A POLARITY IS PRESENTLY developing between the finite, unique work of high art, i.e., painting or sculpture and conceptions which can loosely be termed “unobjects,” these either environments or artifacts which resist prevailing critical analysis. This includes works by some primary sculptors (though some may reject the charge of creating environment), some gallery kinetic and luminous art, some outdoor works, happenings, and mixed media presentations. Looming below the surface of this dichotomy is a sense of radical evolution which seems to run counter to the waning revolution of abstract and non-objective art. The evolution embraces a series of absolutely logical and incremental changes, wholly devoid of the fevered iconoclasm which accompanied the heroic period from 1907 to 1925. As yet the evolving esthetic has no critical vocabulary so necessary for its defense, nor for that matter a name or explicit cause.
In a way this situation might be likened to the “morphological development” of a prime scientific concept –– as described by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Kuhn sees sciences at any given period dominated by a single “major paradigm”; that is, a scientific conception of the natural order so pervasive and intellectually powerful that it dominates all ensuing scientific discovery. Inconsistent facts arising through experimentation are invariably labeled as bogus or trivial –– until the emergence of a new and more encompassing general theory. Transition between major paradigms may best express the state of present art. Reasons for it lie in the nature of current technological shifts.
The economist, J.K. Galbraith, has rightly insisted that until recently the needs of the modern industrial state were never served by complete expression of the esthetic impulse. Power and expansion were its primary aims.
Special attention should be paid to Galbraith’s observation. As an arbiter of impending socio-technical changes his position is pivotal. For the Left he represents America’s most articulate apologist for Monopoly Capitalism; for the Right he is the socialist éminence grise of the Democratic Party. In The New Industrial State (1967) he challenges both Marxist orthodoxies and American mythologies premised upon laissez-faire Capitalism. For them he substitutes an incipient technocracy shaped by the evolving technostructure. Such a drift away from ideology has been anticipated for at least fifty years. Already in California think-tanks and in the central planning committees of each soviet, futurologists are concentrating on the role of the technocracy, i.e., its decision-making autonomy, how it handles the central storage of information, and the techniques used for smoothly implementing social change. In the automated state power resides less in control of the traditional symbols of wealth than in information.
In the emergent “superscientific culture” long-range decision making and its implementation become more difficult and more necessary. Judgement demands precise socio-technical models. Earlier the industrial state evolved by filling consumer needs on a piecemeal basis. The kind of product design that once produced “better living” precipitates vast crises in human ecology in the 1960s. A striking parallel exists between the “new” car of the automobile stylist and the syndrome of formalist invention in art, where “discoveries” are made through visual manipulation. Increasingly “products” –– either in art or life –– become irrelevant and a different set of needs arise: these revolve around such concerns as maintaining the biological livability of the Earth, producing more accurate models os social interaction, understanding the growing symbiosis in man-machine relationships, establishing priorities for the usage and conservation of natural resources, and defining alternate patterns on education, productivity, and leisure. In the past our technologically-conceived artifacts structured living patterns. We are now in transition from an object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture. Here change emanates, not from things, but from the way things are done.
The priorities of the present age revolve around the problems of organization. A systems viewpoint is focused on the creation of stable, on-going relationships between organic and non-organic systems be these neighborhoods, industrial complexes, farms, transportation systems, information centers, recreation centers, or any of the other matrixes of human activity. All living situations must be treated in the context of a systems hierarchy of values. Intuitively many artists have already grasped these relatively recent distinctions, and if their “environments” are on the unsophisticated side, this will change with time and experience.
The major tool for professionally defining these concerns is systems analysis. This is best known through its usage by the Pentagon and has more to do with the expense and complexity of modern warfare, than with any innate relation between the two. Systems analysts are not cold-blooded logicians; the best have an ever-expanding grasp of human needs and limitations. One of the pioneers of systems applications, E.S. Quade, has stated that “Systems analysis, particularly the type required for military decisions, is still largely a form of art. Art can be taught in part, but not by the means of fixed rules . . .” Thus “The Further Dimensions” elaborated upon by Galbraith in his book are esthetic criteria. Where for some these become the means for tidying up a derelict technology, for Galbraith esthetic decision-making becomes an integral part of any future technocracy. As yet few governments fully appreciate that the alternative is biological self-destruction.