Correspondence with W. Warren Wagar

April 2001

What follows is my 2001 correspondence with W. Warren Wagar, who died in November 2004, and whose book, A Short History of the Future provided me with much food for thought during the period I was reading it. (And anyone who knows me might remember how I went on about it during 2000-2001).

From: Timothy Comeau
To: W. Warren Wagar
Date: Tue. 10 April 2001 – 9:40pm
Subject: A Short History of the Future questions

Dear Mister Wagar,I’m aware that you follow and contribute to the WSN forum, but since this mostly involves questions about your book, I wanted to write to you directly.

I am an artist in Toronto who first read your book, A Short History of the Future last summer and have found it both endlessly facinating and very entertaining. I am outside of the academies now, and have conducted a sort of independent study of the text in my spare time. Understandably, you can imagine that I find the passages dealing with art in the future to be of particular interest. I’m wondering if you could answer some questions I have.

Lately, I have been most intrigued with the substantialist art of the Commonwealth. On the weekend it occured to me that what you describe as substantialism is a form of renewed humanism, (you do mention “integral humanism” but this seems to be more of a political thing than spiritual) a belief of man’s purpose arising from the scientific discoveries of cosmology and genetics. I am beginning to see what you describe as neorealist art celebrating the common person in terms of what occurred in the late Middle Ages, when medivael art achieved a new realism and incorporated a sense of the divine with that of the human – and which we call the Renaissance. (The Renaissance being a rebirth of ancient learning, but isn’t our own time in the midsts of a new re-birth, with our archaeological discoveries re-infusing our culture with knowledge of Lascaux and Chauvet?)

In attempting to describe what a “social realist” substantialist painting might look like to a friend, I pointed out the work of the BC artist Chris Woods (-albeit his paintings explore consumerism). Are you familiar with his work? (They can be viewed here: )

ART IN 2200
In the autonomous society, where critics lament fossil art and that artists reject most of post modernism and modernism in favor of “simpler” forms: I have interpreted this to be conducive to the democratic infusion that the Commonwealth gave humanity, in line with the Preamble. Are medieval and folk art practiced because it is of the people? I have interpreted the rejection of pomo and mod based upon their consumerist and capitialist aspects, which I guess would vanish in the Catastrophe right?

As an artist, I am too often surrounded by the proverbial Philistines that I find anyone outside of the art discipline who talks about it as intelligently as you do to be a fellow conspirator – and I’m curious as to what your tastes are with regard to contemporary art, and what your background is with regard to its study. My own experience with professors in university was that they didn’t like to answer such questions, but as an historian of world politics, I am curious about how you see art intersecting the world system.

So, I’m wondering if you could elaborate a bit more on these ideas.

Finally, I just wanted to express how much I like the book. I especially like the format of incorporating letters and diary entries to flesh out the historical narrative. Eduardo Mistral Ortiz’s Diary entry is one of my favorites.

Thanks for your time,

Timothy Comeau

From: W. Warren Wagar
To: Timothy Comeau
Date: Wed. 11 April 2001 – 6:47pm
Re: A Short History of the Future questions

Dear Timothy Comeau,

Many thanks for your e-mail of yesterday. I’m glad that you found my book of interest, but almost embarrassed that its few slender passages on the arts could mean something to a working artist. By trade I am an intellectual and cultural historian, so I know a little about a lot, but my speculations about the arts of the future are based more on brave ignorance than any sort of knowledge in depth. In my own personal life, the only art form I know well is classical music, mostly of the period since 1880. My comments follow.

“Substantialism” is my version of the dialectical materialism of Marx & Engels as revised by the French Marxist Jean Jaures. It argues that the evolution of human consciousness has brought with it a new dimension of being–“trans-being”–capable of repealing the laws of pre-human nature and constructing a higher order of substance, a conscious, willing substance that can make and re-make itself. The problem with modernism and pomo alike is that they not only succumb to capitalist consumerism but also erect an artificial barrier between the artist and his/her society. Art becomes something produced only for other artists, a cop-out whereby humankind at large is deliberately left in the dust. The reproduction of this art takes full advantage of the mechanisms of the market-place, simultaneously mocking and exploiting the hapless consumer, who is simultaneously angered and humiliated by its seeming unintelligibility. By contrast, art under the Commonwealth would become democratized and would celebrate what all of us have in common. This happened, before, in the art movements of the second half of the 19th Century, with the realism of Courbet and the impressionism of Manet and all their followers; even the post-impressionists (Van Gogh, Gauguin) eventually found a broad public able to connect with their sensibility. All of this work is an art of common humanity. The form that it would take a century from now is of course unguessable.

world politics, I am
>curious about how you see art intersecting the world system. So, I’m
>wondering if you could elaborate a bit more on these ideas.

Several lines of your letter seem to be missing here. I would just add that in the “House of Earth,” I anticipate the arts taking on a greater variety of forms and media of expression, in keeping with the greater variety, freedom, and complexity of life in such a heterodox culture. But again, the arts would grow out of communal life, not a standardized metropolinized “one size fits all” life.

