TEXTBIOBIBLIO

Ranjit Hoskote
Essay for the Anthology of Art



I.

Art is the imagination’s counter-proposal to normality. It affirms the imagination’s commitment to an order of consciousness that is parallel to, and subversive of the explanatory structures officially sanctioned by the dominant social and cultural institutions as an adequate representation of the world. Through art, the imagination re-worlds the world, generating itself as material presence, re-figuring itself against the fossilising pressures of normality.

In this sense, the most compelling art always supersedes its present, in the very act of addressing it: that is to say, the most compelling and provocative art has always been an art of the future. Only when it is domesticated by the social and cultural hegemonies of its epoch does it lose its compelling and provocative powers and become an art of the present.

Such, unfortunately, is the eventual fate of most art. In time, even the most revolutionary art practices become neutralised and absorbed by the apparatus of normality: the same forms that refused to become complicit with the reigning mores, that rejected conformity with the established norms of behaviour, are turned into museum showpieces, evidence of the favoured values of society, commodity-fetishes prized within an economy of good taste.

This cautionary tale demonstrates that an art of the future, to merit that title, must re-dedicate itself continuously to its revolutionary impulse, even if this should involve it in a perennial cycle of breaking and re-shaping. It must refuse to be quietly continuous with the present; it must mark, within its structure and the address it makes to its potential audience, the rupture that distinguishes it from what went before. For the art of the future is not a temporally inevitable phenomenon, it is a transformative project that must be consciously realised and maintained. Only by a deliberate act of transgression against its context, which is at once an act of self-overcoming, would the art of the temporal future constitute an art of the future in the true, revolutionary sense.

The invitation to imagine an art of the future is, therefore, an invitation to identify that act of transgression and self-overcoming: to outline the ways in which the art practices of the foreseeable future might overcome the limitations that curb the expressivity of art in the present, and so supersede their predecessor forms.


II.

Without succumbing to the temptation of playing clairvoyant, I would now hazard a few guesses about the specific possibilities that the art of our immediate future would have to negotiate, in realising the project of being truly an art of the future. These themes emerge from the experiential landscapes of our developing global present, and will surely play a role in the development of art in the next few decades.

The art of the immediate future, as I envisage it, would liberate itself from the practices and institutions within which art is currently practised, and celebrate a revitalisation of artistic agency: It would break out of the constrictions of the market, the limits imposed by patronage and clientele; it would oppose the global hegemonies of style, fashion and ideology, even if this means the retrieval of an individualistic localism.

It would also explore new modes of production and distribution, operating at the boundary conditions of art as currently defined within the studio – gallery – museum circuit, attending to the edges and overlaps that art shares with other image-making practices within the broader domain of expressive culture. Such a democratisation would extend the range of art, enriching its formal possibilities and multiplying the experiential contexts in which it can act and invite response.

This art would celebrate the devices and spaces of telematics, of digital and virtual technology, but it would also cherish live-encounter situations; it would function on a variety of scales, from the intimacy of individual aesthesis at the monitor to the publicity of the mass-participatory performance in the street or the stadium. At the same time, this art would not neglect the conventionally designated spaces of art: it would grant an afterlife to the anterior forms of conventionally made art, fabricating the galleries and museums of the present into theatres of re-discovery.

The art of the immediate future would surely direct its critical and affirmative energies towards an ongoing engagement with the dominant certitudes of its era. It would aspire, not towards the escapist cartography of a utopia or ‘no-place’, but towards the active construction of a metatopia or ‘place-of-change’. Premised as it is on dream and hope, the metatopic attitude would prompt artists to operate in a lattice of transitive interfaces between belonging and homelessness, local and global, the skill of training and the risk of contemporaneity.

Above all, the art of the immediate future would maintain a deliberately quixotic attitude, here conceived of as an attitude of resistance against normality, an insistence on the self's right to re-invent itself, to experiment with itself. I visualise the artist of the future as an agent playing the roles of clown, trickster and rebel, combining adversarial energy with the ability to be intriguing enough to invite a potential audience into conversation.


III.

The work of art of the future is always in progress, for it points beyond the time-horizon of the moment to consummations that lie beyond; by the same token, an art that attempts to blend glibly into the forms and attitudes of the present effectively destroys itself, by sharing in the half-life of the fashion catwalk and the season’s lifestyle options, the youth subculture’s ephemeral crazes and the effervescent iconography of the entertainment industry. Some caveats ought, therefore, to be offered to the experimental self. While celebrating the psychological and cultural realities, the technical potentialities of our global present and immediate future, artists ought also to remain aware of the temptations and perils that attend these invitations.

