In 1979, 10 years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Jean-Francois Lyotard characterized the condition of postmodernism as the end of grand narratives. These included Marxism, analytical philosophy, structural anthropology, you name it: if it had a telos, a Hegelian destiny, or any type of historical vector, its autopsy was written in The Postmodern Condition. I’m not a political writer, but what is striking about Lyotard’s late-1970s analysis, from a cultural standpoint, is how prescient he was about the way structural vacuums would be filled after the grand narratives vanished.
According to Lyotard:
“The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements—narrative, but also denotative, prescriptive, descriptive, and so on. Conveyed within each cloud are pragmatic valences specific to its kind. Each of us lives at the intersection of many of these. However, we do not necessarily establish stable language combinations, and the properties of the ones we do establish are not necessarily communicable.”
Lyotard’s “cloud of narrative language elements” has settled like a dense lowland fog over the art world. The 2009 fall gallery schedule has offered an inordinately high number of contemplations on our age of indeterminacy.
A good example is artist Nick Mauss’s current show at 303 Gallery, which features a mix of 2-D and 3-D works, scattered informally around the gallery: a sheet of sturdy white paper backed with wood slats that hangs from the rafters like a half-finished, somewhat flimsy-looking architectural gate; a gabled, 10-foot-square linear framework made from ribbons of taut silk; silver leaf and acrylic paint on panels, arbitrarily placed on irregularly-sized plinths; and several droning, enigmatic projections that punctuate the show’s eclecticism and reinforce its “huh?” factor.
With a sense of the works’ architectural uncertainty but not a visceral reaction to them, I picked up the show’s release to offer some context.
“Mauss has utilized disparate media toward an experiential exhibition that is directly sensitized to both inviting and disconcerting the viewer. Works hover on the edge of palpability…[a] passageway stands as both entrance and barrier…[the silver leaf drawings are] erased and retraced onto themselves, their reflective surfaces merge with their quasi-hieroglyphic inscriptions, allowing material and manipulation to coalesce into each other in volatile suspension…drawings function sculpturally as well, caught between being hung and being left behind…[or] strung together like sentences, with images inserted into each other to create a confusing, rich simultaneity.”
One has to wonder when “confusing” became an acceptable condition for a work of art, and when so much content was characterized by what it isn’t or what it’s between. Regardless, this copy represents a compelling confirmation of Lyotard’s prediction of the multivalent age. Here are some other recent examples of the growing willingness to indulge in confusion:
“…paintings create metaphors and poetic conjunctions enlivened with ambiguities or simultaneous understandings. He paints in states of flowing intuition and conscious modification over a period of time until integrated atmosphere emerges that is complex and surreal, elegant and visceral.” [D’Amelio Terras on Elliott Green]
“…disparate composites ebb in and out of each other. Slowly introducing themselves, crossing paths, then melting away, these ephemeral meetings seem to imply that every new relationship, no matter how entrancing, is doomed to fade into obscurity with everything else.” [303 Gallery on Hans-Peter Feldmann]
“Contradictory elements frequently present themselves in the composition of Wallace’s artwork: near and far, identical and different, open and closed, present and absent.” [Yvon Lambert New York on Ian Wallace]
It would be irresponsible to attribute the lack of clarity we encounter in the art world necessarily to willful obfuscation by artists, curators, or galleries. The problem, as Mr. Lyotard so clearly pointed out, is that there are so many micro-narratives simultaneously at work, presenting so many modes of language, that they short-circuit the prefrontal cortex of anyone who doesn’t approach the art world hermeneutically, which happens to be just about everyone. Victor Burgin put it more simply in his comment on the balkanized post-Greenbergian art world of the 1970s, “once beyond the official enclosures of ‘legitimate’ art practice many found that they had exchanged their prison for a desert.” Neither condition—a prison or a desert—is acceptable, but the notion of being metaphorically imprisoned by an institution had its date in court a long time ago.
We know we don’t want that; so wandering aimlessly in a desert of uncertainty is still, for the moment, preferable to most. However, despite our liberation into a post-grand-narratives wilderness, we’re not any less susceptible to manipulation than before. Because, the more complex the rules, the more it privileges their administrators. This truth tends to be more widely accepted in regard to our financial markets, legal structures, health care systems, and tax codes than it does in art, but our cultural structure is not so different from other organizational models.
