Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Hot Political Art that Leaves Me Cold (or A Call for Purple)

Maybe it's because I spend an inordinate amount of time arguing minutiae on political blogs (my partner calls himself a "blog widow" and affectionately refers to the ones I post on as my "bullshit websites"), but I find most political art about as fulfilling as a styrofoam sandwich. The rash of exhibitions about 9/11 or the Republican National Convention that hit New York over the past 3 years, for example, were overall as nuanced as a cold sore and as insightful as a De La Vega scrawling. Very rarely do I see any political work whose central message I myself can't rip to shreds, although I often agree with the artist's POV (because let's face it, very little political art that gets exhibited in this town leans to the right).

I was reminded of all this again while reading
Jerry Saltz's latest review (of the Sam Durant exhibition currently up at Paula Cooper). Jerry liked this show a lot, but it had left me cold. I don't want to get in the habit of reviewing exhibitions in other people's galleries (I think it's bad form), but I'll make an exception this time to illustrate my point (besides, Paula's so far ahead of my league it hardly matters). Jerry wrote:

The idea for Sam Durant's "Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions, Washington, D.C." has the virtue of being simple enough to fit on the front of a T-shirt. In the handy pamphlet accompanying the show, Durant says he wants to "move monuments commemorating lives lost during the Indian Wars to the National Mall in Washington, D.C." This idea is pointed without being preachy, heartrending but not mawkish, and politically incisive [...]

Twenty-five replicas of actual monuments from all over the country -- each painted gray, made of a nondescript-looking material -- are placed like an eerie oversize chess set in Cooper's grand main gallery. None have commemorative plaques or markings, although the checklist abounds with evocative names like "Birch Coulee Monument to Faithful Indians," "Monument to Heroes of Wounded Knee," and "Okoboji Indian Massacre Monument." By presenting these monuments as uniform and nameless, Durant renders them mute, separates them from time and place, creating an uncanny forest of implacable signs.

I saw this exhibition, but my response to it was virtually the opposite of Jerry's. I considered the idea condescending and inappropriate, as if designed to alleviate White guilt via sanitized WASPish sentiments that do nothing to even hint at the cultures lost or reveal anything about the reality of the slaughters. Treating all these lost and varied people as if they were one gray, faceless tribe. I find the notion of what the monuments' namelessness supposedly represents being instantly vaporized by the detailed checklist information readily available almost comical. Moreover, the installation of the pieces imagined for the Mall in DC (see here) was as ill-conceived with regard to what that landscape is actually used for as Richard Serra's infamous Tilted Arc installation. Imagine a crowd of protesters or Fourth of July revelers trying to gather around, let alone see around, those pillars along the Reflecting Pond.

To be fair though, Durant's project is light-years ahead of most political art, but the fact that something this relatively superior is still so flawed is why I groan each time I hear of a new political art group exhibition. I look to artists to enlighten me, to help me make sense of the chaos and confusion. Far too many of them are offering only sensationalistic one-liners (a straitjacket made from a US flag...who is this for, third graders? Did it take that artist all of ten milliseconds to conceive that idea?).

The problem, as I see it, is that most artists working with political subject matters spend little to no time attempting to understand opposing viewpoints. I mean really understand them, not just read and dismiss them, but "get" why the opposition feels so strongly the way they do (without assuming it stems from some character flaw). What I see instead is artwork built around a naive POV but offered up as if it had been handed down on tablets from God. What this leads to often are laughable cartoons, easily (and rightly) dismissed as shallow by those with the opposing viewpoints.

What I'm really asking for here is art that transcends Red or Blue politics and approaches something more Purple. Art that has enough depth to be undeniable to the spectrum of viewers, not art that merely takes potshots at conservative values, or presents all faith as fraudulent or all authority as totalitarian. Smart political art would be good, but good political art would be better. And by "good," here, I mean work that begins with the assmption that all humans, even those with very different opinions and priorities, are worthy of being considered the intended audience, not just those who agree with the artist's POV. In other words, work that is made with the understanding that reaching those with opposing viewpoints is impossible through work that begins by insulting them. Not that this is what I personally do when I blog on politics, just that it's what I personally expect from "good" art.

68 Comments:

Blogger Joseph Barbaccia said...

Condensending and innappropriate is right. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe any Native American would think that even the concept of a "monument" is a White one and has little if anything to do with Native American culture.

