The Present Age

As a matter of fact, nothing I might write could make any difference whatever. It would only be a “book” at the best. If it were a safely dangerous one it would be “scientific” or “political” or “revolutionary.” If it were really dangerous it would be “literature” or “religion” or “mysticism” or “art” … If it were dangerous enough to be of any remote use to the human race it would be merely “frivolous” or “pathological” and that would be the end of that.

James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

In 1846 the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote a small pamphlet called The Present Age: On the Death of Rebellion in which he described a social and intellectual landscape much like our own:  “A revolutionary age is an age of action; ours is the age of advertisement and publicity. Nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere.” In such an environment, meaning is evacuated; thought and discourse are replaced by “talkativeness”; “everything is reduced to a kind of private-public gossip”; and “real content is…miserably limited because of its intensity and self-absorption.” This cultural malady, in its infancy when Kierkegaard described it, has reached maturity with the ascendance of networked technologies that make everything instantly public. Its effects are felt everywhere, but it is particularly problematic for artists, whose work involves a constant negotiation between interior and exterior, between “self-absorption” and expression.

Because art is largely a matter of representation, and because it has recently become even more difficult to separate it from advertising schemes—Richard Prince for Louis Vuitton, Cindy Sherman’s “collaboration” with Balenciaga, and Marina Abramovic’s limited edition Illy cups—it could be viewed as part of the problem he describes. But if we shift our focus from the end product to its production it becomes very clear that art is, in fact, an action. At its best it is a series of courageous decisions that, while always socially and economically inscribed, are ultimately the result of private notions and individual choices. Choices that are necessarily less individual, less courageous and, dare I say, less genuine when the public, or its agent, publicity, becomes a conscious part of the decision-making process.

Kierkegaard was not making an iconoclastic argument. What is at issue is not representation as such, but the pernicious influence of a desire for relevance, for inclusion in something larger than oneself. This desire is all too human and not necessarily bad. True belief in a higher purpose, whether it is God or social justice, lies behind most of the truly amazing, positive things that humans have managed to accomplish. But where faith and heroic actions make real changes, belief in the false god of “the public” enacts a  “leveling process [that] is the victory of abstraction over the individual.”  Fetishizing the public, as we do everyday through our use of social media, is toxic to creativity—it ensures homogeny by holding individuals to an increasingly rigid, singular standard that only appears to be the reflection of multiple perspectives.

What Kierkegaard is describing—a society where “no one is satisfied with doing something definite, [where] everyone wants to feel flattered by reflection with the illusion of having discovered at the very least a new continent”—is not particular to artists. We are a nation of brunch-Tweeters, convinced that pictures of our cats should be public. But if we accept that art is important, that artists do serve a critical social function, and that this function is critical to the extent that it sets itself against received knowledge and popular discourses, then artists are obligated to acknowledge and resist a larger social tendency to make everything public. Because their particular social role is so intimately bound up in representation, they need to be vigilant on this point.

Artists run a much higher risk of being engulfed by the “monstrous abstraction, [the] all-embracing something which is nothing, [the] mirage” that is the public. And the public—the most common and also most convincing argument for the evisceration of culture—is indeed an abstraction. As Keirkegaard succinctly puts it, “years might be spent gathering the public together, and still it would not be there.”

Of course one can argue that if a tree falls and no one is there to hear it, it doesn’t make a noise, but the increased production, dissemination, and consumption of art does not make for a louder collective thud. This does not mean that we should stop cutting down metaphorical trees, but that we need to accept the fact that it might not make a metaphorical noise. “While a passionate age storms ahead setting up new things and tearing down old, raising and demolishing as it goes, a reflective and passionless age does exactly the contrary: it hinders and stifles all action; it levels.”

Kierkegaard was responding to his own time, but his observations are arguably more relevant today. In a social environment that is dominated by the Internet, the expectation of publicity has insinuated itself into nearly all of our actions. “At its maximum,” he warns, “the leveling process is a deathly silence in which one can hear one’s heart beat, a silence which nothing can pierce, in which everything is engulfed, powerless to resist.”

For artists, then, political resistance needs to happen on an individual scale—through a diligent, daily resistance to the seductive promise of recognition and relevance. Artists are not political activists and they are not politicians. And while they might still make decisions about form and content, this no longer distinguishes them from advertisers and publicists, or cocktail-stuffed, attention-whores with paintbrushes. Real artists (yes, I just said that) are “at one with [themselves] instead of being in agreement with a public which destroys everything that is relative, concrete, and particular in life.” They are people who make the loudest noise of which they are personally capable, always in full recognition of the fact that it might never be heard.

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R. H. Lossin