Mo Zhelan: Where is the Space for Art in the Age of Globalization

The following text is from a paper presented at the Zooming into Focus symposium  “Envisioning the Future of Contemporary Art from Different Glocal Positions”, China Art Academy, Hangzhou, China, March 2004

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The subject of this symposium is ‘Predicting the future of art – local perspectives on globalization.’ I am not an optimist to talk about the subject. Honestly, every keyword included in the subject ‘predicting, art, future, globalization and local perspective’ has made me nervous, and I do not know how to take a stand.

‘Art’ appears to be the subject word, but ‘globalization’ is the headword. ‘Local perspective’ is simply in response (answer) to the possessive headword. Only when you are aware of the relations among those three words, it is then possible to offer ‘prediction’ about the ‘future’ of ‘art.’

In the subject, what does ‘globalization’ imply? Does it mean ‘the future of art being globalized’ or ‘the future art in a globalized context?’ The two implications share one thing in common, that is, we need, first of all, to make sure what ‘globalization’ refers to.

Globalization is an index concept that emerged toward the end of last century with the advent of the networked information era. It originally refers to the ‘technology’ on a normalized scale. The so-called ‘global integration of technology’ or ‘globalization of technology’ serves as an index rating the degree of global penetration of technology. Technology has its own scale and space. For example, oxcarts, motorcars, rockets are the most apparent indicators that extend time and space. Among water-powered mills, steam engines, nuclear power stations, the first two were recognized by Karl Marx as material evidence of the social evolution theory of historical materialism stating that productivity determines the relations of production. Scrolls and bamboo slips – movable-type printing, digital images are viewed today as measures of civilization which retell the evolution of means to deliver historical and cultural information. All these different forms of technologies have their own scale of time and space. The time and space where they exist or which they measure differ completely. That explains why Martin Heidegger made those odd statements about technology and space such as ‘the world worlds’ and ‘the scale scales.’ Obviously, only in an era of satellite TV, networked information, and automobiles and airplanes, it is possible that the globe shrinks to a ‘global village.’

The prevalence of technology has generated commercial profits which have promoted ‘technology’ to a leading position in relation to ‘science.’ Much of today “science” is in fact played out by technology, which is spurred by profits. In essence, it is driven by ‘desires.’ The alliance between technology and desire, therefore, constitutes the foundation or essential requirement of modernity: technology and desire are means of self-fulfilment for one another. ‘Technology as desire’ or ‘desire as technology’ expresses the same idea.

‘Desire’ is a sensibility that drives and consumes, while ‘technology’ is simply the sensible fulfillment of ‘driving-production-consumption.’ Naturally, this demands technology to be ‘sensible’ or ‘artistic.’ In theoretical terms, it is ‘the disappearance of the boundary between life and art,’ or ‘the modern romanticism’ which ‘saves human nature by making technology artistic in an age of technology.’

For example, globalization of technology comes with a uniformity or homogeneity in life style, making the quality of desire homogeneous. Computers, networked information, videos, rock’n’roll, automobiles, McDonalds, fashion models and beauty pageants have become the symbols of modernity of a nation or a city. Under such symbols, everything can be shown on the stage, from personal privacy to election campaigns. ‘To show’ is to make desire a technology that is artistically presentable. Art is returned straight to stimulative sensibility or sensible stimulation.

Technology has also been extended in meaning. Technology derived from natural science or based on the level of skill and precision required in daily work should be the original meaning of technology. In ancient times, the word ‘technique’ was used more frequently until replaced with the word ‘technology’ which weighs more on science. Then it kept extending into the realm of means to all ends, where measures, procedures, modes all became part of technology. Eventually it ended up as a way of thinking that takes in utility and utilitarian. Everything is ‘calculated’ or ‘measured.’ In this sense, we may say, almost without any exaggeration, that a modern person is a ‘person of technology.’

Under the assumption of this kind of extension of meaning, it appears natural that art will be globalized along with the globalization of technology. Is it true that today’s dream fabricators in Hollywood are leading the trend of globalization of the film industry?

