What do we mean when we say, ‘life is imitating art’? Does some conventional causal logic flip around? Is art fancier than life, in a gilded, auction-house-happy kind of way?
If art once ennobled life by dramatizing it in stylish ways—the Woah Factor—early 21st century life has seemingly rendered art an impotent imposter to the real thing. The more art enumerates its importance—petulantly, waving a wad of cash in the air, citing Another French Philosopher—the less important it actually is.
This starts, for me, with those pictures from Abu Ghraib prison. Beyond announcing the reality of systemic torture by the US Army, the stylizations of the photos were an idiot-accident-collage of Francis Bacon’s flesh-mounds, Pasolini’s pleasure fascism in Salo and, most chillingly, the carefree snap-happy amateurism of soldiers on holiday. Thumbs Up! Thumbs down: this was no Disneyland. It was Iraq.
I challenge you to find any artist authored images from that moment on that can rival the unadorned wrecked humanity of these pictures. This is a trend—if that’s the right word—that has escalated since, empowered by those precious little witness-machines we carry in our pockets: mobile phone cameras.
We make searing images in a milli-second. We consume difficult images everywhere. We laugh. We shudder. We don’t need artists to do any of this. Do we?
Things once cordially hidden or silenced have made their way to the surface of our attention-deficit attentions. The word ‘leak’—once limited to usage by plumbers or seafarers—is now prefixed by ‘Wiki’, or Al Jazeera. Our ignorance has run out of excuses.
Take the Arab Uprisings. When foreign journalists were not allowed in to Libya or Syria, we relied on discordant choruses of mobile phone clips. We become remote-witnesses. These clips are chaotic, unedited, over saturated with clashing sounds and terrible, true images. There is nothing artful about this ‘style’—and yet they convey a fragmentary sense of what it is like to be a mortal body caught in mortally threatening situations. Goodbye artifice.
The natural habitat of these documents is not the gallery or the museum but television, in its expanded form. Here these documents are immediate, their witnessing still raw. The emotional effect is also immediate. If indecipherable, unverifiable.
The poet Rilke wrote, ‘Events move in such a way that they will always inevitably be ahead of us. We shall never catch up with them.’
You only need to try and piece together the death of Muammar Qaddafi to discover how true this is. The best approximation to his last few minutes comes shaped in a series of non-continuous amateur video clips. The roar of the crowd is deafening, but that’s also because the microphone on the camera is not sensitive enough. Qaddafi is alive. Then he is pulp. A universe of non-special effects make this a cinema of the most ethically and aesthetically troubling kind.
When asked, why do novelists tend to prefer writing historical stories, Hillary Mantel replied that because a novel takes so long to produce, if you try and write about the present, it always slips through your grasp. The novelist needs a target to appear to be fixed so they can reveal the slippery secrets repressed by history.
If there is going to be a substantial response by contemporary art to the currents events in the ‘region’ it is, sadly, necessarily only once the life of those events has subsided into the past—for better or worse, with body counts as tragic proof that the present happened. Until that moment, life wins.
Published in the first issue of Harpers Bazaar Art