Judging from the introduction of slides (Carsten Höller), chicken coops (Koen Vanmechelen), giant flower sculptures in the shape of a dog (Jeff Koons), sentences in a vinyl floor (Lawrence Weiner), self mutilations (Marina Abramovic), king-size peppermint flavour bombs (Peter De Cupere), public kitchens (Rirkrit Tiravanija), tattooed pigs ('Wim Delvoye), unmade beds with condoms (Tracey Emin), photorealistically painted porn (John Currin), and religious kitsch (Raqib Shaw), it seems that nothing is inconceivable anymore in 'contemporary art'...
Anything goes? As always, appearances are deceptive
NOT DONE (1): ESTABLISHED VALUES
For, as soon as we reformulate the problem in terms of content, it appears that there are many groups whose creations are not welcome in the world of modern and contemporary art.
In the first place the cult of the gods seems to be 'not done' there. That goes, already from Impressionism onwards, in the first place for Christendom. Jewish religion (Chagall) and Eastern religions, as well as cults like the theosophy of Blavatsky (Kandinsky) and the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner (Mondrian) could for some time pass for 'alternative'. But, as the world grew larger, the taboo extended, not only to the whole array of non-official religious cults, but to religion as such - especially after the restoration of the catholic and the orthodox church after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the worldwide revival of the Islam and, in its wake, that of Hinduism and Buddhism. Nowadays, it is an ascertained fact: no religious representations in temples of art like the MoMA, the Tate Modern or Beaubourg! Let us remark that the contentual taboo is only doubled with a stylistic or technical one when the artists come to use traditional techniques like fresco and painting (Pietro Annigoni in Montecassino 1980). Except for the Catholic Church, which, after the Second World War and the Second Vatican Council began to embrace modernism (Matisse: Chapelle du Rosaire, Vence 1951), most of the mentioned official and alternative religions stick to the local traditional styles, denounced as 'kitsch' by modern art. But the taboo continues to hold when more contemporary techniques are used: think of the many films on the life of Jesus, especially of the mega-production Mesih/Messiah for the Iranian television (2008).
Equally from Impressionism onwards, there is a taboo on the cult of more secular entities like the state, the nation or the motherland, the people, the race, and on political parties of all kinds: the taboo on art as propaganda. As long as diverse trends of socialism and fascism (Marinetti) were still alternative, they continued to be acceptable in circles of modern art, but since Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini turned the formerly alternative ideology into a totalitarian, imposed doctrine, political propaganda as such came to be banned. The taboo holds especially for the continuation of the tradition in the Eastern Bloc (Werner Tübke), Cuba ( monument of Jose Marti), Mao China, North Korea, for the propaganda of the diverse nationalist regimes after the decolonisation (Iraq, Libya, Syria), and for the new 'emergent countries' like the China of Deng Xiaoping, Putin's Russia, Erdoğan's Turkey (TV series 'Valley of the Wolves), and what have you. The waning belief in communism did not lead to an acceptance of capitalism, not even after the fall of the Iron Curtain, let alone to a welcoming of the corollary resurgence of nationalism and religion, but, on the contrary, to a generalised denunciation of 'really existing' political-economical practices as such. That is why also neoliberal propaganda is tabooed - think only of the antipodes of the former socialist heroes in the film 'Atlas Shrugged' after the novel of Ayn Rand (2011). Let us remark that, also here, the contentual taboo is doubled with a stylistic or technical taboo when traditional techniques are used, such as fresco and painting or bronze statues (think of war monuments or of sculptures like those of Alexander Stoddart). That does not prevent the taboo from applying when it comes to more advanced techniques such as mega-posters, films, video clips like those for Putin or Berlusconi ('Meno male che Silvio c'è'), or to graffiti of neo-Nazis and anarchists.
The counterpart of the taboo on religious and political propaganda is the taboo on 'popular art' and everything that is glorified by it - which is in every respect the opposite of what the religious and political authorities advocate. The taboo is strengthened in that the adherents are lured into these ways of life by advertising, so that the success of 'popular art' can be denounced not so much as constraint imposed from above, as rather as seduction aimed at below, equally manipulation hence, that, on top of that is inspired by the mere pursuit of profit. Such double reproach is summarised in the term 'culture industry' - a term that we will use in this text, because it is more appropriate than the misleading 'popular culture'. The taboo applies especially to the seducing images par excellence: the erotic ('pornographic') image. These are all the more scorned since, from Antiquity to Ingres, they have been the privileged subject of the (feudal-bourgeois) sector of 'academic art' - until photography took the lead. For some time, the idealised academic nude (Bouguereau) could be challenged by the 'aesthetically deformed' nude (Brancusi, Arp) or by transgressive forms of sexuality (Manet, Courbet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Demoiselles d'Avigon, Dali, Bellmer, Balthus). But since the sex industry took the lead in that domain too, the 'contemporary artists'had to withdraw on the rather asexual domain of scatology: the urine and faeces of Piero Manzoni, Paul McCarthy, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, Joel-Peter Witkin, Kiki Smith, Andres Serrano, Gilbert and George, Annie Sprinkle, Cindy Sherman, Jan Fabre, and so on. The taboo applies also to lower genres where societal and private relations appear in the guise of crime, horror or science fiction.
It appears that modern and 'contemporary' art tend to exclude everything that is accepted by the mainstream - be it as convention imposed on the flock by some shepherd or 'Great Steersman', or as 'popularity' cherished by the masses themselves. As is demonstrated by the example of socialism and fascism, we are not dealing with borders that are fixed once and for all, but with borders that are ever pushed further to eventually circumscribe an ever more confined territory - on which more below.
