In “The Present Age,” an 1846 essay by Søren Kierkegaard, the author lambasts his own age for its passionless stance towards the world in which everything is sort of interesting and sort of boring at the same time and, as such, nothing is worth loving or dying for. Kierkegaard felt that the massive quantitative increases in information which emerged in relation to the rise of the “public sphere” of the nineteenth century were a disaster because they leveled out the sorts of experiences one could have. When everyone is encouraged to be opinionated about everything, no one knows anything with any depth and, in turn, no one really cares about anything with what could be called love or the sense that one would sacrifice themselves for that one particular thing. According to Kierkegaard, a reliance on consensus, daily newspapers, and scientific expertise to define the course of human life is a sure way to create a world in which sacrifice is unnecessary and love is almost impossible. When nothing stands out as any more qualitatively interesting than anything else, it becomes difficult to say that one “loves” anything and really mean that word. In other words, it was a prototype of the age of “whatever.”
About a decade ago, the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus compared Kierkegaard’s vision of the “present age” to the rise of the Internet in his own contemporary moment. According to Dreyfus, the qualitative leveling-out of all experience at zero which Kierkegaard describes in relation to the public sphere is “perfected” on the World Wide Web and, furthermore, that Kierkegaard’s proposal for a risky, unconditional commitment or “leap of faith” in the face of this leveling out is made almost impossible. This impossibility is due to the technology’s simulated and anonymous experiential reality which, according to Dreyfus, demands no commitment to any particular decision.
For a contemporary artist who believes or at least wants to believe that what they are doing is more than a vague combination of “interesting” and “cool,” the prospect of making work in the type of world described by Kierkegaard and Dreyfus is a daunting prospect. Why sacrifice one’s time to making art if no one cares, including oneself?
One response is that one could simply not participate in the online arena, at all. That certainly seems plausible—the artist Tino Seghal, for example, goes to all sorts of great lengths to avoid new technologies. But, even by not participating, one is still highly engaged with this media environment by going out of one’s way to avoid it. That is, it’s still, at the very least, a source of anxiety. So, if one is going to directly participate, how would one do that and maintain any belief that their works of art are meaningful?
For the art critic and historian Leo Steinberg, that question is based on a faulty premise which will always inevitably bog one down. For Steinberg, an individual work should not be thought of as a “good investment” in meaningfulness. One work will always be a hive of contradictions and limitations. And, furthermore, anytime an artist becomes anxious about the meaning or lack thereof in regard to a given one of their works, that anxiety won’t be resolved by reasoning one’s way to its meaningfulness. What’s meaningful—or at the very least a way to cope in the face of all that novelty—is to, following Kierkegaard, make a “risky investment”–a “leap of faith”–going into each and every new day with an openness to experience and to the shifting of criteria in one’s world, and, then, making meaning out of that.
In what follows, I’ll discuss in greater depth the relationship of the Internet and making artwork on the Internet in relation to Steinberg’s ideas regarding the potential for meaningfulness in art.
The pop star Prince, has, since 2007, been at war with the Internet in regard to, amongst other claims, its users’ ability to distribute his music for free. A recent highlight of Prince’s feud with the Net came several weeks ago when Prince declared that “the Internet is over.” According to the artist, “The Internet’s like MTV…At one time, MTV was hip, and suddenly it became outdated.”
Contrary to Prince’s analysis, though, while it’s debatable whether or not the Internet is hip anymore, it’s not necessarily “over.” In fact, the amount of time people spend consuming media online is only increasing. And, according to a study conducted by the Kaiser Foundation which was reported in The New York Times, young people in the United States are consuming an eye-popping seven and a half hours of electronic media a day—basically every waking minute outside of school—which actually increases when one considers the layers of media involved in multitasking (for example, surfing the Web while listening to music), pushing the figure up to eleven hours of media consumption a day. According to Donald F. Roberts, one of the study’s authors who was quoted in the Times, “In the second report, I remember writing a paragraph saying we’ve hit a ceiling on media use, since there just aren’t enough hours in the day to increase the time children spend on media. But now it’s up an hour.”
