When someone says: „”Where are you going from here, or where are you going to”, I say: “And where do you wish to go? There is nowhere to go…” [1]

The situation that can be seen at present in various fields of community life is one I describe as post-crisis. The multiplying of crises is characteristic in this context. The impression of their great number is magnified by a postmodern blurring of spatial divisions and time vectors. This same cognitive opposition can be constructed from various perspectives that reveal a somewhat different image, one that has become the basis of many ways of describing what is a breakthrough, crisis point that is a deciding point, as well as in what direction the next course of events should run. As a consequence, contradictory concepts appear to be equally well founded, for it is possible to find a relevant argument to justify each.

In art this state of play can be observed with particular clarity from the second half of the 1970s. This context related to both tendencies based on the principle of going forward (in multimedia works based on new technologies) and a turn towards the past. The trans-avant-garde was presented as a historical avant-garde breakthrough on the road towards overcoming their dormant tendencies towards the future. What was new from their point of view, turned out to be the imitation of past languages of art. Elements were borrowed therefore, not in terms of perceiving a value possessed, but so as to have a reference point whose initial meaning is revealed. From another artistic perspective that which is popular, mass appeal is presented as an expression of refined elitism. At the same time it was declared that it is necessary to create a dimension to present every point of view – no one is allowed to take away the right to articulate their views, difference is to be valued.

Also in the case of art focused on politics, it is possible to notice the symptoms of a post-crisis situation outlined here. Beforehand so-called tensions were articulated through a polarisation of viewpoints. Left-wing artists decidedly were different from those on the right, also in terms of social attitudes such as the place and role of art. The artistic crisis was also understood differently, pointing to different causes and resolutions. Currently the language of the left and the right has mutually infiltrated. This relates to politics where left-wing parties formulate postulates approximate to economic liberalism, emphasising the role of individual initiative and the limiting of the state’s role as ‘carer’ – while at the same time right-wing parties bandy slogans of equality and social justice. [2]

This can be seen also in the case of art, where it’s current immersion in politics does not lead to organising exhibits with a left-wing or right-wing orientation, pro-Israel or pro-Palestine tied to the Occupy movement and those against it. In the context of these congresses such as the Biennale or triennial, all the representatives of all fronts meet. Each assumes that we have a crisis and that the current moment is difficult, maybe decisive but articulates, however, in a different way the source of the basic conflict, whilst defining in a different way that is right from their particular point of view.

This condition does not depend on striving towards an overcoming of crisis through searching for roads of resolution beyond the difficult situation. Rather, this awareness of conflicts leads to their complication by turning the spotlight onto additional aspects and flashpoints. Neither is there a desire to forget about crisis per se, drive it out of the field of memory or from the so-called radar of our scope. The impression of finding oneself in a moment of crisis, one that decides the evolution of society or art is revealed through the presented works and perhaps even additionally brought into view, without attempts to definitively identify the source. One senses a critical situation but cannot specifically locate it and therefore one indicates numerous examples that do not deduce even at least provisionally to the general principles or causes. The post-crisis therefore is a fragmented crisis, one that is multiplied perhaps, ubiquitous. It is not possible therefore to indicate a means of resolution. Neither is possible to wait for it to become one overcome on the road to defined works of intervention. Putting out one fire usually leads to many others arising. The hope of finding such a place where he would be free of this is also an illusion. Therefore the belief in making progress turns out to be ineffective as does stepping sideways (in the direction of other cultures tradition), or backwards (reverting to past values). In the contemporary world there is nowhere to go.

Various means of interpretation turn out to be unreliable in respect to the post-crisis. It can be described by outlining further symptoms but is not possible to generalise or even to classify. Hegelian or Marxist categories of general history are also unreliable. Neither are attempts to draw a picture through pointing out structural and functional dependencies sufficient. This is the case both in respect to clinical and social crises as it is to that of art. A vivid example of such incapacity can be said to be the great art exhibitions. It is with considerable interest that one observes the helplessness of art critics who wish to write a review.

