“Some think that so much of today’s art mirrors and thus criticizes decadence; not so. It’s just decadent, full stop. It serves no critical function. It is part of the problem. The Art World dutifully copies our money driven, celebrity obsessed, entertainment culture. The same fixation on fame, the same obedience to mass media that jostles for our attention with its noise and wow and flutter… If Art can’t tell us about the world we live in, then I don’t believe there’s much point in having it. And that is something we’re going to have to face more and more as the years go on. That nasty question that never used to be asked because the assumption was always that it was answered long ago – What good is Art? What use is Art? What does it do? Is it worth actually doing? And Art, that is completely moneterized in the way it’s getting these days, is going to have to answer these questions, or it’s going to die.” Robert Hughes The Mona Lisa Curse
The Ecstasy of Touch
Bernini placed a golden arrow in the hands of a laughing cherub standing over a woman lost in her own ecstasy. It’s truly a perverse spectacle, incomprehensible really; a Baroque metastasis spilling into a Roman church, carved during the years when any deviation from doctrine could lead one to the stake. But at certain moments in one’s life anything and everything must be possible – even if it leads to the stake. Dave Hickey described that moment of realization best – “getting young,” he called it. Bernini was middle aged, out of favor, and looking for some grand challenge to begin an aesthetic redemption. In other words he had nothing to lose. The striking thing, even though Theresa is awash in those lovingly carved flowing robes, is the pure physical presence of her body undulating beneath. We can see her torso moving toward that spear, feel her limbs overcome by the heat of the moment, her hands and feet alive and otherworldly. It’s amazing to think that these textures of soft flesh, rough materials, flowing hair and glistening sweat, are all carved from marble – hammered, chiseled and polished. To see life, to feel it, and then translate it in this way is phenomenal. Unfortunately, this sort of vision comes from a kind of visual intimacy and fleshy passion that we don’t seem to be able to create or experience in Art any more.
In our Postmodern world we are adept at replicating convincing forms of media realism and abstraction. We understand and expect the illusions of the lens and we have grown complacent to the realities that they affirm. Look no further than our televisual world and soon you’ll believe that you too can walk 16 feet up a wall and kick a villain in the head. We have become smugly convinced that we live in this world without illusions, hard realists of binary data that we are. But in the 17th Century illusion was never the reality. Illusion could be used to screw with the idea of “reality” in such a heated way that these visionary frictions threatened to burn down the very foundations of accepted and comfortable society. For instance, when Caravaggio’s dead virgin was first shown to the Carmelites who had commissioned the painting, they were genuinely disturbed by the new “realism” that confronted them – never mind the pointed rumors made up by his jealous enemies that the model for the virgin was actually a dead prostitute. Caravaggio had succeeded in portraying a new visual reality, and the church quickly retreated. They were afraid of the implications of what Caravaggio’s reality might mean to their carefully crafted worldview. It was dangerous. This sublime painting was rejected.
For both of these artists with nothing to lose, illusion, reality and vision are connected through truly intimate, physical moments. The work is grounded by visual touch. How to explain? The eye moves over things, around things, into things, under things. Hard sight pushes into corners, it loses it’s way, it pulls back, tries again. It feels the cloth, either rough or smooth, it strokes the skin, it feels the warmth of the light, it shapes the dark. There can be immense pleasure in watching a shadow move across a form or clocking the changing light in a room; colors heat up or cool down, hues harden or melt, values ebb and flow. All of this “play” is how one sees – drawing on one’s intimate memories and experiences to involve one’s senses in the vision before one. Both of these artists understood these kinds of connections between vision and paint, the hand moving as the eye guides, memory playing through the forms, hues and values. Am I speaking of realism? Absolutely not. I am speaking of reality. The intimate connection between what one sees, what one understands, what one feels, and what one fashions. This kind of connection is raw, full, thick and alive. This is what used to be called touch.
