Empty Secrets

[The following comes from a brief exchange on Atlanta’s ARTNEWS-listserv between Jerry Cullum, Robert Cheatham, and myself.]

The point, that really must be taken seriously, in Eco’s essay isn’t really his (and it’s not really Georg Simmel’s either), that “a real secret is an empty secret.” This is the truth uncovered in any so-called “secret teaching.” All that is revealed when the occult is pursued is that enlightenment isn’t interesting, unless the acolyte believes it is.

If I read Cinque’s article right, Eco’s discussion is relevant to recent talks about arts programing at the High Museum of Art, isn’t it?

The High functions in the Atlanta arts world in a manner not so dissimilar from the U.S. State Department: both entities are charged with a mission that is largely about establishing and pushing an agenda. State’s ambassadors listen to the host nation’s representatives and regardless of the truth in any grievances aired in those meetings, the State must respond in accordance with the wishes of the Executive Offices. Similarly, the High has their ambassadors in the Atlanta arts community and likewise can only effect the will of their Executive Board.

In both instances the function is representation.

Representation itself is the empty secret. Representation is a shell game: sometimes it amuses children, maybe even frustrates and incenses them; the risk for adults is that they gamble away their resources in the activity. Representation at its core is the activity of substituting one thing for another. Political representation (or arts representation, or community representation) can only operate when the participants believe, and accept as real, that the “substitution of someone else for me” is the same thing as or equally effective as me/us doing it by myself/ourselves together.

So long as the belief is allowed to be promulgated that Atlanta’s arts community is represented by the folks that set the High’s agenda (or that the High is the entity that should be representative of the southeast region) the conspiracy around that empty secret will continue.

The point of Wikileaks isn’t to achieve what the Modernist project set out to do in the 15th century, that is, to finally have the perfect representation of ______ (insert your pet project here, a more real perspective on a flat surface, a more real political will, etc.)

Rather, Wikileaks and the Tea Party, 4chan’s Anonymous, these are expressions of a different mode of populism. All are to this point incoherent ramblings but tend to revolve around direct participation and the abolishing of representation. In the case of Anonymous we get the closest to something I’m calling appropriative politics.


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