On our absurd art

Image Caption: The Atlas Group – Walid Raad, Notebook volume 72: Missing Lebanese wars, 1989. Attributed to: Dr. Fadl Fakhouri. ©Photo: Walid Raad. Repro: Haupt & Binder.

Contemporary art is at odds. On the one hand it is interested in temporality and the dissolution of the individual as its practitioners attempt to extricate themselves and their work from the grips of the art industrial complex.  On the other hand it is consumed with creating information about art events, thereby preserving it (if you haven’t stopped to look around, much of our art is documentation in one form or another). It seems that, try as we might, despite a million desires and predictions to the contrary, we cannot allow the art object to die.

The role of the Internet in all of this should not be taken for granted. The evolution of art into a participant-based medium (the museum as stage naturally implies the museum-goer as participant) and our ability to document and present innumerable accounts of an event, have arisen in large part thanks to the world wide web; since we can all be reporters and performers in the art, and the Internet prompts sustained performance, attention is directed always to how the event in which we are participating will be perceived, documented, and mythologized in times to come.

As a result of this we no longer make evaluating art on what it is and how it emerged from the mind of its creator a priority, instead we choose (whether consciously or not) to focus our evaluation on not only how we perceive an experience or object, but more importantly on how we expect it to be perceived by others. (Is it any wonder our reasoning skills have devolved when considered in the light of Marx’s critique of reason alongside our focus on analyzing perception over form? Reason is, just like God, effectively dead in our post-Marxist world. Merit and goodness, are determined not by a reasoned argument but by an attempt at a subjective analysis of art which rarely has an innate connection to an idea outside of what is layered onto it through perception, either ours or the artist’s, but is still expected to perform one. Ugh.)

I get the Internet’s role in all of this, but have been trying to parse out on my own, how to make sense of the underlying assumptions (whether we’re aware of them or not) we and artists are operating under while viewing or creating art, respectively. What makes this okay? Why is contemporary art often simply a “performance of theory?”

A clue to contemporary art lies in Camus, who attempted to establish the parameters of an absurd art to go along with his absurd world. In Camus’ estimation the absurd man is “he who without negating it, does nothing for the eternal.” He asked whether it was possible for there to be an art “without appeal;” could man live and create without desiring an answer or a solution? Could he confine himself purely to experiencing and describing? Camus thought so, and art critic Boris Groys, in his recent book In the Flow, puts Camus’ arguments in terms of 21st century art. 

In the book Groys describes an avant-garde art which represents the culmination of Camus’ thinking of art as “intellectual drama” and of work without “reply.” Groys takes Walter Benjamin as the starting point, but Benjamin was writing in the same milieu as Camus; in a war-ravaged 20th century Europe, a place in which the notion of history as progress was laughable. With no end or solution in sight in the Europe of the 20th century, Benjamin created an opportunity for an art that would exist ambiguously in between success and failure; in a world in which we are singularly aware of death and our inability to truly know anything, to the artist is opened a world of heretofore unseen possibilities. “The spectre of death” eliminates the possibility of final achievement, but also, in so doing, liberates us from pressure, allowing us to act without hope of a conclusion while maintaining a “paradoxical sense of urgency.”

Groys also writes of our emancipation from philosophy’s institutions and bourgeois reason thanks to the rise of theory in the latter half of of the 20th century. By revealing the lack of a truly dominant order or existing reality, theory offers a creator endless possibilities and surprisingly endless impetuses to action; since there is no line of reasoning that can’t be revealed as the tool of an oppressive majority, we have a blank slate upon which we can draw.

Theory, in opposition to philosophy, is active. It is not prescriptive but transformative, “it prescribes urgency,” and  requires us to evidence it in our lives, in our actions, and in our art. Hence the art of the avant-garde, the action-oriented, performative works of the Cabaret Voltaire, the Surrealists, the Fluxus artists, and the majority of performance and installation artists working today; free from the restraints of “truth,” art could become a general, nonproductive enterprise, free from the criteria of success, “a production without a product.” An endless experiment.

In his book Groys goes on to discuss in greater detail how the Internet and Google frame our expectations for, and experience of, art, as well as the distinction between art and design in the 21st century (unsurprisingly design attempts to make an object more agreeable and therefore more useful, while art defunctionalizes an object as an implicit critique of modernity and it will always do so; art is now “the defunctionalized and publicly exhibited corpse of past reality.”)

We’ve traveled some way in the aftermath of the early 20th century avant garde and the rise of theory and in our struggle to rectify our relationship with art and its objects in a world that seemingly had room for neither, we have divided art into two; it is essentially either a recording of events and a performance of theory or it is aestheticized into usefulness, transforming it into design. Art is either theoretical or it is not art. It is never finished and it is innately a critique of modernity. It is inherently hopeless and yet filled with urgency. It’s a performance of theory or it is not art. And in an absurd world without god, reason, or truth, there is no alternative.

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