For their 10th biannual themed exhibition, Phantoms in the Front Yard explored drug culture and its impact. Whether legal, illegal, pharmaceutical, naturopathic, synthetic, or cultivated, drugs have an ever more varied presence on our media and conversations. From their use and misuse to their purpose, promise and prominence, they are tied to a wide spectrum of societal issues.
Over the Counter Culture makes reference to propaganda posters, contemporary advertising, fictional and technical literature, and historical print and painting styles, to explore the evolving complexities circling the perceptions and uses of drugs in cultures past and present. For his part in the exhibition, Jay Senetchko took a psycho-metaphysical approach to the topic, to expose how people grapple with existential issues.
Human societies once had common narratives that provided value and meaning to their lives. No longer. With the dissolution of the truth value religious stories for many, and the failure of other narratives to take its place (i.e. art, science, technology), an existential hole remains in the human condition. We are a naturally self-reflective species. So, what replaces a consistent communal narrative which allows such a species to attach meaning and purpose to its life? Nothing. The void stares back.
A cranky Austrian once said: “People would rather believe in a lie than nothing at all”. Religion was one kind of lie; but there is a wide array of very clever distractions from the vacancy of meaning in the centre of our collective contemporary selves. Another cranky Austrian thought the prevailing alternatives to our modern malaise was intoxication, isolation, or sublimation. Too bad none of those seem to work; and they don’t work to the degree that that at the end of the 1980’s the WHO declared depression to be the most widespread pathology in the Western world. There’s no reason to expect that the situation has become anything but worse.
The same Austrian offered another option: psychoanalysis. Its goal as he saw it was not to make people happy, but to to turn human misery into ordinary human unhappiness. Sounds modest enough…but it’s not enough for us.
Being sad is okay, it’s normal. But contemporary society has a pathological aversion to it. Prescriptions as a cure for everyday sadness are written reflexively by psychiatrists everyday. And let’s not think that prescription drugs are the only culprit: we do all sorts of things that are equivocal existentially. It is not a coincidence that both the contemporary entertainment and pharmacological industries are both so successful in the face of so many lives of quiet desperation.
We will do anything to avoid looking at the driving problem: we want our lives to have meaning. Meaning on a religious level. But, actual religion of any variety has too many holes for too many people, and nothing else holds up under scrutiny any better. Couple that with the fact that nobody wants to feel inept, and that attempting anything that might hold a high degree of value and meaning is likely to be fraught with an equal likelihood of failure and disappointment, and that people are likely to avoid this situation to preemptively avoid being really sad about something they really care about…and the possibility of acquiring some meaningful alternative for one’s life becomes dismal.
Therapy might bring awareness to the problem, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee happiness. So, what’s elevated to the centre of people’s lives in this scenario? Evasion. Intoxication appears to be its most common variety…but intoxication widely construed: sex, drugs and alcohol are just the most conspicuous examples. The pursuit of innumerable forms of entertainment, the desire for lifelong and uninterrupted happiness, and the desire for prolonged youth in the face of death are probably more pervasive, although less readily identified. They are the triune face of modern delusion.
We are an imperfectable species, and we do not like it. Willful evasion might be psychologically necessary in order to avoid the stress of staring into the void.