Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Art & Materialism 2

Materialism at its root is the belief system that says: Nothing that I cannot perceive with my five physical senses, or measure with a physical instrument, is real. Only things material, tangible, and physical matter. Intangibles either do not exist, or are dismissable and ignorable. Why? Because they cannot be measured with physical instruments; they cannot be assigned a material, quantitative value. All things immaterial are therefore valueless. It is only a short step from assigning material value to material objects, to basing all valuations on materiality: the root of the economic paradigm. Also the root of the paradigm that allows us to use up the earth's resources without offering respect to the earth.

A hardcore materialist has no room for spirituality of any kind. I am not referring to religion—it is an error to assume that spirituality=religion, as formalized established institutional religions are sociocultural codifications of the spiritual experiences of individual persons—but rather any aspect of human experience that is non-physical. This includes mental and emotional processes; it also includes creativity, unless that creativity is applied to the material world for material result (and material gain). It includes psychological health and cultural adaptations to the environment, which may then all be dismissed as irrationalities. (Thus, anthropology is divided into cultural and physical sub-disciplines.) It also includes the perception of beauty. For example, that hillside covered with streams and trees is not beautiful for its own sake; intangible beauty is not real, and therefore ignorable. The same hillside is only important for the ores that can be extracted from within it; its material value, its economic value. Materialists will tell you that they have no ideology, but that is a lie; rather, their ideology is one of economic utility, as opposed to aesthetic appreciation.

150 years ago physics was the ultimately materialist discipline of science. Newtonian physics was deterministic, reductive to simple laws that governed all principles of motion and energy exchange. The search was ongoing for the set of equations that would govern and explain all natural laws; thus began the quest for the unified field theory. Biology, by contrast, was filled with quasi-spiritual theories of the origin of species, Lamarckian theories of generation, and creation myths that were directly descended from Judeo-Christian myths and philosophically equated with moral precepts. Biology 150 years ago contained elements of mysticism.

Ironically, this situation has now completely reversed itself. Physics now, especially theoretical physics, asserts commonly that matter is illusory (it is only slow energy), and that the Universe is composed of numerous vibrational energetic forces and systems that are statistically chaotic and indeterminate. The consciousness of the observer is part of the equation of observation. Modern physics has philosophically moved towards a worldview known for millenia from Eastern sacred texts such as the Upanishads and the Tao Te Ching. (Classical Newtonian macro-physics as practiced by engineers and industrial chemists retains rather more of the old materialistic worldview, but it is a matter of degree only; even engineering takes into account aspects of the human equation when considering such areas as failure analysis.)

Biology, on the other hand, has become hardcore materialist, even ideologically materialist beyond reason. Biology is biography, biology is destiny. Medicine views the organism as a mechanism to be fixed when it fails, and otherwise not examined; forensic pathology (biological failure analysis) is so popular, it's on TV all the time. Neurophysiology seeks a physical cause for every aspect of human consciousness, including, famously, near-death experiences and sexual orientation. Nature over nurture. Brain chemistry is perceived to be the root of every psychological disorder (which is why anti-depressants are currently being overprescribed, but I digress), but also every spiritual experience, every thought, every action. We tend to see the brain as a computer wherein the hardware is more important (more deterministic) than the software. (We also tend to see the human species as the pinnacle and end-point of evolution, when in fact we are continuing to evolve; but I digress.)

So, a modern hardcore materialist would of course agree that music, art and poetry have no value or intrinsic usefulness. They can be lived without, because they are not necessary for biological survival. (Mental health issues notwithstanding; the cures are sought with drugs rather than music therapy, for example.) Ironically, again, the physicists are more likely to disagree with that statement these days than are the biologists.

From one perspective, biology's worldview remains 100 years behind the curve, still playing catch-up to the worldview of the physicists. This is what leads to absurd ideas like love=sex (only), or the wholly deterministic ethos of the sociobiologists of the 1970s and 80s (led by Desmond Morris in The Naked Ape and other works). Konrad Lorenz' work on biological imprinting is taken at face value, with no really new insights having been made since he died.

The problem is, if biology does equal destiny, and social systems are a product of biological programming, then you leave the door wide open for eugenics solutions to little social problems like racism and war. It's only one more small conceptual step to embrace totalitarian solutions to social systems, if indeed those social systems are biological in nature; this led philosophically to the vivisection experiments of Dr. Mengele and his ilk during World War II. It leads directly, nowadays, to right-wing experiments in social engineering by political fiat.

So, the danger of the spiritual worldview, according to the materialists, is that it is not grounded in measurable data, the definition of "fact," it is irrational, it is not scientifically quantifiable and categorizable. It is in no way "real." Thus, the utility of art is nil, except as tangible art objects (strewn in the artist's wake like moose droppings), which are valued only as material products subject to the same economic factors as are refined metals and designer drugs. You can see and touch a van Gogh painting, but you can't see or touch inspiration or intuition. Which is why the art product is more important than the artist, or the artist's process; hence, neglected artists' works generate millions for galleries and dealers, mostly after the artist is dead and can't produce any more: the economics of scarcity.

So, okay: if we accept the argument, for the moment, that music is not necessary for survival, where does that leave us? Maybe there's some solace to be found in art-making, just as slaves sung songs to get themselves through the day. Maybe there's some spiritual or mental connection with music aiding misery. But that is the "art as therapy" argument, and it is a materialist argument: it states the value of music as goal-oriented, as an end-product in a chain of events. This remains a materialist, "practical," ultimately economic justification. That's certainly valid, as far as it goes; the trouble is, it doesn't go very far.