Let us remark that modern art legitimised its rejection of normative movements by denouncing 'narrative art': genuine art was supposed to be a question of form, not of content (formalism). This conception culminates in abstract art, which is considered to be pure art, where the narrative is neutralised - unjustifiably so (see Malevich). But the anti-narrative fervour is merely the fig leaf behind which a more fundamental non-conformism goes hidden. Modern and postmodern 'contemporary art' are nowise free from tendencies: they reject existing religious and political practices as well as the values of the 'culture industry'. The artists may positively develop their own values - for instance the 'higher spiritual world' of abstract art. But it is far more convenient to shockingly scorn existing values. Blasphemy is endemic in modern art - from Félicien Rops, over the Dadaists (Baargeld: Gott is Wurst) and the Surrealists, to the more recent 'Nona Ora' van Maurizio Cattelan or the 'Piss Christ' of Andres Serrano - although our heroes seem to recoil in the face of Islam: a meteorite on Khamenei instead of on our pious Joan Paul II would have required somewhat more courage. Even more popular is political protest: against exploitation (Van Gogh's potato eaters), war (Otto Dix, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso), fascist and communist totalitarianism (Anselm Kiefer, Luc Tuymans, Maurizio Cattelan, Ai Weiwei), Imperialism (Luc Tuymans), and soon also against all kinds of non-economical or non-political forms of oppression: the oppressive Über-Ich (Surrealism), rationalism, Western cultural Imperialism (Raqib Shaw), patriarchy (Marlene Dumas and feministic art), heterosexuality (Dali, Hockney, Robert Mapplethorpe), pollution (even with Andreas Gursky in his Bangkok-series). By being 'critical' and 'shocking', the artists seem to acquit themselves from the duty of proclaiming what they positively advocate, especially since this is suspect as 'narrativity'. That does not prevent such 'critical stance' from concealing a hidden ideology. In the beginning, it was mostly 'big stories' like Darwinism, Marxism and diverse forms of mysticism, but ever since Stalin and Hitler, not to mention Thatcher and Reagan, many an artist feels more safe with a non-political or non-economical, more 'cultural' critical stance: suffice it to refer to the enlightened Marxism of Gramsci and the Frankfurter Schule, psychoanalysis, existentialism, structuralism (Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Foucault, Althusser, Barthes); poststructuralism and postmodernism (Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, Baudrillard), and, finally the doxa of figures like Jacques Rancière, Slavoj iek and Alain Badiou - a world, hence, where one rather loses oneself in 'das Sein' or 'la Différance', yes, even in 'true Marxism', than to face in the Diesseits what is staring there at us from the depths of the gene pool - although other pythias come to compete here for the proper interpretation of also this numinosum. To what unparallelled artistic feats all this leads may be judged from the way in which Sanja Iveković's recycles a nationalist monument for the victims of the Great War in Luxemburg in rechristening it as 'Lady Rosa of Luxembourg' (2001) and providing it with the revealing captions 'Kitsch, Kultur, Kapital, Kunst' and 'Whore, Bitch, Madonna, Virgin' (on view in the MoMA 2011)...
ANYTHING GOES: APPARENT INCLUSION (1)
One might object that modern or contemporary art has given up its denunciation of 'culture industry' at least from Pop Art onwards. Appearances are deceptive. We are rather dealing with a radicalisation of the non-conformist stance: it comes to extend to the conventions within modernism itself. Thus, Andy Warhol could only question the abstract art of the fifties, that had proclaimed itself as the new paradigm of art, in letting the introduction of scorned figuration pass for a lifting of the taboo on that very figuration. A similar analysis applies to the porn of Jeff Koons and John Currin, to the stained glass and the tattoos of Wim Delvoye, and what have you. Flirting with the 'culture industry', which has traditionally been scorned as 'lower art', has an additional charm: it allows to dispense with the higher aspirations - and the concomitant higher achievements - of the former avant-gardes. These are lumped together with the equally 'high art' of the Ancien Regime and the bourgeoisie of the 19th century - that was already the trick of Marcel Duchamp who proposed to use a Rembrandt as an ironing board and who thus dispensed himself from the task of painting something meaningful. The double effect of this 'statement' makes only sense within the codes prevailing in the world of modern art: in the world of advertising, the depiction of a soup can is inconspicuous, and the shattering of 'high culture' is not at all groundbreaking in the world of the 'culture industry", but rather 'bon ton' - just think of Chuck Berry's 'Roll over Beethoven'. That the artists in question continue to understand themselves as modern artists, is apparent from the fact that they do not put their money where their mouths are: Andy Warhol did not resume his career in advertising, Lichtenstein did not become a cartoonist, Jeff Koons and John Currin no porn producers, Wim Delvoye no tattooist, and so on. Indeed: the more a flirt with the 'culture industry' threatens to blur the borders, the more the artists insist on appearing in good company, exemplary in the ridiculous 'dialogue' of Jan Fabre with the Flemish masters in the Louvre, or in the staging of John Currin next to Cornelis van Haarlem in the Frans Halsmuseum in The Hague. The old masters are only knocked from their pedestal when it matters to catch the attention in the temple of art. When it matters to be distinguished from 'culture industry' outside the confines of the temple, the iconoclasts prefer to go hiding behind the big shoulders of their more respectable forebears...
Although it is a bonus to show off with some street whore in the temple, popular art continues to be 'not done' there. Only on the pig skins of Wim Delvoye is the world-encompassing practice of tattoos represented in the museums. Lichtenstein and Murakami are all too well known in the establishment, but cartoonists have to content themselves with their own museums. Banksy made it into the MoMA, but the real graffiti artist continue to leave their works anonymously in the streets. Andy Warhol brought Campbell soup cans and Brillo boxes into the museum, but the glamour of the world of advertising continues to thrive on billboards, lifestyle magazines and promotional clips around the world. Jeff Koons and John Currin made even porn socially acceptable in the museum, but the real acts continue to be performed in the red light districts or to be stared at on countless computer screens.
ANYTHING GOES: APPARENT INCLUSION (2)
Also Western as well as non-Western religious themes seem not to fail in modern art (Gauguin). One reason is that the taboo, which originated in the West, initially only applied to Christian art, so that, as mentioned, non-Christian, especially Eastern and primitive religions could pass as an alternative. That does not prevent Christian themes from being recyclable for modern purposes: just like the introduction of 'culture industry', also the introduction of religious themes is a means par excellence of shocking the mainstream. Already Salvador Dali provoked the Surrealists in painting Christian themes in Rafaelesque style, without converting to Christianity - except then as a pretext to blasphemously stage himself at the place of Jesus himself, not otherwise than Jan Fabre, who took the position of Jesus on Maria's lap in Michelangelo's piëta. In the same vein, Jesus could appear as a communist with Ensor and Pasolini, or with an erection with Thierry de Cordier. A similar analysis applies to the stained glass with erotic themes of Wim Delvoye and for the design of his Gothic tower - which is meant to be a monument erected above his very own DNA. In a less provincial vein, Raqib Shaw shows off with non-Western, Japanese, Indian and Persian religious 'kitsch' - merely to celebrate 'The absence of God'. Also here, the artists are not out at understanding themselves as heirs to the old traditions as such.
