themes / Lost in Culture

Where Is the Exit From This Labyrinth?

Barbara Markowska

The cultural education should focus on reaching not the young consumer, but that huge group of people who can’t open themselves up to this new reality, because they’re unable to ditch their outdated cultural competences.

"Whither do we move? Do we not dash on unceasingly?
Backwards, sideways, forewards, in all directions?
Is there still an above and below?
Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness?" [1]
Friedrich Nietzsche

When towards the end of the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche heralded the dawn of the age of nihilism, he conjured up the image of a man who has completely lost his footing, a man tumbling into an abyss. These prophecies seem even more valid today, as disorientation has become our natural state. Ever since culture, and with it art, became a commodity, losing any sort of real autonomy – a n y t h I n g g o e s… The aesthetic criteria which had heretofore constituted the core of our culture are now changing so fast, no one can keep up with them. Bombarded by thousands of images, texts and sounds, we suffer from – as Milan Kundera put it – an “unbearable lightness of being”. A man who goes a day without access to any media feels like he has ceased to exist. Paradoxically, the same feeling of unreality accompanies him if he spends the entire day browsing Internet sites or surfing TV channels. But do we even need a sense of reality anymore?

We, Children of Late Modernity

We don’t believe in nature outside of media anymore. Mass culture has become our common heritage and the main medium of democratization. Every one of us has the right (and the duty) to take part in universal communication, even if it is superficial and consists of merely watching the Planete channel, or BBC news. And every one of us can become a creator (assuming they have Internet access and know how to use the new technologies) - make a movie and post it on YouTube, write a blog, or take pictures. That is not to say that popular culture has completely dominated art. Critical art takes advantage of new technologies as well. It uses them to pose new, provocative questions and broaden our horizons, shaping our cognitive, aesthetic, and political spectrum. With mixed results, but always within a framework of challenging criticism. It is most evident in the actions which accompany the renowned “documenta” exhibition in Kassel, such as Joseph Beyus’ famous ecological intervention. In 1982, as part of “documenta 7”, the artist with the help of volunteers planted 7000 oaks in Kassel, showcasing the participatory dimension of social sculpture. The project is continued to this day by the Dia Art Foundation, and has had a huge impact on Kassel’s environment. Since mid 1970s, “documenta” have acted as a venue for in-depth discussion on the nature of democracy and modernity, and yet in 2007, the exhibition was attended by over 700 000 people, and its budget exceeded 25 million Euro. Gradually, culture and science are starting to serve as a breeding ground for new capital, ideas, words, and images, which are then used to fuel the economy. Critical art attempts to maintain its distance and reclaim its autonomy – but it grows thanks to the institutional support and expansion of the art market, and is buoyed by its financial resources. The works of great artists – Warhol, Picasso, Duchamp – were and still are used in advertisement just as often as images of celebrities guided by the rule “become something – then sell yourself”. The cultural logic of the system causes all opposition to be immediately absorbed and utilized. Contemporary creators ask themselves not whether “to be or not to be”, but how to market their creations and who will be interested in them.

God is Dead. Long Live Facebook!

This Internet joke, which references the famous quote by Nietzsche, is a good snapshot of our times. Individual, unrefined taste is king, there is no autonomous judgment. Disparate recipient groups are guided by disparate likes and strategies of cultural reception. This decentralization and lack of specific criteria of evaluation lead to competition, to the confrontation of various ideas or works of art, forcing artists into ever more expansive formal and substantive exploration. This results – as was to be expected – in experimentation with traditional forms of expression, and various actions which undermine social taboos, such as the works of Damien Hirst, who placed dead animals (a cow, a shark, etc.) in aquariums filled with formaldehyde, or Dorota Nieznalska’s “Passion” installation. The artist was accused of an offence against religious feelings, and stood trial, eventually acquitted after many years. There’s the pursuit of a total vision, as evidenced in the theatre works of Robert Wilson, which combine all forms of art - from dance to painting and sculpture, and the carnal art of the French artist Orlan, who has turned her body into a several-year-long performance based on plastic surgery.

