I’ve been having some doubts lately.
I feel like I’m always missing out. Every time I stop to look at an artwork I can’t concentrate for more than a minute or two. The urge to keep moving is overwhelming. “What am I not seeing? Where’s the thing that I am actually here for?” It’s the same impulse that keeps me constantly scrolling down the social media newsfeeds, obsessively checking email and visiting the same websites all day. I am searching for something, waiting for something, looking for that thing that will make the search worthwhile. It’s also why I just browse. I’m skimming. Looking for “it.” But I don’t know what “it” is and I hope that when I find it, I’ll know it. This is a condition of the age we live in. And as a result, it runs the risk of making everything essentially worthless.
At the very least it puts all forms of content in the position of vying for attention. And then critique or value judgment is reduced to whether or not your attention was captured. Did the thing in question sufficiently satisfy me for a given period of time? Did it make me forget that I was looking and feel like I had found something? This is the Spectacle in the tradition of Debord.
This summer, I went to “dOCUMENTA (13)” with high expectations. I wanted to be blown away; I wanted my faith in art as a viable and worthwhile activity to spend my life doing to be renewed. I wanted something that, for at least a moment, made me forget all the doubts I have about art and life, the exact opposite of the daily ritual of browsing for distractions. I wanted a religious kind of experience, that earlier form of spectacle.
This is where art is the most valuable to us. Art gives you a multitude of experiences, experiences that aren’t solely predicated on the exchange of capital. There are more than enough artworks that are purely capital accumulated to the point of image, but art itself has some special qualities.
Art has the annoying and unique quality of being able to question absolutely everything. Even itself. Especially itself. It’s a compulsion. Art is functioning best when it’s in doubt mode, but then if you aren’t careful you’ll end up wondering what the purpose of anything is anyway. No wonder so many artists are severe depressives. It would be nice to not have to ask questions all the time.
Football doesn’t question itself; it doesn’t ask whether or not it makes sense to play football anymore. “Has the last game of football already been played?” No one asks that. Are coaches calling incredibly reductive plays that seem to question the very concept of what a drive is? You don’t see other things described as being football. There is no established school of thought that states if one is performing a task that can be considered football-like, then one is indeed playing football. Sure football can change and evolve. In any sport there are athletes that come along and “change the way the game is played.” But in what other field can making a painting and starting a community garden be regarded as the same thing?
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I recently heard a good art joke by the stand-up comedian Sara Schaefer. She said that things have been pretty rough for her. She’s emotionally overwhelmed but hates crying. So she saves it up and lets it out all at once. She prefers to do this in an art museum because if she is going to be an emotional wreck she “at least wants to feel culturally superior.”
People staring at some stripes, (Barnett Newman's Vir Heroicus Sublimus at the Museum of Modern Art); Photo Courtesy Erik Wenzel.
“I set myself down in front of a…stripe…and I just begin weeping openly.” Everyone else in the museum thinks she is experiencing the art in a deeper and truer way than they are, but really she’s just crying about how difficult her life is.
I like the detail of “stripe”; it’s very precise. It makes the feat of weeping in front of art that much more impressive because it isn’t a Renaissance masterpiece or even a van Gogh. Abstract painting is the receptacle of the general public’s anti-art sentiments. “I don’t get it. I could do that, a ____ could do that.” But here is this woman balling, she gets it. And then people crowd around her, because she’s found “it.”
Or so they think. But is their foolish assumption any worse than ours, we who go to Kassel and crowd around the petitions to make the atmosphere a World Heritage site?
One of my favorite anecdotes was told by Dave Hickey a number of years ago in a talk he gave. He recalled that as a student, “They would take you to the art museum and sit you down in a room full of Mark Rothko’s and leave you there. Then they’d come back an hour or two later and say, ‘Did you FEEL it?!’”
These examples mock the idea of emotion, passion, and feeling in art. Except I would say Hickey is pretty romantic and passionate. His recent “resignation” from the art world would indicate that he has succumbed to doubt, but his remarks in the Guardian have the rhetoric of a true believer. Rejecting the art world and the art market is not the same as losing faith in art itself. He’s rejecting the world of art that’s just like any other industry, driven by consensus and bottom line.
Bedroom, Brooklyn, NY; Courtesy Erik Wenzel.
Schaefer’s and Hickey’s jokes are funny, but funny in the same way we joke about religion. We need to tell jokes about this in order to cope. There is sadness in finding what we once believed, or once wanted so much to believe, is no longer an option. I worry that what made it no longer possible for me to believe in Christianity will make it no longer possible for me to believe in art: criticality.
But maybe this is where art and religion differ; art welcomes critique, religion does not. Art encourages it, art is all about being taken apart and rebuilt whereas it seems like most religions, once subjected to questions, fall apart and stay that way.
You have to submit to a certain set of truths when you follow a religion. Sometimes you are encouraged to question your beliefs in order to become a “stronger Christian,” for example. But the expectation of going down that path is that you’ll reach the conclusion that Jesus really is the truth, the way, and the light, and so on. So for the most part religions steel themselves against any serious criticism or actively suppress it. I went on that journey of questioning and I ended up no longer being a Christian, but it did make me a stronger person.
This all makes me think of the artist Bas Jan Ader. There is disagreement as to whether he was the consummate romantic or if his work is a critique of the tragic hero. Why can’t it be both? Pieces like Fall I and Fall II (both 1970), where he tumbles off the roof of a house or rides a bike into a canal seem to be a mixture of complex and conflicting emotions. They are funny, they are critical, but they are also uncomfortable because you can feel the sincerity behind it. It’s like he’s giving up on life right there. He’s displaying what completely letting go looks like. He also looks like the most depressed person ever. Knowing how his final work turned out, it’s kind of hard not to think of all the pieces leading up to it as warning signs. I mean he sent out postcards with a picture of himself crying and the words “I’m too sad to tell you” written on them.
Meant to be the second part in a trilogy called In Search of the Miraculous, 1972, Ader got in a tiny boat and sailed off into the Atlantic, planning to cross the ocean in the smallest craft on record. Months later his empty boat was found floating off the coast of Ireland; he was never heard from again.
Let’s face it, he basically committed suicide, suicide by art, in the grandest most hyperbolic way possible. The gesture is critical and ironic; he’s sailing off in search of a miracle in the most blockheaded way possible. But on the other hand it reads like an act of desperation, the last ditch effort of the believer mired in doubt.
It’s a way to carry on the search indefinitely. To disappear at sea is to punctuate the end of your life with an ellipsis. It leaves the possibility of return open. It gives those left back on shore the choice to believe. I wonder what was going through his mind out there, completely alone, as he sailed into that fathomless void.
“It is now found once more!
It is the sea commingled
With the sun”
- Arthur Rimbaud, from A Season in Hell
(Image on top: Bas Jan Ader, I'm Too Sad to Tell You, 1970; Wikipedia Commons/Licence Art Libre.)