It should not escape our attention that a similar celebration of Stalinist of fascist themes seems to be inconceivable - whereas it is 'bon ton' with skinheads. Even Salvador Dali only dares to stage Hitler while masturbating (1957). Also Islam seems to be a caveat. Less dangerous is a parody on the 'artspeak' of diverse postmodern prophets. And that paves the way for a final profanation of the utopian temple: figures like the Young British Artists begin to shock the mainstream - which in casu has grown into the 99% - by publicly embracing the most whorish neoliberal practice - albeit that some 'critical' appearance has to be kept, exemplary in Wim Delvoye's strategy of complicity. In the end, we have landed in the dystopia of 'really existing" capitalism as the ultimate provocation of the utopian conformists...
Let us remark that such apparent inclusion should not be confused with contents that are often described as religious, without being religious in se: just think of the 'iconic' character of many early modern abstract art (e.g.Malevich), but also of the paintings of Mark Rothko. In music, there is the stillness with composers like Morton Feldman or a sentiment of collective mourning in works like Quando stanno morendo from Luigi Nono, not to mention the experience of the 'Sublime' (Atmosphères from Györgi Ligeti), or the melancholy, individual or collective resignation that implies a nostalgia of the community that embraces the whole of humankind (Stasimo Secondo from Luigi Nono's Prometeo), and so on. We are dealing here with feelings that have been monopolised by religions, but that, from the advent of the bourgeoisie onwards, have been secularised. Nationalist versions (as with Wagner, Liszt, or figures like Smetana) are taboo in modern art, but that does not hold for revolutionary or undefined, universal feelings of communality, as we find them in Beethoven. Religions have no monopoly, hence, on 'religious feelings'. Quite the contrary: precisely because the present 'world religions' or the present 'nations' will never become world encompassing, the secularising of these feelings is the mission par excellence of every genuine modern art - every art that is really contemporary to a world in which the economic relations have become world-encompassing. That composers like Györgi Ligeti do not hesitate to call their works 'requiem', does not mean that they would be 'religious' in the sense of 'Christian'. The same holds when figures like Matisse make works commissioned by the church - Matisse's chapel in Vence could as well serve as a crematory for freethinkers. And that applies even more for composers like Stockhausen, who adorn their in essence secular music with references to Eastern cults, yes even for the music of a convinced catholic like Olivier Messiaen.
How much 'contemporary art' my flirt with bygone political or religious traditions or with the meanwhile world-encompassing 'culture industry', it continues to confine itself within its own restricted domain, that is more than ever delineated by the old taboos. The erotic stained glass windows of Wim Delvoye may be exhibited in the temples of art, but the original stuff can only be found in renovated churches. Raqib Shaw may make furore in the MoMAa and the White Cube, but the originals can only be contemplated in Hindu temples or in Chinese restaurants. And, although Odd Nerdrum has meanwhile secured his place on the art scene, the real heirs to the academic tradition continue to be persona non grata in the Tate, the Centre Pompidou or the MoMA.
Through an ever more radical taboo on conformism - first on the established order in the outer world and the culture industry, but soon also on what threatens to become convention within the own ranks - we gradually find ourselves in a community that adheres to ever more unworldly and idiosyncratic views, to finally end up in a blunt affirmation of the existing order that is rejected (in theory) by practically the entire world. The formerly utopian avant-gardists are perverted into their very negation: they have become the heralds of a generalised dystopia where we all are mere accomplices. Speaking of 'negative dialectics'...
NOT DONE (2): FROM ANTI-ART TO META-ART
Modern art not only fulminated against all mainstream values - and ultimately against alternative values as such, but also against mainstream conceptions of the conventional image - and ultimately against the image as such.
The taboo on 'true to nature' images has been constitutive for modern painting, especially since the invention of photography. Only painters were able to deliberately deviate from 'realistic' rendering, whence painting became the leading art form, whereas photography was referred to the world of the 'culture industry'. The painters developed new ways of making images, and, since these threatened to become conventional in their turn, this resulted in an avalanche of 'isms'. Because the possibilities to make images happen to be limited - they are largely exhausted when, next tot the perfection of the 'true to nature' image, also expressionistic, surrealistic and 'abstract' imagery have been developed - the non-conformist fervour came to rage against the image as such. Modern art became iconoclastic, not only in the figurative, but also in the literal sense of the word, although this was theoretically obfuscated in that art was no longer understood as synonymous with 'image' (mimesis). Already since the Arts and Crafts and Constructivism, the door has been opened for a shift from image to design, since Duchamp's urinal for a shift from image to displayed reality, and since Kazimir Malevich's Black Square and Magritte's 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe' for a shift from image to (verbal or non-verbal) statements. In the beginning, these were only marginal developments, but the triumph of abstract painting after the Second World War seems to have been at the same time the swansong of painting. In its minimalistic phase, the 'new geometric abstraction' opened the gates for design (from Donald Judd and Carl André to Peter de Cupere's olfactory art), for (verbal or non-verbal) statements (from Lawrence Weiner's and Kosuth's 'conceptual art' to the Cloacas from Wim Delvoye and the chickens from Koen Vanmechelen), and for the appearance not only of real objects (Arte povera, Nouveaux Réalistes, land art, the animals of Damien Hirst or the corpses of Von Hagen), but also of displayed artists (first in happenings/Aktionen, but soon also in performances). In the footsteps of the performances, also the moving image makes its appearance in the museum under the guise of video installations. The corollary shift from the artwork to the surrounding proceedings - beginning with the filmed performances of Jackson Pollock and the 'happenings' of Yves Klein - finds its counterpart in the increasing call for 'participation' and 'interaction'. This trend finds its theoretical expression in the 'esthétique relationelle' of Nicolas Bourriaud, who states that not the artwork should be in the centre of attention, as rather the interhuman relations in the gallery of the museum - exemplary in the tables of Rirkrit Tiravanija where the guests are invited to celebrate a kind of 'Last Supper'. The image tries to regain its former status through all kinds of restoration movements (Pop art, Neue Wilden, Gerhard Richter, Luc Tuymans) and is eventually joined by the formerly excluded photography that gradually became respectable as a travesty of painting - as abstract or surrealistic photography, as photomontage or photo collage, later as 'staged photography' by Jeff Wall, or as conceptual photography with figures like Demand. (For an extensive overview see: '150 jaar metamorfosen van het beeld'.)
