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Dissociative Institutional Collapse

Post #1778 • August 29, 2016, 6:42 PM • 2 Comments

This post is a reply to Paddy Johnson's Gawker eulogy. Read that first, or don't, it doesn't matter.

Lately I've been thinking about a phenomenon I'll call Dissociative Institutional Collapse, or DIC. At some point in the life cycle of an organization, milieu, or really any group activity executed on a scale large enough to be referred to in aggregate (e.g., blogging), the values that members profess and what the group actually does go wildly out of sync with one another. This isn't simple hypocrisy. It's kidding yourself, scaled up to hundreds, thousands, or millions of self-kidders, and which finally becomes an existential threat to the institution in question.

DIC is how the Republican Party nominated a unprincipled bloviator who in many respects is a liberal. DIC is how the Democratic Party nominated a mendacious autocrat who in many respects makes Donald Rumsfeld look like Dennis Kucinich. DIC is how the Whitney Museum (Mission: With the intrepid spirit of the artist in mind, we challenge ourselves and our audiences to think creatively, embrace new ideas, and consider American art and culture in all its complexity) ended up carrying water for the richest collectors in the world and giving a major solo exhibition to Jeff Koons. DIC is how Helen Molesworth got away with tarting up the worst kind of art-world gatekeeping as a celebration of openness and pluralism. DIC is how blogging started off as a distillation of everything that's great about the media and ended up as a distillation of everything that sucks about the media (e.g., Gawker).

(Once you notice DIC, you start seeing it everywhere.)

It's axiomatic that people blinded by DIC can't figure out what's causing their woes, namely, them. Instead, they identify the people at the margins of or in opposition to the milieu who recognize the epic levels of self-kidding, and blame them instead (e.g., Peter Thiel).

Say what you will about Thiel, he can see past DIC. He recognized that the banks had succumbed to DIC and he responded by founding PayPal. He saw that DIC had overcome the social media of the early 2000s, and he backed Facebook. He studied Gawker's DIC and saw its essence, unknown to Gawker itself: it had for so long used such low means for such unworthy ends that it would not be able to defend itself by appealing to principle. Since law is largely about principle, it was vulnerable in a way it never imagined. Gawker professed to speak truth to power. It was actually recapitulating the ugly history of Yellow Journalism.

Sure, there are some freedom of speech concerns regarding Thiel's backing of Hulk Hogan's lawsuit. They're lying on a trash heap, on top of considerations about decency and propriety that Gawker blithely discarded when it outed Thiel.

The repeating motif in Zero to One (did you read that, o you who lament the end of Gawker?) is a question to the reader: What important truth do very few people agree with you on? This is a crucial inquiry for would-be innovators because such truths are rare, and they require pursuit by a certain type that doesn't mind being marginal or oppositional. Such a person frightens the other children.

My milieu is full of creative types who profess to openness and pluralism. In actuality most of them judge art in the same ways, support the same political ideas, and mouth the same kind of bromides about culture. When change comes, and it will come, no one will fight it harder than the conspicuously open-minded. Right now the art world is full of DIC.



John Link

August 30, 2016, 12:07 PM

I utterly love this post. You point to the place where the rubber meets the road for any would be critic when you ask : "What important truth do very few people agree with you on?"

One thing about which I am certain: The "conspicuously open-minded" who dominate the current art scene are open to anything and everything, except art itself. That is why they will resist so vehemently if art dares to return.


John Link

September 3, 2016, 5:27 AM

Zero To One arrived today. In Chapter Two, Thiel's first sentence reads: Our contrarian question—What important truth do very few people agree with you on?—is difficult to answer.

Not difficult for me. I was instantaneously overpowered by this thought: Original art does not have to be disturbing, explore an issue, push politics, or serve any other contemporaneous agenda; it does have to be beautiful, though.

This thought, if and when expressed, incites not just disagreement, but bullying, shunning, and other forms of extreme reaction from most who profess to love originality above all else. Yet they are so wrong and nothing they do or say can change that.

Besides the extremes, more subtle objectors might say the requirement to be beautiful is an agenda itself and so the first part of the assertion contradicts the second. That sounds pretty good, except that both parts are true and thus can't be in contradiction. Then might come an analysis of sorts, to show that the statement is circular and stuck in discarded terminology. And perhaps something polite, but meandering and long-winded, dropping all the proper words here and there to anoint itself as authoritative. Anything to wiggle free from what has become the elephant in the room for serious art in our time: Almost all of it is ugly—joylessly ugly, tepidly ugly, pompously ugly. It just sucks and there is nothing new about that, except that there is so much more of it. Time to create the future, as Thiel might put it.

I have hardly started Thiel's book, but I am certain he has more to say that will instigate thinking about art, as well as what he calls technology, the apparent point of the book.



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