To support this view as evidenced by ‘new media visual art’ that relies heavily on new technologies, there is another cognitive ‘principle of sufficient reason’ which argues that: Globalization does not equal conformity. As long as it is not conforming, ‘national art’ will not be harmed. In fact, new technology such as ‘visual media’ only offers a common platform of expression for national art. Form is separated from content. It is merely the container or package of content. If the content is national, a globalized or even conforming form makes no difference. Rather, it is a must for national art to step out of tradition, to move into modernity, and to join in the global cultural exchange in a globalized trend.

We are revisiting an old issue. That globalization does not equal conformity has extended the specific concept of ‘globalization of technology, ‘ which, in its original sense, should mean ‘globalization’ is ‘conformed’ by technology. This is determined by the inherent nature of technology, as illustrated before. What really holds up the ‘principle of sufficient reason’ of globalization is the dualism of ‘form and content’.

It looks like a ‘sure thing.’ I would like, first of all, to raise a question: Why the ‘West’ represents the ‘world’ and the ‘non-West’ is confined to the ‘national?’ This type of mindset is nothing but the product of the ‘modern expansion’ of Western technological supremacy. It has crept into the surface level of our consciousness to set up an assumption that predetermines a ‘hierarchical scheme of superior over inferior’ and compels us to accept it. In fact, the Japanese, who believe that they are quasi-Westerners, have made little attempt to conceal the idea.

This made me recall a 1953 conversation between Heidegger and Tezuka, a professor from the Tokyo Imperial University. Heidegger doubted the possibility of interpreting Japanese art with Western concepts as attempted by Kuki Shuzo. Tezuka strongly agreed with Heidegger in his criticism of the ‘metaphysical nature of Western concepts.’ On the other hand, however, he was puzzled by the inability to explicitly explain Oriental art for Western people to appreciate it. He also stated that, in movie guru Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, ‘the Japanese world was eventually caught in the object range of photography, and was purposely manipulated for the art of photography.’ ‘If I heard correctly,’ Heidegger asked, ‘you are trying to say that the products of technological aesthetics of the film industry do not fit into East Asia at all.’ The Japanese professor replied, ‘This is exactly what I thought. The fact of photography has driven our world into your so-called object realm. The objectification of film has been an outcome of the ever expanding Europeanization process.’ In other words, ‘The Japanese world appears to be European, or American.’ (see Heidegger’s A Dialogue on Language, from the Selected Works of Heidegger (Volume B), compiled by Sun Zhouxing, Shanghai Sanlian Publishing, 1996, p. 1021)

Some fifty years have passed. This dialogue, however, could be happening today almost exactly in the same way as it was then. The only change necessary is to put ‘world being Americanized,’ or, to be self-deceptive, ‘being globalized’ in place of ‘world being Europeanized.’

What Heidegger meant to convey was that the conceptual system of Western technology reasoning was, by nature, technological. To Westerners, it was not even artistic by nature. Rather, it tore down the nature of art, let alone Oriental art. In today’s world where people are accustomed to all forms of ‘technology,’ who cares about the ethos of art! As long as an inspiration is presented with the state-of-art technology and achieves the greatest sensational effect and creates the highest exchange value, it is successful as an ‘art’ piece!

Two hundred years ago, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel defined beauty as ‘a manifestation of the idea in sensuous form.’ I would like to restate this by saying that ‘art is a manifestation of technology in sensuous form.’ This should sound elegant and refined.

Or, more baldly, we can say: ‘Art is a sexual manifestation of technology.’

I am not quite sure if this could serve as a prediction as to the ‘globalization of future art’ or ‘future art in a globalized context.’

I have no intention to disrespect art, just as I have no intention to disrespect a flower when I say ‘the flower is yellow.’ Today, art is linked to ‘technology-desire’ at one end, and to ‘populace-money’ at the other. For something as splendid as art, I have not gone insane to the extent that I would dare to disrespect it.