Whereas first the photographic and then also the painterly image was banned from the temple, the void was filled by all kinds of objects that cannot possibly be called images, but nevertheless are called 'art'. The Dadaists still openly talked of anti-art, but it soon appeared that the 'anti-artists' preferred to pass for artists nevertheless, so that it turned out to be more convenient to redefine art as indefinable, since transgressive by nature. The museum that - next to the library, the theatre and the opera - used to be a specialised arena of art, came to be transformed into an new amphitheatre where a new ritual is consecrated with what, in France, is aptly called 'le n'importe quoi". We propose to speak of the advent of 'meta-art' - not only to point to the fact that we are no longer dealing here with the successors of sculpture, prints, or painting, but to highlight at the same time that we are dealing with an activity with charms in its own right.
THE PERMANENT VICARIOUS REVOLUTION
The development of modern art into a dystopian meta-art turns out to be propelled by a double compulsion to challenge established conventions, to engage in a permanent revolution. In the first place, it matters to challenge established conventions, not only in the outside world, but soon also in the inside world, until the ultimate non-conformists indulge in precisely the neoliberal practice that is scorned by the 99%. In the second place, the compulsion to permanent renovation leads to the replacement of the conventional methods of making an image with an avalanche of ever new styles, culminating in the ban on the image as such. Both processes reinforce one another. Only when the artists skip the concrete task of making an image can the ritual of the revolution - that otherwise would be confined by precisely that task - be continued ad infinitum, and thus unfold into a permanent revolution.
It should be stressed that we are dealing here with a strive for renovation as such - not with a craving for a new kind of images. The ease with which modern art deals with styles, yes even with the image - with art - as such, betrays that this is not the kind of development we are used to in art history. As a rule, new styles develop when some new group wants to express new values - think of the countercultures developed by the baby boomers. The devotees of modern art seem not so much to be out at developing new images to express new values. They rather enjoy the shocking effect of the introduction of such innovations - the feeling of being 'ahead of their time'. Such is not an artistic phenomenon, but rather a phenomenon that parasitises on art: the frustrated desire to revolutionise the world (in whatever sense), is gradually transformed into the vicarious revolutionising of the image in the museum. No longer the birth of a new style or a new art form is celebrated here, but rather the cult of what we will call the 'permanent vicarious revolution': revolution in art as a kind of metaphor for a revolution in the real world. It was first celebrated through revolutionising the image, but the new ritual gradually emancipates itself from the image to proceed to the revolutionising of whatever activity that can pass for art.
A clear understanding of this process is hampered in that art theories began to blur the borders between art and other domains of human activity, and in that nobody seems to notice that we are dealing here with the development of a new ritual - exemplary in theories stating that we are witnessing another paradigm shift - think of Arthur Danto, Larry Shiner or Jacques Rancière - and that scorn all those who refuse to accept the new paradigm as conservative 'essentialists', without noticing that they have only put another essence on the throne: one that allows them to sovereignly ban all the above mentioned from the institutions...
That a new ritual is developing in the womb of art, prompts us to rewrite the history of modern art. The period when the ritual induces the making of new styles of making images, may be described as a special phase in the history of art (or the image), but also as the prehistory of the new parasitic ritual of the permanent vicarious revolution. Where the parasitic ritual leads to the advent of meta-art, art history comes to an end and the history of meta-art begins. But that is precisely what the meta-artists do not want: it would come down to an overt recognition of the fact that we are no longer dealing with art, but with the art of shocking - an art that can make use of other activities than the making of images - just think of the performances of Spencer Tunick and Femen, of the posters of Benetton where pope Benedict XVI kisses the imam of the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, yes even of the master performers who become world famous by shooting at random in a crowd in the good surrealist tradition (see Breton, and Bunuel's 'Le phantôme de la Liberté'). It would reduce the meta-artist to ordinary shockers and bereave them of the aura of heroic revolutionaries in the museum...
Such rewriting of art history would make it clear that the permanent vicarious revolution, in a first phase, may be credited for the development of new ways of image making. Precisely because this development was fuelled by the permanent vicarious revolution, it takes not the shape of an unfolding of an ever broader array, but that of a chaotic linear succession of ever new fads, which - since the possibilities of making an image are finite - cannot but include ever more neo-movements: the Neorealism of the Neue Sachlichkeit, the neo-Neorealism of pop art, the neo-neo-Neorealism of photorealism, the neo-neo-neo-Neorealism of Gerhard Richter, and so on; or; the neo-expressionism of Cobra and the neo-neo-Expressionism of the Neue Wilden; or the Neogeo of the New Abstraction and the neo-Neogeo of the Minimalists; or the Neosurrealism of Neo Rauch and Michael Borremans, and so on. Only when we would no longer read the history of modern art through the lens of the permanent vicarious revolution, would the true continuity appear - which, in its turn would foster the development of diverging, but continuous traditions.
FROM GENIUS TO STUNTMAN
Let us examine the consequences of this high-jacking of art by the new ritual of the permanent vicarious revolution.
The allergy to every form of contentual and stylistic-technical convention leads to the absence of every tradition except a personal one. As a heir to the 19th century genius who, otherwise than the craftsman who is bound by rules, the avant-gardist had to be obliged to nobody, even not himself: suffices it to remind of the legendary metamorphoses of Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinsky, who thus tried to escape from their imitators. But such chameleons are seriously handicapped within the cult of originality in general, and especially on the free market - the conditio sine qua non of their existence: they destroy the recognisability of the product to which they owe their fame. Whence the increasing importance of individual rather than collective styles - exemplary with Piet Mondrian. The concept of style is reduced to the production of ever new versions of a very personal visual logo: the Yves Klein Blue, the lassos of Jackson Pollock, the hazy rectangles of Mark Rothko, the triptychs of Francis Bacon, the dots of Roy Lichtenstein, the green beetles of Jan Fabre, the bleached-out colours of Luc Tuymans, the borders of Koen van den Broek, the decorative motifs on porcelain of Murakami, and what have you. In a first phase, we were dealing with personal ways of making images. But as soon as that common goal disappears with the advent of meta-art, there is no other possibility than pure variation on some strictly personal dada: the 3,4 inches wide stripes of Daniel Buren, the plywood of Jan de Cock, the "Gothic" of Wim Delvoye, the chicken of Koen Vanmechelen, the animals of Damien Hirst or the restaurants of Rirkrit Tiravanija, and so on. The attention shifts from the contentual and formal quality of the work to which the genius owed his status, to the pure difference with the style of others. Since no longer quality makes the difference, as rather identity, the artwork turns into a mere sign of the pure individuality of the artist - not for what distinguishes him as the creator of quality. The cult of the creative genius is thus replaced with the cult of the original, unconventional individual. The shift from original work to famous artist is foreshadowed in the self-exhibition of artists like Ben Vautier or Gilbert and George, not to mention Jan Fabre, who cannot stop casting himself in bronze and wax.
