beyond the saccharine
Art and threat: untaming humanism
can be like that roadside wreck we just have to watch. Maybe
that's why we put up with galleries whose constant drone of
visual displays seem to be running on a track: we're waiting
for the 20-car pile-up.
That said, one has to ask: What is the difference
between gallery hopping and Nascar racing? Mainly it's the lack
of decisive rules or a definite outcome, ringing truer to our
daily life. Even beauty is a form of threat the threat
of ideals, seduction, unwieldy utopian possibilities and the
penultimate threat of being perceived as merely cosmetic.
Culturally, ostentatious displays of resources
can be a harbinger of a future that is unsustainable, or a way
to counteract an overly safe set of expectations like
watching the instrument panel. Humanity craves these displays
of threat and, much like an itch when scratched, transforms
to become a compulsive pleasure incorporated into our neural
These threats as visual disruptions create a salient
form of aesthetic need. In the woods, for example, we can experience
an honest-to-goodness need to flee from that mama bear running
toward us. This prompts a fight-or-flight response, precipitated
by visual stimulus and most humans typically feel more
alive for surviving the ordeal. In less urgent terms, city dwellers
need to see a new action movie or some great art downtown to
break up the urban/suburban monotony.
The monotony of our jobs, daily routine and overall
trivializing of individual existence is just as threatening
as mama bear but, on a subtler level as it involves our spare
time, identity and the diminishing returns we get from disposable
entertainment. The thing about great art is it can be revisited
without exhausting its contemplative and provocative value.
Often, the most effective art challenges us to
be more perceptive through its veiled and implicit threats.
The better art can still sting our consciousness for months
and decades after a viewing. The best art is even capable of
launching a sneak attack from memory or physical presence
no matter how familiar the image has already become. Thus, even
though floods, volcanoes and asteroids are pretty threatening,
it is humankind's "success" that threatens civilization
The Greeks called this constant conflict "Eris."
Trojan Horse? Paul Gauguin's "Where Do We Come From?
What Are We? Where Are We Going?" (1897)
They also made an important distinction: For Eris
to occur the opposing sides had to be evenly matched. In art
the threat is often handcuffed physically but not visually
allowing Eris to occur via a safe distance.
In contrast, that angry mama bear has the odds
stacked in her favor. Nobody is going to stand in line for that
experience. Thus, art is a good way to contemplate the hopes
and fears surrounding the partial utopia we create. Art asks
us to perceive if or how we are painting our civilization into
Where do we come from?
This is nothing new. The engines of novelty and threat have
been at work throughout the most ambitious breakthroughs in
20th-century art: Kandinsky's full abstraction, Picasso's pathos,
Abstract Expressionism's primordial gusto, Dada's poignant meaninglessness,
Pop's bright banality, Minimalism's almost protestant directness,
Arte Povera's insistence on humble materials and Earthwork's
sentinels were all necessary.
Each development fused the nagging conscience
of humanity's fears to the individual's pleasure in accepting
the disquiet they visually embodied. It's like a pearl an oyster
creates to incorporate that irritant into its inner shell.
For example, analytical Cubism's sharp, efficient,
removed and cold style refined and foretold of the speed and
increasingly impersonal nature of the new industrial world.
Warhol's "Marilyn" later recast this cultural itch
as a reduction and elevation of the individual to commodity.
Thus, art can act as cultural benchmark or talisman in regarding
real or perceived threats.
That is precisely why 19th-century academic painting
became outmoded. It was an allegorical art, which was often
purposefully designed to buttress and resolve cultural status-quo
ideals, not to threaten them. It was kitsch as propaganda and
the complete opposite of our current age, where we juggle the
prospects of constant or instant information. We also struggle
to accept the responsibilities of a threatened environment and
our role in complex ecological systems. Suddenly nothing is
Postmodernism, Western civilization's last official
lens on the world, was reductive and doesn't quite fit our current
discursive needs. We have too many things that require action
these days. Postmodernism was also heavy handed on the theoretical
side, obsessed with signs or signifiers. It never really got
down to the business of answers, or at least movement towards
them. Somehow it just lacked resolve.
