Giotto, Picasso and Gebser’s Aperspectival Consciousness
I’m sure, by now, that you have taken note of the fact that the mainstream “public conversation” of Late Modernity has become completely incoherent and self-contradictory, being afflicted (as I’ve noted many times before) with Double-Talk, Double-Think, Double-Standard, and Double-Bind — the various masks of duplicity. Duplicity in word and deed (or “lip-service” by another name) is, indeed, the “New Normal” — something that even Pope Francis has recently noted and lamented (and which Adam Curtis also scrutinised in his recent film documentary “Hypernormalisation“).
This pandemic of duplicity attests to an overall loss of integrity — a fragmentation, a dissolution, a decoherence, a dehiscence and perhaps even a form of autothysis— of the personality and consciousness structure of Modern Man. This is also what Charles Taylor has called “The Malaise of Modernity“, and it is now global in scope. This is the first layer of fact about “globalism”. There seems to be no part of the Earth that is not afflicted with it. We are, if nothing else, united in our mutual malaise.
We need to recognise, then, that this disintegration is evidence of the decay and deterioration of the Modern Era as a whole — and, that means the accelerating deconstruction of what Gebser calls the “perspectival” or “mental-rational consciousness structure”. This is not unprecedented historically. Yet today its scale and scope are unprecedented. Here, I want to explore a precedent for the decay of an Era — the Waning of the Middle Ages.
In his grand book The Ever-Present Origin, the cultural philosopher Jean Gebser does a marvelous job of describing the birth (or rebirth) of the perspectival consciousness structure in the Renaissance, although his account of that nascence — and renascence — of the mental-rational (or logico-mathematical) is not the whole story by far. The Renaissance (and Protestant Reformation) did indeed revive, resuscitate and preserve the continuity of what we now call “Western civilisation” from its terminal decline and decadence with the breakdown of ecclesiastical authority (autocratic “theocracy”) of the Holy Roman Empire (“Christendom”). “Christendom” perished. “Europe” was born. The “Saint” as ideal human type was replaced by the “Free Thinker” or humanist as ideal human type.
The waning of the Middle Ages — the decadence of Christendom — was a horrifying and gruesome affair. By some accounts the Inquisition and Witch Hunt took the lives of 7 million people, 6 million of those being women, and that figure doesn’t completely include all those who were “disappeared” (what we call today “extraordinary rendition”) or maimed and tortured as heretics. The Reign of Terror, then, was ecclesiastical. And the figure doesn’t include the millions of indigenous peoples in the “New World” who were massacred by conquistadores with the blessings of the Church. The dissident priest (and reformed slave-holder and conquistadore himself) Bartoleme de las Casas estimated that 12 to 15 million Caribbean Indians alone perished at the hands of the conquistadores (“A Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies” 1542). This brutal fact, often overlooked in celebrations of “the Age of Discovery”, belongs more to the decadence of Christendom and the Middle Ages than it does to Renaissance humanism.
(The brutal realism of The Game of Thrones is as nothing compared to the horrors and tragedies of actual history. This is what worries me about the obliviousness of “post-historic man” and Nietzsche’s “Last Man” or the denizens of Rolf Jensen’s “Dream Society” who have lost all sense for the tragic).
This havoc and mayhem of the decadence and disintegration of the Late Middle Ages is the historical context — the milieu — I wish to highlight before speaking to the notion of “transition” (or “chaotic transition”) as precedent for our own time. For Jean Gebser, the transition to the Early Renaissance (or passage from the Late Middle Ages) is represented by two seminal figures: Giotto di Bondone (1266 – 1337) and Petrarch (1304 – 1374) both of whom contributed to the opening up to consciousness of the “third dimension” of space as depth and thus to the emergence of the perspectival consciousness that was so characteristic of the Renaissance. They are usually honoured as early “Renaissance Men”, but they could just as well be described as “Late Medieval”. They had one foot in an old dying Era and another in the future. This is particularly notable in Petrarch’s own conflicted account — and his sense of guilt — described by Gebser, of his famous ascent of Mt. Ventoux.
Giotto strikes me as a particularly important figure because I hold that what Giotto represents in terms of transition from the “unperspectival” to the “perspectival” (or from the Middle Ages to Early Renaissance) is likewise represented in Picasso, and the meaning of Picasso. And I’ll get to those reasons shortly.
