Date: Sat, 10 May 1997 22:27:08 +0200 (MET DST)
From: Janos Sugar

Art In The Present

Janos Sugar

The function of art within the social division of work is to transcend the necessity of answering questions of topical interest and thus to provide access to general questions. Engaged as it is in an investigation of the mysterious empire of the non-practical, art can be anything except presently oriented. It satisfies a need before the need is even born and realized; works of art may be considered answers to questions which the present has not even gotten around to asking. Culture serves survival by preparing one for future problems, for types of problems as yet unknown1. Art attempts to produce the absolutely different (the anti-present) through which it furthers the vitally important ability of its analogy-free reception. In other words, it is future-management. From the perspective of the present it must inevitably seem to somewhat unintelligible. The simple fact that a work of art is not obliged to be intelligible for the present, and that it may only become intelligible in the future, causes serious conflicts for many. A work of art has plenty of time; it is in no hurry like kitsch is. The loyalty due to the realization of the above is, in fact, the energy-source for radical interpretation.

Politics, however, could not focus on anything but the present even if it wanted to. Otherwise it would not be able to effectively control processes in the present civilization. It will not manage to influence history unless a poster or slogan can find supporters within the society of the living. The function of a political movement or newspaper article is to be topical and by no means eternal: it must work and be effective in the present. On the part of politics this requires a kind of present-management, which allows for the temporary inconsistencies in means and purposes, so that a major concept can be implemented in a linear sequence of steps.

Works of art also influence social changes, they may foretell or amplify them; the crucial difference is that art does this in diffuse, unpredictable ways which, as a rule, only become apparent in retrospect. Politics is the world of ephemeral topicalities, while art is - at least comparatively - timeless, and thus not particularly tied to the present. It happens extremely rarely that the politics by which current events are shaped can produce even a timeless moment, if nothing more. Usually, this temporary coexistence of short and long-term thinking only occurs in the communicational ecstasy of revolutions, increasingly rare as they are.2

In order to be as effective as possible, an action geared to the present has to fulfill two conditions: it must be immediately clear to all and it must gain the greatest possible publicity in a short time. Whatever has access to great publicity (and is clear to all) receives political meaning, because it can influence the development of the present. Power is the supervision and control of whatever influences the public. Obviously, the ratio between the two conditions may vary: a medium gaining large publicity may enable the mass reception of a less universally understandable message. In other cases it is the author - the personality (or function) behind the cause - that liberates the energies of interpretation.3 This phenomenon is only characteristic of film (the present-oriented one) and pop music, which operate with a star system. Because the stars (unlike Herostratos) gain publicity by their talents, they are the perfect carriers of commercial messages: the public, the fans, trust them if (s)he says so, it must be that way. Stars consciously use their enormous publicity for good causes4, and can make simple messages like "we are the world" or "donŐt worry" reach the consciousness of the countless inhabitants of this planet.5 Any alternative reality of the theatrical type is always a borderline case of present-day culture in as much as it is a sequence of events, mortal, enclosed in time, unique and impossible to reproduce. Due to this very lack of reproducibility, it is, however, always more then a one way propaganda. Another similar case is folk art, which is tied to the possibilities of the present in many ways and tends to appear in various new channels provided by democracy - think of the genres of the joke, graffiti, or even fashion and demonstration - but which nevertheless fails to be a suitable medium for serious manipulation, because of its anonymity.

Whatever is present-oriented, that is whatever is clear to all and is public, contains a purpose of power and an order to be interpreted in a topical way. The practical steps of obtaining and keeping power have always added a dramaturgy (a medial form) to politics. Media consciousness - the choice and planning of effective channels of communication - has become crucial. The images, symbols, representative figures and election strategies of major national enterprises and parties are unavoidably shaped by marketing firm professionals. Economic and political powers use the best and most advanced means available in order to discern the social context. Advertising companies and classic market research have become part and parcel to politics, and opinion polls are taken constantly.6

