Thursday, September 06, 2012


Usual disclaimer: no, I'm not trying to go all facebook all the time, but occasionally a nice little discussion pops up when I'm not expecting it, and, yet again, that happened in the last twenty four hours. And I
have to bring it here because it is one of the rare posts that does justice to my blog's title.

So, first my status update that prompted the discussion:

"It's curious that we live at a time when 'art' is often described as literally anything the artist or the critic says it is...except when the art's political." Rob Shetterly

To finish out the thought: politics, for the establishment art world, is, quite simply, an inappropriate subject. Political art is not taken seriously, and is seen as having no artistic legitimacy. This is extraordinarily bad for society, for various reasons, and is probably why I'm kind of grossed out by the field I've spent my life studying. You can cover yourself with feces from head to toe and scream obscenities at the top of your lungs and it's legitimate art, but if you try to expose corporate control over society, you're a rube who wants to emulate mall-artist Thomas Kinkade.

Post-modernism is for suckers. Unfortunately, suckers run the arts in this country.

And now the discussion with an old high school buddy of mine, a kind and gentle artist who I remember very fondly:

Scott I just don't think that is true. I'm not sure what is the state of the art world at this very moment, but 5 years ago anything political was considered to be the height of culture. If it's out of fashion right now, it's just a part of the ebb and flow of culture. Give it a few years.

Ronald I'm talking about the high art world, centered in New York, worshiped at non-profits, museums, colleges and universities throughout the land.

Scott Especially in New York. Not too long ago, no work was taken seriously if it didn't directly engage social location, which is necessarily political. Then there was whining that art had become too specific and not universal enough. What about Jenny Holzer's redaction series? What about Kara Walker's ruminations on race? I just think you're wrong on this.

Ronald Identity politics, reflections on self as ethnicity or as sexual orientation, are definitely a niche, but that's not the politics I"m talking about: when I said "corporate control" I meant that specifically. The arts, going back to the 20s and 30s were once very active in terms of power relationships between concentrations of wealth and everybody else. McCarthyism radically changed this forever. Generally, identity politics is something that doesn't affect the corporate state, but old school stuff drives it nuts, which means they withhold donations to non-profits, and their boards of directors know it, and choose work to promote accordingly. This is also reflected in the work of critics, curators, and artistic directors of regional theaters.

Ronald I imagine my feces example falls under identity politics somehow.

Scott I'm not that up on theater. What you're saying is not true of visual art. A significant portion of contemporary art thumbs its nose at its own audience.

Ronald Cue me in, Scott. I'm riffing on ideas in Chris Hedges' book "Death of the Liberal Class" (2010) which paints a scathing indictment of how the traditional institutions of the left, the Democrats, unions, arts establishments, mainline protestant churches, were essentially emasculated in exchange for the ability to function in a corporate dominated nation. I'll admit that I haven't been up on the New York art scene for some years, but this analysis matches my recent experience in grad school, and experience as an artist for many years overall. That is, I agree with your observation about identity politics, which are economically neutral, but I just know of nothing in the serious art world that matches, say, the likes of Diego Rivera, or pre-McCarthy Clifford Odets. Lots of opaque self contemplation, but nothing about the plutocracy. Am I out of the loop? Has NYC's MOMA become a hotbed of radical activity?​wiki/​Death_of_the_Liberal_Class

Ronald Just looked at some of Holzer's Redaction stuff. It is definitely political, in that it is obviously some sort of anti-war-on-terror something or other. But it also doesn't appear to cross any lines in terms of critiquing the corporate imposed economic system, parts of which were big movers in terms of getting us into the war in the first place. That is, I think the system doesn't really have much of a problem with vague pro-peace statements, as long as they don't question, as did Rivera, Odets, and others, the fundamentals of how our society is organized economically and politically. Indeed, there is even conflict within the plutocracy on our Middle Eastern wars: some industries, definitely the defense contractors, but also the oil barons and bizarre companies like Halliburton, see it all as good for business; others see it as bad for business, running up deficits, hurting the overall economy, souring trade relationships with more civilized nations. Simply taking a stance against the "War on Terror" is, in itself, something that won't get you thrown out into the artistic swamps; calling into question the American power structure, however, is a one-way ticket to Thomas Kinkade land, without all the millions he's made.

Ronald Adding: Holzer is one example that kind of gets near the ballpark of what I'm talking about even though it doesn't really enter the parking lot. But the high art world pumps out hundreds of works every year. Are there more I don't know about? Is Holzer an exception? Actually, I don't even think Redaction is an exception, but do you know of more that's not about gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation? And really, when you get down to it, you can see Holzer's Redaction as part of the sort of counterculture movement from the 60s, which also gave birth to identity politics, but was definitely more about the individual than society. In that sense, Redaction is well within the acceptable boundaries of the establishment art world. You know, hippie stuff.

Scott First, I think it is a mistake to discount identity issues as not pertinent to a critique of the overall system. Critique of normativity by non-normative stakeholders is inherently a critique of the means by which we determine normativity. It is a critique of the whole enterprise. Part of its power is that it hits economic, political, social, and religious targets.

