Dissent and its consequences

DISSENT_TERRORISM.jpgOne of the leitmotifs running through much of the chatter about the just-closed fairs and the ongoing Whitney Biennial here in New York has to do with the palpablility of politics, or of political content, or of “commitment,” in contemporary art. The question seems to be one of whether our art should or indeed needs to be more “activist.” And following closely is the question of whether we, as critics, historians, artists and other devotees to the art and culture industries, need to be more “activist” ourselves.

I bring this up because I was reading through a recent special issue of October, the contents of which took the form of myriad responses to a questionnaire on the problem of contemporary political “passivity.” Needless to say, the war in Iraq forms the backdrop for such an inquiry. And the last question of the bunch asked “What, if anything, can be done to make intellectual and artistic opposition to the war more active and effective?”

Responses to this question were understandably–and perhaps understatedly–varied, but one struck me as worth reflection, if not debate. Critical Art Ensemble offered that we, presumably as intellectuals and artists, must “be more daring and less afraid,” and then they continued with, “losing a job, being beaten, or going to jail isn’t the worst that can happen.”

I must confess that this bit caught me up. To be sure, CAE’s list is aimed at increasing the numbers of those who would choose to man the (police) barricades in demonstrations of resistance to our current administration’s asinine execution of a debatable foreign policy. But I imagine for many people, and not only in the U.S., these three actions are indeed and exactly the worst that can happen to a human being, especially given the rather sinister way in which their combination has become a hallmark of the war on terror: think extraordinary rendition, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo.

It occurs to me that only someone who has never lost a job (upon which daily survival depends), been beaten (and so by it lost, say, an eye, or the ability to walk), or gone to jail (without recourse to a legal defense) would think these potential returns for dissent something less than “the worst that can happen.” Nevertheless, the question remains, if opposition and activism is the goal, how does one “be more daring” and of what should we be “less afraid”?

3 thoughts on “Dissent and its consequences”

  1. Loss of an eye, going to jail or losing a job loom as extreme punishments for art activism. Steve Kurtz of Critical Art Ensemble is particularly aware of the fruits of knee-jerk fear and suspicion in our post 9-11 climate, the lengths the FBI and other government agencies will go to “defend” America when confronted with something beyond their immediate ken.

    But however deplorable, this is an extreme scenario. The problem is in fact more subtle and insidious. It is self imposed within the precincts of the art world: a careerist-based urge to conform, to succeed within a narrow range of acceptable practices, and most particularly to not fail publicly. This underlying fear limits “daring” in the practice of contemporary art, and in our art schools and institutions. It borders on the manufacture of consent famously advanced by Noam Chomsky.

    The current Biennial provides a suitable example. Several critics note the homogeneity of the show, not just its Home Depot look but an over learned and “studiously pious” aesthetic distilled from hip art academies. Others deplore the opaque jargon of the wall texts and catalog. In this critique, the art institutions themselves do a satisfactory job policing the art world, setting the rules and carefully pruning the apostates. They hardly need government intervention.

    I happened to be at the Whitney yesterday to catch up with a number of pieces. Thank you Mungo Thomson for your coat check glockenspiel, and Fritz Haeg for your animal estates. I hope your eagle will land. I also wanted to view some videos in their entirety: Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn’s motormouth Viking woman trudging through backwater LA, Olaf Breuning’s manic, neo-Ugly American tourist, Javier Tellez’s blind man parable, Omer Fast’s interrogation of narrative. But each time I tried to settle down with the sound and image, a loud and insistently strident voice came wafting in. It was an official museum guide. She was dragging her crowd of bemused oldsters from piece to piece, instructing them what to think. I’m sure she was ultimately well intentioned. Certainly she was well informed. But at the moment it seemed emblematic of the worst sort of institutional hubris, of brooking no contradiction in its self-appointed role of legislating and dominating the discourse.

