If one of the central questions that have occupied the reflections about art is concerned with the relation between art and society, today we witness a trend to think this relationship in terms of generosity and hospitality. In these terms artists, curators and critics as active producers of contemporary art appear often as giving hosts. In fact, exhibitions, artworks and theories that are produced in the context of contemporary art carry undoubtedly the potential to enfold new und unexpected ways of seeing and thinking—not different actually, to the rocks Bruno Latour describes. In this way art, as well as all other things that are part of our world networks, can be truly understood as a gift to society.
This way of thinking, however, signifies an interesting difference to the way, the relation of art and society used to be conceptualized until not so long ago. Especially the tradition of avant-garde art stood, as we know to well, in a rather hostile relation not only with the rules of socially accepted art, but also with the rules of bourgeois society as such. For a long time artists had no interest to give gifts to a society that in their eyes was sick and corrupted all through. Instead their common aim was to destroy and revolutionize the rotten society through the medium of true art.
The relationship of avant-garde art and society reminds in this way on the relationship between the bacilli and the human body in the way Arthur Schnitzler once described it in his posthumously published aphorisms and reflections. From the perspective of the bacilli, Schnitzler characterizes the sick human body as their world and varied landscape. In fact, these small individuals, as Schnitzler calls them, drive towards the destruction of this world and it is clear, that their drive is not only in a very few instances successful. Thus Schnitzler implies that while for the human the bacillus is only a more or less dangerous sickness and danger that needs to be destroyed, for the bacillus the human is a higher and in its totality inconceivable organism, in which the bacillus finds its existential condition, necessity and meaning.
The same relation and dependency signifies the relation of the modern society and art. For the modern society as the host of the avant-garde art, the artists and their modern art productions —Schnitzler questions surely not accidently whether one should not be able to differentiate between normal everyday life bacilli and geniuses amongst the whole species—seemed like a sickness of society that, at least from the populist perspectives of the masses, needed to be destroyed. And for the avant-garde artists the modern rationalized society with all its differentiated spheres and its division of businesses seemed to be the higher and in its totality inconceivable organism, in which the also the artist found its existential condition, necessity and meaning at least insofar as they would aim at this very societies destruction. In a metaphorical sense one can surely say that the artists, like the bacilli, were not only in a few instances successful: they buried traditional art as well as their schools and movements and replaced them with completely new and more contemporary paradigms.
Yet the question appears, why this hostile relationship has changed over time? In one of his reflections of the 1990s Jean Baudrillard occupied himself with the same question. He points out that everybody is the fate of the other, ready to either destroy or seduce each other. For the relationship of the human species and the species of bacilli this means that there is a total symbiosis and at the same time a radical difference between one and the other. The relationship is not any longer determined by otherness, but by networks, since the human species and the species of bacilli are chained to each other—a chain that, as Baudrillard has pointed outgoes back to infinity. Yet, it is clear that this means that the pole’s between each identity disappears and with it the otherness and in this way also the hostility. Structurally everybody has become basically the same and so our destiny and fate. This is the true meaning of the ecology of our existence.
Accordingly, we can assume that over time we have learned to understand the relationship between art and society from the same ecologically determined perspective. From this perspective the fate of the bacilli is the fate of humanity and the fate of modern art is basically the fate of modern society. It is clear that this modern ecological perspective is utterly determined by an uncanny apocalyptic fear of the disappearance of all existence. As such this fearful perspective has its origins in the nuclear age of the consumer society and the crowing belief that if certain species, certain habitats and even certain climatic conditions will disappear due to humanities exploitive action, the human species itself might disappear. Accordingly the contemporary artistic producers seem to fear today that without a functioning modern society there will not be any art and without art there might no longer be the possibility of a good society.