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.
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11 replies on “Flat Earthers, Contemporary Art, and Optimism”
“Merde d’artiste” just sounds more chic in French, like something I should venerate!
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Yeah. I never got the piece until I saw the French version, and since I’d studied French and could read it, it then sounded funny to me.
But, uh, if I look back now, we take a work of “art” more seriously that says that artist’s work is “shit” than we do serious attempts at art. And this is the same with Duchamp’s urinal which made art a thing to be pissed on. We’ve come to appreciate the jabs at art and parodies more than the real thing, and with a vengeance.
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“The more patently imbecilic something is on the face of it, the more philosophically profound it just has to be.” To me, this goes to the very heart of the matter. I also really appreciate the last paragraph of this post. I’m a painter (oh god) and I paint because that’s what gives me a rush. I’m not philosophical about it at all (at least I don’t invest any time thinking that way, but we could always have a completely different discussion in that vein). What matters to me is that my art has an emotional effect on people who view it. And I know that it does because I do a lot of art fairs and attendees who stop in my booth to chat about my work don’t do it because I cornered them with some sales pitch. I ask them what drew them in and they just start a stream of consciousness explanation that I carefully listen to because I really want to know.
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Yes, and I just picked up a kernel of scientific truth last night while watching a mini-documentary on “beauty” on Netflix. Get this, the part of the brain that lights up when people look at a painting they like is independent of the linguistic centers. Even patients with Alzheimer’s will like the same paintings, and rank them the same way, when they don’t remember seeing them before.
This is in complete contradiction to the notion that are is in the service of ideas, which happen in linguistics. Apparently, aesthetics and beauty operate on another part of the brain, and it’s a different kind of cognition and communication.
I’ve always considered it a huge mistake to put art in the service of intellectual ideas instead of the experience of looking at art. This is as weird as valuing the ideas about music over the enjoyment of listening to it.
At very least , conceptual art — which has its own appeal — can never replace visual art, because it doesn’t have the same attraction or effect on the brain or the mind.
Thanks for reading and commenting, and keep up your painting!
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I really enjoyed this Eric. Truly. I’ve always subscribed to the idea that it takes all kinds of folks to make the world go round and if you shut up you just might learn something or even make a friend.
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“It takes all kinds to make the world go round.” Huh. That’s a really good way of putting it. So concise
It reminds me, I saw something recently about how a lot of the best achievers in math and science of the past had Asperger’s Syndrome, and otherwise were not in the center of the normal mental spectrum. They were making the point that today, everyone is expected to be on the same page and not offend anyone, and this eliminates a lot of otherwise highly exceptional people.
We can’t all fit one ideal mold, nor is that at all desirable.
Thanks for reading and commenting. You hit the nail on the head.
THANKYOU for writing this! Honestly, you’ve managed to put everything that’s always pissed me off about “Art” into one article.
Studying Art at Uni as a young person did nothing for me but make me despise “The Art World”. It was genuinely depressing, as I was always ( and still am) completely enamoured and obsessed with CREATIVITY. But it seemed to me ( and still seems to me) that creativity is optional when it comes to ‘Art” making. The compulsory qualities required to make serious “Art” seem to have pretty much fuck-all to do with creativity. The main prerequisites seem to be: unyielding arrogance/ self importance, and an aversion/ anaphylactic reaction to humour. And that’s about it.
You touched on something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently ( thanks to a recent trip to the Fine Arts dept of a local University) with this line:
“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.”
THIS. God forbid we may want to immerse ourselves in the pure experience of appreciating the VISUAL elements of VISUAL art! No; we are obviously stupid if we don’t feel the need to need to write a 5000 page essay on it or wax philosophical for 7 hours after creating or seeing it. Ugh.
I mean, it’s not that I have anything against an artwork MEANING something. But I kinda think that if someone chooses VISUAL art as the medium through which to express their idea, then surely it’s not unreasonable to expect that the visual aspect of the visual art might be enough to convey said idea. But apparently thinking so would make me an uncultured mouthbreather in “The Art World”. I sure hope everybody who runs/ works in all the major galleries of the world never just LISTENS to music (*gasp!* ) or WATCHES a sunset, or EATS food, or WEARS clothes or has any other kind of experience without analysing the shit out of it and forcing everyone around them to listen to them justify and explain exactly WHY and HOW they experienced it.
It’s just so bloody self important, isn’t it? Art has appointed itself a god of some kind. It’s faultless and infallible, and if you question it you’re a dirty sinner! It’s such bullshit. I just want to make stuff. I couldn’t give a fuck anymore if it’s considered “Art”. The more I think about it, the LESS I have to get involved with “Art” ( in the modern sense of the word), the better.
Anyway, pardon the long comment……you triggered something in me!!!! You put it far more eloquently than I could have, but you perfectly echoed many of my current sentiments.
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Thanks! You might find a lot more articles here addressing those same concerns. Check out the one I just published today about brain scans and visual art.
And it’s one thing to analyze the crap out of something, and quite another do do so and come to the wrong conclusions on top of it.
Another thing to consider, which I like to mention, is what the visual art equivalent of rock music was. Well, it never happened. While legions of young musicians were making wildly popular music, artists were doing conceptual mind games, or sidelined, or shot down. The cultural revolution of the 60’s happened without visual artists. Weird!
Anyway, I really enjoyed your comment. Visual art will come back, as it’s one of our primary forms of communication.
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Yes, good point re; rock music. Totally.
Anyhoo, I’m glad my comment actually posted; it appears that I somehow inadvertently posted as a guest up there ^, but I am actually a follower of your blog. I discovered it at a time when I REALLY needed this kind of ( very refreshing, btw) content! I’ll definitely be back to read more articles as soon as I have a spare few mins. Cheers!
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Cool! I’m so glad that some of my content actually helps people when the art world is poisoning them.
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How can I buy a flat earth model with son and moon?
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