“In a world that is in chaos politically, socially and environmentally, how can the human race sustain another 100 years?”
The above question, which Hawking posted on the internet in 2006 because he thought he didn’t know the answer, is one that is now, 14 years later, just as topical as it was then.
Hawking also later, in 2011, declared that “philosophy is dead”, because science would answer all questions and philosophers had not kept up with the relevant insights in science. This is, in my view, kind of funny because his question in 2006 showed, just how much philosophy is needed and maybe more than ever.
Kant had once postulated three questions of philosophy: What can we know? What should we do? What can we hope for? These questions are as valid as ever. And while philosophers might at times have been overrun by the speed of science regarding the first question, science does not answer questions two and three at all. Complete understanding of how a car works doesn’t make a responsible driver. And why should someone be a responsible driver and not just try to get to the destination as quickly as possible? And what do we hope for when we ask for responsible driving? (Less traffic victims, anyone?).
Hawking’s own hunch regarding the answer to his “100-years-question” was that mankind probably should intensify its space programs so it could flee if Earth was destroyed. For a long time this was an answer I could embrace. Now, I am not so sure anymore. Apart from the obvious practical difficulties: would it be really responsible to unleash us on the larger universe? Wouldn’t we just carry our sins as baggage and go on and destroy the next planet?
At this point it might be good to stress that this is still an art blog and not the place to solve all questions of mankind. On the other hand, as I tried to show in the last post, art always has tried to express general sentiments and ideas. Art can also be viewed as an effort by many artists during a given period of history to find adequate forms of expression to certain ideas. Right now, when I go to exhibitions of contemporary art, it strikes me that many others (also) seem to work based on the insight that our collective lives have to and will change significantly. But there are of course many ways to work around these topics and some seem more adequate than others.
Let me give you an (made-up) example: let’s say an artist expresses his or her disdain over the pollution of the oceans by piling a heap of plastic waste in the corner of a museum. Maybe with a dead turtle on top to further extend the sensorial impact of the work to extend to the olfactory realm.
While I don’t think that art always has to be beautiful, I still would think of such a work as rather obvious and crude, more belonging into the category of activism and maybe journalism than that of art. Without trying here futile definitions on what art is, I do think we are on a dead-end street if just every form of expression is declared art. That is what I mean by the quest for the adequate form of expression.
This is no different in speech. We still quote Mark Twain, Einstein and Churchill because they were able to express better, more concisely, poignantly and more artfully new ideas or simply what everyone else was thinking vaguely, too. And that is what art in the best case can do: create clarity where there was confusion. This greater clarity often sparks joy and helps us viewers to think and experience in a deeper way; it opens new pathways in our thinking and feeling. It inspires us.
Recently I have been studying Piet Mondrian and his transformation from a naturalistic painter to an icon of modernism between the years 1907 to 1921. Influenced by Theosophy, Mondrian was on a quest to distill the seeming randomness in nature down to a “pure reality”, which he called “Spirit”. The result we see in works like this:
Mondrian restricts himself here to only primary colors (red, yellow and blue), primary tones (black, white and gray) and primary forms (rectangles and lines). At the same time he implies a larger context and creates both balance and a certain liveliness. While the “Spirit” or pure reality Mondrian seeks seems to me closer to platonic ideas than the “Nothingness” in Zen, the method of implication is at the heart of what Zen painters in China and Japan did.
If you are still unsure what I mean with implication, I suggest a search for “Mondrian Lozenge” and have a look at e.g. the “Lozenge with Two Lines” where indeed the two lines alone (if you’d think the canvas away) would imply the lozenge (the rectangle standing on a corner).
Implication is for me one of the great mysteries in art and so is balance. By now you might have noticed, however, that I didn’t mention here the ethics of balance but jumped from going to space to the work of Mondrian. I just can ask you to indulge me as what I have to say may unfold in the second part of this post… See you then!