Last month, I published a DigBoston editorial (“Why So Much Cultural Rehash?”) that proposed that the decades-long economic crisis for working people in American cities like Boston is leading to the production of art (music, etc.) that recycles old tropes rather than creating new ones. I then invited people interested in the Hub’s regional arts scene to send their thoughts on the matter to the Dig for publication. Here’s another response from a local arts maven.
#5 LETTER FROM CHRIS HUES
I’m the Arts & Culture Editor of Bostonhassle.com. I am also a poet, artist, journalist, musician, and visual artist. I am, however, also unemployed. I am only stating this so that the reader at large can take what I am about to say with a grain of rocksalt.
After rereading your Cultural Rehash piece and the responses after that came after, I feel obligated to throw my interpretation on contemporary art or otherwise into the proverbial ring.
I do not think I am being off-base in saying that art is an egoistic endeavor. Not only is it an egoistic act, “capital A” Art, has been, as we all know, put to negative and harmful aims. This kind of art takes the form of propaganda art and films, to the activities of the futurists, to just disgusting people in art, who are known to be murderers and rapists as well as artists.
Again, I’m not going off base in saying this, nor am I trying to offend anyone. I’m merely stating this to say that both, downright nasty people express themselves through art but also that art is an industry, just like anything else.
So, what we witnessed in the 20th century, as art making was democratized along with a massive population boom and the wellspring of consumer (and not) information technologies, was a concept of art that involved a dramatic destabilization of sorts, of the author, writer, artist, or performer. This change over the course of the 20th century was in response to centuries of highly patronized art made exclusively for religious or political purposes. Now we are in a period wrought by the depoliticization movement of art, the war on terror that started soon after, and just the total mindfuck that is 21st century culture.
The continued disparities that exist in our culture are worth restating just to maintain some level of sanity: Humanity and planet Earth are in a chicken fight to death, Trump is president, and Obama’s legacy as a centrist adds disillusionment to a culture already suffocated by the hands of neoliberalism, endless war, and global unrest and famine. The perversities and products of the failed system of modern life here in Boston are laid bare before us daily. Empty condominiums and skyscrapers spring up while people who experience homelesssness are met with ever shrinking human rights, capitalism still gnashes its teeth day after day, and we aren’t even close to having universal basic income.
Not to go all critics on critics on critics here, but often times the art and press institutions have to shine a light back on themselves to ask what we ourselves can and should do better on a daily basis. This is a difficult task, and one that I endeavor in. Oh yeah, and I’m mostly unpaid for this work. But I do it because I believe this work needs to be done.
So, may I be a living example of scepticism extending to our institutions, no matter how much goodwill they spout. Let’s think however, of what in my view is one of the greater examples of extending scepticism to the art establishment in the 20th century. One that had dramatic cultural influence and was a movement that dramatically destabilized who and what the artist could become. The Situationist International was an art movement in France during the 1950s and 1960s whose ideas, more or less directly, led to the events of 1968 that led to significant social changes in France. It is striking that their approach to art was almost entirely textual and reality based (save the occasional psychogeography map here and there). In this view, so radical a movement may be crucial to begin to address the actual disparities that exist in the 21st century, not only in Western countries, but worldwide.
However, let us also look at the scholarship surrounding arts role in the Arab Spring. In danger of oversimplifying, it is evident now that, in this context, art and its strivings are seen as constant struggles and its principles need to be tirelessly maintained.
Like any good journalist and artist, one must extend scepticism to its further limits in order to speak truth to power and bring upon some sort of social change. It is through this scepticism that one may find the indignance to fight for what they believe in. Artists and writers need to lead the way, regardless of how neatly their message can fit onto the page or in the gallery walls.
In ultimate response to your question of why there’s so much cultural reshash, and I hope I am not being redundant or overly pessimistic in saying this: With rehashing comes a hopelessness in the face of an exponential culture that in effect gives one little to no privacy and in its place is a highly alienated and despairing way of life. Because of this, we are doomed to repeat our past. For this is all we have to hold on to in a society that in effect offers no hope of escape.
In my view, in lieu of these circumstances, the best art is highly performative, lasts for a short time for a specific, fortunate audience, and can be swept under the rug by the art establishment, mainstream press, or the state and be forgotten as fast as it happened. I am constantly wowed by performances in underground venues that come and go in a blink of an eye, their nonreplicability, a cornerstone of their aesthetic and response to a world where everything is copied and replicated.
If art is to be a revolt against this reality, then social change needs to reflect the massive movements of people away from oppression and alienation. Art and society are at a disconnect, and the critics, directors, and curators, seen as sympathetic victims of capitalism, don’t always do their jobs (if they ever do.)
Society needs to be moved and restructured, but what would that mean for the art market? Imagining what a truly democratic art market is could lead the way to a truly democratic way forward for society at large. This reimagining could be what saves art from stagnating in centrism.
Chris Hues is a poet, artist, journalist, and arts and culture editor of bostonhassle.com.