Obscurantism

Sometime in middle school I became an obscurantist, and because of this part of my nature I face a kind of crisis today. When I grew up in the 1980s, I liked comic books (starting with John Byrne’s Fantastic Four, then increasingly obscure, independent ones, culminating in Cerebus), playing and trading Commodore 64 games, like Zork and Ultima, Tolkien books and morbid humor. These special art forms were always for People like Us but now almost everyone is Us. Today all this sort of thing is thoroughly mainstream, and this means– at least in regard to culture– that the world has become a far more comfortable place to me that I ever would have thought possible. It used to be that Jock and Glam culture was dominant, but these sensibilities have come to be universally associated with unsophistication and superficiality. But this ubiquity of nerd-dom is also damning. I’m reminded of Groucho Marx’s comment, “I refuse to join any club that would have me be a member.” (Groucho was well-read, so I think this was his take on Russell’s Paradox). No obscurantist can belong to too large a group of others like him, because one’s identity is defined by the specialized and exclusive nature of the knowledge and insight one possesses.

So I have found myself to be a bitter artistic and cultural reactionary. It would ordinarily be something I could overlook or enjoy, this process of society’s values becoming more like my own. But in truth it only means I have nothing to offer, no special domain of insight and excellence. In visual art, for example, when I was in art school very few students or eminent artists had very good realistic drawing and painting technique, since the previous 50-70 years of relevant art history had been informed by the prominent successes of modernism and conceptual art (for example, when this subject has come up, several unrelated acquaintances on different occasions told me that in college they had professors who said that “Gustav Klimt’s paintings were not art.”). Having regarded so much of that as lazy, pretentious and meaningless, I decided I wanted to simply do paintings of my friends, like Van Gogh or Modigliani had done. But today, it seems like every figurative painter is doing the same kind of work I’m doing: realistically painted and technically accomplished, antiquarian portraits and figurative pieces that are vaguely surrealistic and “witty”. I mean, certainly my work looks like lots of work that has come before mine, but there really is now a kind of “movement” of artists making beautiful, almost photorealistic paintings of somebody with a fish on his head or something, or someone wearing vintage clothing posing for a formal portrait in a tongue-in-cheek way, or doing fashion layout inspired, tongue-in-cheek glam/chic/kitsch fusion. I attribute this to the elevation of sensibilities (from my point of view) I alluded to earlier, and the extreme deficit of talented figurative painters of the past 50 years and the resulting inevitable correction. Maybe access to cheap digital cameras and video projectors has something to do with it too (though David Hockney shows that painters have cheated with projections since the late 15th century). I see all this great work and it makes me not want to paint anymore.

Why should I? The world’s realistic and quasi-surrealistic figurative painting needs are now being more than adequately met, and I certainly don’t need too many more of my paintings crowding us out of our tiny apartment. On a purely technical level, I might be rather competitive if I were capable of getting excited again about making deeper, more laboriously crafted pictures– I pathetically find myself looking at other successful artists’ work, saying, “Meh… I could do that.”, or “This painting is utterly fantastic, but the face isn’t as nice as one of mine.”, or “This piece looks great from a distance, but up close anyone can see there is no skill applied here.” But I just don’t feel the urgency for doing it anymore since so many other people are now doing the same work as I am, basically. Better, too. “Why not change what you do?”, someone asks. Well, that gets back to the art-school problem or racking one’s brain to do something different–that’s how the woman gets a fish on her head in the first place, see. This is not a sincere way to proceed, no matter how effective or pragmatic it might be. It does not address the fundamental problem: there is not the variance between myself and others that there once was.

Since any 12-year-old can effortlessly and instantaneously access screen shots of any esoteric experimental film or acquire rare, difficult music without any commitment to the social heritage of the discipline, it is now not only the hipster’s sartorial trappings that can be effortlessly appropriated and passed down the food chain, but everything else he thinks is good and worthy too. Curiosity and knowledge aren’t prerequisites. I can feel their desperation… but I must admit I have never met one, so how should I know? They are part of our 21st century secular Priest caste, consecrating many memes and fashions that even trickle down so far as to ultimately appear in malls of the American Midwest. Hipsterisme (it must be the French “isme” suffix, I say) I once thought was only a higher social class version of Geekdom or otaku, but a friend pointed out that really the predominate hipster attribute of dilettantism makes it incompatible with Geekiness, since geeks know absolutely nothing except trivia for one particular subject. Too much is made of hipsters in any case– they are only a current variety of obscurantist who have a certain social profile; the whole point is that even obscurantism has trickled down and is mainstream. In an interview perhaps ten years ago, John Waters was asked why he no longer did kitschy films, and he said it was because everybody was now in on the joke so it wasn’t fun anymore.

An annoying article about otaku appeared in Wired last year that promised a solution to the obscurantist’s dilemma. I had been wanting to write this article myself for a decade, but I have no credibility or credentials so I never bothered (only bothering to do so now out of the all-pervading intuition of my eminent death); besides, the author writes better than I do, the words themselves having magazine gloss. This piece begins well enough, accurately assessing the situation much as I have myself above, but the author’s solution makes no sense at all, saying only that the hipster-obscurantist otaku anti-hero must “go deeper” by destroying geek culture completely before rebuilding it.

I can do much better than that, which is to reach for the obvious. What We, People like US– those who, like me, intensely feel the desire to not belong to any group, insofar as it is possible… who want to avoid becoming a cliché (insofar as the very act of doing so precludes the act itself)… what we have to do is not to continue defining ourselves through what we know and what we like. Mere associations aren’t enough– and to me, art can no longer only be a thing or product, it must be an act. What we need is to DO something and have a vivid subjective experience. The only way to live an authentic life is not through associations, anything contextual or by merely Being, but through subjective conscious experience of the world. This is more difficult than it sounds, I think, because so many of us are sensorially impaired and don’t realize it. So to hell with obscurantism. Who cares? What a waste of time it all is when there is so much we all need to DO.

What do young people do, I wonder? When will there be a reaction to this culture of incessant, compulsory, post-modern association, contextualization and assimilation? I am not young, but even I see myself belonging to an enervated, depersonalized older generation as some generation-to-be is sure to someday. When a person can find how to live by doing, and have pure subjective consciousness, then that is the only kind of authenticity there is– it is a group of only the self, a membership of one, and it is truly, fully obscure.