On “Relevance” and Art

“Radical” self-love is just sloth repackaged. There is nothing radical about lazing on a couch, binge-watching television for ten straight hours. If done in moderation, this might be considered “taking a break” — though from what, I couldn’t say, as binge-watching hardly allows for silence and recovery.

Consumption of popular media can be both educational and worthwhile, even if said media is absolutely intellectually-worthless; what is currently popular is, of course, currently relevant — and what is relevant is relevant for a reason. Relevance has no morality, no required mental rigor. It is simply the last-taken pulse, a data point recording the latest and grandest views of sex and class and religion and politics and humanity. (I use “grandest” here lightly; relevance is often too aware of its self-importance, thus allowing for the creation of narratives that over-emphasize the impact (or lack thereof) of certain media.)

Relevance is, in other words, the modern Roman amphitheater, providing the judge, jury, victim, and cudgel for today’s internet witch hunt (the sociopaths on Twitter need something to do). It is, at least for me, the best self-rationalization to justify watching trash on YouTube instead of reading the corresponding internet think pieces — because the trash gives me relevance at its source. This is not a good defense; it can be expanded to justify any sort of base behavior: the “immoral” is always “relevant,” so why not experiment a bit?

And here, we have the old blurring of the lines between consuming and replicating media — or, more accurately, between consuming and desiring to replicate media. Perhaps this jump in logic seems both unoriginal and stupidly reactionary (“Video games make school-shooters!”); but as a would-be writer, don’t I have some sort of responsibility to experiment with the worst, that I might reproduce it with the best accuracy? If random and pleasure-based sex is relevant, is it not also artistically necessary?

Condemning relevance requires a standard morality, a distinction between should and should not. Art is made to turn the latter into the former — but is only functional when the “should” is already established in society. There is no purpose for the avant-garde when there is nothing to go against; if all narratives are false and all structure is man-made and self-realized, then art should be focused solely on undoing the “human” narrative, as this narrative, albeit fictionalized and propagandized, is the only thing real enough to be properly critiqued and condemned. This human narrative in its most current iteration is relevance; but also becomes, by intellectual necessity, the basis for art, if there are no true — as in, “real” — power structures or societal mores to condemn. Art condemning art eventually runs out of things to condemn. Morality is no longer socially relevant and thus cannot be used as the structural basis for critiquing power systems or perceived societal ills: again, once you abandon the should in favor of can and will, you abandon structural morality — and, by de facto, the comparison necessary to separate “can” and “will” from “should” in the first place.

It is easy to lay around and mindlessly consume media and defend your lack of purpose on the basis of staying culturally relevant, but when base desires have become Relevance, art has nothing more to critique. It is one thing to critique the effects of animalism (war, for example, or abuse); it is another thing to condemn the animalism itself — as doing so requires the animalism to be “bad” — to be something one “should not” do. And yet there is no more “should not”; excess, sloth, and radicalism are now revolutionary, awe-inspiring and perfectly replicable. Counter-culture has become the system. The counter-culture is Relevance, but it is no longer condemnable, as the presumed basis for condemnation has been (apparently) out-grown.

Relevance does not produce great art. Only a reaction to Relevance produces art, but this is something we are no longer willing to do. You cannot critique the system if you have become the system — or, worse, if you not even aware of becoming the system.

And herein lies the death of Good Art; though, of course, there will be no way to tell when we’ve properly reached this point, as art is only “good” under the basis of structural comparison and not on the basis of its “relevance.”


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