10/19/2005 10:38:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'm not sure about any momument Joseph (although you may be right), but certainly the types Durant is using have no connection at all to anything I've seen in Native American culture (so they, again, seems designed more for White Americans than anyone else, which strikes me as retro, but not in a charming way).

10/19/2005 10:43:00 AM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

The Durant exhibition leaves me unmoved, completely ambivalent. Perhaps an essay would have served Durant better, one in which he could have wrestled with some of the issues, pragmatic and philosophical alike, that you bring up?

I'm with you; the vast majority of contemporary political art is mediocre or worse. Given the present political climate of the United States, I find this surprising. One imagines a more thoughtful understanding of the world would be birthed by the simple-answers-to-complex-questions game of the occupying administration, but in fact many artists have elected to fight fire with fire, presenting us with, as you put it, work for "third graders." (The alternative reaction seems to be an inward turn, to the world of warped fairy tales and iCulture, but this is an altogether different trend.)

The art market glut, so much in the news these days, is largely responsible, I suppose, but I can't help fearing a general "dumbing down" - what Morris Berman terms "dullardism," the eventual social byproduct of industrialization - that is also at work here. Ummm...don't want to be too grim as I start the desk job work day.

10/19/2005 10:58:00 AM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

I'm of a similar mind on the Durant exhibition. I've been hungry for work that dares to be more topical, but it was in a word: flat.

...as insightful as a De La Vega scrawling...

Awww... poor De La Vega. The guerilla artist everyone loves to hate. (Not a fan either, so this actually made me laugh!)

The problem, as I see it, is that most artists working with political subject matters spend little to no time attempting to understand opposing viewpoints.

I agree. I've been thinking alot lately (partially inspired by the long thread on "sacrifice" from a week ago) about an artist's "responsibility" to internalize their subject matter--in the same way that a dancer commits movements to muscle memory. Without nuance, topical work has the shelflife of a durian. (This custardy tropical fruit coincidentally smells like feces when it is ready for consumption! Yeu-um!)

Another challenge for political and topical work: it can overshadow itself, creating a sad illusion of one-dimensionality. In effort to avoid this, I've found that using a soft voice is usually better than yelling.

What I'm really asking for here is art that transcends Red or Blue politics and approaches something more Purple.

I got so pissed off at the simplicity of the Red Blue dichotomy that I made this piece this past spring. (link requires flash) It was a small lenticular postcard distributed via guerilla means and droplifted into tourist traps, gift shops, etc. The work has proven very popular, but I wonder sometimes if its satire and nuance gets lost. Do people even read the reverse? Hard to say.

One last thought, I've been struggling with this topic of politics in art a lot lately. Edward, I know you've lamented the vapid decadence of current trends in contemporary art. A degree of topicality (is that a word?) seems to be part of the prescription for a cure, but how much and in what form? How do we make work that is timely, yet open to the timeless self-updating properties of poetry?

As of late, I've been toying with differentiating activist artists from citizen artists. But I'm not sure exactly what a "citizen artist" would be. I've initiated a few late night conversations with other artists exploring with that concept. I know it is just a semantic model, but these things can reinform the intuition when in studio. (That, in my opinion, is the most vibrant role for living theory...)

10/19/2005 12:05:00 PM  
Anonymous bambino said...

hmmmmm

10/19/2005 12:13:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'm not bullshiting, bambino, honest...this was written by some imposter. ;-P

10/19/2005 12:15:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

The work has proven very popular, but I wonder sometimes if its satire and nuance gets lost. Do people even read the reverse? Hard to say.

It's self-aware in a way that most political art never gets close to James...and funny too, which helps...nice piece.

Edward, I know you've lamented the vapid decadence of current trends in contemporary art. A degree of topicality (is that a word?) seems to be part of the prescription for a cure, but how much and in what form? How do we make work that is timely, yet open to the timeless self-updating properties of poetry?

By dealing with universal issues simply disguised as topical. That way, once the timeliness has passed, the piece will seem even better. That requires thinking through and finding those universal issues in current events, but not reguritating the same obvious answer (again, the flag-straitjacket piece...come on, folks, reach deeper please).

10/19/2005 12:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Todd W. said...

Terry Teachout wrote a long medititation on this very topic in the WSJ back in June. His was in response to a spat of left-leaning plays that traded on jingoistic critiques of the so-called Red States.