Now, it is exactly four generations (or a century) after Giotto’s first tentative and early experiments with perspectivisation (or “perspective illusionism”) that the quintessential “Renaissance Man”, Leon Battista Alberti (1404 – 1472) in his Della Pittura (or De Pictura) first formulates the axioms and mathematical principles underlying perspective construction and perspective perception (later, as Gebser notes, added to and perfected by da Vinci). For that reason, for me, Alberti represents the birth of the “point-of-view” consciousness that has now become self-conscious, and coincident with that there is also a sudden interest in mirrors, in autobiographies, and in self-portraits as much as in painting perspectivally.
To put this another way — the “e-volution” or “unfolding” of the third dimension of space to infinity had a corresponding and little understood “in-volution” — the intensification of the idea of “self” and its “point-of-view” — ie, ego-consciousness.
Now, four generations separate Giotto from Alberti. Another four generations separates Alberti’s publication of Della Pittura (1435) and the publication of Copernicus’s (1473 – 1543) De Revolutionibus (1543) which usually marks the date of the “Scientific Revolution” when Copernicus set forth his heliocentric theory that shattered, finally, the Medieval world view. The significance of that in terms of the gradual unfolding of perspective consciousness (or the mental-rational) was pointed out, perhaps, by the famous historian of science Thomas Kuhn. In Kuhn’s biography of Copernicus and account of the Copernican Revolution, Kuhn astutely observed that Copernicus must have had some knowledge of perspectivism in order to conceive of his heliocentric model. The same, I might add, should be said of Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642) and his imagination of “ideal space”. It is the space of perspective perception.
Meanwhile, Rene Descartes published his Meditations on First Philosophy in 1641. And his “wondrous strange method” of reasoning — metaphysical dualism — clearly employs as model the same “ideal space” of perspectivisation, as he himself illustrated,
From Giotto and Petrarch to Descartes and the stations in between is a tumultuous transition of almost three centuries or about 12 generations, all working to unfold or perfect some particular aspect of perspective consciousness. Furthermore, about a century or four generations after Descartes “discovery” of his “wondrous strange method” — the essence of the mental-rational consciousness — it is confirmed in the Great Seal of the United States — symbol of the Enlightenment.
And all, as it were, modeled upon da Vinci’s simple representation of the eye of perspective perception,
Well, we’ve addressed this history of the mental-rational consciousness structure and its strengths and its limitations — usually described as “dialectical” too — in other posts in The Chrysalis. But we need to address something further before seeing how Picasso relates to Giotto and what this might signify in terms of a “New Renaissance” unfolding in its present donkey’s pace.
The perspective artists of the Early Renaissance faced opposition to “perspective illusionism” (or “perspective realism” depending upon your point of view) from the conservative — even reactionary — ecclesiastical authorities. The Islamic authorities banned it outright and prohibited it as devil’s work (which probably set back the Islamic world) precisely because it was not considered “realism” but “illusionism”. The perspective artists were forced to justify themselves to the ecclesiastical authorities which they did, for the most part, successfully. They argued that the the visible relationship between finite and infinite spaces was a concrete metaphor for the principle concern of religion — the visible counterpart to the relationship of time and all that was temporal (and therefore finite) to eternity.
The perspective artists, in effect, pulled off what Nietzsche would describe as a “revaluation of values”, which seemed to win over most of the ecclesiastical authorities. Little did they realise, though, that this translation of the idiom of time and eternity to finite and infinite spaces would also lead to a revaluation of the meaning of “truth” and the secularisation of theological categories. “Truth” became, largely in consequence, what was visible and demonstrable, and the “unperspectival” emphasis on the eternal and its relationship to all that was temporal and time-bound (the secular world) was revalued by perspectivism as the relationship of the infinite to all that was finite and measurable in terms of spaces.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Which brings us to Picasso, about whom I’ll pick up on in my next post and why I think Picasso’s significance for our time is very comparable to Giotto’s in his. It’s not alone because, as Gebser rightly argues in The Ever-Present Origin, time is now represented in art once again, or that Picasso thought perspectivisation was “unnatural”, pretty much dismissing about 400 years of the “common sense”. Nor is it alone the affinity between Einstein and Picasso that the ever insightful science historian Arthur I. Miller recognised and explored in his book Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time and the beauty that causes havoc. It is not just the return of time that is represented here in Einstein and Picasso, but also something much more subtle but of great revelance to any prospect of “aperspectival consciousness” and any notion of a “new Renaissance” in the making.