The Low-Hanging Fruit of Aesthetic Innovation: Towards a Contemporary Art of the Right

0.1 The Low-Hanging Fruit of Aesthetic Innovation

When narrating the history of 20th century art, there has perhaps been a tendency to represent certain artists as geniuses; visionaries who were able to see further, with greater acuity, than anybody else.

Now, there is a sense in which this is true. Certain artists were apparently able to sense aesthetic change in the air, or even manufacture it directly, fashioning something new and hither to unimagined in the process.

But there is a less romantic, yet perhaps more instructive, way to conceive what these artists accomplished, which can be borrowed from economic theory – they simply picked the low-hanging fruit of aesthetic innovation.

In his 2009 book, The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better, economist Tyler Cowen used the metaphor of low-hanging fruit to present a single, root-cause theory to explain the fundamental dynamics behind our current period of economic stagnation:

“Have you ever walked through a cherry orchard? There are plenty of cherries right there for the picking. Imagine a tropical island where the citrus and bananas hang from the trees. Low-hanging literal fruit – you don’t even have to cook the stuff.”

Cowen goes on to identify at least three sources of low-hanging fruit, which fuelled America’s unprecedented economic growth over the last couple of centuries: Free fertile land cultivated by immigrant labour; a rapid succession of technological breakthroughs which altered our lives and infrastructures in meaningful, material ways; and a smart but uneducated rural populace, who could be quickly and cost-effectively up skilled and relocated to become part of the productive urban labour force.

Subsequently, however, these sources of low-hanging fruit have been depleted, without being effectively replenished. This is arguably the primary reason why things have stagnated and stopped improving, at least at the rate we had grown accustom to. We are sat atop a technological plateau, in which the lower branches are mostly bare, but we have not yet developed the means to access the higher ones.

Interestingly, the metaphor of low-hanging fruit maps quite precisely onto a de-romanticised, counter-narrative of the history of 20th century art.

Seen through this optic, Picasso and Braque were simply the artists who picked the low-hanging fruit of Cubism, fracturing and fragmenting the picture plane through the representation of objects from multiple perspectives, and in the process created a fundamental moment of rupture relative to representational arts origin in mimesis. Similarly, Malevich and the Suprematists plucked the low-hanging fruit of geometric forms and total abstraction, which only came into reach following the formal innovations precipitated by Cubism. Later, Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists grasped the low-hanging fruit which connected abstraction to self-expression (Rosenberg) or distilled of the essence of painting down to a dichotomy of flatness / the illusion of depth, which was supposed to be its final telos (Greenberg). Meanwhile, arising out of direct opposition to the philosophical tenants of Abstract Expressionism, Warhol and the Pop artists picked the low-hanging fruit that dissolved the perceived boundaries between high and low culture, both through their non-conventional choice of commercial subject matter and their utilisation of industrial methods of production. Around the same time, Fluxus and performance artists picked the low-hanging fruit which eroded the perception of a boundary that separated art from life, while Conceptual artists plucked the low-hanging fruit which explicitly foregrounded the centrality of concept in post-Duchampian art.

What can be observed throughout the Modernist period is a procession of successive and overlapping movements, alternately arising either out of sympathy or in dialectical opposition to each other, each of which identified a relatively discrete area of low-hanging fruit and sought to distil its fundamental essence. This became possible for the first time under Modernism because it was during this period that the convention of inventing within tradition (aesthetic evolution) was broadly supplanted by the more violent, avant-garde strategy of rupture with the past (aesthetic revolution).

While there had always been tension between novelty and convention, the Modernist period heralded a preference cascade which enshrined the primacy of innovation over tradition, and in so doing reordered the hierarchy of values at the core of Western art. It created an incentive structure which awarded status primarily based on an artist’s capacity to innovate, their ability to contribute something new and original to their medium and the discourse which surrounded it. This was a decisive shift away from a more rigid and hierarchical traditional status economy, based primarily upon the acquisition of technical skills and the demonstration of their mastery.

However, by the early 1970’s, much of the low-hanging fruit lining the Modernist path had not only been picked, but devoured and excreted. Ambitious young artists seeking status, increasingly came to recognise the possibilities afforded by adopting a more playfully self-aware, ironic, meta-level approach to the aesthetic territory – this came to be known as Postmodernism.

It is perhaps worth restating that the low-hanging fruit picked by Postmodern artists only came into reach after Modernism entered a late-stage, although certain aspects of Postmodernism had existed as a latent tendency within Modernism from the beginning. However, the aesthetic developments of Modernism were not simply a precondition for the Postmodernism to exist: as Modernism exhausted the fuel of an unprecedented period of aesthetic innovation and revolution, during which all of the low-hanging fruit was picked, a paradigm shift to something like Postmodernism became inevitable, since this unlocked a new source of potential energy.

Whereas Modernism had been more focused on establishing boundaries, dividing the aesthetic terrain into relatively discrete movements, Postmodernism’s metabolism was comparatively recombinant and synthetic. Instead of a series of aesthetic ruptures with the past, postmodern artists sought to sample and appropriate heterogeneously, to collapse boundaries and blur distinctions, with a greater reflexivity than anything that had previously existed under Modernism.

However, in 2017, the lower reaches of the tree of aesthetics have once again come to seem increasingly bare and seismic innovation impossible. While the retro-fetishistic, recombinant nature of post-Postmodernism – or whatever late-stage thing we are enmeshed in now – has gone into hyperdrive, the paradoxical effect is a disquieting sense of queasy-stasis: we are trapped inside an aesthetic buffet, with an endless selection of preformatted styles to choose from, megamix, and slice into micro-genres – but there is no discernible exit.

