The Following is a Work in Progress
The following essay was originally published in the exhibition Beauty & The Beast, UBC Vancouver Faculty Exhibition, at the Alternator gallery for contemporary art, in 2006, featuring Gu Xiong, Barrie Jones, Nancy Nisbet, Phillip McCrum, Manuel Pina, Richard Prince, Marina Roy, and Barbara Zeigler.
I am using three works, two contemporary and another historical, to build an argument toward this conclusion: Contemporary art in its highest form is the creation of a culture of charlatanism, a charlatanism created by the forces of capital, fear, anti-intellectualism and the crisis of theory as a viable counterpoint to the New World Order. These works, which I have found flawed in a way that makes them both beautiful and tragic, are works of passion, indulgence, ego and narcissism. They interweave as examples demonstrating the transformation and mutation of the romantic hero to buffoon and/or fanatic. The three works:
The Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. (My version is the Penguin Classics 1953 translation by J.M. Cohen of the original completed in 1765 and first published 1781.) Bear Encounter Survival Guide by James Gary Shelton (1994). A back- page blurb by Angela Hall of the Coast Mountain News reads:
“Are you tired of confusing and contradictory information about bear aggressive behaviour and how to survive it? Mr. Shelton takes you on a fascinating and definitive journey through bear behaviour and takes time along the way to debunk much of our cultural mythology about bears and nature. If you work or play in the great outdoors, or you intend to visit a park in the near future, this book is a must.” And, finally, the recent Werner Herzog film *Grizzly Man*.
“In nature there are boundaries, for the last 13 years one man has crossed them.” – Promotional text.
My example of art as representative of the canard – contemporary culture’s highest form of art – is Grizzly Man, which collages (collapses) together the documentation of ‘Timothy Treadwell,’ a ‘well-known’ eccentric, conservationist and environmentalist. One of my contentions, based on subtleties within the film, is that Treadwell himself is a fiction, a creation of Herzog. Treadwell supposedly lived in the wilderness for 13 years, yet there is no evidence that he was there until he started videotaping in the final five years. Treadwell is ageless. He does not change, gain weight or grow a beard. All visual evidence of Treadwell is contained only in the film. I have yet to locate evidence of him from a source unrelated to the film. Grizzly Man is a sophisticated ruse that merits comparison with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s great hoax, the Piltdown man. Its seamless entry into our cultural consciousness exploits a romantic heritage personified and stemming from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, often considered the first Romantic novel despite its claims to objective observation. I compare Treadwell’s wilderness experience and expertise with Shelton’s Survival Guide, which is part journal, part rant and part manifesto. Let us start and end, as space limits the development of the entire argument, with the voices of our protagonists, their first and last words. Rousseau:
“I have begun on a work which is without precedent, whose accomplishment will have no imitator. I propose to set before my fellow-mortals a man in all the truth of nature; and this man shall be myself.”
“I have written the truth: if any person has heard of things contrary to those I have just stated, were they a thousand times proved, he has heard calumny and falsehood; and if he refuses thoroughly to examine and compare them with me whilst I am alive, he is not a friend either to justice or truth. For my part, I openly, and without the least fear declare, that whoever, even without having read my works, shall have examined with his own eyes my disposition, character, manners, inclinations, pleasures, and habits, and pronounce me a dishonest man, is himself one who deserves a gibbet.”
“I must deal with all the issues that influence human/ bear conflict and bear conservation or my critics will claim that the main tenets of my thesis are questionable, because I didn’t address all factors related to the subject. If you and I reach the distant shore together, and in agreement, then I will have convinced you of the following ten basic points that form the underlying outline of this book.”
“Our stormy passage is almost over: let’s attach the rudder. The fear of bear attacks hits a psychic cord that brings panic to most people well beyond the dread of other types of danger. I have rarely felt fear during a bear encounter, but I have felt terror shortly after some of the sow grizzly encounters I’ve had. Grizzly bears are specialists at terrorizing an intruder, and anyone who has experienced that feeling knows why the fear of bear attacks is not related to the comparatively low level of risk.”
“I’m out in the prime cut of the big green. Behind me is (sic) Ed and Rowdy, members of an up-and-coming sub- adult gang. They’re challenging everything, including me. Goes with the territory. If I show weakness, if I retreat, I may be hurt, I may be killed. I must hold my own if I’m gonna stay within this land. For once there is weakness they will exploit it, they will take me out, they will decapitate me, they will chop me into bits and pieces. I’m dead. So far, I persevere."
“I’ve tried hard. I bleed for them, I live for them, I die for them. I love them. I love this. It’s tough work. But it’s the only work I know. It’s the only work I’ll ever want. Take care of these animals. Take care of this land.”
"He seems to hesitate in leaving the last frame of his own film."
Phil McCrum is a Lecturer in the Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory at the University of British Columbia.