Babylon Calling


There’s an old expression: “Everything changes but the avant-garde.” Maybe so, but the avant-garde isn’t what it used to be. The battles were won; conflict was bleached out; the world went suburban. Talk about something that interests you, and someone kills the conversation with “But is it great?” We’re in Babylon now.

Whether the avant-garde was stolen or given away, newness smuggled itself out. Exiled on Main Street, traveling incognito, under assumed names in witness protection programs, it bivouacs where it will, popping up erratically. Newness can slap you in the face, envelop you in a fog, elude you for years, then reveal itself. Sometimes you just know it’s there; often you miss it altogether.

Lately, newness—changeable by nature—has transformed itself into something harder to see, especially at first sight. Now, when people aren’t hit with a shock of the new, they think they haven’t been hit at all. When they don’t find the Next Big Thing, or find it fast enough—and this may be a contemporary definition of complacency—they blame art.

This has caused a jittery split. The art scene is infested with water skimmers who flit from thing to thing and those who have never seen a show they didn’t like. People mistake hipness for newness, though hip measures things by us, in, and young and is more about now than it is about new. (Lou Reed said hip “speaks in a register only dogs can hear.”) Then there are the many who maintain these are “mediocre” times, that great art isn’t getting made and we’ve run out of creative steam, don’t value quality, or have lost gravitas. Writing that the majority of contemporary art “sucks,” Newsweek critic Peter Plagens lauds Beuys, Nauman, and Serra for making art that “wears its struggle and doubt on its sleeve.”

All of this is the old newness speaking—the one that sees things in terms of winners and losers and movements; the one that grew pompous and self-protective; the one that reminisces about art like it was Classic Rock; the worn-out one that can’t hear preludes anymore, only climaxes; the one that forgot what genuine newness feels like; the one that’s building a bridge to the 20th century.

Of course there’s a load of mediocre art out there. There always is. Mediocrity makes up most of every period. Walk through any museum and you’ll see crap—and that’s presorted crap. Some of it’s even by Beuys & Co. Bad art “struggles” too, and Plagens’s guys can also be theatrical, obscurantist, and egomaniacal. Just because Kara Walker doesn’t hoist her work with a derrick doesn’t mean she doesn’t “struggle.” And doesn’t Elizabeth Peyton’s scale implicitly “doubt” Serra’s?

Gone are the days of dominance, clear-cut divisions, and white guys with big guns. In today’s bigger, more diverse art world, unambiguous separations don’t exist. However, ambiguity opens things up, and movements, as cool as they are, can, in Malcolm McLaren’s words, “stifle creative thinking.”

Nevertheless, the avant-garde isn’t what it used to be; it’s a brand name, a catchphrase, a cottage industry. Art isn’t threatening, or something you cross the street to avoid. It’s big business, a tourist attraction. In London, it’s front-page news. New York hasn’t lost its edge, but that edge seems more known, commercial, and professional.

Success and visibility squeezed the art world out of Soho the same way they forced sex off 42nd Street. Sex, of course, went everywhere; the art world went mostly to Chelsea, which had once been a pretty good place for sex. Many say they hate Chelsea, that the galleries are too slick; British artist-critic Matthew Higgs dubs them “duller,” “regimented,” and ominously facing “inevitable collapse.”

True, many spaces are palatial or churchlike. Maybe more galleries should be like bars and clubs, less like received ideas of minimalist purity. Dave Hickey advocates the “Ultra-Lounge Paradigm,” by which I think he means clean, white spaces—”secular Congregational chapels,” he calls them—where bright walls sport dark things could be replaced by dark rooms that feature bright things. Whatever, people need to get a grip. Artists will make the new spaces work. Or they won’t. Many galleries will be replaced by boutiques or restaurants someday, anyway. Eventually, other dealers will find other neighborhoods. For now, Chelsea’s like a desert and the scene’s a kind of bureaucratized Burning Man festival—”radically inclusive,” as one of that fete’s organizers put it, open to “gearheads, punks, freaks, geeks, and hippies.” Well, at least there’s room to move, be alone, think, bump into people, avoid them, relish nice days and wild nights.

Wherever we are, newness is no longer about linear progress, a project, or continuous revolution. Art is out of the overthrowing business. We’re so far beyond modernism as a holy or evil thing that attempts to critique it wither before the eye. Postmodernism is a ghetto; academic formalism is enfeebled; didacticism is marked for death; appropriation is so tired it can barely lift the gun to its own head; and deconstruction deconstructed itself into a corner.

This suggests several things: One, the avant-garde, as an idea, is useless. Two, we all know what it means to be reverent and skeptical at the same time; therefore, we can dispense with the “wink-wink, I’m being ironic” brand of irony. And three, the drama is gone, but the thrill is back.

Unfortunately, people miss the drama. They complain we’re only taking “baby steps.” We have trends and tendencies, eddies and vectors, clusters and attitudes. But something else is in the air. Artists are finding ways around the cynicism and lowered expectations. Here and there, they’re taking some cocky, nicely righteous, occasionally kick-ass steps that are way more than baby.

In the first nine months of the 21st century, newness appeared in various guises. Naming names is dangerous when the art world eats its young, so one will suffice for all. Though they didn’t add much to the world that wasn’t already there, for five days a few months ago, the performance/art/music group Fischerspooner created something so convoluted, entertaining, and contaminated it couldn’t be corrupted. Combining big hair, new wave, totally trashy sluttiness, a funky darkness, and pop-y, full-blooded fun, these latter-day Laurie Andersons transformed guilty pleasure into reckless ecstasy, performed their way through irony, and came close to the core of something celebratory.

So what if this celebration fails? All celebrations eventually do. The grumblers will grumble, either way. As with many artists these days, if Fischerspooner fails, it will be in hypnotic, erotic, or passionately imperfect ways. I’m not talking about dumbing art down, grooviness, or triviality. This is dicier than that. Artists are making serious decisions, but not taking them too seriously. They’re attempting to thread together competing complexities, make pleasure precious again, replace rupture with rapture, and create an art to revel in and grapple with at the same time.

Whether they succeed or not, it’s a mistake to label any of them “great.” Artists are after a less lofty, less autocratic essence. Something suppler, more “real,” and willingly vulnerable. Maybe what Greil Marcus called “spirits of acceptance and desire, rebellion and awe, raw excitement, good sex, open humor, and a magic feel for history.”

Savor this moment, enjoy the germinating. Smile when someone says nothing good is going on. Soon, these folks will wake up or go away. Human beings haven’t stopped being creative. If people can’t see what’s happening, it doesn’t mean it’s not going on; it means it’s going on without them.

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