EBERT ON POLLOCK: from archetypes to alchemy

I began to talk about John David Ebert’s recent book, ART AFTER METAPHYSICS, in my last post and I sketched out his history of the 4 ages of European art. Ebert considerably complexifies this picture, adding sub-epochs and distinguishing different tendencies and solutions within each epoch and sub-epoch. He shows that a deconstruction of the old religious iconotypes takes place with the move from the perspectival epoch to the aperspectival epoch. Beginning with the French Impressionists, the whole episteme of unified homogeneous perspectival space is progressively deconstructed, leading to a fragmented multiple space-time tending to separate out into multiple incommensurable worlds. Euclidean visual space and Newtonian 3-dimensional objects disappear in favour of a noetic assemblage of non-Euclidean space and hyperdimensional objects. From visual, art becomes noetic, i.e. based in structures that exist behind the visible that we must grasp with our understanding (noetically) rather than simply with our eyes (optically). The result is the artistic equivalent of structuralism: an art based on the exploration of abstract geometrical or anthropological archetypes underlying the visible and giving it shape.

For Ebert Jackson Pollock belongs to a further movement of withdrawal from the visual, that engages in the dissolution of the archetypal forms, uncovering a formless field of energies and dynamisms that lie even deeper than the formed archetypes. He describes a first phase of Pollock’s work, mobilising archetypes such as the Great Mother and presenting the artist as a shaman. These Figures are dissolved and the artist constructs a non-figurative a-hierarchical a-centered cosmos, a rhizome.

Ebert describes this evolution as the dissolution of the Jungian archetypes and the liquefaction of forms. But one must remark that dissolution and liquefaction are archetypes too, as is the rhizome. Jung is often associated with a structuralist-type theory of the archetypes, but Jung radically changed the nature of his theory when he discovered the process of individuation first in his life, and later in the texts of alchemy. Jung underwent a “confrontation with the unconscious” in 1913, after his break with Freud, and which extended over several years. He later sought for an equivalent of his experience that could give him the language to evoke what he experienced and understood, and he found the necessary resources in alchemy. Even if Jung never fully eliminated his structuralist presuppositions, in his later work he gave priority to the process over the structure. In this way Jung was a precursor to the post-modernist movement away from modernist archetypes and sketched out by means of alchemy a type of language appropriate to this movement.


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