doom and gloom

2008 seems to be the year of despair in contemporary art. I keep coming across exhibitions about uncertainty, failure and futility. Valerie Imus first brought it to my attention with her exhibition, Hopeless and Otherwise at Southern Exposure this past spring.

Recently, critic Peter Schejdahl wrote that the art world is “Feeing Blue” (New Yorker, August 4, 2008 ) in a review of After Nature at the New Museum:

Something is happening in artists’ studios: a shift of emphasis, from surface to depth, and a shift of mood, from mania to melancholy, shrugging off the allures of the money-hypnotized market and the spectacle-bedizened biennials circuit. (In fact, the underappreciated recent Whitney Biennial hinted at the mutation.) It’s a fashion auditioning as a sea change….

against happiness eric g wilson
Likewise, in publishing, it couldn’t be a better time for a book about melancholy. The graphic design of the book’s cover (an un-happy face rendered only with type and a flat field of color) is brilliant, but I’m afraid that the premise sounds suspect. Like the artist-character on NBC’s Heroes whose “super power” is shooting heroin and seeing psychic visions, the book seems to perpetuate the artist-as-suffering-genius myth.

While I welcome the return of sincerity over irony, I’m wary of politically-charged contemporary art accompanied by moralizing from on high. For example, in a recent round table discussion about Bay Area art, one’s birthplace, year of migration to the Bay Area, and knowledge of local histories were occasionally treated like forms of currency. They became special statuses. And special status plus basic political frameworks equals very easy critical positions, but not necessarily good or interesting art. There has to be a payoff.

This past summer, Smack Mellon‘s exhibition, There is no synonym for hope, seemed focused on uncertainty and failure, but importantly, it also acknowledged “the interrelationship of hope and failure.” Yes, that is the productive dialectical tension I’ve been talking about!


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