The Human and the Digital   /   Spring 2018   /    Essays

After the Vernissage

Travels in the Contemporary Art World

Greg Jackson

Support (detail), 2017, by Lorenzo Quinn, Venice Biennale; Matthias Scholz/Alamy Stock Photo.

What, after all, can art really say for itself?

Berlin. Mid-June. The streets of Neukölln bustle with hipsters and immigrants, the young, the artistic, tourists. English runs like a thread through the German streets of bespoke shops and laid-back cafés. Stalls in an outdoor market line one side of a canal overhung with trees, on the banks of which small groups drink beer and watch the waterway’s idle traffic. It is a still, muggy day, the kind when people dress in loose, casual clothes.

Turn the volume down and you would be forgiven for seeing Brooklyn, which makes me wonder: What is this life we have come to live, we who compose the ranks of today’s urban bohemians, flâneurs, and dilettantes of the creative class, seamlessly transposable from Zurich to Istanbul to Mexico City? To put a finer point on it: Since the symbolism of our lives suggests an attitude toward art, politics, and money, what is our attitude toward these things beneath the posture and pose represented in the style that adorns the life? This style, after all, dominates the culture’s image of itself—its idea of “cool,” at least—from Pepsi commercials to glossy magazines to Anne Imhof’s 2017 Venice Biennale Grand Prize–winning performance piece, Faust. Does the superficial artistry of our lives reflect a deeper or shallower commitment to art? Does the stridency of our politics reflect a stronger or weaker sense of conviction? Where do the aesthetics of commerce and the aesthetics of art begin and end?

I was poised to ask these questions in part because my writing career had stopped bringing in money; in part because I had traveled to Europe from Israel (where I had just participated in the Jerusalem Book Fair and fielded a week’s worth of questions about literature in our political moment, the Age of Trump); and in part because I had decided to accompany my girlfriend, N., who studies and writes about the art world, to the summer’s international exhibitions. It was an unusual year. A rare confluence of major shows had left Europe speckled with pop-up art destinations. Having never been to a single glitzy exhibition of the sort, I figured I could do them all in one go and aggregate a composite picture, the gee-whiz hot take of the outsider or innocent.

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