When people start talking about artistic innovation in the last century, they invariably recite the myriad ‘isms’ that define the modernist cannon – impressionism, cubism, futurism, realism, abstract expressionism, fauvism, minimalism, and so on. Somehow or other, a whole lot of the time, the most consequential ‘ism’ of all seems to get left off that list. And of course I’m talking about Industrialism.

Industrialism was an outgrowth of the industrial revolution, which was itself an outgrowth of modernism, which is how Industrialism shares ideological parentage with the nascent modernist artistic movements of the mid 19th century. By now, Industrialism is the silver backed ape, towering over every other docile or vanquished ‘ism’ out there. And while the art world still might seem impressive with it’s auction prices, and sexy galleries, Industrialism has Target, Walmart, Fred Meyer, TJ Maxx, Foot Locker, Kohls, Bed Bath and Beyond, Pottery Barn, Ross, Ikea, and Apple, among a whole lot else. Industrialism may not officially exist as an art movement, but how else to describe the collective force that figured out how to make decorative objects, at an unimaginable scale and variety, available to everyone?

Wait – artists don’t just make decorative objects – they make Art. We decided that was a distinction worth making during the rise of the aforementioned Industrial Revolution, when artist suddenly became more than mere decorators, toiling away at a blue collar trade; they were something a lot more academic, and intellectual. Before then, not so much. Industrialism might have figured out the first part, the object making part, but certainly not the second. Right?

Mmmmno. As the century wore on, industry figured out how to be far more than just an efficient conduit for cranking out handsome, disposable crap, it also figured out how to make things of meaning. That's how industry learned the lessons of modernism, and created Industrialism. Today our most powerful cultural artifacts are not necessarily contained within contemporary art museums and galleries - they’re on T.V., the Internet, and in the mall. We have almost totally been taken over by the industrialized fulfillment of human needs and desires, and artists are still grappling with the consequences.

Two things in particular ended up having a tremendous influence on artists and art making. The first was the idea of ‘de-skilling’, which sounds a bit ironic, because when one thinks of advanced technology, one might think that more skills would be necessary, rather than less. But for the vast majority of workers, the opposite was in fact the case. De-skilling was really the outcome of no longer needing to understand each and every step required to make something from beginning to end - just knowing a part of the process was enough. As a result, factory work required far less skill then the artisan system it replaced, and that was very much by design. It meant that the training required to do the job was shorter, and the resulting product was cheaper.

The second profound change was technology. Industry figured out how to make a mechanized version of a whole lot of things that had been, up until five minutes before then, solely the job of the artisan. That meant clothes, shoes, textiles, ceramics, prints, glassware, books, and more, began to be made primarily by machines. As industry displaced the artisan system, it’s only logical that they intermingled, and even overlapped - art influenced industry, for sure, but in turn, industry influenced art. And nothing describes that point of contact better than photography.

Photography profoundly challenged the goal of painterly verisimilitude, which up to then, had been the artistic gold standard for centuries. With the simple press of a button, total mimetic reality was available quickly and cheaply, and this forced painters, and even sculptors, to re-calibrate what it was that they did – their goal of faithfully representing reality had suddenly become profoundly undermined. Reassessing the goals of painting and sculpture became inevitable, and it ushered in an investigation into what constituted the job artists where supposed to do in the first place. Their investigations inevitably led away from mimesis, and even away from objects themselves, and towards abstraction, and concept driven art.

Both of these advances, the embrace of de-skilling, and the embrace of technology, had a tremendous impact on art making in the 1860’s and 70’s, and both played a role in formulating the modernist era in art. Paul Cezanne was probably the first artist to fully embrace this shift. Others, like Eduard Manet, had understood it, but Cezanne embodied it. His work made use of a very de-skilled approach, to make the point that the idea of pure mimetic representation was no longer necessary. Along the way, the idea of de-skilling came to mean something in an art historical context that diverged from it’s industrial revolution origins; it came to signify art breaking with the past, breaking with a decorative tradition, and claiming autonomy for itself. As the theorist John Roberts has written: “The notion of art as embedded in a prevailing set of technical and social relations – and that art reproduces, subverts or resists – was particularly acute as an issue in the second half of nineteenth century in Europe.” He goes on to add: “This is the moment – as artists begin to define their interests in open opposition to the academy and salon – when a gap opens up between art as a bourgeois profession – like law or medicine – and its nascent, undefined, unofficial social role as a critic of bourgeois culture.”

So that is the third profound change – art as a resistor, and critic. This also shares roots with the Industrial Revolution – people like William Morris, and Karl Marx were deeply suspicious of the new industrial world being created, and pushed back against it in my different ways. Artists were very much a part of that same conversation.  Today we have so fully digested the idea of the artist as critic, that we forget how new an idea that is. They are now are seen as intellectuals first, and craftsmen second, if at all.

This really describes the basic lay of the land for art and artist in the last 150 years. A lot has certainly changed, but de-skilling, non-mimetic representation, and social critique still define the cornerstones of how artists think and operate today. That means the artistic identity we recognize as our own remains rooted in the 19th century. The question becomes whether or not that basic approach is still applicable in the 21st.

The answer to that would be a resounding yes…if things had stayed the same. But they didn’t. The industrial revolution gave way to the digital revolution, and modernism gave way to post modernism. Art did what it always does, and mirrored those changes in real time. The results are still being felt, and in some cases, still being digested, but the environment that artists operate in today are starkly different than they were for David, or Ingres, to say nothing of Picasso, or Pollock.

The first thing a pre-modernist artist would notice if they stepped in a time machine is the way that art in our current era has shifted away from being mostly public, in the form of commissions from the church, the government, and private patrons to decorate chapels and so on, to mostly private, where galleries sell art to private collectors. That shift turns out to have political implications that would surprise our time traveler: In its blue-collar, decorative incarnation, art was elitist in terms of its price, (Art has always been made mostly for the rich) but not in its conceptual underpinnings. Now, because artists are making art for a specific audience in mind, an audience versed in the academic, white-collar version of art, it’s elitist in both.

Art was a decorative trade remember, which meant that its bread and butter were bible scenes, and portraits, images and narratives that were broadly understood. Art today is really a product of an academic environment, rather than a master/apprentice environment. This has logically created a genre based on things that would mystify a Renaissance painter. Today, an infusion of philosophy, sociology, history and politics, to say nothing of pure self-expression, is just part of the process - not in the background understand, but right up front. Individual styles, and individual voices are no longer idiosyncratic outliers, but very much the norm. Making pretty pictures might sound absurd to us now, but we seem quite content to make things that self-consciously embody what we perceive to be meaning instead.

We should think about that for a minute: artists today set out with the wildly ambitious goal of making things of cultural significance, which is a pretty high bar to clear. But even more incredibly, we seem pretty convinced that we clear that bar all the time. Why else would we hire guards to keep people’s hands off of it in all of our new contemporary art museums? Why else would people pay millions of dollars for it at galleries, and at auctions? Why else would there be a whole army of conservators, tasked with figuring out ways to protect and preserve it? It must really be significant!

