What do Flat-Earthers have to do with contemporary art?
I was watching the 2018 documentary Behind the Curve, which is about the Flat Earth movement and some of the people involved in it. Two things hit me in quick succession. One was that the paintings and models of the Flat Earth were conceptual art, and the other was that if people could start a movement with such a theory, make art bolstering it, and sell it, well, there’s hope for me as a fine art digital painter.
I’m not here to trash the Flat-Earthers. One of the things I realized in the last several months is that when it comes to philosophy or what one believes, it matters much less what conclusions you come to than what you do with them. I work with one fellow who holds forth about the Flat Earth, that the moon landing never happened, 9/11 was staged, and evolution is a crock.
One of my best managers followed David Icke, and was certain that shape-shifting, inter-dimensional, reptile aliens were running the planet.
Another coworker who I sat next to for years, by the name of Greenbaum (while doing long-term temp-work for a bank) did graphics for Zecharia Sitchin, and he liked to “think outside the box”.
He was convinced that the Anunnaki space commander, named Enlil, from planet Nibiru, led a mission to Earth to collect gold, which was needed in order to protect their planet from the harsh rays of their star. Apparently you can spread a thin layer of gold-leaf in the outer atmosphere of a planet. Enlil and his fellow aliens mixed their DNA with apes in order to create a docile worker species to mine the gold for them. We humans, he maintained, are the result of this DNA experiment. He was a good-natured guy, so I used to tease him about his beliefs, and I would sing a song about him at work (to the tune of Piggies). It went a little something like this:
All the little Greenbaums are
sitting in the saucer
No, they’re not lost, sir.
They’re going to
There they’ll meet the aliens who
mated with the apes
to spawn the human race
and bring forth Greenbaums.
To his credit, he loved the song, and particularly enjoyed my rhyming “saucer” with “lost, sir”. My then girlfriend and I were laid off for cost-savings, out of the blue, one fine afternoon. Greenbaum was sick that day — yes, he called me by my last name, too — and when he came in the next day to find us gone, he quit in protest because apparently my humor had helped make the job bearable for him. I never saw or heard from him again, but never forgot his gesture.
If I had a checklist for beliefs, it isn’t necessary for me to check the same boxes as someone else to get along with them. Some individuals whose beliefs struck me as outrageous treated me better than others whose beliefs much more closely mirrored my own. Your character and your conclusions about what things are or are not true are not the same thing.
There is a certain appeal in discovering something new and realizing you’ve been deceived your whole life, whether this new thing is actually true or not. I’ve had a few notable about-faces in my life where I’ve had to do a one-eighty on something. I’m 53, and I just had another one of these major, unforeseen reversals a couple weeks ago [I’ll share this at a future date]! Maybe people feel discontent with how things are, and are looking for more satisfactory explanations, even if they are looking in the wrong places. They could be right that something’s horribly awry, but just not really know what it is. Future generations may look back on us like we do on the Middle Ages, wonder how we endured our comparatively barbaric medicine, how we narrowly escaped apocalyptic nuclear war, how inhumane we were, and then have to remind themselves that were weren’t stupid, just creatures of our own era. Some of our most elaborate debates might become as bizarre as treatises on how to identify a witch.
It’s easy to believe things that history will show were cuckoo. Just consider diets, and that you can easily find completely contradictory arguments by real authorities (doctors, scientists, and nutritionists), delivered with passionate conviction. There’s no consensus on eggs, fat, cholesterol, or carbs, which covers just about everything. And how about the news? Most of us may be opposed to “fake news” on principle, but disagree about which news is the fake news. One person’s “fake news” is someone else’s only news fit ot print, or the truth they don’t want us to know… Same goes for history, even history for which there is a fairly thorough written record. Did America become such a powerful country because of the quality of the constitution, its freedom, innovation and the industrial revolution, or was it built entirely on slavery? University professor’s interpretations will differ, and in order to pass your courses you are beholden to know how to argue for one, the other, or some other explanation.
True, some beliefs can be dangerous, or extremely dangerous, so there is some incentive to steer people away from embracing sheer lunacy, but we may just be replacing it with everyday crazy.
Contemporary Art Theory Can Be As Wacky as Conspiracy Theory
When I was in grad school we studied the very imposing-sounding “critical theory”. It had a kind of double-whammy power to it, as it was both heady theory and intensely critical. Decades of hindsight have led me to see it more accurately as “hypotheses which are criticizing”. They are as scientific as Freud’s oedipal complex at best, and in the case of a lot of postmodernism seem to start with a position that is absolutely antithetical to established beliefs, and then do logical back-flips through flaming hoops (with gratuitously convoluted grammar and invented words) to prove it. Thus we would learn that, for example, the author does not invent his or her novel, nor control the meaning of it. Instead, the reader decides what it all means, and is a higher authority. Hordes of critics argue with absolute conviction that Duchamp’s prank of submitting a urinal as art in an exhibition was the crowning artistic achievement of the 20th century. To not believe these last two is grounds for excommunication in the art world of today.
