The End of Humanism

What would you name contemporary art? The past century has seen what we call modern art, followed by postmodern art. Their characteristics were quite clear to distinguish – although sometimes a little hard to explain. But their dominance in art has passed. Now what will be remembered about our time? And what will the future bring?

By: Myrte Brander

According to professor of Art History Ann-Sophie Lehmann, we are not in any specific art movement. There is always more than one, and which one seems to be dominant is in general hindsight knowledge.

But something is going on. A new trend is emerging, which has the potential to be so strong it will change the way human beings see themselves and their place in the world. This trend is called Posthumanism.

Parliament of Things

Almost two years ago, the river Whanganui in New Zealand got its own legal status, with guardians to protect its rights. The goal was to serve the ecological, cultural and spiritual needs of the river, which has an important place in the lives of the Maori people.

It is not the first example of a non-human being represented in human politics. It is a trend, already described by Bruno Latour in 1993, when he preached for a Parliament of Things. He argues that we think too much in terms of subject/object, that we place ourselves in contrast to nature and the things around us, and refuse to consider the rights of the object.



… like the Aurignacian hunter, who became the deer he drew on the cave wall, there was no “self” to separate him from the bird or flower.

Peter Matthiessen – The Snow Leopard, page 47

All-Encompassing, Ever Moving Network

According to Posthumanists, nature isn’t as different from culture as we think. And even more important: humans do not take in a central place in the systems that shape this world. In the first place, the idea of hierarchy, where some people are more important than others, is outdated. Another idea that is showing cracks, is that of humans being at the top of the animal chain. We now know, due to discoveries by biologists like Frans de Waal, that distinctive human characteristics – like empathy – appear in certain other animals as well. Is there any way in which we are still special?

Even trees are more like humans than we thought, as Peter Wohlleben writes in his book The Hidden Life of Trees. They have social bonds, use different ways of communicating, and are very dedicated to help impaired members of their kind to survive.

Posthumanism creates more feeling for the fact that the protein in your food and the rain that fell on your hand this morning are part of systems that have existed for billions of years. Systems which we come from, and with which were are completely integrated. Posthumanism is actually a very humble way of looking at the world, a way that has always been normal in spiritually based cultures, like the Maori and the Buddhists.



Posthumanism in Art

Now what is the link with art? One way Posthumanism appears in art, is through films like RoboCop, The Terminator and The Bionic Woman. In all these films – although they are only science fiction – a certain fear for the loss of control over technology is reflected. This fear, in an age where robots are becoming smarter and smarter, makes us humans a lot more humble indeed.

Another way is when objects become the protagonists of the artwork, or for example animals like the donkey that plays the lead role in the play Balthazar from David Weber Krebs. According to art scientist Kristof van Baarle, many artists are realizing that objects are becoming a lot more active and complex than they used to be.

When searching for Posthumanist art on Google, most pages are quite extremist, which shows a more mainstream and flattened form of Posthumanism does not yet really exist.  And this doesn’t surprise me,  as I must confess, it is really hard to suddenly change the way you see yourself. It is a process that will take generations, if anything will change at all. The question remains, is Posthumanism what we will be remembered for?



This article is inspired by several articles from De Correspondent.

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