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On Post-Metaphysical Art:
An Excerpt from Art After Metaphysics by John David Ebert
Art, then, after metaphysics. . .
The metaphysical age was an invention of Heidegger’s that spans a chasm of European intellectual history from Plato to Nietzsche in which all the West’s grand metaphysical narratives were constructed but which, from about the time of Nietzsche’s annunciation of the death of God, began to collapse and disintegrate like Valhalla at the end of Wagner’s opera Gotterdammerung. Heidegger saw himself as a sort of epilogue or appendix to this grand age of metaphysical certainties, for with the replacement of Being by technological enframing, all that he saw remaining as the “task of thinking” for contemporary philosophers was varying degrees of aletheia-type “truth-making,” in which entities brought into the clearing are, from henceforth, like the blurred photographs on the canvases of Gerhard Richter; that is to say, lacking the pristine clarity of absolute Truth, such entities could only hope to attain to one or another degree of truth.[i]
But then, before the metaphysical age that Heidegger saw beginning with Plato’s divorce of Being from Becoming, there was a long, long stretch of myths, religions and ideas which the contemporary philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has demarcated as the pre-metaphysical age, an age in which being-in-the-world meant to be in the body of the Great Mother.[ii] Hence the conception of the earth in the times of the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians as a sort of embryo surrounded by the amniotic fluid of a vast world ocean and enclosed – at least in Egypt – by a sky goddess whose belly was full of stars (Nut, for instance; or later, Hathor, the cow goddess of the daytime sky). The pre-metaphysical age had an immanental, rather than a transcendental, understanding of Being, and correspondingly all religious journeys through the cosmos had a decidedly downward tendency, from Inanna’s prototypical journey to the underworld of Irkalla to the fate of the soul in the various afterlife scenarios of the Egyptian underworlds presided over by the mummified god-king Osiris.
But then, according to Sloterdijk, being-in-the-world during the metaphysical age was a being-in-the-Father, and so it is precisely during this epoch that the concept of the paternal womb comes into being as an attempt to appropriate the birth-giving powers of the Great Mother by a whole horde of Father demiurges and progenitors: Zeus, for example, giving birth to Athena, or God the Father giving birth to the Logos from out of the uterine depths of his own mind (Mary is only the chosen biological vessel of this dual-substance being, for her task is now limited to creating the physical body of the already pre-existent Logos-being). It is during this period of the great metaphysical age that all religious journeys, from the myth of Plato’s cave to the ascenionist literature of the church fathers, have an upward valency, for the old midden heap of underworlds left over from the previous pre-metaphysical age have lost all their appeal and become associated with the realm of carnality and physicality. Osiris, for instance, was the god of the constructed physical body, whereas Christ becomes the lord of the spiritual body, and all must now follow in the wake of the paths broken by him through the heavens.
In the post-metaphysical age that begins with Heidegger, however, being-in-the-world now means a being-thrown into the world, in which, as Sloterdijk points out, a real outside now appears for the first time[iii]: the individual finds himself thrown into the world in a sort of horizontal direction, full of angst and care, and unprotected by any overarching metaphysical immune system (hence, perhaps, the significance of Edvard Munch’s 1895 painting The Scream). There are neither journeys upward, nor any downward to make, for the individual must now crawl about the surface of the earth in quest of drastic solutions to the crisis of shell-lessness. (Artificial substitutes for Transcendenz now begin to appear: drugs or sex, for instance, which are designed to replicate the ecstasies of the ancient transcendent journeys which, once upon a time, were part of the very fabric of the metaphysical age).
And so art, then, in a post-metaphysical age, is an art that has lost touch with Being, for Being now has degenerated into technological enframing, and consequently, no great meaning systems exist any longer for the art to realize and manifest. As Jacques Derrida pointed out in his early essay on “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” there is now an absent ontological center at the heart of the West’s understanding of Being which once used to be occupied by what he termed “transcendental signifieds”[iv] (basically the Kantian Ideas of the Reason: God, Soul, Freedom and Immortality). But with the death of God as pronounced by Nietzsche, the transcendental signifieds which once functioned to anchor and orient all the West’s signifiers (as made evident, for instance, in art) have crumbled and collapsed. They have been delegitimized and deconstructed, and so now there is only a semiotic vacancy where the grand signifieds once used to anchor and guarantee all systems of meaning and all philosophical narratives whatsoever. Philosophy, consequently, can no longer function with any kind of absolute metaphysical certainty, and art – contemporary art, in particular – now suffers from a crisis of meaning.
But in order to understand how the situation of contemporary art came about – whose signifiers all refer, not to Being, but to a series of semiotic vacancies – we have to pause for a moment to examine the history of the West’s transcendental signifieds, which have changed and evolved through time. Once, long ago, those transcendental signifieds that anchored all meaning systems were composed of what I term “iconotypes,” which refer to the main structuring motifs of Medieval art, motifs such as the Incarnation, the Assumption of Mary to heaven, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, etc. Those iconotypes formed the very ontological fabric of the cosmos itself, but they underwent a series of transformations in which, during the various epochs of Western art, they took on different meanings. It is important to be able to recognize the transformed iconotypes as they reappeared in each epoch to perform different functions, but yet remained as the structural features holding together the very interior of each epoch.
This book is now available for ordering on Amazon at the following link: http://www.amazon.com/After-Metaphysics-John-David-Ebert/dp/1492765481/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1384987763&sr=8-1&keywords=art+after+metaphysics
On the Four Ages of European Art
[i] See “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking” in Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008).