One of my art teachers thought he was going beyond the limitations of painting by using his face to smear white paint on the floor. Behold:
He really thought he was altering the course of art history, which is to steer civilization, by face-planting in paint. And that is more credible to me than George W. Bush being a lizard-person (I like lizards far too much to fuse them with supernatural evil), but no less a forehead-slapper than, say, Creationism.
Contemporary art theory need not be at all compatible with science or reason (especially when it sees reason and logic as the toolkit of the white male oppressor). It’s so subjective that not only does anything go, the most ridiculous stunts are taken with deadly seriousness [ex., Piero Manzoni’s canned shit, or Yves Klein making invisible paintings and selling empty space as art]. The more patently imbecilic something is on the face of it, the more philosophically profound it just has to be.
And I do think people who spend a million dollars on an assistant-produced dot painting by Damien Hirst are as gullible as people who gave their life’s savings to OSHO.
Just to keep things in perspective, people think my notion that visual art uses visual language, visual intelligence, and the imagination to communicate through imagery (and not linguistics) is bonkers. The idea that you can make an original and captivating painting or digital painting that speaks in its own language (and is not valued because it attacks the tradition of art, or for some political reason) is considered about as relevant or real as believing in the virgin birth.
My views are so offensive to the contemporary art community that they are tantamount to hate speech, and not only have I been banned from the art_theory and contemporary_art groups on reddit, there’s a hate thread dedicated to attacking me in art_theory. I was also banned from the comments section of Hyperallergic. Everyone who knows anything about art knows that art is a vehicle for communicating ideas in linguistics and starting conversations! It’s not its own language with its own inherent meaning and worth! Art that doesn’t question what art is isn’t art, and painting doesn’t question what art is!
Art is, according to the real experts, anything and everything, and whatever they say it is, but probably not traditional painting, not my stuff, and definitely not the following.
Flat Earth Art
Flat Earth artist Chris Pontius in his studio, where he makes objects and paintings to illustrate his beliefs about love, truth, and the Flat Earth.
While writing this I noticed that in this pic, at this angle, Chris Pontius looks just a bit like Joseph Kosuth in the graphic I created with the quote above. I’m not sure what makes this bike a “Flat Earth” ride. It has some sort of control panel that I suppose helps it navigate on a flatter surface than the round Earth’s imperceptibly curved roads. But his other art is much more specifically instructional about his concept of the Earth, the sun and moon, and the “firmament”, or “dome” that we are all under.
And a close-up.
I gather the constellations are inscribed on the inside of a dome that covers the Flat Earth like a lid.
Here’s a painting that shows how it all ends on the periphery in ice:
You may or may not scoff at the science behind this, but it’s undeniably art – well, modernists might have said “craft”, but today we no longer make a distinction between fine art and craft necessarily, or fine art and plopping out logs. So, Pontius’s art might not qualify as high-modern art, but it does qualify as contemporary art. All we’d need to do is change the rhetoric so that it was anti-Flat Earth.
Are Pontius’s Flat Earth models any more ridiculous than a crumpled piece of paper by Martin Creed somehow signifying a museum-worthy pillar in art history?
Can art just be a prop illustrating a crackpot idea?
Well, yes, that’s kinda’ the definition of contemporary conceptual art (minus the “crackpot” part).
In the work above Joseph Kosuth asks which is real, the chair, the photograph of the chair, or the definition of the chair. According to the Wikipedia entry, the definition is real because, “Without a definition, one would never know what an actual chair is”. Indeed, in multiple exhibitions of this piece, the chairs and photos of them changed, but never the definition.
IF it is true that Kosuth was arguing that the concept in linguistics triumphs over the actual chair, that’s highly debatable, and it would mean that children who couldn’t yet understand the definition didn’t know what a chair was, and animals don’t know what anything is.
Another groundbreaking historical takeaway from this piece, according to The Art Story, is:
This is one of the first Conceptual works of art that was intended to eliminate any sense of authorship or individual expression and creativity.
Let’s just give a round of applause for eradicating creativity, expression, and authorship. From my perspective, this dry-ass prop at best illustrates a bankrupt theory, and at worst is part of a radical worldview in which artists are robbed of individuality, feeling, and even the imagination. And THAT is way out there on the cuckoo limb, and yet we take is so very seriously and see it as eminently important in the evolution of art.
I see humans as needing belief systems like computers need operating systems or hermit crabs need shells to live in. If you don’t think you have an overriding belief system, you might just not be aware of what it is, and it’s usually a combination of received wisdom, social engineering, propaganda, and advertising… One of the things we need to do to improve our lot is learn to operate on our own belief systems, get rid of the viruses, and maybe even switch metaphoric operating systems, or create our own hybrid.
