Notes Toward a post-Artist Eschatology
- Nonconformity is being redefined as a mental illness.
Apocalypse in the original sense meant a revelation (literally: an
uncovering,) not a grand, destructive cataclysm. Armageddon is the
cataclysm, apocalypse is the moment we know it is coming or possible.
In the 1990s, the intellectual conversation over postmodernism was
whether or not it was happening and whether it was possible to define
“the now” without the benefit of historical distance. The term
post-modernity better defines that time; it was the apocalypse of
modernism, the moment we realized how deeply flawed modernism is and,
thus, the Enlightenment and capitalism, and the realization that this
era is drawing to a close, eventually to be replaced by something else,
not the end of history itself.
Our contemporaneity is the post-apocalypse. We are watching the era of
the -isms and the -ologies pass. What will replace them?
At the turn of the 21st century, reforms allowed Chinese artists to
embrace the themes and representations of Western contemporary art. They
began a period of experimentation, embracing their “fin de siécle,”
often forming artists' collectives and communities on the outskirts of
the major city centers. They became known for their innovative work and
performances. Some were offered positions in the apparatus of State art
institutions, by doing so, often making a choice that would pull them
away from the experimental work which made them visible. Often those
embracing the precarity of nonconformity instead of commodification were
“disappeared” when their artistic representation threatened the
mythologies of the Chinese State while Artists like Ai Wei Wei chose
Choosing nonconformity is a form of subalterity.
The field of Artists using online technologies to create representation
is wide and deep. BUT much of it interacts with or responds to social
Most of it seems activist OR performative OR critical commentary.
Those that perform internet punnery in the form of memes or approach the
sublime in the form of glitch or game or algorithmic complexity posit or
reference a possible post-human dystopia that lies just beyond the event
horizon – this Armageddon waits with nasty, long, pointed teeth – which
seems honest, but often nihlistic.
Activism among Artists grows, continuing to expand the field of art.
Often this is “liberty-seeking,” experiments with technologies that
attempt to escape the reach or control of Authority and give back
control to local communities, the people, individuals. Why have so many
Artists embraced online technologies as a solution to perceived social
ills? Why (might work better without the word why)is there hope that
commodification and surveillance aren't inherent in these systems?
Choosing experimentation, expanding the field of art, has led Artists to
a choice between institutional practices or experimentation, conformity
Is it enough to be a critic, a cagey observer picking a neutral stance
“reporting” on what is? Artists like Hitto Steryl charm the liberal
elite (who ooze with pity for the noble subaltern) by performing their
art in the form of TED-type talks for those who aren't in the place
between. Is this really the space between Utopia and Dystopia?
What is needed is a transcendent cynicism. For if the end comes soon,
live it on your own terms, play the character you want to be. Even in
the somber face of inevitable societal change, it is a valid hope that
we have the agency to make things better than they are, better than they
were, better than They want them to be. Even if the technological elite
succeed in using the spoils of Empire to act out Lyotard's post-modern
fable by escaping the gravity well as human consciousness in some form,
the rest of us will be left here to find love in the ruins. Even the
curmudgeon enjoys human touch.
What replaces the Artists of this moment of contemporaneity? If
commodity dissipates as modernism ends, as the field of art grows, as
the moment becomes the next, do we simply become entertainers, gadflies,
cultural critics or experimenters? Are we divinators, somber
bell-wethers, sages or magicians?
These are the questions of our time, of the way Artists choose to spend
their days. And the way Artists will choose the time and place of their
own death, for to perform as a subaltern is to learn to pass inside the
interstices of the structure that Authority dictates. With that comes
premature death due to increased stress, precarious housing, less
accessible health care, etc., etc.
Live as if experimentation and transversality are the norm, not the
non-conform. Perform and pass, survive and flourish by finding hidden
gaps in whatever didactism Authority dictates. The grand narrative is
dead. Long live the new substrate.