The Irony and the EcstasyBy: Now that the postmodern wave is washing on the shore of its own demise, what new worldviews surge from the ocean of the soul to announce a new perception?
The reason that art in the postmodern, existential world has reached something of a cul-de-sac is not that art itself is exhausted, but that the existential worldview is. Just as rational modernity previously exhausted its forms and gave way to a-perspectival postmodernity, so now the postmodern itself is on a morbid deathwatch, with nothing but infinitely mirrored irony to hold its hand, casting flowers where they will not be missed. The skull of postmodernity grins on the near horizon, and in the meantime, we are between two worldviews, one slowly dying, one not yet born.
Whatever we may think about it, and volumes have been written, perhaps the best that can be said of the avant-garde is that it always implicitly understood itself to be riding the crest of the breaking wave of evolving worldviews. The avant-garde was the leading edge, the growing tip, of an evolving humanity. It would herald the new, announce the forthcoming. It would first spot, then depict, new ways of seeing, new modes of being, new forms of cognition, new heights or depths of feeling, and in all cases, new modes of perception. It would spot, and depict, the coming worldview, while breaking decisively with the old.
The story is familiar. Jacques-Louis David’s art was part of the early rise of modernity (reason and revolution) that violently broke with the remnants of the mythic, aristocratic, hierarchical, rococo past. From neoclassicism to abstract expressionism, each succeeding growing tip became in turn the conventional, accepted norm, only to see its own form challenged by the next avant-garde. Even postmodernism, with its a-perspectival madness, which first attempted to deconstruct the avant-garde altogether, intimately depended upon it for something to deconstruct; thus, as Donald Kuspit points out in The Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist, a type of neo-avant-garde art inevitably dogged postmodernism from the start.
Like huge successive waves crashing ashore, worldviews succeed one another, and the avant-garde, at their best, were the great surfers of these waves. Now that the postmodern wave is washing on the shore of its own demise, what new waves are forthcoming? What new worldviews surge from the ocean of the soul to announce a new perception? Where are we to look for the contents of the sincere artistic statements that will supplant irony and a-perspectival madness? Standing on tiptoe, looking through the mist, can the vague outline of the face of tomorrow’s art, and therefore, tomorrow’s world, even be seen?
What worldviews, from those available, might carry the contours of tomorrow’s art? Of course, some aspects of the coming landscape will be entirely new and original. Creative advance into novelty, according to Whitehead, is the basic feature of the universe. But we also know, from extensive psychological and sociological research, that certain basic features of the dozen or so major worldviews are potentials already available to the human organism, and instead of starting entirely from scratch, nature usually reworks what is at hand, before adding the finishing touches of novelty.
We know the worldviews that have been tried, toiled at, worked, and exhausted: archaic, magic, mythic, mental-rational (modern), and existential a-perspectival (postmodern). The postmodern, of course, will continue its major influence for decades to come, on the way to its final resting place. It is simply that artistic productions, as canaries in the cultural mine shaft, are dropping dead in alarming numbers as the rotting gas of postmodernity first starts whiffing down that tunnel. So the art world, more quickly than the sturdier herd mentality, seeks out new horizons; thus the dead-end of today’s art is really the future endgame of the postmodern worldview in general. So what other horizons are available right now?
Three, at least: subtle, causal, and non-dual. The phenomenologists of worldviews (those who research and describe the contours of available worldviews) describe these three worldviews as being transrational or transpersonal, and they contrast them with the earlier worldviews, some of which are prerational or prepersonal (archaic, magic, and mythic), and some of which are rational or personal (mental and existential).
This gives men and women, as potentials in their own organisms, a spectrum of available worldviews, ranging from prerational to rational to transrational, from prepersonal to personal to transpersonal, from subconscious to self-conscious to superconscious. Supposing that we have exhausted the dizzying rhetorical regress of self-reflexivity, there are only two ways to go: back into subconsciousness, or forward into superconsciousness, back to the infrarational, or beyond to the suprarational.
The distinction is important, because the transrational, transpersonal worldviews are what might be called spiritual, yet they bear little relation to the traditional religious worldviews of the magic and mythic spheres. The transrational realms have nothing to do with external gods and goddesses, and everything to do with an interior awareness that plumbs the depths of the psyche. Nothing to do with petitionary prayer and ritual, and everything to do with expanding and clarifying awareness. Nothing to do with dogma and belief, everything to do with cleansing perception. Not everlasting life for the ego, but transcending the ego altogether. When one exhausts the personal, there is left the transpersonal. There is, right now, simply nowhere else to go.
Material in this column appears in One Taste: The Journals of Ken Wilber, from Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston. Copyright Ken Wilber, 1998.