ADAPTATION SYNDROME | Painting in Contemporary Image Culture
German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s maladroit assessment of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center as “the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos” provides a startling example of the disintegrating distinctions between image production, art, and experience. Sophisticated in assessing the qualities of an artwork, but insensitive to the implications of recognizing them within a tragically real situation, Stockhausen unwittingly articulated the increasing ordinariness of the exchange between visual art practices and practices within the rest of culture.
He expressed the now commonplace notion of an artwork as a deliberately created thing or spectacle that powerfully affects its audience, where both the artist and the audience have the “experience” of the work. Stockhausen also instinctively understood—well before the vast majority of the public—that the attacks were meant, at least in part, to function afterwards as repeated images. The terrorists anticipated the presence of cameras and the dissemination of these “found images” by the media as part of the effect of their actions.
The crossover between images in art and images that occur in daily life has become a routine fact. The broader culture—immersed within this consistently shifting, stunningly pyrotechnic visual display—doesn’t care very much about what happens within the visual arts. Increasingly, the visual arts seem to make little difference, subjected (as they also tend to subject themselves) to a particularly confusing role in American culture—from the belief that the visual arts should be therapeutic, to the expectation that they should be beautiful or moving, to the desire for the visual arts to be socially useful.
Meanwhile, most of the visual material that genuinely affects or influences culture resides in other realms. Virtual reality caves are maintained by university science or engineering departments, not art departments. As the writer Arundhati Roy pointed out in May 2003, “[a]s America’s show business gets more and more violent and warlike, and America’s wars get more and more like show business, some interesting crossovers are taking place. The designer who built the $250,000 set in Qatar from which General Tommy Franks stage-managed news coverage of Operation Shock and Awe also built sets for Disney, MGM, and Good Morning America.” In the essay “The Numbing of the American Mind,” in which he hilariously identifies at least sixteen varieties of “realism” (representations of “the real”) in image culture, Thomas de Zengotita spoke of “endlessly proliferating” representations in what he called “the dreamwork of culture.”
In effect, the deluge of mass media and the spectacle of popular culture subsume not only everyday experience but also the entrenched vocabulary, philosophy, and relevance of what has been regarded as high culture. Just as art historians and cultural critics have deconstructed the Renaissance invention of linear perspective as the invention of a single, godlike vantage point for the viewer, innumerable and competing media now present to individuals a plethora of vantage points, each godlike point of view rapidly succeeding another.
Transitioning from what Thomas McEvilley described as having been the carrier of the “soul of Western visuality,” painting has been defrocked—along with other visual art media—by the proliferating power of the visual in other arenas of culture. The question of what the role of art should be within this situation can generally be described as falling within two opposing camps. In one, “Art” opposes the flashiness of entertainment. In the other, as critic Joel Weinstein gleefully wrote, “visual art . . . finally . . . [joins] the Entertainment State, just like movies and arena football.” The question of whether an alternative exists either to a reactionary position or to an embrace of “cheap thrills and superficial charms” rarely comes up. Yet, the nature of visual art’s—and, in particular, painting’s—adaptation within these conditions is crucial.