There is, at the current moment, a line being drawn. A razor thin pinstripe being etched across every map creating another nearly invisible, perhaps imaginary border. More and more our shared visions of the future are drifting toward the poles of history. But the stronger the contrasts grow, the more clearly both sides reveal themselves to be wholly codependent. The politics of the Western world have grown increasingly divided between a pseudo-progressive ideology and a dangerously extreme populism. On the one hand, the future is imagined as the evolution of the neo-liberal project, which since the fall of the Berlin Wall has wreaked havoc on under developed countries in the Middle East and Africa. On the other, a past history is conjured in the form of oppressively conservative agendas that use the failures of modern democracy as a not-so-subtle cover for bigotry and hatred. The two sides manipulate our insecurities over the ever-diminishing space and resources of the natural environment to generate gulfs in the immaterial worlds of thought. Both sides see themselves as the harbingers of a present somewhere beyond our own, playing anachronistic visions of the future and the past against one another. Our days are traded for the currency of a fake potential, a denial of potential’s perpetual non-actuality. On offer is a promise of a deferred becoming that maintains the hollow image of our salvation from the horrors of an imbalanced world and ensures that precarity remains the sole ruler of our present. “Learn from the lessons of history and we will not repeat our mistakes.” This adage can be heard from either and both, simultaneously.
Yet potential is, by nature, latent and inaccessible; it is the engine of dissatisfaction. It comes to us as the great motivator for our pursuits and the perennial source of yearning. It is the mutual territory of both earnest faithfulness and the cynic’s disintegration; it is where the singular belief in imminence and futility is destroyed in favor of irony. Both belief and cynicism require faithful (in)action that diminishes the implications of the present and begin to form, in my mind, a singular position. We can watch the two categories being confused and bent towards one another when Donald Trump manipulates widespread dissatisfaction with the impotence of government into a belief that the same governing bodies will be returned to a false image of prosperity under his guidance. Or when Hillary Clinton denounces the oligarchical structure of wealth in America and rejoices the tenants of class equality, all while wearing a $12,000 coat made by Armani1.
The contradiction here is that as the distinctions are shown to be growing sharper, they seem to also be going a little blurry. This blurriness is perhaps the one saving grace of a growing division that is generating more and more vitriol from both sides. It is this undefined middle ground, where things begin to resemble one another and our rules for judgment become muddled, that most closely resembles the nature of potential. When all things begin to bleed together, and party divisions are revealed as fabrications that maintain the standards of a ruling elite, the latency of potential begins to take rise in people. And as terrifying as the homogenized political landscape is, it does seem evident that as the poles are exposed as falsely opposed points along an interconnected network2, the middle, or several middles, are slowly revealing themselves. By its very existence a flattened ideological field implicates the unarticulated alternative, a third space or what could be termed the shrinking middle. I call it the shrinking middle because despite its consistent growth, a growth that has begun to encompass more and more of us, its voice and democratic power are being exponentially reduced. These middle grounds are where the contrast to the rhetoric of belief and cynicism could possibly exist, where the half-crying, half-laughing ironic can take up residence, waiting to readily disappoint the faithful and the nihilistic through a retracing of new, elaborated distinctions. In short, it is here that potential remains, or rather that the remains of potential are here, slowly being excavated.
We can look towards the world’s arts institutions (and likely many other places) for similar developments. In 2015, the Tate Museum’s Turner Prize was awarded, for the first time in its history, to a group of designers and architects whose work was said to embody art’s path to cultural relevance through a utilitarian engagement with the broader community3. It is, in the last century, the most common critical debate in art and the broad uncertainty of the contemporary moment has seen art’s usefulness examined no less harshly. These demands for art to declare its purpose are attacks on the grey area of potential that ask simultaneously “What are you?” and “What do you represent?” Or “What are the categorical purposes you fulfill?” and “Who do those purposes serve?” Like politics, the correct answers to these questions are almost certainly the purposes of good and the service of the public, but also like politics these words are a tremendously vague lip service that is often hard to verify.
The questions of use-value and representation in art are emblematic of an extremely conservative tendency within a field traditionally viewed as liberal. An artistic practice that pursues a denial of purpose, whether that purpose is market viability, political/social engagement, artistic persona, or any other categorical definition, is sometimes characterized as an inactive vanity that seeks to detract from the nobler pursuits of a purposeful content. In not so dissimilar terms, Bernie Sanders has been repeatedly labeled a “radical” for his political viewpoints that seem to me to be the standard trademarks of a traditional 20th century Democrat. He has also been decried as unelectable and accused of a similar sort of impotent vanity as his campaign threatens to undermine that of Hillary Clinton. Both the demands for art to perform utility and the mischaracterization of Sanders as a radical are signs of the relative conservatism rising within traditionally liberal fields. One reason for this in art is the expansion and redefinition of the creative field that has coincided with the shift from industrial to cognitive labor. Cultural production has over taken the industrial, as artists have moved into the ruined hubs of industry in America, taking up residence in abandoned warehouses, factories, and storefronts. The sheer number of artists and the circumstances of the shift from physical to immaterial production make the work of defining art’s use-value ever more important. The idea, however, that art must take up the aims of utility and mirror the industrial world in order to maintain relevance is an idea that drastically limits the possibility of how and why art can mean something. Art’s capacity to model new (and even negative) modes of sociality and criticality would be ignored for the narrow goal of purpose.
We feel compelled as artists to contribute “purposeful” content in guilty retribution for engaging in a glorified form of leisure during such drastic times of suffering. But succumbing to the pressures of a purpose driven society, one where potential is spayed and confined to the prescriptive options of the status quo, does little more than offer new restrictions on a potential redefinition of roles and categories the world so desperately needs. The rapid disappearance of the spaces of cultural and immaterial nuance is perhaps equally, if not more, to blame for the growing indifference towards our ideological foes, as is the precariousness of our physical environment. There is less room for autonomy now than there likely has ever been, but an art whose purpose is purpose alone fails to acknowledge the power, or even the very existence, of latency within potential. If art has a duty to be purposeful or the right to engage in any action for the benefit of a broader community, then those duties and rights should be put in the service of a true radicalism that seeks to deny the purposes of category and embraces the potential of the shrinking middle.
1I am not overlooking the gender bias in critiquing a politician’s wardrobe and in fairness men’s suits can often cost upwards of this amount, but the image of a wealthy politician vowing to reform the corporate dominance over government from which they have benefited is drawn into sharp focus here
2Instead of conflicting ends of a spectrum
3A position put forth by Alistair Hudson, one of the judges, in a series of videos entitled “What Is Art For?” that acted as a mission statement for the 2015 selection