Safe is the New Dangerous

Art is about arriving with nothing and connecting to everything that it means to be alive. Art is something that happens inside us.

  • In 1973, Chris Burden had himself photographed on the ground, shooting a revolver at a tiny jet 10,000 feet up in the air. The result was an iconic image of a man pointing a gun at a plane.
    Photo by Chris Burden

It used to be dangerous to be dangerous. Being dangerous was a choice not to be safe. The realm of art was a safe space that pretended it was dangerous, a theoretical empire of open options, a place where perversity signified possibility, where people were very good at playing being very bad. If it boiled over and got truly dangerous, as it sometimes did, one would be held accountable to the legal and judicial systems of the larger world, as Carl Andre was when he faced a court of law for the alleged murder of his wife, Ana Mendieta, whose artworks used her own body to address very real dangers of violence against women. Or Valerie Solanas’ attempted assassination of Andy Warhol — for which she was given a three-year prison sentence — not to mention the grave physical and psychological trauma that Warhol suffered for the rest of his life as a result of the shooting. Or how Chuck Close is being forced to answer accusations of his years-long mistreatment of women.

But art’s danger usually was not so dangerous. In 1969 Valie Export was photographed sitting on a bench in a black leather jacket, spread-legged with crotchless pants, holding a machine gun to her chest, an image which she then postered across walls of European cities. Powerful, political, resonant, and scary, yes; dangerous, no. Chris Burden didn’t shoot anybody but himself. In 1973, he had himself photographed on the ground, shooting a revolver at a tiny jet 10,000 feet up in the air. The result was an iconic image of a man pointing a gun at a plane. No animals were hurt in the making of this movie. Chris Burden and Valie Export were art’s idea of danger.

But now it’s dangerous to be dangerous. Today, Burden or Export would surely be tracked by Homeland Security and their gestures would become memes, malleable grist for a panoply of passions. It is said that in the 20th century, abstraction was a hedge against being usurped by fascism; nobody would ever think to use, say, a murky cubist painting as a strong political symbol. But an image of a man pointing a gun at a plane, regardless of the artists’ intention, is a different story.

It’s hard to imagine anyone daring to be dangerous in that same way now. One would think very, very hard before including an image of a gun in an artwork, knowing that it could potentially draw unwanted attention from unwanted places. Instead, safe is the safe choice. An artist must ensure that their work will fly under the radar, and at the same time address the widest audience possible. That takes a lot of effort: works are thoroughly vetted head-to-toe, carefully scrutinized for the tiniest detail that might trip an unwelcomed alarm. Ambiguity and noise are muted; signal and message are amplified. Art that’s been fine-tuned to the economy of the network: Burden and Export’s gestures were semi-private ones in a time when one could still be semi-private. Today, every gesture, no matter how insignificant, has the potential to be very public. The result is a new safe art. Today, the best artists are the safest artists. But is it enough to merely be safe? Perhaps not. Safe art is, well, too safe. In order to be art, even the safest artworks somehow need to have an element of danger. Let us imagine, then, an art of radical safety, an art so safe that it is dangerous. Like extreme sports, the art of the future will be an art of extreme safety.

The artist of the future will make artworks of extreme comfort, art so comfortable that, like an overheated bedroom, it will suffocate the sleeper; art so intimate that, like consensual rough sex, it will tip over into asphyxiation; art so powerful that, like a whiff of Fentanyl, it will instantly render the viewer comatose. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that much of the art around the world is funded by the Sackler family who notoriously made their fortune peddling opioids. By eliding big pharma with big culture, pain and painting became inseparable.

The Sackler aesthetic was crystalized in a recent, short-lived movement known as “zombie formalism.” It was a numbingly robotic art that insisted on being handmade in order to give it more value; an art precisely calibrated to shimmer on the hollow sheetrock walls of an oligarch’s Time Warner Center condo; an art familiar enough to evoke “important” abstract paintings from the past (which had themselves migrated over time from dangerous to safe), but novel enough to claim the mantle of newness. Like pieces of over-designed furniture, it was décor posing as art, rather than art posing as décor. Zombie formalism could’ve been a radical self-reflexive strategy — one whose goal would’ve been to make safe art dangerous and dangerous art safe — but it wasn’t smart enough or critical enough or aware enough to articulate its own machinations. Instead, like the clientele it courted, it quickly stumbled into a lot of money and was just as quickly dumped at auction.

6/15/2018 10:16:44 AM

I want an art that has been proofread.

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