The art scene has always been filled with fakers and hangers on, people who’ve mastered the right way to wear their jeans or mess their hair and who are up on the latest titles, but whose verse makes us squirm in our chairs. Their fashion shows are filled with bad Comme des Garçons imitations - unraveling pieces of bandage gauze, for instance, wrapped around a model dressed in latex. Their artworks are heavy on concept, light on technique. At receptions and parties, their eyes are like moths’ wings moving so quickly they don’t seem to move at all.
What are they searching for?
The key to transformation.
The process of transformation involved in great art is notoriously elusive, one of the most elusive things in life. Even the greatest artists can’t claim to have it in their possession once and for all. Van Gogh, for instance, told his brother there is an invisible iron wall between what one feels and what one can do. He will have to transform the wall, he says – “...to penetrate it with a file, slowly and with patience, as I see it.”
Since the wall is in his mind, of course, the transformation happens within. Throw yourself out of yourself.
Van Gogh’s struggle to transform finds an obscure echo in the art of Damien Hirst, whose famous work, “A Thousand Years,” features a mock severed cow’s head being devoured by maggots, hundreds of real flies at various stages in a life cycle, trapped in a kind of purgatory, as well as a large white dice with a one on each face. With such a dice, as Hirst puts it, “You can’t really win.”
Nor, however, can you really lose. In fact, you can’t really gamble. You can’t risk anything. You can’t transform.
The impossibility of death and metamorphosis – the theme of another of Hirst’s works – haunts “A Thousand Years,” suggesting an anxiety, like that in the work of Franz Kafka, about even the possibility of artistic transformation. The self-conscious framing of these themes effects a partial outflanking of one of contemporary art’s most nagging questions: how to truly transform in a postmodern world skeptical of progress?
The key to transformation is identical to the power to create. And true creators are rare. Yet “creativity” is all around us. In fact, much too much is created every single day. We are overwhelmed by it. We want to know where to look, what to see. We don’t want to miss a thing. And our eyes start to flit here and there like the wings of a moth. The seeming randomness of visibility and popularity, and the blurring of aesthetic criteria, further knock us off our game.
We want to create. We want to transform. When we see a work that shoots to the top, we can’t help wondering if maybe that is what we, too, ought to do now. Imitating trends makes us feel safe. No one is more conservative than a teenager who wants to be popular.
Luckily the impulse to rebel tends to win out among artists. As the writer William Carlos Williams said: Whenever you find yourself thinking that that is what “they” want to hear, tell them something else.
Transformation in art requires us to free ourselves from the gravity of the crowd. To throw ourselves out of ourselves, up and away from the place we’ve been situated. We find ourselves free of what we were but not yet who we will be. We belong to no world because we belong to the future. We reach the space and time of transformation. That’s when we’re on the verge. We sense that life is not a given because it’s still to come. What appears then if we’re lucky is not just the feeling Van Gogh talks about, but also the file he uses to undermine obstacles. What appears then is the tool we need to turn a feeling into art and to go through walls: the key to transformation.
Text: Paul Leslie