On the Future of Art

‘The artist is the antenna of the race.’

Ezra Pound

This week I finally, at last, started my MA Fine Art. I’ve been trying, over the course of this crazy week, to pull together strands of conversation, sights, places, experiences to find the common themes that will help me make sense of one of the most intense seven days of my life. After visiting more than 20 galleries, my first art fair, various pubs and bars across London and putting on an exhibition with my course-mates, there were two tasty strands of thought that I found my mind wandering back to: one, which I will do a separate post on, was about money; the second, was about the future of art.

I’ve never, really, in my career been particularly interested in the future of art. I’m the kind of person who reads the last page of a book before the first; I like seeing how things fit together and come to pass. I also feel that there’s a constant exhausting race in cultural theory to see who can be credited with thinking of the next big thing first, and go down in history as the Nostradamus who conceived punk, or post-modernism, or impressionism. In my reality, people are constantly critiquing what’s happening in culture all the time, and while one person may have written an article decades years ago about how Snapchat or Brexit is going to happen, there will be countless others who wrote about a multitude of other events that didn’t take place; screaming a prediction into the void is not the same as all the political factors, global contexts and audiences and artists coming together to actually make a substantial movement happen. I find these predictions underwhelming. Art theory tends to languish about ten years after exciting responses are already underway; its purpose is to make sense of what is already going on, in terms of the bigger picture, which is only clear after the fact and something that individual artists in the moment can’t do.

However, I’m not an art theoretician or curator or journalist. I’m an artist who is trying to find things to respond to in the world I live in that I can use to make work that is resonant. So, when we had a workshop session on Tuesday about the Future of Art, and we talked about how to react against the 20th century’s modernism and post-modernism movements to reflect our times, there were actually some incredibly insightful conversations that took place that helped us to contextualise our future work, a kick up the arse of what we should really already be thinking about.

There are some issues that our generation have to face that are ours alone; these include the total destruction of our environment; gender fluidity and sexuality spectrum; the complete brain invasion and hive-mind of the internet; the affordable housing crisis. The Millenials and Gen X-ers of the world, not just Westerners, are more connected with each other that they are with older generations of their own nations and class, thanks to the internet, and are in many ways incredibly innovative and open-minded, engaged with issues surrounding their bodies, races, environments and class. However, there’s a widespread disconnect between old and young, rural and urban, rich and poor that has led to one of the worst right-wing racist backlashes across the world that has been seen since the 1930s. Donald Trump is the president of the USA, far-right parties are gaining ground in Germany and Italy, Hungary just outlawed gender studies in universities, Brexit is still happening and the Tories are dismantling the NHS bit by bit. All this at a time when more young people than ever are highly educated, untangled from patriarchal binary systems of power and gender, ethically minded, technologically adept and utterly powerless.

Still from Pierre Huyghe’s Human Mask (short film, 2014)

As an exercise for the workshop on Tuesday, we were given some qualities of both modernism and post-modernism and asked to think of a quality that would describe alter-modernism, a working title by Pierre Bourriaud for what the future of art may look like. Our starting point looks like below:

Modernism             Post-Modernism            Alter-modernism?

Originality              Appropriation

Monumental          Impermanence

Gallery                    Site-specificity

Authenticity           Accumulation

Transcendental     Discursive

Material Purity      Hybridization

Some qualities that we thought characterised the direction art seems to be heading includes the idea that concepts are more like a vapour, like the results of a Google image search and the abundant proliferation of imagery the internet has made possible means that the ‘everything related to everything’ approach of post-modernism is now on steroids. Art now is about constantly broadcasting, not discursive; it’s digital and explores our digital lives and selves; it has a romanticism, a heart-felt irony; it accepts there is nothing new and isn’t really bothered. It repeats things it likes but ‘better’; it’s reverential. It plays and has a kind of sophisticated bittersweet joy; playing with sensual pleasures almost like a sex robot that’s learned how to taste and eats ice-cream for the first time. It reminds me of that bit in Stranger Things where Eleven, a supernatural assassin child made in a lab, develops a passion for American junk food upon her escape.

Bit of a cliche but a great image … Still from Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland, Film4 & DNA Films, 2014)

My own personal thoughts on the future of art are as follows: I’ve recently been reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, which I felt also had a kind of sad empty romanticism and explored several concepts that mix well with contemporary ideas of art. In a godless world where the earth is dying, nothing really matters, names are meaningless and the lies we feed ourselves to delude ourselves into surviving are more and more hollow, as the patriarchal rules of the male-god dominated Western world fade; existence itself can feel like a curse, a weight. We are superfluous and our existence is unnecessary. The protagonist, Roquentin, struggles to find meaning in his life but eventually decides to write a fictional novel, as he feels that if he creates a work of art which exists in a different world to ours, untainted and uncorruptable, its purity might rub off on his dirty existence. He comes to the conclusion that as music and art and literature are unaffected by their material presence in this world, and exist in our collective imaginations, if he becomes an artist he can tap into that other existence, that immortality, that sense of rightfulness.

But, unlike Roquentin, we now genuinely live in a time where we don’t just exist in bodies; we also exist digitally, on the internet. Think of how much of our lives we live online, how much data exists on us online, how we are connected globally in a real way, not just in our imaginations and cultural hive-mind, and it’s irrelevant whether we’re alive or dead, or even if we exist at all in the real world. We now as individuals live as physical and digital selves; we create our digital selves and our online lives are as real to us as our physical ones; in this way we also live as an artwork, and therefore in a different world that is not affected by the death of our bodies. (See this article for more thoughts.)

I think that when we start to see our existence as made up of a physical self and a digital self, and the huge shift in understanding the internet has caused, we can start to make sense of some of the media that has been made in response. Moments in mainstream culture that spring to mind that I feel encapsulate what the future direction of art could be include:

  • Black Mirror (especially the episode about the creepy clone husband, ‘Be Right Back’. Also see this article which discusses Black Mirror and digital afterlife)
  • Sense8 (Netflix, 2015-2018)
  • Rick and Morty (Adult Swim, 2013 – present. Troy Patterson of The New Yorker wrote that Rick and Morty “supplies an artful answer to the question of what follows postmodernism: a decadent regurgitation of all its tropes, all at once, leavened by some humanistic wistfulness.”)
  • Ex Machina (2014)
  • Rupaul’s Drag Race (2008 – present)
  • Amalia Ulman’s Instagram project (more info here)
  • Pierre Huyghes’ Serpentine Gallery show that uses machines to visualise human thoughts

So, to go back to our table. Here’s what I propose for qualities of alter-modernism:

  • Queer and ambiguous
  • Digital and virtual
  • Nostalgic and melancholy
  • Interactions between human/animal/machine
  • Romantic, sensual
  • Searching for alternative belief systems
  • Politically engaged and frustrated

Or things to that effect … I guess, essentially, it’s important to keep in mind the future of art that you want to be part of, partly in order to keep yourself engaged and optimistic, and partly to keep your work critically on edge. I could sum up my own future of art as Horny and Melancholy, or Dying and In Love. But am I responding to exhibitions, films, writings that I already see around me, that are undeniably connected in a new zeitgeist, or am I projecting my own feelings onto wider culture and cherry-picking that which backs me up? These are questions for the future.

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