Art During Plague Time
Most people who have ever learned an artistic discipline have been repeatedly told that, in anything but a time of great abundance, their skills would be first thing to be declared societally useless. So here we now stand, in an unprecedented scenario involving the entire world lunging at a novel pathogenic terror, and with consumption of goods and services nearly everywhere reduced to spartan Essentials Only levels: in this scenario, one of the only things we possess in abundance is the time to think and re-think, and so perhaps a few minutes can be spared to reconsider the truth of this supposed uselessness. It seems unlikely, with all human relations from the geopolitical to the interpersonal primed for huge and unanticipated changes, that the role of the modern artist would remain what it has been up until the viral dawn of the 2020s. In previous instances where life has appeared, per Dada spokesman Hugo Ball, as “completely confined and shackled,”[i] that role has shifted dramatically, and it is worth wondering whether currently oppressive circumstances will affirm this.
Before going into the current specifics of how art can be meaningful during our current Great Isolation, it would be useful to briefly touch upon an argument against art ever being practiced, let alone in catastrophic times. Those critical of civilization and techno-scientific progress, who would see the COVID-19 crisis as a resounding validation of their critiques, tend to view art as another method or mode of social control, i.e. the “domestication of people” that was necessary to precede the “domestication of animals”[ii] and inexorably lead to our complete alienation from the natural ecosystem as well as from each other. All art, according to these critics, is “abstract” art that deletes something from whatever aspect of reality it is portraying. However, I feel it is more accurate to view art as the intermediary stage between this former reality and a new one. Put another way, art is a tool not for domesticating and controlling the known phenomena that comprise human experience, but rather a tool for shaping new realities via the revelation of a.) what we simply don’t know and b.) what we don’t know that we knew. Seen in this way, it is therefore not a purely negative exercise.
Of course, the primitivist / anti-civilization counter-argument here is that art, especially that of the avant-garde, is “predicated on the progressivist notion that reality must constantly be updated.”[iii] Again, I disagree: I believe that the differentiation of experience promised by art is a result more valued by artists than the sort of cumulative (read: unsustainable) gains in technical knowledge suggested here. Art is not some aberration of a post-Neolithic humanity obsessed with control and domination, but rather something that keeps us in tune with the rest of the natural world’s proclivity for the same: animals’ own desire for differentiation of experience over the attainment of a “sure thing” is evident even in lab rats, who have been proven to choose alternate paths to find a reward in a maze after an earlier path to reward had been discovered.[iv] I do not absolutely deny that art can be, per Wayne Kostenbaum’s analysis of Andy Warhol, a “sequence of prostheses…collectible receptacles to embalm experience.”[v] Yet it is also difficult to deny art’s role in expansion of experience itself: likewise its usage as ritual, therapy, or any other number of functions that repair and recalibrate the psyche so that this differentiation can then get going in earnest.
It is also likely that much of the scorn hurled at “useless” art and artists refers to a limited segment of overall creative culture that represents the institutionalization of art. The eventual acceptance of non-representational, avant-garde art as the product of genuinely skilled individuals, and the eventual understanding that there were other means of quantifying skill besides manual dexterity, had its positive effects and yet also led to a situation easily exploitable by corporate interests: that is to say, a sort of valuation of the artist as an administrator that allowed also for administrators and corporate strategists to picture themselves as artists. This was the animus behind actions like the Neoist-aligned PRAXIS group’s ‘Art Strike’ of 1990–1993, a call for an extended mass walk-out of “cultural workers” (I’m sure it will probably seem inconceivable, over the “socially distanced” days to come, that there was once a time in which we enjoyed such a surplus of publicly available art that the refusal of its creation was a radical act). Yet it was an action that may have ended up sending the completely wrong message about the uselessness of art, in times of plenty and times of crisis alike: the Art Strike was, naturally, a conceptual art piece in itself, and was perceived by some commentators as being the self-congratulatory act of a cultural elite, widening the fissure between them and individuals who did not openly despise art yet were too fatigued by daily work to fully engage with it. As Bob Black noted in his cauterizing dismissal of this action, “everyone else has been on an Art Strike all along…with the Art Strike, the leaders are given a chance to catch up with their followers, who were previously unaware they had leaders, let alone needed any.”[vi]
Black’s denunciation of the Art Strike ended on a note that still has some resonance in the present: “the refusal of art only certifies artists as the expert interpreters of what nobody but artists do…the art of refusal, on the other hand, acts against what everybody does but nobody once did, against work and submission to the State.”[vii] This is a concept that was again clearly articulated by Ball upon the outbreak of the movement that he would help to shape: “what is necessary is a league of all men who want to escape from the mechanical world, a way of life opposed to mere utility…orgiastic devotion to the opposite of everything that is serviceable and useful.”[viii]
Although the realization of merit-worthy art (and even some unremarkable art) involves plenty of hard work, I consider art to be the opposite of work when the latter is defined using terminology Black himself proposed: “compulsory production.” In the current pandemic crisis, typified by the gutting of entire sectors of industry and commerce, we may for once be able to take a step back and observe just how much our lives have been consumed by performing, thinking / worrying about, and simply recovering from labor towards specific quantifiable ‘metrics’ or goals, rather than engaging in those activities whose enactment is their goal (that is to say, dancing is worthwhile whether or not one wins a dance contest or even a romantic partner with exceptional talent). If this crisis is to be survived without developing into a secondary pandemic of desperate violence, we may have a golden opportunity to reclaim our elective identities and base them upon something other than our mode of employment. It does seem positively utopian that, one day in the not-so-distant future, the stock American conversation starter “what do you do?” might be meant to elicit information other than “what do you do at your job”? Yet in times when the majority of those eligible to be in the workforce are not, in fact, in it, “what do you do?” could become an inquiry about something else entirely. No one who has had any type of aspiration towards expressive creativity, and who also has some meager means to act upon this, should waste this opportunity.