But significant for who? The rise of the contemporary art museum coincides with a decline in their attendance, and the decline in Internet searches about them. Sales are still happening in galleries and auctions, (though on a downward slide recently) but as Artnews recently reported, almost half of the total sales of contemporary art at auction were by 25 artists – the usual suspects – and two of them, (Jean Michel Basquiat, and Andy Warhol) accounted for the lions share of even that paltry number.

Industrialism figured out that everybody wants a version of art – not just the super rich buying a rarefied version of it from art stars. And that conclusion would seem to support the claim that the stuff we can buy at the store, or the stuff we can see on Netflix truly is the replacement part for any kind of antiquated artisanal approach.

Industrialism slowly but surely moved art and artists onto an island called the Art World, where they remain even now, and then provided a version of the service they had traditionally provided to people everywhere else. Need some decorative objects? Factories can make that. Want objects and experiences that contain meaning? Yup, same. What this meant was that the two roles that art had traditionally defined for itself, that of decorator, and that of meaning codifier, had been subsumed almost completely, and very efficiently, by de-skilled, industrial means.

Almost completely. Here it is important to understand just how far away from ideal that almost signifies. More stuff and more shared experiences have not in themselves replaced art or artists. There is a gap between what our modern world provides, and what our ancient human selves require, and most of us can sense the space between. What that means for artists today is that adhering to a particular approach, or genre, or media isn’t really that important – providing the missing piece of humanity that industrialism can’t has become key.

Artists today are competing with movies and television and Netflix, and phone apps, and sneaker designs, and Instagram, and a whole lot else that industrialism is throwing at them. Industrialism has proven to be pretty efficient at everything it does. How can such a marginalized activity compete with that, much less achieve any kind of cultural relevance?

A better question might be with whether or not artists are marginalized enough. That’s because the ability to see what’s missing means standing outside just far enough to have a clear view of the big picture. That’s why culture comes so frequently from outside the center, and spreads inward. Or from the bottom, and ascends to the top. To that end, it’s worth considering the toolbox that our academically trained, white collar artists still rely on today, born out of a response to the Industrial Revolution - de-skilling, non-mimetic representation, and social critique – does all of that still operate as advertised?

De-skilling in particular looks pretty suspect here. That’s because de-skilling, born more than a century ago as a means of pulling the rug out from art being mere decoration for the rich, has itself become decoration for the rich. By now de-skilled art is the expectation, rather than the party crasher. That’s why de-skilled art defines, without question, academic and commercial orthodoxy – take a quick look at the artists at any Documenta say, or Biennial, and it’s soon clear that the de-skilling crowd, using an approach only available to them post 1870, have come to dominate the art world.

But maybe it’s still a relevant approach - after all, first we were ‘De-skilled’ by machines, next we were ‘Disrupted’ by computers, and then ‘Downsized’ by automation – doesn’t all of that point towards de-skilled art as being the most relevant embodiment of our modern world?

It certainly might be the best example of it. But using de-skilling to point out the way things are de-skilled seems a bit like smoking to talk about cancer, or burning coal to talk about global warming, or littering to talk about littering – it represents of the very thing it protests. And what it protests (or should I say, used to protest) is the expectation that art was here to please, rather than to critique. Now of course, artists try to please via critique, and a lot of the time that’s done via de-skilling.

Meanwhile, almost two centuries into the industrial revolution, we have been infantilized by a system that makes us into consumers who buy things, rather than people who know how to do things. Which is great if you’re rich (and can’t be bothered to ponder the consequences) and lousy if you aren’t. Either way, de-skilling as an aesthetic choice is one that can really only be made by the rich – everyone else has to make things actually work. Whether it’s raising food, or making shelter, or making clothes, all of it requires people with skills using their hands to perform the job. In a world where most people are poor, and most lives are therefore dictated by primary skills, making things becomes a political act, one that disrupts the consumer/infantilization model so preferred and perfected in our digital age.

And speaking of digital, that brings us to our next 20th century invention, photography, which is now almost entirely a digital medium. Remember that photography arrived on the scene as a kind of aesthetic truth teller, accurately representing reality, or so it thought. But it didn’t take the digital era long to make that idea a thing of the past. Any attempt at a one-to-one representation of reality is now a quaint artifact from a pre-Photoshop era, which is why one of the common themes of contemporary photography is to question the veracity of the photographic image itself. Everything requires interpretation, and mimetic representation reveals that bald fact as well as anything, because any version of Truth that we can all agree on is impossible to achieve.

That’s why there was a turn towards abstraction. The Abstract Expressionists really thought they were on to something when they decided that their paintings represented nothing but the paint on the canvas. They set out to defeat a mimetic impulse by simply being the thing, rather than representing the thing.  By now though, a 100 years or so into the abstract art experiment, the act of seeing an abstract painting makes us think about other abstract paintings, rather than about interpreting experience. Abstract painting has become less of a short cut to reality, and more about a particular historical reference.

Today, choosing to make imagery that utilizes abstraction, or self-consciously rejects technique, doesn’t make something art as much as it makes it modernist-inspired art, which in turn inspires a specific, historically anchored line of interpretation. Meanwhile, any attempt at mimetic representation just about entirely sidesteps all of the basic tenants of Modernism in one go – which is important if the art that’s being made isn’t modernist.

But what about the social-critique function of art?  That must certainly have value. And it does - literally – it’s collectable! And it’s worth pondering the deep irony of that. It’s safe to say that at this point, we have found that every attempt at aesthetic rule breaking or cultural critique attempted by the modernists, all ended up on collectors walls. It’s turned out that the art world could put a price tag on rebellion itself, and the collectors who bought those things could feel a little bit like rebels themselves. The idea that art was (and is) a purely intellectual investigation existing apart from the apparatus set up to disseminate it, refusing to play the role of the decorative object, just never happened. Like de-skilling, the approach of the intellectual over the decorative transitioned from radical fringe, to comfortable orthodoxy. Now it’s various descendents populate art fairs.

Last is a note on the romantic, which the trade of art, and the discipline of craft have long been describes as being. And they certainly can be. But there is an important distinction to be made here between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ – amateurs are romantics. Professionals, confronted with bills and deadlines, very rarely are. This distinction separates those who actually make their living at something, and those that don’t.  That means that it’s quite possible to be a very romantic contemporary artist, making abstract, or academically inspired art. In fact, it’s more often the case than not, because most of the time, those people aren’t making a living at it. Meanwhile, the sheer pragmatism of having to make a living at something really changes the relationship to the work. It makes it a whole lot less precious, and a whole lot more accommodating to an audience.