Interdisciplinarity Is Trendy

The traditional separation of arts is no longer feasible. Transcending the boundaries of individual disciplines, constant mobility and elasticity, and combining various perspectives have all become synonymous with what’s happening now. Knowledge doesn’t evolve in a linear manner anymore, but does so through shifts in perspective and creating completely new fields such as memetics. Since the collapse of distinct political divisions, combining various perspectives and languages has proven to be the most fruitful strategy in both science and culture. On the intersection between arts, science and politics, the benefits of borrowing from other fields becomes clearly visible, whether it comes to lines of inquiry or cross-disciplinary experiments. Artists seem ever more eager to enter laboratories, as evidenced by Cologne’s incredibly prolific Zbigniew Oksiuta, who for years has been conducting research combining art, biology and architecture. In his project “Spatium Gelatum” [frozen space] he strives to create a habitat for the future, as well as an edible biological space. By cooperating with scientific institutions and various industries, the artist can experiment using the phenomena of microgravity and molecular reactions occurring in everyday kitchens. The results will be presented in art galleries as objects and film installations, and are created in cooperation with musicians, designers, and computer animation artists.

A Comic Book About Christ

We are surfing, drifting from things we know to those we don’t. In a sense it’s a journey, but one characterized by movement without knowledge of where we are or where we are headed. This confusion is present both in the sphere of space (we don’t know where we are because we can’t seem to grasp the totality of the network – we’re navigating a labyrinth and each movement compounds our confusion) and meaning (we don’t know why we are headed wherever it is that we’re going, we don’t know our final destination). The condition of an average consumer of culture can therefore be compared to being lost within a network. But who is this so-called average consumer? Confusion can only be felt by people who are actually aware of having lost all of these distinct criteria, or in other words: people who have lived long enough to witness the e r o s I o n of the canon. Along with the disappearance of a universal canon, there ceased to be a clear distinction between high culture and popular culture, between the elite and the egalitarian. Instead, we have the new categories of mainstream and niche. Almodovar’s films and Lady Gaga’s performances are both based on kitsch, on a pastiche of popular culture, but one can still point out the differences between them. The thing is: not everyone cares about those differences. Young people won’t bother with it. People under 20 don’t have any problems with absorbing culture, the multitude of various codes doesn’t overwhelm them or cause a sensation of metaphysical confusion for a very simple reason – they simply do not notice it. For them, interdisciplinarity is the norm. Young eyes don’t see chaos, but instead a networked world where everything is possible, where a comic book about Jesus Christ is equally valid as one about death camps. There are no taboos, no forms assigned to just one formula. They do not need the universal criteria of “good” and “bad” art. In the famous Japanese anime “Neon Genesis Evangelion” you will find Biblical motifs alongside psychoanalysis. For people with refined taste it’s a true Armageddon of the soul! Young people all over the world feast on this New Age concoction. And they aren’t concerned whether they miss the philosophical undertones of “Matrix”.

Time to Find Yourself

Interdisciplinarity manifests itself on three levels of culture. In the author (where it becomes the substance of his work, and often one of its main themes). In the recipient, who needs to display a greater elasticity and creativity in his reception, which in turn blurs the distinction between author and recipient. The third level, a sort of tinderbox which deepens the crisis, Is composed of institutions created to promote culture and education. These institutions, charged with setting standards, still adhere to the division of arts into literature, painting, poetry, theatre, music, opera, etc. Traditional education recreates these boundaries, fragments knowledge, and teaches things that make it harder for the “average consumer” to absorb contemporary culture, breeding stress and confusion. The sense of discomfort is caused not only by an overabundance of stimuli, but also by insufficient preparation to select and absorb the thousands of magazines, movie channels, festivals and events we’re bombarded with. In the immediate future, cultural education should focus on reaching not the young consumer, who has no problems navigating the surrounding magma, but that huge group of people who can’t open themselves up to this new reality, because they’re unable to ditch their outdated cultural competences. They are consumed with nostalgia for clearly delineated hierarchies, and in effect lose access to the current cultural capital. In order to consciously draw from it, they need to find themselves. It is time to generate a creative class of people who will forge passiveness into an active creation of values and meanings, whose actions will constitute an undisputable element of “glocal” culture – global in form, but local in content. Even devoid of the power of authorities, culture will continue to influence our perception of reality and our own lives. Perhaps even more so than before, since the process will now be less overt and conscious.

Translated by Wojciech Góralczyk

  1. 1. translated by Thomas Common