While it is difficult to point to a modern art movement that has existed in defiance of insane conditions exactly like those that we now face, there are clear precedents for creative movements that have existed during periods of isolation forced by State-manufactured emergencies or by unalloyed social repression. For example, the varying levels of repression that existed across the former Soviet Union, and their attendant rejection of art forms assumed to not have a sufficiently clear and propagandistic message, necessitated the exchange of radical creative ideas within private settings, and thus “apt-art” — the subculture of exhibitions and performances taking place in private apartment homes — was born. Even here, risks were being taken (having lived in one of the prefabricated apartment buildings that dotted the entire Soviet / East Bloc landscape from Vladivostok to Dresden, I can attest to their less-than-ideal sound insulation qualities and privacy), yet for thousands of artists there existed either this means of communing with an audience, or nothing.
Indeed, many of the more enduring forces within Eastern European art of all media had their “apt-art” period. In 1972, Hungary’s Squat Theatre began performing at friends’ homes and at the Budapest apartment of members Péter Halász and Anna Koós once the local regime denied them permission to perform publicly: this was the culmination of a lengthy harassment campaign that had earlier been limited to bans only of specific plays, and was one among a number of preventive actions that also included a 4-year revocation of several members’ passports after a controversy-stoking 1973 appearance in Poland. Further east, the Slovenian painters’ group IRWIN decided to hold one of their signature exhibits — the Was ist Kunst exhibit of the mid-1980s — completely within private apartments in Ljubljana. This decision, similar to many others like it, was molded out of socio-political necessity: given that IRWIN was part of the same NSK [New Slovenian Art] umbrella organization that also included the “retro-avant garde” music group Laibach — also officially banned from public appearances at the time — gallery displays of artwork sharing Laibach’s verboten, mock-totalitarian iconography were out of the question. Other NSK subsidiaries, like the Scipion Nasice Sisters Theatre, were also affected and thus also acted out their initial “retro-garde events” Hinkemann and Marija Nablocka in apartment homes. In the case of IRWIN, this externally imposed restriction also provided the group with the opportunity to explore other themes tied in with domesticity and ideology: namely, this confinement to private apartments better allowed IRWIN to show how the history of art is determined by unique interpretations (i.e., interpretations which can change depending on the owner of the apartment) as much as by the artworks themselves.
“Apt-art” was not exclusively the product of the Soviet and Eastern Bloc undergrounds: it did maintain a presence in other global regions where the threat of punitive reprisals for publicly exhibiting “unofficial” art was less severe. Here it acted as a practical alternative for artists who were unable to secure gallery representation, or were merely indifferent to it, or found that the exposure of a personal inner sanctum (perhaps the same one in which the artwork was conceived and executed) provided an additional emotional resonance to their work. Even artists who would eventually be recognized by the “official” art exhibition circuit partook of this, like Kenny Scharf when he exhibited work in the Times Square apartment shared between himself and Keith Haring. By all appearances, “apt-art” is also a creative concept that has carried over into the present era. My friend Carl Michael von Hausswolff, upon unwittingly becoming one of the untold millions barred from international travel (and thus victim of one of untold cancelled concert tours), immediately set out on an “apartment tour,” launched from his Stockholm home and focusing upon virus-themed compositions. This was a concept I too had entertained in less catastrophic times (mainly being a way for me to bring my unpopular music directly to those who had requested it, in lieu of wasting energy on soliciting every unsympathetic public venue from clubs to teahouses to record stores).
It would seem like some other art forms are due for a revival in the coming days. With the postal networks being perhaps the only reliable means for consuming “non-essential” items (and even for sharing them in areas under strict “shelter-in-place” quarantine), it wouldn’t be inconceivable for a resurgence of the “mail art” or correspondence art movement to come into being. Founded by intrepid spirits like Ray Johnson, who made good on Claes Oldenburg’s wish for “art that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum,” mail art immediately manifested itself as different from “official” art production in a number of ways: it proved that creative media did not have to be a “one-way” transmission incapable of being responded to, and it made good on the previous experiments of groups like the Surrealists. Namely, their joint exercises such as the cadavres exquis (or “exquisite corpse”: a game in which an artist would pass on a fragment of a full image to another artist, who would then add an additional segment to this incomplete work).