Art used to be a trade, and then it became an intellectual pursuit. As each of these two poles reached a kind of purity of purpose and definition, each became a parody of its original intent. It got cartoonishly overwrought in the first case, and melodramatically self-important in the second. Into that breach came an industrial and economic might that made the argument essentially moot, because it provided most of what the artists were trying to do, far more cheaply and efficiently than they could. The result was to alter the internal debate about what constitutes art itself, from decoration, to ideas, to mechanized fulfillment. Artists are left to show us what that debate left out.

As Carlo Scarpa was fond of saying: Verum Ipsum Factum, which can be translated as ‘We only know what we make’, or ‘Truth through making’. As the dust settles on the 20th century, and we struggle to make sense of what comes next, we would do well to start with that.






Moon Shot

I was in my third year of art school making perfectly awful paintings, like I had the year before and the year before that, when I had a simple idea: to put an object in one of them. My thinking went something like this: if I put something good on top of something not so good, that will make the whole thing slightly more good. Or slightly less bad, depending on your perspective.

This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. I liked making things, and I thought that adding something I liked would be a good start. At this point an observant reader might wonder why someone interested in object making would try and become a painter in the first place – a square peg in a round hole and all that. But logic was never part of the equation. My skeletal understanding of art had somehow made painting it’s true representative, which meant that if painting wasn’t for me than very probably art wasn’t for me. I needed a spark, a miracle, a moon shot, and little did I know that my moon shot was about to come in the form of a smallish carved head.

Before I get to that, it’s probably clear that I was misinformed about a couple of things when I went to art school. The first one obviously being that painting was the true story of art. But the second one was even more deeply embedded in me, and it’s what I now think of as the Myth Of The Artist. You probably know the one. It’s the perception that artists are the irascible, (but lovable!) creative firebrands, who inevitably give society fits, even as they expand our perceptions of the world. I didn’t know much about art, but I thought I knew about artists, and artists were a bunch of rule-breaking libertines. Fuck yea! I wanted to be one too. What I found out when I got to school however, was that the above description really described a modernist artist, when art was about art, and pushing boundaries was the thing. By the time that I got to school however, all of the boundaries had gotten pushed already.That meant that the firebrands were out of a job.

If the task of modernist artists was to seek out the cutting edge of art, then what do you do when there are no edges anymore? What you do is realize that modernism is over, that’s what. That meant that the postmodernists took up the reins with all of the enthusiasm of a clean up crew after a really good party. The modernists had such a clear mission, such a purpose. The postmodernists didn’t. So what was the way forward for us?

It was around this time that I remember going to a Dave Hickey lecture, and during the Q & A immediately following, a young art student asked him what he thought the next thing in art was going to be. He looked off into space for a few seconds. Then he said slowly, “Well, all the easy stuff has been done…”

To which he could have added “And all the hard stuff has been too”. But his point was clearly understood. Art making had gone from being technically rigorous, and decorative, to intellectually rigorous, and very self-consciously non-decorative. Which is to say, it was mostly devoid of special technical skills. Art’s former life as eye candy was tossed, in favor of a far more intellectual approach. People began to refer to De-skilling not only as a philosophical starting point, but also as an aesthetic goal. Other terms like ‘Non-objective’, and ‘Conceptual’ were used and thought of in similar ways. The old school craft associations were strenuously pushed away, making words like ‘Craft’ and ‘Mastery’ sound laughably retrograde. The pendulum had swung in a complete arc, from one pole to another.

There is a funny thing about revolutions though. No matter how they start, they all end the same: the radical fringe becomes the new normal. After awhile, the new normal starts to seem like the old normal – the old Hegelian model of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. And so it was with Modernism. The academic hierarchy and monetary excess that made the Beaux Art possible, quickly adjusted to their new modernist equivalents. Now of course, our new academy is bigger than ever, the gatekeepers more credentialed and numerous, and the prices paid for the most expensive art enough to make any pope or king blush.

Aesthetically we fell in line too. The new orthodoxy that modernism instilled was to seek out originality at all costs, a paradox that seemed to bother no one. (Didn’t catch it? Orthodoxy and originality in the same sentence is conceptual whiplash). In fact, Modernism was so broadly successful, and for so long, that soon enough, ‘new and improved’ was a way of life. Those very words in fact began to appear on pretty much every product out there, with a metronomic regularity, and CEO’s started dropping terms like ‘disruption’ and ‘creative destruction” all the time, further reinforcing the idea that constant and propulsive change was the highest good.

There is an irony in the idea of forcing change to happen though, which is this: it happens whether we want it to or not. Change is the one thing that is unstoppable, and requires no special prodding from us. Imagine, for example, exerting a great amount of effort to try and get the tide to turn more quickly – even if we were successful at doing it, which would definitely be an achievement; the result would be redundant at best. The one thing that modernism brought us with relentless efficiency was a constantly changing tide. That meant more of everything, faster – a lot of good stuff to be sure, but also plenty of useless and disposable crap right along with it. Suddenly, new and improved didn’t feel like it was either, and the thought of getting disrupted, much less creatively destroyed, just didn’t sound so good.

Consider this: when I was a kid, we couldn’t wait for the future to come. It was going to be the logical fulfillment of human possibility, and it was all so achingly, agonizingly close. Now the future seems to fill us with dread, and a surprisingly deep sense of nostalgia has replaced that once pervasive sense of possibility. Modernism may have institutionalized revolution itself, and in so doing turned freedom and rebellion into a brand, but the shift to postmodernism made it clear how tainted, and filled with dystopian overtones that approach had left us in the end.

My brain fogged over when I thought of this stuff. All I was trying to do was make something halfway decent in art school, and school had responded by telling me that shit was complicated. A certain amount of paralysis by analysis set in, and like a lot of younger artists who see the big picture for the first time, I became creatively constipated. Postmodernism, that vague philosophical construct, had all of a sudden became personal.

So how to break the log-jam? Dumb luck, that’s how.

It’s a curious fact that inspiration only seems like inspiration in retrospect. At the time it occurs, it can feel a whole lot more like just grasping at the very last straw out there. For me that last straw was buried under some clamps in the tool room in sculpture class. It was some carving tools that I had unearthed mostly by accident, and seeing them there made me realize that I wanted to try my hand at making something with them. I was lucky that I had a teacher named Ed Wicklander who carved from time to time, because seeing his carvings had uncorked a secret desire in myself that I hadn’t even really known was there.

My reluctance to give into my impulse to carve probably had something to do with the fact that what initially inspired me about it was how it operated independently of sculpture, or maybe even art. It just seemed more like architecture. In Europe I had seen the way that entire cities were carved from stone, but not just into simple blocks stacked on top of each other, but into crazy, interlocking organic shapes, figures, gargoyles, patterns, and so on. This was utterly foreign to me as a kid growing up on the West Coast of the US, surrounded by pressure treated wood decks, vinyl siding, and generally crap construction that wasn’t meant to last. I found it impossible not to become enraptured looking at structures that refuted that familiar clap-trap disposable premise in every way. Any doorway, or window, or fence was an opportunity for a craftsperson to go bananas, to one-up all the other doors and windows and fences out there.