Somewhere I think you also asked me about my own preferences. I feel the strongest connection to the art of the second half of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th, through Picasso and Magritte. My musical tastes are even narrower, essentially the music of the post-Wagnerian generation, circa 1880-1920. My favorite composers are Gustav Mahler and the little-known English composer Frederick Delius. Does any of this “make sense”? You tell me!


Warren Wagar

From: Timothy Comeau
To: W. Warren Wagar
Subject: Thank you for answering
Date: Fri. 13 April 2001 – 9:48pm

Thank you for responding. You have given me a lot more to think about!

My own take on art history is whereas academic history is a narrative of recorded events, art history offers a record

the psychology of the times. I sometimes define an artist as a “psychological historian”. That’s why I appreciate your inclusion of “a short art history of the future”. It’s one thing to be taught that World War I was the first industrial, mechanized war, it’s other to be taught that due to the medical advances of the time, people were surviving injuries that would have previously killed them, which was greatly shocking to the people of the day, to see the maimed “living monsters” as they thought of them, and this in turn is represented in German expressionism of the 20s(Grosz, Beckman).(I realize that’s somewhat simplistic, but I think it illustrates quite well what I am talking about – and it’s how I understand the nihilism of Leroy du Rien).

As it is, I have so far only had a vague working knowledge of Courbet and the 19th Century, but now I’m much more interested. From “the catching up,” I’ve done over the past few days, I can see what you wrote about with greater clarity. It does make a lot of sense.

I admit that my preferences lie more toward what is being done now, the contemporary art of today’s galleries and prizes. But I fully agree with your statements in your letter, art being something produced for other artists (and hence my interest in it – your point exactly) a cop-out leaving humankind behind. My own take on this is a result of what you call “credicide” in the book.

But it’s also true that art is in a double bind. It seeks to criticize the contemporary, while being entrenched with the consumerist system. It is constantly bitting the hand that feeds it. Art exists in opposition to popular culture -as it has now for almost 150 years. As as admirer of classical music, you see exactly what I’m talking about when trying to find the few radio stations that play it in the midst of all the other Top 40 stuff. But most people don’t appreciate classical music because for a variety of reasons they don’t invest the time to appreciate it, preffering the quick pop medleys to provide a soundtrack to their lives. Classical musicians make no apologies for not “dumbing down,” and neither do contemporary artists.

I have often thought however, that some of today’s contemporary art is comparable to that of the post impressionists: that they too will “eventually [find] a broad public”. But your book gave me a new way of looking at it all, with contemporary art’s connection to consumerism and capitalism that is by no means a guaranteed economic system. So I thank you for that.

Timothy Comeau

From: W. Warren Wagar
To: Timothy Comeau
Subject: Re: Thank you for answering
Date: Sat. 14 April 2001 – 3:06pm

And thanks for your further comments. I know what you mean about how contemporary art and music takes time to reach a broader public. In a sense that’s the whole story of the last two centuries, ever since the invention of the “avant-garde.” Certainly some of the work done in the last 50 years or so will eventually find an audience outside the ranks of its initiates, but it would be a mistake to rely too heavily on the patterns of the past. Abstract expressionism, for example, still comes across as more curious than expressive. Dada is still a vast joke, although widely emulated by the contemporary avant-garde. And the serial music of the 1940s to 1960s, so universally acclaimed by the music professors of the period, still falls on deaf ears. Yet without a vibrant living art, culture can petrify and survive only as museum pieces fit only for reverence. Wags like to refer to the Met in Lincoln Center as the Metropolitan Museum of Opera, a showcase for Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Wagner, and Verdi, staged over and over again. The same goes for all past great work. No wonder so much of postmodernism consists of quotation. As someone says in A SHORT HISTORY OF THE FUTURE, “all late culture is quotation.” What a terrifying thought! (And now, lord help me, I’m quoting myself.)But much of the blame falls on the academy, I am convinced. Just as science and technology have become more and more minutely specialized and professionalized, so the arts have been captured, catalogued, classified, critiqued, and endlessly subdivided by the academicians. I was on a doctoral committee recently for a novelist. He got his Ph.D. with a science-fiction novel. And his partner was getting a Ph.D. for critiquing gay poetry. Professors tell you whether you’re any good. Even the writing of history (my field) has lost most of its grace and force thanks to submission to the canons of professionalism. I have been a professional academic for 43 years now, and sometimes I feel like a Greek slave teaching Aristotle to a Roman patrician or a mandarin in the neo-Confucian court of a Chinese emperor. Of course my “credentials” also gave me the freedom to write A SHORT HISTORY OF THE FUTURE, so perhaps I shouldn’t complain.

Enough rambling. Best wishes!

Shortly after this correspondence I went out and bought Phaidon’s book on Courbet and read it within a month, furthering my understanding not only of Realism, but leading to the work of Baudelaire as well. Two years before I had borrowed this book from the NSCAD library, but it didn’t hold my interest at the time.

Document History
  1. Posted to my blog on 5 June 2006
  2. 2015: this version produced