In 1990 I was to see for myself a performance by Laurie Anderson, essentially the tour for her, Strange Angels, CD. It was at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, and was titled, “Empty Places.” Empty, perhaps as a nod to all that had gone missing, and the feelings which remained. A past she longed for but could no longer locate. Strange Angels would hold a seminal place in the Anderson oeuvre. It encapsulated the darker days of the late 80’s where the AIDS crisis, Reaganomics, New Age ideation, and Americana were cocooned in song. In this work she points to Walter Benjamin through her song The Dream Before. “...history is an Angel being blown backwards into the future...history is a pile of debris. And the Angel wants to go back and fix things to repair the things that have been broken. But there is a storm blowing from Paradise. And the storm keep blowing the Angel backwards into the Future. And this storm, this storm is called progress.” This teleological Angel who understands we can only perceive where we are in turning back and seeing from where we came. Laurie sang about Angels who were mowing down her lawn, and of the Visitors, the ones who in her absence "...ate all the grapes."
It was a time for the Unknown:
...for Communion, a N.Y. Times non-fiction bestseller, was the story of the Visitors who haunted its author Whitley Strieber. Strieber would write, “...This book is about forming a new relationship with the unknown. Instead of shunning the darkness, we can face straight into it with an open mind. When we do that, the unknown changes. Fearful things become understandable and a truth is suggested.” The unknown is the place to where we are continually aimed. It is in continual search for the scryer, the soothsayer, the missing card of the tarot.
…for the past lives of Shirley MacLaine. Out on a Limb, would delve into the far personal past. A past one could consider at great odds with the ego, concepts of the self, and how the great past effects one presently. “...I found myself gently but firmly exposed to dimensions of time and space that heretofore, for me, belonged to science fiction or the occult...people progress according to what they’re ready for.”
…for the Great Plague that was decimating young gay men, the chaos laid bare in its wake, and a government unwilling to do anything to help.
By 1990 Andy Warhol had passed, along with Jean-Michel Basquiat who was the great hope of the Art World. Left were David Salle. Eric Fischl. Clemente. Kostabi.
Somewhere Anselm Kiefer was smelting lead into books, and Rene Ricard was searching for words with which to elaborate an insight toward a Julian Schnabel painting.
Laurie Anderson stepped out of this conversation altogether, and in performative style presented her works with a perceptively vaudeville render, albeit with help from a progressive IT department, and electrical sound-making machines. Presenting the looping of drum beats, words, violin phrases, and repetitious video-imagery upon a screen. Her loops were not unlike the circular drool from a stir stick dipped into a can of paint, held in the hand of Jackson Pollock. Drips and drools that were maneuvered not onto a canvas mounted to the wall, or resting in an easel, or vertically propped on bricks just inches above the floor and leaned back, but laid instead on the floor itself. Mr. Pollock hunched over and looking down, denied the horizon in grounding these works to the earth. Canvas was un-stretched and un-gessoed. No brush stroked its surface. It looked neither forward, nor back. It was working within the realm of the ineffable, the ultra-thin, the omni-present. Pollock disposed altogether the technology of tools the painter has, through his abdicated mis-use of their typical handling. And yet one only has to look at his paintings to see him at work, performing them, forcing his past production into the present as the viewer visually traces line after line, endlessly searching for a beginning, a middle, an end.
But what story is Pollock telling us? You know the one. The one he told once he found it, over and over again. Searching. Searching. More and more in each new canvas laid upon the floor, circular loops re-joining one another in an unceasing event and ever present. A terminal present. The one critical theorist and philosopher Thierry DeDuve informs us we are now living in. Inescapable, like this universe. The one Whitley Strieber suggests is coffin-like; an endless unknown forever. A present which is changing once held in our hands, but instantly slipping through the fingers. A kind of mercurial-sand. Like the story of a continual past Shirley experiences, forever recognizing she has already arrived as a result of the force of this. But arrived where? Like the video loop Laurie presents of a subway car running by. Running by. Over and over again. Never arriving or actually leaving a place. Like our society. Like the past we are fraught to experience again, but which is gone. Lost. An America we just can’t find. Hiawatha’s dream. And what remains is a sense of foreboding vertigo.
How did we get here-there? From the 50’s: Pollock’s day, to the late 90’s, and how has this fed into the interminable present of 2020 in which we are stationed, here in the burgeoning, infantile, sickly, new century? The progression from moon landing up to now has been nearly nil were it not for iPhones and Twitter accounts. We have not escaped the Kuiper Belt, or so conspiracy theorists denying a moon landing would have us believe; conspiracy theorists who led the pack to the fake news phenom of a narcissistic delusional idiocracy, a President birthed from the sad inbred cousin of reality television.
