Every once in a while you get an epiphany. Something you’ve been meaning to say for a long time jumps, crystal clear, to the front of your brain. You’ve always known it, but you’ve never been able to say it.
This happened to me while reading an essay by Sasha Frere-Jones about Lady Gaga. Frere-Jones opens the piece with the following thought:
Dedicated fans of popular music have a certain conversation at least once a year. Call it The Question of Endurance. You and your friends are talking about music, and the conversation turns to a popular band. You express support. A friend voices her opinion, maybe as favorable as yours, but appends a qualifier: “I like them, but will they be around in 10 years?” You may feel compelled to defend whomever it is you’re talking about, covering the present moment and the future with your positive take. After trying this approach, though, you realize that pop music has no Constitution and doesn’t operate like a de-facto Supreme Court: Precedent is not always established, and isn’t even necessary. Pop rarely accretes in a tidy, serial manner — it zigs, zags, eats itself, and falls over its shoelaces.
It’s a smart point, and it applies, as far as I’m concerned, to pretty much everything in the realm of what we like to call “culture.” I would take it even a step further in regard to contemporary art. I don’t care whether or not any specific work of art will be around in 10 years, or a hundred, or a thousand. I’m utterly uninterested in trying to judge whether this or that work will “stand the test of time.” I don’t think there is a “test of time.” Time doesn’t “test” things. Longevity and quality have no intrinsic connection. Time does not slowly sift out the truth from the lies — it just moves along, usually in directions we could never have fathomed. Civilization isn’t stable and progressive and never has been. For the critic, 10 years from now ought not exist, 100 years from now ought doubly not.
I’m interested in “now,” if for no other reason than that is where I constantly find myself. Yes, yes, dear neo-classicists, sweet Heideggerians, beloved Marxists, I understand that “the now” is deeply infused with the “what was” and the “what shall be.” If we didn’t remember and project we wouldn’t be human at all. But let the future sort out its own relationship to what was and what shall be. It is not our task to thrust our minds forward in anticipation.
One of the things I admire about contemporary artists under 33 is that they seem so utterly unfettered by the concerns of the future, by the conception of art as “for the ages.” They are perfectly happy mucking about in the worlds they inhabit. Indeed, much of the work they are producing has its main purpose in creating new semi-autonomous worlds in which to muck about. The current show at the New Museum, “The Generational: Younger Than Jesus,” is a case in point. It is a group show with 50 artists from 25 different countries all under the age of 33 (thus the title).
The sense of being in a semi-autonomous world is particularly acute in the room-sized installations on the third floor. Ryan Trecartin gives us two rooms — one, a modified airplane interior and the other, a living room. Videos play on a number of monitors in each; they feature the conversations and interactions of a whole series of “variable” human beings as Trecartin imagines them. The concept, as far as it can be pieced together, is that people can buy and sell their experiences, swap identities, reorder their physical and sexual attributes. It is territory already well explored in, say, the writings of Philip K. Dick or William Gibson. The difference — and this is crucial — is how comfortable Trecartin and his collaborators are in the territory. They have no problem being creatures of multiple and ambiguous identity, and they don’t mind our sitting in a comfy chair observing it all either. The work is neither, exactly, critique nor endorsement. It is simply there. Trecartin merely follows out the inner logic of his fractured characters. I liked the feeling, too, of moving from the airplane room, which feels a bit claustrophobic and alienating, into the living room, which is downright cozy in a crazy way. Trecartin is teaching us how to be at home in the otherwise unhomely.
Indeed, wandering through the show, I was overwhelmed with the feeling of trying to catch up with artists who are one step ahead. Scenes from Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End repeatedly popped to mind. In Childhood’s End, an alien race comes to Earth in order to shepherd humanity through an evolutionary leap into a new form of life. The final step of this process is witnessed by Jan, the last man. A new race of children is remaking the physical landscape of the world and passing beyond any kind of individual consciousness.
So this, thought Jan, with a resignation that lay beyond all sadness, was the end of man. It was an end that no prophet had ever foreseen—an end that repudiated optimism and pessimism alike.
Yet it was fitting: it had the sublime inevitability of a great work of art. Jan had glimpsed the universe in all its awful immensity, and knew that it was no place for man.
I’m not saying that this group show at the New Museum heralds the end of man. But I am saying that this new generation of artists are playing with a different set of rules than what existed 15 or 20 years ago. Even a man like Andy Warhol, who already explored the territory of being not-quite-human almost half a century ago, was in constant, if ironic, dialogue with the legacy of Modernism. Artists younger than Jesus have no such compulsion. They tend — like Mariechen Danz, whose sculpture and video installation purports to describe various prehistorical artifacts — to be more interested in creating their own versions of human and animal history (often by playing around with the language and imagery of the natural history museum).
If nothing else, “Younger Than Jesus” shows how utterly absurd are the hopes of critics like Jed Perl or the charming boys at The New Criterion that art will “get back to the real stuff” after this period of postmodern silliness. Exactly the opposite is the case. The newer generation of artists is so “post” that they are largely indifferent to the questions of Modernism altogether. When they do pick up the tropes of 20th-century art, they do so with the same kind of benign curiosity that they use in grabbing material from popular culture or ancient history.
More fascinating still is the degree to which these young artists are not merely the products of a vapid consumer culture, as the dead-tired critique usually has it. These artists are as comfortable in the milieu of global economic collapse as they are in global economic expansion. Never having been exposed much to the underlying neo-Kantian assumptions of Modernism and the root belief in the infinite perfectibility of the human project, they are more prepared than most for the unexpected, the zig-zags of history, the role of chance and accident in all things. For these artists, it could always have been otherwise and they expend a high degree of dystopian joy in exploring that fact.
Perhaps my favorite work in the show is called “Buying Everything on You.” The artist Liu Chuang did exactly that, approaching people on the street and buying everything they had on them at that moment. He then arranged everything he bought on tables. The effect is something between an archeological display, a window in a clothing store, and something one might find at a morgue or a police station. It is incredibly intimate on one hand and tantalizingly distant on the other. You are brought directly into contact with another person’s daily life. Those lives are expressed in products, in clothes, electronic devices, phone cards, and photographs. In one sense, it reveals the degree to which we are all mass-produced, the degree to which we express ourselves through a profoundly commercial culture. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem to matter so much. There is something deeply individual, mysterious, impenetrably singular about each of the humans represented by “everything on them.”
That could be the theme of the whole show. The world moves on in its infinite weirdness and we, a particular set of strange creatures with language and opposable thumbs, continue to reorder and rearrange ourselves in response to that movement. There is no blueprint and there are no rules as such. The universe itself couldn’t care less. We, fated to care, have little choice but to invest ourselves in the void, one step at a time, in good faith, trusting only in the logic and the amusing rules that we concoct from thin air. Never having much to go on, we’re always younger than Jesus. • 29 April 2009