A few months ago, I came across this quote in Rolling Stone, from an interview with Dr Drew Pinsky :
“I believe something has shifted.
Frankly, something substantial happened when we developed antibiotics
and hormonal contraceptives. Before 1950, almost half of American
families could expect a child to die. Way more women could expect to
die during childbirth. Living past 50 was sort of extraordinary. Now
death and dying don’t really exist for us. We don’t need to deal with
it. With birth control, sexuality became unhinged from biological
reality. Throughout human history, sex carried with it heavy
consequences. It could kill you. Suddenly we were unhinged from that,
and I think our culture has been rattling ever since. In
five hundred years, people will say the biological circumstances of
human life changed profoundly, and it took them 150 years to figure it
out. They’ll say everyone became narcissistic, obsessed with instant
pleasure, they stopped taking care of their children, and all hell
broke loose. Listen, in the days of Freud, narcissism was a foot note
in psychological journals. Now it is the standard personality of our
culture. Nothing but grandiose narcissistic thinking everywhere!”
The culture of narcissism. That’s us,
alright. I like how Pinsky ties it in to evolutionary advances in
fundamental quality of life. Every stage poses new threats and
challenges. What else are we supposed to do when faced with life-spans
doubled from a century ago, the luxury of philosophical relativism, and
baby-less sex? Party on, that’s what!
It’s not like narcissism is a new
thing. We all go through it in the spectrum of development, and
hopefully keep attempting to grow beyond its niggling traces into old
age. But when its pathological, ie the primary personality
characteristic of anyone beyond age 4, then we have a problem. There’re
generational flavors to it. Before WWII, it almost wasn’t an issue –
life was too tough, and you were dead by 50. But then there was the
Boom, and subsequently, we contracted Boomeritis
from the seething millions of LSD-initiated, joint-toking,
bell-bottom-slapping children of the revolution, who took it to a whole
other, nauseatingly self-absorbed level (had enough of the Clinton’s
and the Rolling Stones, anyone?)
There’s the shoe and navel gazing of
my own generation, X (we got the coolest tag.) I think we were on the
whole more introverted about it, so embarrassed were we by our parent’s
behavior, and not yet raised to think we were each god’s gift to the
universe (the folks were too busy doing est
and swinging). Which brings up the Gen Y, each child raised to be a
special flower and get a trophy just for showing up. Their apparent
motto is “hey, why ain’t I famous already?”
You can track it in the galleries. One example that comes to mind is that Kristin Lucas show
a few months back at And/Or, which looked super artsy good (light box:
check. Floor projector: check. rough-hewn materials: check.
Rainbow-array-background portraits: check), but read as the most
grandiose concoction of fruity-flavored me-ness west of Williamsburg.
But it didn’t have that kind of pathetic “I suck so much I’m
great”-ness of most Gen X stars — think about it: Sean Landers,
Radiohead (“I’m a creep”), Beck (“I’m a loser”), Cobain ("I hate myself
for being white, for being male, for being successful"), and a slew of
YBA’s. No, there’s a new kind of me-ness on display these days.
In their CADD Fair booth, And/Or
re-presented the transcript of Lucas’ court case, where she changed her
name from “Kristin Lucas” to “Kristin Lucas.” Ha ha, funny, right?
Well, yeah, until you read her precious, wince-worthy preamble to the
judge (who’s repsonses are hilarious, and as grounded as she was
dizzyingly etheric.) To paraphrase, she said that she was experiencing
a rebirth in her sense of self, she was new and re-freshed and raw and
just felt so really very freeee that she wanted to document it
and have it acknowledged by the state (leaving the judge to rightfully
question why she would make this the state’s job.) And by all of her
artist pals, who made portraits before and after her transformation
(erp. That’s me swallowing back lunch.)
Isn’t that almost the definition
of narcissism? And then, to assert the whole embellished farce as art?
It’s a pile-on of sticky self-promotion, that I’d probably like better
if she just weren’t being so coy, and cloyingly sincere about it all. I really don’t want to harsh on her mellow of self-discovery. It just neatly sums up my annoyance with a lot of new art.
It’s not that I doubt the artist’s belief
– it’s just that sincerity isn’t enough. I’m not that interested in
wading around in the products of some kid’s messy individuation (I’m busy with my own, thanks), as
profound and special as it may seem to them at the time; no matter how
well it’s presented.
Post-modern relativism has done a
nice job opening up the territory for everybody to do their thang. I
guess personally, I’m just drawn to work that acts more as
counterweight to cultural pathologies, and not just as a clever
repackaging of them. I remember kinda feeling that way about Landers
Pinsky’s talking about a whole level of weirdness in LA that doesn’t exactly apply to most of our lives (well, then there’s Loveline;
he really does know of what he speaks)– but as the line between art and
entertainment is danced around, and a certain class of visible artists
live like rock stars while making art about living like rock stars,
it’s just food for thought. Exceptions abound – so do examples. Feel
free to share them.
A couple of people have said to me that I might be missing the boat with Lucas, that she means it all in a more irony-inflected, self-aware tone; that she might be knowingly commenting, wink nudge, on the culture of narcissism rather than wallowing in it. They could be right. I didn’t spend that much time with her show, though I did read the name change transcript pretty closely, and felt genuinely annoyed with the hundreds of images of her mug in the show. If she was being ironic, its almost even less interesting to me, because then it was all just an act, and a not very well played one at that, at the expense of … somebody. Her, the judge, the system, us? I don’t know. It didn’t seem like a party I wanted to go to, in any case. I grant it might just be my lack of insight.