The Art of the Figure at the End of Humanity
by Thomas McEvilley
In much recent art of the figure there is a sense of emptying a vessel, perhaps in anticipation of its being refilled with a new substance, perhaps just before discarding it.
The chronological designations b.c. (Before Christ) and a.d. (anno domini, or year of God) are steadily being replaced by b.c.e. (Before the Christian Era) and c.e. (Christian Era). Some who seek to liberalize the designations by removing sectarian considerations say "common" rather than "Christian" era. But since the era in question manifestly is the Christian, the word "common" implies that the Christian era is common to all cultures, that is, that it is universal. This is not much of an improvement.
A millennium is a period of 1,000 years or, as in common parlance, it is the year that ends such a period. Every year is a millennium in relation to the thousandth year before it. But of course we do not count every year as a millennium. We look at the calendar and count only the years that end with three zeros-the years 1000, 2000, and so on. So depending on what calendar you are using the millennial years will be different. The millennium, in other words, is not a fact of nature; it's only a byproduct of a calendrical convention. Nevertheless, for people living within the tradition which dominates the calendar-say, Christian people-millennia do often seem like facts of nature, bringing unavoidable consequences with them.
Since the Christian Era is only about 2,000 years old, there have only been two Christian millennia. In pre-Christian calendars, 1000 b.c.e. and 2000 b.c.e. and so on were not millennial years. They only become that ex post facto, after the Christian Era had been accepted.
Within the Christian tradition millennia are very important because of certain prophecies about the end of the world. The return of the Messiah, Armageddon, and the restoration of Eden on earth have traditionally been regarded as millennial events-especially in that the restored Eden is expected to exist for 1,000 years before the final and absolute end of life on earth. As 1000 c.e. approached it is said that many anticipated world-ending events, and something like that has happened recently in relation to the year 2000. Among a passionate few, the approach of the momentous date resounds.
In addition to its Christian linkages, there is another reason why this approaching millennium has been especially targeted in end- of-the-world prophecies. This is a weightier reason, not merely an epiphenomenon of texts, but actually rooted in the facts of nature. This is an astrological factor that the ends of the last millennium and the next one both lack. The end of this particular millennium coincides almost exactly with the end of the Piscean Age-that is, the age in which the sunrise at the vernal equinox happens in the sign of Pisces, meaning that the disc is tangent to the horizon in that sign on that morning.
As the equator and the ecliptic shift away from one another in the strange twist known as the Precession of the Equinoxes, the next zodiacal age will see the vernal equinoctial sunrise in the sign of Aquarius. That is why the age of Aquarius is said to be dawning, and, as the generic New Age, is widely proclaimed under many names and in many prophecies. In fact, it will be about a century before the vernal equinoctial sunrise moves into Aquarius, but the influence of a celestial event, according to astrological doctrine, can be felt early, pulling things swerving off course in preparation. Our moment is not, in other words, the actual dawning of the Age of Aquarius, but it is the cusp of that age-the pre-dawn light, as it were-and in astrological doctrine the pull of the new age can be felt during the 200 years or so of the cusp. The last such shift occurred around the time of Christ, and signaled the transition from the Arian Age (the age of the ram) to the Piscean (the age of the fish), which is now about to end.
Major developments in the history of religion have been correlated to these shifts which occur every 2,160 years. It has been observed, for example, that the Taurean (or Bull) Age, approximately 4000 to 2000 b.c.e., was characterized by the spread of bull-related cults that came down into the Near East and Eastern Mediterranean from the Taurus Mountains of Anatolia. Mesopotamian culture, Egyptian, Minoan-all were characterized in the period in question by bull cults and Taurean symbolism. The preoccupation of these cultures with monumental architecture also seems to astrologers to relate to the fact that Taurus is an earth sign. The Arian Age (or age of the ram), about 2000 b.c. to 0 c.e., actually saw, in the astrologer's dream culture-ancient Egypt-the prevalence of bull imagery replaced by a prevalence of ram imagery associated with fiery power rather than earth power (as the Osiris phase gave way to that of Amon). The Arian was the first age of great conquerors and empire builders, from the half- savage Indo-Europeans who, most scholars think, invaded Northwest India about 1700 b.c.e. to Alexander, Candragupta, Hannibal, and Caesar toward the end of the era.
