Quotidian

Quotidian is a great big important sounding word. Put a capitol "Q" on the front of it, let it roll around in your mouth and you’d swear it has the robust and aristocratic flavor of a fourth century Roman emperor.  This is just verbal sleight of hand, however, a phonic ruse that dresses up a humble signified in a preposterously extravagant signifier. The origin of quotidian is, in fact, Latin. It was derived from cottīdiānus, a word that meant “daily.” In English usage the meaning extended to describe that which occurs daily, the commonplace, trivial and the ordinary.  To use of a grand old word like quotidian these days is to participate in a kind of hysterical exhibitionism, an overwrought and excessive way to highlight or exult what would normally be considered ordinary and mundane. That phrase, “hysterical exhibitionism” is also, not coincidently, a particularly apt description of our current cultural landscape dominated by reality television and social media- and it’s way too clever to be my own coinage.  

 I encountered the expression “hysterical exhibitionism” while reading Eugenio Montale’s 1975 Nobel Lecture, the one where the Italian poet accepted his Noble Prize in literature, the very same address that provided the text for Quotidian. In his speech Montale took advantage of his triumphant moment to cover quite a bit of ground, but I was struck by a fairly cranky section in the middle, where he wonders aloud about the future of prospects of poetry in an increasingly literal and materialist culture.  Montale was especially concerned about the loss of self-reflection, transformation and lyricism in the arts.  The fine arts had become a prosaic curatorial exercise, a series of theoretically justified but unimaginative reframings of cultural detritus, (“It is possible to frame and exhibit a pair of slippers (I myself have seen mine in that condition)…”)  But even more troubling to him than fine art’s  turn towards a kind of sterile  literalism, was the state of mass communication, what we would now identify as popular and digital culture.  For Montale it was nothing but a distraction, a raucous but empty spectacle of the quotidian. It produced, “objects for consumption, to be used and discarded while waiting for a new world in which man will have succeeded in freeing himself of everything, even his own consciousness.” By different means and pursuing different ends, fine art and popular entertainment had arrived at the same place. An aesthetic leveling had occurred. Art, both high and low shared a materialist fixation and literalism that Montale surmised was an inevitable result of the mix of cynicism and prosperity that characterizes advanced democracies:  “A sort of general doomsday atmosphere accompanies an ever more wide-spread comfort, that well-being… has the livid features of desperation. Against the dark background of this contemporary civilization of well-being, even the arts tend to mingle, to lose their identity.”


That an aging poet should find reasons to complain about the art of his day should hardly give anyone pause.  What kept drawing me back to this speech were his erudition and especially his prescience.  Montale’s “hysterical exhibitionism” was not so much a clever characterization of a historical moment as is was a description of my contemporary reality, a today and most likely a tomorrow as well, where it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish the banal voyeurism, critical commentary, and trumped-up trivialities of social media and reality television from the banal voyeurism, critical commentary and trumped-up trivialities of fine art.

A quick case-in-point: At the 2012 Whitney Biennial over two-thirds of the artists presented works that primarily relied on curatorial, documentary or recontextualizing practices.  The found object and appropriation reigned supreme. Had many of these works not been cordoned off from the outside world by the Whitney’s granite façade, they would have been nearly indistinguishable from life, blending more or less seamlessly into the fabric of the city.  Now, mind you, this is not a complaint. Had my own piece Quotidian appeared in the exhibition (Oh, to dream!) then it would most certainly have to be included in this not-so-silent majority.  After all, what are its materials? a borrowed quotation; QR codes begging people to engage in the most common of rituals, staring their phones; and finally, Instagram images consisting of textural  reframings of pictures from my daily life. Curatorial? Check. Documentary? Check. Recontextualization? Check.  By my count Quotidian is a veritable trifecta of contemporary critical art production.  If there is Kool-aid to be drunk, I’ve clearly swallowed my share. This is not snarky Whitney-bashing, I’m simply trying to illustrate a point.

 

While it might be a stretch to characterize Quotidian and the sum of contemporary art practice as “hysterical exhibitionism,” they both rely on everyday materials (the found object, the re-purposed, the documentary artifact) and pedestrian processes (collecting, pointing, arranging), all the while claiming extraordinary consideration of these otherwise unconsidered, ordinary gestures.  As a result the public is left to rely on the authority of the atiststs themselves, or more importantly, the authority curators, critics and institutions to get them over the ontological hurdle: Is it art?  Of course this is precisely the point from the art world perspective. Consider the unconsidered! Break down the artificial barriers between art and life! Re-enchant the world!  

