“Among artists, we no longer know what to say to each other, we don’t know if we ought to laugh or cry about it, and doing, my word, neither one thing nor the other we are happiest when we find ourselves in possession of a little paint and canvas, the thing we also lack sometimes. But any idea of a regular life, any idea of awakening in ourselves or in others gentle ideas or sensations, all of this must necessarily appear pure utopia to us….” The letters of Van Gogh’s last year mark his acceptance of his isolation, coupled with the belief that the isolation need not be absolute – that, one day, there will be a community of readers and viewers who will understand him, and that his mistake had been to try and materialize that community in the moment instead of accepting it as the possible gift of another world and time. “One must seize the reality of one’s fate and that’s that.”
Adam Gopnik Van Gogh’s Ear
But what, exactly, is the “reality of one’s fate?” Over the years artists have come to see the life of Van Gogh as a cautionary tale. In the 1980s, the poet Rene Ricard used this tale as a platform for promoting a new generation of painters and artists. In The Radiant Child Ricard stated, “Everybody wants to get on the Van Gogh Boat. There is no trip so horrible that someone won’t take it. Nobody wants to miss the Van Gogh Boat. The idea of the unrecognized genius slaving away in a garret is a deliciously foolish one. We must credit the life of Vincent van Gogh for really sending that myth into orbit…We’re so ashamed of his life that the rest of art history will be retribution for van Gogh’s neglect. No one wants to be part of a generation that ignores another van Gogh. And yet looking at art history we see that these other guys were pros. They started when they were kids. They sold their work. They worked on commission. There is no great artist in all art history who was as ignored as van Gogh, yet people are still afraid of missing the Van Gogh Boat.” During the eighties the gangplank into the art world was lowered and a stream of new collectors embarked on an investment cruise. Art was bought and sold like commodities, produced like merchandise and that created a new culture economy – one that hadn’t existed in the art world before. A new form of institutional artist began to take shape in our studios, and as more artists got paid, rocking the boat began to look “deliciously foolish.” These new artists no longer trudged through the fields of Arles, they sailed with the economic tides providing “advanced culture” for a new generation of financial investors sunning on biennial poop decks. On this new ship, in this new economy, we came to understand that there won’t be any Van Gogh boats – Matisse, Picasso or Warhol ones either. Our fate, it seems, set sail for a very different kind of “reality” than the one Van Gogh came to accept.
Why? Because these sorts of anomalies, these sorts of artists, change the structures and lives of the art world. They change one’s perceptions of what reality can be, they upset the balances of control. Postmodernism has been with us for nearly 60 years, and we continue to apply its structures and practices to whatever art we make. This is true for many reasons – social, economic, cultural, political. It is true because change is minimized and directed by the very systems we have come to rely on, those things that define our lives, our realities. In our Postmodern era, the concept of history no longer exists, there is no striving for change or advancement. There is only an endless refurbishment and customization of the program itself. The vessel the art economy sails on today is very much a Ship of Theseus. Think of the achievements of the first half of the 20th Century and compare that to our Postmodern age. The technological, political, ethical, moral and economic advancements and the physical clashes that happended because of those advancements were stunning. In the first 50-60 odd years we moved from horse drawn carriages to engines that broke the sound barrier, from trains to automobiles to rocket ships, and we finished the Modernist era with a walk on the moon – the endpoint of “history.” Think of it – from the fields of Arles to the Sea of Tranquilty in less than a century. Then the tide went out…
To paraphrase Warhol: the best Art is Business. But even this deft aphorism seems a bit naive in our High POMO age. Today the best Art is Finance. And the Art Market looks more and more like the modern day Financial Industry. Derivatives, Credit Defaults Swaps, Collateralized Debt Obligations, and many other contemporary financial instruments were valued through the perceptions of other financial instruments. All of these interconnected “realities” were created using Postmodern theoretic practices. They essentially add up to an endgame of finance. These financial products exist only as concepts, concepts that tweak and customize other concepts in order to waylay the consequences that those primary concepts may hold. They are not “things,” they are “products” designed to make other “products” seem more “real.” And in our age of digitization and programming, these sorts of conceptual practices have become the only means in which the “value” of value itself must be continually inflated without actually contributing anything “real” to that value. Concept is far more important than reality because it exists for nothingness, it exists in a void, it slides in and out of perception. If we “see” Postmodernism in this way, conceptual art uses the same “rules” as contemporary finance. “Conceptual art is art in which the concept(s) or idea(s) involved in the work take precedence over traditional aesthetic and material concerns.” There is very little practical theoretical difference between, say, the work of Bruce Nauman and the work of Alan Greenspan – both indulge in Postmodern practices to achieve their “conceptual” realities. How? By allowing the mechanisms of the “market” or the “studio” to create laissez faire “realities” that focus on the ground, on nothingness and the void rather than the thing-in-itself; concept as reality – where words take precedence over form. It is a magician’s trick, a shell game – the worst kind of illusory distraction (we’ll be discussing this comparison in depth in an upcoming reality post.) After watching Nauman heal-and-toe-hip-sway along the outer edge of a square trudging through the fields in search of a vision seems quaint, or worse, mad.
“We no longer know what to say to each other…” I found that statement heartbreaking. It sounds like an end, the way relationships of all kind, end. It defines that moment of realization when there is no turning back, no rescue, that a new reality has formed right before our eyes. It is Van Gogh’s denouement – the moment after the heartbreak. There weren’t going to be any collector cruises or after-parties. No friends to open up to, no lover to lay with. He had only the fields, his paintings and letters, the asylum and that pistol pressed against his chest. His fate is nothing that we Postmoderns yearn for, nothing to romanticize. It is “deliciously foolish” to suffer so, but as we’ve come to understand in our conceptual world, there is a physical price to be paid for structuring one’s own “reality.” There always is. However, there’s something deeper going on as well, and it continues to come to light as I look further into “reality.” It is the power of our emotions, our deep inner demons, that also drive us into our reality and our inevitable fate. It colors our visions. As Georgina said – “We are our own devil,” and maybe that truly is the “reality” that we must seize.
reality… will continue.