PRINT December 2008



FOR A FEW DAYS in mid-September, it was acute: the feeling that, however little the physical contours of the world might have changed, its form now was nevertheless imbued with a kind of virtuality. How else to describe the experience of, say, a city like New York, a place seemingly intact—even prospering wildly, to judge from the ubiquitous construction cranes accenting the skyline—while headlines blared news of a financial collapse portending substantive shifts in the character (to say nothing of the underlying organization and perception) of everyday life? To walk among the glistening glass-and-steel towers lining Manhattan’s brimming streets amid the more abstract ambience of credit freezes and bailouts was to have the vague sense of dwelling in an afterimage—of living inside an impression of the past bound to dissolve as the physical environment began to catch up and finally coincide with the world as it actually is.

The precise dimensions and consequences of the global economic meltdown are, of course, still to be quantified, and will become more fully apparent only in the months, years, and even decades ahead. And yet, the events that came to pass at the end of 2008 already render the task and limited scope of a year-in-review issue somewhat confounding. First, the framing context within which any artistic endeavor might be judged is radically changed; quite simply, nothing in art resonates today in the same way it did even a few months ago. Second, any impulse to look back at the past year is inevitably matched by a deep desire to look to the future—to anticipate the potential direction of culture, given these altered coordinates, and to surmise anew art’s role within that greater landscape. Time and again readers of this issue will encounter authors of different stripes grappling with this contradiction, seeking to engage matters of past and future at one and the same time—one can sense the unease in even the most modest of prose—and, on a few occasions, with no small ambition or shying away from the cultural, economic, and political stakes for society at large. The “best of” here is a hook for much heavier garments.

Theorist Michael Hardt, for one, takes up Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, only to look beyond the binding and suggest that “it might be useful to read the extraordinary and risky debts that continue to drive this economic crisis—housing debts . . . but also credit card and other personal debt—in terms of popular demands that replace in some sense declining wages and the lack of social services” that are neoliberalism’s legacy. (Further, he speculates, this subjective dimension may well give rise to movement-based forms of social engagement the likes of which we have not seen in years.) Elsewhere, in what might be considered a kind of keynote for the current issue, Charles Esche touches on the atmosphere of pragmatism, if not outright realism, that inflects formerly grandiose curatorial questions—“How do we want to be governed?” and “Who if not we should at least try to imagine the future of all this?”—before he tosses down a rhetorical gauntlet for artists and arts institutions alike: “We need new ideas and ideologies that address the cultural and emotional needs of a society for which economics is a demonstrably dismal science. Such conceptions must emerge from experiments and attempts responding to the here and now, without any clear sense of what kind of world we are finally seeking to build.”

It is useful, however, to remember that Esche’s perspective is solidly European. The sorts of exacting relationships between art and culture he summons as precedents for the experimentation he propounds, are, of course, more germane in Europe than in the United States—particularly when he considers our current predicament in light of earlier episodes from European history (Prague in 1968; Berlin in 1989), correlatives of which simply do not exist in America. In fact, one can only wonder whether group and “relational” practices of the past few decades never found a real foothold here because some larger conception and embodiment of the social whole in everyday life—the quotidian sense of belonging to a larger social network—is largely absent from the culture. A profound awareness of that lack must lead us to consider, with some hopefulness, another development in late 2008: the significance of a Barack Obama presidency.

Much has already been said of the Obama campaign’s organizational dimension, its investment in ideas of community and belief in mobilization on a grassroots level, in building a movement from the ground up. But a curious aspect of this message of involvement was also conveyed in the campaign’s own representation of election night, through images made widely available via major-news-outlet links to the campaign’s Flickr page, where people could browse an album of snapshots of the candidate and his family backstage in the moments leading up to his win. Decidedly vernacular—blurry, poorly lit, and haphazardly composed—the photos are staged less to seem “intimate” than to appear utterly familiar to anyone who has ever snapped a picture at a kid’s birthday party or on Christmas morning. Here the abstraction of the “highest office in the land” is displaced by the visage of an ordinary man. The photographs’ lack of aesthetic nudges the notion of governance from a question of access to a matter of accessibility.