Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The complications of Nihilism’s fingerprints in art

Sex Pistols, 1977. Punk is generally regarded as a defining moment in Western cultural history. Its nihilistic response to the socio-economic and political climate of the 1970s heralded impending change and provoked a moral panic among the establishment. 

Nihilism is often defined thus:

ni·hil·ism/ˈəˌlizəm,ˈəˌlizəm/ noun: the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless.

Bust of Epicurus
Philosophically speaking, there are many examples and several incarnations of this type of thinking in the history of Western thought, starting as far back as the pre-Socratic sophists in Greece. For instance, Epicurus (born around 270 BC) lived through the defeat of Alexander the Great and the collapse of the Hellenistic era. He seemed ambivalent about the existence of the Greek gods and argued that man’s highest goal should be to reach a state of being utterly free of care. It's easy to argue that nihilism is a codified pessimism and a natural outgrowth the human condition and our tendency toward periodic despair in the face of difficult change. Perhaps the faster the systemic changes in our increasingly interconnected human community, the more prevalent the nihilistic attitudes. After all, our current historical moment, postmodernity, has been called the nihilistic epoch.

Terry Pratchett on the futility of political nihilism- "Don't put your trust in revolutions. They always come around again. That's why they're called revolutions. People die, and nothing changes." From Night Watch

A few flavors of Nihilism

Existential Nihilism- Life is without inherent meaning.

Political Nihilism- Political systems are pointless and should be overthrown.

Epistemological Nihilism- You can never truly know anything.

Ontological Nihilism- Nothing is real so there is nothing to know.

Moral Nihilism- Nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral.

Tumultuous Assembly: visual poem by Marinetti meant to replicate world war I breaking out in Europe to capture the modern battlefield that futurists greeted as crystallization of their ambitions, indeed, as the ideal expression of the futurists cult of violence, energy and machines
One of the most complicated examples of nihilism is that of the Futurists. I referred briefly to the Futurist Manifesto previously on this blog. It might be worth looking back if you're interested in the manifesto's relation to graphic design.

In short, Italian Futurism (Futurismo) was a social movement that originated in Italy in the early 20th century. It emphasized speed, technology, youth and violence and objects such as the car, the aeroplane and the industrial city. It glorified modernity and aimed to liberate Italy from the weight of its past. This form of nihilism saw more value in the soulless perfection of an automated machine designed for destruction than it did in the souls of the people that those machines would chew through.   

 Umberto Boccioni, 1913, Unique forms of Continuity in Space 

The Futurist Manifesto (as published by Marinetti (Paris) Le Figaro, February 20, 1909)

1. We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness.
2. Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry.
3. Up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.
4. We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
5. We want to hymn the man at the wheel, who hurls the lance of his spirit across the Earth, along the circle of its orbit.
6. The poet must spend himself with ardor, splendor, and generosity, to swell the enthusiastic fervor of the primordial elements.
7. Except in struggle, there is no more beauty. No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece. Poetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces, to reduce and prostrate them before man.
8. We stand on the last promontory of the centuries!… Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.
9. We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.
10. We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.
11. We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the multicolored, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nightly fervor of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons; greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents; factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke; bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts, flashing in the sun with a glitter of knives; adventurous steamers that sniff the horizon; deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing; and the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind like banners and seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd.

Giacomo Balla, Dynamism of a dog on a leash,  1912

It's hard not to feel some affection for the idea of a poet so passionate about the necessity for society to look at the world from a new perspective, that he is compelled to declare a set of rules that should be adhered to, a prescription for a broken system. The problem, in this case existential nihilism, is that Marinetti believed that in order for Italy to remain vital to industrial Europe, that it must make great, violent, mechanical lurches and expand its boarders. A close reading of the Manifesto, with knowledge that Marinetti became an influential voice in the National Fascist Party under Benito Mussolini, takes on a very sinister tone. It can be argued that the attitudes articulated in the Futurist Manifesto lead directly to the the trench warfare of WWI. 

Subsequently, another paper was published, the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting (1914). This committed early practitioners of Futurism to a "universal dynamism" which could be represented in painting and other fine arts. The basic premise was that objects in reality were not separate from one another or from their surroundings: "The sixteen people around you in a rolling motor bus are in turn and at the same time one, ten four three; they are motionless and they change places... The motor bus rushes into the houses which it passes, and in their turn the houses throw themselves upon the motor bus and are blended with it." This intellectual construct is an ontological nihilism and makes it easy to justify the moral nihilism necesary to slaughter people like feeding sticks into a wood chipper. However, the practice of this multiple perspective approach to composition resonates later in cubism and nearly every art movement that follows. 

An interesting example is Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912. It was not embraced by the Futurists at the time. Why exactly it is hard to say. Perhaps it was too organic, the subject not mechanical enough, not violent in movement. Whatever the reason, the temporal study of motion certainly echos ideas put forth by Futurist artists of the period. 

Unlike the Futurists whose nihilism sought to bring about violent destruction, the Dadaists' existential nihilism formed as reaction to the horrors of WWI. They were a part of Europe's lost generation, a population who only discovered the extent of the atrocities perpetrated during the war after the conflict was over. The nihilism manifested as a absurdest reaction to the meaninglessness of the lives lost. "Dada does not signify an art, it is a rebuke of the uselessness of high-brow, intellectual civilized, discourse. Because it lead to the carnage and the cognitive dissonance that came with it. Dada was a rejection of society and progress, the abolition of  logic which is the dance of those too impotent to create." Above, Man Ray's 1921assisted readymade took a simple utilitarian object, an iron, and made it evoke different qualities by attaching the tacks. Hence the tacks, which cling and hold, contrast with the iron, which is meant to smoothly glide, and both are rendered useless. In the case of Dada's nihilism, as Camus pointed out, – "accepting absurdity isn’t the end. It is a starting place. The best response is to rebel. To live a life with as much meaning as you can pack into it. Out of spite to the meaningless nature of life." 

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