Good morning

oval-officeAmerica has a new President-elect. Yesterday’s vote was not only a political event, but a cultural one. It ushers in a generational shift in American leadership as well as a deeper realignment in ideology and outlook that seems to happen every 30-40 years here. The mood and texture of the country will indelibly change. Barack Obama’s election should also ring in a new chapter in global affairs—more stability and less bellicosity; more listening and reciprocity with friends, less fear mongering and unilateralism when dealing with foes. Let’s hope so, anyway. Whatever happens, the United States, and the world along with it, is set to become a different place. So a logical question for this forum is: What will the election mean for us? Will art register the mood swings of the nation and the world? Will the art world mirror in some way the transformations about to unfold in America? Will arts policy adopt new priorities and innovative thinking? Will cultural diplomacy get a second chance? What do you hope for?

12 thoughts on “Good morning

  1. It is quite a challenge to put in words the monumental importance of this moment. We should by all means celebrate the success of liberal principles that Obama represents and his prevailing in what has now felt for a while like a cultural civil war. Having said so, and without wanting to spoil the celebration, it is important to also remember that about half of this country remains deeply conservative; we only need to consider the failure of several important state ballot measures yesterday, and the uncertain future of others. (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/11/05/politics/main4573517.shtml)

    But in what concerns art making and the cultural production sphere, I do think that the Obama revolution has ushered in a positive tone of public discourse which, in time, should have an impact in the way in which artists engage with the public realm. It was interesting to see how, toward the middle of the Iraq war, throughout Bush’s second term and especially in the months leading to this election, there were a significant amount of political and public art projects that tried to address important issues. But for the most part I found them nostalgic and rhetorical, sometimes reminiscent of the 1960s but without the bite, or employing a visual language and strategies that seemed more like a rehash of the angry, confrontational aesthetics of the 1970s, and quite frankly more self-congratulatory than self-critical, visually uninteresting and sometimes just plain boring. The bottom-line, I think, is that in art making we still haven’t quite achieved quite the evolution that we have now experienced in politics— going from a Jesse Jackson to a Barack Obama. The questions that we need to address as artists, critics, and curators would be along the lines of how art can engage with the times in this new historic framework, and how we can reposition art making’s message in a way that doesn’t become (remain?) sidelined into a cute intellectual hobby for the educated class.

  2. The right guy won last night, in my opinion the only possible guy. A McCain/Palin administration was unthinkable. I heard a number of people say they would move to Australia or Canada in such an eventuality. Then again, many spoke similarly before four years of Bush P̬re and eight years of W. Despite the suffering brought on by the Republicans Рthe wars, the sagging economy, the unilateral invasions, the stupid arrogance and secrecy, the lies and doublethink, the alienation of the US in world diplomacy, the hideous, hateful partisanship РAmerica is amazingly resilient.

    Obama has brilliantly revealed this. When he declared his candidacy in 2007, my first impulse was to consider it premature. That he was doomed to failure. That despite his obvious charisma, competence and compassion, America was still too racist to elect a President of color. I am nothing short of jubilant that he has proven me wrong. That he has jolted us to transcend all the pettiness and hate.

    Obama is supremely eloquent, a master orator. He can bring his audience to tears or to plateaus of joyful expectation. But his is also a stern presence, promising that his election is just the beginning, that it will be a long, uphill battle to reclaim the promise of America. He might be a former professor of constitutional law, but also has the demeanor, the glare and righteousness, of a fire and brimstone preacher. Or of a strict father, whose approval we seek above all else.

    His thesis – that we must all work together, burying the habitual immaturity, self indulgence and slackness, is a refreshing slap in the face, a slap that could well reverberate throughout the art world. And not just in the obvious realms of public and political art, which would by necessity address imperatives of a newly energized, engaged society. But also in general art praxis, where boring, obscure, self referential, slacker ironies would not so much be outlawed as just seem laughably empty, ridiculously lame, inappropriate. This is not to suggest that art under Obama would be humorless or politically didactic, or would revert to a neo-WPA socialist realism to greet the New Depression. Rather that some of the nonsense would fall away naturally, finally revealed as bloated, top heavy, pretentious and irrelevant.

