John LennonI came across an article online about the new ad campaign by Citroen;

“[John] Lennon and [Marilyn] Monroe each appear in a 30-second spot, both encouraging viewers to use their creativity for influencing everyday life, rather than seeking inspiration in the past.” Both ads extolling the virtues of originality, innovation and change. “Once a things been done it’s been done, so why all this nostalgia? I mean, for the 60’s and 70’s, you know, looking backwards for inspiration, copying the past,” Lennon is pictured asking. “How’s that rock and roll? Do something of your own. Start something new. Live your life now.”

Then we see the Citroen car – and I will leave you to judge the “originality” of that particular auto design.

It’s disconcerting seeing the digitally altered images with the not-quite-synched lip movements. Lennon’s image looks as if it was taken from a 70’s interview – making the discussion of “nostalgia” perverse. This image, an image removed from its time and re-presented and reconfigured in ours, is declaring the need to do away with nostalgia. The Marilyn ad is not much better. The moving image has been altered in the same manner. The text is: “You should create your own icons and way of life, because nostalgia isn’t glamorous. If I had one thing to say it would be, live your life now.” The amalgamation of sound and image is even more annoying than the previous one. Everything we see and experience in these videos is manufactured with lens-based programs. This is a past that never existed – interviews that never took place. The ideas expressed were probably scripted by the ad agency, and the voice overs were probably done using an actor’s impression or from cut and pasted voice snippets captured and looped from various recorded interviews. Not quite Avatar-like, but give them time. Fairly soon these programs will be able to animate any face convincingly, and then the pantheon of the famous will live forever in the program, appearing in every context, every possibility. Finally, the tag line for these ads is the ultimate in Postmodern solipsism – “live your life now” – encouragement imparted to us in “real time” by those who are no longer living in real time, so that we might describe ourselves as being “new,” “iconic,” “original” or “rock and roll” when we purchase this particular product.

The truth is that the company selling us the car is not handing us a new innovation, a new way of travel (say, a car that runs perpetually on gyroscopes, clean air hydrogen based fuel and hovers silently at twenty feet.) No, the “innovation” that will set us on the path to iconic individuality is that this car will look like a spiffier SUV, it’s innovation is cosmetic, nevermind that it uses the same sort of internal combustion engine originally installed in a Model T Ford. There is nothing really new going on – we’ve just experienced the customization of the program. But what is different is that we’ve altered the precedent, the past, to make the present reality seem “new.” This new slant on our current “reality” is provided to us with something that we Postmoderns proudly call “context.” Now context can be a good thing – it can provide a broader understanding of precedent and of the realities of the past. But this form of contextual difference is not the same as the POMO term différence. This sort of “context” cheats our current reality by altering that past to conform to our present conditions. We experience this all the time in our entertainment culture – movies based on a true story or recreations of “real” events or, like in the movie Forrest Gump, media captured moments of “reality” inserted into a fictional story. All of these kinds of media manipulations restructure our relationship to the past by actually changing the foundations of precedent. In our art world the continual reappraisal and redefinition of Warhol’s endless legacy is a good case in point.

Now at one time precedent was changed by innovation. I mean this in the sense that a different understanding of the past was created by a new innovation, a new idea. And with that change we began to see the past in a different way, from a different perspective. Picasso and Matisse took on the history of painting – how we saw painting, how we experienced its meanings. They used history as a foundation for the radical visual changes that they were proposing. They weren’t interested in contextualizing that precedent, changing our understanding of Velazquez or Manet. No, they were interested in taking the best parts of those things and incorporating them into their own ideas of what a painting could accomplish. To paraphrase Picasso, “Artists steal.” They took what they needed and built their own innovations, and it was those innovations that changed our relationships to our past. We began to see Velazquez or Manet in a different way because, the innovation, the new idea, used the precedent in a different way. The change of “context” happened after the fact, after the innovation, not before. But the important thing, the use of precedent to innovate, DEMANDED that these artists actually change their work, their ideas and their vision, not change the past.

Matthew Collings makes a similar point in his recent discussion of the Turner Prize in Modern Painters. “Older art, either modern or premodern, isn’t in the picture. Instead the picture is distorted so you don’t notice the weird exclusion.” He is writing about the way art writers and artists now alter precedent not through innovation but through context – particularly the context of the 1960’s – “…a compressed version of the three main isms of the 1960s: Pop, Minimalism, and Conceptualism.” And it’s that compression that has limited the way we use precedent.

Postmodern artists don’t particularly care about change through innovation. They are more worried about promoting context along with something the art/business world calls “positioning” – identifying a market niche for a brand, product or service utilizing traditional marketing placement strategies (i.e. price, promotion, distribution, packaging, and competition.) They use precedent not as a springboard for change, but as a way to sell a product – they use it to promote acceptance. As we’ve discussed already, Postmodernism is a menu driven kind of existence, where one can choose from a variety of sources to create one’s own customized art without actually creating anything that challenges the substance of the system that generates those choices. When we engage in customization we achieve a kind of professionalism, like lawyers or businessmen. We follow the rulings and successes without actually challenging the precepts that created that precedent. To take “Nauman” to the “next level” is not the same thing as challenging what “Nauman’s” work proposes, how he makes it. And that in a nutshell defines a large part of the fear that we Postmoderns refuse to engage and why we are obsessed with refining precedent. If we are not as “strong” as “Nauman” then we fail, we are beaten. If we can not overcome the precedent, if we can not find a new way to express an old thing, then we are, for lack of a better word, fucked. This is the idea in Harold Bloom’s discussion of precedent“A new poet becomes inspired to write because he has read and admired the poetry of previous poets; but this admiration turns into resentment when the new poet discovers that these poets whom he idolized have already said everything he wishes to say. The poet becomes disappointed because he “cannot be Adam early in the morning. There have been too many Adams, and they have named everything.””

Finally, in a recent post at Clancco, one of my favorite art law blogs, they neatly sum up our current studio “reality” –
“The prevailing perception now is that “everything has been done before,” therefore there is no need to even attempt to construe one’s own idea, much less develop a significant and intelligent body of work stemming from years of research and studio-time. Under this rubric, one can only be creative by copying or arrogantly assuming that one can do better than, or make the same statement as, a previous artist in a much better “way.” There’s not much policing of this unfortunate production system, particularly because the population toward which this type of work is being targeted to is of the same mentality and of similar low-expectations. This has nothing to do with education. Professionals and intellectuals of all kinds help to reinforce this Pez dispenser mentality by encouraging the perpetuation and reproduction of popular and immediately accessible art (aka- eye candy).”

reality will continue…

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