Anxieties of the Influential

John Kelsey, in the September Artforum, has interesting things to say about the anxiety of artists in the hyper-connected, over-mediated world, things that one feels but rarely hears spoken: “…the joke we’re all in on has to do with how paranoid and insecure the artist has become within the non-context we’ve inherited from relational aesthetics…” My question is what does any artist have to be anxious about, and has that changed at all over the last fifty years? During my lifetime the anxiety of the artist has been easily described—they worry that they will be mis-recognized, that viewers will not be able to place them in the right network of artists, galleries, discourses and histories. Positioning is everything, not just market strategy, but a precondition for legibility, even visibility. The paradox is that even as the art world is full of people whose job it is to look for art,  recognize it, understand it, and interpret it to the audience, it becomes increasingly difficult to establish and maintain a position. The more journalism, the less understanding is available; the more mediated the system the less transparency it has over all, and the easier it is to be lost in the fog. How hard it is to find anyone (including artists) who actually hears what one says, as hard as it is to find anyone (including artists) who actually sees what they are looking at. Artists are terrified, or, as Kelsey says, terrorized, that their position may shift, meaning that they will not be recognized for the position they claim. If that sounds too strong, it is still obvious that managing one’s position is a time intensive occupation, and it goes on in every encounter, every conversation. Shows, reviews and catalog essays are only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Every artist knows they are at the center of a sensitive network of relationships, each strand of which is a carrier of information, information that can easily be distorted or lost. Kelsey thinks the situation has changed qualitatively in recent years because information moves more quickly, intensifying the general anxiety. I’m not sure. I’m pondering remarks by Harold Bloom in his last book, that “The English economist Thomas Malthus, more than Darwin, Marx or Freud, is the figure who truly terrifies the literary world. Overpopulation daunts the imagination. What is there left to say? How many can any one of us hear?” This is like something Harold Rosenberg might have said, too painfully true to be acknowledged by even the most polemical critics. But then why bother? In the struggle for survival the truth of an insight matters less than its usability within one’s “network.” And this one is not useful, only true.

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