GLOWINTHEDARK RABBITS, CATTLE CARCASSES...
DENYS TRUSSELL EXPLAINS WHY MUCH MODERN ART IS A REFLECTION OF MODERN SOCIETY AND NOTHING MORE.
LAST YEAR An artist in Chicago, Eduardo Kac, arranged for a biotechnology laboratory in France to genetically engineer a rabbit with a gene from a jellyfish. The modified creature that eventually resulted was called Alba. She glowed a faintly fluorescent green under ultraviolet light. Kac's intention was artistic. He had hoped that he would be able to show the rabbit to the public during a week in which he planned to receive visitors who would see him and Alba in a kind of domestic tableau at a house in France. Kac publishes verbose theoretical articles on the Internet about his work and his commitment to the latest art fad transgenic art. His writing is a tissue of sophistries that attempt to legitimise activities which, in moral and ecological terms are deeply suspect, if not repugnant. Like ordinary genetic engineers he makes untenable claims, such as the one that he is actually creating a new lifeform, a lifeform that is also an art form: 'Transgenic art is a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering to transfer natural or synthetic genes to an organism to create unique living beings.'
The fact that a rabbit that has not been genetically engineered is already a unique living being seems to elude him. Kac is of course just replicating what genetic engineering already does, and he had to commission scientists to carry out his schemes. But his actions bring him huge publicity and place him, without his having to exercise any artistic skill or talent, before a huge and sometimes credulous audience. His actual skill is selfpromotion, and as an astute publicist he is well aware of the moral odium that attaches to damaging the integrity of the rabbit's genome. He goes to great lengths to confess a sentimental love for Alba and a desire to include her in his family. His Internet ramblings are full of compassionate utterances about the new mutant and a deep concern for the morally appropriate way to treat the transgenic living artwork. Because the French scientists who engineered Alba are reluctant to release her into Kac's hands he is even conducting a custody battle to gain possession of her, indicating, despite the high moral ground that he claims in his publicity material that he has a conventional and proprietorial attitude to this latest member of his family.
Of course, it's all showmanship, and Kac has managed his art event so as to draw the maximum attention to himself. His fluorescent rabbit gimmick is typical of many in recent art and its antecedents lie in the Dada movement of the 1910s and 1920s. It is part of a long established PostModern convention to reinvent the conceptual wheels of Dada and some other aspects of Modernism. Is this fatuous, some would say cruel, game with the rabbit and the jellyfish really just an honest depiction by the artist of contemporary life? It's a question that has been asked throughout the 20th century in response to the belief that artists are merely being true to life when they engage in work that is banal, amoral and nihilistic. They are, the argument runs, just holding up a mirror to our civilisation. There is a definite lineage of such art, beginning with Marcel Duchamp (18871968) and running up to individuals active now, such as Damien Hirst. These artists have placed before us constructs, installations, conceptual works and 'events' that are usually fragmented replications of objects, processes or incidents that we see around us. The hugely publicised Venice Biennale is crammed with such work and it is taken to be representative of contemporary art.
The Dada/nihilist replicatory approach certainly belongs in modern consumer society and is right in its insistence of connection with it. There is a kind of honesty in it, but it is the honesty of a frenetic news photographer. It produces snapshots of meaninglessness, duplications of superficiality and incoherence. It avoids significance, any hints of a natural or cosmological order and any but the most trivialised philosophical statement. But it fails to show us that, even in the purgatorio of a deeply troubled civilisation, most souls seek significance and meaning. For every mountebank of the arts such as Andy Warhol, who replicated the unredeemed features of the historical and social conditions in which he lived, there have been many fine artists, strongly committed to meaning through the long unfolding of the Modern and the PostModern. Most of these artists are unsung, but they have kept alive the psychic links of humanity with nature, with community, with sacrality.
Some of these artists have attained great fame, for instance, the French mystic composer, Olivier Messaien (190892). Messaien is an interesting figure on whom to turn our argument because he took on the structural and psychological crises of 20th century music, symbolised in its use of atonality, and incorporated it into a greater scheme of things: a cosmological vision that had some sense of the mystery of nature, a sense of the soul's apotheosis in From the Canyons to the Stars. Nothing could be further from the man who organised the appearance of a fluorescent rabbit. Messaien found that truth could be intimated in musical structure, that there is such a thing as essence and transcendence. The exhibitionist Kac, on the other hand, implicitly denies essence, integrity, identity. His denial of the integrity of the rabbit and the jellyfish is really making such a statement.
Which of these men is being more honest about the modern world? It is tempting to say that the exhibitionist is. In a period that has seen the emergence of fission technology, genetic engineering, the crackpot claims of sociobiology and 'artificial intelligence', that has known a limitless despoliation of the natural world, surely an absurdist, nihilistic view of existence is in order? Is this not the age of the mountebank, of the spindoctor and his big lies? Are not the replications of the objects and events of this world the true art of our time?