A boring work of art cannot convince anyone of anything, not even that we should believe what it tells us about the world in which we live. And nothing is more boring--or less believable--than a story with only one side.

He cites the popularity of plays like "Avenue Q" and "I Am My Own Wife" as examples of how art can deliver 3-dimensional takes on hot-button political issues. But then, as my wife would say, do I think it's a good essay only because I agree with it?

10/19/2005 02:57:00 PM  
Blogger AFC said...

Well, lets be honest, 90% of anything is crap, and this is true of political art like anything else. That said, political art is probably up at the 95% crap mark, which is a shame, because I think it can mean that the 5% that is good, gets over looked with the rest. We've all been guilty of being dismissive of art that doesn't deserve it at some point, and chances are greater that that sort of thing will happen when you are already skeptical of the feild.

I will refrain from making any specific comments on the Durant show, because although I am familar with the work, I have not yet seen it in person - which makes a difference.

10/19/2005 03:03:00 PM  
Anonymous ML said...

Most anti war work is as heated and nasty as pro war work. I think, Edward, that we live in a time which likes empty action and adrenalin, not thoughtfulness. Art is reflecting the times. But to play the devil's advocate, the media make everything a worst case scenario so the rise of gentle art - I've seen more trees and birds in art in the past year than in the preceding ten - may be art's way of rising to a balance.

10/19/2005 03:09:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Thanks for that link Todd. I've only made it halfway through (will print it out and save the rest for the ride home) but already I think it's brilliant. Especially agree that:

the more specific [art's] political purpose, the greater the temptations to dishonesty that are placed in the artist's path.

And this golden nugget should be chisled in stone over the archway of every art school:

This necessarily places a heavy burden on the political artist, who must not only be a good artist but also a competent reporter and researcher.

This is exactly what made Mark Lombardi such an excellent political artist. His work was true.

10/19/2005 03:20:00 PM  
Anonymous ca said...

What about Julie Mehretu? Isn't her work supposed to be political?

10/19/2005 03:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Kriston said...

I also haven't seen the work, but I'm not getting the same feeling about it that you are, Edward. It seems to me that drawing these monuments together might show that the one thing these diverse cultures have in common is that they were devastated by white colonists and Americans. All these variations on a Western concept and design (monument, obelisk), situated like graves in close proximity to the Washington Monument, change the meaning of the obelisk. If an alien were to land on Durant's National Mall, it would think that the obelisk is the platonic sign for cruelty.

Big caveat—haven't seen the show! That's just my impression from the concept.

10/19/2005 03:35:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

What about Julie Mehretu? Isn't her work supposed to be political?

CA,

I suppose it is, but I'd say the mere fact that you have to ask (and I have to suppose) places it outside the realm of the sort of obvious art that annoys me. It's a lack of serious contemplation that's the culprit here...that plus a desire so strong to "prove" something that the artist leaves out obvious truths.

10/19/2005 03:35:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

That's a far more interesting reading, Kriston, but I didn't get that or, even yet, sense that.

10/19/2005 03:39:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

the media make everything a worst case scenario so the rise of gentle art - I've seen more trees and birds in art in the past year than in the preceding ten - may be art's way of rising to a balance

I've wondered about that too ML, although it strikes me as escapism (which may be something younger artists purposely embrace and will just ignore my innate allergies to...dunno).

10/19/2005 03:43:00 PM  
Anonymous ca said...

But if it lacks an obvious message isn't the artist getting off to easily. The wishy washy is almost as irritating as the strident.

Did you see her show at the whitney last month? Her paintings has all these little signatures of consumer culture. It didn't really make sense. They are beautiful to look at, but maybe it is a touch cowardly to make a painting about something that most people in the art community agree on. consumer culture = bad.
And the signs were so cryptic that it could be determined that she is a fan of the nbc peacock??

10/19/2005 03:44:00 PM  
Anonymous pant leg said...

what is so wrong with escapism? It is lovely!

10/19/2005 03:45:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I think there's more than just consumerism = bad in Merehtu's work, CA. I'm not gonna go too far out on a limb and defend it now (I'd rather take more time, which I don't have right now, than misrepresent it), but for her exploration of space and systems alone, she's transcending a two-dimensional (forgive the pun) political statement like that.

I did see that Whitney exhibition, and wrote about it here, where I admit she's one of my personal favorites.

10/19/2005 03:51:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

what is so wrong with escapism? It is lovely!