While defining beauty as ‘a manifestation of the idea in sensuous form,’ Hegel concludes that beauty tends to disappear after passing through its three forms: symbolic, classic and romantic. An enigma about the perishablity of art was left for succeeding generations to resolve.

Today, it is true that art as ‘a manifestation of the idea in sensuous form’ has vanished into art as ‘a manifestation of technology in sensuous form.’ This is a fact as clear as daylight. The only thing left for people to do is to comment on it: Is it ‘good’ or ‘not good,’ ‘progressing’ or ‘backsliding.’

If the existence of art will disappear eventually, what is the purpose of making value judgments about its current function as the ‘packaging’ of technology?

I need to pause for a while to reflect on an issue: Modern romanticists expected not long ago that art could be used to save human nature in the age of technology. Why all of sudden is art resigned to be a ‘servant-girl’ or an ‘apparel’ of technology?

Did we make a mistake in judgment or logic? Even if some kind of art, or a branch of art or a section of art has gone down the road of ‘sexual manifestation of technology,’ we may not jump to the conclusion that all kinds of art, or art per se or art of the forever future will inevitably take the same road.

Prior to any conclusions being drawn about the future of art, it is better to revisit the modern nature of technology and the true relationship between technology and art.

Technology is a process of implementing the scientific way of thinking as part of technological reasoning. In a very laconic way, Heidegger once epitomized technology as ‘the world as a picture.’ The world was first incorporated into a ‘sectional view’ which can be produced, and then it was ‘reproduced’ as a world based on the view. Therefore, this age of technology is called the ‘Age of the World Picture’ (Zeit des Weltbild).

The German phrase ‘Im Bilde sein’ (be in the picture) means ‘to be in the know, to be ready, or to be prepared for something.’ And, the ‘Age of the World Picture’ indicates that the world as the entirety of existence is grasped as a picture, and placed in an objective process to be understood and reproduced.

Although the ‘picture’ is a ‘composed view’ for reproducing the world with specified purpose, production process, testing measures and security systems, it is visible after all. It needs to appear aesthetically pleasing, in order to re-enter the circulation process to realize its exchange value. Even if corporate or business behaviors from R&D to production such as planning, design, manufacturing, sale and consumption are still in progress or unfinished, they are in fact already completed in the ‘composed view’ which is clearly presented at a glance. Naturally there will be unexpected accidents which in principle must be excluded, either as errors or updates. This is the logic of ‘inevitability’ in the age of technology or the age of the world picture. Heidegger refers it as ‘two dimensional’ logic.

Who can assert that this process is not used in the production and consumption of ‘artistic pictures?’

Picturizing this age of technology or grasping the world as a picture is not limited to the straight technical level, but also applies to people’s way of existence, their way of perception, thinking, and expression, before penetrating into various spheres, primarily political, artistic and religious spheres.

Everyone knows why Hollywood is called ‘the dream factory?’ What cannot be produced in a factory that can manufacture dreams? The operation of the Hollywood dream factory symbolizes and foretells that the life of the entire human race has been grasped as a ‘pattern’ or ‘picture,’ and each pattern can be broken down into elements for easier composition and assembly and for quantity production. Such pattern elements as violence, sex, extravagant luxury, duplicity and abnormality sell well, don’t they?

What about politics? The life of the human race is first historicized, and then the history is rationalized as a ‘theory of progress,’ which is further labeled as historical idealism and historical materialism, or democratic progression under the principle of equity or freedom, or ‘eternal recurrence’ under the principle of ‘the will to power.’ We have lived through the ‘theory of progress’ under historical materialism. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, however, the historical conclusion seems to be proved that the spirit of freedom finally prevails. It is said that the United States, in which God dwells, is the brightest beacon of the freedom spirit in this world. The United States unarguably becomes the chief of the global city-state federation, who decides between ‘the civilized and the barbarian’ and ‘the bright and the dark,’ and on the security borders of the world and who are ‘rogue nations’ or ‘axes of evil’ or ‘terrorists’ that must be punished or attacked. All these decisions are made beneath the most glorious flag of ‘freedom, democracy and justice.’

