It had been four sleepless nights; coming to an end of things. She’d call out. I’d help her to the toilet, straighten the bed, try to make her comfortable. She laid back and smiled at me. So tired, so very tired. Morphine is bitter administered with a dropper. She had a hard time swallowing. Watching the clock. Just before dawn, she was, the only way to describe it, collapsing inward. Gently touched her forehead, brushed back her hair, kissed her cheek. And wished that it would stop. Exhausted, and raw, and totally, fucking useless. On a beautiful, sunny, spring morning after a long, dark night, finally.
Days later, returning to an unchanged reality that was no longer real, I discovered something very… old.
The black dogs come barking in the night for all of us. Reality changes in all kinds of ways and for all kinds of reasons. We try to process these changes through the things we know, through the ways we’ve been taught. But that’s never quite enough, is it? What we are told, what we learn secondhand, never actually gets into our experience, never quite fits into our flesh. We won’t really understand how things feel until we’ve lived it. And when we’ve gone through it, we have to fit those feelings back into the “reality” that still exists around us. We have to parse those feelings, mold them and empty them out. For some of us, well, this just won’t do. The experience is much too big for what’s known. We try to express this process in our work. We try to find a direct way to communicate those thoughts and feelings so that others might come to understand as well. Or better, so that others might realize, “Yes, I’ve seen that, experienced that. I know EXACTLY how that feels.”
The problem for artists, as it has always been, is finding a way to do just that, finding a way to express ourselves so that we are understood EXACTLY. It’s never enough to use someone else’s way of doing things no matter how we might parse the arguments. To be understood we have to change what we’ve learned, make it over in our own voice, our own style. We have to challenge what’s known, what’s been appropriated, with our own reality. And in that case, the understanding we want to share with others will never be immediate. We, all of us, have to get over what we’ve learned. The artist has to teach, leave clues in the work, give us something to hang on, something to really see. That’s just the way it’s always been, the way real understanding begins to spark in our imaginations. Think of Matisse, dressed in his tweeds, calmly and emphatically speaking about ease, pleasure and deep emotion, while the suits and his colleagues tore their hair out in front of his work. Of course Matisse knew EXACTLY what he was doing in that sense. As radical and dangerous as his work might look to everyone around him, he knew that he was building on a solid historic foundation of innovation for the future.
Today we live in the very straight world of professional practices and emotion. A defining part of our fleshy lived existence, the part that brings us to understand what is meant by EXACTLY, has to be kept in check. Emotion must be politely woven into the fabric of every social discourse – it must be presented as sentiment rather than emotion. Look, “change” in all of its forms seems to be a terrifying thing to the rank and file. And you can see this fear even in our art history – how new expressions of age old emotions makes everyone very, very nervous. Why? Because it means that one has to adjust one’s reality, one must question what one takes for granted, one may lose control.
As we all know, it’s the artists’ job to make the suits (both in and out of the art world) question their reality, but that’s never really a sure thing. In the professional world stability is what makes everyone successful, rich and correct. Stability is a good thing for all concerned. But if an artist goes off, walks away from the well worn path, then there is no guarantee of success in the world. As Dave Hickey said, “You’ll never know if you’ve got it.” Now there are a lot of cool customers in the history of art, especially in the very hot 1960s. Minimalism was the coolest of the cool and it provided an emotion free zone of pure neo-platonic idealism. Pop art, though infused with sentiment, couldn’t muster a real feeling if it wanted to. And that was the attraction. Cool ruled and it still does. In the late 70s and early 1980 there was a new generation of painters living rough in the East Village mixing Pop with Expressionism creating a kind of hyper-sentimental work – it was a time of proliferating desire. Postmodernism had begun its great institutional revision of Art’s visual history. Today this hyper-sentimental historic precedent is the grease in the great Art economy. Warhol, the machine, is beloved by all because no matter what you put in the studio end money comes out the business end.
But for a few of us visual truth comes through emotion, and the heated tango between expression and OTT failure can be excruciating for all concerned. And it’s also true that many works that flirt with the idea of going emotionally Over The Top become instantly ridiculous melodramatic failures. Risking one’s inner world can be hard on both the audience and the artist. “You never know if you’ve got it.” Why? Well, we just don’t want the “acted” emotion, we don’t want our feelings manipulated. Melodrama is control and manipulation. We would rather recognize, to see our own experience within a work. It allows us to move in close, to understand. We want to know EXACTLY how reality feels. A lot of the masters had many OTT failures, but the works that stick, the ones that truly succeed take us into new realities. And it’s through that reality, or rather a shift in our reality, that we begin to feel a very different and very old kind of emotion.
In our current 21st Century reality we live through things and on the surface of those things. We take for granted material abundance, endless desire, the dematerialized object, the painting of nothing, the empty sign, the shifting context. All of these things are subterfuges, distancing devices for physical experience and the diminishing of actual contact with the rising subject. All of these things are awash in the sentimental, the acceptable, and the expected. They keep us from our emotional selves. They keep our feelings in check. They keep us from vision.
“(Modern) art managed to be a part of the accursed share, a kind of dramatic alternative to reality, by translating the rush of unreality in reality. But what could art possibly mean in a world that has already become hyperrealist, cool, transparent, marketable? What can porn mean in a world made pornographic beforehand? All it can do is make a final, paradoxical wink — the wink of reality laughing at itself in its most hyperrealist form, of sex laughing at itself in its most exhibitionist form, of art laughing at itself and at its own disappearance in its most artificial form, irony. In any case, the dictatorship of images is an ironic dictatorship. Yet this irony itself is no longer part of the accursed share. It now belongs to insider trading, the shameful and hidden complicity binding the artist who uses his or her aura of derision against the bewildered and doubtful masses. Irony is also part of the conspiracy of art.” Jean Baudrillard – The Conspiracy of Art
So what is it that we need EXACTLY? Well, for each of us it’s something different. And that difference is always what art should be about. But there have been times, and I believe this is one of them, when we’ve grown very satisfied with our realities, when we are awash in sentiment, when we prefer the mannered to the fresh. And it’s in those times that artists have redefined themselves. In our reality it’s time to be surprised by our recognition of our deeper realities, that deep emotional part of ourselves that has been absent.