Art in the Post-Democracy Era (or The Inspiration of Dictatorial Constraints)
So over the weekend, I read the New York Times review of Milan Kundera's new collection of essays titled Encounter, and was particularly intrigued when the critic quoted the Czech writer's opinion that "we have come to the era of post-art, in a world where art is dying because the need for art, the sensitivity and the love for it, is dying.”
That is a statement we could discuss in some depth, but it reminded me that I haven't heard as many people talk about being in a "post-art" era recently as we had a few years back. And, to be honest, I wasn't sure what the latest, most widely accepted definition of "post-art" was, knowing that how something is defined is usually as political as the implications of its significance. So I googled "What does "post-art" mean?" which turned up this great piece by Deborah Fisher I had forgotten about, Post-Art Manifesto And Eponymous Blog-Killer. In particular, this notion jumped out at me:
I learned how to make modern art. Contemporary art is a modernist activity. And I honestly think that the only way to catapult over the problems we have--everything from the impending Climate Death to this Economic Catastrophe to Rampant Fundamentalism (from ecofundamentalism to jihad and the GOP)--is to find what lies beyond the modern world.Knowing what lies beyond the modern world would indeed provide direction for citizens and artists alike, but transitions are usually deceptive, often all but impossible to get a good grasp on while actually happening. Hindsight is generally the only serious way to even begin to organize what truly mattered versus what was reactionary or simply noise. What seems obvious, though, as the limitations of Liberal Democracies seem to be being reached in conjunction with what looks like the biggest heist in human history (i.e., the money that banks managed to squeeze out of the US treasury before dropping its ravaged rind into the wastebasket) is that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are more willingly traded in exchange for prosperity and, most of all, security by the masses than would have flattered our forefathers.
The experiment that has been the United States of America will likely continue under its current Constitution, but more and more I hear people (very intelligent people) argue that a benevolent dictatorship wouldn't be the worse way to run things, especially if that brought with it a reasonable amount of economic stability. Historically speaking, such thinking isn't as heretical as it is an accurate and objective observation. In 15th century Florence (which had the only representative government of all the Italian states then), for example, each time the Florentines pushed for less corruption among the Signoria and a more open and fair form of democratic government, they found the competing tenets of Christianity and Capitalism brought about constant wars and civic strife. By pretending to simply have a representative government that all but the dullest knew was tightly controlled by a benevolent oligarchy, the Florentines prospered, and how. The checks and balances of such prosperous times were provided by competing wealthy families, not other branches of government, as well as how easy it was to turn any abused population into a blood-thirsty mob. Yes it was much more violent, but at its best it was also stunningly efficient.
What I suspect, in addition to Liberal Democracy, is also potentially reaching its limits is its driving Humanist ideal: individualism. One of the ways previous centuries of people dealt with hardship was by maximizing their resources within their extended family units (forming micro-economies and governments, if you will). Individualism and globalism has spread families out to where this isn't as easy any more. We hear about 20- or 30-somethings moving back in with their parents to save money, but that's seen as an undesirable, and hopefully temporary, situation, whereas before it was viewed as a source of a family's strength to pool their resources and work together as a team. The same people who I hear muse on the potential benefits of a benevolent dictatorship also see a return to extended family coalitions as a positive part of that scenario. In other words, they seem to instinctively long for a pre-Enlightenment social structure, as if it were genetically hard-wired into our species to live that way.
But, asks the myopic dealer, would such a structure serve art? In the recent thread here on whether "huge leaps" in art were still possible, many people questioned whether huge leaps were even desirable (which I personally would answer "For me, yes."), but Franklin cut to the chase and noted that "Innovation doesn't happen in the absence of constraints."
Are the kind of "constraints" that would come with a benevolent dictatorship the kind we want, even if they would bring about innovations in art? From the point of view I was raised in, the answer would be "Absolutely not! Corruption squashes individualism, and individualism is essentially for meaningful artistic expression." But, if I'm honest, I have to acknowledge that despite our Constitution, despite centuries of hard-learned lessons, corruption is ubiquitous everywhere humans set up governments and always has been, even in the US...so such sentiments are a bit naive at best.
Moreover, there is the matter of how you side in the other perpetual debate Milan Kundera raised: "the disagreement between people for whom the political struggle is more important than real life, than art, than thought, and people for whom the whole meaning of politics is to serve real life, art, thought.” Fighting for a political system that is not serving real life, art or thought very well is about as anti-Humanist as it gets.
Don't get me wrong. I like Liberal Democracies, even as messy and hypocritical as they are. I am comfortable in them. I am not advocating for a dictatorship here, nor do I applaud them elsewhere. I just think that whatever comes next for the species, and our art, can't ignore some of these human tendencies and paradoxes. We can continue limping along with our cynical blinders on...and, here in the US at least, probably will. But it's tough to get excited that or the art it will produce.