Since we all have belief systems, and they are wonderfully relative and bizarre, they all fall short to some degree. Nobody has a perfect map of the universe, how it operates, and what everything means in relation to everything else, in his or her head. Some of us just are running a more whacked-out model than others, at least in some respects, and I definitely see this as the case with art.
Perhaps this is why when I watched the documentary I saw Pontius as your garden variety conceptual artist, but with the wrong underlying beliefs.
Is it any more crackpot to make a new model of the cosmos in which the Earth is flat, or to think you are subtly altering the course of civilization by crumpling a piece of paper into a ball, painting the floor with your face, or making a display to argue that only through langauge and definitions can we know what a chair is? From where I stand, all are delusional, but in the case of art you can’t disprove the critical theories with science, so they are not only allowed to stand, but celebrated as important realizations.
These days the art world is all about diversity and inclusivity, and yet it would have no place for Chris Pontius and his Flat Earth models. Why not? If we are to determine that his beliefs are wrong, from what standpoint do we do it? Do we choose art based on scientific truth? A lot of these Flat-Earthers are excommunicated from their families and social groups, and we might argue that embracing a fringe belief system that is commonly considered completely out of touch with reality would make one a minority, and ones views and art diverse. This is clearly not the kind of diversity that they want to include. Rather, diversity applies to bodies and geography, not to minds. One has to have the correct belief system in order to be allowed on the playing field, and Flat Earthers need not apply.
We could say that it’s not really that the art world wants true diversity and inclusivity, but that everyone must believe in diversity and inclusivity to be relevant. In short, you must believe in political correctness / identity politics, which is itself an all-encompassing belief system, whether one subscribes to it or not.
A problem for me is that I don’t believe in the dominant art narrative or political correctness any more than I believe in lizard people, Space Commander Enlil, or the Flat Earth. PC seems too mired in biological determinism, as it endlessly defines people by their biology at birth; and the postmodern underpinning is too much a replacement for modernism rather than an addendum on it. In short, it is overall too much a turning of the tables and a reaction against what went before, as opposed to building on the best parts and adding new elements.
Because I am not a believer, I am an outlier, perhaps not as fringe as Chris Pontius, but not someone serious art institutions would take at all seriously. And that is where, oddly enough, the optimism creeps in. As I said in the opening, if Chris Pontius can make a living selling models of the Flat Earth, there are enough people out there who will appreciate what I am doing so that I too can survive off doing what I believe in.
We all think our own belief system is unvarnished reality itself, but when in history can we say our ancestors had nailed it? I used to think it was important to try to look at reality directly, face the unpleasant and hard truths, and that this would inform ones art intelligently to more accurately reflect reality. Now I’ve shifted, and said accuracy may always be a projection to a degree, but in either case, I’m more for whatever works. If you are an existentialist and it fills you with anxiety and dread, that’s not desirable. Artists who died of alcoholism or committed suicide are not necessarily role models (we can say Socrates elected suicide, but he is a role model, so let’s not be too simplistic here).
A little bit of an aside, but I have no artist role models I can look up to. Either I don’t genuinely like their work, or it’s not something I’d do, or I love their work but wouldn’t want their lifestyle. The two artists whose images have most stuck with me and continue to impress me are Vincent Van Gogh and Francis Bacon. You already know about Vincent, and Bacon went to the pub religiously. That would not suit me at all. While there are living artists I admire, I don’t know of a single successful digital artist/painter working as I do. Either they do more conventional illustration (usually for gaming), or they make art that has absolutely nothing to do with painting or rendering. I have to be my own role model, and find my own way.
I’m sick of cynicism, which is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m much more attracted to being positive, working hard, and getting good shit done. If you do that, it matters less if your ideas about the cosmos, or God, or politics, or whatever, might be a bit skewed. And so, I like to think, whatever your beliefs as an artist, make your art, make it better, and eventually you will have an appreciative audience. It’s a tough fight, and one can’t expect to win because one has whatever biology or ones beliefs are in vogue, but don’t feel disqualified really if you are completely out of fashion. Rest assured, there are plenty of other people with similar beliefs to yours, no matter how solid or kooky, or who will like your art irrespective of your or their beliefs (just as I like the Flat Earth Ride). You might need to believe you have a chance in order to act on it, and there’s the optimism.
And if you like my art or criticism, please consider chipping in so I can keep working until I drop. Through Patreon, you can give $1 (or more) per month to help keep me going (y’know, so I don’t have to put art on the back-burner while I slog away at a full-time job). See how it works here.
Or go directly to my account.
Or you can make a one time donation to help me keep on making art and blogging (and restore my faith in humanity simultaneously).