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[nettime] The Death of the Avant-garde in the Attention Economy

[Sculptor Abdulrahman Katanani is one example of the fact that Arab artists are ‘already among us’ (Al Jazeera)] On nettime, Prem Chandavarkar wrote:

These are some speculations that have been bouncing around in my head for some time, particularly with reference to architecture — the discipline I practice — but perhaps having wider implications: Ever since the early stages of the modernist movement (since the second half of the 19th century) artistic innovation has been underpinned by the idea of the avant-garde.

The avant-garde are (to use a term from Thomas Kuhn) paradigm shifters. Their work consists of two facets that operate simultaneously. One is a deep critique of current paradigms of cultural production. And the other is production of artistic work that demonstrates a new paradigm and a new set of possibilities. One cannot privilege either of these facets saying it is primary, and the other derives from it – the relationship between the two is far more complex. However the two always go together. Gradually the works of the avant-garde become accepted and are mainstreamed. But this mainstreaming is subject to displacement by the next generation of the avant-garde. This continuous thread of displacement forms modernism’s alignment with progress and history.

As has been pointed out by Goldhaber, Davenport and others, we are now in an attention economy. If we are in the information age, the one thing that information consumes is attention, and consequently attention becomes a scarce resource. As an economy is substantively affected by those resources that are scarce and important, our lives are now being affected by the quest for attention.

The scarcity of attention is exacerbated by the changing nature of alienation (as defined by Baudrillard). Alienation was earlier characterized by distance — a separation from the normal routines of life. But it is now characterized by an overwhelming proximity to everything. The construction of sheltered spaces for reflection, which were provided by the regular routines of life, are now difficult to come by, and require substantive and sustained effort that few are willing to devote effort to in an attention starved world. Deprived of space for reflection, we face the challenge of being “reduced to pure screen: a switching centre for the networks of influence”.

The twin problems of attention and alienation have created a rupture in the avant-garde. The facet of critique, which requires rigorous attention, does not now receive sufficient consideration. The facet of artistic production receives far greater attention, but tends to be read superficially, focusing on the work’s apparent visuality.

Two major modes of capturing attention are scale and novelty.

Scale involves achieving a size that is difficult to ignore. It is seen in the increasing scale of real estate projects, the wave of corporate consolidation through mergers and acquisitions, and the leveraging of technology to achieve self-referential size (as seen in the global financial services sector).

The impulse to novelty centres on displacing us from the anesthetizing influence of habit, and making us see and notice things.

The avant-garde are now recast as a resource to be mined for the production of novelty. Their work is taken, detached from its critical foundations, and presented for its apparent visual novelty. So one sees architects such as Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid, whose statements early in their careers aligned with an avant-garde identity of iconoclastic rebels, and whose work is now being utilized as vehicles of mainstream branding.

It could be argued that this detachment from critical foundations is a normal process of mainstreaming the avant-garde. However the speed with which it now occurs is significant. In an earlier generation, the first step in mainstreaming the avant-garde occurred through a set of “enlightened” patrons, whose idealism could be aligned with the cultural critique of the avant-garde. For example, if Jawaharlal Nehru hired Le Corbusier to design the new Indian city of Chandigarh, it was because Nehru’s vision of modernism for his newly independent nation could be aligned to Corbusier’s critique of traditional urbanism and the potential he saw in new city forms.

But it is rare to find patrons with this idealism today. The patron of today tends to have motives that are largely commercial rather than idealistic, whose primary request to the artist is “make me noticeable on the global stage”. The resultant quest for novelty makes the disruption between the critique and production of the avant-garde occur with a speed and vehemence that threatens the very status of the avant-garde.

In an earlier era, the engagement of an iconic star avant-garde artist was substantively affected by an ideological alignment with the artist’s ideology. But now the iconic status of the artist, together with the novelty of the work, have become ends in themselves. We are reminded of Daniel Boorstin’s prescient definition that the celebrity in this world of pure image making is to be “a person well known for his well-knownness”.