Popularity is an unstable but malleable foundation for democracy. Popularity is a pop-music audience, and is evidenced with record sales. If democracy is the goal of the All, then the All can not entertain needs of speciality within the individual. Democracy is the outgrowth of the popular need, servicing the needs of the many, with aims for the good of all, and not just the majority. This is an impossible goal, for the majority can only service itself and not the All. The All has an inability to agree upon what is good, and can only at best reflect into the past for considerations of what the good may or may not have been. It is the present which invades an ability to establish a detached judgement perceptible of clarity, for we are fluid within the river of time. Good has to consider change, for good is only a passing ideology, it is transient and non-local. Made up of waves and not of particles. It is continual. Democratic formulae is particle driven, and as such significantly more difficult to corral into existence due to its nature. It is specific to the individual, and seeks to transform the particle into a wave, a cohesion that considers the past as prominently affixed with the future. And so in this format, good can only be a reflexive observation. It is not an experiential figure in present living. We can look back and together agree; “That was a good meal. That was a good harvest. That was a good rainy season. That was a good year for hunting. That was a good year for peaches. That was a good friendship. That was a good political movement. That was a good school system.” We cannot however agree, while currently situated, on a good. Perhaps at best we can agree upon a bad. “This doesn’t feel right. This movie is awful. This book is boring. These french-fries are stale.” Our terminal present requires we make an argument for good based on example, for which we have many an algebraic equation to establish categorization, but unlike law for which judgement making is based, good in art has the consideration of the new in an historical lineage of predecession. This means individuation. A non-conformity, creatively producing a new vision. A vision of the future, that which the artist is inherently capable of perceiving as they look into the field of potential where the new rests, await. The new situates itself within the clan of the avant-garde, and is not democratic. Jackson Pollock was avant-garde, prior to his popularity, as is Laurie Anderson. It is the antithesis of democratic, but in the long lens of the past, will be understood as the very stepping stones of the democratic process as it leads through individuation in its slow grind: a Mills of the Gods methodology, proving its goodness outside of and beyond popularity and majority rule. Art has always been the Angel being blown backward. Art has preceded democratic ideals as it gently but firmly exposed itself to the masses. Art is always new and teleologically like the Angel explains our present through the backward blow of past reference. The unknown is that which we haven’t faced, but which art is directing us to look. It is always good, and holy because it is newborn. Blame-free. Connected and formed from the past through understanding teleologically how it arrived.
It is 2020. We are missing something. We are missing a generation who consider the past. A generation that seems to have no idea how they arrived, who believe they are inventing the wheel, who cannot look past the immediate access the device in their hand tempts for which their nose is endlessly buried. Who believe Beyonce arrived full blown without any awareness of the great ladies before her, and that Running Man, is a riff on a piano underneath a Timbaland song. But that is just fine I guess. They face the Unknown with the rest of us. The forward movement is still guided by artists, toward a democratic end for which the populace will arrive, eventually. At any rate, democracy is itself an impossible goal and an unworthy form because it can never meet its end. The populace will never allow it to be met. And no past that can be caught and held in the hand is of any value, because its true purpose was served, and forever flies away from us backward into the future.
When I was in the 5th grade, I had a transformative experience discovering a painting by the artist Clyfford Still as I thumbed through an art book in the library. It was a large red painting with a darker blackish streak down the mid-center. I brought the book with this painting to the attention of my teacher and asked her, "how could this be a painting, how is it art?" She must have laughed, because I do not remember receiving a response that educated me, but this painting changed me. It motivated me to discover what an artwork could be, and what it means to be an artist.
Deaccessioning a past, as exampled through the reckless auctioning of preeminent artists gifted works, rests at the feet of Christopher Bedford who heralds as Director for the Baltimore Museum of Art. This move, this eliminating of a past, in turn produces a destabilization that resultantly is unable to bear a future’s weight. Bedford pillages the foundations from a past history that has already proved its cornerstone bearings of stability. Move forward yes, create new opportunities for those who have remained for too long in the shadows, absolutely, but Bedford believes this is handled best by leveling the house and then looking for walls upon which to hang newly purchased artworks, only to wonder, "where are the walls?"
In the 1990's, Bedford was a student at Oberlin College intending to study literature. His life's goals changed after visiting the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College. He states he had a, "transformative experience," when viewing a painting by Dutch artist Hendrick ter Brugghen. He related his impressions concerning the painting to the Baltimore Sun, stating, "The figure glowed. It seemed completely and utterly present in the room. Even today, I could draw every detail of that painting with my own hand."
Of course this begs the question, "what if?" What if this particular painting, which out of a past experience constitutes such a present of importance in Bedford's life that he could, "...draw every detail of that painting," was never there? A painting he would gladly deny others resultant of a deaccessioning he positions for a reparations-produced future financed not from a museum directors main objective: namely fund-raising, but instead pillaging a priceless past he so ignorantly and selfishly destroys?