Rough Trade – Reality

“The misery of man is to be balked of the sight of essence, and to be stuffed with conjecture: but the supreme good is reality; the supreme beauty is reality; and all virtue and all felicity depend on this science of the real: for courage is nothing else than knowledge: the fairest fortune that can befall man, is to be guided by his daemon to that which is truly his own.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson “Representative Men

Do we even have a clue what “reality” looks like these days? Here in the United States our electronic media determines how our lives look and how our lives are defined. And if, at any time, the lens wanders and a thing falls out of the frame or is replaced in that frame by something new, that previous thing no longer exists in our consciousness. So connected are we to our electronic extensions that our fleshy memories fade quicker than the light on our widescreen. We upload or download streams of information to become part of the free flow of programs, enabling us to be located among that data, allowing us to be “known.” And with new media programs like blogs, facebook and twitter, we have found that we can attain “reality” when we broadcast our passing thoughts and non-sequitur philosophies into the electronic universe. Our “reality” has become the Media we inhabit rather than a philosophy we might fashion. American Idol is not the most watched television show because of the diversity of its programming or the artistic integrity of its “stars.” No, it is insanely popular because it reinforces our perceptions of who we are, what we want and that our lives look correct, that our perceptions are aligned with the program, that we can indeed be classified and located within the “real.” Americans were thought to live lives of quiet desperation but today we live lives of compulsive amplification. We pump up, we get online and we live at light speeds. We tune in because we crave something – a nostalgia, a sentiment, but mostly a mirror for our narcissism. But what of our physical lives here in the 21st Century? What is it that we might actually believe about our fleshy selves? What does reality look like when we unplug, when we slow down.


Matisse all through his career would fill his studio with life – models, children, flowers, music. There were exotic costumes, patterned fabrics, and flesh. He needed to look at and live with a physical presence in order to find the abstraction in the form. Picasso, on the other hand, would lock himself away and with his prodigious visual memory, he would fill canvas after canvas with visions of his life. He had already assimilated the lived vision through his very being, not through a frame or a screen. For both artists Art was found in the physical world, the THICK world, as they experienced it – life drove the meaning of their art and it drove their innovations. It was as simple as looking to oneself or through oneself to find meaning in the things that one had seen, touched and experienced.

Today, we approach Art in a different way. For all the POMO critics’ endless hyping of specific “meaning” or “narrative” in the art that they promote, the truth is, Postmodernism engages in a more generalized sort of expression – one specifically made for the lens and the program. We apply these predetermined theoretical devices to create specific institutional friendly outcomes. In this fascinating article entitled “The Case for Working With Your Hands” the author, Matthew Crawford, explains the Postmodern imperative as it impacted him:

“My job was structured on the supposition that in writing an abstract of an article there is a method that merely needs to be applied, and that this can be done without understanding the text. I was actually told this by the trainer, Monica, as she stood before a whiteboard, diagramming an abstract. Monica seemed a perfectly sensible person and gave no outward signs of suffering delusions. She didn’t insist too much on what she was telling us, and it became clear she was in a position similar to that of a veteran Soviet bureaucrat who must work on two levels at once: reality and official ideology. The official ideology was a bit like the factory service manuals I mentioned before, the ones that offer procedures that mechanics often have to ignore in order to do their jobs.”

It is the abstract rather than the abstraction that we concentrate on. By that I mean we expect the process to provide us with meaning rather than the thing in itself. In order to operate, in order to be a part and create a part for this system we must design our thought to NOT understand anything outside of that system. Since 19 Sixty this idea of process has been the norm in the art world. Intellectual Visual understanding has been replaced with a codified system of recontextualization, appropriation and reproduction. And with it the career path has been structured and enforced.

