“ By art … I mean the development of those faculties by which man adapts himself to his environment”
by Federico Soldani – 5th Apr 2021
The chapter about ‘Art’ – discussed in the previous four articles in this series – of ‘Life in a Technocracy’, Harold Loeb’s post-capitalist and technocratic utopia, was about topics way beyond any usual understanding of art and it largely addressed psychological issues in relation to the political dimension.
In a technocracy, a utopian system of production, government and life largely inspired by the Soviet communist experiment and which imagined to substitute largely human labor with mechanical or automated production and distribution, “the energy surplus” – Loeb wrote – diverted from the problems that now take it up, would surely turn eventually toward discovering new ways of life.”
“Since the prescribed duties would fill but a small portion of time and the balance would be at the disposal of the individual, everyone would be in the favored position of the present leisure class. Undoubtedly as leisure and means gradually became available, most people would attempt to mimic the escape stratagems of the contemporary rich man. Many of these devices are ludicrously pathetic. They do not even satisfy the rich, who enjoy a titillation of vanity due to their being somewhat conspicuous. Convinced eventually of failure, having learned that fox chasing, parlor lion snaring, competitive games, fast motion, gossip, drink, and so forth give but a limited satisfaction to the mentally mature, a percentage of the more advanced communities would doubtless turn to quacks. Men with assurance would rapidly gain a following somewhere. Religious fanatics, psychoanalysts, nudity specialists, sexual mystics, magicians, campfire girls, musical bugs, rhythmic dancers, as well as the disciples of Jesus, Moses, Buddha, Mrs. Eddy, and the other time-honored teachers would all have their chance, but with a difference.
Under capitalism society’s trend is toward greater and greater centralization owing to the exigencies of business. In a technocracy, the compulsion toward national conformity in matters outside the scope of the technological products and processes would not exist.”
About capitalism, Loeb added: “Not only is the effect of this injurious from the point of view of eugenics, but it tends to merge the nation’s talent into a vast conglomerate mass, where individual differences are ironed out and the germs of potential genius suffocated. New York stimulates certain talents to full realization […] great centers are excellent for bringing out the genius of those individuals whose expressions happen to be fashionable, but they are death for most of those others whose hope was to force the acceptance of their peculiar vision by the strength of their personalities.”
“In a generation or two, when the toys of the rich have begun to bore and the pretension of the quacks have been exploded, society, confident in its security, and humble in its knowledge that the good life is not to be attained by satisfying material needs, would gradually, inevitably, and with cumulative intensity, turn to art.
By art I do not mean shadowy studios crowded with broken statues, heavy draperies, and crossed legs, or even bright studios filled with experiments in combining oddly colored shapes and empty highball glasses. I mean the development of those faculties by which man adapts himself to his environment.
Wild animals adapt themselves to their environment by instinct; their natures are such that they automatically fit into their environment. The external world seems made for them, they for the world. This does not preclude calamity since tragedy is part of the texture of life. It does not preclude shame, boredom, even dullness, except when the animal is made for a dull life and exults in it.
Domestic animals are not so well adapted to life. Man, for his own ends, frustrates their innate fitness. Thus throughbred horses and pekinese dogs, though beautiful and equipped for special functions, have lost some of the zest for life innate in their ancestors. Neglected by man, they would either revert to their original forms or perish.
Man is a domestic animal, self-domesticated, but thoroughly domesticated. He has thereby acquired, in the case of certain individuals, a beauty unattainable by natural processes, and a capacity for expression also alien to the natural state. He has sacrificed, especially among the tribes called civilized, that fitness for life which graces the existence of all wild things. Consequently he suffers innumerable frustrations.
The natural outlets for his energy are stopped. The goals, longed for instinctively, are unsatisfying when attained. He has invented melancholy, boredom, shame, a sense of inferiority, and many other moods which pretty well cancel the good things domestication procures. To persuade him to expend consecutive energy, which seems to be necessarily for health, physical and mental prods or promises have to be used just as if he were a donkey.
By domestication man has lost to a considerable extent that sense of imminent wonder, beauty – no word exactly describes it – which all live things are heir to. Of course, wild animals and the lower domestic animals, unencumbered by intellect, by the power to reason, do not consciously realize that the twilight is lovely. Swallows cavort before the setting sun to catch their supper. Yet they seem to exult in their rhythmic motion, in the strange hush for the hour, in the vivid tints that the leaves assume. Coyotes singing to the full moon are an even better example because their motive is quite unmixed with any utilitarian purpose..
