As you know, the Digital Salon accepts entries in three categories: gallery artworks, Web sites, and computer animations and digital videos. As I contemplate the main themes that seem to be on the minds of our essayists, I find myself wondering whether someday the Salon will include a fourth category: genetic creations. Will jurors of the future have to consider glow-in-the-dark dogs or llamas bred so that witty remarks are spelled out in the markings of their fur? Perhaps some nostalgic wunderkind of the future will sculpt the DNA of an ordinary cow to recreate its extinct ancestor, the wild aurochs of old Europe. Others may take genetic material from stuffed dodoes and passenger pigeons and resuscitate lost species.
Such reflections may provoke a frisson of horror in those who wonder if we are not playing fast and loose with our own fates by such blithe manipulation of the code of life. In their essays in this issue, both Suzanne Anker and Amy Youngs discuss George Gessert's project in which he hybridized wild irises and sowed his creations around the San Francisco Bay Area. There is nothing particularly menacing about new breeds of irises, of course - flower aficionados are constantly fussing with the colors and shapes of their favorite beauties. But will we wake up someday to find that some madman has cooked up a killer virus and set it loose on the public? We worry when governments play with germ warfare. Will the advances of science place this possibility in the hands of ordinary people as well?
Editorial hand-wringing about these matters is so much in fashion that I hope you will excuse me if I avoid it here. But I think it may be valuable to step back and reflect on the philosophic background of the New Genetic Order and what it may mean for the art of today and tomorrow.
In the most ancient times, the universe was seen as having a fixed order that applied not only to the natural sphere but to the human arena as well. It was not until the fifth century B.C. that those irreverent busybodies, the Greeks, challenged these assumptions. The Sophists of that era drew a sharp distinction between what they called physis - "nature" - and nomos or "convention." Nature is the immutable order of things, but there is nothing particularly immutable about the rules and regulations of society. In the U.S., we drive on the right, while the British drive on the left. Each is an arbitrary convention that works equally well. While it would create havoc if there were no law that said which side of the road to drive on, it hardly matters which side you choose.
Like all such distinctions, this apparent opposition between nature and convention is somewhat simplistic. Moreover human beings have long since found that they can meddle in the laws of nature. As Suzanne Anker suggests, you may worry about the genetic manipulation of animals, and then you may go and pat the head of your dog, completely oblivious to the fact that man's best friend is nothing more than a wolf that has been genetically manipulated by millennia of selective breeding. One could make the same point about almost all the plants and animals on which we rely for companionship and sustenance. As is well-known, the corn plant has diverged so much from its wild progenitor that botanists are not even sure what this ancestor was.
If genetic art is going to progress and thrive, then, it would be well to reflect on the principles that should inform it. And this question cuts to the heart of the state of the contemporary art scene.
Despite the ceaseless new upheavals that are constantly being proclaimed in the art world - which sometimes seems to be obeying Chairman Mao's exhortation to "continuous revolution" - the philosophical underpinnings of contemporary art seem to be at a stalemate. For all the technical wizardry now at our disposal, for all the Web sites and games and installations, much of contemporary art, including much digital art, is still stuck in a late Romantic notion of revolt and rebellion. Mainstream society is corrupt, the theory goes; it is suffused with commercialism and banality; the only responsible role for the artist is to fight against this cultural oppression, either by deconstructing conventional categories of experience or by indicting the greed and materialism of our age.
These stances have their merit, of course, but at this point they have largely become part of the banality they are protesting against. And they have been undercut by the advance of time. Just as Tom Lehrer said he gave up writing satirical songs in the 1960s because events had outstripped his ability to ridicule them, artists today are finding that they can hardly deconstruct people's notions of reality any better than reality itself is doing. Who, having lived through the upheavals of the past twenty years, is going to have his notion of reality seriously challenged by a gallery installation? Who is going to be impressed by indictments of mass culture now that commercials for jeans and cars are coyly targeted to appeal to our cynicism about advertising?
