The Age of Incandescent Mediocrity
By Yuri Kruman
In every generation, snobs and malcontents – and critics – always moan, “This is the end of culture! End of our civilization!” Culture’s survived them all. Our broken Western business model lives to see another day.
And yet, one feels the creep of cultural stagnation, everywhere. Take ‘80s music, clothes, the general aesthetic at your Urban Outfitters, American Apparel – the same old, tired hipster antics. Cue dirty ‘staches and long beards, lumberjack flannel, Warby Parkers. After the Mad Men wave, the ‘50s, ‘60s are alive in fashion. Now note the prevalence of irony and feebleness in mainstream fiction, festivals of art and music, film. Tupac’s alive again, in Hologram. Wuhaa!
“The Wolf of Wall Street” didn’t help things; neither did “Great Gatsby.” Immediately, memes of Wall Street Scarface and the Flapper crowd made waves. For yet the umpteenth time. When you compare it with monosyllabic pop, Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” sounds like thoughtful elegy. There was a time when all of this would be derisively dismissed – derivative! And now… epitome of class.
Is this phenomenon a blip along the line of endless progress or a true inflection point – a “thing”?
‘Tis true, the classics of our Western repertoire have died the slowest death, for decades. Ye olde-hat art forms like the symphony, ballet, performance art and painting have declined in impact in our culture. That is, despite some notable attempts at reinvention through exotic media, increased accessibility and Sass!
Simply, the young don’t care, don’t show, don’t pay (don’t want to pay or can’t). They are not moved by hybrid paradigms or media, not shocked, inspired beyond consumer’s awe. Nor do “abhorrent” spectacles, the likes of dung Madonnas, blood-soiled panties and the other Shock Art treats. After YouTube beheadings, these are quaint rebellion.
We live in heady times for artists. Never before has it been easier or cheaper to make films or music, literature, paintings or a play – quite any art, to show-and-tell it, sell it, make it viral, maybe even make a buck. (Irrational exuberance, apologies.) Just pick a medium, work hard, test what is working and what’s not with trusted inner circle, then go practice, practice, practice until ready for the world. Worst case, there’s always a consultant/mercenary/virtual assistant at the ready. (Just ask Siri!)
Throw up a website, tell a story, shoot some video, campaign on social media, get funded by the crowd. Offer your stuff as gifts for cash, call in your favors with your friends and family, go viral, BOOM. Now you’ve got money and an audience, devoted. Rinse and repeat, you’ve got a following, some revenue, maybe enough to live on, if you’re lucky. Now grow that email list! You go, girl!
Efficient markets and a sharing ethos, plus crowd-funding and the open-source explosion have dropped barriers to entry for untold new artists, writers and musicians, not to mention coders. Mix in the sure steamroller of democratizing taste, elites with flitting power to ignore or trample self-made wonders, plus the low cost of pop-up urbanism. Voila!
The trouble is, now everyone’s an artist upon declaration. That was easy. Likes, shares and t-shirt sales – virality, once more – have jettisoned the need for critical approval. Worse, in a market glut, only the winners get to eat. The rest take jobs in finance or in Starbucks or continue mooching.
Hence, by and large, the death of art for art’s own sake. Yet, Long Live Art (please SHARE and NOW)! The medium’s the message. All the rest is humblebrag.
The moment in our history confounds. We seem to quietly have reached an evolutionary cul-de-sac in art, even as old Moore’s Law keeps chugging on toward The Singularity. How can this be, you scream? Just 3-D printing by itself will mean a giant Forward Leap! And what about the endless pool of under-fed and desperate creatives churned out every year? Recession drives renewal! Hipsters, save us all!
Ease of production and supply chain economics are no measure of aesthetic standards – that, we know. The trouble is, what are our standards? On one end of the spectrum are the goons of the establishment – Jeff Koons and Shepard Fairey, Ai Weiwei, Maria Abramovič, Basquiat and like. The hot new things are “deconstructing painting,” picking up the pieces of the Humpty Dumpty back onto the wall. What passes as the edgiest and freshest – by the critics’ cut – these days is little more than Pop Art kitsch 2 (is it 3?).0, riding the horse of irony, the cracking whip – investor frenzy. What’s the deal?
One sadly titillating and paradigmatic act well illustrates the state of art these days – a naked queen – (Venus de) Milo Moiré, performing “The Script System” at Art Basel, in past June. A woman in the nude performing publicly is hardly interesting or novel, in our age – especially in Europe. The painted words on flesh hardly arouse examination of script theory, as intended. She has pre-empted and transgressed all possible objectification with this statement – native, as it’s brave – and post-post-feminist. Pardon me while I laugh, then cry…ironic tears.
