Getting paid to think out loud and make confident pronouncements and sharp judgments means it’s never a bad idea to step back from the easel and take a hard look at the sketch I’m making of the world. Artists who are persistent enough to carve out a space in their mind in which art and knowledge protects them against violence, stupidity and the fact that life is short, will fight for every inch of that space. They also spend a lot of wasted time tilting against imaginary enemies.
Knowledge is dangerous without empathy. Without the ability to feel and understand the pain of others, knowledge is just another link in the chain that binds art to power. Growing out of the foundation of Humanism, Modernism tried to free art from its enslavement to power. Artists, who for centuries were thought of as vessels for the expression of a religious or national narrative were given the responsibility of cultivating a radical individuality represented by an inimitable style. This vision of the artist represents the democratic ideal in which every human being is a dense and complex subject.
In its pursuit of this ideal, Modernism created the myth of the autonomous artist unrestrained by convention or form. Where once only an emperor was able to take the names and inhabit the forms of gods, the modern artist is his own god, building forms out of which he creates his own monument to himself. The road from the Egyptian Pyramids to the Rothko Chapel is not as long as we might like to think.
The inhabitants of ancient civilizations depicted the reality of their world in the form of eternal gods and powerless subjects, but they experienced the same human sense of individual consciousness we do. They ate, drank, sang songs, fucked and raised families. Human life, like the dirt it’s eventually found in, has many strata. If you excavate deeply enough you’ll find a dick joke in every epoch. But for all our similarities to ancient people they had the comfort of being able to believe in gods and life after death in a way contemporary people no longer do.
The six-thousand-year transformation from Sumerian civilization to 20th century Modernism is often seen as a great explosion of human knowledge mirroring the expanding universe of the Big Bang. But a collapsing universe—the Big Crunch—eventually pulled by gravity into black holes, might better describe contemporary human civilization, as well as its art, which is experiencing its own great implosion.
For ancient people, the afterlife was a physical place to which they travelled with supplies, money and an entourage. Gods lived above in the sky, or below the ground. But because ancient graves have been found and plundered by the living, the modern artist cannot help but see that the road trip to the other side never left the driveway. Travel to the Great Beyond since that time has turned toward the deep interior of the individual mind. The universe is now contained in the mind of a single, helpless human being.
Relational Aesthetics seeks, through its reliance on the language of the internet and the deconstruction of the individual into a collection of cultural symptoms, to reestablish a version of the ancient order in which the artist returns to his role as a “node” or “vessel” through which universal meaning travels. But individual artists have to fabricate purpose because human life does not inherently possess it. The contemporary artist, like the artists who built the first Chinese Emperor’s terracotta army, ends up more often than not as a means to an end in the service of a curator-as-king.
This effort to re-mystify art is clear in many Post-Modern theories which become increasingly obscure, requiring specialized, often nonsensical interpretation. But the scales are falling and instead of revealing a grand design or even a coherent community, the Enlightenment has drawn a convincing portrait of a human being without cosmic purpose and mostly unknown to itself. Like Descartes’ and Rodin’s thinkers, we still don’t know much more than that we think.
Artists have come to find their selves walled up in an Empire of One. Who could have imagined that such a crowded world would be so lonely? Can there be unity in this isolation, or are we asleep like the soldiers in Qin Shi Huang’s terracotta army? Originally, those sculptures were brightly colored, their eyes painted wide open looking into the future. The role of the contemporary artist in society is more blurred than ever. Before it can come into focus, artists will have to paint their own eyes open again, look out of their empire and see if any other soldiers are awake.