On the Job
In the practical part of a career we have learned to approach our artistic lives as if we are interviewing for a job, as if fame and noteriety are something to be applied for rather than something that might have to be earned (Andy Warhol’s magazine of Superstars isn’t called Interview for nothing.) When we look at old masters like Matisse or Picasso what we see are careerists coming up with a schtick, a clever signature style, a BRANDED product that made them instantly recognizable to the public. We look to their histories as if they marketed their personalities for personal gain like reality show contestants. We run down their bios like facebook profiles while throwing their names about creating synergies and precedents for our own work. We see it all as publicity, a great fiction created to maximize participation in our media reality. This is because everything in our culture, everything in this new world of immaterial commerce, is about connectivity to potential customers, potential sales. We can’t imagine any other narrative because these commercial programs determine our perceptions. What’s real for us has become what’s broadcasted and downloaded.

Jeff Koons: It’s basically the medium that defines people’s perceptions of the world, of life itself, how to interact with others. The media defines reality. Just yesterday we met some friends. We were celebrating and I said to them: “Here’s to good friends!” It was like living in an ad. It was wonderful, a wonderful moment. We were right there living in the reality of our media.


OK, I understand that this isn’t going to change, and I’m certainly not about to entertain the thought that things were better in the “good ole days,” because that my friends, is just a bunch of unmitigated bullshit. But at the moment we are experiencing a devastating economic struggle, and those who fashioned this system are struggling to maintain control of it. So as I said in the last post – let’s shake a few trees and see what falls to the ground. I’ll start with the obvious – I don’t like the top down nature of Postmodern Art. What was it that Mr. Hughes said? “Art… has become a kind of cruddy game for the self aggrandizement of the rich and the ignorant.” And indeed it has. From the academies to the studios conforming to Postmodernist aesthetic conventions has become our expectation and our artistic norm. We have no one left to blame for the way our art world looks, for the ideas that we have found “acceptable.” Part of it can be chalked up to the fact that with the expansion of the academies a huge business, an economy has formed around the production, distribution and proliferation of this sort of contemporary Art. And like all economies it is serviced by a vast army of professionals, clerics, workers and bureaucrats. We have come to believe that Art is just another middle class occupation, a profession, a trade. We have formed our aesthetic reality around these ideas, and we expect that system to provide for us.

PicassoLook it’s no fun to struggle. It’s no fun scrambling to feed your family while your work sits in the studio unseen and unsold. It’s no fun laboring at a day job because your art career is non-existent. And in these times, it’s no fun to lose that day job with no prospects of selling your work or even getting another job because the larger economic system has collapsed. It’s those sorts of experiences that change one’s relationship with one’s “integrity.” But what most of us are experiencing in this “new” way is an old reality – one that we have read about in the histories of Art and were not expecting to encounter on our way to sold out shows and dinner with monied collectors. Van Gogh’s failure, Cezanne’s struggle, Monet’s money problems, Carravaggio’s murder conviction – these are the stories we read like they are some form of fairy tale. But what of the thousands of faceless stories of artists just like them that vanished without the happy ending – how many of them went poor, toothless and unrecognized into that long good night. Alternatively, I’m sure that the Artists who’ve become the playthings of the rich and ignorant also must pay their price. They may read withering critiques from nobodies writing on blogs. Or they may censor their best works, hoping to regain the buying public’s favor, moving from porn to puppies. Or they wind up having to build box after box after fucking glass box filling each one of them one after another with preserved dead things. There have always been the success stories – those who were fashionable, those adored by the rich and powerful in their day, that later, disappeared into footnotes and White Paper asides. But you have to ask yourself – was their success what they thought Art was about? Did they believe that success made them great or were they just content to be wage earning professionals? Who knows? One economic life is no better than the other – luck and timing, connections and hard work – nothing much is different in the economic grand scheme. But whatever economic reality each of us has to contend with there will always be a price to pay for our involvement in art and what it means to be an artist.