The trouble isn’t lack of aptitude or cleverness – quite well the opposite. The ease of entry, wealth of talent and profusion of new tech has led to massive growth in sheer production, exhibition, dabbling and collaboration.
Last March, I was a part of the Asylum Arts Retreat for Jewish artists in upstate New York. Each of us – seventy, in all, from far-flung places such as Buenos Aires, Budapest, L.A. and Tel-Aviv – brought objects of significance to give away, telling the story and the provenance for each. Between black Persian oranges and poems from a manic teen, drawn comic strips and my own Don Quixote flask, in Spanish leather, it was grand. We then filled out a giant timeline with our personal milestones, historical events that stuck with us from childhood, also paintings, books and music that have made us who we are as artists. Imagine all the myriad impressions and cross-pollination of ideas, new plans to work together that immediately flowed!
It isn’t that prevailing brilliance has gone dormant, or that genius has evaporated, suddenly. Each epoch makes its own, this one being no exception.
It’s that we’re clinging to soft, rotting notions of a trickle-down of taste determined, packaged and delivered by elites. Publishing’s holding by its teeth to staid prestige. Orchestras dying a slow death are scrambling to cross-over, cross-promote. The greatest gallerists trip over one another to anoint the next big thing, to stage the retrospective, buttress bottom lines. Endorsement’s everything. Returns are king. The robber barons wait to pounce and hedge and pocket the prestige. Prevailing taste is parsed “objectively” from data, analyzed and bundled in fat tranches, like financial instruments. Fait accompli.
Except, of course, it’s not. The laws of economics are the wind, but not the rudder to this ship. The latter is consumer sentiment. And there’s the rub – the Audience is suspect. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
In the interminable weeds of constant busy-ness, distraction and the speed of change, we’ve largely lost our patience and our curiosity beyond the listicle and Youtube exposition to a subject. The Crowd is king, every decision outsourced for presumed collective wisdom, in the place of cultivated taste. There is no time for thoughtfulness or exploration. Even our memory of things is fleeting, outsourced to the cloud. To be a walking Google is no badge of honor in a smartphone world. Unless we’re paid curators, dilettantes or students, we need pre-digestion.
Per Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of art is crap, across the board. If in a clever, thoughtful crowd, one benefits tremendously through access to the good stuff. If not, reliance quickly spirals into wasted time. Mistakes are costly, worse than FOMO.
And was it always thus, as cynics may suspect, or is this truly a new moment?
Art history suggests this may be a reprisal, in a way. After the end of guilds came the Salon des Refusés, embracing the “alternative,” for once. Marcel Duchamp destroyed the value of inherent meaning in his view of art. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring utterly scandalized the audience. John Cage’s 4’33” then simply robbed it blind (and deaf). Last year’s Whitney Biennial revealed an august group of tired and trite, half-baked contraptions, compositions, machinations, ideations that embrace the “End of Art,”1 or as the artist Alan Kaprow called it 50 years ago, “postart.” Then are we done, kaput?
Not quite so fast. In order to achieve a succès de scandale, one must rebel against a norm of taste or values, clauses in the social contract. Short of committing crimes – obscenity or lechery or racism need not bother – few barriers remain against which we may throw ourselves, artistically. We’re treading water. Our total “freedom” is our downfall.
We constantly hark back to times of great repression, war, upheaval to find gems of literature, painting, music – or at least their wellsprings. Art’s born in crucibles of trauma; that will never change. In times of peace and relative prosperity, like ours, it’s trauma of the personal that dominates our art, not ideology. One turns to painting to relieve divorce, to writing as a misfit, singing as a channel for one’s yearning. Most of us Western children know no war, starvation, double-speak or gulag, thankfully.
Yet we don’t seem to care and keep on making things, creating, ‘cuz it just feels good. Maybe the core of “greatness” in our bubble isn’t born of copies sold or prizes won, but simple understanding, recognition by our peers – community. Our maxims are: Come join our studio! Write for a blog or perish. Do Kickstarter. Be the startup of you. Sell it on Etsy. Start a pop-up store. We have our student debt, portfolio careers… and brunch.
Thus, in the end, we’re faced with a perplexing paradox. Art’s never been so easy to create and spread, but hardly anything escapes self-reference. 90% is crap, but when just metrics matter, taste is obviated. Crap has become de facto taste. The middlebrow is depilated. Amateur critics lurk and shout with impudence. Elites and experts huff and puff, sarcastic and self-righteous, while Rome burns.
Never before in history have experts and elites been dragged over the coals for vapid judgments, quite as now. Never before have works of art had half-lives equal to the news feed scroll. Art’s simply a commodity and artists, too. Art has no rules, no definition, just marketability. Cogito, ergo sum artifex. I think, therefore I am an artist. The ghost of pretense has already given up.
Ours is an Age of Incandescent Mediocrity.