The Silly Consensus


In his review of Ann Liv Young’s Cinderella, Alastair Macaulay recounted three things for which he was unprepared:

“…the startling ineptitude of Ms. Young’s performance; the campy, cliquey way she assumed that everyone present already knew all about this show and her previous ones; and the silly consensus whereby most of her audience, giggling coyly now and then, encouraged her.” [emphasis mine]

I’m not terribly interested in writing a critique of Ann Liv Young and her work. I didn’t see Cinderella but having seen her other pieces I’m familiar enough with the work to extrapolate the experience. What fascinates me is what Macaulay refers to as “the silly consensus.” What is it that people are seeking when they go to a performance that they know will be tedious, repetitive, long, poorly performed and pseudo-confrontational? What is the audience seeking when it goes to experience what Ms. Young is doing? Are they looking to be entertained? Are they looking to be abused? Are they hoping to be shocked? Are they trying to demonstrate something about themselves? What does it say about an audience that celebrates ineptitude? That relishes the mean-spirited and derisive? What does it say about an audience that mindlessly encourages solipsism and the cult of personality?

In a consumer culture where we are identified by the products we buy, the music we listen to and the movies/television shows we watch, the choice of what kind of art we participate in is equally telling. As Macaulay suggests, what Young promises is sensation and provocation. She appears to be offering an experience that is transgressive and challenging and one assumes that the audience, through their support of the work, aspires to be similarly transgressive and challenging. Or perhaps they hope to demonstrate that they are in on the joke, that they, through their presence and encouragement of the artist, are complicit with the artist in flouting convention and social norms. The problem, of course, is that there is nothing actually transgressive or challenging in the work.

Ms. Young has been quoted as saying, “No artist can really judge another; you just make what you need to make and not worry about what anyone says.”  That is so spectacularly solipsistic as to be risible. Ms. Young has, in interviews, suggested that she does not see anyone else’s work, that she is unaware of – and uninterested in – the work of her predecessors (many of whom have done this kind of confrontational work far better than she) and that she is indifferent to criticism. The work that she does reflects this – it exists in a vacuum, pointing to nothing beyond self-aggrandizement, it celebrates nothing so much as an infantile need for attention and a willingness to do anything at all to get it. In this scenario, to use the language of recovery and addiction, the audience becomes “enablers” or “co-dependent enablers” – they allow and even encourage someone with dysfunctional or maladaptive behaviors to continue in their self-destructive pattern.

And the institutions that promote  this kind of self-aggrandizing, infantile behavior have done no-one any favors by legitimizing the charade. Because she has been presented at The Kitchen and MOMA/PS1 and in Europe she must be taken seriously. Unfortunately, Ms. Young is, at best, a hipster creating a caricature of a transgressive, provocative artist. She defends herself from criticism by relying on her audiences to presume however many layers of irony are necessary to make her work meaningful, and whenever she’s criticized, this likewise serves to suggest her critic just isn’t in on the joke. It is an empty posture and it is tiresome, to say the least.

In some ways, then, Ms. Young is the apotheosis of the cult of personality and self-help culture. In a world where people are famous for doing nothing whatsoever of any merit, where they expect to be celebrated just for “being themselves”, why not have a performance artist that embraces those values? The irony of the situation is that, by adopting a transgressive posture, Ms. Young embraces the most conformist and conservative impulses of the culture at large. She buys into the commodification of the self, she buys into the consumerist process by which one converts the Self into a Brand. She embraces a very closed and conservative worldview in which all that matters is that which gratifies and glorifies the ego. It is the ethos underlying advertising, it is the defiance of complexity, it is a refutation of the possibility of meaning beyond selfish experience. And the audiences that support this work are very conservatively conforming to mainstream culture – they are not being challenged in any real way, they are having their worldview confirmed as much as any liberal playgoer seeing a “socially relevant” new drama.

And therein lies the real problem – experience, actual experience, is a process through which we acquire new information, process it, compare it to what we’ve already known and, hopefully, grow to embrace new ways of knowing and being. The experience that art ought to be offering is one of input, not exclusion. The idea that all  meaning begins and ends with the Self is not only limiting but detrimental. If it were just a case of one overhyped performance artist, then this wouldn’t be such a big deal. But the “silly consensus” that celebrates this sort of work speaks to a much larger problem – the perpetuation of a culture of mediocrity and the gradual substitution of sensation for experience. Sensation is fleeting – it doesn’t last long and it rarely leaves a lasting impression. Experience imparts knowledge and, hopefully, deepens our appreciation of the human condition.  If we accept and applaud the merely sensational, ineptitude and bluster posing as artistic inspiration, if we participate in the “silly consensus” then we will have no-one but ourselves to blame when that is all we ever get.

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