Jack Vance

From Julian Barbour and the block universe to minimalism to the negative social sublime of Smithson and Ai Weiwei, I’ve been wondering about a temporal perspective that denies change, that posits a kind of steady state. Obviously these sources are very different, and not all saying exactly the same thing, but they all share the same difference from what interests me, namely movement, change, the flow of time and the moment of emergence. In my practice, an artwork is the product of a particular moment, an unrepeatable and unique configuration, and something new in the world. One might say that every moment I spend not working means that another possibility dies unrealized. So it’s disconcerting but salutary to contemplate duration as a fact that eliminates distinctions through sheer scale; what I would describe as a temporal perspective that renders single things unimportant, just details in an overall sameness. I guess one of the questions arising would be – does modernism matter? At some future date it probably won’t, meaning that its difference won’t make much difference, overwhelmed as it will be by other differences. For me the artist who is most able to track how this will feel, how it does feel, is the American genre writer Jack Vance.

Blind seer Jack Vance at age 94

In Vance’s universe of millions of planets and trillions of people, all philosophies and religions are relativized into equality. There are no material limitations, but the endless frontier produces an entropy of values. Because there is a place for every value system, none is preferable to any other. But what doesn’t change, and in fact becomes more pronounced, is human meanness, greed, and arbitrary power, and also constant is the struggle of youth to live with dignity in a world where evil is small but unfettered and hostility and competitiveness is found in almost every encounter. For Vance, dignity might mean revenge, or simple pride, or pleasure in victory. His young heroes appear to be partly modeled on Julian Sorel, of Stendahl’s The Red and the Black, ambitious youth in a world dominated by an old and entrenched establishment, which is nasty by both habit and inclination. Does all this have anything to do with abstract art? It does if abstraction has anything to do with life, but that is too general because it could apply to anything. Vance finds something positive in the energy of youth, Ai Weiwei relies on inwardness, I focus on the moment of change or emergence; at stake is the possibility of the new in a world that has an overplus of positions already.

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