The Piscean Age, which is just now drawing to a close, has been characterized by the underwater dwelling, the residence in the unconscious. The sign of Pisces, since it is native to the 12th and last house of the zodiac, represents the underworld or the unconscious, and hence was once called the "hell of the zodiac." That is why the last 2,000 years or so may seem to have been especially dark and trying, and that is why the emergence into the airy freedom of Aquarius is hailed as a momentous uplift.
Many religious groups have believed in this system of ages. The Rosicrucians, for example, foretell that Aquarius (by its airy nature) will be an age of levitation; humanity will exist comparatively freed of the body of gross matter; communication will be telepathic, and everything, in short, will be easier, less laborious. In the Christian myth of the end of the world, the Piscean Age will culminate in the Battle of Armageddon, which will be followed by the restoration of Eden on earth for 1,000 years, the restored paradisal condition corresponding loosely to the returned Aquarian Age.
It is the dark and painful events of the End, such as Armageddon and world-ending plagues, which fundamentalist Christians hope to avoid through the mechanism called "rapturing." According to this doctrine, the last battle between good and evil will destroy all those who are not the elect, but will spare the elect, who are destined for heaven. In the rapture theory, it seems that God has taken special pity on his chosen ones and does not even want them to have to witness the horror of the End. Instead they will be removed from the earth just before the terrible End-Time begins.
There is a confusion here with the doctrine of the bodily assumption of the Virgin. According to much American fundamentalist teaching, if you are among the elect and if you are, say, driving around in your car when the moment comes, you will literally (they say) float up out of your seat, out of your clothes even, which will be left on the seat behind you (your shoes upon or near the pedals), and taken up to heaven. There, like the Olympians in Homer's Iliad, you may look down in peace and comfort on the havoc below. (Curiously, the only situation in traditional Christian art in which adults other than Adam and Eve are portrayed naked is sinners falling into hell; now it is oddly proposed that the elect rising to heaven will also be naked.)
It is the combination of Christian prophecy, astrological significance, and the "rapturing" doctrine that has led to the recent appearance, in the United States, Canada, France, and Switzerland, of groups of people who have killed themselves ritually under a variety of group names-the Solar Temple, Heaven's Gate, and so on. These groups attempt to "rapture" themselves, getting out of town, as it were, before the shoot-out starts. The idea of the millennial shoot-out derives from the Christian prophecy of Armageddon, the world-ending battle which will more or less depopulate the earth. But it is present in a more generalized way in the astrological reading, too, for each precessional shift of sign brings with it traumatic changes; an old order is being destroyed and a new one arising; the new age and order may require a new humanity; and so on. This is not as total an end-game as Armageddon, which will only happen once, but it is nevertheless sufficient to agitate believers. (And it is not merely coincidental that Michel Foucault and others have written of the "end of humanity" as the millennium approaches.) In the most prominent case, that of the Heaven's Gate cult in San Diego, California, the Christian-cum-astrological myth was transposed into a related Space Age narrative. At the end of the Age of Pisces the earth will be, as the Heaven's Gate devotees put it, "recycled." What this means is that all humans on the earth will be destroyed and replaced, because they have refused to evolve further-that is, in Christian terms, they are unregenerate sinners. The Heaven's Gaters, like the raptured elect of fundamentalist Christianity, will get out just before the destruction starts.
The Heaven's Gate suicides seem to have involved a serious confusion about the difference between bodily and spiritual assumption. On the one hand their doctrine is that their human bodies are just temporary "containers" they have put on in order to do some work on earth; they are "walk-ins" (as, according to news accounts, they put it) from elsewhere in the galaxy (probably, again according to news reports, either from the system of Sirius, or from Andromeda). Now, their work being done-or, perhaps, having failed, because of the unregenerateness of present humans-they are ready to shuck the containers and return, via space ship it seems, to their home among the stars. On the other hand, the actual mass-suicide scene in San Diego indicated that each of the participants was planning to take an overnight case; some of them had packed bathing suits.
It is right, as some commentators (such as Harold Bloom) have ventured, that this system should bear comparison with elements of Gnosticism; but it is more perfectly the earlier Orphic myth and religion which it duplicates. The Orphics believed they were exiled to the human realm from their true home in the stars, that they are temporarily incarcerated in alien "containers," and that, upon shucking these husks, they will return to the stars. Passages in Plato, Pindar, and Empedocles, as well as in Egyptian afterlife texts, refer obliquely to this soteriology.
In terms of the recent dynamic of culture, this American-gnostic syndrome is seen as characterizing the right-wing Christian fundamentalist position. But actually there are elements of it that are more widely spread throughout the culture. In fact, the visual arts (and literature) have recently reflected a millennium-ending view of human nature, selfhood, and the body-and a view somewhat akin to that of the rapturous recycling.
