If, as we must, we walk through life facing backwards, most of the products and enticements of postmodern industrial culture, the cars, the refrigerators, the exotic vacations, promise the illusion of a better future.
Art, emphatically, does not. The creators of art, when not mythologizing Arcadia, or the Christian Passion, or Kurt Cobain, spin the threads of the present to instantly concretize the past for future eyes fixedly gazing backwards.
It is amazing how contemporary artists, such as those in the current Whitney Biennial, focus more and more minutely on details of the recent past. The nostalgia of these young seekers for a 1960s or a '70s Eden, which they "remember" solely by osmosis, reminds one of Poussin's shepherds staring into an empty tomb. For the past was never Ali Baba's cave, replete with treasures, but a bottomless void to be filled with the inert, but inspiring, creations of the present.
Caspar David Friedrich is a limited, sometimes insipid, but curiously compelling master precisely because we are always staring at his subjects from behind, as if standing in line getting ready to jump into dreamy nothingness.
No wonder so many artists commit suicide, Mark Rothko, Fred Sandback, Jack Goldstein, Milton Resnick, Mark Lombardi. It really is the next step in the dilemma, isn't it, though hardly an answer.
The answer which young artists seek today, absent God, absent eternal life, absent salvation, lies in identity. Identity is the siren call for all, with too many toys and too little time. It lies in the heartfelt sight, for example, of thousands of gays and lesbians flocking to the altar for the validation of theirs.
But identity is a tricky thing, always fungible, never fixed -- it's odd what adaptable, mutable amoebas we humans really are. It is the tragedy of the artist to strike the rock into gold, to weave silver from the wind, to bring color out of darkness.
A few years ago Art in America published a study of art conservation, which began with the sobering truism that "99 percent of all the art ever made has perished."
That is still one percent better than we humans. There's always a chance that one more Etruscan merman will rise from the Mediterranean, that one will again open the door of one's studio, which Barnett Newman dubbed "sanctuary," and say, "Let there be light."
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).