What was even more amazing, aside from the technical wizardry, was the sheer practicality of it, the basic problem solving, brilliantly realized. Great effort was expended to make sure that the windows didn’t leak, that the buildings could withstand fire, and that the stairs didn’t creak, all with incredible flair. And all of it was done by what came to be my favorite artist: The Anonymous Craftsman. Yes, I know some of their names now, but whether or not they were remembered or forgotten, the training and attitude of all of these carvers seemed the same: to make things as good as possible. The way all of that effort and love added up to this incredible tapestry of stuff, meant that simply walking down a street became an adventure. It was hard not to come away without feeling energized, and filled with a sense of possibility. Every surface of every building seemed to be asking the same question:  What if we all just tried to make the coolest shit imaginable?

As I looked at the motley collection of carving tools in the shop, I thought that I too could add to that tapestry. I could almost see, and smell, the fresh wood shavings falling like petals all around me, as I brought forth sensual forms from the wood. Gripped by this image, a Zen-like spiritual reverie seemed to descend, the very same reverie that was certainly the default work mode of every wood carver out there. Incredible! I also wasn’t mad at the prospect of not having to share the tools with anyone, because for some reason nobody else in my sculpture class seemed interested at all in carving. Again: incredible. I smirked to myself inwardly, I just had stumbled on a sure fire way to crack open the art game in a way that nobody else out there saw coming. My journey to artistic relevance had begun.

The first clue that my plan had some flaws was when I began to actually use those dull and forlorn carving tools. There was so much pushing and pounding and cajoling and wincing and wheezing involved, that I truly wondered if they were bought from a practical joke store, like where you get fake poop and fake vomit. Maybe these were fake chisels, bought by the shop techs to punk little sculpture kids like me. But I was forced to conclude that they had actual metal blades, and actual hardwood handles, which I had to admit, made them real. As I looked around at all of my fellow students, (none of whom were carving, and had absolutely no plans on doing so), I was also forced to conclude something that should have been as obvious as a flashing neon sign: carving was hard.

It was about then that all of my idealized visions of carving quickly crumbled. I experienced for the first time what I now call the ‘Two P’s’: pain and panic. New carvers bump up against these two devilish hurdles without fail. The pain part is obvious; it starts with the hands, and works its way up to the wrists, the elbows, the biceps, the shoulders, and finally down the back and up the neck. Getting cut is part of the pain equation as well, but except for a few spectacular whacks, that always takes a back seat to constant muscle and joint pain. Meanwhile, the second P (panic) is the more surprising of the two, and therefore the more mentally crippling. It is the feeling that all of the time and effort being spent is all for nothing, that the piece being worked on is not turning out, or that it’s a bad idea in the first place. This slow seepage of doubt, and dread can be an abyss that claims your soul. No other medium I’ve worked with has an equivalent.

Experiencing the full force of the Two P’s didn’t happen right away  - it never does. It’s always on the second or third day, after a real commitment has been made, before it sneaks up and wallops you. By that time, Pee Pee mode is in full flower. Years later, I would actually design a Panic Tamper carved from the hardest wood, as a talismanic object designed to offset the Pee Pee. It basically rams down one’s gullet, forcing the panic into a hard nugget that lodges in the gut. This was one of a number of talismanic objects I designed, that every wood worker out there wishes were real: the board stretcher, the joinery healer, the self-sharpening blade. If that panic tamper was real, I would have worn it out by the end of my first year of carving.

That’s right, I did keep carving. You do know how the story ends – pretty much all the work I’ve done since then is carving. In fact, after I finish writing this on my computer, I am going to go carve. Most of my days, and a lot of my thinking, involves carving to a very large degree.

So the question is, why did I keep going? What made that initial experience, filled with frustration and failure, ultimately feel like success? And I have to say that it had to do with re-adjusting my relationship with success itself. Before I started carving, I had always assumed that I would succeed at whatever I was doing, and that it would be relatively easy. Carving eliminated the prospect of making those kinds of assumptions. I was only going to get out of it what I put into it, and that in order to do that, I needed to adjust my interior clock from instant gratification, to something that just might take awhile.

This is a far cry from eliminating a sense of optimism understand; if anything, I saw the potential to make things that actually were good, in a way I never had before. Carving seemed to say “check your entitled shit at the door – you might spend a long time on something that totally sucks”. The pace inspired a slow but steady conversation with it - I realized that I was making the occasional suggestion, rather than forcing my will upon it. This upended how I was used to making things, where I started with an idea, and then expended just enough effort to illustrate that idea, which in effect became stenography, or a form of dictation. Carving, in contrast to that, was a relationship, where I could see possibilities, rather than a singular forgone conclusion that I could impose. The resulting piece was at best a surprise. It wasn’t exactly what I had imagined; it was something else entirely, like it was made by someone else entirely. I wanted to know about this thing, to study it - my original idea had splintered into various avenues that lead to other places, which I now saw in a beckoning, fragmentary form. I wanted to see more.

It’s incredible that so much came out of a very rudimentary little portrait of a bald man (I skipped carving the hair, because that seemed too hard), especially because the final result was so bloody awful. Despite that, I still felt an odd sense of accomplishment, tempered a bit by the crap outcome naturally, but fueled by an inescapable sense of possibility. The pragmatist in me split the difference between this mix of emotions by not throwing my little carving away, but instead lighting it on fire until it was a barely recognizable lump of charcoal. I then dangled it in front of my painting, and something magical happened: the painting got better. It bumped up to maybe even being pretty good. And so it was that I saw the future, which was carving, and the past, which was painting. The little lump of charcoal seemed to egg me on; I knew I could do better, that I would do better. I felt pulled forward, into this new place, a place I’m still exploring even now.

Art is hard, under the best of circumstances. It’s probably out of reach for most of us entirely. Carving, which is my chosen medium now, seems to break that bald fact to me everyday, which I appreciate. But getting better at it makes me think less about making Art with a capitol ‘A’, and more about just being better at things – carving, sure, but also baking bread, writing, friendship, really almost anything. The moon shot might not have gotten me all the way to the moon, but it sure widened the view.





How Long It Took (Divide By Why)

I had a visitor in my shop not that long ago, talking about this and that. He ended up staying for a bit to watch me carve. It didn’t take very long before I could tell he was agitated about something. Finally, in a low conspiratorial tone he said, ‘you know you can get a robot to do that right?’

Maybe… I’m not so sure. The digitally carved work I’ve seen actually looks pretty limited – no under cuts, no incised lines to flute cuts, no thin parts, and certainly no way to improvise on the fly. Much of it has a lumpy, yet regimented quality (which is as odd as it sounds) when the pieces are un-sanded. And when they are sanded they look like bars of soap that have been left in the shower for a month. I’m not saying that the technology out there won’t catch up to me sooner or later, but for now, it’s not even that close.

