The internet has radically re-shaped how we consume and create
This week came the announcement that the Catholic University of America had caused controversy among students by displaying Mama by Kelly Latimore, a painting that depicted George Floyd as Jesus. It was described as ‘heretical’ and ‘blasphemous’: a form of idolatry that embraced ‘a brazen form of progressive politics’.
Mama on its own is aesthetically insulting: flat, ugly and seemingly calculated only to offend. But hot on the heels of student protest at its presence in a Catholic university came news that the painting has now been stolen, adding several layers of crowdsourced complexity to its culture-war significance.
At a stroke, this transmutes the work from anti-cultural insult to the first act of a dynamic, crowdsourced work of performance art. It’s a dialogue rich in inferences: an ironic comment on campus ‘cancel culture’ that raises questions about the dynamic interplay of competing culture-war camps, the material economy of ‘controversial’ artworks, and the wider terrain and status of Christianity in contemporary America.
In this it builds on an emerging tradition of accidental collaborative performance. Perhaps the first notable instance of this genre ‘He Will Not Divide Us’, a 2017 multimedia work by Shia LaBeouf among others, was mounted at New York’s MoMA. Discussed here by the writer and cultural theorist Geoff Shullenberger, it aimed to offer the general public an opportunity to state their Trump-resisting credentials into a webcam.
That was the first act. But the work swiftly became the focus of anonymous trolls, who first forced its removal to an undisclosed remote location, then tracked it down and replaced its central symbol with a MAGA hat, before finally chasing it all the way out of the United States to France, where it remained until early 2021.
Another notable instance of accidental collaborative performance is the 2019 work “Comedian” by Maurizio Cattelan, which in its original form — a banana duct-taped to a wall — sold to a collector for $120,000. The work came into its own, though, in dialogue with another performance work, “Hungry Artist”, in which David Dattuna took down and ate the banana, and posted the video on Instagram.
I can’t think of a richer exploration of Trump-era online political battles than the dialogue between Anonymous and the creators of He Will Not Divide Us, a more joyful puncturing of the empty consumerism of Comedian than Hungry Artist nor a more interestingly ambiguous response to the installation of a deathwork such as Mama in a Catholic university than its theft.
Perhaps you’ll say it’s a reach to read the riptides of hyper-mediated culture wars through the lens of performance art. But it’s my frequent contention in these pages that pace those boomers who still think of the internet as merely a handy library in your pocket, we’re barely into the foothills of how radically it’s rewriting everything.
And inevitably this will include what we think art is for, and who does it, and why. In this new terrain, I suspect that ‘artist’ will no longer have its industrial-era meaning of ‘singular creator of original work’ but something closer to what artists arguably always were: nodes in a much larger and more complex dialogue.