  3. A burden of unreasonably high expectations lies upon his shoulders. Obama will know this. It will be interesting to see what he can do to avoid the otherwise inevitable post-election disappointment. He has done the vision thing. He now needs to lay out a clear path to getting there, and show how he intends to cut through the politics that will still stand in his way.

    As to the Art: it is a truism that great Art often comes from pain and suffering. Will the arrival of a saviour assuage those pains and thus lessen the need for Art in America? Or will the rush of optimism herald something new? I am not one who hopes for ‘more’. Volume of supply is not a problem in today’s Art market. But a little ‘Obama-esque’ clarity and quality of vision within the Art being produced in this era would be nice.

  4. This is perhaps what blog journalism has done – opportunistically seizing upon the moment, we do have to ask ourselves: Has there ever been a moment in American history when people have ever wished that the art of this country would conform to the model set by the president?

    Does it take a shift in presidency to make visible what is “bloated, top heavy, pretentious and irrelevant”? If so, this is rather astounding, and it certainly says a lot about what has happened to art criticism.

  5. I second some of Catherine’s doubts about the direct connections between politics and art. To be fair, though, the earlier commenters did not suggest that the President somehow sets a path for art to follow. My original question mainly inquired about the effects of a new presidency on the broader arts sphere. I happen to believe that, in the US especially, the tone set in Washington does trickle down to every facet of life, often in arcane and oblique ways and sometimes more directly–yes, even in art. We can debate that issue. However, where a new status quo will doubtless have an impact is in the domain of cultural policy. What happens to the NEA? Will the much touted “arts corps” proposals be accelerated in the context of a fiscal relief package? Will there be a Congressional crackdown on tax breaks for arts donations and certain commercial practices by nonprofits? Will art find a role in a reenergized global soft diplomacy? Will arts education be embraced again in the context of a more enlightened education policy? What about the future of debates on copyright, intellectual property, and the open Internet? All of these issues have enormous implications on artists and the art world, and yes, even on the content and context of artistic expression, criticism’s primary domain. And there are more subtle questions still. For example, if artists had found themselves in oppositional roles in prior years, what happens when they agree with a President, or even actively support his agenda? Is that propaganda or is it art? I believe these are not opportunistic, but timely and even urgent questions.

  6. Thanks for your quotation Catherine, but no, art that is “bloated, top heavy, pretentious and irrelevant” has in fact been here for some time. However, the watershed event of Obama’s election, and of his candidacy being fairly unanimously and enthusiastically embraced by the art world (at least here in New York, but I assume across the country), tends to make explicit what was once implicit. It brings things to a head.

    I am not suggesting the incoming president, nor his yet to be appointed cultural czar, will be setting the agenda for art practice and content. Merely that the art world does not exist in a vacuum. That exposure to and advocacy of larger political and economic concerns might lend a note of “clarity and quality of vision” (as per Ian). It could well invigorate, change tolerances, allow for a certain impatience with prevailing self indulgence or banality.

    This is not a top-down model, of politically correct art being vetted by a new administration in Washington. But with the economy in the tank, the ordeal of a hotly contested election just behind us, and the promise of greater challenges and trials yet to come, it would be ostrich-like to ignore the effect this will most likely have in our not so insulated precincts of art.

  7. I’ll have to agree with Catherine on this one. While Obama’s election is certainly momentous, art in the service of the ruling party line inevitably tends towards kitsch.

    I’d also like to draw everyone’s attention to the fact that the democratic process in this country not only put a black man in the White House, it also banned same-sex marriage in California, Florida and Arizona. California and Florida, as we know, went to Barack. And though Arizona was always McCain’s, that state defeated a similar ban only two years ago.