What struck me about this visitor mentioning the robot thing wasn’t his lack of sophistication about the technology though - hell, maybe he was right. It was more that there was a clear desire to help me overcome the sheer inefficiency, or even drudgery, of what I was doing. This realization got me thinking. There have been lots of people who have asked me how long a particular piece took to make, and a lot of the time I found the question to be far from interesting. But now I realized that what they were really asking had less to do with how, and more to do with why. My studio visitor, conjuring his non-existent technological short cut, was in essence asking much the same thing.

Why, as opposed to how long, is a perfectly fair question of course. There is a deeply held aversion towards needless labor that’s probably old as humanity itself, and if anything, that aversion has only increased in our automated present. With that in mind, it seems clear that a very large part of what I’m doing has to do with labor itself, and that inefficiency and drudgery are both intrinsic to the conceptual starting point of the work. This is in response to the contemporary world, which has put so much value on exactly the opposite approach, by prizing efficiency over pretty much everything else. That in turn has had the unfortunate consequence of making things like beauty and durability sound like unreasonable extras. My work posits the idea that they are actually essential. And as odd as it sounds to most contemporary ears, inefficiency and drudgery are an excellent way to accomplish that. Inefficiency, for example, ambushes rote repetition in favor of surprises, and improvisation. And drudgery makes clear that spectacular results don’t happen by stringing together spectacular moments – the lows exist there right along side the highs.

My interior reverie didn’t end there though. The other thought that occurred to me was to consider a world in which the carving I had just made could in fact be carved by a robot. Would that be a win for humanity? And what exactly is our relationship to technology in the first place? At what point do our lives become so distant from the world via technology, that it actually makes us worse off, rather than better?

It’s not exactly a new thing to think about. People have been asking that question since the dawn of the industrial revolution. The Luddites became famous as the machine breakers in the early 1800’s – destroying the mechanized looms that they felt were taking away their livelihoods. William Morris followed that in the 1860’s, when he starting the arts and crafts movement, based on a his very critical assessment of the industrial revolution. And so began, in fits and starts, a long line of proto hippies, which progressed until the actual hippies showed up, in the 1960’s. Now we have all the locavores, and slow food enthusiasts, the slow fashion movement, the small house movement, and the Etsy crafters, among a whole lot else.  

There have been doubters about technological progress from the beginning, despite the fact that they tended to be the minority, and despite the fact that they tended to be viewed as a little nuts. Which is the way a lot of movements start, if you think about it. Suffragettes, or civil rights advocates, or feminists, or environmentalists, all seemed out of step, until the day came when they didn’t. Whether we are to that point with technology yet, as always, is an open question.

What is pretty clear though, is that spinning a dystopian bummer about the evils of our current technological moment, with all of our gadgetry, and fractured attention spans, would be an easy thing to do. But I’m not going to do it. Because at this point, new technology has to play a role in un-fucking up a lot of what our old (and current) technological fuck-ups have wrought. Food production, clean energy, clean water, environmental issues, medical breakthroughs, transportation, among a whole lot else, need to be solved in order for billions of us to avoid the catastrophe we certainly face. We are too far down that path to change it now.

What I’m doing by laboriously bashing on blocks of wood certainly talks about technology by way of its absence, but in my opinion that strategy isn’t a clear condemnation of it, far less a plea for us to return to caves.  It’s an acknowledgement that a physical relationship with the world is still absolutely essential, and so too is the human agency required to negotiate it. That frequently overlooked fact means that we will have to find a sustainable relationship with more than just what’s left of the natural world, we will also have to find a sustainable relationship with our technology. So far, we aren’t close to doing either.

Understand that my own work depends heavily on technology – I’m not carving large blocks of wood with my fingernails. True, my process requires no screens to peer into, and no set of digital instructions to program, but the technology involved in making what I make is still high nonetheless. Metallurgy, tool design, and even lighting and dust collection are all things that have relentlessly been improved on over many centuries, and I couldn’t do what I do without them. At the same time, I also couldn’t do what I do without understanding that the tools I use, powered or not, aren’t magic – they won’t make things appear without my hands knowing what to do. The short cut that tools represent is misinterpreted if we conflate ‘fast’ with ‘good’ and ‘fastest’ with ‘best’. We have plenty of evidence all around us that shows the unfortunate outcome of thinking that way.  

Not that I’m mad at efficiency, as a goal. I’m mad at efficiency replacing awesome as a goal. There is no question that technology has been really successful at shortening the distance between wanting something and getting it, but maybe a bit counter intuitively, that often puts awesome further out of reach. And it does so in a couple of unfortunate ways: the first is to convince us, quite logically, that taking on long term, challenging tasks is for suckers. And the second is to cut us off from how the basics of our lives come to exist. By now, we are hazy on how our food arrives in the grocery store, how our shelters are made, how our clothes are stitched, our phones assembled, because all of it just seems to appear like magic. What this means is that not only have we limited our ability to intersect with systems we don’t understand, we have also limited our desire to try. For people who face a lot of problems, that’s not a good place to start.

Making things posits another approach to this particular predicament, by trading away drift and paralysis for agency and action. It connects our own abilities, physical as well as mental, to our own ambition. It makes clear that acquiring a high level of agency means acquiring a high level of ability. And gaining agency over something is to unravel the power dynamic of the contemporary world, which is set up on the premise that if we willingly jettison a portion of our initiative, knowledge and power, then we will get our needs to met by a group of invisible others (inevitably browner, poorer, and far away) in return.

If the work starts with the idea that actions are freighted not only with political consequences, but also form a very reliable portrait of one’s values, then it’s clear that actions, far more than words, reveal us. So what actions do we choose? Carving might seem like an obscure outlier as far as actions go, but it’s actually deeply embedded into the human experience. In fact, it pre-dates the appearance of Homosapiens, by a lot. Our proto-human ancestors, Australopithecines, started carving at least two million years ago, and probably closer to three. For that reason, tool use is now thought to have inspired our brains to expand and adapt to our hands, rather than the other way around. Pretty much every culture, in every era, figured out how to carve. That means most of us relate to carving as an activity without relating it to a specific context, unlike performance art say, or painting. Chances are good that you saw something that was carved today – maybe in a church, a park, a public square, a cemetery, or maybe on a fire place mantel, a piece of furniture, on a building, or maybe even in a museum or gallery. All of this adds up to carving being a very good vehicle to demonstrate a tangible interaction with the world, via a very familiar method, in a very familiar material.

