Illustration by Eric Hanson

Art After Free Will

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We are now experiencing a shift in civilization from the final stages of modernity and expansion toward a shrinking world. The work of neuroscientists such as Vilayanur S. Ramachandran from the University of California, San Diego, and of robotics and artificial-intelligence scholar Takashi Maeno from Keio University, Tokyo, has begun to prove that there is no free will. Our actions are defined by the unconscious as a result of our surroundings, and our consciousness merely places these actions into a linear time frame, giving the impression that we make decisions as a result of our own free will. Since our subjective acts are defined by our surroundings, both the existence of the subject and the classical standpoint of appreciating art as an object need to be reconsidered.

French revolutionaries created the first modern national museum in 1793 on the premise that sovereignty rests with the people. However, if the subject that was believed to be present within us does not in fact exist, the presence of nations defined by their constitutions also needs to be comprehended instead by natural law, and the national museum may now be obsolete.

After Duchamp, artistic expressions were directed to the question of how to deal conceptually with the contradictions created by modernity. However, to approach the origin of art will be the alternative goal after the end of modernity, thus rescuing the Muses, the goddesses of inspiration, from being harnessed to the pursuit of just one artistic concept.

Starting from the “self,” modernity after Descartes is based on a Christian concept, but Mahāyāna Buddhism denies from the start the existence of the self. Instead, it says that the universe creates the self as an object in the world, and that this self creates one’s subjectivity and one’s way of observing the world. Therefore, self-consciousness is able to exist only via its relationship to the entire universe.

Buddhism also says that feeling, will and knowledge are not substances but just phenomena. In addition, all material phenomena (rūpa = material objects = 色) have no substance (śūnyatā = emptiness = 空), and therefore nonsubstance can be a material phenomenon. And, at the stage of awakening (satori = 悟), one will realize that everything is empty and infinite, and then the division of subject and object, the basis of modernity, disappears.

As a hint to thinking about the alternative system of art after modernity, I would like to discuss two of the five functions of Buddhist phenomenology that constitute the human being: saṅkhāra (formations = 行) and vijñāna (consciousness = 識). Encompassing not only trees and clouds but also human beings, Buddha’s saṅkhāra (formations) are considered to be parts of nature, and these are all impermanent and subject to change. For example, if today is a beautiful sunny day, you will leave your computer and go outside. If it is rainy, you will remain in your room and keep surfing the internet. Your decision does not come from your subjective free will, but is the result of the great will of nature, saṅkhāra. This power of nature captures something outside of your body, and it will make your decision. Following saṅkhāra, vijñāna (consciousness) is the highest level of the five functions of Buddhist phenomenology, and contains certain negative connotations. Consciousness classifies both subject and object, but Buddhism considers nonclassification to be the most beautiful thing.

For example, if you pay ten dollars to a monk, he may say “thanks,” and nothing happens. If you pay him a thousand dollars, the monk may say “thank you,” and you may want to ask him something. If you pay him a million dollars, the monk may say “thank you very much,” and may well expect some special request as an exchange. When the amount gets bigger, both persons modify their actions; this is in the stage of vijñāna, which is neither natural nor ideal.

However, if they could act as saṅkhāra, without consciousness or free will, both of them would not modify their actions as a result of the amount of money paid. Whether the poor man pays ten dollars or the rich man pays one million dollars, none of them should alter their attitudes, and the offer should be accepted. That is the most beautiful act and the ideal.

After the end of modernity and free will, along with the accompanying ideas of the subjective self and the appreciation of fine art above all as an object, the Buddhist phenomenology of saṅkhāra and vijñāna allows us some insight into an alternative art patronage system, and even art after the object.

In the stage of saṅkhāra, we will not change our attitude as a result of the amount of money. Furthermore, in the stage of saṅkhāra, since we already know that all substances are just phenomena, both the patron (subject) and the artist’s work (object) will not be important; even the artistic object itself will not be important anymore. The “artistic subject” may then appear.

There have been some pioneering artists who did not make objects, such as Yutaka Matsuzawa and Robert Filliou, and there is also the example of Joseph Beuys, with his social sculptures. These artists all suggested the unity of subject and object, and I think people will realize that this may be the future form of art in the next ten to twenty years, after the end of modern free will.