The way the politics work is determined by the foundation of political philosophy, the power of wisdom and force, which decides the value hierarchy. Being globalized, technology is the condensed manifestation of this power of wisdom and force. Is there any other logic that reasons more clear-cut and inevitably?

If the present and future of globalization are and have to be so, what kind of energy does ‘local perspective’ have to shake the world?

Not long ago in Europe, seven intellectuals including Juergen Habermas, Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty published a statement to voice a different opinion by calling on intellectuals throughout the world to unite against the American hegemony and for an overall revival of Europe. As a reader, I wrote Today’s Illegally-enthroned New Chief of the Global City-state Federation (see Open Times, Issue 5, 2003) to express my own different opinion.

To sum up, globalization of technology should be a concept requiring introspective reflection. In particular, the concept of technology itself requires reflection. Even if technology is actually globalized, it does not give us a basis to make a judgment call or reach the conclusion that politics, art, religion must all be globalized. Unlike technology, politics, art and religion cannot satisfy the indicative requirements of global or universal applicability. If they could, globalization of politics would mean the globalization of American-style democracy, globalization of art would mean the globalization of American-style Hollywood art, globalization of religion would mean the globalization of Christianity, and so on. The universal applicability of the ‘utility’ of technology would become the universal applicability of ‘power’ in the general sense. In other words, the principle of ‘power worship’ would prevail. As a result, it would lead to, at least by logic, the conclusion that the most powerful nation in today’s world, the United States, should be the ‘monarchical ruler’ of the world.

In fact, we never doubt the appropriateness of this way of thinking to which we are accustomed: The Western modes of reasoning, technological reasoning and the culture it supports are, of course, ‘universally applicable,’ while non-Western cultures can only be regarded as local cultures which are ‘specific’ and ‘ethnic.’ At most, we can comfort ourselves by declaring, ‘the more ethnic it is, the more universal it is.’ The sentence has two layers of meaning. First, as a non-substitutable type, anything ethnic stands as a unique ‘special case’ in the world, such as the Parthenon Temple in Athens, the Pyramids in Egypt, and the Great Wall or Terracotta Warriors in China. Second, anything ethnic that is appreciated everywhere also includes, in addition to scientific and technical inventions, things like religious teachings of Judaism, the philosophical works of the Ancient Greeks and the wise sayings of the Chinese. So long as you believe in them, these ethnic contents perhaps can at least be accepted by the world as a ‘pattern of existence’ for adoption and selection, such as tea and ink paintings from China, wine and Impressionist paintings from France, sushi and ukiyo from Japan. All these cultures were originally equal. Due to the later-developed superiority of Western technology, however, a seriously skewed view has emerged: Anything Western is universal, whereas anything non-Western is specific. With this kind of mindset, we are for certain predetermined to view and think from an inferior perspective – ‘the local perspective,’ even before we start thinking.

In philosophy, the issue involves the ever-existing worldwide quarrel between the Ancients and Moderns and its underlying quarrel between the Gods. So-called Orientalism is, in essence, an Oriental perspective determined by the West, and a resentful expression of the quarrel between the Ancients and Moderns and its underlying quarrel between the Gods. We have taken and followed it as a fashionable idea. It is not part of the subject under our discussion, but it has to be part of the background of our discussion. As we all should know, this is what globalization as an indicator of universal applicability, both temporal and spatial, is (or may be) all about.

Let us return to our subject of art. The similarities between ‘globalization of technology’ and ‘globalization of art’ have been discussed. I would rather look at them as partially similar, if I can differentiate the dissimilarities between them that are not overlapping or identical.

Now, we must focus on their dissimilarities that are not overlapping or identical.

The fundamental distinction between art and technology is that they do not exist on the same ‘plane.’ If they did, it would be impossible for art to escape from the logical net of technological inevitability. Even if the ‘plane’ ruptures and forms ravines, valleys or rivers, technology would offer all possible ‘ferry’ connections (logical reasoning) to keep the ‘plane’ connected and extended.

