Meaning and Purpose: Chapter 3

What Happened to the Traditional Subjects


Joseph Wright of Derby, Bird in Air Pump

Scientific rationalism is one of the reasons cited for the demise of traditional beliefs. Joseph Wright of Derby captured many gripping scenes of scientific exploration in the 18th century, such as An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768, shown today at National Gallery, London. The philosopher William Barrett observed that our knowledge of physical nature has vastly increased since modern science began, with a paradoxical decline in our understanding of human consciousness. “What shall it profit a whole civilization, or culture, if it gains knowledge and power over the material world, but loses any adequate idea of the conscious mind, the human self, at the center of all that power?”1 As a human enterprise, art too would be at risk when consciousness of human reality falters.

Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son

Psychoanalytic theory, or Freud, Jung and Reich, displaced the authoritative truths of faith, and undermined the binding force of commitment. Among the many prescient images painted by Goya, the mural transferred to canvas of Saturn Devouring one of his sons (1821-23) evokes some of the repressed beliefs that psychoanalysis aims to uncover. The Prado, Madrid, boasts this painting. Philip Rieff examined the consequences of psychology breaking “the great chain of meaning” through which institutions saved men “from destructive illusions of uniqueness and separateness.”2 He hints at a terrifying consequence, that of nihilism, the idea that life has no objective meaning, purpose or intrinsic value.

The growth of capitalism and its generation of the consumer society shares some of the blame, too. Jean Antoine Watteau made the charming Gersaint Shop Sign, now at Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, for a Paris shopkeeper in 1721, as the consumer society was intensified by the growth of a middle class with disposable income available for purchasing luxuries as well as necessities.3 Arnold Hauser openly espoused Marxist critique in his classic four-volume series, The Social History of Art (1951) yet our 21st-century understanding is so permeated with the effects of Karl Marx’s ideas that it takes effort to dissect them out. There are examples manifest in the artwork and titles I selected below. Whether his ideas are flourishing or fading away depends almost entirely on your position toward them, it would appear. While Marx disparaged the bourgeoisie, they made excellent customers for the fine arts in 17th century Holland and 19th century France.

Watteau, Gersaint Shop Sign

One particular manifestation of Marxism is the morphing of his concept of class identity into the evolving and increasing movements of identity politics. Whatever underpinned a belief in universal principles, whether tacit agreement or explicit hegemony, has given way to competing interests in a climate of uncertainty, if not antagonism. Interestingly, as identity continues to splinter, social isolation rises, as argued by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone (2000). This creates a dilemma in the choice of subject matter for the representational artist. How can the individual artist proceed when the only certainty is that her personal experience is necessarily limited to the particulars of her circumstances? Would choosing subjects from different circumstances be viewed as misappropriation?

What about the effects of the culture of celebrity? There seems little need to dignify that phenomenon with an illustration; we have all seen and heard enough about the lives of so-called stars. The cultural products that earned fame for celebrities do seem to have decisively displaced the fine arts. One of the calamities of our age may well be the way technology allows us to distract ourselves with meaningless trivia round the clock. Social media allows everyone to get in on this act, too, and the critic Christian Viveros-Faune explains why “the art world’s raging narcissism epidemic is killing art.”4

UIG532978 View of Earth from Apollo 10 from approximately 100,000 miles. Europe, Asia and parts of Africa visible with some cloud cover. NASA photograph.; Universal History Archive/UIG; out of copyright

When we combine the relentless coverage of scandal with a loss of traditional faith, we arrive at the crisis of meaning defined by postmodernists: “There is no way to arrive at the ultimate meaning of anything, and to believe otherwise is tantamount to mythology.”5 Any Jackson Pollock action painting might serve to illustrate this crisis, and in the Musee National d’Art Moderne hangs a representative example, Silver over Black, White, Yellow and Red, painted in oil and enamel on paper over canvas in the artist’s productive period, 1948. Pollock’s work records the artist’s energetic application of paint and the randomness of his splatters defies principles of artistic composition and design, the relationship of parts to the whole.

It would appear that we are utterly alone and adrift in a disordered, indifferent universe. Yet in this bleak hour we are alive and awake and painting.

  1. William Barrett, The Death of the Soul: From Descartes to the Computer, (New York: Anchor Books), 1986, p. 166.
  2. Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud, (New York: Harper and Row), 1966, p. 3.
  3. Wikipedia, “The Consumer Revolution,” accessed December 1, 2015,
  4. Christian Viveros-Faune, “Why the Art World’s Raging Narcissism Epidemic is Killing Art,” artnetnews, December 1, 2015, accessed December 2, 2015,
  5. John Lusis, “Andy Grundberg—Crisis of the Real,” John’s Columbia Blog: Photography Theory, History and Criticism, posted October 21, 2013, accessed October 27, 2015,