So, one has to ask whether rhetoric like that in Mauss’s press release represents a reflection or an exploitation of the complexities of a pluralistic art world. I think Mauss and the other artists profiled above would say, generally, that they are channeling the same confusion I’m writing about and that J. F. Lyotard predicted. Most would say that their subject is our state of cultural heterodoxy, or that it is symptomatic of it. One must ask, then, whether artists are simply corks bobbing in a surging cultural tide, or are they elements of an active force working to influence the tide?
Dick Fuld and Stanley O’Neal, former CEOs of Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch, respectively, after championing the obscure financial instruments that destabilized our economy, claimed that they were simply reflective of our complex financial climate, not the causes of it. And in fact, Dick Fuld’s life savings were mostly tied up in Lehman stock, which tanked when Lehman tanked—not the dénouement one would expect of someone willfully fleecing the system. Still, as witnessed on Wall Street in recent years, the custodians of the system benefited implicitly from outsiders not understanding enough about what was going on. The system simply caved to the swelling, self-fulfilling pressure to complicate its own culture in order to create an opaque advantage. If Fuld, O’Neal, et al. didn’t do it consciously, they unconsciously willed it to be.
Assigning blame is difficult because most people in their position don’t feel calculating or manipulative even when they are. They simply feel right, and in their ignorant equanimity, they inadvertently reinforce the pressures and valences of a system predetermined to track and seize opportunity. The art world’s no different. As confusion takes hold and diffidence paralyzes our critical impulses, someone will take advantage and occupy our attention with a narrative fiction in lieu of evocative and moving art.
By the time you read this essay, Artforum will have released its annual December/January issue containing dozens of “Best of” lists from some of the brightest and best-informed cultural insiders on the planet. Many of whom, if you do a little research, have most likely gone on record as “not being able to decode art” or something similar. Even so, whatever contradictions arising from the disparity between critical ideals and those moronic lists don’t indicate corruption or opportunism as much as the aggregate desire of Artforum readers for dumbed-downed lists of readymade functors.
Several weeks ago, the Guggenheim Museum presented its first annual Rob Pruitt Art Awards, which are meant to honor the best of the art world in 2009, marking an even more egregious capitulation to competitiveness. Categories included the Calvin Klein Collection New Artist of the Year Award and the Group Show of the Year. There were “best of” prizes for museum shows (group and solo), writers, and curators, and lifetime achievement awards for Joan Jonas and Kasper König. Such self-absorbed idiocy takes trivialization to a low that ink and paper lists can’t match. When so much art is described in the most subjective of terms, what are we to make of a major museum handing out awards for something as categorically blunt as “best art writer”? The video clip I saw of Clarissa Dalrymple and Rob Pruitt announcing the nominees made my skin crawl a little. Compounding the institutional shamelessness of the whole thing, the Guggenheim apparently anticipated the consternation of the art community and, in an absurd twist, nominally presented the awards as an “art project,” even though it walked and talked like an elitist version of the People’s Choice Awards. This tongue-in-cheek hedge did more to confirm a we-should-know-better embarrassment than it did to cast the ceremony as a piece of institutional critique. But even in its insipidness, one has to examine the purpose of the event, which was to raise money in an exceedingly difficult period, to truly understand it. When I checked, the event was sold out at $1000 a pop. So, apparently, this is in fact what museum patrons are asking for.
I hate to come down so joylessly on the art world for these antics. It makes me feel like a Calvinist preacher. I would rather have loads of fun than fits of moral rectitude any day. But given the dispersed state of postmodern art, instead of reflecting its amorphousness with equally vaporous form and language, perhaps we could take it on with the after hours glee that erupts in art bars and music clubs, where everyone from 25 to 70 acts like those 16-year-old kids in Footloose who finally get to dance. No one seems to care about “confusing rich simultaneity” after midnight. Think of it, there’d be no more hypocrisy, only good art with the welcoming flare of a drunken apostate. Yes, attack all this nothingness or everythingness with the panache and conviction of Enlightenment philosophers crashing the Emmys, dancing like children, grinding all the confusion into the floor.