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.

4 thoughts on “reality_absence”

  1. You always come so close in describing the real important points, ~ I struggle for weeks with myself and the poor results look clumsy and bad, and what is even worse, it is not the necessary heart blood in it, the vision is often lacking. So to give up art instead for business and money maybe ? That sounds so weird to do, at the turning point of history when we would need less capitalism and more art, to realize that art is broke. Maybe it is not, and need just the fresh breeze of youth to renew ?

    “So what is it that we need EXACTLY?”

  2. I have read and reread this post. I am not sure what I can glean from it in total as words never suffice to describe or create what it is that I seek. I am not a word person although I am not too shabby at using words to my own ends. So with that pre-emptive I will try to say at least what interests me and what interests me not, what stokes my fire as it were is not prescriptive for any one, I separate any and one intentionally, no, what I say is what drives me, it might not drive you.

    I don’t care too much about history of before, although I know it as deeply embedded in me as the lines that crawl over my palm. No, I care about my own experience but that experience is not some easy momentary experience that defines me within the culture, no. It is an experience that bridges and predates all the language of art, of words, of everything I know. I have to erase myself in the studio, I have to eradicate myself in the studio, I have to destroy myself in the studio. I metaphorically strip not only myself in the studio, I strip myself of my history, of my flesh, of my bones. I want, no need to crawl out of this skin.

    I don’t and can’t care for a culture, if one can call it that, a culture, because does one outside of capital exist anymore? Either way I don’t care for capital, or culture or even what considers art anymore. Art, life has gone underground, perhaps has always been that way?

    Art, ART in the culture for the most part exists as a kind of pornography that restates what we already have been taught, what we know, it reaffirms our worthlessness and becomes just capital in a power play to illustrate ones education without paying the price.

    But art, yes lowercase art, for me, opens us up, tears our preconceptions apart, tears our idea of self apart, opens a door to some mystery and not some pseudo mystical ideal of self but in a plain matter of fact way, rips us apart from our preconceptions of art, of reality, of self, of life and all that we all hold dear, art, that action to make, to do, to active engagement within searching, to wonder ‘is that all there is’ without Rosemary Clooney singing the tune in some pop reference.

    No, my pop reference tonight is perhaps too many drinks and listening to songs from the Upanisad about Brahman and Shiva and Krishna after a weekend of introducing my son to the Mahabharata and then in answer to Hans. What is it that we need exactly, yourself as you really are without history but with history, with understanding what our ancestors brought us and to take it to a new level, that new level is not higher or lower, it is just your time, your being within the time that you are but to use it, to use what knowledge you have and then to strike into the bulls heart at the moment of truth for yourself, for you are both sword and bull simultaneously and obscurity might just be all of our fates, most likely so, but then when the final moment comes you can say to yourself that you did what you needed to do, what you had to do, what was you only option to do, with all of your best intentions, with all of your blindness you said what it was, what was important to you.

    And you would risk fuck all to do it, despite the pain, the loss. It isn’t what “we need” it is what “YOU NEED”. Create the world that you need and die fighting for that.

  3. Hi Hans!
    I read that essay not too long ago. However, it doesn’t address the issue of Postmodernity. It discusses hybridity, a collage of cultural influence. This is something we’ve been seeing for quite a while. There are the usual Postmodern influences in even the text of the essay – trans-contextual (whatever that could mean,) super-hybridity, super-diverse – all of these terms point to the transformative nature of speed, electronic speed underpinned by the Postmodern theoretics found in programs of all sorts. It is yet another way to define the rampant Mannerism and the overarching institutionalism found in the culture that we’re exposed to. This idea of hybridity is something close to the idea of the Creole, an idea we discussed originally in Rough Trade. And this is nothing new at all. Picasso, especially, and his forays into African art are a prime example of this idea. It is a collaged cultural aesthetic, one formed by artists looking for new ideas in other aesthetics in the late 19th century and legitimized as an academy in the 20th century. Here in the 21st century we are not discussing the ideas behind what we see, we merely accept things as they are, as we’ve inherited them. As I said previously, taking Nauman to the next level is not the same thing as questioning and countering what Nauman does. I think the final comment in the article is what we’ve been addressing all along – first in saying that we’re not addressing the underlying culutral/aesthetic issues and second by emphasizing the primacy of vision – looking for a solution, a way out of the Mannerism.
    “None of the above makes for a clearly distinguishable avant-garde; as long as it doesn’t regress into messy plagiarism trying to pass for magic, this could be its achievement.”

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