That does not mean that the 'contemporary meta-artist s' would not be competent: they rather distinguish themselves by their ability to discover ever new niches. In the beginning they discovered new ways of making an image, but they soon proceeded to find ever new variants of the 'n'importe quoi' that come to expand the domain of meta-art. Whereas collective tradition shrinks to a purely individual style, the individual ability to discover new niches soon develops into a genuine tradition in the domain of the permanent vicarious revolution, the only bond that unites the totally heterogeneous activities of which meta-art consists. The quality in one domain is in converse proportion to the quality on the other. The stronger the compulsion to find new niches, the shorter the time that can be spent in each niche. That goes especially when the permanent vicarious revolutions leaves the domain of art and enters the related domains of design, displayed reality and (verbal or non-verbal) statements. In the domain of design, they give new impulses to what we can call 'fine design' (from the iron of Man Ray to the useless machines of Panamarenko - not to mention the uncultivated domain of the audititory soundscape (think of the Poème symphonique of Györgi Ligeti). In the domain of displayed reality, they give new impulses to formerly rather unspecialised activities (like the construction of commemorative sites) or less prestigious activities (striptease, sward-swallowers, or 'monsters'). And in the domain of (verbal or non-verbal) statements, they gave new impulses to formerly unspecialised activities like making symbolic statements during manifestations of all kinds. But, also here, the meta-artists are above all interested in creating a scandal by letting these activities pass for art.
That no longer competence in making images of high quality is required, is a bonus for those who have no chance of winning the competition. Exemplary is Marcel Duchamp, who could not compete with Picasso in Paris or with Kandinsky in Munich, and preferred to display the Bicycle Wheel in New York that would eventually make him world famous. Also artists from other branches soon discover the charms of the new ritual of meta-art. A good example is John Cage who could not compete with Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen and began to throw dices and even to compose silence (4' 33") - which equally made him world famous. In as far as meta-arts makes use of existing activities, the label 'art' releases the meta-artists from competition with colleagues: from cooks (Rirkrit Tiravanija), over perfumers (Peter de De Cupere) to café philosophers like Marcel Duchamp who make furore as soon as they express themselves non-verbally. The aura of the revolutionary artist is so appealing, that also professionals feel inclined to appear in the arenas of meta-art - think of designers like Walter van Beirendonck (Stedelijk Museum) or Alexander McQueen (Guggenheim), yes even of philosophers like Jacques Derrida ('Glas'). In that they no longer make images, they release themselves from the competition with plastic artists, and in having their meta-art pass for art, the meta-artists release themselves from competition with genuine professionals - exemplary in the texts of Lawrence Weiner, which make furore in the museums as 'sculptures', but which would barely draw the attention in the world of literature.
At the same time the number of candidates for such low performances grows exponentially. It soon no longer suffices to have some activity pass for art: additional sensation must be provided. Whereas in the beginning a performance as such sufficed, already in 1971 Chris Burden had to let him shoot in the arm to draw attention ('Shoot'). After Manzoni had canned faeces, Wim Delvoye had to construct a gigantic machine to produce shit. It thereby becomes increasingly difficult to pose as a prophet that is not interested in money. But precisely therefore does it pay to - shockingly defying the conventional defamation of the commercial 'culture industry' - unabashedly boast with one's status as entrepreneur. Still in 1939, Salvador Dali was scorned by André Breton with the anagram 'Avida Dollars'. But Andy Warhol flaunts unabashed with his factory, just like Wim Delvoye and Hans Op de Beek, who presents himself on Facebook as "Artist/Owner/Manager at Hans Op de Beek B.V.B.A.' Running a 'factory' allows, in addition, for covering a lack of competence in parasitising on professionals, like Maurizio Cattelan who has his sculptures made by Daniel Druet - ironically enough the last 'Prix de Rome' (1968)! A reference to Rubens seems to be obligatory here - whereby it is overlooked that Rubens personally painted the works that mattered. Also quotes - generalised to 'postproduction' by Nicolas Bourriaud - can be a way out. The shift from the ability to make a high-quality image to the ability to find new niches, is thus joined by shift to the ability to draw the attention. Meta-art thus becomes the playground for ambitious imposters that are amateurs, but still want to become famous.
The cult of the genius that is admired because of the unusual quality of his unconventional work is thus, via the cult of the revolutionary avant-gardist, transformed into its very opposite: the cult of the world famous imposter. This results in a generalised deterioration of the level, not only in the domain of meta-art, but equally in the domain of art itself: here, the quality, which had already deteriorated owing to the phenomenon of the personal style, is further affected through the use of all kinds of tricks to draw the attention. Every new generation grows up with the example of ever less significant nitwits. Against this background, it comes as no surprise that, next to the old question 'Is this art?' the statement 'I can do that too!' can be heard more and more, not to mention the question 'Why of all people this artist, and not ...'
FROM REVOLUTIONAIRIES TO WINNERS
The metamorphosis of genius, over avant-gardist, to successful self-promoter finds its counterpart in the parallel metamorphosis of the adepts of modern art into adepts of the new ritual of the permanent vicarious revolution.
In the beginning, the devotees of modern art were mostly people that, from a broad political background (from liberals over socialists to anarchists, but also nationalists) or form a more parapolitical background (philosophy, psychoanalysis and all kinds of mystic movements) descried in the boundary-pushing artists allies in their struggle against the established order. Especially from the sixties onwards, we are dealing with partisans of all kinds of non-, anti- or para-Marxist trends, who came to regard the revolutions in art as a prelude to some kind of revolution in the real world, in expectance of which they could vicariously celebrate the revolution in the museum and the gallery. Especially since Tatcher and Reagan, and above all after the fall of the Iron Curtain, but already announced in Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol, we find ourselves in the company of ambitious individuals for whom the revolution consists in propelling themselves to the top: the successful entrepreneurs, celebrities and nouveaux riches that - from San Francisco over the Bahamas and Dubai to Guangzhou - supplement the acquisition of luxury cars, exclusive clothes and expensive wines with that of 'top works' from 'top artists'. You can learn everything you always wanted to know about that elite from Charles Saatchi - as insider an unimpeachable source. That 'contemporary meta-art
' is no longer about images, but about the original, the extravagant, the scandalous 'n'importe quoi' suits them well. Their lack of culture as a precondition to judge images is compensated with their fine nose for marks of distinction. On a somewhat lower level, there is the not to be underestimated army of ambitious young man that no longer humbly admire the great masters, but rather hope that with the necessary self-promotion, they soon will belong to the chosen few, after the example of the successful imposters. More in the periphery there is the busy army of exegetes and acolytes that has to provide the required legitimation, and that has to keep up the appearance that we are dealing with the new Michelangelos and da Vincis. And, last but not least in these times of inverted population pyramids, there are also the countless veterans who have not yet understood that their very own playground has meanwhile been occupied by rather right-wing players.
