The Renaissance painter Hans Holbein the Younger’s famous work The Ambassadors (1533) shows two Frenchmen:
one who looks a bit like Henry VIII and another who seems a bit more studious.
They lean against some wooden shelves that are piled high with symbolic objects,
including navigational equipment, globes and a red anatolian carpet.
It could be said that people who like this painting nowadays are the same ones who would also say:
let’s make colonial exploration and expansion great again.
But then those would probably be the ones who missed the painting’s focus – a smeared, anamorphic skull jutting diagonally from the bottom of the canvas.
In the psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan’s reading of the painting, the skull represents a site of collapse, where our everyday reality breaks down. What bursts forth through this rupture is what he terms ‘the Real’: that which cannot be represented or mediated by language.
We only experience the world, Lacan argues, through a complex system of symbols, the meanings of which we collectively agree upon.
As we go about our day to day lives we interpret what we see in a way that allows us to read our surroundings, so that we feel we can understand our place in the world.
The skewed skull in the ambassador’s painting is something which the artist placed in there to elude this kind of symbolic order. Because it’s meaning lies outside our perception when looking straight at the canvas, so we don’t directly experience it – yet, we know it is there.
A bit like a nation state that likes to keep out immigrants
And so one of the major outcomes of the Bush regime’s War on Terror was the public service announcement: ‘otherness is changing’. A declaration that the ‘civilised world’ is no longer facing a ‘new’ threat that is clearly distinguishable from the outside, or as readily identifiable from within, but otherness itself — its common nature — has changed. Our new situation relates to “an unspecified enemy [that] threatens to rise up at any time and point in society or geographical space. From the welfare state to the warfare state: a permanent state of emergency against a multifarious threat as much in us as outside” (Massumi, 1993: 11).
In saying this, social theorist Brian Massumi indicates that otherness today can only be identified as a posteriori, following some sort of announcement or event. In lieu of this, a reduced notion of ‘otherness’ has been incorporated into what philosopher Byung Chul Han refers to as “the proliferation of the same” under the guise of ‘diversity’ (Han, 2018: 6-25). Consequently, it seems we are living in a speculative era as to what otherness actually is, unsure if it even exists, beyond a mere spectre to be pre-emptively purged.
The above state of affairs feels particularly relevant in terms of artistic practice. For, on the one hand, if art is considered to be an authoritative means of expressing otherness as “estrangement from reality” as according to Adorno.
However, this experience can be undermined by what Hal Foster describes as the art world’s ‘impulse to archive’, which serves to convert that sense of estrangement into something readily definable through discourse; exhibitable as public spectacle; historicised under categories that are familiar to its own perspective; ‘likeable’ according to the demands of marketing i.e. instagram; and serviceable for the purposes of commercial or public funds (Foster, 2004). Under these conditions, the poetic quality of art as the locus of otherness receives challenge from its nifty utility to serve as a sophisticated means of exchange.
Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God (2007) brings the above concerns to light, in the form of a diamond-encrusted skull. Upon facing the artefact, we encounter Hirst’s memento mori – an embodiment of death, eliciting a sublime sense of the other. A sensation moulded alongside the presence of 8,601 flawless diamonds, weighing a total of 1,106.18 carats; giving crucial purchase to the work’s asking price of £50 million. The incredible value of Hirst’s gesture provides a further sense of estrangement, eluding the comprehension of most humans.
However, by virtue of its numerical nature it can still be understood, as a thing that is exchangeable and comparable with any other thing that has an arithmetic dimension. One way to make this apposition of commerce and death fathomable, is to suggest that one is incomplete without the other – similar to how history is traditionally summed up as a struggle between good and evil. Another point of view is to consider the argument that: numerical equivalence leads to a negation of meaning, because “meaning is something incomparable” (Han, 2018: 16). If the latter is taken on board, then it could be said that in today’s commercialised art context, exhibitions are no longer spaces intended to express the sublime other, but rather to neutralise it, much like how the War on Terror neutralises the threat of an unidentifiable other: UIO.
Sometimes ambassadors ask me to make something,
and then the work feels like an IOU
Some kind of debt I’m tryna’ square with death
I tried to tell them, that I’m not part of the canon
You can’t place me on your shelf, next to all the things that you took with your canons
I’d much rather be at peace with the fertile traditions of the deceased
Because on your art historical shelves
There only dwells a kind death that is an irony to life
Yes, you ironic art loving hipster have been radicalised
Now that your liberal dreams metastasised and were sent to die
So you try to make yourselves common and sit in Victorian post offices
Believing that you are both the ambassadors and the holbein
Holding the door open
So that the crowds can come hoping
To see your astrolabes and turkic rugs inside
And when I stepped in there I felt the fear of heaven
Of a skewed metaphysics in which I could only be skull
Because I also got the memo from Rubinstein:
That the promise of a pluralist, non-binary philosophy that challenges the established political order on both sides of the political divide, came crashing down with the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. In the ensuing global war, that is still ongoing and marketed as the West’s righteous struggle against the Muslim antichrist,
atheism and the ‘end of grand narratives’ came to be seen as dangerous and unaffordable luxuries.