One reason why it’s possible to spend that much time consuming media, is that there is now an effectively unlimited amount of instantaneously available, free media through which one may consume twenty-four hours a day as well as the devices through which one can execute this consumption. It becomes plausible to just sit and consume all day, popping from one interesting thing to another interesting thing to another—all of them different and equally interesting. For instance, while I don’t remember the actual circumstances in which I read the article about Prince, I’m picturing a typical scenario in which it would have been crammed-in amongst thirty other news items and a half-dozen advertisements on a Web page, which is itself nestled-in amongst four other tabs on my browser–all of which contain other interesting media. No matter what the actual circumstances, though, I almost instantaneously forgot about it in my rush to continue consuming other interesting media.
I bring all this up, though, to actually sympathize with Prince and with every other person creating all of these hours of free media which are consumed at these astounding rates. How, after all, is one supposed to make a living as an artist in this scenario? And, perhaps more importantly, how is one supposed to find any meaning in participating in this scenario? That is, how is one supposed to find any meaning in one’s work when it’s competing to make a little noise in an endlessly noisy room? Even if one’s work is fortunate enough to receive fifteen minutes of fame, will that fifteen minutes be enough to provide one with a sense of meaning in regard to what one is producing? I recently read something the filmmaker Harmony Korine said about his own frustrations with producing anything in the cultural context of the media explosion engendered by the Web. He said,
…at a certain point everything becomes noise. I find it increasingly difficult for movies to have a lasting emotional resonance, the way they did when I first started watching. You would see something and it would live with you forever and could change the way you thought about things. There seems to be this shift where now it is just about consuming them. Even the movies that people say they love for the most part they forget the next day.
There’s a paradox to democratic culture in which all media is accessible, but, because all media is accessible, it all becomes equal in value to zero–like fifty almost identical brands of shampoo in a super market.
This concern is related to the “plight” of contemporary art which the art critic and historian Leo Steinberg describes in his 1962 essay “Contemporary Art and the Plight of its Public.” In this essay, Steinberg describes a contradiction in the very idea of Modernism in which the Modernist imperative to continually overturn the hard fought insights of the generation of artists just historically prior to one’s own, compounded by the ever-narrowing cycles of these generations, results in the absurd situation in which no one—no matter who they are—feels secure in the knowledge that any individual work of art they produce or any artistic breakthrough they accomplish will retain any meaning for anyone in more than a year or two, most likely in less time than that. When faced with this reality, how can an artist believe that what they’re fighting for or fighting against has any meaning? This contradiction creates, for Steinberg, an anxiety. He writes,
I know that there are people enough who are quite genuinely troubled by those shifts that seem to change the worth of art. And this should give to what I call “The Plight of the Public” a certain dignity. There is a sense of loss, of sudden exile, of something willfully denied—sometimes a feeling that one’s accumulated culture or experience is hopelessly devalued, leaving one exposed to spiritual destitution. And this experience can hit an artist even harder than an amateur.
For Steinberg, this anxiety is bound up with both the quantity of new art pumped out every month in the contemporary art system as well as the speed in which this system seems to be moving since it became aware of the demands placed on it by both the art market and the art magazines hungry for “the next big thing.” That is, all contemporary art comes with what, in a related essay, Steinberg terms “built-in obsolescence.”
Thinking of these anxieties in the context of the Internet, then, this situation is further compounded as the surfeit of art through which to sift through is by now greater and the cycles of built-in obsolescence are by now narrower. This is especially true in relation to the history of artists working directly on the Internet. The “net.art” generation of artists in the 1990s and early 2000’s, for example, seem, for better or for worse, like distant art history and even Internet Surfing Clubs which created buzz in the net.art community for a couple of key years seem like a hazy memory which is too difficult or embarrassing to remember in the face of keeping up with RIGHT NOW. Furthermore, if the words you’re reading right now are at all “interesting,” that interest will be long gone within a month—you won’t even remember reading this.
Perhaps this was always the case, though. Perhaps artists have always dealt with this and it’s besides the point to even bring it up because it’s so obvious. But the particularly disarming element of the contemporary moment which Steinberg presciently noticed in his own time is that the rate of turnover at present is so accelerated that it rubs this built-in obsolescence in one’s face and doesn’t allow one a decade or two of breathing room in which to pat one’s self on the back. No one can even pretend to love an individual work of art anymore (another’s work or one’s one) because one knows that that love will be obsolete almost as soon as it’s proclaimed.
So, why even do it? Why even participate in this system if one’s work is going to be chewed up and spit out without much serious reflection?