Man has not entirely lost this sense. Sometimes it comes to him unexpectedly. He desired to dance steps he has long forgotten, to sing notes he has never heard. Sometimes he obtains the vision through his invention, romantic love. Sometimes he sees it clearly and recurrently. Then, if he troubles to perfect a technique for fixing the vision in some more or less permanent and communicable form, he is called an artist.
The artist is not an undomesticated man. He is infinitely more. He has regained the natural gift of all live free things and maintained the special aptitudes acquired by domestication. He is thus more than an animal, wild or domestic. In his moments of conscious vision he is akin to those supernatural deities evoked by human imagination. He sees and he knows he sees. […]
Man’s so-called progress is a retrogression unless eventually he regains his animal birthright and at the same time keeps the self-consciousness acquired during the millenniums of self-imposed discipline.”
In the above passage, it seems to me that Loeb is equating the function of art to that of the psy disciplines, which is whenever there is a friction between the external environment and the internal individual a change of the individual is necessary, especially if the technical and scientific discourse and its experts are in a technocracy firmly in charge of the external objective world where not political discussions or democratic debates of sort would be needed or desirable. A technocratic society could be able to divert the human energies liberated by the abolition of capitalism: “By guaranteeing economic security, much of the race’s surplus energy would be diverted from the obsolete money competition toward a search for vital values,” this way becoming “unlike any society ever known on earth.”
Mentioning of “the tribes called civilized” reminded me also of Aldous Huxley‘s numerous writings on similar topics and of the necessity for an “ego dissolution” or “ego death” that is one of the main tenets of the contemporary discourse, including the one of the so-called “psychedelic renaissance” movement, see for instance the organization “Decriminalize Nature – Restore Our Roots.”
“Science” – Loeb continued right after the above passage – “the use of our logical, intellectual faculties to generalize from data acquired through our senses and through mechanical extensions of our senses, can discover only how things work. Science, therefore, is useful in ameliorating the conditions of life and in amplifying the interest of life.
One hesitates to make generalizations about the meaning of life. Yet it seems to me – though I am well aware that the “seems to me” on this subject of countless individuals since speech was acquired, seems to us ridiculous and stupid – yet it seems to me that we have the germ of a faculty shared with all organic matter, but complicated in the case of man by the fact of his domestication and the resulting intellect which tends to smother this germ of a faculty in a pother of thought processes – that we have the germ of a faculty with which to discover the why of things.
Occasionally the meaning of life is, or seems to be, visioned in moments of ecstatic tension. Civilized man prefers to pursue this vision by the practice or contemplation of what is known as art. Other routes are also used, Voodooism and magic, for example, though, because of their frequent abuse, these routes are in disrepute. […]
Despite the vagueness of the whole subject, because the intellect is stultified before it, there is no a priori reason why a sustained, even intelligent, study of the phenomena which induce these visions cannot eventually permit us to attain them at will.
And when a being is in possession of them, he knows or thinks he knows the meaning of life and thus, as a secondary benefit, reduces, by the aid of memory, to their proper unimportance, the sorrow, the tragedy, even the ostensible evil which is woven of necessity into the texture of our temporal days.
Many teachers both of ethics and aesthetics have glimpsed this consummation. Even the renunciations commanded by the various religions have usually been for the purpose of assisting mystic visions. But renunciations, except for the psychological effect, are no longer necessary. Man may enjoy all earthly goods and still have time to delve into these mysterious and satisfying aspects of existence.
Art critics when they speak of significant form, of plastic import, are referring to an inexplicable harmony perpetuated in form and color. Literary critics, when they praise a poem for some happy metaphor, are referring to a specific revelation of the wonder implicit in some phenomenon. Music which uses sound relations, dancing which uses the relations of motions, and all other aesthetic expressions are seeking the inner rhythm which man, when attuned, instinctively recognizes to be fraught with meaning, the only meaning that matters.
Science cannot identify this meaning but of late has been forced to hypothecate some unknown which is concerned with value. Of course artists, in their search for aesthetic values, may apply themselves directly to shaping the outside world. This phase of their activities is not so crucial. It might be better if aesthetic considerations were completely neglected when constructing objects and their utilitarian function alone considered. […] Even the implicit harmony in a composition of billboards, ashcans, and the back of a hideous brick house can be made manifest by a photographer whose eyes and hands know their job.
Thus the primary function of the artist is to make manifest the beauty implicit in his environment so that all men can recognize it and thereby better adapt themselves to their environment, to the external world.”
“Human relationships are in most dire need of an overhauling. The whole conception of society based on the family unit may have outlived its usefulness. In the nomadic tribal days, in feudal days, even in early handicraft days, the family had a fundamental as well as a consanguineous unity. This has disappeared under late capitalism. Similar functional interests are probably a more suitable basis for social intercourse than accidents at birth.