  2. It has been my experience that to write as an art critic and to teach the history of contemporary art is to be always at some risk of losing your job. Not all magazines want to carry negative reviews – the only cut fees I’ve ever received have been for negative reviews. At the end of a 1975 Archives of American Art interview with John Coplans he explains that he was given one hour to leave his office after 16 years, because of his publication of negative reviews in Artforum. These led to libel suits and the withdrawal of major advertising contracts, and he largely blames the gallerist Leo Castelli for the loss of his job. Today content is increasingly driven by the market – a major newspaper, dependent on real estate ads, will publish a Modernist architecture review of Frank Lloyd Wright’s only suburban development as a lifestyle piece emphasizing present commercial value, with no interest at all in covering its real social and art historical value. It is it’s mobility in the marketplace that counts. This is the same attitude that has contributed to the the demolition of many important Modernist homes. Anyone who has checked in on ARTicles knows that the Entertainment section has taken over. So many good writers have had to pack it up.

    Less public is that it is not unusual for an academic to lose their position because of her views – I recall Carol Duncan, author of the now quite famous essay “MoMA’s Hot Mamas” expressing real bitterness at the judgment for tenure against her by other colleagues in the Humanities who were not sympathetic to a feminist art historian’s views. In the past I have been in trouble for showing Carolee Schneeman’s “Interior Scroll.” More recently, in a consumerist-driven world, a student with poor attendance has actually asked for her money back, because she was unaware of such content as Kara Walker in advance of signing up for the course. My showing an image, no matter the context provided, can create a real burden for an administration in the position of defending me. This kind of attention does not lead to job security, and I‘ve found this rather fragile position of being at risk to simply be a part of the job.

    So, no, it’s not the worst thing, it’s more like a lived condition.

    It was such a simple gesture, turning over begging bowls in a refusal of state violence, and the sight of a mass of saffron robes on the cover of the Times so beautiful. These Buddhist monks believed that the gesture and the image were worth the loss of their own lives. So did the terrorists who flew into the Trade Towers and the Pentagon. I think I know that I will not put my life at risk in this way. But my life is driven by the power of words and images:

    On fear, Francois Boucher: “My point is that the battle of images is won without photo ops nowadays; it is all about tempo, placement, repetition, it’s grade school psychology, the kind of operation that permanently disarms any analytical, discerning mind.”

    On daring, Keith Sanborn: “It is no loger a question of ‘What is to be Done” – the right form and the right content – but how to produce breaks, slippages, hiccoughs, strategic mutilating folds in the totalizing social envelope. Where are the points of vulnerablity?”

    (From “A Movement in the Mystery,” and “Remember, Remember, 11th September” both in The Poem About Love You Don’t Write the Word Love, Tanya Leighton, ed., Artists Space, c. 2006.)

  3. The yawning chasm between art and politics these days is by now old news. The issue of October magazine cited by Jonathan did, in fact, list a few exceptions to the rule of political apathy in the art world. But the overall tone of our fairs and biannials continues to be a kind of let-the-good-times-roll, Rococo aesthetic nihilism.

    Our intellectual armchair warriors are hardly closer to reality. There is no safer perch from which to observe the gory spectacle of war than a nicely padded professorial tenureship. As I was flipping through the October magazine issue, I couldn’t help but wonder what the fine young men and women in Iraq would think about the ernest efforts of the issue’s contributors, even if they could blast and grenade their way through the heavy fortifications of artworld jargon.

    With that in mind, let me enter three caveats:

    First, the stubborn denial to confront political realities in today’s art seems to me an apt reflection of the mood and modality of the society at large.

    Second, as someone who grew up in a politically repressed culture, I am sensitive to the often highly coded languages through which artists express their opposition to war and corruption. My good friend Fritz Haeg’s eagle may not have landed on the Whitney Museum just yet. But I find in his somewhat quixotic search for a greener, fairer, happier, more wholesome world a more refined response to the gruesome realities of the day than what is being offered by more overtly “political” artists.

    Third (and not intended to contradict the above), there is something to be said about art as a refuge from all the awfulness around us. I am just returning from San Francisco, where I had the pleasure — there is no better word — to visit Herzog and de Meuron’s new de Young Museum and Daniel Liebeskind’s almost completed Contemporary Jewish Museum. Both buildings are masterpieces. Walking through them I was able to take a brief vacation from reality. And I was grateful for it.

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