The way Steinberg addresses this anxiety in the essay is to quell the need one has for each individual work to be thought of as anything like a “good investment” in terms of either financial or art historical capital. As long as one focuses their desires on the worth of an individual instance of one’s ongoing art practice instead of on the ongoing evolution of the art practice itself, one will always inevitably run into these anxieties. Steinberg’s goal here is not to reverse the situation or to reason himself away from it, but rather to come to grips with this loss of one’s ability to love a work of art, identify it as an anxiety and propose a way forward. What he comes to is that for the contemporary artists or the contemporary art lover, a shift in focus is needed in which one focuses their attention away from investments in individual works and towards an ongoing, daily practice.
What’s potentially horrifying in regard to this, though, is that it requires, for Steinberg, following Kierkegaard, a “leap of faith” with zero logical certainty in regard to the value of this potential evolution in daily practice. At least with the individual work of art, it’s there, you know it’s done, it’s something concrete which you can evaluate. What comes next in one’s ongoing practice or “each day’s gathering” as Steinberg calls it, is completely anybody’s guess. If one is to follow his argument, though, it’s the only way forward for both artist and art lover if they are to overcome the anxieties of “the present age.”
Although perhaps lacking the existentialist angst which Steinberg describes, many artists working on the Web right now, particularly younger artists working on tumblr blogs and sites like dump.fm, have come to a similar conclusion: no single instance of a work which is thrown up onto the Web is going to be very meaningful. What could be meaningful, though, is a discernible shift in the object of inquiry from the individual work to the ongoing performed practice of creating work.
I, personally, became interested in this idea through my experience of watching “Internet Surfing Clubs” around 2007 and 2008. Internet Surfing Clubs are blogs authored by multiple users in which short, visually immediate posts–each of which often involve re-mixed or readymade material appropriated from elsewhere on the Internet–are shared in on-going conversation. The Surfing Club I was aware of first and to this day have the most affection for is Nasty Nets.
Before I became acquainted with Surfing Clubs, I wasn’t particularly interested in art and only moderately interested in Internet culture. I came from a background in film production and, while I was still watching certain filmmakers, generally speaking, I had hit a brick wall with film on a creative level. This led me YouTube where my interests were rekindled.
On YouTube, the attraction, at first, was to surf through the archive, finding weird stuff that I watched as a child in the 1980s, television news bloopers, “mashups,” etc. Eventually, though, I became particularly interested in following regular YouTube users who talk into their webcams everyday—sometimes to large audiences of people. Many of these personalities were genuinely intriguing and I began to pick up on the fact that it didn’t matter if what they were saying was logically incoherent or creatively limited, I loved the fact that they kept going, they kept performing everyday and, in the best cases, they kept transforming themselves. And you could watch this transformation happen in real time. For me, this was revelatory: the individual movie was sacrificed for the performance of daily moviemaking over time. What becomes valuable is the performance of it—the fact that the person will be there, improvising, talking, interacting with the network of other users and they’ll do it (almost) every day. To my mind, this is where the energy of cinema was going—focusing on the improvisatory authorship of cinematic objects, as opposed to the cinematic objects, themselves.
Shortly after this, I became aware of Surfing Clubs and, in particular, Nasty Nets through “The Year in The Internet 2006” which was a series of “best of” lists by people interested in Internet culture and Internet memes. It was edited by the artists Michael Bell-Smith and Cory Arcangel, who also made a similar list the year before.
On Nasty Nets, the same principles applied except, in this case, there was a level of meta-criticality in regard to what was being shared. It was Internet culture about Internet culture, and, in some cases, it was about the history of conceptual art, as well. Once again, though, the point, for me, was not to spend too much time asking whether or not the individual posts were good or bad, but to simply follow the stream, day after day, every day. And, just as in my experience on YouTube, in the process of following these streams, the posts began to differentiate themselves and different performative voices began to emerge. I didn’t know anybody that was on a Surf Club or have any idea what their backgrounds were, but, all of the sudden, certain surfers on Nasty Nets became, to me anyway, the most relevant, significant artists that I knew of—period. If one watches this type of work, one quickly realizes that the meaningful art on the Internet is accrued through “each day’s gathering” as Steinberg calls it, following the performing of the making of art on the Web.
When faced with a leveling-out of all individual units of culture to right around zero, both the artist and the art-follower are presented with a choice: either drown or surf. The work which one views on the Internet which retains a sense of meaning and the possibility of inspiring further work by artists and further following by art followers is, more often than not, produced by those who surf.