Letter from the Editors
Its difficult not to feel that our new contemporary lives are mere abstractions. The number of technological advances wrenched between humans in the violent spirit of absolute social progress exponentially increases. Indeed the total melding of social life with technological innovation evidences a highly refined alienation for better and for worse. The growing reliance on a reified ‘economy’ ensures that subjectivity is quantified. This abstraction of social life, refined by a growing dependence on the internet, is accompanied by the ineffable fact of its brutality upon a viewer that is anesthetized into a blinking subject of the social void. Utopian science-culture hybrids expose the technical deficiency of both science and culture, and aspire to magically transform this poverty of experience into an amorphous network of social relations without context, meaning, or distinction. This results in an unconscious march toward a post-revolutionary totality that is the breeding ground of barbarism. With the collapse of ‘grand narratives’ and centralized authority comes fragmented tribes which, with no one to answer to, permit more authoritative, pervasive, and mobile forms of exploitation. Subjects of this new totality sort like dust into the fragmented villages of postmodernity where they are trapped in isolation, open to exploitation from invisible barbarians and a supernaturalized wind.
As Walter Benjamin said, “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Such documents accumulate faster than they can be assessed in a contemporary culture that in its very existence presupposes as second nature a modernist ideal of newness. A ‘return’ to modernism is not self-evident then, but an aesthetic desiderata in an increasingly numbing 21st century that impoverishes experience through abstract immaterial labor with no identifiable goals. The pervasive ‘return’ to modernism evidenced in everything from literary criticism to the vapid proliferation of triangles is not about modernism per se but is a turn to the past as a remedy for a reoccurring helplessness–a helplessness we retrospectively realize was most acutely dealt with in the variations of modern art. A mythical ‘return’ to modernism evidences certain weaknesses and unexpected hopes of our contemporary situation: the desire to cement a tangible ideological and artistic framework within an increasingly dematerialized experience that seems like distorted feedback of 18th century Idealism.
It is not surprising then that a ubiquitous evisceration of modernism goes hand-in-hand with the proliferation of attempts to define what exactly contemporary experience consists of. The inability to access our contemporary moment on the level of reason, as opposed to mere speculation and ideological opinion, points to its chaos. In our contemporary moment, needs can not even be articulated, much less fulfilled. Certainly it seems that the contemporary as it was originally imagined never arrived, or perhaps the irony is that in a Zizekian sense it arrived in precisely the way it was intended; its uncanny terror can be explained because it has indeed become “fixed, specified, and dated” to a hyperbolic degree. Consequently, we now take false solace in living for a past in contrast to a past that lived for the future. Only in a futureless era would helpless citizens long for an antiquity where the entirety of human freedom was at stake. We can begin to address the social fact of our futurelessness in light of our concrete inability to return to a more hopeful past while also understanding that past from our unique perspective. A Marxian question organically emerges out of the material of contemporary art: Can there be progress in regress?
Even as there is a denunciation of its persistence and delusion over its absolute end, modern art is perpetuated in the ghastly fetish of its manifold contemporary ‘critiques’. Recent clamoring over an immaterialist turn in both art and culture should invite suspicion – how is this different from Hegel’s assertion over 200 years ago that abstract art fulfills intellectual rather than sensual needs in his own era? Conceptual art and its unconscious naturalization in today’s misconceptual art came centuries too late. We seem bent on retroactively fulfilling archaic needs. Hegel’s point that art in modernity fills a non-sensual, intellectual need by reflecting upon its own historical conditions undoes the common perception of conceptual art as postmodern par excellence and exposes our contemporary situation as a Bad Enlightenment (but an enlightenment nonetheless). For all the stress on critical art, no matter what malaise now accompanies it, we seem to unconsciously execute blueprints from centuries ago. Is the 21st century, for all its internet gloss and dogged futurism, a “century of the past”? Is the alleged here-and-now-ness of the ‘contemporary’ just a metaphysical cover-up for a regressive dependency on modernist knock-offs?
The articles in our first issue of 491 distill and confront contemporary art practices on the brink of historical redemption of modern aesthetic experience. Amidst the common stumbling into failure and nostalgia, contemporary artists are grasping for something and it is our imperative to find out what this unnameable thing is. If the line between nostalgia and redemption is thick, it says much about our intellectual clumsiness that we continue to cross it unknowingly. Ben Shepard’s review of The Linguistic Turn, an exhibition about the naturalized legacy of linguistic conceptual art, shows the past 50 years of its development to be an evasion rather than a clarification of the aesthetic questions to which it reacts. Chris Mansour’s interview with Mary Ann Caws should provoke suspicion and historical curiosity about why manifestos are now emerging out of taboo. Mike Yong’s critique of Diller and Scofidio assesses how their architectural practice is “strategically making appear that which has disappeared” and display an abstraction of freedom in contemporary life. Molly Schmidt’s Berlin: A Transparent Reality questions the ability of contemporary art to meaningfully relate to it’s external conditions.
We hope that you enjoy our first of many issues of 491.
1. see Hal Foster’s “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary,’” October issue 130 (Fall 2009): 3, and e-flux journal’s What is Contemporary Art?, Strenberg Press, New York, 2010
2. For an excellent discussion about ‘origins’ see Robert Hullot-Kentor’s Things Beyond Resemblance: Collected Essays on Theodor W. Adorno, Columbia University Press, New York, 2006.
for discussion about progress in regress, see The Platypus Review.