Flow has become a major format of experience today, especially given its importance in telematics, entertainment and virtual-reality morphing techniques. It suggests itself as a natural habitat for the art of the future, one offering the revelry of a neo-Ovidian Metamorphoses without the balancing awareness of the consequences of one’s acts. The danger is that such a continuous flux of stimuli, kept up by an array of image-generating devices, can reduce life to a quest for gratification in which the manic delight of chance encounter displaces the ethical nurturing of relationship. As a corollary, when play becomes the defining environment, art can become enslaved to the narcotic of novelty: we see this, already, in the amusement arcade model of art practice and display.

Integrally linked to these developments is the search for new topographies of sensuousness: given the shrinking of the geographical elsewheres of the spirit through political unrest and saturation-by-tourism, the production of fresh elsewheres now takes place increasingly through expansion in the virtual domain. On the Net, new destination mythologies unfold, new games of settlement are staked out, new and voluntary prostheses of sight, sound and touch are placed on offer. The Leitmotiv of these idioms of arousal is unbridled pleasure; it leads, invariably, to an addictive pornography of continuous stimulation-by-image, a loss of correspondence between real-world imperatives and inner-world fantasies.

The Net has also orchestrated a major shift in the articulation of concerns, a shift from locality to vocality. Over the Net, individuals or groups can now project themselves as disembodied voices, asserting a claim to our attention while remaining masked, assuming false identities or concealing their real-world bases. The Net has certainly produced a public sphere, but it is one menaced by possibilities of distortion, dissimulation, unverifiability: this loosening of responsibility, this chaotic interplay of subjectivities is one of the concomitants of remote contact and the withdrawal of direct presence; this shift can spread from the Net to other realms of intersubjective communication.

I come now to the frequency of performance, which threatens to overwhelm the opposite condition of sustained reflection. The agitation and extroversion of performance drain away the energy of art, while the introspection and repose of reflection nurture it. Performance may suggest public contact; but excessive performance, under the rubric of interactivity, can reduce itself to an illusion of public contact.

The caveats are simple: the art of the immediate future ought to cultivate reflective restraint, even if this means a qualified rather than an enthusiastic embrace of the democratisation of means, media and contexts. It ought to remain alert in its opposition to the consumerist logic of overabundant choice, guarding against the current supermarket model of the art situation (which governs the galleries and museums, and even the production of art-works, especially when the metropolitan youth subcultures form the target audience and exhibitions are sponsored by entertainment and information-technology corporations).

The art of the immediate future ought, also, to be disciplined in its mapping of the field of political resistance onto the field of aesthetic innovation, so that neither diminishes the other by uncritical analogy; such a discipline will also address the dangerous split between locality and vocality. Finally, the art of the immediate future would cultivate retreat, which nourishes the possibility of real communication and community by replenishing the inner resources of the communicative self: artists ought to practise contemplative silence, while renouncing thoughtless interactivity.


IV.

Inherent in all the experiential landscapes sketched above is the peril of an atomisation produced by pleasure – the alienation of individuals from one another, and of artists and audiences from one another; an alienation produced by the fact that much of the art emerging in the early 21st century appeals to the individual’s desire to pursue the gratification of private fantasy. This is tragic, because art, as a counter-proposal to normality, is not an escape into private fantasy; rather, it is presented as an alternative to the present that can be shared by all those willing to consider it. Therefore, art of the immediate future must proceed, not by drifting through flow and play, the new topographies of sensuousness, the excitements of vocality and the frequency of performance, but by managing these creatively in the interests of solidarity.

Let us not mistake this solidarity for a homogenous stance; rather, it embodies a coalition of those who seek to preserve their personal visions against the institutional forces that would impose a single world-picture across the globe. Such a solidarity is already in evidence, and it will surely serve as a global infrastructure for the art of the immediate future. Made richly variegated and politically vigorous by this solidarity, the art of the immediate future would counterpose, to the normality of the present, the diversity and profusion of human possibility. It would uphold the polychromy of the imagination against the spectrum-narrowing operations of the power blocs and nation-states, the transnational corporations and military cabals, the technocracies and ecclesiarchies that assert their claim to guide the destiny of humankind.

Ranjit Hoskote
Bombay, November 2001