Fortunately, politics, art and religion do not, by nature, exist on the same ‘plane’ with technology. In other words, the spaces of politics, art and religion are not covered by the ‘plane’ of technology.

The questions now are: where does the space of art exist? What effect does the space of art exert on the plane of technology?

Where does the space of art exist? In Art and Space, Heidegger describes space in his usual visual way:

1. A space means accommodation-placement and congregation-shelter, while spatialization means exploration which involves ‘Ereignis’ or appropriation. This kind of appropriation always displays a double character, which is open and closed at the same time.

2. Spatialization opens up a place which is constantly in a changing and divided state: either welcoming the human’s fate as ‘a return home,’ or being left desolated as ‘not returnable’ or indifferent toward being homeless or domiciled.

3. Finally the space leaves room for a deity, which is quite hesitant. As ‘one God’ stands out, ‘many Gods’ flee away; as ‘many Gods’ stand out, ‘one God’ flees away. It has been long since this deity has hesitated or strayed. (see Heidegger’s Art and Space, from the Selected Works of Heidegger (Volume A), compiled by Sun Zhouxing, Shanghai Sanlian Publishing, 1996, p. 484)

These three points are my selected rewording. the first point describes the attributes of space. The second point explains the relationship between the state of space and human beings. In the third point, ‘deity’ has already referred to the status of ‘many Gods’ behind cultures in a worldwide context. If ‘one God’ is given prominence, where should ‘many Gods’ of other cultures be placed? If ‘many Gods’ are given favor by returning ‘one God’ to ‘many Gods,’ how can the real, invisible spirit of God be manifested? Without this manifestation, will ‘many Gods’ be entangled in an everlasting dispute?

(Please note that the God here does not specifically refer to the Jehovah of Judaism, or the Jesus of Christianity or the Allah of Islam. I have to state that my explanation is not what Heidegger originally meant. It is rather my own derivative comments. In his minds, the ‘God’ and ‘many Gods’ may only be compared in the context of the Hebrews and Greeks. He may not sense the worldwide hesitation in recognizing that each ‘God’ behind each ethnic culture is part of ‘many Gods.’ There is no ‘one God,’ or, in reality, ‘one God’ stands for ‘many Gods.’ In religious form, ‘many Gods’ can be seen in a sense as ‘the hiding of God,’ which are idolized to represent the need of national interest. In a post-religious era, what is revealed through catastrophes is the approaching by ‘many Gods’ to their own boundaries to listen to the call of the ‘Invisible God’ and take the road of religious neutralization.)

Heidegger specifically differentiates the space of art and the space of technology. He stated that the ever expanding technology and technology reasoning have nurtured a concept, which looks at the ‘manageable and usable’ space as the only real space. Human beings are dwelling in this increasingly ‘demanding’ space of technology. In response to this idea, Heidegger points out the availability of other spaces, such as ‘the space of art’ and ‘the space of daily action and interaction.’ Citing sculpture as an example, he describes the three-layered space presented in sculpture:

the space of the imitated object;

the space of the sculptured shape;

the space existing as a ‘void’ internal or external of the sculpture.

‘Are these three spaces, unified in their interplay, always simply a derivative of some physical or technological space?’ Heidegger asked. (Ibid p. 483.)

I would like to present it in a different way.

‘The space of the imitated object’ can be called ‘the space of nature,’ referring to the ‘imitated form of the object.’ It is not the ‘object,’ nor just the ‘imitation’ per se. Rather, it is an established ‘interplay.’

‘The space of the sculptured shape can be called ‘the space of shape’ or ‘the space of inner shape,’ referring to the ‘interplay’ of artistic factors related to sculptural art itself.

