Gift shop of The Art of Banksy Exhibition in Melbourne, Australia (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Inescapable crisis

Have our worn-out imaginations reached their limits?

Artillery Row Books

Appearing on a Boston wall in 2010, Banksy’s Follow Your Dreams artwork quickly became popular amongst those fearing the sharp-end of the financial crisis. Its wide circulation is not hard to understand. A bemused-looking man holding a bucket and paintbrush stands in front of a white-washed wall. The shaky looking words “follow your dreams” are scrawled upon the brickwork. On top of that and partially obscuring the original lettering is a red diagonal “cancelled” stamp. It was a meme before memes properly existed.

Crisis As Form, Peter Osborne (Verso Books, £19.99)

The stark message resonated: things are fairly hopeless and your life-chances have just been seriously hemmed-in. If its message still speaks to you, you can buy a poster version for around £36 on Etsy or, if you are feeling a little flush, a limited-edition print is available for just short of £140. Meanwhile it can be obtained for less than a fiver over at your favourite retail monolith Amazon. As the excellent Banksy documentary once put it, “Exit through the gift shop.

The continuing appeal of Banksy’s image tells us that things are far from settled. In his influential book Crashed, Adam Touze famously argued the financial crises of the late noughties never actually ended. Unresolved, it kept lurching onwards. The economy is only part of the picture. In After Capital the sociologist Couze Venn has shown how social life has come to be defined by various overlapping and convergent economic, social, political and environmental crises. Peter Osborne’s spritely new book Crisis as Form is clearly not alone in developing the idea that we are stuck in something close to a permanent state of crisis. What is different is his exploration of how contemporary art and culture endeavour to imagine this tumultuous period. Osborne wonders, simply, “how to make art today”. 

Social crises are usually temporary; they are passing moments. Permanency, Osborne argues, “destroys the conceptual core of crisis”. It renders the term almost meaningless. Osborne’s point is that the current state of crisis is no longer a moment “within a process of transition”. The continuation of these conditions means that this is, as Osborne puts it, “no longer technically a crisis, but a new and terrible form of social reproduction”. His book includes a series of examples from the art world that illustrate the crisis of form created as it tries to adapt to such social reproduction. 

A sense of urgency is part of how crises are felt

In some passages that might have been fruitfully extended, Osborne turns to think about flows of information as the “temporal structures of crisis”. The “flow” is, he claims, an impression of time encapsulated in the rushing-by of moments. The flow, in his words, “is an ontological image of time”. The point here is that we live within it. Rapid flows take form in, he observes, “the stream”. The rhythms of everyday life are reshaped around the accessibility and algorithmic momentum of instant and vast streaming platforms. These streams set the rhythm for us. Something like music, which Osborne deals with in a separate chapter, has “shadow mediums” that lurk and reshape tastes and preferences. The general notion that we are all short of time and are overexposed to rapidly moving content is part of the crisis itself. We feel the constant urgency to keep-up to date with what is happening. Social media are the pacemakers in that race. This sense of urgency is part of how crises are felt. We feel we have little slack to cope with more. Our instant and bottomless media feeds have altered what Osborne refers to as the “temporal rhythms”. The inevitable interruptions bring plenty of what Osborne refers to as “temporal disjunctions”. A contorted face on a frozen Zoom screen comes to mind.

The book is largely developed out of a series of talks and exhibition lectures that have been adapted for the page, giving it an oratory feel. It also means that there was a particular audience that Osborne was addressing. We could inevitably question some of the assumptions made about the nature and permanency of these crises (wouldn’t all crises seem unending at the time?). The speculation, repeated twice in the book, that “the current political situation [is] anti-capitalism without a postcapitalist imaginary” invites a question or two. Despite what has happened, we might ask if there is actually a palpable dissatisfaction or disaffection with capitalism. Alongside that we might also be sceptical about whether there is a limited imagination amongst those who wish to seek an alternative. The supposed impossibility of imagining alternative futures has echoes of that Banksy image and, perhaps, of Mark Fisher’s notion of “capitalist realism”.

We may wonder if crisis fatigue has now set in

By focusing attention away from the form of the crisis and onto the crisis of form, Osborne’s line of argument has the potential to miss the back-and-forth between the two. Understandably the book doesn’t explore the specifics of the crises or their causes; its focus is downstream on the response of art to these unsettled times. As revealing as it might be, this perspective makes it difficult to see how art and culture might themselves be part of the action. It could be that culture is fuelling and exacerbating the sense of crisis rather than only responding to it. A culture of streaming platforms, social media, data analytics and automated consumption, along with the type of content they continually present to us, may well be making us feel crises more acutely, Osborne’s own points about flows and streams would hint as much. Our cultural formations and their mediation might be enhancing a collective sense of crisis and heightening our “nervous states”, as William Davies has recently put it. If we were to play with the conceptual ideas that Osborne offers in his book, then this isn’t just crisis as form or crisis of form. The perpetuation of the feeling of being in crisis, and the limits this feeling brings to the imagination, could be understood as crisis through form.

Looking back at Banksy’s image, we may wonder if crisis fatigue has now set in. Maybe no one expects to have dreams to follow, if they ever did. Worn-out from the incessant din, our attention is pushed and pulled in all directions by our personalised media feeds. Despite this highly individualised media experience, we are sharing in a wider cultural malaise. Art and culture may be experiencing a crisis of form and may struggle to respond to wider uncertainties, but they are also part of those uncertainties. Culture and art shape how crises are lived and how, crucially, they are understood, experienced and reproduced. What are the limits of the imagination in these conditions? Can we think beyond the crisis when we are within the storm? Osborne’s book implicitly poses these questions. A social crisis is always likely to get tied up with a crisis of imagination. Our media and the content that hurriedly circulates through them are complicit parts of the permanency of crisis and our trudging sense of the future, regardless of whether those future dreams are cancelled. 

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