Living artistically with paradigm crises, part 1

Everybody makes mistakes.  Some “mistakes” are not mistakes.  Sometimes they are entirely logical extensions of political, religious, or academic doctrines that used to yield dependable results.  When we become aware of our cognitive biases and preconceptions, how do we decide which to keep?   Far more intriguing and useful is the concept of multiple truths that are incompatible but equally reasonable.  This can be framed as a dialectic between paradigms, manifestos, or truth and Truth.  Perhaps understanding it better will make this mysterious and familiar space between irreconcilable worldviews a little more useful and less distressing.  Striving to be flexible about paradigms can be particularly useful to contemporary artists.

Let us consider philosophical precedents before examining paradigm crises artistically.  One of the oldest precedents comes from Plato’s Republic.  A significant section of his famous Allegory of the Cave is the demonstration of how delusional the “enlightened” visionary would seem to those who remained within the cave (85).  What the visionary considers superior insight would unfit him for their standards of vision.  Plato used this analogy to drive home the duties of the educated man, but it also points out the paradoxical dialectic of paradigms.

The English language included the word paradigm for centuries, but it became significantly more popular as a consequence of Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  As the title suggests, Kuhn’s seminal book analyzes paradigms in terms of scientific theories.  Historical examples of conflicting models by which scientists understood light were corpuscles, transverse waves, and photons.

Kuhn reminds his readers that outdated paradigms are not necessarily shameful or unscientific simply because other models superseded them.  As he explains, “Paradigms gain their status because they are more successful than their competitors in solving a few problems that the group of practitioners has come to recognize as acute” (24).  Paradigms do not achieve dominance because they are right, but because they are useful.

Arthur C. Danto’s 1997 After the End of Art applied Kuhn’s philosophical understanding of paradigms to the history of art.  Before Modernism, mimesis was a sufficient rubric for judging the validity of artworks.  That comparison is no longer a universal indicator of good art. As Danto explains, the modern eclecticism of style and source material “does not entail that all art is equal and indifferently good.  It just means that goodness and badness are not matters of belonging to the right style, or falling under the right manifesto” (37).

During Modernism, which Danto dubs the Age of Manifestos, each competing school or movement in art defined success differently.  Thus, the best artworks of each art movement had little in common with similarly lauded counterparts.  To make a judgment comparing Mark Rothko to Jasper Johns inevitably says more about one’s relative preferences for the concerns addressed by abstraction or pop art than it does of the artists’ individual merits.  This pattern echoes Kuhn’s description of scientific fields during paradigm crisis.   Today’s art world has not decided between its many paradigms of what art should be and what purpose it should serve as a whole.

As Danto points out, “It is part of what defines contemporary art that the art of the past is available for such use as artists care to give it….The paradigm of the contemporary is that of the collage” (5).  The collage aesthetic lends itself well to questions of authorship, appropriation, repetition, irony, and remixing.  It often sarcastically reflects a simultaneous rejection and acknowledgment of tradition’s authority.  As we embrace this ambivalence tradition, we must sift through our historical inheritance to determine what is useful.

In the fields of history and literature, such efforts to remake history to suit contemporary mores often involve adding marginalized stories and documents to the canon.   In the visual arts, this technique led to the revival of interest in female artists such as Sofonisba Anguissola and Artemisia Gentileschi.  Criticisms of this approach include its predilection towards tokenism and to defining the merit of “rediscovered” artists purely in terms of their male contemporaries.  As Nanette Salomon explains, “The notion of the ‘exceptional’ woman artist may be one of the most insidious means of undermining the likelihood of women’s entering the creative arts” (348).  The simple fact that women’s artistic contributions were less valued means that surviving examples are insufficient to impose gender equality on art history.  Too few of these voices remain to balance the androcentric bias of art history.

This quest for equality is neither an esoteric nor a minor concern.  The conceptual model of novices learning their trade from experienced mentors or the canon dominates the field of art.  Artistic aspirants who identify with groups excluded from that canon encounter schism between their paradigms and those of their field’s exemplars.  Reinterpreting the existing canon through new interpretive lenses is a worthwhile approach to navigating this schism.

For an example of this reinterpretation, see the second part of this essay.

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