Strangely, this is not so. Truth about history and human life is touched on, not by replication, but by mimesis, not by copying, but by creative interpretation. The truth of our time is not revealed by baldly placing before us its physical and mental fragments, but by making a work that involves an awareness of the unredeemed bricabrac of history and can transform that awareness into a transcendent, even redemptive image, whether in language, sound or a visual medium.
We might believe the fluorescent rabbit is an image of truth because it replicates what is actually happening in the world. As the children of massproduction who know one video player may be an exact replication of another and who are witnessing an attempt to standardise entire species by means of monoculture and genetic engineering we are prone to believe that replication is truth, that the copy is the original. Warhol's hugely public but completely insignificant career was built around playing with such ideas of replication.
Yet the essence of replication is its untruth, its emptiness of meaning. It is a moral and metaphysical zero that one Nissan car exactly resembles another, as it is that Damien Hirst hacking up the carcass of a cow is an art event. It is also a tautology, because it makes something that already exists in the real world, without adding to it the element of insight. In fact, this kind of art implicitly despises insight and seeks to deny its existence.
The only 'truth' that tautology, replication, the restatement of actuality can offer is that mechanical repetition is the stuff of our material culture. This is a fact of our time yet it gives us no sense of truth. It is a void fact and has no affinity with any rhythm of life. Art that insists on such facts ends up being indistinguishable from them. The hackedup cow, the fluorescent rabbit are victims of a collaboration with emptiness. The artists who use them cannot fill emptiness and do not protest against it. They just make another repetition in a numbing mechanical series. We sense a superficial realism in this series, but no truth. This is possibly because we are still sufficiently close to nature to sense that she does not replicate, does not standardise. The shaky claim that DNA is a replicator ignores the endless subtle variation by means of which nature passes life on from one generation to the next. Replication is precisely what the heredity process in natural reproduction does not do; and art that insists on replication we sense as being false, even when it points up facts about our world.
Such art is influenced by ideas deriving from the nihilist philosopher, Pyrrho (365275 BC), whose extreme scepticism was revived enthusiastically by Marcel Duchamp in the first half of the 20th century. Entity, the coming into being of forms of life, art, thought, feeling, or even of inanimate structure, is seen by such scepticism as a random distribution of indifferent, valueless and illusory quanta. One object is the same as another in a cosmos where no authentic essence or entity exists: 'everything's everything' in the words of one PostModern poem.
AST THE POST
This view is widespread in the theory and practice of PostModernism. It even makes claims of being a form of enlightenment. Is it not a kind of philosophical monism, a realisation of the unity of all things in a nirvana of inexistence? I do not believe so. The religious and philosophical traditions, particularly of eastern cultures, that have made the transcendence of identity a mystical goal, are travestied by the narcissistic and cynical relativism that now characterise the fashionable milieux of art. The imagery that its replications place before us betrays another kind of intention. Often it is boring, gratuitously violent and far from being free of ego. In fact it is a display of the very worst kind of ego: not the affirmative 'I create, therefore I am' that moves in Western art at its best, but the infantile 'I seek attention, therefore I am'. It is ego without love and is to be clearly distinguished from the egolessness of the mystic seeking to lose identity in the universal.
It is also based on palpable untruth. Its contempt of essence and entity ignores the fact that forms of life, thought and feeling constantly emerge from formlessness. The inchoate is far from sterile. It is a vast womb that gives birth to stars and lifeforms alike. While such forms may be transitory, they are forever being reborn in this cosmic flux a fact rigorously ignored by aesthetes who deny the existence of significant forms and choose only to look at the entropic, as distinct from the creative, aspects of nature.
Can this deracinated ego be honest about the parlous state of modern society? It certainly can reflect that state, but it cannot redeem it. Whereas in other kinds of societies art has usually had a redemptive role; a process that invites people to move through the cruelty of history in such a way that, however briefly, a transcendence of its evils might be achieved. That was the basic theory of Greek tragic drama and of many other cathartic arts and rituals in the Neolithic and Palaeolithic world.
The engineering of the hapless Alba and the hacking up of the cattle carcass offer no catharsis. They are mere caprice devoid of revelation. The claim of this kind of quasiDada event to be a radical critique of social evil and bourgeois complacency has long ago collapsed. There was a time, that of early high Modernism when such a claim could briefly have been made. That time really ended with the Second World War. Since then such art gestures have mainly affirmed a status quo of cynical materialism. The bourgeois, far from being shocked, are mildly amused.
There have been great artistic statements made in the 20th century, but they are not made by the likes of the Kacs, the Warhols and Hirsts whose ethos is so firmly embedded in consumer society.
They are made by artists of actual talent and great personal stature, such as the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, his compatriot, the poet Anna Akhamatova, or the indomitable Chilean, Pablo Neruda, author of the epic Heights of Macchu Picchu, that places before us in visionary terms nature and history on the South American continent. It is people like these and many who are lesser known who have risked their lives in upholding our common humanity.
Denys Trussell is an art critic who lives in New Zealand.
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