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. In this post I will talk about his historical narrative, or Chronos.
Summary: John David Ebert’s recent book ART AFTER METAPHYSICS begins with a very interesting synthesis of the typology of historical periods proposed by Jean Gebser and of the typology proposed by Peter Sloterdijk in the SPHERES trilogy. His synthesis includes the ideas of Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Michel Serres, Marshall Mcluhan, Hans Belting, Martin Heidegger, Arthur Danto, Cornelius Castoriadis, Vilem Flusser, Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, and many more thinkers. Ebert distinguishes 4 major epochs in the semiotics of art, and more generally of our relation to being.
1) The pre-metaphysical age, from the Paleolithic to the time of Plato. According to Sloterdijk in this epoch there was a semiotics of immanence. Being in the world was a matter of being in the body of the Great Mother. The typical movement was the journey downward into the depths and return. Time is cyclic and space is a commonly share macrosphere, identified with the body of the mother. The individual is a cell in this organic totality, in the womb of the Great Mother. The artist is a shaman.
2) The metaphysical age, from the time of Plato to that of Heidegger. Each historical period within the metaphysical epoch has a privileged set of “iconotypes” or transcendental signifieds which fix meaning into organised significations. These semiotic systems and their signifieds are regularly de-legitimated and dissolved to make way for those of the next epoch. Being in the world is a matter of being inside the body of the Father. The semiotics is based on transcendence. In the Middle Ages, the typical movement is ascension and voyage in the celestial spheres. Truth is certainty. The artist is a cosmocrator, a creator in the image of God. In the post-Reformation period we have the advent of the age of the world picture. The macrosphere of the heavens dissolves and we are thrown into infinite space. Space is Euclidean, infinite, and three-dimensional. Time is linear. There is no macrosphere. The artist is an optician.
3) The post-metaphysical age, which divides into two epochs: the aperspectival or integral age from Heidegger to World War II and the post-aperspectival age, from the end of WWII till today. In the aperspectival age, a new macrosphere is constituted containing no longer just one perspective, but all perspectives. The world is no longer optical, what we see, but noetic, what we understand and imagine. Truth is multiple and relative to the different perspectives. the culturally specific iconotypes have been replaced by structural archetypes (geometrical or anthropological). Space is an integral hyper-dimensional macrosphere. Time is integrated into space-time. The artist is an archetypologist.
With the advent of the post-aperspectival age the reconstitution of hierarchically organised systems is no longer possible, and we are left with a “midden-heap” of abandoned, isolated, and fragmented signifiers. 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. Truth is no longer just multiple, it is also a matter of degrees – from relativist it has become quantised. Space is no longer a hyper-dimensional macrosphere, which has been deconstructed and dissolved. Space is an ocean of quantic foam. Time is miniaturised and discontinuous. There is no universal macrosphere, only individual semiospheres. The artist is a monadologist.
Remarks: This historical schema is fairly familiar. What drew my interest was the integration of Peter Sloterdijk’s ideas into the big picture, and also the application to individual artists. Ebert remarks that his historical sequence is too tidy and organised, calling it a meta-narrative, and indicating that it is suspicious for that reason. He calls his perspective “Chronos”, but I think that his description of the dissolution of relativistic time in the post-modern epoch would allow him to affirm that today time is evental and so, in Deleuzian terms, Aion. This would mean that the epochs he describes are named after the dominant semiotic system, but that others continue to exist marginally in each epoch. In particular, in the contemporary world we can find instances of all of the semiotics co-existing in juxtaposition or even superimposed in the same individual.