Mercury Retrograde by Emily Segal (The Question of Coolness)

This isn't really going to be a review of Mercury Retrograde. A friend suggested I write an essay on coolness and I was already thinking about the subject in the wake of having read the book a few days earlier. These ideas aren't particularly relevant to the book itself, which is a perfectly serviceable story of working at Genius for a year in 2015 but not anything I would call compelling. Rather, it made me consider the cultural gap between 2015 and 2020, how K-HOLE and that mode of thought, DIS, graphic design, net art, post-internet art, etc., felt important at the time but is now the height of poor taste. (FYI, Swiss Institute...) Segal seems to tacitly acknowledge her contemporary irrelevance by situating the novel five years ago, right when that aesthetic methodology crested, and to her credit the novel ends in disillusionment. If the book had come out in 2016 it could have been important, but now it's almost nostalgic to recall that for a brief period art people thought selling out to startups was pretty cool. By that same token, the recent Ryder Ripps CIA rebrand goof-off is an almost poetically stupid final nail in an already decaying coffin.

One of the hallmarks of the era was "corporate aesthetics," usually postured as some sort of pseudo-Deleuzian infiltration of corporations to "redirect the flows of capital towards radical ends," which always felt off to me. One of the few semi-revelations of Mercury Retrograde is that Segal, an uptown girl who went to Brown and worked at PR and branding firms before starting K-HOLE, appears to have simply been comfortable with real corporations and not particularly interested in reappropriating anything towards any end that didn't look like a conventionally successful career. Whether or not anyone earnestly thought this project was radical, in the end all it amounted to was a belief in coolness that bordered on chauvinism: "as a cool (i.e. fashionably dressed) person, my presence in a corporate workplace inherently radicalizes the workplace," which ignores capitalism's perennial strategy of appropriating the aesthetic signifiers of a radical movement to neutralize it, as well as the fact that buying expensive pants from the soon-to-be-famous designer your friend told you about doesn't make you radical, it makes you a corporate stiff that goes to (presumably) better parties.

As I remember it (I lived in the Bay Area at the time and had an even more tenuous grasp on the art world than I do now), 2015 was a time when coolness and clout were dominant cultural commodities, where someone could become a public figure by wearing the right ironic branded hat to the right opening. It was the precise articulation of this trigonometry of coolness that made K-HOLE good; for instance, a line from K-HOLE #3 that always struck me as somewhat eloquent: "'What would you wear to a meeting with Comme des Garçons?' a colleague asked over burgers at the Time Warner center. 'Uniqlo and Nike,' we replied simultaneously." That skill, the trend forecasting mentality, is grounded in a media-oriented, self-critical process of branding oneself in accordance with the trend cycle, which has become useless and/or impossible in 2020. My own disillusionment, which I admit may have come a bit late (Bay Area), coincided with the 2016 election because that event triggered a rift that sucked out all the optimism I had perceived in my pocket of the art world and left a void that we're still navigating. Which, to be clear, I think has been a net positive.* The most immediate result of this disillusionment in my memory was a loss of interest in Instagram as an aesthetic medium, which it had been up until that point, setting off a decline of the supremacy of the clever, polished image towards our current state where the only "good" content left is inane shitposting and irony, which only succeeds through its knowing mockery of the medium's own senescence. Instagram's decline is emblematic of this shift because what this turn away from polished, discrete aesthetics and trend-chasing really embodies is a turn away from the internet itself.

The internet in general, and social media specifically, is a self-branding machine. Documentation, archived traces of activity, reifies our inherently foggy self-image into a strictly delimited set of signifiers within that system. Just as incessantly tweeting about depression brands you as depressed and therefore incapable of escaping depression because your sense of self is founded on being depressed, curating a coherent Instagram aesthetic defined by repeated symbolic criteria defines one's taste by means of these symbols rather than by an independent qualitative evaluation of work, which is what I've referred to elsewhere as sentimental aesthetics. This approach reduces evaluating an art show to the same process as curating one's Tumblr, i.e. whether the artist's aesthetic brand matches your own enough to warrant a repost or not. An artist interested in organic aesthetics likes other rough, crafty art, an artist into technology likes sleek and conceptually clean work, and so on. Ironically, this also can't be too close, because if someone's style is too close to yours they must be ripping you off, even though that makes no sense when you're feuding over who made video art using The Sims first. That mindset of fighting over the right to be the only one allowed to appropriate certain images points to the root evil of sentimental aesthetics: the overinflation of the signifier to the detriment of the signified. Abstract expressionists didn't squabble over doing basically the same thing because they cared about what was actually happening on the canvas. Well, they probably did, I'm no art historian, but that's not my point. It's wrongheaded to be concerned with what's being appropriated or referenced in an artwork instead of what those appropriations or references are doing. I mean, god, do people think Lutz Bacher's work was about her personal relationship to Angry Birds?

