Chaos and Cosmos: The Search for Meaning in Modern Art

By Hinrichs, Bruce | The Humanist, March-April 1995 | Go to article overview

Chaos and Cosmos: The Search for Meaning in Modern Art


Hinrichs, Bruce, The Humanist


The Modernist Moment

Does art bring any sense of order, meaning, or understanding to the artist or to the audience? Can art bring order or meaning to an artist or an audience in chaos? Do art and artist reflect a world out of order, or an underlying harmony? Can we discover a transcendent, unifying quality by examining the continuum of order and disorder, meaning and confusion in modern art?

More than any preceding artistic style or aesthetic, Modernism epitomizes the emergence of a deliberate cultural and social agenda. Philosophical and psychological tenets pervade (and even undermine) the artist's work. In the Modernist movement, scientific discoveries, psychoanalytic concepts, existential philosophy, photographic techniques, and other social and intellectual inventions exploded onto canvases, inspired dancing feet, and surfaced on film and page as artists attempted to capture cosmos--meaning and order--in a rapidly changing world of seeming chaos.

The Minimalists believed that less is more but eventually concluded that it was still not enough. The Dadaists exalted absurdity and incongruity, the art of non sequitur, in works that surprised, shocked, and seethed with anti war and anti society sentiments. The Cubists challenged the traditional notion that an object, a form, had only one true identity, one reality. Their works unveiled the multiple planes, angles, and geometric constructions that merge in the perception of an object.

The Surrealists, reacting to Freudian psychology, approached meaning through the expression of the unconscious mind and produced dreamy, fragmented, multimedia revelations of the hidden, the mysterious, the unknown but perhaps knowable. Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali said that in filming the seminal Surrealist movie, Andalusian Dog (Un Chien Andalou), their technique was to shoot a scene until it made no sense! Out of nonsense arose a new, more potent, perhaps more meaningful sense.

Even popular cinema embraced the psychoanalytic/surrealist mode in portraying the search for meaning from disorder. A classic example is Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, in which a beautiful psychoanalyst (Ingrid Bergman) helps cure a handsome amnesiac (Gregory Peck) by interpreting his dream, the window to his unconscious. The much celebrated dream sequence was stunningly designed by Salvador Dali and vividly captures the unorthodox bent of the Surrealist mind. The artist's ability to evoke meaning from image was also movingly demon strafed by early twentieth century German Expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, M, and Metropolis. By disclosing an underlying meaning or order, the style of an image became a means of emotional or cognitive evocation. Thus, in its many forms--paintings, film, prose, poetry, and performance--Modernism emerged as an at tempt to better reflect, reveal, and explore a hidden order of self and world.

Primitive art adapted natural images, seeking truth through eternal, static, perceptively real, and concrete forms, lines, pat terns, and objects. Primitive art exposed the "retinal" truth: art was adapted from nature and its parade of images. The urgency was to find order in the chaos of the natural and to reproduce this order as it was perceptually organized. Yet when Hans Hoffman admonished Jackson Pollock to eschew subjective expression and stick to the natural world, Pollock succinctly replied, "But I am nature" Ironically, it was Hoffman who altered his approach: his work blossomed in intensity and meaning as it took on Surrealist qualities.

Surrealists in all media provided a glimpse of cosmos from the seemingly murky confines of repressed, unconscious thoughts. When Marcel Duchamps' painted glass piece entitled "To be looked at (from the other side of the glass), with one eye, close to, for almost an hour" was accidentally cracked, Duchamps insisted that the cracks were an integral part of his design and must be left in! …

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