How economic despair has altered what’s possible in art.
The work of the artist always involves the dissolution of present forms in the anticipation of new ones. While the engine of innovation in the “West” has partially collapsed, a new model emerges promising to bridge the gap between art and life, as it presently stands.
The divide between the economic and ideological worlds that held the 20th century in stalemate have fallen away, leaving us in a new realm with new problems. While the dreams of Utopia have long vanished, what’s new about our perspective is the dual loss of dystopia, replaced with the steady, numbing drip of the sedative.
The future isn’t Star Trek, and it isn’t 1984. It’s altogether more wonderful and more frightening, weird and eerie. We find ourselves with a strange patient on our hands, seemingly alien and familiar.
While we may rightfully fear this transition, the only way forward is to dissect the collapse of our respectful ideals. We must ask ourselves what went wrong and draw the necessary conclusions.
Following in the footsteps of artists like Ai Weiwei and David Hammons, artists must search for the line between free speech and “harmonious society.” From these artists we can learn how prejudice and authority work together in all industrial societies.
We must confront the reality that anti-discipline and anti-authoritarianism are excellent tools of control and are in some ways more dangerous than their totalitarian counterparts.
The philosopher Deleuze watched the collapse of labor in the late 1970’s and wandered what form of resistance the workers might produce in the future. How do the disenfranchised resists a system that denounces centralization and promotes diversity?
The art of Capitalist Realism is the space leftover after the collapse of both socialism and capitalism. It is the dissolution of old paradigms and cultural taboos.
Capitalist Realism is the reemergence of the relevance of Marx as his ghost haunts the slagging gears of capitalism.
“A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”
— Marx, Capital
Capitalist Realism embraces the revolutionary concept of struggle. It strives for oscillation between poles of power like a weed growing between two decaying factories, first in one shadow, and then the other.
Coming to terms with the breakdown of societal order is the job of the capitalist realist artist. They must use their work to offer a replacement for the motivation-driven, egomania of late-capitalism.
“Not only does art not wait for human beings to begin, but we may ask if art ever appears among human beings, except under artificial and belated conditions.”
— Deleuze and Guattari, a thousand plateaus.
Take for example this work from 2019 titled A Fresh Take. We can see the references to high modernity in the west, particularity the United States and Britain, in the use of collage and pop imagery. But in this case the “pop” is not the celebrities and high-profile consumer products of Warhol’s day. Instead, it is the popular items and slogans available at any grocery store. The language of marketing is repeated like the chorus of a popular song.
Juxtaposed over the postmodern adoption of language is the Socialist Realist symbol of Labor: a loaf of bread. The bread loaf is pre-sliced and stark white, indicating its low quality and factory production. Like the labor movement itself, the bread is divided into sections and sold on the market. It’s an image that becomes haunting in its implications, especially in the wake of COVID, where the lowest paid workers are forced to bear the brunt of the danger.
The same dynamic is on display in Great Deals and The Sound of the Beast. (2019 and 2020, respectively). Both images are strikingly contemporary in their hazard-like execution. “Great Deals” recognizes the relationship between use-value and labor-value, between the means of production and the infrastructure — both physical and psychological — needed to activate the systems of control that acts upon the means of production. But the title also references the language of American President Donald Trump, whose buffoonish behavior has come to symbolize Western decline.
“The Sound of the Beast” draws attention to the connection between the police and market forces, with particular emphasis on the dual role of advertising as propaganda. The image of the police car is presented alongside statistics about cleaning products and missing-persons ads in a disturbingly accurate comparison.
The postmodern era’s resistance to centralized forms and focus on social dynamism over economic progress led artists into the trap of endless irony while simultaneously freeing global capital to proliferate extensively. Now that capitalism has run its course, we see on the horizon a new opportunity to embrace sincerity and remake our world, but we should remain skeptical as we search for new forms and new ways of existing. Some lessons should not be forgotten.
“What makes ideas “real” is the system of knowledge, the formations of culture, and the relations of power in which these concepts are located.”
— Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonization Methodologies
“the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”
― David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy
It is up to new artists to rediscover the “real” or remake it. If there is such a thing as a utopia of rules, it is the artists job to find it and reveal its forms. What the world needs now is a rekindling of the public imagination that has been sequestered for decades.
As dangerous as it seems, it is only through challenging present assumptions about the possibilities inherit in modernity that we will escape the black hole of postmodernism.