August 24, 2010

Transgression, Defanged.

This video reminds me of how transgression has been tamed, domesticated, defanged, commodified. The destruction of musical instruments is a well established method of declaring one's bonafides as a creative radical, we even have a Wikipedia article on the subject, so normative the practice has become. But I always wondered how many Rickenbackers that Pete Townshend had to smash before he had that creeping sense of kitch and betrayal of the revolutionary and transgressive impulse. Of course, I am thinking of our/my visual art world. Chris Burden can only shoot himself in the arm or crucify himself on a Volkswagen so many times, Acconci could only masturbate under the floorboards so often until the act becomes routine and absorbed and thus domesticated into popular culture. One can trace the trajectory of transgression from the scandalously hot to a domesticated cool repeatedly throughout art history. The shock of the new doesn't last so long after all.

It was a problem that I first spotted in grad school in the early nineties. It was about that time that Francis Fukuyama wrote his famous "The End of History and the Last Man", wherein he declared that history has ended, so successful has been the project of liberal democracy. The gods must have been laughing, hubris precedes nemesis as the Greeks were wont to say. Enter Bin Laden. This is what happens when you anticipate utopia: history ends and so does art, there are no more pages to write, no subsequent chapters to add, all the authors are dead, the new is caput and the universe cools into a dissipated inert light-less gas.

But art lives on anyway and utopia remains a figment of the imagination (reify paradise and thus one makes monsters... why is it that we continually mismanage the boundary between imagination and reality? Perhaps this is the prime method of the ruthless ones among us?). This is the central problem of our time, especially for my/our art world: how do you revolt on revolution? My bet is that you start by questioning the assumptions of the people who taught you in the first place. Shake it down and see what falls out. This is how modernity (in the largest sense, beyond all the post's and neo's) stays new: to be modern is to reconcile the life you are living with the things you are making. This is an Oedipal act (Oedipus can mean so many things, I am writing here of a revolt on the father, of how each generation has to recast the world in the light of today's experience, to question our inheritance and modify it to suit the life we are living). Unless we do this as artists, our transgression will be as radical as a puppy mouthing a child's hand. Sure, the teeth are as sharp as needles, but isn't that puppy sooooooo cute?


Posted by Dennis at August 24, 2010 3:17 AM

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