In much recent art of the figure (or of the "body," as it is currently called) there is a sense of emptying a vessel, perhaps in anticipation of its being refilled with a new substance, perhaps just before discarding it. Art historically, this tendency had Modernist foreshadowings, such as the striding semi-robots of Alberto Giacometti and the body casts of Yves Klein, where the figure contains a post-War emptiness. But it was first fully crystallized in the empty felt suits of Joseph Beuys, which depict the human being in absentia, having vacated its domain. The empty shirts and vests of Marcel Broodthaers carry a related thematics, as do various works of Jannis Kounellis-such as those involving empty beds and shelves of statue fragments-which similarly suggest a humanity that has vacated its place, that can rest no more, that will not come back-that in a sense never was really there to begin with.
This anti-soulist tendency of the 1970s took off, or became endemic, in the 1980s. The puppet-like figures of Jonathan Borofsky, for example, portray a robotic humanity of empty containers, vacated husks, acting without authentic impulse, as puppets or robots might act, without free will or self-determination. Something similar could be said of the hunch-backed figures of Magdalena Abakanowicz, the empty yogic practitioners of Antony Gormley, Kiki Smith's crawling excreting women, Juan Muñoz's laughing little demon men, the empty camouflage skins of James Croak, the mechanized puppet-like figures of Paul McCarthy, the worn-out and discarded doll-people of Mike Kelley, Robert Gober's body parts squirming to escape, Jeff Koons's wooden bears and lobotomized Playmates, Louise Bourgeois's breast- and penis-fields and many other recent instances. All represent the human figure as empty in itself or emptied out, gutted, by experience, awaiting a renewal and redefinition-a recycling. But it is not a mood of renewal that dominates such recent figuration; nor is it a whole-hearted despair such as only whole people could feel. The moods of these representations range from frank exhaustion to a weary but clear-minded acceptance of hopelessness.
As the millennium approaches, Dennis Oppenheim's work increasingly dwells on this end of humanity thematics. Snowman Factory (1996), for example, shows humans as dead, cold robotic products of a mechanized assembly line. The black candle figures in Fast Exit (1996) show humanity as faceless, undefined, waiting for its selfhood to articulate itself in terms of some meaningless and probably savage game; the flame of the soul is not yet ignited in them; like the snowmen, the unlit candle-figures lack the warmth of organic life. The life-size Fiberglas generic figures of Go Surrounded by Stop (1997) show no individuation; they are simply caught on a blown-out synapse blinking "Go" and "Stop" as a meaningless torture of double-bind reality. These and other recent Oppenheim works seem empty shells that will, or will not, be filled with souls spirited in from the stars. The whole doom-laden carnivalesque aura of Oppenheim's works of the last decade suggest a crooked smile celebrating the end without realizing that it really is the end, a goofy mistaken smile that contains its own negation and demise.
There are two opposed ideological readings of the presentation of the human as a voided self, a body husk with no inner spark of self-generating dynamism. First, these figures can be accounted for by a materialist view which holds that the body is innately empty, simply itself, like a plain fact, unencumbered by eternal spark or transcendent faculty. This view has been advocated here and there in the history of culture and philosophy; for Democritus, for example, as for the Indian Carvakas, life, or the self, is a gaseous spark or static burnoff (or stench or fume) of the chemical combination occurring in the body, and just goes out when one of the chemicals is exhausted or they all happen to dissolve apart as in what is called death. Like T.S. Eliot's "hollow men," such entities are wrongly hypostatized, or invested with the idea of soul, as they are merely byproducts of their physical makeup, like heat or gas or swelling or other signs of apparent life that can be produced by chemical combinations without giving rise to soulist assumptions.
In this view, recent sculpture with its evident rejection of the myth of the soul is simply realistic; illusion has been drained from it. A second view (Egyptian, Orphic, Platonic, and Christian in the Western side of its lineage) is spiritual rather than materialistic and involves the philosophic problem known as mind-body dualism. The soul, viewed in this way, is in fact real, but is radically distinct in substance from the body. In fact it has a hyper-reality which depends precisely upon its difference from the body: the body is impermanent but the soul is permanent. The result of this difference is that the soul can remove itself from the body and still survive; it is not dependent on the body, which is merely its "container." The soul's separation from the body can occur either through transcendent states of mind (such as shamanic journey or mystical exaltation) or through death, leaving the body as a husk that, while it may not be innately empty, has been emptied out for the time being. The soul can fly on high, into metaphysical realms far beyond the pathetic inertia of the dumb flesh, nevertheless flashing intimations of its glory back into vision through the quirky suggestiveness of the flesh itself.
