The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 20 No. 1 (Spring 2018)

After the Vernissage: Travels in the Contemporary Art World

Greg Jackson

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2018

(Volume 20 | Issue 1)

Berlin. Mid-June. The streets of Neukölln bustle with hipsters and immigrants, the young, the artistic, tourists. English runs like a thread through the German streets of bespoke shops and laid-back cafés. Stalls in an outdoor market line one side of a canal overhung with trees, on the banks of which small groups drink beer and watch the waterway’s idle traffic. It is a still, muggy day, the kind when people dress in loose, casual clothes.

Turn the volume down and you would be forgiven for seeing Brooklyn, which makes me wonder: What is this life we have come to live, we who compose the ranks of today’s urban bohemians, flâneurs, and dilettantes of the creative class, seamlessly transposable from Zurich to Istanbul to Mexico City? To put a finer point on it: Since the symbolism of our lives suggests an attitude toward art, politics, and money, what is our attitude toward these things beneath the posture and pose represented in the style that adorns the life? This style, after all, dominates the culture’s image of itself—its idea of “cool,” at least—from Pepsi commercials to glossy magazines to Anne Imhof’s 2017 Venice Biennale Grand Prize–winning performance piece, Faust. Does the superficial artistry of our lives reflect a deeper or shallower commitment to art? Does the stridency of our politics reflect a stronger or weaker sense of conviction? Where do the aesthetics of commerce and the aesthetics of art begin and end?

I was poised to ask these questions in part because my writing career had stopped bringing in money; in part because I had traveled to Europe from Israel (where I had just participated in the Jerusalem Book Fair and fielded a week’s worth of questions about literature in our political moment, the Age of Trump); and in part because I had decided to accompany my girlfriend, N., who studies and writes about the art world, to the summer’s international exhibitions. It was an unusual year. A rare confluence of major shows had left Europe speckled with pop-up art destinations. Having never been to a single glitzy exhibition of the sort, I figured I could do them all in one go and aggregate a composite picture, the gee-whiz hot take of the outsider or innocent.

Traveling as I did to these exhibitions with N., however, I could only repeatedly encounter the depth of my own ignorance. There was so much to know—about artists’ careers and institutional intrigues, curators’ sensibilities and deep currents in the market’s evolving taste. Compared with N., I knew none of it, and so anyone who believes that comment is only available to or interesting from initiates may dismiss my thoughts and responses as too amateur, too literary, too credulous or skeptical or insufficiently aware of their unoriginality. Guilty as decoupaged. I only offer, in the place of expertise, curiosity and a willingness to ask dumb questions, to start the conversation a few steps back, among the crowd outside the gallery door with its faces pressed to the glass. What does visual art mean right now, what can it mean, to a world as fraught as our own? That’s what I wanted to know.

The irony was that this was the question I had been asked incessantly in Jerusalem. What were writers’ political responsibilities? What could literature do? A poet came in from Tel Aviv one day to give a talk with me about the revolutionary potentials of literature and the “new social order.” Neither of us knew what this meant. Neither of us, at least, could find the delusory courage to believe in what we imagined it might mean. There is just nothing to say that in itself, as a bald statement of art’s purpose, does not typify exactly the deadness of experience and thought that art seeks to avoid. Can we ask the question at all?

On the other hand, can we ignore the question? This alternative seems more problematic still: letting the meaning and relevance of art fade into the mist of its own inarticulacy, until the logic is circular and art is successful because it is successful, our authority to judge art’s success having been dictated by our fluency in the current norms of how art’s success is to be judged.

Where did this leave me? Nowhere very good. Stuck between the poverties of ignorance and the vacant jargon of cosmopolitan “knowingness.” Could I experience the art without any of this mediation and simply report back on what I felt? The short answer is no. The principal experience of the art I encountered, I found, was not the art itself, but the uncertainty and complexity of my own subjective response. The foremost experience was an experience of myself, and so this piece is perforce about me.

But in the manner of such things I am not really “about” me, but rather the pressures, stresses, contradictions, and sensations visited on and in this body of mine. And it is art’s purpose, I believe—if I can propose one, after decrying such reductions—to help us explore exactly this strange predicament through the adjacent and defamiliarized proxies of what we have encountered so many times that it now fails to register at all. Art’s purpose, in short, is to bring the very possibility of experience back from the dead.

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Greg Jackson is the author of Prodigals, a collection of short stories. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, and the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 20.1 (Spring 2018). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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