Essentially, Postmodernism was Western civilization
coasting on its momentum and driven by a dazzling market. The
art was there to support the discourse and replenish the market
exuberance often unjustified by the actual work. Basquiat
and Serra are notable exceptions, though, since threat is central
to their work. Still, I challenge anyone to explain what, if
any, insight David Salle added beyond James Rosenquist's masterworks.
Warhol's "Self-Portrait" (1986)
Overall, the last 30 years were great for aesthetes
like Arthur Danto (The Nation), but his voice has been overrun
by the powerful personal subjectivity of critics like Dave Hickey
and Matthew Collings. It was as if Postmodernists thought "hope,"
one of the core aspects of humanity, could be rationalized out
of existence. Good luck with that one. The individual still
During its still-ongoing development, Postmodernism
often overused its best tool, deconstruction, essentially dissecting
any definable trait while neglecting to reinsert the findings
into the larger and messier contexts.
The effectiveness of a theory can be judged by
the results it produces. This abuse of deconstruction essentially
wheeled out thousands of interesting lab experiments, otherwise
known as Postmodernist "theme" shows. It was a time
when interesting was good enough especially if the result
was an exposé on marginalization and victimology. It
became forced. But let's not throw the baby out with the bath
Deconstruction is insightful when reinserted into
broader contexts. It just isn't too useful when studying trust,
hope, beauty, threat and all the other things that keep civilization
together and working.
Postmodernism presupposes that things are broken
and rambles like some old codger who hates everything with a
touch of wistful nostalgia. Yet it is obvious some real important
things do work, giving humanity its resilience. Why hide from
What are we? Where are we going?
In a new century (just like the last one) we require something
more, a need for direction, not a destination. The "now"
requires an additive, layered perspective that incorporates
complexity. Yet it must be unlike Modernism's "damn the
consequences" optimism or Postmodernism's broad, politically
correct, top-down sociological brush strokes.
In an information age, we know the better and
more detailed the data, the more accurate the model. It's a
place where the individual is the main engine of distinction
and detail. Also, any new discourse needs to be more conscious
of causality and interrelated systems.
We are in a building mode for a new way to look
at the world, and I'm proposing a holistic but rooted approach
based on primal needs (food, water, shelter, locomotion, mating,
etc.) and core perceptual mechanisms (optics, biological releasing
mechanisms, morphemes, posture, touch, taste, clothes, etc).
Focusing on the basic needs and tools of our existence
can cut across cultural lines and explore the detailed machinations
of humanity, examining its consequences, distinctions, triumphs
and directions. It resembles anthropology of the present and,
potentially, the eternal. We now have the opportunity to grab
the rudder and steer ourselves into what kind of human race
we are to become.
Right now there is no definitive development,
there is no official paradigm, and it has made the art world
and other cultural entities very reflective, if not edgy. It
is the healthy threat of change. I think of it as an opportunity
to take stock and get back to basics while on the Industrial
Revolution's roller coaster.
Among the essentials, we are looking at the way
art relates to us as an organism, both culturally and individually,
instead of taking it for granted or as an excuse for jargon.
Since threat is one of the key atavistic or essential things
an organism must continually identify for survival, I propose
the new art discourse can use threat as a starting point.
Three artists, Richard Serra, Damien Hirst and
Takashi Murakami, owe their relevance to threat and their mastery
of it. All three have a way of building Trojan Horses filled
with the wiliest of Greeks. Typically, the more relevant the
art, the more exceptional the horse and the more dangerous
the Greeks contained in its belly.
Serra's "Torqued Elipses"
Art can capture the subtler, more insidious threats we humans
pose to ourselves. For example, Richard Serra's huge, tilted
metal sculptures threaten to fall on us, asking us to face our
categorical faith in architectural engineers who design steel
skeletons for high-rises and bridges.
By removing us from the bridge or building, Serra
forces us to face the essence of big, heavy steel and gravity.
We rely on both but they can be deadly. The threat
is just the beginning.
Serra also transmutes these elements into the
sublime by creating sculpture that has rigorous control and
exacting symmetry in its form. Visually, this implies that intelligence
and craftsmanship went into the work and therefore we can expect
it not to kill us. The effect is just like living through a
fender-bender: our mind speeds up while perception of time slows
down. Thus, while in the presence of a Serra, the viewer will
have more perceptual time to be aware. Real threat and serious
art should share this perceptual effect; it means we are paying
you threatening me?
