THE ARTIST AS DISTANT EARLY WARNING SYSTEM (2005)

When multimedia artist Laurie Anderson performed recently in Vancouver, she mused how life is often like bad art. Characters come and go and never return. The plot changes randomly. Entire themes are abandoned halfway through. Unlike art, life’s point of view is always first person singular, in the present tense. (And usually a tense present.)

So one big purpose of art, for both the creator and the audience, is to give life the form it often lacks. Any artist worth his or her salt hopes to make a mark, to rise above mere trends, even if that expectation is something of a tall order in a culture with the attention span of a ferret on crystal meth.

Being ahead of your time has its down side, evidenced by the struggling artist’s steady diet of Kraft dinner and humble pie. Prophets are rarely welcome in their own age – partly because of their habit of figuring out something stinks before the rest of us have even had a whiff. The creative contributor to culture has been compared to a “canary in a coal mine,” a reference to miners bringing the birds down coal shafts because of their sensitivity to toxic gases such as carbon monoxide. Any signs of distress from the canaries was a clear sign that conditions were unsafe and the miners should evacuate.

Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan offered a different metaphor with a similar point. “I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it,” he wrote in the sixties. McLuhan was as much an oracle as a scholar, and it wasn’t until fairly recently that his more cryptic utterances began to make sense. A highly creative writer who refused to observe the protocols of academic writing, the University of Toronto prof was on the DEW line himself.

Sometimes it seems as if artists aren’t just registering seismic trends with their sensitive equipment, they are remote-viewing the future – or even conjuring it into being. “It is well known that art will often – for example, in pictures – precede the perceptible reality by years,” wrote the philosopher Walter Benjamin in the 1930s. “It was possible to see streets or rooms (in paintings) that show all sorts of fiery colors long before technology, by means of illuminated signs and other arrangements, actually set them under such a light. Whoever understands how to read these semaphores in advance not only knows about currents in the arts but also about legal codes, wars and revolutions.”

The stuff of today’s headlines is the content of yesterday’s canvases, films, novels, and music. Fear over mutated viruses? Check out either Michael Crichton’s novel or film
The Andromeda Strain from three decades earlier. Frankenstein scenarios from genetically modified organisms? That’s a whole subgenre of bio-horror, ranging from to Jules Verne’s The Island of Doctor Moreau to Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. Computer age dystopias, with humans going cyber? The flesh-made-weird paintings of Hans Giger have combined machinery with biology for years, decorating rock album jackets and inspiring director Ridley Scott’s Aliens film series. Domestic surveillance and virtual worlds run amok? Pick up any of Philip K. Dick’s novels from decades back for a possible preview of a reality we’re building with our technical necromancy. Or go see the relatively recent films that were based on his books, once the world caught up with him: Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report. All of these productions still seem like postcards from the future.

It’s no surprise that some artists seem to have a crystal ball, if you consider they’re sometimes responsible for entirely new idioms. These are often jarringly dissonant to the “cultured” eyes and ears of their time. Igor Stravinsky’s orchestral composition
The Rite of Spring provoked riots when it was first performed in prewar Europe. The music of the Beatles was considered decadent and destructive by the balding guardians of British high culture. Today the most shocking piece of art is the contemporary protest song – shocking only in the sense that it is now so rarely heard on corporate rock radio. The music industry prefers to direct its promotional efforts on the smoothed down, processed Pablum of mega-selling boy bands and teen Stepford sirens. Programming behemoths like Clear Channel, which owns 1,200 stations in the US, prefers to not rock the boat, the vote, or anything else. But artists like Michael Franti and Green Day still get manage to get around the media matrix, which is still not completely monolithic – good stuff still trickles through.

Like the lion in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, who sang the world into existence, the best artists seem to embody the spirit of creation itself. Even comedy has its ahead-of-their-time visionaries, like Lenny Bruce, Australian Barry Humphries and the late Bill Hicks. The skill of the standup prophet is to say the unsayable, and put it such a way that repressed energy is released in laughter.

Geoff Olson