By Darren Wershler-Henry
Il faut épater le bourgeois. –Charles Baudelaire
Rebellion isn’t what it used to be.
At the beginning of the previous century, becoming an artist was a relatively straightforward process. All you had to do was figure out what everyone living in or near the centre of your culture–people that, for reasons which have become unclear over time, even the non-French call “the bourgeoisie”–was doing, and then simply *not do that*, as actively and aggressively as possible.
If you and some of your friends decided to not do something that everyone else was doing in the same way, you could start an ism, and plenty of people did. Before too long, the zone that ringed the cultural centre was thriving with new isms. It was a heady time, with throngs of people running around épater-ing the bourgeoisie with all of the things that they weren’t doing in the same way as everyone else.
Some people wised up early to the fact that not doing something that everyone else was doing in the same way as your friends could eventually become a problem if you had a lot of friends, because your not doing something that everyone else was doing could eventually turn into doing something that everyone else was doing. They adopted various strategies to address this problem, such as turning into assholes to cut down on the number of friends they had (and hence the number of people in their ism), starting multiple simultaneous but contradictory isms, and so on. Even suicide didn’t seem to help much, because people just wore your portrait on their t-shirt, at least, up until the point where they eventually emulated you and killed themselves as well. And so on.
It was already (according to one ism, “always already”) too late. Epater-ing the bourgeoisie was a lot more fun than being épater-ed. The ring of isms around the cultural centre grew thicker and thicker, bloating into a veritable Krispy Kreme donut of nonconformity, while the cultural centre dwindled down to near nonexistence. By the time even the hole where the centre had been had vanished, there was no one left to notice. Everyone had left the centre for the margin, and there was nothing to be avant of any more.
(Not that this stopped the épater-ing one bit; members of competing isms have always been fond of épater-ing each other in the interest of moving further out to the margins of the ever-expanding donut.)
When someone discovered that even being boring could become an ism, it was all over. Ironically pretending to move back to the centre and acting normal, and eventually, even not making art at all became just two more of the infinite number of ways of not being like everyone else, which now actually meant being like everyone else. Moreover, the place where the centre used to be was now filled with really expensive apartments being marketed as “lofts,” and if you lived in one, you had to shop at something called Whole Foods, which was kind of a disincentive.
This turn of events left teenagers in the current century who aspired to épater their parents in a particularly difficult situation. Because their parents were already artists of one kind or another (or, if not actual artists, at least “creative” in some sense), they were actually quite difficult to épater with any of the traditional methods. (Wearing Something Black, Piercing Something, Playing Annoying Music, Abusing A Drug That Everyone Else Doesn’t Abuse, Having Ambiguous Sex.) Even Joining A Different Religion, Adopting A Set Of Mores That Had Been Outdated Two Or Three Hundred Years Earlier and then Flying An Airplane Into The Side Of Something Large didn’t help much. Blogging worked for awhile, then didn’t.
It’s not that there is nothing shocking left to do with art. Only that the language capable of describing the shock won’t appear until after the slap. A red mark that I’ll wear happily across my face.