The different techniques of recording and reproduction (printing, photo, film, audio recording, the press) enable an idea to reach as many as possible in the present.7 In the genre of film and posters, requiring clarity to all has remained crucial because of the (slow and expensive) technology necessary in providing access to a large public. One of the sad consequences of this is a lack of development in film language (at least in comparison with other genres) and the existence of the category experimental. From the early development of reproducibility, the minority on the right track (=power) no longer wanted to address the public en masse (through mass rallies, parades and propaganda exhibitions) as much as to understand and employ the new communication technologies (radio, film, TV and in the future, interactive PCTV) in order to reach everyone individually in their homes or through data bases (i.e. letters to all pensioners - the booming business of mailing lists). This way efficiency increases substantially, because the publicity available becomes cheaper and more precisely targeted (eg specialized TV channels)8 The political poster is reinvented as a commercial clip between television programs viewed by a suitable audience, and the street, which used to be the sole forum for publicity, is increasingly relegated to a space of unavoidable transportation and consumption, or used as a stage for televised mass demonstrations (in the worst cases: street fights). A form is sought for all public events which will lend itself to television broadcasting9 (e.g. TV broadcasts of parliamentary debates, the Rumanian revolution on TV, the live broadcasting of the Gulf War - which included the brand-new bomb-perspective). They seek the form which is best able to glue the viewer to the television set, which makes it attractive for advertisers, increasing ratings and thus the commercial value of the channel.

As the extremely valuable high-publicity moments must be utilized with the greatest efficiency, big-budget production has become the single legal researcher of innovative film language. Whether a commercial clip lasting for a few seconds, a music video clip or a feature film, the goal is the creation of the most advanced product able to attract attention. As in military research, the large amount of money devoted to this purpose calls for access to impartial and non-ideological information. It is the genre of the music video that connects the world of the increasingly self-reflexive commercials with the no-budget subculture. The unity of lyrics, music and singer is irreversibly joined by a variant in visual language: an adequate visual illusion of music appears, which can ultimately be seen as an investigation of new poetic possibilities. Another new and extremely complex medium is that of the big-budget film, a (designed) success which will produce profit worldwide. One should not make light of the ability of finding new concepts which will enjoy worldwide popularity, of identifying the mythologies of the day (Superman, ET, dinosaurs, etc.) and creating a sort of cultural Esperanto, which will be equally liked by all, no matter what culture they belong to. A big budget movie, with its extremely large audience is, capable of sending consciously placed (and not exclusively commercial) positive messages to the subconscious of its viewers.

Art operates in a temporal dimension which is not closed to the future, with the promise of a not necessarily immediate, but theoretically infinite publicity. Its impact is therefore continuos. and consequently clarity to all in this case means future understanding. Thanks to museums and restoration in particular, works of art can coexist with the time of civilization. This is why works of art produced in the past can nevertheless gain a continuously renewed currency. Social engagement strengthens the present function of the works of art, and in such cases their looking towards the future appears only in an indirect way, namely that the social context, gradually forgotten with time, turns into an aesthetic one. In art too, the new technologies of recording and what are known as the new media (recording of picture and sound, technologies of reproduction and the new means of communication) have resulted in a media consciousness, that is a higher degree of self-reflexivity in the means of expression. The medium (genre) is no longer a mere container, but a component of equal rights which is able to increase the effectiveness of the content (message). The avant-garde, always at the forefront of artistic investigation, have always focused on borderline areas: stretching, as it were, the limits of the medium to the maximum, trying to discover the (current) limits of artistic expression. With the new media available, this unscrupulous research center has obtained tools to which no previous (art) historical references have been made, since no one had been able to use them before. Therefore, anything that happens through them becomes history; that is anything as such can be a breakthrough. The first works of computer graphics and animation, just like those of photography and film previously, were in fact demos testing and demonstrating the existence of the medium and informing the potential consumer about the capabilities of the given "new medium". Those means of expression which were formed in the course of the human use of tools and the evolution of communication, which were free of tradition, had the important novelty of being the results of a technical (practical, market type), rather than linguistic, development.

The very same media which facilitate the homogenization eradicating cultural differences and forming global communication standards are actually quite suitable for independent - minority - usage as well. The mass production necessary for development, and the user-friendly approach required by the market (the quality of being clear to all), provide the opportunity for counter-cultural use - as shown by the appearance of genres of independent film and video, minority video, alternative bulletin boards, pirate radio and television, small circulation audio CD-s and others. The independent researchers of the new media are hackers, searching for limits and weak point of the systems.

In the case of technical media development does not slow down, but rather becomes permanent: new directions and possibilities for application are continuously sought. This is particularly interesting in the case of high power tools, such as the computer. The new medium of global network and data base + personal, anthropomorphic interface is for all intents and purposes in existence, yet nobody seems to know what to do with it.