INTERMEZZO: THE BROADER CONTEXT
The developments described above are merely the epiphenomena of the unstoppable atomisation of the individual in a society that increasingly takes the shape of a restoration of the Ancien Regime, this time on a world scale, with a capitalist aristocracy - including a hypertrophic subclass of speculative capitalists - as leading class and an authoritarian state as a means of securing exorbitant privileges. The masses that, in the beginning of the twentieth century, could still be mobilised by the state (Great War) or by political parties (communism and fascism), have been domesticated to a mass of voters in the 'democratic' states of a Free World, that, after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the advent of Deng Xiaoping, has become the playground of a world-encompassing capitalism, while the world remains divided in territorially organised national states, so that the important decisions are made by players that employ institutions escaping any democratic control (multinationals, banks, but also institutions like IMF, World bank, G8 and G20, not to mention rating agencies), and national states as a means of implementing their imperatives. New prophets of all kinds teached us that what we needed were not so much changes in the economic or politic domain, as rather all kinds of variants of some 'cultural' revolution (Gramsci, Frankfurter Schule, existentialism, structuralism, post-modernism and so on). In the course of the process, many citizens lost their belief in the many utopian projects (the 'big stories'), in the state, in democracy, in unions, yes even into he para-politic or para-economic projects that meanwhile are denounced as 'political correctness'. In the end, no other perspective is left than an individual struggle to survive - backed by the popular erroneous lecture of Dawkins whereby selfish genes are confounded with selfish individuals - to belong to the winners rather than to the losers, and relying, if necessary, on religion and nationalism or diverse political incorrect stories - while the 'neo-feudal' principal players on the background set out the rules.
A MARGINAL PRACTICE...
It goes without saying that a meta-art that turns its back on the values of ''really existing' groups, and thereby delivers products of such lamentable quality, never will command the respect of broader layers of the population, let alone become world encompassing like the ritual of sport that emerged in the same period. To be sure, an increasing number of prestigious museums built by glamour architects is expanding all over the world, and biennales and art fairs are increasingly organised outside of Europe. But the record number of 440.000 visitors to the Venice Biennale dwindles in comparison to the 4,7 billion who watched the Olympic Games in Beijing, not to mention the half a billion visitors toLady Gaga's 'Bad Romance' on YouTube.
Things are totally different in the two other sectors of art production that are scorned by contemporary meta-art: religious and political art and the 'culture industry':
The 'culture industry' enjoys worldwide popularity. Most impressive is the success of 'popular music' that, in many international and local variants, penetrated the remotest corners of the world and developed successful formats like the combination with the image on MTV and YouTube. Equally spectacular is the success of the same audiovisual moving image in the film industry, with its diverse genres and local variants (next to Hollywood also Bollywood, Nollywood in Nigeria, Brazilian novella's and so on), whereby we should not overlook the porn industry and publicity clips. Also the non-moving image triumphs under the guise of mega-posters in the cities, metros, airports, and in magazines and on the internet. Even formats like comics and cartoons are immensely popular - not to mention the flood of images that are produced by billions of amateurs for private use.
Also art imposed from above by religious and political authorities is still alive and kicking, as already mentioned in the first paragraph of this text. To be sure, in the West the churches are empty, and, with the exploits of Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler, political art seems to have evaporated. But political propaganda survived in 'peripheral' regions behind the Iron Curtain, in Mao's China and with all the secular regimes after de decolonisation like in Iraq, Libya and Syria. But, otherwise than the fall of the Iron Curtain and 'The end of history' might suggest, the end of political art is not at all in sight with the turning down of the statues of Saddam Hussein and Stalin, especially not if we take into account not only bronze statues, but also mega-posters, advertising clips and films. Among the heirs of the old civilisations that have been overrun by Western Imperialism on the cultural plane as well, the resistance against 'American culture imperialism' is growing. Among others as a reaction against the overwhelming success of Western films like Spielberg's 'Kung Fu Panda' the Empire of the Middle is out at translating its economical power into cultural dominance, and also figures like Erdogan dream of a resurrection of the Ottoman Empire. And then we have not mentioned the countless extremists of the left and the right, in so far as they have not to content themselves with graffiti or pop concerts.
The same applies to the whole sector of religious art, where many a renaissance lies ahead. In the first place modern media like film are mobilised - just think of the many Jesus films, among them the mega-production Mesih/Messiah for the Iranian television in 2008. In 1997, the 'Religion Today Film Festival' has been inaugurated as a forum for religious films from whatever religions. But the success of traditional media is not to be neglected. When, In 2008, pope Benedict XVI contacted hundreds of 'contemporary meta-artists' (among them Bill Viola, Anish Kapoor, Jannis Kounellis, and composers like Ennio Morricone, Bono, Arvo Pärt,) he did so under the unambiguous motto 'A Quest for Beauty'. On the musical front, we have the foundation in 1999 of the 'Preis der Europäischen Kirchenmusik' (awarded among others toDieter Schnebel, Arvo Pärt, Krzysztof Penderecki, Gubaidulina en Klaus Huber). Also the consumers pray for religious manna from heaven: compositions from John Taverner, Arvo Pärt, Giya Kancheli ranked among the top 10. In Russia, where the tsarist dreams of a Third Rome revive, Putin supports substantial programs for the restoration of cloisters and churches that have been demolished under the atheist Soviet regime. All too conspicuous are similar movements in the world of Islam - think of the fairylike Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, where the best craftsmen from all over the world have been set to work - although, due to the prohibition against images, the plastic arts have to restrict themselves to abstract and decorative art in the mosque. The Islamic revival has in its turn an impact in the Hindu world, where a new religious fervour fuels the care for ancient temples.
Finally, there is the important realm of 'academic' or 'realistic' art that, at least in the West, has lost its function in the religious and political sector, not only because the patrons seem to be no longer interested, but also because the artists seem to have internalised many a modern formalist dogma. It either restricts itself to contentually neutral subjects like the nude, still life and landscape, or it is conceived against the background of a private ideology (Ronald Bruynoghe). It organises itself in a network of galleries, websites, museums (Dahesh Museum of Art), yes even in a Kitsch Biënnale. Let us remark that also the older variants of academic art, that have been referred to the cellars of the museums under the reign of modern art, are gradually restored (think of Bouguereau).