When I find myself hurting in life, I turn to making music. I do not turn to other musicians for sympathy; some of whom might indeed sympathize, but are powerless to do more. I turn to playing, composing, recording, and performing (or making art)—which can be as simple as pulling one of my frame drums off the wall, sitting in the living room, and losing myself in the sound. Or strapping on my Stick and rolling tape. Or booting up Photoshop and making new images. Or strumming on a guitar. Or writing haiku with a calligraphy brush, and making little haiga drawings or paintings to go with them.

The key here is simple: Do the music for the sake of doing the music. No other reason. Not for therapy. Not for solace. Not for relief. That all comes naturally, as soon as you forget about it, and lose one's self in the music. Not for solace, not only for release, or comfort, or therapy—but rather for the same reasons that Zen students sit zazen: to quiet the monkey mind's ceaseless egoistic chatter, to calm the mind and self, to just be silent for awhile. To get a little refreshment that allows one to return to one's problems with a clear mind and renewed strength.

Playing music for myself, on a bad day, doesn't fix any of my financial problems directly, nor does it directly generate income. But it does help me get out of my problems for a few minutes or hours, so that when I come back to them—and they will still be there waiting for when I return—I can better cope with them. This works. It actually does make a difference. It may not pay the rent, but it does keep me wanting to live. If music is truly not necessary to life, then, logically, a lot of us would be dead by now.

(This is the oft-misunderstood existential viewpoint in a nutshell: There is no inherent, innate meaning to life; so whatever meaning you want to have, you have to create for yourself. This does not require one to sit around in a funk of unmeaningful despair; rather, one must get active about deciding what you want to invest meaning in. For examples, I refer you to Albert Camus, Exile and the Kingdom; or Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning.)

All these are completely non-materialistic reasons to make art. There is no materialistic purpose to them. No goal, no practical outcome. But an increased quality of life, that can make life worth otherwise enduring.

Quality of life issues are ultimately emotional, psychological, and spiritual issues. Not rational or physical issues. Materialists are right to point out that quality of life issues are immaterial; yet they are wrong to thereby dismiss them, for that reason alone. Only from within the economic/marketing paradigm is quality of life equated with consumerism, i.e. your ability to Buy Stuff improves your life. This only recycles and repeats the economic paradigm. (For example, I refer you to Susan Faludi, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man)

How could it possibly matter to a materialistic non-artist that an artist feels herself necessary to society? Is it that an artist's contribution is less tangible to society than a stockbroker's (which is debatably just as intangible as music) or a bricklayer's? The assumption that an artist has less to give to society than, say, a truck driver or factory worker or economist or soup-kitchen donor, is an assumption that comes from deep within the (economic, materialistic) music-as-a-commodity paradigm. The mindset is that the only things that contribute to society are Things with economic value. Again, this only repeats and recycles the economic model of creativity, wherein only the (tangible) products of creativity (i.e. art-objects) are worth anything, because only they can be sold for cash. A nice tautology.

Speaking to all those materialists who might read this: If you really don't like to hear any of this, or are tempted to dismiss it out-of-hand, I submit that your resistance to these ideas is symptomatic of your own issues around the economics of art, rather than any quality-oriented artist's. The things that most piss us off and push our buttons are usually the things we have most deeply suppressed in ourselves. That's a psychological law, material or no.

So, feel free to dismiss all of this. Feel free to dismiss quality of life issues as meaningless and ignorable.

Yet what a bleak, dull, boring, shallow existence life would be without music, art, poetry, or even that beer you're drinking while you watch the weekend game on TV: bleak and empty. Even if music's necessity to life were only a purely internally-generated delusion, which is an assumption implicit in the arguments made by the most materialistic arms of the economic/marketing paradigm, even if it's value were only as a panacea . . . so what? That makes it no less valuable, for being intangible. It's wise to remember, materialists, that the application of value-judgments to ideas, or to objects, is an intangible, immaterial process: you judge only by your ideology, not by inherent value, because what you judge as valuable is determined by your ideology. Another nice tautology.

And materialism is very much an ideology, make no mistake about that.

Art-making is not opposed to materialism. It just doesn't give materialism the time of day.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Jon said...

"Rather any aspect of human experience that is non-physical. This includes mental and emotional processes."

To the materialist, all aspects of human experience are physical, including the mental and emotional processes.

"The same hillside is only important for the ores that can be extracted from within it."

Materialism makes no value judgements, though it may be used to justify things like strip mining. You equated materialism with cynicism. (The mining company can behave cynically whether they are subject to determinism or indeterminism; they can use any philosophy to rationalize greed.)

Many Right-Wingers are Evangelicals. Evangelicals are certainly not materialists!

If matter is illusory and dependent upon a consciousness, why can't we think our way through walls? (There is no spoon. There is no spoon.)

Of course the consciousness of the observer is part of the equation of observation, but consciousness does not impose upon physical reality. (If you were absolutely certain you left your car-keys on the table, wouldn't matter conform to your expectation and produce car-keys?)

(I hope you didn't pull this from that movie...What the @#$# do we Know.)

To say that "matter is illusory" is a contradiction. (There is no spoon. There is no spoon...)

It is likely that our brains are causal, deterministic systems. We can all agree that our brains (well minds if you prefer) are wonderful systems. Why is a material brain horrible while dualism is wonderful?

11:40 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I could refute this point by point, but that gives it too much credit. Not to mention your own self-contradictions and unjustified assumptions.

Materialism indeed makes value judgments: it judges the physical as dead matter, therefore there is no harm in treating it as such. It treats matter as more "real" than energy. Etc.

Whatever. A mush of suppositions with no logic.

1:54 AM  

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