Hirst: Romance with sharp teeth
Another artist who deals in threat with beguiling clarity
is Damien Hirst.
A Brit, Hirst is known for vitrines (display containers)
filled with sliced-up animals and his love of medical paraphernalia.
Hirst's most successful work is a massive vitrined shark suspended
His perfect title, "The Impossibility of
Death in the Mind of Someone Living," proves the effect
of the work was not accidental. By enshrining a cold-blooded
super-predator and agent of death in a perpetual specimen display,
Hirst distills the primal threat of nature and humanity's own
garish potential to analyze and grid.
Leave it to a Brit to try framing the tiger's
"fearful symmetry." Also, the shark is whole
not sliced like many of Hirst's animals. Thus, the work acknowledges
the Ozymandius-like futility of our own actions and alleged
greatness as a species. We can't dissect something like our
mortality; it is a more holistic enterprise.
This particular vitrine creates a sneak attack
by taking the fish out of the water, thereby decontexualizing
its former deadliness to highlight and implicate its now very
human analytical threat. Hirst's vitrine exposes the very human
traits of vanity, overanalyzation and limited lab-like environments
whose results might be based on oversimplified information and
Finally, the tank of formaldehyde seeks to cheat
death, as if it were merely a cosmetic condition. There is ridiculousness
to the vitrine, which reinforces and mirrors the "impossibility"
aspect as well. When definitive analysis becomes impossible
that, too, is a threat.
Murakami: Cultures and spores
Japanese sensation Takashi Murakami's art has combined the threat
of his culture's pervasive past and current reality into something
like the unholy union of Edgar Allan Poe and Hanna Barbera's
Schmoo cartoon character.
In particular, Murakami's forests of cartoon mushrooms
covered with swarms of impassive eyes and shark-like rows of
triangular teeth seem like a marketing campaign that has gone
cannibalistic more likely to bite than entice the shopper.
The relentlessness of the eyes speaks of the delicate
dance of vitality and stability that cultures and their individuals
must dance together.
In this instance, Murakami's ever-watching eyes
act like a panoptic prison warden: tyrant and provider both.
The homogenized eyes mirror how the Japanese culture pressurizes
its individuals to fit in, co-opting the windows of the individual
souls themselves into a communal mutation of interconnected
This disquiet has to do with Japan's swift and
artificial adoption of non-indigenous cultures. The Japanese
adopted the technology, design, look and some institutions both
of Western and Chinese culture without really assessing the
future costs of introducing non-native species.
Murakami's mushrooms certainly invite comparison
to nuclear blast clouds, the most spectacular consequence of
adopting Western Imperialism. His work is sneaky, emphasizing
the pervasive threat of identity rather than the occasional
monstrous visitations of Godzilla, Japan's last nuclear spokesmodel.
Murakami calls this omnipresent leveling of art,
fashion, film, music, etc., into one interchangeable discourse:
What could be more threatening to a three-dimensional
creature or hierarchical culture than a Super Flat landscape,
where the dog of Western civilization marketing
has gone feral in the East. This is historical, but Murakami's
work addresses the evolving phenomenon in medias res.
The words of both Plato and Confucius are out
of their depth when searching for answers to Japan's identity
crisis. Murakami has put a historical exclamation point on an
essential question: What is to become of Japan?
His art threatens that it might not change very
much at all.
Who is afraid of the big bad Art?
All three of these artists are more likely to hold up to history
because their threats hit on both a personal and cultural level.
Cultures rely on individuals to instigate and navigate their
collective hopes and fears by transforming threat into a kind
of systemic consciousness.
These threats become benchmarks, like Serra's
time-bending gravity, Hirst's romance of the lurid and Murakami's
ability to bite the culture that feeds him.
Threat is essential if pleasures beyond the saccharine
are to be attained. Threat is what keeps civilizations from
becoming some pupa in a cocoon feeding on itself with incestuous
thought, limiting its ability to adapt. Threat is the prime-motivating
agent: don't think for a second it isn't important to the art
Postscript: Since these ideas have been of
prime interest to me for the last 10 years, I deliberately left
out any reference to the Sept. 11 attacks. Threat isn't some
passing fad, it is just a fact of life.