But beyond those day to day economic realities we also have to contend with a larger more pressing issue in our studios, the failure of our courage. We must understand that when we compromise our courage in the studio to further our careers we lose out, we lose our right and need to innovate. Without questioning our work, without pushing for answers, without asking hard questions we remain in stasis. We accept that nothing new might come from our own understanding, that nothing of value could be possible, that a “vision” could make a difference. We’ve accepted that we don’t have to struggle for the NEW, and when we acquiessed to this idea, we became advertising pitchmen for the marketplace of recontextualized ideas. Just like the New Tide detergent or the New Chevy Truck or the New Delta Airlines we became the New Andy Warhol, the New Jeff Koons and the New Next Thing. We wrapped up our art history in new packaging, loaded it with nostalgia and narcissism and sold it to the highest bidder. But as time has gone on our work has gotten a bit thinner. We have tried to ignore the fact that we’ve run out of things to recontextualize, the well of our history has run dry, the mine is tapped out, the forest has been cut down. Postmodernism, like our stock markets, has created aesthetic bubble after consuming bubble, and we are now left to come to terms with realities of the post-pop mess. What is apparent when one really looks at the Postmoderns’ critique is that it has always been “out there” – it has never been in here, with us.

Which brings us back to the ethical and moral conundrum that we are now facing in the studio. Where is our aesthetic fight? In other words – Is Modernism still the dominant theoretical bogey-man? Are we still in thrall to its premises and conclusions? Or is there something else that must be confronted? Postmodernism has absorbed all that Modernism had to dish out. Postmodernism through its use of appropriation and context has basically made Modernism a subset of itself. Now this bit of trickery was done very much like a corporate takeover, and it may be the first corporate takeover ever in the history of art theoretics. In a takeover one company takes over another by leveraging (borrowing – creating debt) the deal. Then once the company is bought it puts that debt onto the balance sheet of the company that was taken over. The acquiring company basically now owns the company without having paid a penny for it. At which point the acquired company is raided for its pension fund cash, split up and sold in pieces. This is EXACTLY what the Postmodernists did to Modern Art. They never offered us anything new, they took our legacy, repackaged our history and sold it back to us in a diminished form.


The reason for this series on Rough Trade is to push forward. I want us to be clear that it’s going to take more than just making Art. It’s going to have to take understanding. What we’ve been doing over the last decades, where we are now, and where we might go. We must find the truth that Reality is in your life, not in the program, no matter where it’s coming from. It’s what you encounter in the day. It’s how you feel in the morning when you get up. It’s that delicious meal you shared with friends. It’s the conversation you had with your parents. It’s the orgasm you experienced with your lover. What we need are those realities, those everyday things that we pass over and miss in our work when we repackage a history or try to “grab the energy” of Times Square. Reality is personal and in the end so is history. At the moment I’m reading Simone De Beauvoir‘s Letters to Sartre. What is amazing to me is how she writes of the day to day involvement in the small things in life. The friends, the lovers, the writing, the food, the ideas and mostly her deep affection that she unabashedly conveys in every letter. Even with censors reading these letters as they made their way to his prison camp – she bravely insists on involving him in her existence. It is a different kind of intimacy, a different kind of personal contact. It wasn’t meant for the public but in a way, meant for a larger history. It’s not done in the same way we reveal ourselves today, but contains a deeper intimacy connected to touch, life, love, reality, and what I call, thickness. That is the kind of bravery we must show in our studios at this time. We must risk, we must have courage and we must be smart about what we are doing.

Vision is next…

5 thoughts on “Rough Trade – Reality

  1. Hello Mark/Henri.
    Maybe you will find it interesting – i mean my thoughts on Beauvoir/Sartre letters… Just click on my name to get there. I’ve been admiring your writing here for some time, I even dared to link your page and some articles on my blog few times. Keep on great work!

  2. now, once we discovered, that we are billions of different realties, this creates the problem to accept the “Art” of other artists, as I find that by “the others” mostly by default boring, as I find my own reality more interesting and daring. There are exceptions of course, like the big ol’ artists, whose reality is fascinating translated into great images. Thats thus our task, to live fascinating lives and turning it into unique images 😉 (I do the first already, but work on the second LoL)

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