Safe is the New Dangerous

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Photo by Chris Burden
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.

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.

Years earlier, a team of conceptual artists, Komar and Melamid, who emigrated from the Soviet Union to New York in the late 1970s, used actual market research as an articulated strategy in order to critique truly populist art. They did a pair of projects called the “People’s Choice” series, which consisted of two bodies of work, “The Most Wanted and Least Wanted Paintings” and the “Most Wanted and Least Wanted Music.” The artists commissioned marketing companies to take surveys in over a dozen countries to ask people what qualities they most liked and disliked in painting and music. The paintings and music were then executed according to the responses they received.

In painting, the results for each country were nearly identical. The most wanted paintings were heroic landscapes with alpine mountains and sparkling blue bodies of water. The least wanted paintings were, not surprisingly, geometric abstractions. Similarly, the most wanted music was a compact love song in the style of Celine Dion; and the least wanted was a meandering 20-minute mashup of bagpipes, children’s voices, opera singers, and cowboy music. Komar and Melamid discovered that in the West, art by committee — free market politburo — yielded nearly the identical social realism that was mandatory in the U.S.S.R. Reflecting on the similarities between the two, they commented, “Picasso mimicked Stalin, so we try to mimic Clinton.” Given a choice, they found that people don’t want a choice at all. Safe art is popular art, and populism, be it in the U.S. or the U.S.S.R., is equally perilous.

Populism, of course, is ultimately conservative, driving resurgent right wing movements around the world in ways that are both terrifyingly dangerous and stupendously dull. These days, to cheer for populism is to cheer for danger. Instead, one might adopt neutrality — at first thought a safer strategy — but being neutral is one of the most socially, aesthetically, and politically risky stances that one can take. Particularly in polemical times, when opinions are mandated to be loudly proclaimed — if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem — not taking a stance is seen as coercion with the enemy. Whereas previously, neutrality was equated with safety (think Switzerland), it is now suspect, viewed as an act of treason. Because of its perversity, neutrality is untouchable, the last great unclaimed strategy. Few dare to be intentionally apathetic, for apathy is treacherous. Instead, it is safer to remain safely committed.

Or one could just swathe oneself in beige. When asked “What is your favorite color?” nobody ever answers “beige.” In safe times like these, beige’s liminal status signifies a decisive uncertainty. The new beige chic: muddy sets of surgical appurtenances — ACE bandages, sheer-strip Band-Aids, medical gauze, body wraps, abdominal binder belts, bilateral hernia support braces, diaphanous lingerie — in tones of unbleached silk, ecru, cosmic latte, drab, desert sand, or buff. Whereas previously beige was merely bland, now it’s dimly radiant, brimming with indifferent passion and supercharged passivity; a new beige art.

If Brian Eno imagined music for airports, let us imagine art for hospitals. Eno reconceived of airports as meditation chambers, spaces in eternal stasis. Not wishing to impose itself upon the tranquil atmosphere, his airport soundtracks tinted the crystalline air with ripples of barely perceptible pulsations. The resultant sound is of global hospitality: your arrival at any Cathay Pacific Lounge is instantly recognizable, greeting you with the familiar feeling of a comfortable home.

Art for Hospitals. Another Beige World. When art can no longer afford real danger, it adopts strategies of faux danger: tonic immobility, thanatosis, playing possum. Art in a coma; art teetering on the cusp between life and death; art in suspended animation; art without worries; art that evokes blissful states of calm and peace; flatlined art, containing no significant events, only eternally looping sequences of haggard shades of pale. If airports are weightless, then hospitals are torpid. The inverse of crystalline airport air, hospital air is thick and overheated, clinging to dispensary walls like a stupefacient fog. A monkey on your back. While Eno’s airports defied gravity, nobody ever left a hospital unburdened.

Hospital, hospitality, hospice. Art that reimagines the hospital as indulgently decadent spa, mingling the thrill of extreme danger with the luxury of extreme comfort. From rubber glove to white glove; from beige blanket to red blanket. Bespoke hospital stays. Suffering served with gourmet food, pain in plush bathrobes, discomfort in 300 thread count bed linens, anguish on polished marble bathroom floors, misery through oversized windows displaying panoramic river views. In the hush of the hospice, men with black vests and ties proffer elaborate menus. “I’ll be your butler, ma’am.” Deeper hues of danger mitigated by opulence for the few who can afford it. For the rest, whiter shades of pale are plentiful in steerage.

Damien Hirst: It is now culturally acceptable for medicine cabinets to be works of art. Medicine cabinets are filled with medicines, in other words, substances that heal. Art is capable of healing. What kills cures and what cures kills. If hospitals are the new spas and opioids the new cocktails, then the street is the new hospice — minus the hospitality. The cordiality proffered to you inside now shows you the door. “Right this way, sir!” Oxycontin as extended stay; white glove service — minus the hands.

I want an art so dangerous that it is safe. I want an anesthetic art, an analgesic art, a palliative art, a radically anodyne art. I want an art that relieves suffering without treating the cause of that suffering, an art that mitigates the effects of the problem without ever solving the problem. I want an art that tells me that there is no solution because there is no problem. I want a static art — visually, morally, aesthetically — a hypometabolic art of hibernation, dormancy, anabiosis, and animalistic estivation. I want an art bathed in liquid nitrogen, an art cryogenically frozen. I want an art on perpetual life support, an art so enfeebled that in order to get off of it, someone must pull the plug. Please kill me. Art as feeding tube, art as passive euthanasia, art that comes with a “do not resuscitate” order, art that is in a persistently vegetative state. I want an art that is clinically dead. I want an impotent art, one unlikely to arouse, interest, or distress. I want an art that is floaty, sleepy, dull, lazy, heavy, sluggish, and couchbound. I want a narcotic art, an innocuous art, a postcoital art. I wanna be sedated.

I want an art so safe that it is dangerous. I want an art that is like being wrapped up in a warm blanket next to a campfire in the middle of a frozen forest, without a care in the world. I want an art that makes you feel the way you do when you wake up on a warm sunny morning, either on your screened-in porch or with a big window open, when the sun is soft and shinning in on you, when you have the whole day ahead of you — during which only good things of your choosing can happen. I want art that makes you feel like big slice of butter melting over a big pile of flapjacks. I want an art that is like a swimming in a pool of warm marshmallows. I want an art that makes your body feel like it’s plunging into velvety fur, an art that hits all the right places at all the right times, a purely delicious art with a champagne glow. I want an art of cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets, and frolicking puppies; an art of celebration, concordance, and solidarity. I want an art of quiet aromas, of lily, mallow, violet, elderberry, henbane, hemlock, tobacco, nightshade, stramonium, ether, and chloroform.

Because I believe that art should make the word a better place. Because art is something that happens inside us. Because when we look at things in the world, we become excited by them. Because the job of the artist is to make a gesture and really show people what their potential is. Because it’s not about the object, and it’s not about the image — it’s about the viewer. Because art is about profundity, about connecting to everything that it means to be alive. Because wherever you come to with art, it’s perfect. Because you don’t have to come with anything. Because what you bring to something is the art. Because I want an art that is safely dangerous. Because I want an art that is dangerously safe.

Kenneth Goldsmith is the author of 10 books of poetry, founding editor of the online archive UbuWeb, and the editor of I’ll Be Your Mirror: The SelectedAndy Warhol Interviews. Originally commissioned for a publication by the Royal College of Art and reprinted with permission from the author.

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