Justin Bieber losing his swag
"This store window mannequin, this automaton, this sylph," who is "also a man,“ in whom "one of the most intense aspects of the modern malaise is embodied" is how the writer Michel Leiris described Fred Astaire. Bruce Hainley adopts the seductive form of Leiris’s 1935 text to consider another public figure – one whose activities, unlike the "very special brand of frivolity" Leiris observed Astaire perform, have become ominously inconclusive, however omnipresent.
Justin Bieber in saggy jeans, Justin Bieber blowing kisses, Justin Bieber shirtless in bright red kicks and a backwards cap, Justin Bieber trying to work a tuxedo, Justin Bieber lounging in droopy sweats and Vans, Justin Bieber flexing his newish abs and newest ink, Justin Bieber chilling in a hoodie, Justin Bieber on a skateboard in board shorts and white socks, Justin Bieber punched by a guy most famous for being an elf, Justin Bieber crooning falsetto, Justin Bieber schooled by Kate Moss at a fancy party in Ibiza, Justin Bieber looking for his innocence, discovering a douchey smirk, Justin Bieber busting a move, sticking out his tongue, egging his neighbors, biting his lower lip, squinting, running his fingers slowly through his hair, gazing at himself in the mirror that’s the world around him, peacing-out – there is a whole gallery of Justin Biebers, we see him whether we want to or not, at night and in the daytime, at an awards show or on Instagram, tweeting, embattled, not steady, his demeanor increasingly bro-ish but his eyes a little panicked, not quite fathoming growing older or the capricious twists of celebrity, that trademarked smile strained from deflecting some nonexistent anxiety about the result of his or his fans’ maybe stopping posting or selflessly selfishly selfieing.
Image management. Recognition bump. Brand enhancement. Cross-platform dominance. Perhaps there is not going to be a visual art of »postmodernity« – or post-whatever-term, no matter how depleted, might seem to contour the derangement that is the way we live now. What most often contends for the title rarely bothers, as one wishes it did, »to probe at the concepts that truly organize – that produce – our present fictions of the now«, as T. J. Clark advised more than a long, long decade ago. Those fictions, those »notions of virtuality and visuality«, that imaginary, Clark continued, should be »put to the test of form«.
Justin Bieber is not a test of form (that’s not what he was built for), but he is a test of patience, although no more so than, say, »abstract painting«, which, equally ubiquitous – is there anyone not making abstract paintings? – also very rarely tests anything other than an ability to accommodate maximum surplus value.
Whether abstract or seemingly not, today’s art is not produced to complicate, disrupt, intensify or question what anything (the world, existence, etc.), is taken to be; nor to move anyone (risking vulnerability, soul); nor even to float new trippy kinds of meaning or meaningfulness or meaningful meaninglessness: it is produced only to have been produced. Reification, I’m pretty sure Uncle Georg warned, isn’t critique, but, you know, whatevs. Aesthetic entrepreneurs now »innovate« the production of a product that can, almost instantly, appear anywhere, most super-successfully as the background to the selfie taken in front of it, an image which pings, mirroring the one who »shares« it as much as the followers who receive it, look how much this expensiveness ratifies my flimsy being.
These are abstract times, no emoji for how abstract they are, and, of course, there is almost no so-called aesthetic enterprise that countervails the onslaught of this conflicted moment, or even lip-synchs to it, but it’s not really so bad, right? Look at all this stuff, blasting auction estimates to smithereens, right? Look how many likes. Wild.
Some pictures still have a way of synthesizing the unruliness of the moment. Thank fucking god to accomplish this they don’t have to be art. Not much more than six months ago, some concatenation or afterimage or burnin pointing at »Justin Bieber« or his effect or molting affect appeared on the various sites that track such apparitions. »The Brazilian site EGO and Page Six«, wrote Michael K of Dlisted, »both have pictures of Usher’s godchild covered in a blanket and trying to stealthily sneak out of a brothel in Rio de Janeiro with help from his two buff bodyguards. That picture. It looks like a still from a gay ghost porn. That Bieber ghost is getting the boos fucked out of his butt while he gets ready to toss that other dude’s salad. That lady in the glasses is wondering why in the hell she’s in the middle of this mess.«
That picture. It demonstrates concealment as an exacerbation of being-seen – no escape. It opens up a dossier on being-seen-as-what as well as what-is-being-seen-for. It proves the replaceability or, rather, potential vacancy, of any celebrity or celebritization (anyone, any desperate body double at all, could be cast for the role of Under That Blanket). The picture’s poorly stage-managed raison d’être – helping to transport »Justin Bieber« not out of a brothel (VIPs can use rear access) but into a more adult market niche (»bad boy«? »playa«?) – puts him as well as his brand into a virtual body bag (#notsexy #notelvis #swagmalfunction).
Who in the hell advised the little content-generator not to strut out of that house of ill repute, hiking up his drop-crotch trousers, oversized T-shirt tossed across his tan shoulder, beaming? The tableau forecloses so much of what commandeers prime real estate in our nowtime’s imaginary by demonstrating, by imaging how really abstract any notion of the body or celebrity or being is, or the understudies for those forms are. More followers on any platform in the known universe, yet even Justin Bieber’s really producing nothing other than his own ghostliness, toying with an emptiness his handlers never OK’d.
New high noon of the bêtise? Honey, I haven’t got a clue, but that mess is more cogent and telling than a lot of so-called art in its embodiment of abstraction and its abstraction of embodiment. If art or its current shituation has become a kind of ghost porn – the Biebs has got nothing on art in terms of producing its own obsolescence or irrelevance, whatever the cost – why do I see so few mediums attempting contact, if only to test (ghostbust) this form of what remains, and why do I so very rarely feel the boos getting fucked out of me? I used to think it was something to believe in, but right now all I can muster for it is beliebing.
BRUCE HAINLEY is a writer based in Los Angeles.