The sexual relationships, also, might be investigated scientifically. The laws and the customs which govern them, especially the taboos, originally imposed by Christian and Calvinist dogma, seem both to exaggerate their importance and degrade their repute. In fact the satisfaction of nearly every instinctive need is harassed by inhibitions based on superstitions and enforced by social pressure.
In a technocracy, with will and time available, with the tendency toward centralization reversed, with each community trying to solve its particular problems in its own peculiar way, it is hardly to be doubted but that new and better ways of living would be devised. There is no reason why man, equipped with reason, should not be able to adapt himself to his environment at least as well as those forms of life governed solely by reflexes. Self-consciousness complicates the problem, but self-consciousness would make its resolution infinitely worth while.
Another interesting reversal of trend, which may be mentioned here although it has nothing to do with art, would occur in the field of biology. Capitalism and its curious opposite side, known as humanitarianism, has pretty well reversed natural selection and warped sexual selection.
Because of complicated social pressures, men of distinction, men who stand out as individuals, tend to limit their progeny to such an extent that their stock is gradually extinguished. On the other hand humanitarianism attempts to preserve every human life brought into the world. It has succeeded passably well. As a result the weaker stocks, who do not as a rule know how to limit their breeding, multiply tremendously. Under capitalism, instead of the survival of the fittest, we have the survival of the less fit.
Sexual selection also is deflected under capitalism. Heterosexual organisms in their natural state tend to choose for mating those individuals which please them. In the capitalistic societies, because of an inherent economic insecurity, such valuable factors as beauty, strength, mental agility, nobility of character, charm, and the capacity for provoking sexual release, which normally attract, are replaced, in some social strata, by those biologically unimportant qualities which enable certain individuals to make money. […] Natural selection in any case is nearly always nullified by domestication. […]
Technocracy would not restore natural or sexual selection. For this a real anarchy would be necessary […] Pure anarchy must remain a dream until the human species has developed a character less egoistic, or all the real acquisitions of man’s thousands of years of self-domestication are likely to be sacrificed.
Technocracy envisages another form of domestication, a form in which man may become more than man. It is the opposite of the system invented by the thinkers of conservative India, a system of stratified castes and wholesale renunciations, which, if carried to its logical conclusion, would transform the human species into a race akin to the ants and termites. Technocracy is designed to develop the so-called high faculties in every man and not to make each man resigned to the lot into which he may be born. […]
Every woman who wanted to and who was not disqualified by the medical department would probably find means to enable her to bear children. […]
This would lead to an enriching of the racial stream and to a tapping of human faculties as yet unsuspected.
In prehistoric times man developed, as a by-product of the domestication process, intellect, self-consciousness, and a capacity for expression unattained by other branches of the living world. With natural selection again permitted to operate, and with the ideal types, at which sexual selection aims, chosen for the possession of those qualities which society, free of economic pressure, tends naturally to admire, the very nature and look of man might in time be transformed even without taking into account the improvement which immediately occurs to every stock when environmental conditions are bettered.
The possibilities in this field are unimaginable. What can be done by skillful selection among plants and animals is recognized. What can be done with man by utilizing the laws of heredity and the effect of environment is completely unknown.
The domestication of man was doubtless directed in the past toward increasing man’s group power in order to attain and secure his dominance over nature. It has accomplished marvels and has paid in other ways for the marvels accomplished. Though breeding with specific individuals for specific purposes, by which means the Japanese have produced an extraordinary type of wrestler, is not contemplated because no superman is available to supervise the job, natural and sexual selection should probably effect remarkable changes once the inhibitions inherited from tribal days, and the false ideals promulgated by late social eras, were done away with.
A technocracy, then, should in time produce a race of man superior in quality to any now known on earth, a society more exciting, interesting, and variegated than has ever been possible, and a nation in which no individual should be unhappy or discontented for remediable causes.”
According to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum website it was “a modernist magazine founded by Harold Loeb and Alfred Kreymborg and published from November 1921 to January 1924. Loeb was the son of two powerful New York families—the Guggenheims on his mother’s side (cousin to Peggy Guggenheim) and the Loebs on his father’s side. Loeb came from a rather affluent background, which allowed him to produce a magazine that was instrumental in introducing Americans to European avant-garde.”
Associate Editor of Broom at the time when the magazine was established in Rome in 1921 – main office was in Trinita’ dei Monti, 18 – was Giuseppe Prezzolini. “Initially, the magazine was printed in Europe, first in Rome and then in Berlin, with the intention of bringing new, avant-garde art back to the U.S.”]
Last Updated on April 6, 2021 by Federico Soldani