In Significance

In the world of eternal return the weight of

                                                             unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move   we make. That is why Nietzsche called the idea of

eternal return the heaviest of burdens (das schwerste Gewicht).


If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then

our lives can stand out against it in all their

splendid lightness.


But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness

splendid? The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we

sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in

the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be

weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of

burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of

life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the

burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the

more real and truthful they become.


Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden

causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the

heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly

being, and become only half real, his movements

as free as they are insignificant.


What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?


–Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being


            Rummaging through a stack of old Art For ‘Ems in search of “I don’t know what,” in I don’t know which edition but I knew it was there; a true exercise in negative reasoning. Eventually, there it was (I knew it when I saw it). The residue remained, all the artists and works and the nostalgic review of their “newness,” their contemporary importance. Gone! The vast majority never made an encore appearance to the pages of that catalogue of culture. But the aftertaste lingers- trying to place works recalled that evoked those pictured, the works done by local artists and students. When were they made? Some I knew I had seen prior. Much, other, student work I knew came after.

            The reproduction by art students of culture catalogue works happens literally, but within the modernist sense of continuation and evolution. Amazing doesn’t begin to describe this re-occurrence. It is as predictable as sweaters and football with each new school year. The task of looking up working artists, contemporary art, and writing a paper on the research is de rigueur for college level studio art courses. Though the college mission statement doesn’t spell it out, there is a tacit, covert inculcation of the significance of any and all work done by the denizens of higher education.

            The current October 130 (from which the above quote comes) is half full of answers to a questionnaire considering the place of contemporary art within the traditional art history discipline. No consensus can be drawn but there is a resonance to the experience of “contemporary art history” comparable to that of my Art For ‘Em search.  The Kundera quote is used to suggest that although the current, post-post modern aesthetic regime can claim no readily identifiable thread within the modern, that there is nothing to “ground” it, or burden it, the resulting production often becomes “only half real” and insignificant.

            This creates a curious, contemporary cultural contradiction (whew!). If, as Ranciere suggests, the mother tongue is learned through mimicry, then, in spite of itself, the continued emphasis by studio art pedagogues on having students research the works of contemporary artists results in the perpetuation of the renaissance art school originated tradition of studying the masters through copying their works. This becomes fascinating when one realizes that it is being done coincidental with the real mission of these institutes of higher learning- molding citizens who consider themselves significant in the work they do and contribution they make.  We are being gifted by a culture of folks maintaining their “distinguished” significance by promoting works of limited or no significance.

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