WINTER VACATION READING
A pair of recently published books, one about the past and one about the future, offer up a simple but important insight: Art systems come and go, but art is always with us.
Anne Applebaum's Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1945–1953 revisits the “most shattered part of Europe in the worst decades of the twentieth century” to describe a lost world that has almost nothing in common with life as we know it today. Ray Kurzweil's How to Build a Brain: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed ventures into the equally remote future, concluding that we will soon “merge with the intelligent technology we are creating,” as digital tools augment and in certain respects even supplant our brains.
Neither book is about art, per se, and their visions of society are as different as they are distant. For the art-minded reader, however, they convey a useful message about the durability of art and the flimsiness of art institutions, soothing some of the recent anxiety about the pace of change in the art world right now.
In Applebaum’s account of “High Stalinism,” art doesn’t disappear in the tumult of the mid-twentieth century. Artists carry on, shape-shifting politically as the situation demands it, but also drawing resolve and inspiration from the chaos around them. Applebaum encapsulates the issue with joke from the period: “What is the difference between painters of the naturalist, impressionist, and socialist realist schools? The naturalists paint as they see, the impressionists as they feel, and the socialist realists as they are told.”
Looking out ahead as many decades as Applebaum looks back, even Kurzweil, one of our most daring intellectual troublemakers, does not erase art from his futurology. The implied message of his book is that art survives the disruptions of massively advanced computing. If anything, Kurzweil assumes that the computer-enhanced future should arm us with a turbocharged version of human creativity.
How different the picture looks for art institutions, however. The organizational and political parameters of art in High Stalinism are laughably anachronistic to us today. An art competition in Poland in 1950 demanded that artists take up subjects such as “the rationalization and mechanization of industrialized pig farms.” Newspapers in Soviet-occupied East Germany demanded: “What we need from artists” is “works of art that help us in our daily struggle in fulfilling the Five Year Plan.” That system faded into oblivion, along with the toppled statues and shattered walls that once symbolized it.
Kurzweil's future is no less alien to our reality, and it’s hard to imagine contemporary art institutions fitting comfortably into it. Sooner than we can imagine, he contends, computers will be implanted in our bodies and connected to our brains, and much of our consciousness will be outsourced to the cloud. Machines, he proposes, “will indeed constitute conscious persons,” and in a stunning forecast, he says that “this will first take place in 2029 and become routine in the 2030s.” This book on artificial intelligence, revealingly, has no chapter or index entry on art. I suspect the reason is that Kurzweil’s future really has no room for many of the institutions and behaviors we now associate with art, such as gallery-going.
The moral of the story is that we shouldn’t get too hung up over institutional change. We probably worry too much about the plight of art criticism, the influence of certain collectors, or the shifting battle lines among galleries, auction houses, and art fairs. Recent laments from respected art writers about the commercialization of the art world are likewise misplaced in their alarmism. The same forces that are seen as corroding art are also undeniably fortifying art. They may even drive audiences to museums, one type of art institution we can feel reasonably confident about, to look at objects that are taking on new meanings as the old structures and norms melt away. Art systems will rise and fall, but art is here to stay.