I read recently – forgive me, I can’t recall where – that around approximately 19 percent of the adult population suffers from various levels of anxiety, a state of mind loosely defined as a physiological and emotional response to a vague sense of threat or fear. Unsurprisingly, given its highly subjective and idiosyncratic nature, anxiety is often difficult to describe and near-impossible to measure.
Nonetheless, perhaps given contemporary art’s more than passing penchant for what might kindly be termed ‘the glass half empty’, a quick search in our database has revealed that ‘anxiety’ is no stranger to the pages of frieze. Although I have no head for figures, my attention was recently drawn to the cold, hard fact that in the 23 years of the magazine’s existence – years I had assumed to be relatively sunny! – its presence has graced (if that’s the word) the pages of this magazine 338 times, easily outstripping its German cousin ‘angst’ (a mere 142 mentions), ‘despair’ (141), ‘depression’ (108) and ‘anguish’ (102).
Clutching at straws, I attempted to seek solace in the fact that, in a total of 160 issues of the magazine, ‘dread’ has snuck in only 131 times, ‘unease’ 101, ‘futility’ 75, ‘sorrow’ 62, ‘misery’ 60, ‘apprehension’ 52, ‘dismay’ 47 and ‘meaninglessness’ a rather heartening – considering its relative absence – only 21 times. However, my sigh of relief was premature: a quick search revealed that the word ‘fear’ had wormed its way onto our pages on a staggering 739 occasions, hotly pursued by ‘horror’ (411 mentions). Although I did try to look on the bright side when I learnt that ‘fear’ easily outstrips the more sinister ‘terror’ (378) and ‘doom’ (205), my optimism was sadly tempered by the unwelcome news that ‘happiness’ has only rated a somewhat paltry 126 entries over the years whereas the ubiquitous ‘melancholy’ – everyone’s darling, I had assumed! – has only been mentioned 343 times since frieze was first published.
What all of this says about the state of contemporary art or, perhaps more precisely, the state of mind of contemporary art writers, is anyone’s guess (although perhaps the fact that ‘doubt’ trumps the lot at 841 times is revealing). That said, I insist we do not plunge headlong into despair at these gloomy statistics! Instead, heed the words of that great Ur-existentialist, Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote in his pithily titled masterwork from 1844, The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin: ‘Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.’ In other words, perhaps we’re luckier than we realize.
Jennifer Higgie is editor at large of frieze, the presenter of the frieze podcast Bow Down: Women in Art History and is currently writing a book on historic self-portraits by women, The Mirror & The Palette.
First published in Issue 161