At times, motivated by a traditional sense of responsibility towards readers, critics attempt to somehow unite all the elements in their presentation. Thus they conscientiously encapsulate respective propositions but because of their range of variability, they are unable to present them as a coherent whole. Neither does the method of seeking to distinguish the basic differences in this respect, prove to be successful. The laboratory’s journey, machete in hand through a dense jungle of symbolism in work presented either leads to such a multiplication of meanings that the artist’s message cannot be grasped or it turns out to be no more than a banal statement.

Critics often therefore decide on a subjective, to a large extent ad hoc choice of subject, papering it over with hastily chosen arguments that are meant to justify the fact that the chosen subject is really important in terms of contemporary political and social problems, cultural ones etc. This is not, however, an expression of laziness, lack of knowledge or ill will. In the context of the post-crisis, the writing of a review on the merits of work that will give a picture of sorts and assessment, as expected by readers, is an impossible task. Of note also is the fact, as some critics of art emphasise, the consequence of multiplying the tensions and so-called options offered by artists and great international exhibitions is a manifestation of an all-encompassing boredom, one that increasingly rarely is broken by a provocation.

An optimistic interpretation of the above outlined situation can lead to the conclusion that the artist in times of post-crisis has an opportunity to fully realise independent decisions, not conditioned by general or ideological connotations. Maximalist tendencies have been so successfully identified and subjected to comprehensive interpretation that they cannot be a real threat to the freedom of choice.

Every artist, as every other human being, has the opportunity to conduct their own game as it were, according to principles seen as appropriate. They need not even be concerned with the main principle of the consequences of what journey their artistic development takes, or the so-called logic of their actions. If such an idea is accepted, then it is their own choice, strategy of action in the era of post-crisis. The wisdom of the contemporary artist depends therefore on knowledge in respect to the freedoms and the means of exploiting them. Does however, their modus operandi make it any easier?

Such a question again relates not only to art. Bauman wrote: ”The post-modernist perspective does not serve wisdom; the postmodern environment makes work more difficult through this form of ‘fast-food’ wisdom. Thus in general terms this is the reason why we are experiencing postmodern times as ones of crisis”.[3] Our problems, in contrast to the majority of epochs in the past, are not caused by a lack of information. On the contrary, all of us have access to information that can be completed into a complex picture of contemporary reality. The difficulty in this context is one of moving from knowledge to the right conclusions and subsequently, truly appropriate action.

In the meantime it transpires that there do not exist any good solutions. Knowledge not only does not give us any clues as to what to do but worse, creates a condition in which we cease to expect finding a formula free of ambivalence, one that intensifies the sense of risk, threat and blunder. Bauman continues: “The post-modern mind realises that every local, specialist, organised form of treatment, even if it were to effectively treat a specific ailment, ruins as much as it repairs (perhaps ruins more than it repairs). The post-modern mind has reconciled itself with the thought that the fate of humankind shall be as it is – unrefined, one that remains without system”. [4]

What consequences can be drawn for art from the above-mentioned situation? In the past it reflected existing crises, however, it has itself created hope on the basis of an aesthetic order that could at least compensate reaction to the chaos of reality, one creating a type of escape thanks to the transparent structures of works and the ordered image of the world where everything makes sense. Today this regulatory function of art has faded away, at best preserving itself in an unusually simplified form in popular culture (TV serials, romantic comedies, advertisements). Artists, whether they wish to or not, need to face the world’s lack of transparency. At times, when this situation appears to extend beyond their means, they seek escape into popular forms of amusement in the guise of artistic work.

In spite of the fact that the above conclusion can appear to be unexpected in the light of the comments presented, I like to propose a return to the concept of the artist’s ethos. The concept of this was particularly important in avant-garde work. at that time it had, however, a heroic and total dimension. Arnold Schönberg at the beginning of the 20th century said: “The morality of art is a reaction to a world that in many respects has surrendered to an amoral materialist world of success, one that leads to a gradual loss of all ethical constructs of art”. [5]

The ethos of the avant-garde was based therefore on a clear identification of the social situation. It was considered possible to identify the symptoms of a crisis, as well as to draw a clear line defining it. The crisis that was felt appeared therefore to be defined and localised. It was considered that its symptoms were identified not in the local sense but in the universal and it was possible therefore to draw conclusions, propose a therapy that created an opportunity for a breakthrough. This was an approach based on moral sensitivity, one worked out in avant-garde art through its dissemination, which was to lead to a change in social reality.

