Where Does Art Go
End of the World?
jakec / 07012020
The country is dying. Like so many of these moments, it was predicted and preventable. That we have a corrupt and criminally negligent government is now beyond doubt. What to do? Everyone in my vicinity is captivated. Every minute is spent watching and reading the live feeds, reposting donation advice, compiling links to practical methods of help. Normally we would be watching movies and TV and listening to music and reading but all the creativity in the world seems insufficient compared to even a Facebook post by a friend listing “some things you can do at home to feel better”.
The immediacy of the destruction is such that all usual art right now feels totally alienated from the situation. It’s the same anxiety widely felt after Trump’s election where suddenly everything in the years leading up to it looked and sounded like neoliberal daydreaming and terribly passive while everything in its wake felt cheap and cynical for how inevitably it related back to that moment.
How did we let it get this far?
Art bears some responsibility. Australian art has failed to embody and communicate the existential threat of the last decade of conservative government. Maybe we’ve even failed to communicate it to each other. Even though so much of Australian art has depicted the native flora and fauna, even though all Australian children grow up with stories of the Dreaming and Indigenous history, we’ve taken this national heritage for granted. Instead of galvanising principles at the dawn of catastrophic destruction, art has more or less reflected the white and bourgeois imagery of our tourism ads.
The Australian cultural mythology of comradery and fortune provides a framework empowered with the ability to easily sublimate anything less than outright rejection or contempt. By not elevating anger or rudeness or brutality, we’ve ceded the artistic space to pragmatic niceness. Peaceful organisation, collectivism, and community spirit are easily coopted by the existing colonial narrative. In contrast, it’s Indigenous voices which have disrupted the climate change conversation with genuine fury and revolt, led by the real fear and anger that as some of the most vulnerable Australians they’re therefore some of the first to feel the material impact. When I was still on Twitter, it was these voices negating the narratives of optimism that resonated far more than appeals to statistics and historicity.
When the paradigm is positive, affirmative art - feckless and incapable of addressing the terror of the present situation - does it have a moral imperative to change? As artists or audience, what role does art have at the end of the world?
The moral dimensions of art are invoked in two ways: moral production and moral commentary. The circumstances of something’s production might be moral but its content not — presumably Tyler, the Creator’s Goblin was made under fairly egalitarian conditions, but the single ‘She’ shocked in 2011 for its misogynistic fantasies. On the other hand, something might have a moral message but its production is immoral — killing a bull for a performance may be immoral but inciting the audience to connect with the grotesqueries of slaughter may be a positive ethical cause.
There is a third way of invoking the moral dimension of art: moral form, i.e. not its commentary or the circumstances of its creation, but its purposeful evoking of certain feelings via its structure. At the end of last year, an old Russian video game called Pathologic had a critical resurgence via a two-hour long video essay by Harris “hbomberguy” Brewis. Pathologic is an early survival game in which your doctor character has to solve the medical and bureaucratic mysteries of its stifling small town setting within 12 days. In a series of reviews cited in hbomberguy’s video, Rock, Paper, Shotgun critic Quintin Smith wonders whether Pathologic is “a game” or “art”. This dichotomy is obviously false now, but was less obviously false in 2008 when Smith’s reviews were published. Smith describes the games industry as “obsessed with the idea of ‘fun’,” therefore the paradigm was that to be a “game” an experience had to be “fun”. Smith says that Pathologic “is not a game” because Pathologic “could not ever be described as fun.” Enlightened by 11 years of critical discourse, we can say that of course Pathologic is a game, that a game is art, and that as Smith predicted, games/art “have incredible untapped potential in the field of negative emotions.”
Both Smith and hbomberguy emphasise that Pathologic is a triumph not just because what it has to say is interesting, but because the way it says it is constructed so that the audience feels it. “The point is that Pathologic fearlessly wields desperation, brutality, hopelessness, exhaustion, cruelty, even ignorance and pain, and, if you can stomach it, the result is phenomenal.” The mechanics, sound design, colour palette, level design, and every other element of its form deliberately cultivate a disquieting experience. Whether you play video games or not, this is a useful example of the moral imperative of form. When enjoyment, happiness, “fun” have such an intimate relationship with complacency, maybe more art has a responsibility to be disquieting, whether or not the content of its commentary has any relevance to the particular moment. Just the quality of continuing to remind the audience of their anxiety can be moral because it refuses to assuage the audience of their responsibility for engagement.
On the other hand, last year’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was allegedly irreverent in rewriting the murder of Sharon Tate. Revenge fantasies run through all of Tarantino’s films but since Inglourious Basterds, he’s taken revenge on real life villains. Hitler and Goebbels are riddled with bullets in a theatre, American slavers get gunned down by the wagonload, and the Manson family never get their hands on an all-American sweetheart thanks to the deeds of a few good men standing in the right places at the right times. In form, these films are comforting. They’re exaggerated, funny, and brutal in a way that feels moralistic, because the ones whom violence visits are undeniable Bad Guys.
But where Pathologic and art like it uses its structure to reject and revolt its audience, Once Upon A Time… etc. uses its structure to placate. It isn’t just narratively comforting, it is structurally comforting, while through its commentary claiming that the solution is individual and not structural after all. If only there were a couple more badasses, vigilantes, heroes in the world, everything would be different — and better. In reality, those people do exist. Many of them are currently risking their lives as firefighters. But the structures of power, which remain unaddressed by Tarantino, barely even see fit to pay them. What is meant to be cathartic is instead a hollow fantasy. In the face of that, the fallacy that individual heroism can overcome structural poison seems not just inept, but actively immoral.
Conventional protest art - especially music - has also failed, delivering its theses in essayish verses and monotonous candor. The explicitly political drive seems to make artists turn out work that’s both too contrived and too obvious. A typical example: Kero Kero Bonito tried to make an EP about climate change last year, venturing some of their prettiest music and most embarrassing lyrics to date. In contrast, their contemporaries Death Grips released a 30 minute EP of splintered, disorienting noise which feels infinitely closer to the truth of our anxious situation. (Actually between Death Grips, Marnie Stern, Face Tat and Hella, Zach Hill is the drummer for the apocalypse.) Slogans are for rally signs. What’s needed is art that rejects the obvious and comforting, not connecting with the audience, but committing to disconnect the audience from the fugue state of luxury.
In 2011, Mark Fisher wrote that if the production of culture feels impotent and disconnected, “it might be good for politics. For if music and subculture no longer act as effective mechanisms for controlled desublimation, converting disaffection into culture which can in turn be transformed into entertainment... then discontent can appear in a rawer form.”
But Fisher also marks that “It isn’t that music is lagging behind politics; the politics itself is missing.” Which bears out nine years later, although slightly less so, in the present situation: while the LNP predictably fuck up their response to the humanitarian crisis happening in their backyard, the Opposition Leader was comforting the coal mining industry which led us into this disaster. Where there’s some hope is in the increased visibility of the Greens in the last few elections but there remains public anxiety about their capacity to lead.
What’s left in the absence of politics is bottom-up change, i.e. activism, spectacle, aggression and antagonism. An art to match is required, one which embodies protest rather than limply asserts it. What is clear is that the celebratory, positive art of comfort and indulgence can no longer match the current moment. Fantasies of escapism and reassurance can’t resonate when the world is on fire. What’s needed is discomfort, anxiety, alienation, and rage — an art of constant reminding that you will never find a home in this world without fighting for it.