So is meringue. I just want something more substantial sometimes.

10/19/2005 03:52:00 PM  
Anonymous ca said...

I liked that show very much. I think that the symbols diminish the meaning.

10/19/2005 03:53:00 PM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

By dealing with universal issues simply disguised as topical. That way, once the timeliness has passed, the piece will seem even better. That requires thinking through and finding those universal issues in current events, but not reguritating the same obvious answer

Word.

10/19/2005 04:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

James - Excellent postcard. Well done, and very "purple" indeed.

Edward - Thanks for this post. I learned a while ago that the viewer is the final artist. To continue the Mehretu example, whenever I see works of art which contain corporate logos or consumer icons in them, depending on my mood, I may choose to take them as paeans to free-market capitalism, and smile upon them. Why should I allow the artist's grade-school philosophy to bother me? As the viewer I can subvert any subversion the artist or curator tries to foist on me.

Purple isn't just a nice idea, it's the best way for an artist to guarantee their message's preservation.

10/19/2005 05:17:00 PM  
Anonymous bird and tree said...

Can you talk more about escapism in art? Do you feel that fantasy is meringue and therefore substanceless? What about finding sanctuary in the activity of the mind? What about hallucinations as an alternative to reality?

10/19/2005 05:24:00 PM  
Blogger benvolta said...

after the last election Robert Vanderbei proposed a purple map of the states.

these images are kinda nice - scroll down - the purple cartogram even nicer

10/19/2005 05:29:00 PM  
Anonymous care bear said...

The birds are whispering satanic voices. the substance is more transcendent.

10/19/2005 05:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Feverish said...

Ed. Alternate realities are mucho important. It is time to defy the faulty tower of reality. Escapism doesn't always mean fluff.

10/19/2005 05:49:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I think I've struck a nerve with the Escapism crowd.

10/19/2005 05:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Dave said...

My decision is to fight evil through becoming deaf-mute and hiding in closets. Is that so wrong?

10/19/2005 05:54:00 PM  
Anonymous waters said...

we want you to understand and visit our gentle cave.

10/19/2005 05:56:00 PM  
Anonymous ML said...

Robert Kennedy Jr said that the US is the best entertained and least informed nation in the world.

I don't expect artists to be educators in the sense of filling us with facts. I do expect artists to be the ones to fill us with questions.

10/19/2005 06:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Dave in the Cave said...

What about sense-experience? What about a lack of literality, instead of or in addition to questions? Just curious.

10/19/2005 06:09:00 PM  
Anonymous site specific outsider artist said...

Why does someone need to escape? what would do that to them?

10/19/2005 06:11:00 PM  
Anonymous site specific outsider said...

these are questions I am left with.

10/19/2005 06:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Dave in the Cave said...

avian flu, hurricanes, poverty, germs on the subway, republicans, earthquakes, sadness, people whose limbs get chopped off, rapes, disease, white trash, reality television

10/19/2005 06:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Dave in the Cave said...

there are so many things. anonymous those are good questions.

10/19/2005 06:15:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

we want you to understand and visit our gentle cave.

do you have meringue in there?

avian flu, hurricanes, poverty, germs on the subway, republicans, earthquakes, sadness, people whose limbs get chopped off, rapes, disease, white trash, reality television

are these new? is there novelty in these, in and of themselves? If not, then why would merely reflecting them back to us advance any understanding of what it means to be human?

Reach deeper!

10/19/2005 06:17:00 PM  
Anonymous concerned artist said...

maybe artists should leave a small portion of their paintings to describe the enemies of the imagination.

10/19/2005 06:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Dave in the Cave said...

Ed, those are things I escape. I reflect the escape. That is what I care for. Those are the things I can't talk about or raise questions about in my art. They are too real.

I have meringue for you. It's very light. Won't show on your hips.

10/19/2005 06:20:00 PM  
Anonymous truth be told said...

Tony Matelli did it best with the starving Ethiopians. I feel like he really understands Africa and the human plight.

10/19/2005 06:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Feverish said...

Good point. I felt like he was raising a lot of questions.

10/19/2005 06:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Feverish said...

It is time to reach deeper into the things that don't exist. That is what is best.

10/19/2005 06:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

These things that do not exist describe the things that do exist merely by the lack of the things which do exist.

10/19/2005 06:28:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

What about sense-experience? What about a lack of literality, instead of or in addition to questions? Just curious.