‘The space existing as a void’ internal or external of the sculpture’ can be called ‘the space of freedom,’ primarily referring to the ‘interplay,’ other than the above-mentioned, with ‘implication of sensitivity’ or ‘sensitivity and implication,’ including the self revelatory ‘game of hearing’ in relation to the transcendent ‘realm of deity.’

To be frank, each layer of space only opens to perceptive beings. As for the flow of perception, it totally depends on personal fate, as initially illustrated by Heidegger in terms of the ‘attributes,’ ‘state’ and ‘deity’ of space.

Anyone who is perceptive to films and videos should have no difficulty in perceiving Heidegger’s theory of space. Let us take Heroes directed by Zhang Yimou as an example:

The sword is a metaphor of ‘war’ and ‘the will to power.’

Incidents involving the sword – space of nature

Self-manifestation of the sword – space of shape

The art of swordplay – space of freedom

Where shall we draw the boundaries of the realm of the art of swordplay? Along the line of vassal feudalism such as the six warring states including Yan and Zhao (‘many Gods’), or along the line of unified monarchy ruled by a heavenly son such as Qin (‘one God’), or along the line of ‘the invisible void’ (the ‘Invisible God’ that neutralizes many Gods The invisible governs the visible, and the causeless tells the truth of everything.’ This is my local perspective)? It all depends on how far the fate of perceivers could, or be allowed to, go. Someone’s fate might be superior to others, but within a specific environment or historical context, people might have no choice, but have to do what they have to do. As an individual, one could be detached from reality. As a nation and a country, one sometimes has to face the very basic choice between existence and non-existence, for example, the Anti-Japanese War that China had to fight.

Can today’s world accept and worship one of the ‘many Gods’ as the ‘one God?’

If not, does it suggest that the discord between ‘many Gods’ will go on forever?

Or, alternatively, will they take the ultimate revelation of the ‘invisible deity’ by going down the road of neutralization?

The three-layered space opened by the art of swordplay definitely implies more leeway. Whether people gave negative opinions of the film Heroes as they viewed the first Emperor of Qin as today’s ‘dictator’ or applauded the film for their belief that today’s ‘reunification’ is China’s ultimate destiny, they might have confined the space of art the film should have.

Similarly, in today’s world, any country, nation or culture can only be one of the ‘many Gods.’ All three great monotheisms are simply part of ‘many Gods.’ To end the conflicting situation caused by the discord between ‘many Gods,’ the solution cannot be obtained by some nation believing that they have the power to make people worship ‘one God.’ A neutralized solution that keeps the world ‘in harmony but not uniformity’ is only possible if each of us walk to our own boundaries to listen to the revelation of the ‘Invisible God’ in a self-disciplined way.

This is called ‘penetrating its height and brilliance to follow the course of the actualization of the Mean.’

In China’s space of art, there exists, of course, the realm ‘penetrating its height and brilliance’ to reach the way of Heaven. It should be able to meet the other ‘many Gods’ at its boundary and exist ‘in harmony but not uniformity.’

What effect does the space of art exert on the plane of technology?

If we let the inevitability of technology get its way, the ‘demanding’ space of the world will be driven to a dead end.

A German professor once told a story: An automobile traveling on a highway somehow resembles the way modern people live. The driver is a natural scientist that controls the destiny of today’s human race. The highway represents the direction toward which the modern technology is accelerating. The entire human race is riding in the automobile as passengers. The question now is who should sit next to the natural scientist that is behind the wheel.

The professor thought the person should be a philosopher. I would like to make a small change and add the process of ‘election.’

A theologist? No. He subjects the ultimate destiny of human race to the last judgment of God, who is not in control now. A politician? No. Today’s politician relies on the speed and power provided by science and technology. He is too anxious to be the number one in the race to establish unilateralism worshipped by the entire human race.

The only ones left are an artist (including philosopher of art) and a philosopher (including philosopher of politics).

As long as the artist is not into ‘sexual manifestation of technology’ and the philosopher not into metaphysics, it is better if they can blend together.

What if they do blend?

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We may have no better alternatives for the time being, except to keep reminding ourselves.