Second, you seem to be really concerned that your particular politics are not represented rather than political art is not offered. Bear in mind that there is a certain chauvinism in assuming that your particular political critique is more valid than critiques based on identities other than yours.

As for Holzer, her redaction series is a critique of the war on terror. It is also a critique of the romanticization and universalization of Ab-Ex art, which is essentially a feminist, possibly Marxist, critique. It is a critique of power systems, generally. It works on many levels, especially when viewed in person. The show I saw it in also contained a lot of her LED work, which leverages the tools of consumerism and media to undermine those tendencies. And, no, Holzer is not a unique instance. Even those who appear to be enmeshed in a capitalist, consumerist model of contemporary art, such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, could easily be viewed as a veiled critique.

Ronald I'm not discounting identity politics, but generally, they are politics of inclusion. Inclusion within the existing system of power, NOT a call for a change to that system of power. There's a difference between these two ideas, a huge difference, but the language for making such a distinction, once common not only among artists, but among the entire population, has long since been banished from the public discourse. Including a higher percentage of women in the workforce, for instance, or acceptance of gay or transgendered people in positions of power, doesn't in any way change how that power is used or what it is used for. Really, the best example here is that decades after the glory days of the civil rights movement blacks continue to suffer high poverty and incarceration rates. So we see more faces of color on television, and even in state legislatures and Congress, but it's the same old story when you get down to the nitty gritty aspect of day-to-day existence. So too with the arts. Identity politics, as long as it is ultimately about inclusion, but not about power structures, is very much a part of the high art world. Not a bad thing. But not good enough, especially when you consider how American artists before the anti-communist hysteria thought they could change the world. Indeed, to some extent, they did change the world, or at least the nation. But not anymore.

Ronald "Bear in mind that there is a certain chauvinism in assuming that your particular political critique is more valid than critiques based on identities other than yours."

Scott, forgive me if I'm wrong, but this statement sounds like you're telling me that I'm making this argument because I just want everybody else to embrace my politics. To some extent that's true, of course, but I wouldn't be making the argument at all if I didn't think I was arguing in favor of justice, fairness, and upholding the dignity of all human beings. That is, sure, I want everybody to embrace my politics because I think I'm right. This is obvious. The idea here is to advance an argument so as to persuade, or, at least, get people thinking about stuff they don't usually think about. I believe artists should make our lives better, and they should do it in a concrete way, not a sort of abstract, academic, artsy-fartsy kind of way. Sequestered in the museums, dealing with post-modernism that is very much alien to the lives of most Americans, and pontificating on subjects that may or may not have value to people who actually have a background in the arts enough to kind of get what is being said just doesn't cut it.

That is, I totally reject that somebody's identity discourse somehow invalidates my participation in the marketplace of ideas. Indeed, such a post-modern notion, that one's discourse is of equal value to another's discourse, meaning that criticizing another's discourse is somehow uncool, is the kind of academic BS that the corporate state absolutely adores. If there no truth with a capital "T," then capitalist exploitation is just fine, just another discourse.

In the end, however, I'm not arguing for an end to identity politics in art. I actually kind of like it all. I'm just saying that it is ultimately limited, very limited, in terms of actual social change. But social change and self-contemplation are not mutually exclusive.

Ronald "Even those who appear to be enmeshed in a capitalist, consumerist model of contemporary art, such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, could easily be viewed as a veiled critique."

Hmmm. That's the problem. It's a veiled critique. So veiled, in the case of Koons, as to be meaningless.

We could go on about Koons, who I know enough about to hate, but suffice it to say that I need to study what's going on in New York more, at the very least, to check this stuff out to see what's what. But I am certain that we see nothing today like what was going on in the 1930s. And it's not that political art of that type simply fell out of fashion: it was stopped in its tracks by a massive capitalist onslaught, at all levels of government, and even in private business and non-profits. The art world has never been the same.

Ronald Also, thanks, Scott, for jumping in on this. I know at least a few people who have the background to be able to participate in this discussion, but only you came out to play. We disagree on this, of course, but I'm definitely getting some value out of your challenge.

Ronald One more thing: find and read Hedges' book "Death of the Liberal Class." You might not agree with his thesis, but you'll probably very much enjoy how he makes his points. You might also appreciate that he holds a Master of Divinity from Harvard, and was going into the ministry when he decided to become a journalist. Consequently, his writing comes from a very religious perspective, even though he wouldn't at this point describe himself as being particularly religious. I like how he is able to appeal to both my politics, as well as my own vestiges of Christian righteousness.
And there you have it. Scott's superior knowledge of the art world makes it difficult for me to hang with him in this kind of debate. I mean, I think I'm probably right on this, but just can't go point for point on works of art I don't know anything about. We'll see what else he has to say, but I'm thinking I need to get a new overview of high art, just to make sure I've got it right. Hedges' book was published only a couple of years ago, and his argument on this, like I said, fits my own personal experience very nicely--it's hard to imagine that the NYC art scene has been suddenly seized by economic radicals. But then Occupy Wall Street did, in fact, cause some lasting changes in how Americans talk about economics. Perhaps the events of downtown Manhattan had an effect on midtown and uptown. I don't think so, at least, not on what I'm talking about, but I could be wrong.