Who controls what we see? Is it the museums, the galleries, the academies or the artists? Lately, as we all know, there’s been a lot of talk about realignment in the art world. We’ve all been wondering if there will be something new to come out of all of this economic hardship and political retrenchment that our society has been experiencing. Institutions have been shrinking at alarming rates, the auction houses have been trimming their rosters and artists have been applying for straight work along with the rest of the country. But for now our problem remains at the top. Nothing of significance has changed for the power elite. We are still involved in a top down culture, we are still in thrall to the “official” theoretics of the academies and we are still watching the same old Postmodern mannerisms replicate into infinity. Those who determined what the art world looked like, what it acted like when the money was rolling in, have managed to maintain their tight grip on the wheel. Postmodernism is not going to go without a fight, and it’s going to have to get nasty. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure I ever wanted this fight. I don’t know if it’s possible to win. There is a huge economic culture at work in the art world that doesn’t want or need new ideas, though it does need new artists with new product. There are forty years of entrenched theoretics to contend with, and there is nothing, nothing contemporary, to stand on. The voices of progressive contention have been curiously silent during all these years of POMO hegemony. And I’m not talking about that reactionary crap about craft, beauty or “old masterism” or a return to “principles” – I’m talking about ideas that look ahead while building on some of the stronger elements of our past in order to stand in opposition to the orthodoxy. In the end we must come to terms with what works in POMO. We must understand and use its best principles but in a new way – just as Matisse and Picasso cribbed from Cezanne and Post-Impressionism or Caravaggio reworked Venetian painting in Roman Mannerism. This isn’t about following precedent, but it is about defining a new possiblity from that precedent. What we need is to pose a different question, one that doesn’t lead us back to the same tired solutions. So let’s see what questions we might find and what answers that might provide, and before long, we might find ourselves in a fracas.
BUY WHAT YOU SEE
This advertisement is one of the better examples of 21st century Postmodern Lens Based Art I have seen lately – the speed and violence of its poetics are breathtaking. It is a commercial for the Honda Fury motorcycle. But it’s more. It is an outright assault on your brain directed through your eyes. It is lens based narrative used in a way that fine artists haven’t yet begun to understand. If this were a projected loop on a wall in a gallery it would blow the mind, but the best part about it is it also works on your ipod, youtube, facebook and blackberry. It slides across every electronic platform available and works efficiently no matter which one you see it on. We have moved into a new immateriality of experience created by the speed of its images. This art can only be produced and manifested through electronic contact, and like all things electronically immaterial, it manifests as both concept and commerce. By this I mean that everything online leads to an exchange of money. That app for your iphone, that song on your itune, that digital movie on your ipod, that jpeg from the gallery, your connecting time on the internet – everything displayed is designed for a new type of immaterial commerce. Everything online, including being online has to be purchased. And this idea of immaterial commerce is what is behind so many “successful” POMO artists. This isn’t directly about pure capitalistic commercial art activity (which has been around forever,) but it is about producing art that becomes part of that immaterial commerce, making art with an eye on the workings of the markets for that art. In other words Art is being produced in order to facilitate larger commercial online acceptance and create broader markets for those products in galleries, institutions and auction houses. More and more handmade art, especially painting, actually looks BETER in a photo. Part of that lens appeal is due to the fact that many paintings being made today are made to be photographed, reproduced or processed – the work is finished only when the lens frames and packages it. An unfinished painting becomes a found object, an empty set becomes an installation, or a lens surveillance becomes an event projected and expanded to billboard sizes. It is the mechanisms of commercial immateriality that turn every object photographed and uploaded into a potential product for sale. In the end it reduces EVERYTHING to pay-per-view.
