool. On the one hand, this had advantages, for example the fact that it was highly curated created a mystique around it and there was a lot of reasoning when it came to it, why it was the way it was. For example, nighttime films were at night for a reason: there was a connection between the life the viewer had and what was on television. There were cartoons in the morning during the weekend, sit-down interviews in the afternoon and epic series in the evening. There were special shows on special days and television seemed to be a mirror of life. Television was molded after what the viewers did. In a way, culture has taken its inspiration a lot from real life, but it often seems that after the late 2000s or so, it goes the other way around: life is taking its inspiration from culture. If we think about it, in the 1980s or 70s, culture makers would look at the streets, at what people did and listened to and shaped their products after what was going on. After the late 2000s, the trickle effect went the other way: culture dictates what is going and people reflect it.

With the expansion of the new technologies (tablets, smartphones, smart TVs), we are seeing some bizarre changes in the ways people consume and create culture. With the World Wide Web, what has happened is that everyone has become a creator and a curator. In the 21st century, people are curating their own lives. What this means is that you select what you want to read, see or listen to. You subscribe to webpages; you get content in your feeds and so on. While this is a good thing, it also has some perverse effects. For example, if someone subscribes to a certain set of ideas, they will only receive information and culture in front of their eyes that serve those ideas. It’s hard to make appreciations that concern value when it comes to these things. In a way, it’s good that you get to only consume content you like, but if you never look outside your bubble, you might miss a whole other world.

The second thing that has a strong connection to curating yourself is credibility. While credibility is strongly connected to cultural influence, it might not be as bad as you’d think. The argument many people make is that in the online world anyone with thousands of followers is a credible source. In other words, any lie said loudly, many times and to a million people can become truth. Which is dangerous, but so is lying in the mainstream media and let’s face it – classic television and print media has too often been a source of manipulation. A big problem that I see with cultural consumerism and the online world is that culturally it can have a bad impact. Who’s to tell what will push us forward and what will keep us back? If bad media products are pushed into everyone’s life then we’re going to go back really badly. And it’s a known fact that culture influences politics, so analyzing the culture of today definitely offers insight in the politics of tomorrow.

The third thing that curating your own life creates, which can be said is the most important is that the quality and taste factors drops significantly. If there are no arbitraries of taste, if “everything goes” as post-modernists would have you believe, real value can get lost quickly. For example, we can often see photos taken by various people that get so much exposure and that are considered of such high value, without actually having an artistic value. What makes them be so appreciated is that they were taken with a certain technology which offers something special, such as a high quality image. In this case, you are basically praising a shell with no content. And, if you only add shells with no content, you won’t have anything to feed off in the future. Figuratively speaking. Basically, if we keep promoting bad art or, better said, art that is not actually art, products with no content, soon many lives won’t have content. We need to make the clear distinction between information, art and technology, which seem to be extremely blurry today – we can even speak of an advent of “infoartainment”. And that would not be a big problem, in the end, art is meant to inform and to entertain, but more often than not, information these days is badly constructed to say the least, a lot of art is not art by any definition (except the anti-art definition given by post-modernism) and entertainment is not very entertaining, it can be said that it is mostly background noise. We seem to have lost the notion of doing something and doing it well.

In a world where the ratio of creators to consumers is pretty much 1:1, where everyone is a creator with pretenses, as well as a consumer – can you have a good discourse on quality?

This is why it can be argued that in order to survive, art should break from itself. We need to separate bad art from good art and to reinforce the strength of qualitative art – we need to make a difference between information and everyone having a voice and almost everyone being an artist. Museums should be real spaces of learning – learning that is, not entertainment; and truly valuable art should be seen as such. Having high standards is the only way to go if we wish to achieve great results as a world culture.

 

21 May

The Museum as a Learning Place

Art has always been a strong tool used to explore the human mind and spirit and the world and to teach others about the ways in which the mechanics of the human experience work.

 

 

Through painting, sculpture, music and other arts, people have made incursions in their own minds, in order to discover the inner elements of their spirits, but also to channel other people’s experiences and to learn from them. In many cases, art is a way of making the things we cannot capture take one form or another. Art, in its every form has also had the role to teach others, and sometimes even to manipulate, about the ways in which the world works, the way in which historical events happened and more. It has even been a tool to discuss divinity and the danger of leading a life with no virtue.