There is certainly much in American society to be cynical about, and even a fool would have to admit that greed seems to have multiplied at a rate parallel to the speed of technological advance. At the same time, the art world seems to be worn down by an ingrained stance of constant revolt, and, one suspects, the habit of deconstruction has begun to bore and depress even many of its practitioners.
Thus, I suspect, there will be a need for a more positive vision in the art of the coming era. One could be easily forgiven, of course, for being skeptical about exhortations toward a "positive vision," since those who talk about such things often turn out to be promoting a bigoted version of "family values" or to be glorifying the hideous Candyland of commercial culture. What I am talking about is not agitprop but the capacity to inspire and uplift. And this quality has never been absent from art of the first order - indeed one could argue that it is what in fact elevates art to the first order.
Wassily Kandinsky, writing in 1911, apparently sensed the same dilemma in the culture of his time. He spoke of an art that is the "child of its age." Such an art, he said, "can only create an artistic feeling which is already clearly felt. This art, which has no power for the future, which is only a child of the age and cannot become a mother of the future, is a barren art."
To this Kandinsky contrasted another art, which "springs equally from contemporary feeling, but is at the same time not only echo and mirror of it, but also has a deep and powerful prophetic strength" .
Today the art of revolt and deconstruction is, to use Kandinsky's term, "the child of its age." It is telling us what we already know too well. It will not educate, uplift, or engage us by rehashing the same message ad infinitum.
What art will have the "prophetic strength" of which Kandinsky speaks? I am neither a practicing artist nor an aesthetician, so it is difficult for me to say specifically - and anyway grand thematic programs are not of the spirit of our age. But if we look at the fact that a trend seems inevitably to lead to an equal and opposite reaction, we may be able to glimpse what will happen.
To use Nietzsche's old dichotomy, much of the art of the recent past has been Dionysian in impulse - vibrant, pulsating, radical, chaotic. It seems possible, even likely, that this impulse has been taken about as far as it can go at this time. One can always play the game of Žpater les bourgeois, but this has been done to the point where it is no longer shocking or for that matter interesting.
What will supplant it? Again to use Nietzsche's terminology, we may see a resurgence of the Apollonian impulse: the ordered, harmonious, beautiful. An artist may shudder at this suggestion, thinking that somehow it means going back to carving Greek gods in marble, but of course that is not what it means at all. Nor is it "order" as it was understood throughout the twentieth century - the "order" of totalitarian control or mass standardization. Rather it may have to do with regaining a connection with the harmony of nature, which so many of us today long for and yet from which, buffered by the conveniences of modern life, we feel so painfully estranged. Could a genetic art lead us in this direction?
Certainly there is a rare sublimity in the patterns of nature. As Emerson put it, "The world globes itself in a drop of dew. The microscope cannot find the animalcule which is less perfect for being little" . And digital artists, like their counterparts throughout all ages and cultures, will no doubt continue to draw inspiration from the world of plants and animals. But in this age, when our creativity has been pushed into deeper and subtler realms, will we be able to take this notion further?
It seems to me that the genetic art of which these essays speak may offer either a metaphor for or the literal possibility of retrieving what we are so acutely aware of having lost - a vibrant and dynamic contact with the world of the natural. This contact will have to avoid the Prometheanism of much of modern science, which regards nature as a specimen to be poked, prodded, and manipulated for fun and profit. But it will also have to eschew the vapid sentimentalism of much of the nature worship of the past two hundred years, which regards the nonhuman world as spotless and sublime and human beings as nasty and cruel interlopers.
The coming century will, I suspect, force us to transcend the long-held and often unconscious dichotomy we see between nature and convention, between the human and the nonhuman. It will encourage us to overcome our rivalry with nature and instead to become dynamic and creative collaborators with it. I suspect the genetic art that we now see budding will play its role in this development, and will encourage us to see beauty and harmony, not as clichŽs mouthed by Philistines, but as a part of the greater enterprise that is human life.