Today, we have televisually recorded, paid-in-full, un-ironic sex with our collectors. And after you get into bed with the “money” well, the idea of visual touch is pretty much a non-issue. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there are still a number of artists adamant about the idea of “touch” in their work, but it really doesn’t have quite the visual impact it used to have among artists. Touch when applied without vision is retrograde, reactionary, dissolute, and passe. It is a mannerism. In reality touch has become a euphemism for any engagement on the surface/screen of the program. It’s become part of the digitization of our senses, a marketing gimmick for products of all kind, whether on a hand held computer or the walls of a Chelsea gallery. We are quickly finding that our sensual existence is being truncated, boxed and stored – seeing into scanning, touching into tapping. We type on our keyboards, we tap the touch screens or we click the mouse to open “things,” to grab and manipulate “things.” Touch no longer moves around the surfaces of the things in our world. We don’t mold or feel or stroke or grasp things. We don’t indulge in the opulence and sensuousness of the 3rd dimension. We’ve replaced physical touch with an algorithm, an equation of approximation of what touch might be. And in doing so we have become blind to the thickness of things, we have cut the tactile connection to our physical memories. We can’t imagine how far back the darkness goes, how that warm light feels on the cool skin or how deep that golden arrow might plunge, how perverse and erotic that spasm might feel. For most Postmodernists, this sort of intimacy is always second hand. It has become impossible to stand in front of Theresa and say, “…Well, if that’s divine love, I know all about it.”
Unlike the gasping and shuddering Theresa, we refuse to directly perceive that our passionate existence is tied to a visual understanding and an ecstatic touch. As Postmoderns we don’t find pleasure in the direct experience of life. It is too messy, too unwieldy, too inconsistent, too upsetting. We prefer a mediated experience, and we have become adept at replicating the effects of things, the optics of things. We build machines and design programs to approximate the effects of fleshy intimacies. It is far easier to control the ground than to confront the subject, the other. The idea of “touch” or “sight” has been sealed into the lens/program and it’s projected on the surface of our screens. De Kooning’s scrapes and smears or Pollock’s drips and flows look unsophisticated, distant and naive when we confront them in person. They don’t have the sheen of projected light or the slickness of our touch screens. These primary things, these lived moments, these fleshy memories, no matter how we might try to re-live them as appropriations or replications, will never grip us like the first hand experience of reality. They will never transform into lived experience, never stretch us as artists. Touch, visual touch, was always specific, encompassing and real before the mannerisms and ironies. Today that very same idea of touch has been emptied out, become nothing more than a technique, a found object for use in a programmed commercial enterprise.
“We are our own Devil”
Georgina found ecstacy… not necessarily in the arms of her on screen lovers, but through the view of the lens. She was/is enflamed by her own image appearing on the screen, the otherness of her projected existence, and the “reality” of her electronic ephemerality. It excites her, it frees her, and with her absolute physical belief in this dissociative communion, she leads us directly into the Superflat reality of her ecstasy. Georgina is not experiencing otherworldly bliss like Bernini’s Theresa. She is performing it for the lens, she is channeling, broadcasting her ecstasy in order to find herself in the program. She is never, really, out of control, never quite in touch. Georgina is our Saint Theresa, pierced over and over again, not with the sharpness of a golden arrow, but through and through with the blunt all-seeing lens. I began this reality series with Georgina because she was/is “real” in ways that we all are real these days, as Theresa was in hers. Georgina is our patron saint.
60 years later after the ascendence of Abstract Expressionism and “American-type Painting” we are Postmoderns one and all. Modernism and it’s legacy has been so thoroughly debased and absorbed into the popular artistic lexicon, that most all of its former aesthetic and theoretical power is now nothing more than a discredited entertainment. To put it in Greenberg’s words – Modernism, in this time, our time, is nothing but absolute Kitsch, a wasted and failed legacy. Postmodernism continues to cannibalize this debunked history, diminishing its faded meanings with each conceptual contextual permutation while creating its own legacy of decadent ersatz art. The realities of painting and vision are changing once again, and Warhol’s machine can no longer dispense a convincing reality. It is time to imagine our own Theresa, to give ourselves up to a grinning angel. Some of us are no longer able to BE Postmodernists. We can no longer paint like Postmoderns. We can no longer think like Postmoderns. WE don’t want retro thought or rear guard aesthetics – we want to see in new ways, beyond the Modern, the Postmodern, beyond the narrow confines of our art history. It has come time to risk our own visual lives, to risk the stake, just as Delacroix, Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse and Bernini did when they faced Robert Hughes’ “nasty question.” It is time to “get young.”
This is the end of reality…