For these reasons, and others, art has always had an important role in society. It was revered and applauded. Bad art was criticized either to be improved or to be eliminated. Great art was celebrated and sometimes it was at the very center of the human existence.

Easily starting with the modernist movement, who noticed that there was a rupture between people and divinity and strongly with post-modernism, which mostly denied the existence of divinity, the depth of a work of art has been lost. Catering to the vision that life is pointless, senseless and why not worthless, the adepts of the post-modernist movement have transformed art into a propaganda of anti-life. Because they had the technical tools to spread easily and because everyone can and, why not, is an artist, these works have spread out and reshaped society so strongly, that art has morphed into a different entity. Of course, adepts and lovers of classic arts, who had a hard time in post-modernist times have continued to work on high art pieces, but the low art has taken the spotlight in the mainstream.

The learning aspect of art in post-modernism has been completely lost. It has been replaced by emotions, which are a stand-in for the teaching aspect, and, more often than not, those emotions are imposed, fake emotions. Take the extremely many examples of objects that have been misplaced in exhibitions or statues that broke before they were exhibited and the positive public and critical acclaim they received as deep works of art. Art has in many instances become entertainment.

To learn about something through art means to be able to extract abstract notions through concrete examples, expressed in a symbolic, yet interpretable manner, with creativity and style.

The fact that humans have created art even in the most hard of conditions is the anthropological proof that art is not a luxury in human life, but a necessity that, along with other elements of culture, accompanies the person as a GPS does when you are out for a drive in your car.

 

 

22 Mar

Who is an Artist?

Throughout history, many philosophers, thinkers and artists have thought of what constitutes an artist. In every society, artists have held an important role, which has often not been recognized. They are the ones who give shape to the inner emotions and mechanisms of the human spirit and mind. Artists make the invisible, visible. They turn something that cannot be perceived with our senses and turn it into something we can all relate to. They turn something that would easily dissolve in time, such as an event and carve it in stone.

 

The Musee Brancusi in Paris, France. Photo from the Liev Vault

But what is the real nature of the artist? Today, as we all have the means or at least access to the means of creative artistic expression, we are all, in one way or another, creators of content. But is this content truly high art? Just because we all have a camera in our pockets and use it to point and shoot, does it mean we’re all artists? Probably not. That would be like saying that every person who plugs in their phone in an outlet is an electrician. Obviously, we are all attached to the things we make, that’s natural and it should be this way. Your private photos will probably have more meaning to you than any fine art photography you will see in a museum. And that’s where we need to make the difference.

True art is something that connects and unites, it’s something we all relate to and that tells a universal story in a sophisticated and subtle way.

Artists have a way of giving something we all do or could do, such as taking a photograph, painting or performing on state, an it-factor, which bridges the soul of the artist with the soul of the consumer and covers the world.

In a way, it’s what we call creativity that feeds our universal and inborn aesthetic need.

In ancient times, the artist was rather freed from his work, which helped him keep his mental state and detach from the high emotions that come with being behind a creative process. It was considered that sometimes, a daemon or spirit of creativity and inspiration would come and place the valuable process in the mind of the artist who would then translate it into a real project. It was only very late, in the 19th century that the concept of the tortured artist appeared, who made art for art’s sake. Once more people started to have access to creating art and art has been democratized, the quality of art has not only reduced, but it has also allowed anyone to be engaged in a creative process they can’t handle.

So then, who is a true artist? There is no one answer to this question. An artist is a master of his craft, he is one who sees things from a distance and can express them through particular cases and he can also be one who gives a high-resolution view of a low-resolution concept. In a way, an artist is the man who walked out of Plato’s cave.

 

In other words, an artist is someone who can convey a maximum of meaning with a minimum of means, as the saying goes, in a sophisticated and complex manner. And that’s not easy.

Artists should re-find their place in society as, in the words of Theodor Adorno, “the task of art today is to bring chaos into order.” Art is educational, we can learn from it and thus make our lives better.

One of the best definitions of art, and hence the artist, was probably given by Leo Tolstoy in his essay “What is Art?”, who said “Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity.”