Many in our society have the feeling that life is essentially random and meaningless. This can be a scary and depressing point of view, one which leads to many individual and societal problems.
In large part this point of view comes from modernism and postmodernism. Modernism says that the universe is no more than a collection of lifeless atoms, bouncing around in an infinite void. Postmodernism says that meaning, truth, and purpose are only social constructs of an oppressive power hierarchy.
Neither of these leave us with a positive purpose or meaning to life.
What’s the answer? And what can artists do to contribute to the reclaiming of purpose, truth, beauty, and meaning?
Find out in this video! It features an excerpt from Chapter 7 “Spiral Dynamics & the Arts” of my upcoming book. Read the full excerpt from this video below.
Be among the first to know about my upcoming book “Soulforce Arts: The Vital Role of Musicians & Other Artists in a World That’s Lost Its Mind” by signing up for my mailing list at JosephArnold.com. Joseph Arnold Violinist, Alexander Technique Teacher, Director of the Soulforce Arts Institute
Excerpt from my book:
Art & The Meaninglessness Crisis
“If one were to summarize all the truly prominent postmodern writers… it is that ‘there is no truth’… and if any truth or value is claimed to be universal, or claimed to be true or universal for all, the claim is actually nothing but disguised power… [postmodernism] deconstructs every single truth and value you find… which rapidly leads to nihilism and….narcissism.” This is a great quote. Quickly sums up the idea.
–Ken Wilber, Trump and a Post-Truth World
In a sense, the greatest challenge of our times is not climate change, political strife, or inequality. The rancor and polarization around these and other issues belies the fact that effective solutions do already exist and, in actuality, could be implemented immediately. What keeps us from doing so is not a lack of solutions, but a lack of coherence and cooperation. It’s like we’re all on a big row-boat together out in the middle of a stormy ocean, and instead of rowing together towards a safe harbor–any harbor–we’re spending all our time and energy arguing and whacking each other with the oars.
What underlies this lack of cooperation is not so much that different people have different perspectives–this will always be the case among humans. Rather, the issue is that, possibly more than any other time in history, the predominant culture actively denies that truth, meaning, and purpose can, in principle, exist. This denial is founded on the two most dominant worldviews of our contemporary era: modernism and postmodernism.
Modernism’s contribution to this denial rests on its embrace of scientific-materialism and the Story of Separation. In essence, modernism says that the universe is inherently without meaning, in that it comprises countless atoms, randomly bouncing around in an infinite void. The denial of truth, meaning, and purpose also stems from postmodernism, which says that all truths are merely social constructions, and that anything that purports to be good, true, or beautiful is, at root, merely a cynical ploy to gain power.
The result of this one-two punch to truth, meaning, and purpose is the meaninglessness crisis. The meaninglessness crisis is the natural result of the denial of truth, meaning, and purpose. It is the fragmentation of our “story of the people” and it leads to a pervasive existential dread, anxiety, and despair. The fruits of the meaninglessness crisis are plain to see all around us. It’s what underlies the narcissism and nihilism that eat at our souls. It’s why we’re destroying the earth and fighting senseless wars. It’s what’s behind the alarming rise of the “diseases of despair,” including substance abuse, alcohol dependency, and suicide. And it’s also why we have such a hard time not just agreeing on what effective solutions to our collective challenges look like, but whether or not these challenges actually exist in the first place. When we deny truth, meaning, and purpose, chaos reigns.
The meaninglessness crisis is a cultural fragmentation that results from the denial that truth, meaning, and purpose can, in principle, exist.
The meaninglessness crisis finds expression not only in our global challenges, but in the arts, as well, much to their detriment. Since about 1950, the leading edge of arts and culture has been postmodernism, whose central project is to question nearly everything that came before. This project started from a healthy impulse: the strictures of traditionalism and the emptiness of modern ideas of progress were no longer serving the arts and society as they had before. But there are signs that this project, which now dominates arts institutions of all kinds, has since outlived its usefulness. Instead of leading us out of confusion and fragmentation, postmodernism seems now to only generate more. For example, once you’ve deconstructed every artistic technique, idea, and movement–even the notion of beauty itself–what is there left to create? If you believe, as many postmodern artists do, that technique and beauty are culturally-constructed artifacts of an oppressive power hierarchy, where does that leave your authentic creative impulses?
These are not merely philosophical questions–they have profound implications for artists, audiences, and society. For example, many postmodern composers of music believe that to create pleasant-sounding harmonies and melodies is hopelessly naive, and that serious music consists mainly of pitilessly dissonant strains. Similarly, postmodern visual artists believe that beautiful, coherent images are a relic of the past, and that a urinal or a haphazardly painted canvas has just as much artistic value as a Renoir or Michelangelo. While there is certainly a place for questioning traditions and morays, for many artists who hold such beliefs, beauty, technique, and authenticity are essentially off the table, and so all that’s left to do is to ironically critique their own attempts at creation. Ultimately, this is a situation that leaves such artists feeling unsatisfied and without a meaningful creative purpose.
Audiences share this sense of dissatisfaction, as well, because art that deconstructs the very act of creation in this way has all the resonance of a cracked bell. For example, one result of postmodern dissonance in classical music is that many ordinary audience members no longer connect with classical music at all, which must, in part, explain declining attendance in concert halls. Similarly, a common experience among contemporary art museum-goers is not of awe, inspiration, and connection, but of bafflement, confusion, and disdain. Because of this, many audiences are now tired of the relentless irony, superficiality, cynicism, and narcissism that has come to characterize so much of the contemporary art on display. We long for something that speaks to our souls and brings us alive, and this is something postmodern art entirely fails to accomplish.
At a larger level, what this failure suggests is that, far from continuing to fulfill its role in advancing the arts and helping our society grow and evolve, the postmodern movement is now holding us back. It’s contributing to the meaninglessness crisis, rather than resolving it. And so, what our society actually needs from us now, as artists, is for us to grow past postmodernism and create art from a more mature and evolved way of being. It is this more evolved way of being that will allow us as artists to enjoy a more authentic, soulful, and purposeful mode of creating. Our art will then resonate more with our audiences, initiating needed moments of truth and healing. And it is only art created from this more evolved way of being that can inspire our society at large to grow out of the chaos caused by our current meaninglessness crisis and into something more beautiful and life-giving.
The question for us, as artists, is thus, “How do we help ourselves and others grow into this more evolved way of being? And in what ways can we do this through our art?”