John David Ebert
Art After Metaphysics
Many readers will be familiar with John David Ebert from his excellent podcast (with Darryl D. Cooper), Decline of the West. In an early episode of the show, Ebert called the US presidential election for Trump even before Trump had won the Republican nomination. What was impressive about that prediction was not so much the fact that it came to be true than the reasoning that lay behind it. Ebert saw the emergence of Trump into American politics as coming at a historically propitious time, in that the current phase of Western civilization corresponds to the beginning of the Roman Caesarist phase. Donald Trump, Ebert argued, was the sort of figure who would emerge when a civilization was winding down and when politics would become a matter of zoological power struggles, just as happened with the First Triumvirate in Rome. Drawing out such historical correspondences depends on a cyclical understanding of history such as that propounded by Spengler (and hence the name of the podcast).
There are two things to note here. The first, Ebert’s prediction that Trump would not only win the Republican ticket but would go on to become President, demonstrates that his understanding of politics is based on deep currents of history. The second, his employing a schema used by Spengler and Toynbee, shows that when he describes himself as “an independent cultural critic,” he is really independent in a way that scholars in Western universities cannot be. Spengler (and to some extent, Toynbee) still carries a whiff of fascism and mystical conservatism that scares the horses in the Academy’s stables.
None of this is meant to imply that Ebert approaches his subjects from a Right-wing perspective. In fact (and I am willing to stand corrected on this point), he appears to utilize Left-milieu critics when observing the contemporary culture up close, and Rightist thinkers, such as Spengler, when pulling out for a broad view of historical unfolding. If there is any truth to this observation of mine, it would seem to be a logical way of approaching cultural criticism given the fact that the Right generally stopped thinking for most of the second half of the twentieth century, but that Right-wing views always come true in the end.
In any case, Art After Metaphysics approaches the subject of contemporary art whilst locating it in a broader current of cultural development. Ebert’s unique perspective on this subject differs from more conventional approaches, which can be divided into two broad churches. Firstly, there is an approach to contemporary art that is popular with intellectuals and with the Left. This perspective sees contemporary art as an outgrowth of earlier forms of art, as a progression to a more individualistic and more cosmopolitan way of approaching cultural expression. In this view, the pertinent questions to be asked are, “What more taboos can be broken?” and “What new forms of expression can be invented?” Secondly, there is an approach to contemporary art that is popular with the man on the street and with the Right. It sees contemporary art as a degeneration from previous forms of art to a silly and meaningless form of egotism. In this view, the pertinent questions to be asked are, “Why is this in an art gallery?” and “What is it supposed to mean?
Ebert endorses neither view, instead locating contemporary art in something of an interregnum moment for culture, that point when meaning has become worn out and tired, and, one could almost say, the very notion of artistic creation itself has become somewhat kitsch. So, contemporary artists, if one accepts this reading, are engaged in a struggle to depict or to reckon with the “semiotic vacancy at the ontological center of Western Being” (p. viii). And this idea, which is referred to again and again in Art After Metaphysics, is entirely persuasive. The original numinous impetus that kick-started the culture has finally run out of steam, its rites have become empty gestures and its liturgies meaningless sounds. Artists no longer share a common vocabulary with the rest of the culture, so they necessarily turn inward and create a private, or at least personal, set of codes that go some way to substitute for the fixed and stable numinous signifiers that have now dissipated into nothingness.
The book begins with a chronological overview of the development of Western art, dividing it into four major phases. Ebert’s ability to move through vast swathes of art history using very specific and detailed references to particular events is superb. Consider this passage describing the passage from the first phase to the second:
Once the iconotypes have achieved their final statements in the works of Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian, they begin, throughout the course of the Mannerist art of the 16th century, to fade out of existence. Tintoretto, that great Renaissance deconstructionist, spends the vast majority of his art pulling apart the motifs and structures of the High Renaissance . . . Tintoretto demolishes the pure geometrical schemas and triangular compositions which Raphael, for instance, had used, or Leonardo, to structure their great works of art. Tintoretto actually pulls Renaissance space to pieces: his Last Supper of 1594 is a chaos of squirming forms that makes a mockery out of Renaissance linearity and purity of figure. (p. 11)
It’s a paragraph that Spengler himself would have been pleased with and additionally, it manages to dodge a potentially embarrassing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles gaffe.