And a sidebar here about making: what I’m talking about is the opposite of romantic amateurism understand, where a gauzy nostalgia, and a studied lack of ability can often end up as art – maybe only end up as art  – because what else could such a thing be? No other sphere but art would accept making something poorly as a premise. And that ends up being a problem, because if there is a formula for making something look like art, then plenty of us will see that as enough. If there is a formula for eliminating a laborious search for art, then we'll stop looking. Our default route now is to find the short cut.

What I’m talking about instead is pretty much in the opposite direction to that, by working towards gaining knowledge, skill, and competence - clear thinking meeting clear ability, and using both to push each other forward. That requires discipline, following through on what you start, and doing something with love. Oh - and making it plain that love is work. Sound like a bumper sticker? Yeah, well that’s fine. The results of this particular approach may or may not be art, or contemporary art, or craft, or any hybrid thereof. I’ll leave it to others to name it. All I can do is persist in making sure that the work reflects me, that it reflects my values, my interests, and my concerns. If it does that, then I’ll name it successful.

That word concern really taps in to the last part about why I’m spending so much time laboriously making stuff. I’m concerned about responding to the world in some tangible way. The opposite of that of course is no response, no engagement. Which, for the nitpickers out there, might form a response of its own. But I’m not interested in that kind of apathy. To me, it’s as if I can hear the world in a low humming voice ask me if I have truly paid attention to it, truly seen it, heard it and felt it. (Or is that voice Bruce Nauman?) The work I do is trying to say yes to that, as respectfully as I can.

Thinking that way has made me realize that the reason I’m doing this is not because of all the contemporary art I saw as a kid – suffice to say that there wasn’t any in Anchorage Alaska, where I grew up. No, the reason I’m an artist is because I saw and experienced plenty of other things that most of the time didn’t call themselves art, but inspired me nonetheless. Things like native carvings, frontier architecture, airplanes, hippy crafts, the Northern Lights, and opera. (Yes, I said opera. I worked in the set shop for the small opera company in Anchorage). I was a voracious reader as well, and through the words of others, I saw views of the world that where starkly different than my own. This spectrum of stuff had a cumulative effect on me that can only be described as wonder.

The curious thing about wonder, as opposed to awe, or admiration, is that it not only draws one in, it also encourages participation at the same time. It’s the music that inspires the dance. Which is why the grab bag of stuff I was looking at seemed to call out for a response from me. It just didn’t seem crazy to think that I too had something to add to all I had seen and experienced, and that my participation might even be necessary. Wonder has that power.

Back in my studio, my visitor stood to leave, and my thought train came to a screeching halt. I hadn’t really answered him about the robot, probably because it would have caused more confusion than clarity. But if he were here right now, like you are, I would tell him that I’m content to participate in the way that I already am - with inefficiency and love, and drudgery and respect. I’ll skip the robot… but thanks for the tip.





The Everything Cup

“We do not know how art began anymore than we know how language started. If we
take art to mean such activities as building temples and houses, making pictures and
sculptures, or weaving patterns, there are no people in all the world without art. If
on the other hand, we mean by art some kind of beautiful luxury, something to enjoy
in museums and exhibitions or something special to use as a precious decoration in
the best parlour, we must realize that this use of the word is a very recent
development and that many of the greatest builders, painters and sculptors of the
past never dreamed of it.”
- E.H. Gombrich

For thousands of years, art making in a western context was a trade - masters taught
apprentices how to make objects. Now it’s a field for academics. Professors teach
students how to conduct research. It used to be blue-collar, now it’s mostly white

This all happened starting around the 1860’s, as two dueling styles, Romanticism
and then Realism, were slowly taken over by Impressionism. That began the
cavalcade of ‘isms’ that defined modernism, and modernism is what really changed
art from a trade devoted to decoration, into a far more intellectual pursuit, devoted
to ideas.

Sure artists still make stuff. Lots and lots of stuff as a matter of fact, which is curious,
given the fact that doing so at all is unnecessary. But the way they do it, and whom
they do it for, is profoundly influenced by Art’s new academic identity. I’ll get to the
nuts and bolts of that in a minute. But for now it’s important to understand that
artists are no longer mere decorators; they are also philosophers, and sociologists,
and anthropologists, and psychologists, and critics. Most of them have taken
advantage of this new and tremendous opportunity to invest their art with
socio/political and psychological layers that wouldn’t have been possible a mere
century ago.

That’s made it an incredible time to be an artist. Freeing up the role of art freed up
the idea of what defined art in the first place. This inspired a mad rush to strip bare
the roots of art itself, and all the aforementioned Isms quickly followed. After
Impressionism came cubism, fauvism, futurism, surrealism, minimalism, de stijl,
dada, expressionism, color field, abstract expressionism, op art, pop art, installation,
earthworks, social practice, and so on. The irony is that the whole time we thought
we were out there looking for the cutting edge of art, what we were really doing was
finding the cutting edge of ways to contain art. All of the above list, (and then some)
simply amounted to formal approaches designed to invite art in. For that reason, it’s
fair to say that modernism concerned itself with a very rigorous exploration of form,
not necessarily content, and what it proved after more than a century of dedicated
effort, is that the form doesn’t really matter much. Sometime around the early
1970’s, we realized that any single Ism we came up with was probably as good as
anything else, which essentially meant that art could land anywhere, at any time,
beckoned by anyone.

This is where things get very interesting. If we accept that anything is art if an artist
says it is (the famous description coined by the artist and writer Donald Judd), then
making art doesn’t seem all that special. How could it be if it’s anything you want for
chissakes? Of course, you don’t have to agree with that theory - maybe art still is
something specific. But if it is, then by default you are (still) a modernist. That’s
because if art is something in particular, and not just anything, then doing that thing
becomes important. Not doing it means that you’re not making art after all. As Piet
Mondrian said, (certainly a poster child for modernism) “true art like true life takes
a single road.”

Most of us by now would reflexively disagree with a sentiment like that, and defend
the right for artists to do whatever they want. No single road for us! But being able to
follow any conceivable path instead of just the one has some pretty interesting
implications. And the main one is this: if art has no real definable characteristics
anymore, then it’s possible to see art as potentially anything. If it’s possible to see it
as anything, then it’s possible to see it as everything. This for all intents and
purposes eliminates art as a definable category. And while there is a certain poetic
vastness to that, akin to the ‘we are all stardust’ thing, the big picture view
eliminates our ability to take it in, making it unknowable in any functional sense. Which makes art essentially meaningless, right?

Wrong! While it may be true that art is a thing that resists definition, we also know
that the definition that modernists were looking for was a formal one. Imagine a
cup, and in that cup is a small amount of water. The design of this potential cup is
virtually limitless - almost any shape, size, or color would do the job well enough - it
just has to hold a bit of water after all. But what happens if the cup doesn’t hold
water, due to some truly adventurous design tinkering? In that case, what happens
is that the water just splashes to the ground and goes somewhere else. So too with
art. Dispensing with the different forms to contain it – the cup in this analogy –
doesn’t mean that we have dispensed with art itself. Making the cup go away doesn’t
make art go away. What it does mean is that the conversation has profoundly
shifted, away from what the cup might look like, to where to find the water.