Mail art also has, perhaps more so than “traditionally” exhibited art, a special value for those living in a state of physical isolation. Unlike the increasingly regulated / “content moderated” World Wide Web, mail art offers an element of surprise that can be almost as valuable as real sustenance for those who are staring down the barrel of deepening monotony. The driving engine of this surprise, in the decades since the 1970s-1980s heyday of mail art, has been the sheer variation in the type of participant within the network and, in turn, the type of materials one could expect to be delivered to them once their own involvement in the network was known. Mail artworks could range from the crudest of one-sheet, nth-generation photocopies to painstakingly crafted, one-of-a-kind objects indistinguishable in quality from those on display on the modern art musea of the world. Naturally, the creators themselves could range from amateur hobbyists and naïve “outsiders,” so-called, to individuals highly conversant in art theory and other forms of critical analysis. Participating in such an unpredictable forum is perhaps more important now than in mail art’s halcyon days, for reasons that are only slight adaptations of the ones commonly cited for mail art’s uniqueness in those days (i.e. the form’s radical ‘openness,’ and its championing of an informal ‘gift’ economy). In my humble opinion, participation in this type of culture is a necessary counter to the regular retreat into the social media “echo chamber” of one’s own peers, as this illusory safety valve can in fact cause a steep increase in anxiety, and an increased need to “dunk on” one’s ideological foes in lieu of discussing, even finding, genuine solutions to personal crises brought on by mass quarantining.
Net.art, a category of artistic production whose main arena of enactment should be pretty obvious, is another form which may be on track for a revival as more and more home-bound individuals tire of the World Wide Web becoming a glorified TV (and if one disagrees with that statement, consider the speed with which supposedly “democratic” fora like YouTube have given “priority creator” status to corporate television networks while gray-listing independent content makers). Also, for those doubting that net.art could experience a revival, I doubt few of us would have predicted the rise of drive-in movie theaters from the ashes, either.
Like the mail art already described, net.art has been assaulted throughout its lifetime with misconceptions, i.e. that it is simply a more rarefied form of “web design,” or indeed that the Internet is synonymous with the WWW: in reality this is a form that takes into account video / audio conferencing software, peer-to-peer networks and much more besides. Furthermore, net.art has traditionally been less concerned with simply digitizing existing artworks and more invested in unveiling hidden potentialities within all available tools from browsers to media players. This is perhaps why the Spanish group EVOL introduces themselves via their personal website as “makers of deformed techno-objects” rather than as “artists” outright. Elsewhere, the disruptive use of computer syntax — Internet-based or otherwise — has made this medium, in the hands of pioneers like JODI [a.k.a. Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans], something like the successor to earlier “concrete poetry” experiments.
All of the above, I know, need to come with massive caveats that may date this article either the moment it is posted, or shortly after. None of us seem to know the exact character and staying power of what we are dealing with, or how entire societies will mutate as a result. One thing I feel certain of, though, is that now is the time to create as if the expressions we make may be our last. The current state of forced sequestration, affecting more global inhabitants than at any time in modern history, has provided creators with an odd sort of field-leveling that actions like the “Art Strike” of the ’90s never achieved: practically nobody is having their artworks hung in galleries now, or their films screened at festivals like SXSW, or their music publicly performed. As such, we have an unprecedented opportunity to be free from the “anxiety of influence,” and to shift the focus of creation more squarely onto the therapeutic differentiation of experience already mentioned, or onto autotelic play and games (that can nevertheless be taken very seriously).
Barring the appearance of an extraterrestrial invasion force, this struggle is likely the closest that the world will ever get to working together against a common enemy. If and when that enemy is eventually defeated, we have yet another unprecedented opportunity: the chance to redefine what “globalism” means. A world in which the voluntary creative acts we engage in become our universal marker of identity, rather than our degree of dedication to compulsory production, could not provide a starker contrast to “globalism” as it now exists: a sweeping, trans-national program of exploitation and cultural homogenization. So long as we still have the luxury of telecommunication, and any freedom of movement at all, it is well worth considering the day when that plague is eradicated as well.
[i] Ball, H. (1996). Flight Out of Time. Trans. John Elderfield. Berkeley: University of California Press.
[ii] Zerzan, J. (1990). “The Case Against Art,” in Apocalypse Culture. Ed. Adam Parfrey. Portland: Feral House.
[iv] Heron, W. (1957). “The Pathology of Boredom.” Scientific American, 196 (1): 52–57.
[v] Kostenbaum, W. (2001). Andy Warhol. London: Phoenix.
[vi] Black, B. (1989). “The Refusal of Art.” Artpaper (9) 4.
[viii] Ball (1996).