Saturday, January 22, 2011


Anyone who tries to create the one true, perfect religion or worldview or philosophy or culture becomes a cubist. We may capture what others miss, but only by distorting reality beyond recognition, and we will still miss most of reality.

Inescapably, a single worldview can only see a limited part of the world, only what is visible from that one perspective. What it does let us see is distorted by proximity or distance, and most distant thing are hidden behind nearer things. Further, the soap bubble of our culture then screens the information, distorts it, by magnifying some things and minimizing or hiding or recoloring others solely on the basis of cultural affinity and prejudice. By the time a single worldview is done "seeing" or "thinking" something, what's left in the brain is a homunculous, a grotesque caricature that we then try to reason with.

Like optical illusions, all cognitive illusions are built upon such limited perspectives. Single viewpoints are easily tricked, and they trick themselves with every act of seeing or thought. Nothing we see or understand through them truly is what it seems to be, and most of reality remains obscured.

The attempt to show the hidden sides of things at the same time as the visible sides was the motivation behind the development of the cubist art movement, to show more than one side at a time. Cubism itself was inspired by exposure to the glorious and surreal art of the Pacific Northwest Indian peoples, who invented cubism to suggest the unseen, spiritual world that they believe accompanies and infuses the material world. Within everything depicted in this art, additional figures and faces peer out at us to remind us that there's more to the world than meets the eye.

Whether glorious and inspirational, as the Indian art is, or thought-provoking but grotesque, as so much Western cubist art is, cubism reveals in the plainest possible way - visibly - the limitations of any single perspective. Picasso's hideous gargoyle of a face that shows both sides at once may suggest the exist of the unseen, but only by grossly distorting it. Likewise, the Pacific Northwest Indian artists would be the first to tell you that no matter how beautiful and complex their art may be, it can only hint at what they have always believed about the nature of the cosmos. The real world achieves degrees of unseen complexity with economy and beauty that no single perspective can possibly portray.

So it is with our points of view. There can never be a perfect culture or philosophy or worldview or religion. No one perspective is capable of capturing or even reasonably approximating reality, because single points of view are inherently distorting.

Thus - the solution to the culture crisis is not to try to create a perfect culture, a perfect viewpoint, because that only replaces one soap bubble with another one, complete with its own defects and liabilities. Or to use our previous metaphor, it's like a cyclops trying to overcome the deficiencies of monocular vision by standing in a different place. None of the choices is "the right one."

Our fundamental problem is not the contents of any specific culture; it is the monomania of thinking that any single viewpoint could ever be adequate to comprehend the world and our place in it.

Our passage to freedom requires us to abandon that old reflex to "pick one" and replace it with the obvious strategy, the best chance we have at the truth.


Anonymous said...

Unless I'm misunderstanding your essay, it sounds like you disagree to some extent with the cubist project, but I don't think that you are saying is actually all that different from what cubists did/do with their art. I'm no art scholar, of course, but my understanding is that cubism, far from trying to find a "perfect" single viewpoint and simply expose both the seen and unseen angles from that viewpoint (and, as you say, in the process generally disfiguring their subjects almost beyond recognition and certainly beyond what most people instinctively consider "attractive"), cubist art makes the argument that there is no single viewpoint, no unmediated experience of reality; all reality is experienced through the viewpoint of the experiencer, and all viewpoints are inherently distorting. Cubist painters were only working with the visual because they're painters, but the metaphor holds across the other senses and to other ways of knowing. After all, roughly the same time as cubism developed the same thing was happening in the other arts, only under different names: for example, the literary modernists were basically making the same argument using words as their medium instead of images. (And many people don't realize that E.E. Cummings -- one of my favorite word artists -- was explicitly trying to do "cubist poetry" with his work. He was an amateur painter and found what was going on in cubism profoundly interesting and relevant to his poetry work.) I think it is enlightening to understand these kinds of movements as theses, being made through a body of artistic propositions, as opposed to taking each individual painting as a single thesis about its subject -- if that makes sense. Anyway, this topic is very interesting to me, and I thank you for giving me more to think about! :)

Jenny T.

Rick Marshall said...

Hi Jenny. Thank you for your response.

I agree with your assessment of cubism, an art style I enjoy and admire a great deal.

In this essay I was trying (though clearly not entirely successfully) to use cubism as a metaphor for the kinds of ways people fail to be accurate or objective about the world when they think they are telling the truth - if they stick to a single point of view.

Cubists, of course, are doing what they do on purpose, which is what makes it so interesting. Cubists explore and illustrate the limitations of a single physical point of view deliberately to (among other things) make much the statement in their art that I'm trying to make in this essay.

Picasso's Guernica, for example, which includes not only the perspectival cubism typical of Western cubism but also audible cubism in portraying the cries as the people and animals crying out, is a great favorite of mine.

By contrast, the many people in the world who assume that a single point of view on the world is enough to understand it are practicing mental cubism by accident and completely without realizing it. The distortions in their beliefs are invisible to them, even though to any third party of a philosophically cubist bent their ideas present artistically twisted results whose distortions also speak volumes about the nature of perception and understanding.

A philosopher friend of mine, Kenneth R. Smith of Texas, used to say that when people try to explain what they think is true about the world, they instead unintentionally end up explaining the ways in which they are confused. - From which I imagine someone could start a movement of philosophical therapy that had some of the same trappings as psychotherapy does, though very different goals and patterns of analysis I suppose.

I should have called this essay Unintentional Cubism.