What is quickly apparent in the Fury advertisement is how fast the images are read as SIGNS rather than as things in themselves. Each one is charged with a “surface” definition, in this case, relating to “danger” – animals of all kinds snarling, growling, roaring (signs of warning) – followed by images of impact – fists punching, cars crashing, guitarist smashing his “axe” (signs of violence and power) – then a beating heart superimposed over the Machine itself. After the challenge, violence and speed are finally internalized the beating human heart powers the machine itself, both as concept and ideal, machine and love, one and the same, united. Then they tear away into a pure future of hyperaethetic bliss and commercial immateriality transformed – speeding into an unknown electronic universe. SIGNS. Not narrative in the typical surrealist dream mode, but a dislocated mass subjective experience pumped into our brains in speed packets – like information parsed over the internet – from hundreds of different processing hubs located in data centers all over the world. Here electronic light speed is the drug, and it is administered like a hypodermic, pumped into our veins, crashing into our unconscious. We didn’t see it, we’ve downloaded it into our databases. It arrives in our minds full-blown, already known, already understood. We enter it through a Point of Presence (POP.) I like that – a point of presence – a kind of ethereal being – like a ghost ( “I feel a presence…”) and we begin to transfer protocols, communicating with the “other” side, receiving visions….But again this is not like Surrealism or even the ecstatic drug culture of the Sixties. There is no unfolding of an image, no revealing of understanding. There is no “strangeness” or separateness, no personality, there is only the velocity, the RAM, the transfer, the loading until suddenly we are upgraded into something new. This is the optical POWER that we, as painters, have not confronted, but we must confront. The static painted image is no longer understood or even desired in our hyperaesthetic world, and to say any different is a BALD-FACED lie.
Postmodernism began its reign using the mechanisms of POP culture as a tool to deconstruct the high art aspirations of Modernism, and it wound up becoming nothing more than an elevated commercial adjunct of that very same POP culture. But what we have to examine is what WORKS as art in this advertisement, and how can we as artists begin to SEE in this hyperaesthetic way without the layers of Postmodernist Process bullshit? The academies have been playing the sophist’s game for too long – saying one thing while doing another. You can not be a rebel while following the tenets of an institution. You can not be a free thinker while slavishly extending the ideas of an entrenched power. For painters this game has been going on for far too long. Jerry Saltz summed up this academy recently:
“In the last years of the boom, numerous artists came to the fore who have their aesthetic heads up the aesthetic asses of Gerhard Richter, Andy Warhol, Richard Prince, Cady Noland, and Christopher Wool. They make punkish black-and-white art and ad hoc arrangements of disheveled stuff, architectural fragments, and Xeroxed photos. This art deals in received ideas about appropriation, conceptualism, and institutional critique. It’s a cool school, admired by jargon-wielding academics who write barely readable rhetoric explaining why looking at next to nothing is good for you.”
There are others in this pantheon of process like Sigmar Polke, Robert Rauschenberg and Martin Kippenberger – Christ, the list could go on, but I’ll leave it there. In a recent Art in America column Raphael Rubinstein wrote a wonderful article that gives a rundown of the current players in this game of academic one-upsmanship. He calls this type of Postmodern painting “Provisional Painting.” Provisional because the academy has run out of visual ideas and has become nothing but purveyors of process. And even more disturbing is his contention that painting is now an impossible task.
“What makes painting “impossible”? What makes “great” painting impossible? Perhaps it is a sense of belatedness, a conviction that an earlier generation or artist has left only a few scraps to be cleaned up. Or maybe, at a particular moment, in a particular life and history, nothing could seem more presumptuous or inappropriate—maybe even obscene—than to set out to create a masterpiece. Impossibility can also be the result of the artist making excessive demands on the work, demands to which current practice has no reply. At a certain moment, in a certain studio, it appears that great painting may be impossible, that painting of any kind may be impossible. Nonetheless, for whatever reasons pertaining to a particular painter at a particular time, painting must be done, must go on.”
The heartbreaking part of this is the idea that this Provisional Painting is all that’s left, that there can be no greatness, that painting is impossible and we must settle for what we get – table scraps that we must make a meal of. For Rubenstein’s “Provisional Painters,” the purveyors of process, visual painting is an obscenity. The impossible visual conundrum is “presumptuous,” “inappropriate.” And even more winsome is the fact that we painters are belated, that we’ve missed the age of greatness. But for me, this is nothing more than an aggrandizement of the sophistry and cowardice of Postmodern theoretics – to say one thing and do another while telling me it’s all for my own good, that I must accept their pronouncements about Art and Painting. All right then, we’re in a fight now. I accept the impossible. I want greatness. I don’t believe it’s all used up. I don’t accept that truth can’t be seen and that truth can not be translated into something different and visual. I agree that painting must go on, but not by the rules as they stand. The deck is stacked, and in the Postmodern Casino of Art, the house always wins. So I’m moving to another game. If that makes my work a rough trade to ply then so be it. I accept the challenge. The fight is on. Let’s see if we can’t shake a few trees to see what falls to the ground….