Reflections on Immediacy

Our obsession with instant emotional returns robs us of the ability to understand the culture in which we live.

Screenshot from the third series of the TV programme Kunstnerliv on NRK, episode 1. Nikolai Torgersen and Edvard Munch, 2024.

In the second series of Norwegian national broadcaster NRK’s documentary Kunstnerliv (Artists’ Lives), which premiered earlier this year, the overarching subject is the trials and tribulations overcome by the featured artists on their journey towards an artistic career. In the episode about Nikolai Torgersen, the narrative quickly focuses on challenges with depression and addiction, while the one about Leander Djønne points to art as the only bright spot during an exceptionally rough childhood. Insofar as works of art are mentioned directly, they are framed as symptoms of their creators’ biographies. The various ideas that the works might channel and mediate – make manifest and perceptible – seem unimportant at best, and are barely discussed. The format suggests that the series creators are unable to imagine that contemporary art can be made accessible to the general public. Why put effort into interpretation if you can tell a strong story instead?

What should one call this approach – which isn’t exclusive to either the TV medium, or to Kunstnerliv – where everything is focused in on maximising emotional appeal? In a new and timely book, Immediacy, or The Style of Too Late Capitalism, professor of English at the University of Illinois Anna Kornbluh posits that immediacy constitutes the foremost aesthetic strategy of our time. Across the fields of visual art, literature, and film, Kornbluh identifies a tendency to create works that capture our attention in an instant and, like aimlessly scrolling through a feed, require little of us beyond a superficial engagement.

Kornbluh’s many and varied examples include the type of installations where high-resolution images of Van Gogh or other deceased painters are projected in huge formats, accompanied by animations and sound and light effects. She points out that Van Gogh, who must surely be considered a very accessible artist, is clearly not considered immersive enough without such interactive embellishments, which also rob the works of those qualities that are specific to painting. The idea seems to be to create an experience of literally being inside the picture, while at the same time activating the surrounding space by filling it with all sorts of wellness activities, from yoga to breathing exercises. Kornbluh also refers to Marina Abramovic’s performance The Artist is Present, carried out at MoMA in 2009, where visitors queued for hours to sit opposite the artist and stare into her eyes. Kornbluh claims that these projects circumvent the historical function of art, which is to make complex and often abstract ideas accessible to the sensory apparatus. The immediate work of art does not strive to be more than a momentary experience and thus has little to tell or say about the world outside itself and the viewer’s physical state in the moment.

Laure Prouvost, Above Front Tears Oui Float, 2022. Installation view from the National Museum in Oslo. Photo: The National Museum / Annar Bjørgli.

Kornbluh’s concept makes me see certain exhibitions from recent years in a new light. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Laure Prouvost’s Disneyfied staging of the climate crisis at the National Museum in Oslo in 2022 felt so horribly banal. Its smoothness was devoid of anything other than eye-catching gloss, and thus felt strangely disconnected from any deeper reflection on what is at stake in this planetary crisis. I also discern an emphasis on the immediate in the mediation strategy for the Munch Museum’s otherwise exemplary exhibition Call Me by My Name (2021). It revolved around Munch’s portraits of an African man named Sultan Abdul Karem and referred to the racism widespread in Norway at the time the works were painted (1916), for example through documentation of how the pieces were received by critics. The choice of using wall labels written in the first person – as if we could possibly know what Karem thought and felt during the portrait sessions at Munch’s Ekely studio without written sources – was presumably intended to make the period’s racism feel more immediately present. Instead, it ended up undermining the image of structural racism otherwise painted by the exhibition. Racism was transformed into a personal matter, something that only concerned the short-lived meeting between Munch and Karem.

