The Existential Artist

I’m going to start with an incredibly bold statement: the existential artist is the only true artist of our times. I’ll preface my explanation by saying that I’m not ridiculing people who aren’t familiar with existentialism as a philosophy, or who’ve never read Sartre or Camus. I’m not saying, “Well, then yer not a real artist.” What I’m talking about is a genuine personal genesis, the defining of one’s own values, the creation of one’s own world. That is exactly, and perfectly, the genuine artist of our day. Let me elaborate.

We are coming out of a period of art where rejection and destruction was the name of the game. (You might not agree with me, but I’m not here to change your mind about that. My purpose lies elsewhere.) The result is that there’s nothing left to hold on to; nothing that hasn’t proven to be a sham by the most brilliant artists of the last century. This is not in any way to discount the art that came before them, because all of that was appropriate if not genius for its time. But we don’t belong to any of those epochs. Rather, I’m saying that we, as a generation, are on the verge of a new dawn in Art, and it requires the existential artist.

At each stage in humanity’s progression we have felt like we brought our A-game. We ask, “What more can be done?” Like Ozymandias, we say, “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!” But, also like Ozymandias, all of our greatness is left in ruins by the same flawed zeal that invented and built it all in the first place.

I contend, though, that humanity is maturing. We don’t need to destroy what came before, nor do we need to embrace it. I think we are finding that, while destruction may leave space and fertile ground for creation, to destroy is not at all to create. In truth, it is only through destruction that we prove we are not mature as a conscious species. Our place is not one that has been handed to us by virtue of simply showing up at a certain point in history. It’s not earned by either staying true to or rejecting what’s been given. What’s more, we’re at a vital and pivotal point in the evolution of art.

The last few centuries have seen humanity getting bolder and bolder in the destruction of what came before in order to make way for a newer version of the “same shit, different day.” However, the last several decades (even back to DuChamp and Dada) have seen an explosion of attempts at renewal, novelty, and challenges in art by increasingly rejective and destructive means. In my opinion, these were entirely necessary to get us past the stricture of our conceptual and artistic heritage. They were brilliant, and they succeeded. Through these challenges to the assumed, the given, the status quo, we have realized what was unnecessary, frivolous, and flawed in art. On the other hand, as I mentioned above, it doesn’t leave us with anything to work toward; only something from which to distance ourselves.

To get to the heart of the matter I’m addressing, I’ll paraphrase a quote from Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke:

I fought against everything, but more and more I worry that I was never for anything. Oh, I can criticize and complain and judge everything, but what does that get me? Griping isn’t the same as creating something. Rebelling isn’t rebuilding. Ridiculing isn’t replacing. We’ve taken the world apart, but we have no idea what to do with the pieces. My generation, all of our making fun of things isn’t making the world any better. We’ve spent so much time judging what other people created that we’ve created very, very little of our own. I used rebellion as a way to hide out. We use criticism as a fake participation.

The greatest gift of all this destruction is the opening of a space for us, for our generation. Born from Modernism, these giants and gods of the Postmodern and Contemporary, our brilliant forbearers, threw themselves on the pyre just to ask, “Is this art?” They left us no suicide note, no will and testament, no clue as to what we should do with the empty gap that remains. It seems like we’re struggling so hard to find what’s been left unchallenged so that we may challenge it, to find what hasn’t already been set ablaze so that we can put a torch to it, that we’re entirely failing to recognize our own freedom to create something, to truly innovate.

You might disagree with me and say, “Everything is still to be challenged! They simply started the process.” Even if this were true, to continue in that tradition actually requires a rejection of its own fundamental values. How could you say that everything is to be challenged while not challenging this very same movement in art? We cannot move forward by clinging to the past, especially if it is all we know.

It is our duty, established by our new freedom, to actually generate something that belongs to us, something that is us. Our lives are truly, for the first time in history, ours to choose. And art is life. Sure, you’re still going to have your job, taxes, rent, etc., but your art is you. You don’t own it, you don’t just make it; your art is you in the world. Every mark, every content choice and value with which you imbue your media transcends “extension” and embodies the “existential” when it is truly yours. Don’t waste this perfect opportunity to – not change the world, but – create the world. Otherwise, you may just be a puppet doing the bidding of history.

“You are free, therefore choose…”
~Jean-Paul Sartre

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