The Visitor

Not that long ago I realized I was asking myself one simple question every time I pondered the contents of a museum or gallery: is it art, or is it artworld?

Art is famously hard to define of course. Artworld on the other hand is surprisingly easy - that’s because artworld has become a genre, just like craft is a genre, and pop-surrealism is a genre, and public art is a genre, and burning man is a genre, and vernacular art is a genre, and glass art is a genre, and so on. To understand artworld, the genre, all that is required is to go to artworld, the place (i.e. any contemporary art museum, gallery, or art fair), and look around.

The first thing to notice upon entering artworld is the sheer amount of stuff, the staggering variety… how in the world could any of it be lumped together? Simple: artworld stresses the importance of the idea over the object, and shies away from the technical skills found in other genres. The caveat to that is artworld allows unlimited fabrication razzle-dazzle from paid assistants, as long as the artists themselves retain a sort of white-collar managerial role. But for the most part, pushing the idea forward, and removing (or disabling) the hand, has really come to define artworld’s signature style. That’s why it’s nutty to imagine re-staging any of its marquee shows at the Renwick say, or the Cooper Hewitt, or the Mint, or installing them bit-by-bit as public art. The contours of artworld reveal themselves as soon as one steps outside of it.

It should be noted here that artworld is fantastic, a lot of the time, and it’s just filled to the brim with talented and fun people. So the real question is why does the whole genre thing even matter? To go a step further, genres are not only fun, they actually serve a function – innovation and insight are direct outcomes of sinking into any field deeply. The result of that is really the story of civilization itself. Why shouldn’t that same model apply to artworld?

It should. And it does. And by god we have innovated the shit out of artworld. This is no screed denouncing that, or denouncing genres in general. What I’m trying to do instead is explain why art isn’t one, and why that matters.

Imagine that there is a station on the radio called The Music World. It’s at the end of the dial, past the jazz station, and the hip-hop station, and the reggae station, the oldies station, the rock station, the metal station, and soul station, and country station, and so on. Music World is great. It’s definitely your favorite. But regardless of your feelings about the rest of what’s playing, the other stations play music too. Hopefully the analogy that I’m making here isn’t too terribly subtle: artworld might have the word art right in the title, but it sets itself up for a particularly unreasonable set of expectations if we imagine it to be the only place where art lives - much less the place where importance lives, or relevance, or meaning – because it’s simply the place where artworld lives. Art and artworld aren’t the same thing.

Before I get much further, I should describe how art, the word, got emptied of any specific meaning. If you don’t think so, then just ask any artworld denizen to define it quickly, and watch the tongue-tying begin. It’s necessary to explain how that happened, because despite what I’ve just said above, a lot of people still think of art as exclusive to museums and galleries - which is to say, art and artworld actually are the same thing. But starting about 150 years ago, art really dedicated itself to discovering it’s own borders, and by the time the dust cleared, it turned out that there were no borders – no hurdles, no barriers, no walls. And in that great expanse, the more we looked for art, the more we found.

The first real move towards figuring that out was impressionism, followed quickly by post-impressionism, then fauvism, cubism, expressionism, De Stijl, and so on and so on, at an increasingly dizzying pace. Modernism is described as the era of the Isms, and really it’s impossible to know how many came along during that time, but certainly it was in the hundreds. The upshot of all of this exploration was the realization sometime in the 1980’s that pretty much all avenues had been explored, and the only thing left to do was to make work pointing that out. The result of that realization gave us the last Ism in a long line of them: postmodernism. By that time, many of the proceeding things, from as far back as dada, up through earthworks, social practice, and a whole lot else, had moved things way beyond a particular venue, medium, or discipline. The final kicker in the whole search for borders thing was to realize that all the new avenues to be discovered in the future wouldn’t really have to convince anyone that they were art, like the old one’s had to. In other words, the battles that abstract painters waged, or minimalists, or performance artists, or even photographers, just to be considered art, would no longer be necessary. That's because art that challenges whether or not it's even art, as a conceptual approach, has by now become orthodoxy. You want to be a cook at your opening? That’s great. Do you just want to hire actors to greet gallery goers at the door? Excellent! How about making the lights turning on and off for your museum show? Yes please! Let’s give that one the Turner Prize. (Those are three of my favorite artists btw). The famous quote by Donald Judd, uttered in the early 70’s, about how art is whatever an artist says it is, has come true in practice: art has not only literally left the building, (those being museums and galleries), but it has left the studio as well. It re-appears there on occasion of course - art comes and goes as it pleases, free of any specific address - but wherever it goes, it’s only a visitor, not a permanent resident of anywhere.

Meanwhile, possibly because of some kind of autosuggestion built in to the name, art and artworld have gotten hopelessly tangled. People have tried to pin art on the artworld alone, while at the same time denying or diminishing art as a part of other genres. Here is the philosopher George Dickie, outlining what he calls the ‘Institutional Theory’ of art: “The primary function of the Artworld is continually to define, validate, maintain, and reproduce the cultural category of art, and to produce the consent of the entire society in the legitimacy of the artworld's authority to do so. The Artworld is distributed through a network of institutions (schools, museums, galleries, commercial market systems, and professions), all of which participate in constructing a global, international system or network of networks for Art. The Artworld is thus part of our system of professions, and many parts of the artworld network are now highly professionalized and careerist.”

In Dickie’s definition, art is a thing that springs directly, and solely, from the institution of the art world. This line of thinking defines what I think of as the Invisible Membrane Theory, where art exists only in certain places and contexts. Here’s George Dickie again; “What makes something an artwork is invisible: there's no "there there" outside a position in the artworld network. What makes something an artwork is not an observable property in an artwork itself. The work is a node in a network of forces without which it would be unrecognizable-- literally invisible.”

But the Invisible Membrane Theory has some very obvious problems. For starters, any complete definition of art essentially attempts to make an open ended concept, like art, which is based on the idea of endless revision, into a closed system, where it exists only when it satisfies certain conditions. To close the system is to fundamentally cripple the idea of endless, which means that any revision that happens must do so within the borders of a genre.

But the second thorny problem with the invisible membrane theory is that it’s like saying that beauty only exists within the fashion world, or that intelligence only exists within academia - that these concepts become genre specific. ‘Beauty’ and ‘Intelligence’ are both pretty squirrely concepts to nail down of course, but very few of us would see them as the exclusive property of a specific place or people.

And the same goes for art. In fact, it’s pretty clear that the stuff of art is everywhere - if it wasn’t, than it would be meaningless to encounter it in a museum. It’s the day-to-day experience of living our lives that makes art a possibility, and not the other way around. Before we knew what art was, we knew what living in the world was. That means that art – or the building blocks of it – are everywhere.