Traditional Western sculpture of the figure, from Pheidias to Michelangelo to Rodin, has attempted to portray the soul in the body-or rather, the body ensouled. Though what one sees is ostensibly the body, it is portrayed with clear implication that the soul is present in it, informing and enlivening it and giving to it hints of divinity. In fact, at the very moment when one sees the body lying back in all its inertia, as in Bernini's The Ecstasy of St. Theresa or in ethnographic descriptions of shamanic performance, the soul may be soaring on high in realms unspeakable. This mediated approach to the portrayal of the soul-understanding it as an immaterial entity that can only be physically portrayed through implication-was the central point of what might be called the sculpture of presence. The soul was the essential truth of human nature and the sculptor was engaged in the portrayal-ultimately the embodiment-of that essence.
It is one of the clearest signs of the transition from Modernism to Postmodernism that recent art of the figure has portrayed the body not as presence but as absence. Either the figure has been vacated by the soul due to surrounding circumstances or it is inherently inimical to the idea of soul. In the former case, then, it may have been vacated temporarily to prepare for refilling; this is the implication of an older artist still deeply touched by Modernist metaphysics of presence-Joseph Beuys's empty felt suits for example, which seem to have been an invitation to a new age to produce a new soul. Or it may have been vacated permanently, as an entity no longer worthy of occupation.
Seen in a larger framework, the tendency to view the human as evacuated, or to reduce its soul to a mechanical-chemical allegory, has characterized many tendencies of late and Postmodernist thought. Simply put: The Marxist tradition sees the human self as a byproduct of impersonal economic factors which are the actual reality; the Freudian tradition sees it as an artificial construct resulting from the unconscious interplay of instinctual forces which are essentially impersonal and soul-less; modern linguistics has tended toward the view that the individual self, far from being a crystalline droplet of spiritual perfection, is the off-scouring of language, a vast impersonal communal mistake. One could go on and on with such observations.
Postmodernist thinkers have taken this tendency to the limit in such ideas as the end of history, the end of humanity, and other such ends that have recently been enthusiastically proclaimed. The idea of the end of history goes back to early (probably Neolithic) mythologems of the Flood and the Great Year. These ideas have functioned usually in cyclical myths of time where the end of a Great Year is followed by the beginning of a new one. But in the Christian, and in the Modernist, view, time is linear, not cyclical, and the line of time will end forever when it ends. The guru of Modernism, Hegel, seems to have leaned both ways-both toward the hard-nosed one-time view and toward the softer, cradle-rocking, Neolithic cyclicity. When viewed in terms of cyclical texts such as the Manavadharmasastra or the Shiva Purana his promotion of the Terror is like the Shiva-fire that ends one revolution of a cycle.
In the Hegelian tradition the end of history meant, more or less, the end of Modernism. This meant implicitly the end of self-conscious rational purpose to human action, either a reversion to purposeless primality (the state of nature) or a post-purposive loss of will. Numerous Postmodernistth inkers have spoken as if the end of history has already happened (again perhaps introducing hints of the cyclical myth); in this view the end is no longer something to look forward to, but something to look back upon. We-Postmodernist humanity-are what is left over after the end. And what is left over is precisely that vacated self, lying like flotsam on the beach of eternity, that our sculptors have been showing us so relentlessly of late. This robotic figure has no sense of what freedom is, not even enough sense to desire it. Or rather, it has realized freedom as the perfection of bondage, somewhat as B.F. Skinner meant: "Freedom is what we call the way we feel when we do what we have been conditioned to do." There can be no meaningful action from this robotic corpse, which acts only from its conditioning. As Alexandre Kojève wrote, "the end of human Time, or History-that is, the definitive annihilation of Man properly speaking, or of the free and historical Individual-means quite simply the cessation of Action in the full sense of the term."
What is left over, then, in addition to the robotic corpse lying on the beach as if fallen from the sky, is, as William Faulkner put it in his Nobel acceptance speech, "Man's puny inexhaustible voice, still talkin'." The chatter is meaningless, as it can lead to no authentic action. Yet it goes on and on, as in this text, as in the last one, as in the next...
Thomas McEvilley is the author of Art & Discontent and other books.