The concept of immediacy also asserts itself as an artistic strategy. Just think of the wealth of exhibitions in recent years where the artists relate mainly to their own immediate surroundings and circle of friends. At Gothenburg Konsthall, which I visited last week, Jonathan Pilgren’s exhibition is full of small portraits in formats similar to photos taken on mobile phones, and of various scenes from what one may assume is the artist’s apartment and kitchen. In Oslo, a similarly intimate turn can be observed in the works of painters such as Liv Ertzeid, Calle Segelberg, Mikael lo Presti, and Urd. J Pedersen. Here, the artist’s immediate surroundings such as a garden, a street, a kitchen counter, or a coterie become resources for the artwork. A related but more self-exposing variant can be found in the photographs of Maria Pasenau. Her projects often have a diaristic feel, featuring frequent close-ups of her face and body; many of them are taken in the bathroom or in the bedroom. Among these varied stylistic choices and aesthetic strategies, the common trait is not only closeness, but also the close-up as a form linked to the individual’s embodied experience. I often find such reports from the intimate sphere engaging and easy to like, but when encountered too frequently they eventually become fatiguing.

Turning to the realm of literature, Kornbluh’s ultimate example is My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, mercilessly described as a work characterised by a flat ontology where every single everyday detail is equally important. In contrast to the novel, of which the prime examples constitute theories about the world, the autofiction of Knausgaard and others is incapable of describing anything other than concrete reality, those who live, that which already is. What is missing, then – compared to the traditional novel – is the critical reflection that occurs through fiction writing’s creation of worlds and experiences other than reality. Also absent is the opportunity to see the links that arise when the reader moves into a third-person perspective. Through Kornbluh’s critical optics, autofiction quickly begins to resemble literature’s answer to reality TV.

Edvard Munch, Call Me by My Name, 2021. Installation view, Munch Museum (Tøyen). Photo: The Munch Museum.

Even Kornbluh’s own field of study, critical theory, has not escaped the stylistic influence of immediacy. Critical theory’s overriding project has traditionally been to look for signs of the times, to put into words the currents – material, political, and aesthetic – that shape the zeitgeist. According to Kornbluh, this project stands on shaky ground today as immediacy, both as a stylistic feature of works of art and as a communication strategy, means that any general or critical observations are easily disregarded or dismissed.

To substantiate this point, she looks at the trend of autobiographical theory books by thinkers such as Maggie Nelson, Paul B. Preciado, McKenzie Wark, and others, arguing that this genre is more about self-discovery than about the extraction and definition of concepts and arguments. This happens under the guise of an anti-universalist position, which primarily contributes to making the authors unassailable. Not least, Kornbluh points out that the method of autotheory, which is what she claims these authors practice, is one where already established ideas from older critical theory are presented as the author’s own thoughts. Moreover, autotheory establishes a frictionless transition from a physical, bodily experience to knowledge, according to Kornbluh. Again, the pitfall is that a synthesis of more general, overarching conclusions can easily fail to materialise.

When faced with autobiographical art where earnestness or difficult experiences take centre stage, I often find the lack of big ideas disheartening. The same is increasingly applicable to how art is discussed and communicated by institutions, as in the case of the Munch Museum’s ventriloquising of Karem, and in the media, as in the aforementioned Kunstnerliv, where Norwegian contemporary artists lay bare their private lives in front of the camera. The testimony of the traumatised individual has become the new gold standard in the production and reception of contemporary art – and art criticism is no exception.

All perspectives and details have become equally important, and the distance between work and author has collapsed. Thus, it is not uncommon for criticism to be perceived as an attack on the inherent value of subjective experience. But at a time when most content is delivered pre-sorted, tailored to the individual’s world view, political leanings, and taste, broad cultural criticism across fields and genres becomes more important than ever. Immediacy is packed with close readings of works, which comes across as an argument that we need careful and thorough interpretations of works of art to be able to say something about the world. In the absence of such willingness to analyse, culture atrophies into an endless series of close-ups, and this intimate perspective – certainly when it becomes ubiquitous – undermines our ability to see the full outline of the times in which we live.

Anna Kornbluh, Immediacy, or The Style of Too Late Capitalism, 2024 (Verso).