In June 2018, his health declining as he stepped down as director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst, the curator Okwui Enwezor wrote privately to frieze. He wondered whether museums could still embrace ‘strong, difficult ideas that are not overloaded with extra-sensory manipulation of the public’s sentiments’. He was partly alluding to the misrepresentation and gaslighting that he had experienced at the hands of his institution and the German press. But Enwezor touched on something else, too: an age of rhetorical simpliﬁcation, alarmism and sloganeering; of spectacle, which has marked the decade that now comes to a close.
These issues threaten art more than ever, as Enwezor knew. Attention is the new economy, visibility the new relevance. As I write this, the world is debating whether a social-media company is a publisher or a technology ﬁrm. We get our news on Instagram. The ugly word ‘prosumer’ – another term I associate with the 2010s – rears its head. I maintain that art is not a signpost, just as poems (Stéphane Mallarmé said) are made of words, not ideas. I ask of artists: trouble me with your art, but not your ‘content’.
‘Content’ – from the Latin contentus, ‘contained’, ‘satisﬁed’ – is what we do. Today, discontent edges out content, starting from the brute etymological treason that none of it, nothing, is really contained anymore – artworks, articles, things, people, images move. Content seeps and leaks. At best, it goes ‘viral’. In the rigged democracy of images, everything vies for visibility or risks obsolescence.
Of course, this agon between visibility and disappearance can be vindicated. In Celia Paul’s excellent memoir, Self-Portrait (2019), I admire the way she traces what I see as central tensions to art-making: between artistic devotion (to her own work, to herself) and devotion to others (to her son and to her lover, Lucian Freud).
Selﬁshness and obstinacy are not nice traits in people, though probably necessary for any form of art-making. In Paul’s book, images of containment abound: Freud closing Frank Auerbach’s door; Paul’s ﬁrst tenuous studio; a woman who kept two pet lions at home (they ‘lope casually through the rooms’) and the stink of raw meat in that house.
Are we staying put now or moving around? These past years, nobody was comfortable in their own corner. The default conversation was of cities: cities we live in and cities we don’t, and where to go next that’s better, cheaper, easier. We were, like images, always moving.
This was what the syllables ‘Berlin’ or ‘Mexico City’ or ‘Los Angeles’ signiﬁed for many: shibboleths or shared dreams of escape, transfer, passage, ease. Now, everyone’s tired of talking cities and rents are up anyway, but no one has answered the question of where to go next. The conversation turns from places to structures – ﬁnancial, environmental, legal, museological.
The British artist Juliette Blightman left Berlin a few years ago but, on my desk, I have her book Scripts, Descriptions and Texts 2011–2016 (2018), sent to me last year by Kunsthalle Bern. The book is a fragile inventory, using lists, prose and a few pasted-in images of the artist’s performances and exhibitions in Basel, Berlin, London, New York, Vienna, etc. It’s a chronicle of an artist’s life told through a decade of transit, and the friends, relationships and experiences along the way.
The mobility she commutes seems staggeringly lonely. ‘We forget the place we’re in,’ she writes in Glasgow (26 May 2011). She carries a poster of a London cityscape by J.M.W. Turner, given to her by her mother, who told her she should put it up wherever she goes so she’ll always have a view of home. A few pages later (16 September 2011), the text and anecdote and Turner are back – except now we’re in Plymouth.
By Sunday 30 October 2016, we’re at the Rex movie theatre in Bern. Here, Blightman references an interview between theorist David Joselit and art historian Susanne von Falkenhausen, which I edited and published in frieze d/e. ‘What matters for me is that painting can represent how pictures move in space and time,’ Blightman quotes Joselit.
Von Falkenhausen interviewed Joselit, in New York or New Haven, over the phone from the back room of the frieze office on Zehdenickerstraße. Joselit was co-curating an exhibition called ‘Painting 2.0’ (2015) at Museum Brandhorst in Munich – an extension, told through the medium of painting, of his theorizing of art After Art (2013) and what would happen when images supplanted artistic ‘form’ and the ‘digital’ replaced art itself.
The conversation, as I remember it, was feisty, learned and passive-aggressive. Von Falkenhausen asked: was Joselit re-inscribing painting out of the formalism of Clement Greenberg and into Guy Debord’s ‘society of the spectacle’? Joselit agreed, hesitantly. But why painting? Because there are ‘tactical responsibilities associated with painting that can be redeployed’. ‘Tactics,’ Von Falkenhausen repeated back, icily, eyebrows raised. She had found, in Joselit’s militaristic lexicon, his Achilles’s heel. This wasn’t art theory: it was professional strategy. I’m not sure why we edited out Von Falkenhausen’s response, which says everything, from the interview.
Around this time, I wrote an essay titled ‘Network Fatigue’ (2014) predicting that artists, fed up with network effects and image distribution, would increasingly eschew the transfer of legible ‘images’ and artistic signatures and scale down their engagement to the here-and-now, the temporary, the local or provisional. I had been seeing artists cultivate opacity, privacy, even disappearance. Scenes of friends, I thought, would seem more important than institutional gatekeepers; artists would make systemic exclusion and social atomization a part of their work in an attempt to wrest some autonomy away from the universalizing steam-rolling of the digital gaze.
Was I right? Yes and no. Social media has certainly become a gravitational black hole for images, yet Instagram has a hold on our attentions that I didn’t predict. Meanwhile, the artistic ﬁeld is the most fragmented I have ever seen it: a touch-and-go eclecticism with any zeitgeist, any ‘state of things’, splintering into systemic variousness. Ironically, common ground is only reached on conﬂictual terms: scandal, protest or mudraking. Everyone loves a takedown.
This conﬂictual disposition is the meaning of the lion in the works by Jutta Koether (Hot Rod, after Poussin, 2009) and Nicolas Poussin (Stormy Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe, 1651) mentioned by Joselit in his article ‘Painting Beside Itself’ (2009), which was the key text on painting in the early 2010s. Joselit explains how Koether appropriated Poussin’s painting of the Roman myth of Thisbe and her lover Pyramus, who commits suicide after misattributing her torn veil to a lion. It’s a case of violence (and tragedy) incited by the ‘misreading of visual cues’, in Joselit’s view.
T.J. Clark’s The Sight of Death (2006), which inﬂuenced Koether so much, is a book chronicling the art historian’s desolate-seeming six months looking at two paintings by Poussin in the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. A remarkable entry marked 22 February reads: ‘We are living, I reckon, through a terrible moment in the politics of imaging, envisioning, visualizing […] a regime of visual ﬂow, displacement, disembodiment, endless available revisability of the image, endless ostensible transparency and multi-dimensionality and sewing together of everything in nets and webs.’ The greater the need, then, to ‘suggest what is involved in truly getting to know something by making a picture of it: to state the grounds for believing that some depictions are worth returning to’.
Some pictures are worth returning to. The sense we have today of an endless image proliferation ignores the iconoclasm of our moment of scandals and takedowns. In 2018, the artist Jesse Darling made a series of work about another lion: that of Saint Jerome, a fourth-century Catholic priest who, according to hagiographic belief, befriended a lion in the wilderness by acknowledging that it was hurt (with a thorn in its paw), not angry. Darling’s vision is not conﬂictual, like Koether’s, but reparative. In this story, there is a lesson about art: some pictures are worth returning to, worth making. But doing either ﬁrst requires us to take the thorn out of the lion’s paw.
Main Image: Jesse Darling,Virgin Variations, 2019, installation view, ‘Transcorporealities’, Museum Ludwig, Cologne; photography: Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln / Cologne, Sabrina Walz