'Contemporary meta-art', that scorns both the 'culture industry' and religious or political art, represents, hence, a rather restricted, in essence dying, but eye-catching niche in the broad landscape of visual arts.
... WITH UNIVERSALISTIC PRETENTIONS
At first sight, there is nothing wrong with the exclusive élan of the new ritual of modern art in general and of meta-art in particular. In whatever community, the sense of identity originates in first instance in the distinction from outsiders. As a rule, most groups tend to withdraw themselves in closed circuits where they can do as they like. Nobody objects when 'popular' radio stations do not program classical music, or that the Ensemble Intercontemporain is not invited on pop festivals, or that there is no trace of Jeff Koons, John Currie or Wim Delvoye on porn sites, or of Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Luc Tuymans let alone of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst on the Kitsch-biennale in Venice.
But things are a little more complicated. As long as the aristocracy and the church or the bourgeoisie were the dominant groups, they monopolised cultural life directly (through their pure financial power) or indirectly via the state (museum, academies). Ever since the 'Salon des Refusés' (1863), modern artists (and the bourgeoisie from Barnes to Onassis) developed their own circuits: their own galleries and alternative salons ('Salon d'Automne, Salon des Indépendants, Sezessionen), and soon also their own museums for modern art - think of the MoMA by Rockefeller in 1929. That did not prevent modern art from trying to position itself as an art that must be propagated by the state, endeavour that succeeded sporadically - think of the Biennale in Venice (founded by the city of Venice in 1893, taken over by the fascist state in 1930), the Tate Gallery (1916), and the Bauhaus in Weimar Germany (1919). But in Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union, it was the scorned 'academic' art that was propagated by the state (think of Hitler's Haus der Deutschen Kunst). As a counter reaction, many - among them the CIA - deemed it no more than natural that, in the 'free world', modern art would become a matter of the state. This development was sealed by a reorientation of the Biennale in Venice (1948) and by the foundation of the Documenta in Kassel (1955) - with the slogan: 'Abstract Art is the idiom of the Free World' as an answer to Hitler's 'Entartete Kunst'. The example of the MoMA inaugurates an avalanche of museums for contemporary art, this time financed by the state, and no loner by rich philanthropists: just think of the prestigious Centre Pompidou and the Tate Modern. Soon, however, these respectable institutions became subjugated as agencies in the circuit of galleries (just think of the policy of figures like Frank Demaegd of the Zeno X who succeeds in having the works of his protégés bought by museums to impress the collectors). And, after the example of the mentioned legendary schools before the Second World War, the entire educational system - that meanwhile already had come to incorporate design - was refitted to match the demands of meta-art, with, as jewel on the crown, the appointment of Nicolas Bourriaud - the champion of 'relational art' - as head of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux arts' in Paris (2011)...
This leads to the paradoxical situation that a practice, which is not only marginal, but also turns its back on all the values that are uphold in the outer world, succeeded in positioning itself as 'contemporary art' as such; and thereby can count on the support of the state just like its predecessors from the Ancien Regime. The semblance of universality is enhanced by phenomena like the Kassel Documenta or the Venice Biennale, which, with its contributions from 89 countries, has something of the Olympic Games or of the hajj in Mecca. The prestige of Western 'contemporary art' is so high that also countries like China, Iran and Russia want to join the club. Even the Vatican does not want to miss the train: in 2013 it will make its debut with an own pavilion. That prestige is sealed by the high prices on the auctions. But it is above all the concept of the 'avant-garde' that played a crucial role in the process. It made the modern artists to heirs to an art that, under the auguries of the bourgeoisie and her geniuses, had reached new heights, but that would come to completion only in a new society (classless, spiritual or whatever). We already described how the very same avant-garde, that seemed to keep its promises until far in the sixties - just think of the masterpieces of the early Ligeti - lost every credibility towards the end of the century.
This can only be grist to the mill of the adversaries of the modernist adventure, who, elsewhere in the world, claim the status of universality. In Poland, the Christian-nationalist Witold Tomczak molested Maurizio Cattelan's 'La nona ora' in2000. In Russia, blasphemous 'contemporary art' is exorcised with icons and sanctioned by the state ('Forbidden Art in the Andrei Sacharov Centrue in Moscow, 2010). Ai Weiwei is only the most conspicuous in a whole series of artists that have problems with a regime that wants to position itself as a new 'socialist' superpower. In Iran, Ahmedinijad bans Western music and controls the content of films in view of more 'spirituality' on the screen. The authorities are thereby inspired by all kind of political and religious movements within 'the people': the fundamentalists who, in 2011, protested against the award-winning film Persepolis, or the Turkish Grey Wolves who, in 2004, tried to prevent the screening of Atom Egoyan's 'Ararat' in Turkey. Also in the West, the resistance against 'contemporary meta-art' is growing - from the joint protest of catholic and Islamic fundamentalists against the theatre piece of Romeo Castellucci in Paris to the indignation of former aficionado's like Jean Baudrillard (see Harouel). The impact of such groups should not be underestimated, especially not since not only 'contemporary art' is at stake, but in the same breath also the 'culture industry', especially the porn-industry, which is scorned not only in Islamic countries (from Iran tot Indonesia) but also in Western countries (from Dworkin to Gail Dines).
Notwithstanding its universalistic pretentions, 'contemporary meta-art', even more than its religious and political counterparts, is a rather provincial and myopic world, where a self-declared elite deems itself the heir to high Western art and pretends it has to set the tone for the entire world, whereas it has in effect lost every credibility not only with 'the people', but above all with an increasing number of devotees of high art - without meta-artists, their acolytes and apologists even seeming to notice.
DESILLUSION AND NOSTALGIA
"Alle Wahrheit durchläuft drei Stufen.
Zuerst wird sie lächerlich gemacht oder verzerrt. Dann wird sie bekämpft. Und schließlich wird sie als selbstverständlich angenommen."