The internet perpetuates this surface level of perception, the fleeting mid-scroll engagement that makes one briefly process an image as either cool or not before moving on. Tellingly, this is the purview of corporate branding, the technique of eliciting a reaction out of an uninterested viewer by means of signifiers that are automatically processed in our visual subconscious. This is, to be blunt, the opposite of art. Art should demand and reward attention, not cater itself to the shortened attention spans of digital media. The internet and post-internet art eras mistook the churn of fleeting aesthetic trends as artistic progress, but all that did was instill a deep collective fatigue for trends as a whole. This isn't purely an online or artistic affair, as running alongside this process of online burnout was the great "creative classing" of cities and its consequent flood of nice restaurants and boutiques for the new condominium residents. Likewise the fascination with a digital veneer dissipated as technology became associated not with an online utopia but the new tech yuppie class, and as a result coolness as a term equated with newness and novelty has ceased to be cool. It's not cool to be cool, which on some level has always been the case (viz. John Waters' tips on fashion), and the fact of the matter may simply be that, since 30 years ago is always fashionable, we've definitively shifted from the glossy 80s to the grungy 90s, but specifically regarding art it presents a disconnect that borders on paradox.

Coolness not being cool is a particular issue with art because understanding art demands an understanding of art's context. This is very easy to see in the stereotype of museum tourists getting mad at just about any artwork made after the 19th century; cubism and minimalism, let alone conceptual art, require a knowledge of the ideas in play to understand how to look at it, and if you don't have it the only plausible response is indignation at how much these boxes and splats of paint are worth. Contemporary art is even worse because that context is a culture in flux and requires active participation to be aware and, if you're lucky, make sense of it. Trend chasing is one thing, keeping abreast of the newest style, the newest music, the newest artists. You can pick all that up at parties. But what's to be done when trends themselves are off-trend and novelty is gauche? If the social standing of The Sopranos and admiration for dive bars, Chinese-owned businesses, and Queens in general amongst my peers is any indication, you go the opposite direction and aspire to hang out with your neighbors in Ridgewood instead of aspiring to hang out in a designer's loft in Soho. Normcore is dead, long live the Normal. This is the paradox though: how can a self-aware art world type unlearn their decade or so in the arts and become the working-class neighbor they idolize? Giving up on art altogether is a pragmatic and popular option, but the problem remains for artists. I don't have a practical answer, and of course authenticity tourism is always in poor taste, but these positions of fashionable trendiness and anti-fashion normativity point towards the wider issue of culture itself, which may refine the issue.

Culture is a set of norms and traditions, a transfer of inherited intelligence. The root of this digital fatigue and recoil is the realization that the capitalistic trend cycle is a process of diminishing returns, a sequence of changing surfaces that fails to penetrate to any depth and leaves one unsatisfied. The attraction of New York's entrenched native cultures is the sense that those groups have their own culture with its own inherited depth, something more immersive that one can belong to securely without constant self-conscious refinement. The mistake that 20th century avant-garde artists made was to break from tradition without an awareness of the nourishment that tradition provides. This error meant little to those artists who had already been reared within a tradition; the problem arose for the next generations with only Donald Judd to learn from, alienated from the long continuum of artistic history Judd's generation had repudiated. What I see as the potential solution to the foggy meaninglessness of our contemporary condition is a revival of traditionalism, not in a reactionary "retvrn to tradition" sense but as an embracing of slower cultural movements that care less about the surfaces of signification in artworks and more about the depths of what is signified. Hundreds of years of artistic tradition wrought Titian, Beethoven, and Shakespeare, but our current artistic culture isn't going to produce another Jasper Johns when it's impossible to stay culturally relevant for a lifetime in this climate, let alone our inability to internalize the lessons left by our forebears. I don't really have any cogent idea of how this new traditionalism can come to be, or what it would look like, but I am convinced it's the direction the arts needs to move in if it aims to reemerge from the mire of meaningless and irrelevance that it stands in currently. That "if" is a big if, though. The ethical aspirations of art feel as clear as crystal when I talk to my friends, but to look at almost any gallery in New York is to see a craven thirst for money that's so shameless it'd be willing to torch the last vestiges of artistic integrity left in the world for a couple grand. But that's another problem entirely.

* A little aside: A few months ago I was looking at documentation of Merlin Carpenter's old shows and grumbling to myself about how obnoxious they were, until it hit me that he'd been up to his shtick long before Trump's election, which changes their context entirely. Unfortunately for him, the last four years have turned most of us into cynics and neutralized the edge he used to have. This is a good example of the fickle timeliness of art that's central to the rest of this essay.