What about them? So long as they're used thoughtfully, they're awesome. Used as a means unto themselves with no thought, they're pornography. (ducking)

Ed, those are things I escape. I reflect the escape. That is what I care for. Those are the things I can't talk about or raise questions about in my art. They are too real.

That's valid enough. But I want more. I want my escapism to provide insight then into why the world is better without those things. Not merely a diversion from them. Sorry, but I'm needy.

It is time to reach deeper into the things that don't exist. That is what is best.

I think I'm borderline feverish now...isn't there a mountain missing some sexually experimental kinfolk somewhere?

Spell it out for me, please: what is the goal of escapism? More specifically, who does it serve, beside the artist and how? I'm not saying it's not useful in a philosphical or technical sense, but it can't be see as an end unto itself, can it? I'd like to know why it's attractive to an artist (and more than just because the world is ugly).

10/19/2005 06:33:00 PM  
Anonymous twirp said...

hey! What about the history of landscape painting? It can be fluffy stuff no? Beauty and fantasy are intertwined. Corot.

10/19/2005 06:41:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

What about the history of landscape painting? It can be fluffy stuff no? Beauty and fantasy are intertwined.

Hmmm...I'm reaching here, but I'll offer the following, as it's late, and I'm long overdue for a cocktail anyway:

Landscape artists are attempting to reveal truth through beauty...they're embracing reality, not attempting to escape it.

Fantasy artists fall into two categories, I'd offer: those who feel the truth is best represented allegorically and those who like making pornography.

10/19/2005 06:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But what is the definition of fantasy here? What are the concrete examples? You are all talking generalizations which is uninstructive. What is Edward negating? I am not sure I understand. What are you arguing against?

10/19/2005 09:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Mountain Man said...

Ed you raise excellent points. I can see that you are a lover not a fighter. There is a manifesto brewing here somewhere. Thank you and goodnight.

10/19/2005 09:33:00 PM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

But what is the definition of fantasy here? What are the concrete examples? You are all talking generalizations which is uninstructive.

At risk of sounding completely snarky and unconstructive, they might be talking about fantastical creatures... ...such as trolls.

(sorry, had to be said! I'll go crawl back under my own bridge now...)

10/19/2005 09:46:00 PM  
Anonymous If beauty is our reality said...

Beauty fantasy reality--escaping! A bunch of words that here, aside from SD, are interesting.
Beauty, I'll leave to last.

Fantasy:
Fantasy, of course, is not Disneyland, nor is in the mind's fabrication. It is an escape from the mind that has a particular hold over one's construction of reality. When we think of the words escape and fantasy, one might verb in dash, or run—even the action 'dither' comes up 'dithering in one's own fantasy'. Oh, what a horrible thought.

Not many would ague that the days we live in extend beyond our wildest dreams, or nightmares. We live in a fantastical world, which on a sober and personal note resembles pretty much what we see around us—perhaps a hand finally holding a cocktail glass (a fantasy that is well-deserved and, as mentioned, overdue).

Reality:
Well deserved is the key here! Holding a cocktail glass is within the mind's reach, not to mention the hand's, and for those lucky enough, it's a financial reality. The idea of 'well deserved' comes from previous or recent actions that literally get what they want, what they deserve. The more radical, unlikely, unprecedented, these actions are the harder it is to imagine that they are well deserved. These actions then, from a number of standpoints, would be identified as fantastic (beyond the scope of reality in it's various guises).

And back to beauty:
And I'll leave a big gap here...
When a new world appears, one that had only convinced most was fantastic, but through a number of (miraculous or not miraculous) nudges edges to a brink—an edge of reality and the fantastic—something very strange happens. The lightest verb can move us—many ways.
If beauty is our reality then it is well deserved—when it can ‘be’ experienced.
I think that is what anon. is getting at.

Always nice coming through here… many interesting topics.

10/19/2005 09:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Dave in the Cave said...

Actually I was not referring to trolls. Fantasy is related to allegory and metaphor...ulterior visions of landscape, hallucinogenic spaces that reconfigure what we already know. But I think this is beside the point. I believe that creating alternate well-conceived worlds that combine the artists' imagination with recognizable information are just as valuable a way to express one's time as anything literal or political.

10/19/2005 10:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is clear that the words fantasy and escapism generate close-minded assumptions. A bunch of misconceptions and words bandied about over images that remain unseen.