    So to Pablo’s original point, there has indeed been an “evolution” in politics, and the wonderful thing about evolution is that its winners and losers are a function of shifting landscapes and adaptation, neither of which can be predicted or controlled. One can attempt to shift art’s “message,” but that shift will only occur the way one wishes if the landscape allows–or rather, is “fit”–for it. This does not mean we shouldn’t try, it’s more a plea not get too frustrated when the disappointments begin to stack up.

    Our economic, political and social landscape remains a rich and immeasurably complex one. If one hopes to adapt (for better or worse), the only way is to get deep into it. For artists, curators and critics, that means getting back to work.

  8. I have to second Jonathan’s observation that there were profound disappointments on Tuesday. Personally, I felt like I had been punched in the gut by the results on California’s Proposition 8. Especially when exit polls revealed that one of the reasons it passed was that racial minorities came out in stronger numbers than in the past to vote for Obama and, while doing so, voted to take rights away from gays and lesbians.

    So while I anticipate a restored respect for the country around the world but anticipate a historically short honeymoon period for the new President (given how many people are counting on him to interpret “hope” they same way they do), I can’t help but feel that civil rights took a zig-zag step Tuesday…not a full leap forward.

  9. Catherine, you raise a good question- but I, for one, certainly didn’t mean to say that the people can or would hope their president to design the role that art would play in this country. (Perhaps the last real example of that would have been FDR’s WPA murals).

    My answer was indeed more connected to András original question about the political climate under which art is made and how the former affects the tone of the latter. I think it is hard to deny that art reacts to the tone set by its government, even if at times does so in an unpredictable way. I do agree with András that the relationships are there, although almost never so direct or interconnected. But just to put an example, I think that the direction that identity politics took in art making in the US the late 80s and up to the mid 90s had a lot to do with the social policies of the Bush Sr. and then the Clinton administration, starting from the culture wars to the rise (and fall) of multiculturalism. Clinton, for example, created a federal program in the fall of 1993 titled Empowerment Zone/Enterprise Community (EZ/EC) program was established in the Fall of 1993 under the Federal Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act and it was considered the capstone of the Clinton Administration community revitalization strategy. This program, amongst many other things, gave large amounts of money to small museums and cultural centers in urban areas that were mostly populated by minorities (black and Latino neighborhoods). The small cultural centers that were in those semi-ghettoized areas suddenly had lots of money to spend, which resulted in large-scale public art projects in places like Chicago, Philadelphia and East L.A. These initiatives helped fund a generation of artists who in their young years had struggled during the Reagan and Bush years and took advantage from its renewed support to make a vocal, politically and socially conscious work (I am thinking of the famous 1993 Whitney Biennial as a prime example, as well as what came later). Running the risk of oversimplifying, I also do think that there was a clear thematic shift in art during the second Clinton term, when the economy was doing so well and we were living a period of relative peace, that politically motivated art seemed to decline and give way to more art-market friendly figures like Matthew Barney and the whole new media artist wave. So, does a president influence the kind of art will be made in his administration? Not directly, but I think that we do get the art that we deserve in direct regard to the tone that a political period brings. And some could argue that certain artists could only have emerged only during a given presidential period, for better of worse, either to be critics or panderers of those in power. I remember a comment by Jerry Saltz a couple years ago during a lecture, when he showed a slide of a painting of John Currin: “he is the perfect artist for this administration”.

  10. There is so much art out there, and plenty that is already with clarity and vision- no need to be Obamaesque about it. We can talk about John Currin over and over again, but the real issue for me is that art criticism failed. Much of this has to do with the cozy condemnation of intellectual thought by the collectors who shape the market, and mirroring this fact the conviction by many that true criticism will only ever be supported and possible from within the academy. Within the artworld, how often is “too academic” proffered as a legitimate rebuttal to sound thought?