The promise of a philosophy that is free from the metaphysical foundations in the logic of identity, had to be quickly abandoned. When the declared enemy is the Taliban
To remedy this, we must seek elusive new frontiers led by Silicon Valley tribesmen on their SpaceX Quad Bikes criss-crossing some far-flung lunar desert in bulletproof cyber-trucks, – it’s in these times that sympathy for the nomad becomes a dangerous game.
And so the ambassadors understood when President George W. Bush declared after 9/11 ‘you are either with us or with the terrorists’, the creative possibilities of becoming-other seemed dangerously close to treason.
And so the ambassadors were excited by this… they said, look we are not terrorists and if they ask then why are we there, we can just play tourist – so let’s gang up on them one by one, because we are a nifty pair and that’s how it’s always been done.
So the war cry came:
LET’S MAKE SOLO SHOWS GREAT AGAIN
And that’s when I told the ambassadors NO
Because to work with death means to uphold life and the living
I work with people
Whereas you display objects
According to the literary theorist Terry Eagleton, culture can mean the values and beliefs of a cultivated minority aka the ambassadors, or it can mean the way of life of a whole people, as represented by the objects that are displayed upon the shelves and spaces of such ambassadors.
When considering the latter he goes on to say that “culture nowadays can be defined as that which you’re prepared to kill or die for”.
Now when it comes to politics, we seem to have entered something called the post-truth era. A phrase ironically dubbed by the ambassadors to lament the loss of their hegemony as chief manufacturers of facts.
Today the language of politics makes use of references to cultural conflict, especially when it comes to issues to do with race and identity. And if you need more evidence of this, turn the news on and see why particular ‘types’ of people are still dying.
It is on this bleak canvas that the phenomenon of ambassadors has appeared: the conservative existentialist— only understands 3 types of death:
That which is relatively instant i.e. atomic war,
That kind of death that is mediated by the state i.e. a fire in a tower full of immigrants.
And that which conforms with their own creative and rebellious instincts, including damage to the mind and the heart and the liver and the nerves, occurring within a timespan which has been outsourced to research foundations for alzheimers and cancer.
This makes me wonder if we are over-inflating certain kinds of artistic production into an umbrella that encompasses all forms of culture manifest? If we deal with culture as things like language, symbol, belief and fraternity we can understand it to still have a major role in the meaning-making processes of modern society. A mechanism that requires resources, exposure and time to develop and diffuse from a cultivated minority in such a way that it can permeate a whole people.
This permeation if directed effectively can have sizable social and political effects. 2016 witnessed two bloodless political revolutions, namely Brexit and Trump, which many commentators have framed as a substitution of new ambassadors for the removal of a previous pair.
So the people involved in these upheavals were stancing themselves as activists on both sides.
But how can ambassadors pose as victims?
It’s not this… the frontiers is where they feel endangered and primitive
That’s how they create the conditions that allow for the performance of them in the painting.
How are the ambassadors different from modern day influencers?
Whatever their scale, the influencer’s mixing of everyday life with corporate sponsorship produces an effect on their audiences similar to that provoked by Ambassadors.
Sometimes I even have to wear their faces because the art world always contains a disturbance that prevents us from being fully immersed in the image because it brings us into being as a consumed entity.
Forcing questions like: do we want it? Can we afford it? In this sense, the sponsored post looks back at us, addressing us, fracturing the agreeable illusion that we are looking at a scene from a real life.
And so we come to know that the most successful ambassadors are not gritty realists who forage the frontiers for modern-day delights, but rather they stylise their images with signature filters in the form of ‘diverse’ artists. In other words, ambassadors just see themselves as a hybrid form of mini-institution with all the coded PR of a property development’s photo shoot.
Their collection of spots to be gentrified are called ‘galleries’, and their audiences agree, as with paintings, to these simulacra, whereby a series of carefully doctored images blurs the line between them and their ‘resident artists’.
Into this faked reality appears the product placement in human form, an object of colour serving as a visual paradox that makes everything surrounding it appear both more real and less real.
Because as Hal Foster describes the ambassadors ‘impulse to archive’, serves to convert that sense of estrangement into something readily definable through placing it upon recognisable shelves; exhibitable as public spectacle; historicised under categories that are familiar to its own perspective; ‘likeable’ according to the demands of marketing; and serviceable for the purposes of commercial or public funds (Foster, 2004).
Under these conditions, the ambassadors can remediate their own lack of poetic quality, outsourcing their art to whichever locus of diversity can benefit their nifty ability to maintain a sophisticated means of exchange.
They can place things upon shelves and dress themselves well
but they can’t skew the skull.
That’s where I come in.
And if after all this it is still unclear, maybe ask yourself what are you willing to kill and die for? That may give you an idea of your own culture and the impact it can have on what is left of society.