I am a believer in the current aesthetic status quo, but if I permit myself to play devil’s advocate for a moment, I have to admit that I share some of Montale’s misgivings. There is something a bit hysterical, a bit exhibitionist, a bit, well, Vegas about the whole situation.  “Vegas?” you ask.   Los Vegas is that place where the entire infrastructure, money, politics, institutional clout, are all aligned and pressed into the service of repackaging the ordinary as the extraordinary, (and not coincidently, it is also the place where the once extraordinary often goes to die.) Of course this analogy has its limits. We are in no danger that the art world cognoscenti will trade in their black turtlenecks and skinny glasses for feathers and sequins anytime soon. For one thing, the attraction of Vegas is libidinal and its desired effect on visitors is largely moral- a license to give free play to ones desires.  For contemporary art museums the attraction is conceptual and the desired effect on its visitors is largely epistemological- to give free play to ones perception and intellect.  Where I believe the parallel holds up is that Vegas and contemporary art museums both rely primarily on institutional authority to create a physical and mental spaces set apart from the rest of life.  Here grandstanding and exhibitionism are the norm, and novelty and spectacle the expectation.  While visiting Vegas or the art gallery we exist in an institutionally inflated bubble where the ordinary can be presented to us as the extraordinary. 


For art there is no doubt something invigorating in all this, a revaluation of all values in the Nietzschean sense.  Montale could appreciate the freedom, but was convinced that this liberation came with a price. He detected more than a whiff of decadence and pretension clinging to contemporary art. To make something of nothing could be magic, but it could also be the empty conjuring of advertising, or propaganda, or of just plain grandstanding. And what with the loss of propriety, the ontological confusion and aesthetic leveling that comes along with conflating the ordinary and the extraordinary, how to tell the difference?

I believe that this is the context in which we should consider what I found to be the most provocative statement in Montale’s speech, the phrase that I kept turning over in my mind, so much so that it became the genesis of Quotidian:

“Evidently, the arts, all the visual arts, are becoming more democratic in the worst sense of the word.”

Here Montale makes three crucial rhetorical moves: One, he pins his analysis of art on a decidedly political term; Two, he engages in a bit of transvaluation himself, figuring democracy as something other than the universal force for good as it is usually portrayed in the west; and Three, he poses what amounts to a question in the guise of a statement.  What does it mean to be democratic in the worst sense of the word?  Just what is the worst sense of the word?  If we look to Montale to answer his own question, then the easiest answer is that he was using “democracy” in its least political sense, as a stand-in for “popular” or “of the people”- that visual art was becoming increasingly indistinguishable from mass communication and that the chosen materials and practices of contemporary art were becoming ever more quotidian, unremarkable and common, blurring the distinctions between art and life.  There is certainly enough in his speech to support this reading. Isn’t this “making something of nothing” Montale’s hysterical exhibitionism? Perhaps.  The difficulty that I have with this reading is that is leaves us with the conclusion that Eugenio Montale, erudite man of letters and Nobel Laureate was a curmudgeon, or worse, a philistine, pining away for the days when taste, tradition, and craft were the reliable arbiters of artistic value.

There is, however, another possibility, one that makes this speech feel very contemporary and vital to me some forty years after it was penned. I believe that Montale the poet chose the word “democracy” very precisely, in its most political sense, to alert us to a much more complex and uncertain reality. He felt he was witnessing a shift in the locus of power away from the cultural oligarchy of institutions, experts, and specialists, and saw a not too distant future where artistic authority, agency and legitimacy are increasingly vested in the people and exercised by them directly.  The leveling that Montale found troubling was not so much a matter of the visual arts “dumbing down” aesthetically to the level of popular culture, rather it was that popular culture was “powering up” to the level of cultural authority and arbiter. When the hyped quotidian that is contemporary art is formally indistinguishable from the hyped quotidian that is popular culture then institutional authority and legitimacy are essential to create spaces (be they actual or virtual) where formerly ordinary objects and gestures can be subject to extraordinary attention, consideration and reflection. As authority, authorship and distribution of art and the art-like (how to tell the difference?) expands to the people, so expands the bubble, the aura of the extraordinary. This glistening bubble thins and flattens as it spreads casting its iridescent luminance on ever growing swaths of formerly unremarkable territory.  Why bother with travel plans when Vegas is right here, when Vegas is everywhere?  Distinctions between the ordinary and extraordinary become meaningless, or at best difficult to legitimize.  Make no mistake. This is not artistic entropy, the dissipation of art’s significance into meaninglessness. The words “art”, “ordinary” and “extraordinary” continue as potent, even necessary, signifiers. By my reckoning we will have to continue to wait quite some time for the much anticipated but never realized “death of art.”  Rather, what we are experiencing is the ascendancy of the quotidian and the encroachment of Pan-Vegas sprawl.  This is the birth of the para-extraordinary, and for visual art, it is democracy in the worst sense of the word.

 

Installation diagram of the tag font for the Bryan Gallery.  Nail positions determined by projecting this diagram with a high resolution digital projector and correcting for parallax with a tripod mounted laser level.

Make a Free Website with Yola.