    This is also what happened in the Reagan-Bush years, so Obama’s election is for me not only a matter of policy or art-making. Can it be over now? Does Sarah Palin’s snide condemnation of Obama’s erudition, and the fact that 63-1 college newspapers endorsed Obama, say anything about what his success means at the broader cultural level, and for art criticism specifically? Only an idealist could really think so, but my own historical opportunism is looking for the boost.

  11. Certainly there are great artists out there working today, with or without Obama—and if art history is any indication, their works will be eventually acknowledged, whether today’s art criticism does its job or not.

    I think however that art criticism is a symptom, not the sickness.

    I do agree that criticism is in trouble, stuck between heavy pointless theorizing and advertising- in the end, both the excess and the lack of theory amount to the same thing, which is something like opacity of communication. (You can tell I am not a fan of academic writing).

    The main problem is that the art world has been for a long time (if not always) a follower, not a leader, of any other spheres of social activity and thought. We have just lived through an unprecedented political revolution of a cultural type, and what role did the art world play in it? Practically none. Only if we were to consider the expanded notion of art, one could claim that the creative YouTube guerilla campaign videos or the Saturday Night Live skits helped influence public opinion about the campaign.

    The bottom-line is that what just happened in this election does seem to be a social indicator for a collective yearning for substance in the public discourse (and by substance I mean actual new ideas, not academic rhethoric). And if we can concede that there is any relationship between the anti-intellectualism that has been going on in poltics and the anti-intellectualism that goes on in art collecting, art criticism or art making, most likely this collective yearning that has led to the outcome of this election then would signal a general shift in the way we may want to make art and talk about it.

  12. It’s good to see some spirited debate. But has this thread become a moratorium on the failure of art criticism? An interesting topic, to be sure, but not the original one. Let me add that, while several AWS contributors hold jobs as critics, criticism is not actually published on this site. Here we seem to deal with the meta-. To borrow from the political arena, and for lack of a better word, here we are “pundits”. In any case, I would agree that “criticism is a symptom, not the sickness”.

    The original open ended query was how a new administration might influence the arts in America in terms of praxis, policy, institutions, priorities, moods – the zeitgeist, if you will. It should be obvious that no one suggested aesthetics be mandated by any government, whether in Washington or more local. And I imagine the new administration might have a few things on its plate before arts policy comes up. Although we often hear the bailout money loaned to banks might be invested in repairing a decaying infrastructure of roads, bridges, schools and other public works. It smells a bit like FDR’s New Deal, putting Americans to work for America. In that case, I wonder about a 2008 equivalent to the old WPA that would put artists to work, and the political baggage, “correctness” or otherwise, that might accompany the government in an expanded role as patron of the arts.

    In their debates, Obama and McCain argued over strategies for streamlining the federal budget, for pruning programs that don’t work. There were dueling metaphors. McCain wanted to use an axe, Obama a scalpel. Both are good sculptors tools, and both are subtractive; after their use, you wind up with something physically (if not aesthetically) less. The new administration, acknowledging the shrinking economy, has fronted with notions of pragmatism and austerity, a new elegance and modesty of means, a new spirit of sacrifice. They will start out by eliminating a lot of “bloated, top heavy” programs.

    Art, mostly made and sold in the private sector, will undoubtedly follow suit, if only due to economic necessity. Even should there be money to support the physical creation of certain fatuous and self indulgent work, a decimated customer base will soon winnow out the excesses. There will be a cleaning of the stables. And to continue the metaphor, some of the stables themselves will need to close their doors.

    But the real question is whether the effect on the art world will only be economically determined, or whether the government will set a tone that trickles down. I obviously support the latter contention, and in that regard applaud some of the issues Andras poses above in 5. and Pablo expands upon in 9. Art is not created in a vacuum, and responds to a larger political regime, sometimes in accord, sometimes in opposition, frequently in ways that cannot be predicted. To use one of Catherine’s words, art in America feeds “opportunistically” at a larger social and cultural table, where it receives education, information, news, theory, idle chatter, jargon, rumor … as well as funding.

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