I got very excited when I saw some extracts of this book and the promotional videos on youtube, so I ordered it on Amazon. As I was very eager to begin, I did not want to wait, so I also bought the audiobook version, read by the author, available on Google Drive, and so was able to start reading immediately.
The book has two parts: the first part is a general introduction to the four world ages of European art, and the second is composed of specific analyses of individual artists of the post-modern epoch. Ebert points out that there is no single center or capital of art in the contemporary world, and that the major artists are geographically dispersed, so one can call the two parts Chronos and Gaia. The sheer range of John David Ebert’s historical and geographical imagination and the diversity of the works examined place his book under the sign of semiotic abundance.
The book begins with a very interesting synthesis of the typology of historical periods proposed by Jean Gebser and of that proposed by Peter Sloterdijk in the SPHERES trilogy. His synthesis includes the ideas of Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Jacques Derrida, Michel Serres, Marshall Mcluhan, Hans Belting, Martin Heidegger, Arthur Danto, Mircea Eliade, Cornelius Castoriadis, Vilem Flusser, Joseph Campbell, and many more thinkers.
Ebert distinguishes four major epochs in the semiotics of art, and more generally of our relation to being: the pre-metaphysical period – the artist is a shaman, the metaphysical or perspectival period – the artist is an optician in Euclidean visual space, the modernist or aperspectival period – the artist is an archetypologist of geometric or anthroplological forms in multi-dimensional space, the contemporary or post-aperspectival period – the artist is a monadologist in a liquefied quantized foam-space.
Ebert argues that the contemporary period began not in 1962 with Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Boxes”, but in the period immeditely after World War II with the Abstract Expressionists. Pollock and Rothko correspond to a moment of effacing and liquefying the modernist “iconotypes”, and dissolving the shared multi-dimensional macrosphere of modernity. They herald in the contemporary period, where the artist can no longer presuppose a universal organised semiotic system, and is obliged to select and combine the signifiers of the present and the past, and hybridise them with new signifiers, into idiosyncratic, temporary, partial, multiple organisations, with no universal legitimacy.
Initially the living center of art moves from Paris to New York, only to be disseminated into a mobile polycentric dispersive phenomenon spread over the whole planet. From Parisian art has become Gaiatic. Ebert devotes chapters also to Basquiat, Beuys, Richter, Kieffer, Beksinski, Nerdrum, Bacon, Hirst, Kapoor, Kounellis, Boltanski and situates their singular work within the general episteme of the contemporary world.
3) Semiotic abundance
This is an ambitious work taking in a vast period of history, ranging from the ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians to the contemporary world. Geographically Ebert moves from New York through the German artists to London, Rome, and Paris. The artists examined are very diverse, and allow Ebert to fill in his general frame with many more fine-grained analyses. Further, his categories are interdisciplinary or transversal, in that they apply to much more than artists and art works.
To be sure, art has become a proliferation of singular semiotic processes, but frequenting the diverse art works that are elucidated with the help of Ebert’s categories we find that our own lives are elucidated too. This work is more than an academic manual, it is also a useful guide to our own individuation in the pluralist ocean of foam that constitutes the semiotic and ontological background of our contemporary world.