In 2007 I was doing occasional work as a writer for a big Montreal multimedia studio. This was a place filled with creative people of high talent in many disciplines. The company's projects included immersive media environments, multi-platform site design, super sophisticated projection as well as light work, video, music, etc. Working together, the members of the studio had developed a unique psychedelic aesthetic that was making waves around the world.
It should have been inspiring work. But like at least some of the artists who worked there, I was a bit troubled by the nature of the gigs themselves. Private billionaire parties, launch parties for European car manufacturers, Las Vegas lounges, promotional events -- this was the kind of thing we worked on. In a way it had to be expected, since the type of production the studio engaged in required tremendous amounts of money. Yet there was no denying the fact that all of this skill and talent, which in another time might have gone towards building a cathedral, writing a rock song, or making a Grecian urn, were being hijacked. At times, my friends at the studio said they felt they were putting their talent and energy into what amounted to vapid eye candy. For myself, I felt I was one of those William Irwin Thompson calls "the interior decorators of Plato's cave."
Then I was hired on a gig that brought things to a whole new level. It consisted of designing a permanent, large-scale, immersive projection on the central plaza of a gated community in the southern United States. The client wanted us to populate the plaza with characters, sights, and events drawn from the community's history -- a kind of local heritage thing. Only, this community had no history. It had been built on cleared land. So my job as a writer was to contribute to the fabrication of stories that the residents could claim as their own and thereby develop a sense of communal "belonging." We would pick names off the area map -- names whose historical origins were unknown, if they existed at all -- and assign them to fantastical characters and places. I wrote their Christmas show.
The project was cancelled in the end, but the experience gave me the insight that became the seed-crystal of Reclaiming Art, namely that the aesthetic is being used today to create a kind of ersatz reality, a kind of phantasmal shell that blinds us to the real instead of calling on us to dive into its mystery. The realization evolved into the art/artifice dichotomy detailed in the book's second chapter.
There is no qualitative difference between the way the aesthetic is utilized today in many quarters of the marketing, entertainment, media, and political industries, and the way it was used in fascist Europe to manufacture national identities and bewitch the multitudes. On the other hand, such uses of the aesthetic are literally worlds apart from artistic creation as exemplified in the plays of Shakespeare, the paintings of Picasso, the stories of Flannery O'Connor, the poems of Emily Dickinson, the music of Bob Dylan, and the films of Paul Thomas Anderson or Akira Kurosawa, to name just a few examples.
I knew that in writing this book I needed to tread carefully. The last thing I wanted to do was to write a text reprimanding artists who, for perfectly legit reasons, must hire themselves out in the industries that make up the cultural sector. On the contrary, my intention was to write a tribute to their hidden genius, the part of them that awakens in the off-hours to spend the night plugging away at some great work or just to remember the aspirations that first set them on their path. My hope is that by opening up a new discussion on the nature and power of art, we can move towards a world that values prophetic vision above empty dreams. It's not a matter of pointing fingers: let's not forget that the man who wrote "Strawberry Fields" also wrote "Please Please Me" and didn't seem to mind. It's a question of giving unto Caesar, of never letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing, as Oscar Wilde's favourite artist cryptically advised.
In the preface to the book I say: "We are in danger today of losing the capacity to distinguish between artistic creation ... and the aesthetic creativity that goes into a commercial jingle, a new car design, or a hollow summer blockbuster. If our confusion suits the reigning political and economic elite just fine, it is because it stands as proof that the operation to supplant the dream-space of soul and psyche with a fully controllable interface is going according to plan." We have never been as engulfed in aesthetic artifice as we are today. And yet ironically, art has never been as endangered as it now is. I wrote this book because I think the time has come to recognize that, when allowed to follow its own course, art has immense, terrible, oracular power. The painters of Lascaux knew it. Picasso knew it. You know it.
Let's reclaim art in the age of artifice.