10/19/2005 10:12:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

It is clear that the words fantasy and escapism generate close-minded assumptions. A bunch of misconceptions and words bandied about over images that remain unseen.

How can you call any assumptions about images unseen "close-minded"? Are you asserting that all unseen images should be assumed great until proven otherwise? What does that mean?

It seems to me you're defending work based on your own definitions of fantasy or escapism and throwing insults at those who disagree with your assessment, despite the fact they can't possibly be describing the same work. You're defending personal definitions, not anything more concrete than that. In other words, your taking personally statements that can't possibly have anything to do with you.

If you're defending your own art, I can understand why you might do that, but step back a moment and realize, nothing offered as opinion here thus far could possible reflect on your work. Yours just might be the art that changes opinions about escapism or fantasy. Have more faith.

10/20/2005 07:23:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Certain words become categories that you either want to agree with or not.

10/20/2005 07:51:00 AM  
Anonymous pant leg said...

I am scared by what I started. Sorry, Ed, I didn't mean any harm!

10/20/2005 08:05:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

no harm at all pant leg...sorry if it seems I'm angry, I'm not at all...just warming up to the debate (it's generally considered a blood sport on the political blogs I frequent...mea culpa for letting that trickle into this sphere).

Truth is I was hoping to push someone to defend escapism in terms that settled the matter...personally, I don't have a dog in this fight. Escapism has its charms and, so long as it advances philosophy or technique, art historical importance, but personally I can take it or leave it.

What I'd like to hear though, is why, other than because the world is scary, does it attract some artists. There are hints of the power of allegory strewn throughout the thread, but I'm searching, again, for something more concrete...might be asking for too much...

10/20/2005 08:42:00 AM  
Anonymous pant leg said...

I'll work on it Ed. I just finished my cheerios so I don't understand anything yet... ip

10/20/2005 09:15:00 AM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

sorry if it seems I'm angry, I'm not at all...just warming up to the debate (it's generally considered a blood sport on the political blogs I frequent...mea culpa for letting that trickle into this sphere).

A little debate isn't all bad. It gets some of the dust out, like beating an old carpet.

I just finished my cheerios so I don't understand anything yet...

I just finished a bowl of Gorilla Munch and am absorbing the power of sugared hippy cereal goodness. So I'm ready to toss a nickle or two into the ring. (ignore the nonsensical mixed metaphor, k thx.)

The latter half of this comment thread demonstrates what I dislike about fantasy. It can very easily lose all meaningful points of reference, creating an unhinged, flighty experience. Similar to religious fundamentalism (and Intelligent Design), by definition fantasy does not need to be held accountable for its machinations. It is a new reality and the rules of that reality are allowed to change. This potential for illogic is what makes it special and also what sometimes makes it exceedingly tedious.

Don't get me wrong, there are types of fantasy I enjoy. But this fantasy is usually only a few steps from science fiction. By my definition, science fiction takes the world as we experience it in common and applies a few twists to basic rules and then postulates what the world would look like under these new conditions. Adam Cvijanovic's recent show at Bellwether is a good example of this IMO.

The shamanic sort of fantasy, hallucinogenic realities and such, that Dave in the Cave refers to are a bit tougher. On the positive, this is a looking inside for inspiration--to dreamlike feedback loops of information iterated and reiterated within the consciousness--the same way one might look to the outside world for inspiration. Balance, peace, and even breakthrus can occur. But the longer you focus on this as the primary source of inspiration, the more you risk distancing yourself from common experience, isolating you, your ideas, and your work. Also, given too much authority over actions in the waking world can have dire consequences. How many people have died torturous deaths because other humans had visions? I'm not talking about serial killers, I'm talking about a society collectively giving too much credence to guiding visions.

As far as escapism goes, I think it comes down to play. Play is a valuable, pleasurable state. But play cannot occur when the mind is in a state of worry. In animals all animals, fear of predators, hunger, and exhaustion all interrupt play. But play is essential for learning. Its pleasure is always a temptation. Escapism serves as a means of defering worry. This is its utilitarian role. It allows children and adults to play in warzones. But like everything there is a down side. An excess of escapism leads to procrastination, avoidance, denial, and inaction.

Speaking of procrastination, I really should quit posting and get back to work.

Go go, Gorilla Munch!

10/20/2005 10:25:00 AM  
Anonymous If beauty is our reality said...