But the same can’t be said for artworld. That became clear to me in school, where I was discouraged from pursuing certain things (furniture, utilitarian objects, craft), discouraged from using certain words (illustrative, narrative, vernacular, traditional, regional, artisanal), and even discouraged from living in certain places (anywhere outside of New York, Los Angeles, London, or Berlin).  At the very same time, ironically, I was told how art was a place free of borders, or even rules. That story isn’t exactly wrong – art probably is free of all that - but artworld isn’t. It’s pretty clear which one of the two I was being taught.

Not like I blame school for that. Artworld is actually teachable, like any genre is, while art, (that indefinable thing that floats around indiscriminately), not so much. But the schism between the two really begins when school tries to make them one and the same. The irony is that academically approaching art is like academically approaching free jazz say, or punk rock – good in theory, but rooted in paradox. As soon as there is a pedagogy designed to teach freedom and flexibility, the cognitive dissonance begins. Meanwhile other genres, like craft, or furniture, or glass, already know this, and are content to dispense technical information as part of their training, without calling the results art. Art school on the other hand sees their goal as teaching art, full stop, rather than what it actually is, (or should I say usually is) – artworld.

The other thing that school doesn’t tell you is that artworld exists primarily as a high end, luxury brand for the wealthy. Again, there isn’t anything inherently bad about that; it’s at least logically conceivable that meaning is available for money, and that the most meaning is available for the most money. It’s the conceit of artworld that it can make those distinctions. But it’s illogical to conceive of a situation where the only way to experience meaning is to buy it, because those of us who don’t collect art still manage to have meaningful lives. That means that despite artworld’s heroic effort to commodify art, (and godspeed to you artworld), its success at doing so has been dubious at best. What it’s been hands down brilliant at is finding new exciting versions of artworld. But just like the idea of buying anything intangible, like love, or virtue, or truth, the buying of art is more aspirational then proven - who knows what the hell art is?

That’s how we have arrived at a point in time when using the word art actually confuses things rather than clarifies. If art can be anything, anywhere, via anyone, then it really has no functional meaning. The solution that artworld has come up with to deal with this state of affairs is to install a complex series of gatekeepers, tasked with winnowing out the art from the non-art. Or should I say the artworld from the non-artworld? Meanwhile, as the specialization of artworld increases, due to the influx of a lot of non-artist, academically minded arbiters, the knowledge required to participate in the conversation also increases. But despite that sophisticated chatter, there still is no reliable litmus test for what art is, so that effectively means doubling down on the artworld genre. What else is there really to decide on?

In the 1970’s, the Artist Joseph Beuys described something that he called ‘Social Sculpture’. He emphasized how politics and economics required a humanizing force to make them bearable, and that humanizing force was art. In his view, participating in culture was enough to qualify anyone as being an artist – artistry was required for the greater good of society. His famous sound bite ‘Everyone is an artist’ comes out of identifying this universal need.

The whole thing is a very compelling argument, though Beuys chose to retain the word art – which ironically, he himself did so much to make meaningless. So let’s start over, with a new word: is it culture, or is it artworld? It should be implicit by now that cultural relevance is not bestowed simply because of allegiance to a genre – which is why a movie, a video game, a novel, a You Tube video, or an art show at the Tate Modern might have cultural relevance, but then again, might not. The curious corollary to this is that even if they turn out to not be culturally relevant, they could still be perfectly acceptable examples of artworld. Which is where we run into problems.

Making perfectly acceptable artworld, for an artworld-centric audience, is to really take advantage of the fact that every genre I’ve mentioned is more defined than ever. In fact, our era could really be described as the era of the developed niche, the rabbit hole, the echo chamber. We can disappear into our instagram, our chat rooms, our twitter feed, our blogs.  And before you blame it on the internet, a brief look at history will confirm that the postmodern arc we were already on really was sending it in that direction anyway - the internet just turbocharged it.

Postmodernism is in politics, it’s in art, it’s even in things like science, and sports, and television. Postmodernism was the method by which we fractured narrative down to smaller and smaller bits, deconstructed as it were, and in so doing we created many different stories, rather than just one.

That was a good thing. The arrival of postmodern thought was logical, and necessary. Postmodernism ultimately allowed a lot of voices that weren’t being heard, to have their say, even if it was only in a muted form a lot of the time. Which is why there is still a need today to cast light on dominant forms of power in order to challenge them.

But like anything at all human-related, there were unintended consequences as well.

Different stories means different allegiances. It was once famously said by Daniel Patrick Moynihan that we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts. Now, in the postmodern era, we are finally entitled to our own facts.

Rather than having one story that we agree or disagree with, there are many, a cacophony. Choosing sides in a debate today, on any subject, means retreating into our various bubbles, with facts and studies quoted to support whatever side we want. But how can that be possible if we soberly assess the data in front of us? Easy. A life lived under a constant stream of advertising has made all of us extremely wary of ‘facts’ and ‘studies’. Couple that learned wariness, with a primary human impulse towards emotionally spinning information, and the motivated reasoning begins.

Motivated reasoning is a clinical term by the way - psychologists have studied this phenomenon for years. Motivated reasoning is emotion enabled by data, usually parsed, and often flat out wrong. It’s reasoning not designed to uncover the light, wherever the light might be. It’s reason designed to generate it’s own, and shine it on what we want to see. Voila! The result is a world that makes sense to us emotionally, even if it doesn’t remotely add up intellectually, or factually. And that sets the tone for a postmodern world – the one filled with conspiracy theories, endless political debate that goes nowhere, incredible passions, and equally numbing apathy.  

It’s not surprising that a lot of us have discovered how comfortable it is to stay deeply ensconced in our particular niche. Disappearing up our collective asses is more available to us now than it’s ever been - our warm, safe, comfortable asses. And that’s about as useful as it sounds.

We have cultural problems that need to be addressed that require talking to each other. Not just a few of us, but all of us – our problems span the globe, they span races and creeds and economic strata, and they are devilishly complex. Talking through all these things amounts to more than a political imperative at this point (though our racial dysfunction alone should make that clear), and more than an economic one as well (though billions of us live in squalor), it’s a species survival imperative. Our emergencies are real, and multiplying, even as we retreat from them.

Beuys was basically right – the peculiar super power of culture is that it is able to connect pretty much everybody. We reject that power when we are content to make stuff look like art, and sell it at art fairs - winning at artworld doesn’t equal cultural relevance. Beuys himself was a very committed teacher, and found that to be one of the most important aspects of what he did. He also made stuff for artfairs, ‘natch, because that’s no crime. But he had the presence of mind to understand the difference.

So the real question becomes, how do we learn to poke our heads up from our developed niches/genres every now and then, and maybe even learn to travel freely between them? What is the mechanism for going beyond what we already know and agree with? How do we learn to talk to each other, and maybe more importantly, to listen? How do we learn to be visitors, like art is?