Today, as mentioned above, the acceptance of a similar model of action is impossible. First of all because the means of interpretation are unreliable. We are unable, following Schoenberg or other avant-garde artists, to formulate general diagnoses once they become the basis of an ethos that is possible to be disseminated. All manner of attempts of this type inevitably would have to confront partially diverse individual or characteristic small social group means of identifying the actual situation. Everyone concerned would see the hierarchy of threats and conflicts in a different way. The proposed remedies would also be diverse and many.

In this situation a traditionally understood ethos as “a specific form of morality that constitutes a system of customs of a defined social group expressing itself in a particular lifestyle”,[6] is impossible to take into account. Concept of an ideal ethos also becomes doubtful, ones that in the past were formulated in texts of a utopian vision (More, Bacon and others). Today’s form of ethos has to have an individual character or one appropriate for small groups that freely accept its premises, taking into account a non-prescriptive nature of principles concerning creativity. It is a value therefore that will not so much be the forming of the personality in accord with expectations appropriate for the concept of social organisation, but one that is the shaping of a sense of existence and action.

In the case of the artist, ethos and associated senses of responsibility could be what is signified by being an artist. Contemporary artists can take into consideration various forms of motivation, for traditional justifications of artistic work have ceased to apply, ones tied to the realisation of aesthetic values. The contemporary acceleration of all things aesthetic now relates to every sphere of life and thus participation in its journey end does not bring about meaning to art. [7] Attainment of success can be viewed as the aim of creativity, though it is a criterion that is rather social than artistic.

The obligation for success can after all be realised in various areas and therefore the decision that one shall proceed towards this in artistic endeavours has an ad hoc or pragmatic nature. The attainment of success therefore cannot be considered to answer the question of what artistic creativity is. Nor can the responsibility related to ethos be based on knowledge, one that it should firmly rest upon. In this context it often cannot defend itself from accusations and all the more persuade others, that the choices taken are the right ones.

Artistic work therefore would appear to be at times based on impulse, one that many would consider as ‘thoughtless’ and ‘unplanned’. This is not a form of responsibility to something else, on a higher plane such as history, nation, tradition – or one to others, from which they could take us to account. It constitutes a type of moral pillar, one with a certain value though probably not one that can prevent present crises, nor one that will be able to influence a means of solving them, or indeed at least limit such in the future.

[1] Ad Reinhardt, Ad Reinhardt on His Art, “Studio International” 1967, nr 895

[2] Norberto Bobbio presents this issue Prawica i lewica [Left and Right: The Significance of a Political Distinction, Including a Reply to Critics] (translated by A. Szymanowski, Krakow 1996). The author does not, however, question the general importance of such division.

[3] Z. Bauman, Etyka ponowoczesna [Postmodern Ethics], translated by J. Bauman and J. Tokarska-Bakir, Warsaw 1996, p. 333

[4] Ibidem, p.334

[5] Gablik, Has Modernism Failed?, London 1985, p. 74

[6] See the term ‘etos’ [ethos] in Powszechnej encyklopedii filozofii (Lublin 2002, p. 254). Ethos thus understood in relation to certain professions (doctor, teacher), social class (middle class, peasant) etc.

[7] Wolfgang Welsch maintains even that art should constitute the opposite pole to ‘aesthetisization’ and views it in relation to ‘the culture of a blind splash’,ascribing a position to this concept that is only concerned with appropriation (Estetyka i anestetyka [Aesthetics and Anesthetics], translated by M. Łukaszewicz, in: Postmodernizm. Antologia przekładów, Krakow 1997).