It’s hard not to look at the contemporary art market and see it as superficial and transitory – much of it comes across as the self-indulgent product of egotism; self-conscious attempts at irony that degenerate into meaningless banalities; a smug postmodern sensibility obsessed with its own cleverness without saying anything insightful. “Art” – however debased and misapplied the word has become in today’s materialistic world – is no longer interested in offering a transcendent vision of something innate and timeless. Instead, at best it serves as a loud, demanding punctuation mark, as immediate as the latest Google trends – a reflection of the short-term memory of the digital age more concerned with what is “in” than what is “within”.
Art, in this sense, can be seen as the culmination of mankind’s regression away from a unified psychological attitude in which reason and emotion – left and right hemisphere thinking – are fully integrated, towards the complete domination of the cold rationality of the scientific age, with no room for unfettered creativity, only the sanctioned “art” of the marketplace where the artist themselves have become commodities, personalities every bit as disposable as TV celebrities and pop stars.
José Argüelles refers to this duality in the history of human artistic expression as “techne” and “psyche” in what is perhaps one of the most radical and significant books on the subject: The Transformative Vision: Reflections on the Nature and History of Human Expression. It is an ambitious work, to say the least, spanning the course of history and examining the changing role of art in the context of history, culture, psychobiology, Jungian psychology and the sciences. For Argüelles, the forces which have defined the development of the Western world are responsible for nothing less than the near-total detachment from our ability to make contact with the “transformative vision”; a world where mankind has become trapped by the ideologies of reason and science which limit consciousness and thereby the ability to express that which stirs beneath the rational mind.
An illustrative example of this process is the introduction of the single-point perspective in painting and its proliferation during the Renaissance, coinciding with the rise of the “Great Artist”. As perspective-based art stands for the growing perception of mastery and domination of the world by mankind, so too does the rise of the artist as commodity – those with the wealthy and influential patrons in the church or, more tellingly, bankers and merchants such as the Medici family – mark the beginnings of what was to become an almost complete rejection of the archaic, psychic forms which came before. As the artist began to master nature through painting and sculpture (albeit it in a subjective sense in which the position of the viewer was paramount) so too did Western society seek to dominate and exploit the environment under the guise of progressive humanism as it moved towards the industrial age.
At the same time, the subject became mired in the human experience – the “great men” of the ages – be it the grand portraits of men of influence or the neoclassicism which characterized the Age of Enlightenment. This drive towards historicism – dictated by the linearity of time and the causal nature of human history – further embedded the Western mindset in a tradition at odds with ancient modes of thinking and was consolidated by the establishment of academic artistic institutions, rendering “art” the preserve of elite intellectuals and depriving the masses of legitimate access to their own creativity. These academies, as Argüelles puts it, were “the basic conditioning factor of visual perception in the Western world” – not until the Impressionists was art reluctantly and somewhat tentatively dragged in new and bold directions.
There were n0table exceptions throughout this period – men who achieved something of the transcendental in their art and could be called visionary: William Blake’s mystical prophecies and cosmological visions in response to the deadening effects of the Leviathan that is the technocratic state; Goethe’s alchemical works inspiring a reunification of the feminine and the masculine (just as Blake created his Illuminated Works, so too did Goethe end his life with the words, “more light!”). But these visionaries were the exception, destined to live on the margins of a world dominated by materialism. Some, such as Vincent Van Gogh, would be perceived as so radical by the forces of artistic reaction as to be “suicided by society”, which subsequently, without a trace of irony, decides to worship them posthumously, almost apologetically for failing to appreciate their vision while they were alive.
Ultimately, The Transformative Vision is about a final return to the archaic in which the transcendent, spiritual goal of art and its function in the process of individuation comes full circle; where techne and psyche are reintegrated in a process of complete unification. As Argüelles puts it, ” [the] modern techno-historical society abolished the right to vision as well as the ritual for gaining it with a fearful and self-righteous vengeance, thus ensuring its own fantastic rise to power but also sealing its own doom. In denying the validity of the vision and the vision-quest, modern society denied itself any rebirth short of the apocalypse – an event its own shamans and visionary prophets, exiled to the sidelines, have continually foretold and prepared for.”