Why Dig?

Dieter Roelstraete

"Our modern culture is (…) not a living one. (…) It is not a real culture but a kind of knowledge about culture, a complex of various thoughts and feelings about it, from which no decision as to its direction can come." 1


To be sure, one can hardly blame the many hundreds, nay, thousands of artists working today who – in their work – have chosen to look back (to yesterday) rather than forward (to tomorrow or the day after tomorrow) – the many thousands of artists active today whose work is underpinned by the archival or historiographic impulse in art – those who, in the parlance of these times, walk the way of the shovel.

Why not? Well, for one, because we may perhaps be living interesting or exciting times – but surely not especially good ones. Who would want to live today? Earthquakes, floods, oil spills; Palestinians trying to kill Israelis and their friends, Israelis by and large succeeding in killing Palestinians and their friends; foreclosures, mass unemployment and outlandish banker bonuses; all this interspersed with news from Lady Gaga and Lindsey Lohan: if this is our world – and let's face it, this really is our world – who could seriously find fault with anyone for not wanting to be part of it? Indeed, who would seriously want to be part of it? If this is our world, we should be forgiven for not wanting to know what tomorrow will bring – for it is abundantly clear (since when though?) that it will not get better. Worse still, it will only get worse.

Didn't modern archeology, after all, originate as on offshoot of eighteenth-century grand tour tourism?

And so the artist, that exemplary human being who is always one step ahead of the crowd, looks back – and does so of course, for a variety of reasons, one being that the past, that distant country, is a better place to be than the dark continent that is today. The artist looks back to the heroic heyday of Socialist Realism and the golden age of politically engaged 'high' art. To the murky colonial past of his or her adopted home country. To the time of shadow play, magic lantern, camera obscura and their twentieth-century heirs and incarnations, such as the super 8mm film camera or the carousel slide projector. To the glory days of nineteenth-century engineering that witnessed the electrification and illumination of the world. The artist, in short, turns his or her back to the here and now, disappearing into the archive instead: a lost world that is analogue, black-and-white, crystallized and dead.

That this retreat is very often motivated by a legitimate desire to engage in historical research, of a kind too often overlooked by 'real' historians, cannot, of course, be denied – art of this kind is an important and integral part of the noble cartographic enterprise that seeks to map history's great terra incognita. It could be said, in the end, that anyone who looks back long enough will end up looking forward, as there is no way of really knowing or understanding the present (much less the future) without knowing or understanding the past, no matter how remote, obscure, minute or seemingly irrelevant the shards that any archeological dig of it will yield. But the fact remains: it is a retreat – and a flight of sorts. Didn't modern archeology, after all, originate as on offshoot of eighteenth-century grand tour tourism?

Rereading the above paragraph, two fragments stand out: "if this is our world" and "it will not get better." What great relief just to have written this down! Now it all makes sense. My reading habits – Musil, Mann, histories of philosophy, histories of ideas, histories of art –, my viewing habits – anything drawn or painted in Weimar Germany, really –, my listening habits – Schumann, Schoenberg, Debussy. And that's why I don't listen to the radio (anymore), don't go to the movies (anymore), don't see much art (anymore): it's all crap. Like many of my contemporaries working in art, I am happy to dig up the past; unlike most of my contemporaries working in art, however, I am also happy to live in the past.

And so I join the breadline of cultural pessimism, in full awareness of its tainted political history and of its role in the historical development of the forces of reaction. Yet I wonder what could be wrong with admitting, or acknowledging, that the only experience we will ever share of a given culture's golden age are its last rays of light disappearing behind the horizon of the now. It's a little bit like enjoying an especially starry sky at night, when most of the stars we are marveling at ceased emitting light, i.e. existing, many aeons ago. Perhaps the acceptance that something is forever lost is a necessary condition for recognizing a greatness that went unnoticed in its own present; perhaps the archive is a place where things (concepts, documents, ideas, objects) go, not just to die – though there is no more agreeable place in many a big city today than its cemeteries – but to acquire greatness. And art is one particularly dependable method, of course, for producing the mirage of such greatness.


When did it all go to hell? For us, probably sometime in the late seventies, early eighties, as the sun of Hollywood's auteur cinema was beginning to set, clearing the path for the emergence of the modern blockbuster; as both England and middle America made a decisive right turn, towards Thatcherism and Reaganomics; as the art world became increasingly more obscured by the art market; as the advent of AIDS accelerated the rise of a new Puritanism; as the promiscuous intellectual adventure of deconstruction and post-structuralism was starting to give way to the nouveaux philosophes; as the ghost of God woke from the slumber into which the blasphemous sixties and seventies had forced him to retire. Taken together – and this is just the beginning of any serious attempt at diagnosing what, exactly, went wrong – all these factors go a long way towards explaining 1) why the world looks the way it does today, and 2) why artists, cultural and intellectual producers and practitioners of all stripes all hasten towards the nearest exit sign that reads either 'archive' or 'history.'

Ah, the seventies – many an artist's finest hours. Deutschland in Herbst; New York during the black-out in 1977s Summer of Sam; the trip down Laurel Canyon. A sexual confusion so vast and deep it even scares the shit out of the sleepy village where my parents, newly-wed, play house. Both Main Street and Wall Street littered with Vietnam Vets hooked on drugs, while Foucault drops acid in Death Valley. The birth of modern football, courtesy of Johan Cruyff's Dutch side. Some of the greatest recordings ever made in the history of classical music – Argerich, Gulda, Michelangeli, Richter, to name but one instrument. The apex of syndicalism.

From there on it has only gone downhill – indeed, it could not go anywhere but downhill, at varying speeds, in differing inclinations. Today we live in that fine era's diminishing afterglow, keeping those artists company who either were 'there' – as accomplices or crown witnesses – or tirelessly revisiting its withering splendor in their work: most good art, we will find, is in part born from the relationship it has with that singular moment in time.

Of course, in conclusion I should probably add that I was born in the seventies – meaning that I, too, must regard myself as a product of mankind's finest hour.


1 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History


Kunstjournalen B-post nr. 1_10/11: The Past Now!