I was born in 1962, which meant that, by the time I was seven years old, the United States had put astronauts on the Moon. If you didn’t grow up in that time it’s hard to convey the feelings that were had about the world when every aspect of life was touched by the propaganda of progress.
There were a lot of TV shows and movies about space exploration or a near-future science fiction. Kids’ magazines regularly featured stories about what life would be like in the year 2000, and with small plastic toys of Apollo spacecraft or alien creatures in every other breakfast cereal, I felt completely at one with the historical moment.
My first exposure to art was through the pages of magazines and paperback covers.
I marvelled at the work of painters and illustrators who gave the fantasy of the future its lustre, even though the kinds of images they produced drew on the artistic vocabulary of the past they also seemed ineffably of the moment.
Later, on a school trip to the Art Gallery of New South Wales – a small and relatively modest place compared to the behemoth it has become and will continue to grow into – I had my first brush with modernism in the large, imposing colour field and geometric abstract works on display. This was a foundational experience for my understanding of art. To me, contemporary art was utopian in its outlook and intention – this is the world as it should be.
Perhaps I’d been primed for this by my formative years of sitting in front of the family’s furniture-sized black and white TV, trying to make out in the granular transmissions from Sea of Tranquillity what was shadow and what was form, what was a figure and landscape. To me, the world of art and science were one continuous aesthetic experience.
Of course, in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the world was roiled with the after-effects of colonialism and its proxy wars in Asia and Africa, and the political dissent that resisted Western imperialism across the world.
By the time I was in my teens in the mid-70s, the optimism of the 1960s had faded into the dystopian grime of the late Cold War. Where the pop art inspired worlds of science fiction had been about a better tomorrow, pop art was now deployed as a kind of acidic, parodic commentary on the moment. Nearly three decades on from its birth, pop, like surrealism, was something one tended to only encounter in the design of paperback covers for science fiction and fantasy novels.
Time jump to 2018. We now live in yesterday’s future. It doesn’t feel particularly futuristic on a day-to-day level, except for the occasional moment such as when it was revealed recently that Barbra Streisand had her dying dog cloned into a litter of new and identical dogs. It was like a background moment from Philip K. Dick’s 1969 sci-fi novel Ubik. But things have changed in profound ways, almost too clichéd to list them but you know what they are.
Art has changed too. Where it was once utopian – or at least seemed like it – the tone of much contemporary art is not about how the world should be, but rather why everything is a mess. The recommendation of a solution is fine, and art that has a social mission has its place, but it often feels that art is not striking out into new fields, but rather completely occupying known ground in an effort to reach a kind of cultural stability.
Much art of the present lassoes past art movements as a way to build an alternative chronology that adds historical legitimacy to what often seems at first like an ephemeral practice.
This kind of thing has been going on for at least a decade, perhaps longer, and while
it seemed at first to be a legitimate strategy to free contemporary art from its ahistorical obsessions, what we’ve ended up with is a mannerist moment where art is probably more about itself and its place in art practice and history than it is about its ostensible subject. Even radical subjectivity seems like a dead end – how many more times do we want to celebrate the artist genius? That shit is boring.
The art that gives me hope for the future is the art that engages with the materials and conditions of the present moment but offers up a different way of looking at the world. Easier said than done, of course, and it’s a nice platitude that art does that as a default effect of its existence. What I’m talking about is art as an aesthetic continuity with science that tells us how to re-see the world in a literal way, reframing the problems of the world as solutions, as possibilities and potential utopias. That’s a future worth living in.