The first three ages of Western art continue until 1945, and they are characterized as metaphysical because they each have structuring myths or archetypes that organize their forms of expression. Even Modernism was interested in Jungian archetypes and dream symbolism, and so it still had its metaphysical aspect. But with Abstract Expressionism and the emergence of contemporary art, there are no longer any metanarratives or fixed meanings. There is a severe rupture in the development of cultural expression, and we are left with an art that is practiced after metaphysics.
One of the reasons why this book is such an important contribution to the understanding of contemporary art is because it looks at the subject from a point of view that consistently projects metaphysics into the background. That is to say, that, rather than engaging with contemporary art as an art project in and of itself, with its own gestures and provocations, Ebert looks at it as a response (often unconscious) to the collapse of grander, fundamental metaphysical systems. In looking at it in this way, we are always conscious of what I have termed elsewhere the “absent numen,” and what Ebert calls the “semiotic vacancy.” Contemporary art is thus revealed to be neither the coiner of smart neologisms nor the destroyer of all beauty, but instead a particular answer to the question of how we deal with the collapse of all structuring myths. In this respect I think Ebert’s book chimes well with the perspective of someone like Julius Evola, for whom metaphysical concerns are always primary.
The main body of the book looks at individual contemporary artists grouped along geographical lines: Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, Jean-Michel Basquiat (New York); Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Zdzislaw Beksinski, Odd Nerdrum (The Greater German Grouping); Francis Bacon, Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor (London); and Jannis Kounellis, Christian Boltanski (Rome and Paris).
Each of these essays, in one way or another, addresses the question of how an artwork can be created at the present time that at once participates in the zeitgeist whilst also being an authentic instantiation of Being. As mentioned earlier, contemporary art is often seen as being either liberatingly free from convention or an exercise in disorderly indiscipline. But neither of these viewpoints really goes beyond looking at the development of contemporary art from its prior history in terms of pure form. What Ebert drills down to is the development of the Western metaphysical tradition as it is expressed in visual art.
What Ebert doesn’t offer in this book is an examination of pseudomorphosis, that is, the idea (from Spengler) that cultures are sometimes distorted by the presence of older, alien elements within them. The inclusion of Mark Rothko might seem like a textbook case of pseudomorphosis in action. But Ebert’s focus is, rightly in my view, on the visual responses to an already declining cultural field. If we explain away Mark Rothko’s paintings as purely being due to his belonging to a visually impoverished Jewish tradition, then we still have to explain someone like Jackson Pollock. It seems to me pointless to insist too rigidly on whether Jewish influence on the arts is either a cause or a symptom of decline; surely it is the case that a culture must already be in the process of decline for it to be vulnerable to such influences in the first place.
In any case, it’s a truism that people on the Right view contemporary society with scorn. They rightly view the present world as an ugly, commercialized, soulless wasteland, but they then seem to want art that pretends that things are otherwise. The mistake made by far too many people on the Right is to expect art to look as though it came from a past epoch. It should be reasonably clear that such art can only emulate the exterior, formal properties of earlier art. It cannot speak to the present except as kitsch. And it is only by speaking to the present, in all its undoubted imperfection, that art can begin to register as an authentic cultural descriptor, and then to express deeply buried metanarratives in new form (i.e., to presence the numinous).
I consider Art After Metaphysics to be an ideal book on contemporary art for either a newcomer to the subject or for someone who has become jaded by it. Ebert’s insistence that such art is always in a dialogue with deeper ontological concerns, whether it knows it or not, is an extremely valuable insight into the subject. It provides us with a plausible structural overview of how the development of modern art led to this point and why such art is always concerned with metaphysical matters. With such an overview it becomes possible to begin to imagine new ways forward; perhaps, even to perceive a numinous glow over the horizon.