Most artists, at least those who think about such things, think that the next source of low-hanging fruit will come from adopting new technologies. There is certainly some truth to this. The Internet is still in its infancy and post-Internet art has only just started to process some of its, ever changing, implications. Meanwhile, substantial advances are being made in Virtual Reality, mixed reality, robotics, biochemistry and Artificial Intelligence, and it is only a matter of time before more artists begin to explore this nascent, fertile terrain.

But there is another source of low-hanging fruit, which is already ripe and just waiting to be picked. In order to access it, contemporary artists need to start thinking outside the ‘reservation’, and begin to question their allegiance to the dominant ideology of their time – progressivism.

0.2 Towards a Contemporary Art of the Right

Most contemporary artists don’t like to think of themselves as religious, but almost all of them are.

The cause of this apparent paradox is that artists tend to self-identify as progressives, and ‘progressivism’ is de facto a religion, although its adherents are unlikely to recognise it as such.

In fact, progressivism is not only a religion; it is the religion of the vast majority of high status, successful and cultured people. The kind of people who occupy positions of influence, comprise our political classes, and form our global ruling elites:

Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, George Soros, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Angela Merkel, Francoise Hollande, Theresa May, David Cameron, Tony Blair, Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk, Christine Lagarde, Jens Stoltenberg, Ben Bernanke, Mark Carney, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bono, Katie Perry, Russel Brand, Steven Fry, Jerry Saltz, Nicholas Serota, Marina Abramovic, Noam Chomsky, and Nicolas Bourriaud are all examples of highly successful, influential progressives. As you might imagine, it wouldn’t be difficult to extend this list exponentially.

While capitalists and socialists are frequently – and lazily, in terms of the complex interconnectedness of contemporary power structures – depicted as opposites, almost anyone in a significant position of influence, in both the state and private sector, worships at the altar of progressivism. Progressives believe in the Enlightenment 1.0: universal values, such as equality and diversity, social justice and the transnational doctrine of human rights. The only thing progressives won’t tolerate is intolerance. Interestingly, they always seem to occupy positions in which they get to define – and weaponise – what constitutes ‘intolerance’.

To be a bit more precise about its theological origins: Progressivism is a deontological, atheistic Christian cult, cladistically descended from Puritanism and its radical 17th Century European offshoots. It is by far the most successful ideology of the 20th Century, having effectively seen off challenges from European Fascism and Soviet Communism, respectively. Because it has achieved near total intellectual dominance, it is fairly reasonable to assume that almost anybody reading this is a progressive.

It is also important to recognise that conservatives are effectively just unfashionable progressives, who update their ethical and political positions on a substantial time lag. But while they may take a little longer to adopt the latest progressive moral cause, or get on board with a particular political policy, once these have become culturally and legally established, conservatives will inevitably, and unquestioningly, marshal their energies to defend the new status quo – no matter how ideologically opposed it may be to positions they only recently maintained themselves.

In addition to questions concerning the moral and theoretical underpinnings of progressivism, there is also the issue of its near total intellectual dominance, which it uses to control the frame of the discourse and construct a favourable narrative to advance its own ends. Writing on his now dormant blog, Unqualified Reservations, Mencius Moldbug, aka Californian computer programmer Curtis Yarvin, undertook perhaps the most far-reaching and influential critique of progressivism to date.

In his first post, A Formalist Manifesto, Moldbug clearly formulates the issue of the intellectual blind spots of progressivism:

“My beef with progressivism is that for at least the last 100 years, the vast majority of writers and thinkers and smart people in general have been progressives. Therefore, any intellectual in 2007, which unless there has been some kind of Internet space warp and my words are being carried live at Fox News, is anyone reading this, is basically marinated in progressive ideology.

Perhaps this might slightly impair one’s ability to see any problems that may exist in the progressive worldview.”

These hitherto unexamined inconsistencies, which exist within the progressive worldview, are undoubtedly a source of low-hanging fruit for the darkly enlightened artist-turned-heretic.

There are real deep-rooted, structural issues with progressivism, as well as ideological inconsistencies, which thoroughly deserve to be deconstructed and interrogated. Any system for discovering knowledge about the world is only as reliable as its underpinning incentive structure is effectively calibrated for truth-seeking. Progressivism, however, has been engineered towards the more instrumental, ideological goals of securing power and wielding it to destroy its enemies – ‘truth’, in a rational objective sense, is one of its casualties.

Indeed, ‘rationality’ and ‘objectivity’ as concepts are systematically and philosophically degraded by progressivism. In general, it has sought to replace them with its own brand of biased, selective and inconsistent relativism that only begins to appear coherent in the context of the political power structures that enshrine it, which it, in turn, reflexively gives credence to.

Until fairly recently, with the election of Donald Trump in the US and the Leave vote in the UK, progressivism appeared invulnerable. Now it appears wounded. Historically, part of the power and allure of progressivism had been its projection of a universal, intemporal system of moral values. Progressives coordinated spontaneously to enforce these, eliciting ideological fealty to the hegemonic socio-politico status quo and compliance with its ideological and instrumental objectives, in exchange for access to positions of social status. Heretics and dissenters, meanwhile, were legally barred from positions of power, influence and social prestige. This made it much more difficult for coherent opposition to progressivism to emerge, coordinate effectively, or secure state resources in service of its aims and objectives.

But the ultimate supremacy of progressivism, which had enjoyed a near total monopoly on bestowing social status for so long, is no longer secure in the way it was only a few months ago. Not only can it be hacked, it deserves to be hacked, by freethinking, darkly enlightened, heretical, reactionary artists.

Make no mistake, the Reaction is coming to the contemporary art world, and there is always a prize for plucking the sweet, succulent low-hanging fruit of aesthetic innovation.


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