Ironically enough, the concept of avant-garde implies that art will finally be recognised in broad circles. These expectations did not come true. To be sure, many a creation of the former avant-gardes has meanwhile become very popular - just think of Klimt's 'Kiss' of Picasso's 'Guernica'. But it speaks volumes that - especially in the plastic arts - it is increasingly artists that are in the focus of attention, not their works: Van Gogh has meanwhile become the prototype of the misunderstood genius, Picasso stole the show with his women, and Dali with his moustache. But even from that point of view there is a decline; whereas Picasso and Dali have been celebrities well into the fifties, imposters like Damien Hirst with his diamonds and Wim Delvoye with his Cloaca are totally eclipsed by stars like Michael Jackson or Lady Gaga. And what is worse: the fate of the avant-garde was, more often than not, the opposite of what the name implies: many an artist that became 'world famous' when launched by the art market, has fallen into oblivion - just think of Georges Mathieu, the French Pollock. Whereas many an artist that has been damned by modern art - just think of Bouguereau - is coming out from under the dust, many a former celebrity is only covered by it. When some curator digs them up, it becomes all too apparent how much they have merely been the sensation of the day - just think of all that worthless crap that became world famous under the brand name 'Cobra'. It is not difficult to forecast what will be the fate of the handicrafts of Jan Fabre or the masterpieces of Luc Tuymans. Rather than with misunderstood artists, we are dealing here with smart guys who succeed in creating a hype around their work and remind all those who dare to remark that the emperor has no clothes that they are hopelessly out of time.
The rather dwindling popularity of modern art is not due to the backwardness of the masses, hence, but rather to the increasing failure of 'contemporary meta-art'. To measure the amplitude of the decay, it suffices to compare Beethoven's 'Alle Menschen werden Brüder' with Koen Vanmechelens 'Cosmopolitan chicken'. Only when we are prepared to face these facts, can we understand how much truth there is in the conservative stance of the 'mass' that, despite all the missionary fervour, obstinately continued to cling to its conviction that a urinal is not an artwork. Only then can we measure the true meaning of the stance of many an insider, who, after every attack on the image, emphatically insisted on a restoration of the image, and thus pushed an ever broader basis of genuine (if not necessarily high-standing) art under the ever higher reaching top of meta-art: the Pop artists after the action painting threatened to degenerate into pure écriture; the Neue Wilden, Richter, and Tuymans as an ever renewed reaction against ever new versions of minimalistic and conceptual meta-art. Only then doe we understand how it is that, among all the new ways of making an image, it is above all the 'expressionistic' version that resurfaces again and again, not to mention the quasi continuously streaming undercurrent of 'realism'. And only then can we, finally, understand the stance of all those who from the beginning refused to embark on the adventure of modernism and preferred to cling to the 'classics' - or the stance of all those who, in the rest of the world, could simply fall back on a tradition that knew to survive the advent of modernism - it suffices to refer to the orthodox chant in Putin's churches, to the countless home altars in Hindu and Buddhist homes, not the mention the millions who cannot but be enchanted by the fairylike Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi. And we are no even talking about the billions who turned their back on (classical and modern) 'high art' as such to resolutely embrace the 'culture industry'. Already in the fifties, many a devotee of action painting turned his back on the corollary modern 'classical' music and embraced jazz and later rock - and thus came to miss one of the most spectacular periods in the history of modernism - with the result that the label 'classics' of the fifties and sixties seems to apply only to the Beatles or to Miles Davis.
OUT OF REACH...
Ihr aber, wenn es so weit sein wird
Daß der Mensch dem Menschen ein Helfer ist
Mit Nachsicht. Bertolt Brecht, An die Nachgeborenen.
The failure of meta-art may give rise to nostalgia, but not - except then for conservatives like Roger Scruton - to a call for whatever restoration. The old feudal, religious, and in the West also bourgeois traditions only provide answers to the problems of humankind in bygone ages. Already then, there was an often bitter contradiction between appearance and reality - whence many an artwork fell prey to iconoclasts. How far less must the 'classics' be suitable for recycling in an contemporary context - therein resides the untruth of movements like Neogothic architecture, not to mention the use of Beethoven's 'Ode an die Freude' for EU-aims - although, as will have become apparent, the miserable 'Entropa' from David Cerny in the Justus Lipsius building in Brussels is not at all an alternative, let alone the phallic '7" from Richard Serra that has been erected in 2011 - amidst the Arabian Spring - in Qatar. That makes it abundantly clear what the conditions for the emergence of a new 'high art' must be: the existence of a worldwide élan for the construction of credible institutions that would warrant liveable relations between the whole of mankind, and not just between the members of national, religious, or other particular groups.
Our approach towards art as a whole must be nuanced, hence. To begin with, it matters to resolutely denounce the decline of modern art into meta-art as a betrayal of modernism - or of human aspirations as such. Next, it is important to highlight the moments where modern art lived up to what it promised (especially in music and literature). Only then can we yield to the nostalgia of bygone - premodern - art without being drawn - like Roger Scruton - in the lure of believing that such glory is rooted in outdated societal constellations. Rather must we regard bygone glory as a foreshadowing of what once could stand in a less problematic relation to the real world. Only then could the real feats of modern art as well as the great examples of the past be experienced as a challenge, as an incitement to the creation of an art that would really be 'contemporary'. Progressive is only the denunciation of 'contemporary meta-art', reactionary the perseverance of a progressive lecture of what in fact is the degeneration of (modern) art, as well as every plea for the restoration of outdated societal formations - a plea that can only lead to an untruthful, kitschy art.
Something similar goes for a stance towards the 'culture industry', that has extended all over the world in a largely universal idiom with many regional variants. Also this sector of art production is drenched with a whole array of all too understandable anti-societal sentiments - just think of the 'fuck you' of many variants op pop music, of the numbness in techno and the like, not to mention the way in which in thrillers the whole complexity of the world tends to be reduced to the shape of a criminal organisation that has to be dismantled by some heroic detective, like in Millennium. That does not prevent the 'culture industry' from transmitting many a genuine experience of life as it is. And, what is perhaps more important: it contributes to a unification of mankind in a way of which 'contemporary meta-art
can only dream.
It is above all important to fully realise that no completed art is thinkable as long as no pathos emerges in the world that would be the true contemporary heir to what, in earlier stages of history, has been the fervour of first the world religions and then of socialism. What would be 'done' lies 'out of reach' in a far future, and can only be brought closer through deliberately taking the nuanced but unambiguous stance described above.
It is more probable, however, that there will be no new 'big story' at all, that only the old stories will continue to thrive, so that what could have been the foreshadowing of a higher future art, is doomed to remain the afterglow of more glorious times bygone.
In expectance, the 'contemporary meta-artists' may, for my part, continue to show off their groundbreaking feats, as long as they withdraw in their own marginal circuit and do not want the whole world to watch: their rating with Christies may suffice.
© Stefan Beyst, december 2011, translation january 2012.
an abreviated version of this text has been published in rekto:verso