When Does Cultural Production End?


Anyone can produce art. But when do we get to stop? I don’t mean here a question of the boundaries of a particular object or movement, but on a practical level, at what point has the painter, the author, or the sculptor finally said what it is that needed saying, after which time they get to cast aside the tools and do something else? Or are we to believe that once what needed saying has been said, one must continue to stalk one’s computer, ever after shackled to the task of churning out cleverness and replication without regard for usefulness?

Certainly we have seen writers like Žižek continue long after their relevant point has been made. Conversely, we know that Wittgenstein was able to walk away.

Cultural production is the worrying of a splinter beneath the skin, that shard having entered to some level of depth during some earlier time, the result of short-sightedness or recklessness or contingency, now affecting parts of the body that were meant for something other than splinters. Pushing a splinter out is frustratingly slow work, especially if the cells have become used to working around it. How does one convince others to sustain the work? How does one convince oneself?

I read a story recently that a girl had an asthma attack and died at her elementary school in Philadelphia. She had an albuterol inhaler which could have saved her, but the school had a policy that all medications had to be locked in a cabinet where only the school nurse had a key. And they had another policy in place where the school nurse rotated through five schools, one each day. The result being that when a girl needed medication, she couldn’t get it because the nurse was at a different school. Here we have two rules: medication must be locked up in the nurses’ office, and nurses must rotate. These rules were not meant to communicate. They were the result of separate conversations, one where children were taking each other’s medication and another where budgets did not allow a nurse at every school. But when these rules were implemented, it created an object which pierced skin. In the end, a girl died.

How much larger the implications become when we are speaking not of the policies of one school district, but of assumptions in the very way we speak, move, get and give money, take up projects and react to the projects of others—the collected mass passed down about what humanity can do—to each other, to ourselves, to the land.

What barbed object dragged itself across us, and for how long? How is it that the human condition is a history of rake, of abrasion, of pain and neglect? There are so many forms of life, they all have their operant assumptions, and their edges don’t match. The skin is porous and prone to puncture. Everywhere people die for the preservation of rules.

Cultural production is the outlet through which we test alternate realities, locating a conflict and working at it, worrying some issue, taking up a burden which may not be completed before our lives are, under the influence of a faith which says that resolve and creativity alone can push the splinter back out.

Cultural production is the testing ground for solutions, those times we attempt to articulate a reality which doesn’t exist and may never exist. The role of the artist is to chart the new way. As Barnett Newman writes, “Reality is what the artist makes it.” As such, cultural production ends in one of two ways: either when reality looks how the artist wanted it, or when we lose faith that art can change the conditions of our existence.

Matt Siemer