The impulse to novelty has rapidly diminishing returns, and one struggles to keep balance on an accelerating treadmill of visual stimulation.

Modernist art has centralized the notions of creativity and innovation because it seeks to align with history. Without seeking to either diminish or sideline creativity and innovation, we now must simultaneously seek to align art with timelessness through a quest for authenticity.

Prem

Brian Holmes wrote:

On 01/10/2012 02:39 AM, Prem Chandavarkar wrote:

Modernist art has centralized the notions of creativity and innovation because it seeks to align with history. Without seeking to either diminish or sideline creativity and innovation, we now must simultaneously seek to align art with timelessness through a quest for authenticity.

The dissolution of the avant-garde through media-flashes of innovation and monuments of overwhelming scale is certain. But I wonder if timelessness can be thought, not through any reference to eternity but with the Benjaminian category of Jetztzeit — that is, “now-time”?

I am sure everyone remembers WB’s famous declaration from the Theses on History: “‘History is the object of a construction, whose site is not that of homogeneous and empty time, but one filled with now-time.”

There is currently a rare and excellent article about art in the Arab Spring on the opinion pages of Al Jazeera. The author, Daanish Faruqi, comments on what appears to be a quite spectacular exhibition by Cai Guo-Quiang at the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha. With the “biggest ever” daylight fireworks show composing the central artistic statement, this seems to have exactly those characteristics of scale and innovation you are talking about, Prem. Surely we will all forget this almost instantly!

Faruqi picks up on Hamid Dabashi’s critique of this exhibition for its lack of relevance to the present, and though he doesn’t bother with Walter Benjamin he does offer an insight into where the intensities of the present currently gather:

“Art’s role, as Dabashi correctly describes, is to imagine the emancipatory politics of our impossibilities. To imagine is not to chronicle in minute detail. The artists of the Arab Spring are tasked with simply igniting a spark, of reinjecting the radical imagination into Arab society, through envisioning the utopian possibility of hope and a better life, undergirded by the basic dignity of the Arab people as non-negotiable and sacrosanct.”

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/01/20121612493122450.html

I think the text is really good, check it out. Maybe an actual building full of now-time is currently impossible. Maybe this is a moment for architects who do not build? Who work instead with the grassroots transformation of spaces that have been frozen by capital?

warmly, Brian

Keith Hart wrote:

Very interesting, Prem, thanks. I think of time as both linear and timeless. I have an icon of this idea which I call the T-bar. The crossbar constructs tense as a line from past through present to future. The upright is timeless, the present conceived of as rooted in a continuous past. The two axes intersect in the present which is therefore inevitably both — a movement of difference and always the same. I realise that this does not account for cyclical theories of time, but I think it says a lot about the modern world.

Keith

John Hopkins wrote:

Brian Holmes wrote:

I think the text is really good, check it out. Maybe an actual building full of now-time is currently impossible. Maybe this is a moment for architects who do not build? Who work instead with the grassroots transformation of spaces that have been frozen by capital?

now-time arises in the Self, deeply sourced in incarnate being: be here now. When one or when many are reaching into this source simultaneously, life will richly arise (Rilke’s ‘Ninth Elegy’ “Superabundant being wells up in my heart.”)

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” (also Rilke)

A building as a seemingly static and closed protocol is perhaps not the right metaphor to frame now-time, it would be better to place it in the breath which is a dynamic union of opposites. Dynamism is crucial to being in the moment, following ones own breath is of course a recognized (yogic) path for ‘finding’ the now. The finding of collective breath is accessed through the chanting and singing in the squares and brings the now into the body through the in- and ex-piration.

Better to eat frozen Italian gelato that worry about frozen capital…
Attention to capital allows it to persist.

thanks, Brian…

jh


Jan 15, 17:39
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  1. Links – January 16, 2012 | zota:

    […] [nettime] The Death of the Avant-garde in the Attention Economy […]


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