In science the obvious is something you trip over. You don't find the obvious and then trip over that, do you? You sidestep it, until you trip over what you missed! Then you know. Concrete is tripping over, not skipping over. Sorry Anon. Didn't mean to ruffle the feathers.

10/20/2005 10:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Paul Chan said...

Some of these comments about escapism remind me of the arguments I made in Bomb magazine lately -- especially the quick comments posted by names that resemble sentences.

10/20/2005 11:31:00 AM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

I feel the turn to escapism is motivated by fear. In my own work, I've been forced to leave behind the purely fantastic and inject myth, both established and invented, into the work to allow for a narrative tie to contemporary reality. It sounds a little odd, but it works for me...keeps me going in the studio and allows me to feel I'm more effectively engaging contempoary ills.

Anyway, below I've pasted a section of an old post of mine on the problems of escapism in art, and I apologize for sticking such a big "comment" here, Ed. It just seems pertinent.

"It is with increasing urgency, though, that I view so much contemporary art produced by my contemporaries, artists in their twenties and thirties. An uncredited New Yorker writer describes this work as, “gloomy, craft-spun, fairy-tale escapism endemic among young East Coast artists.” A visit to Greater New York, 2005, a survey of artists living or working in New York City at P.S.1, will illustrate just how prevalent this mode has become. Fully 40% of the work on display fits the bill, and while the majority of these are paintings or drawings, a number of videos and installations belong to the same impetus. We are a generation uncertain and intimidated. Rather than engage and participate, we have opted to wear the escapist smile, retreating into the worlds of Alice and the Little Prince. Is it enough to express ourselves in this way? Do these cryptic fairy-tales or self-abusive efforts communicate anything more than immediate frustration? After all, it was largely my social incompetence which drove me to chase monsters around dark living rooms. How much different is this display?

These currents are not only isolated to the eastern seaboard of the United States, though. Admittedly, the majority of young west coast artists still seem to be preoccupied with abstraction and pretty pictures, but the dystopian fairy-tales are being createed by artists not just from across the United States, but also via imports from Japan, Europe, Iceland and elsewhere. Peter Schjeldahl recently wrote of Takashi Murakami’s curatorial effort, “Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture,” “[The included work] suggests a certain pathology: rapturous defeatism, perhaps, that justifies youths who don’t grow up.” Has an entire generation, Japanese or otherwise, been forced into perpetual adolescence by the atom bomb that is our modern condition?

At the turn of the century, very few people knew anything about Henry Darger, the reclusive Chicago painter/janitor who spent the bulk of his solitary life working on a series of collage-like, narrative drawings depicting the history of the Vivian Girls. The currents of the Art World, circa the late 1990s, were such that Darger was considered an “outsider” when this term still meant, “Hold him at arm’s length, please.” By 2002, the year I graduated from art school, “outsider” was no longer a bad word. Books on Henry Darger could be found in the window of any Barnes & Noble in town and my own fantasical paintings were receiving admiring attention from curators and dealers.

This shift in Art World tastes had little to do with curatorial sensibility. There were simply too many young artists working in this vein for the movers and shakers to ignore the trend. The compulsive, “outsider” approach of Darger had become, long after his obscure death, standard issue gallery fare. Whether or not one would call it a “movement,” as I have heard some people discuss, is irrelevant. It happened and is continuing to gain momentum. The meaning and the value are for time, the critics and the public, if they ever come back to contemporary art, to determine.

One has to wonder, though, what sort of work we are dealing with. Darger, as I mentioned above, was almost completely solitary. He attended church daily, made his income as a janitor and then returned to a cramped, disaster of an apartment to continue work on his epic story and the associated paintings. Moreover, he never received any artistic training to speak of. This stands in stark contrast to most of the artists on hand at P.S.1. Not only are we dealing with a return to youthful escapism, but the return is a conscious decision, one being made by folks who have Master’s degrees, iPods and Friendster accounts. Would Darger have been eager to discuss the latest EP or hit up the late night bar scene? The main difference between lost souls like Darger and the average Art World fantasist of today is choice and I start to wonder how many contemporary artists really believe in the worlds they depict. At least half of these escapist works are mired in knowing sarcasm and satire, too often another sign of cowardice replacing intellect."

10/20/2005 12:05:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

don't hold back, HH. ;-)

Lots to digest there, but overall, a well-argued position. Thanks. e

I suspect others might disagree though...no? anyone?

10/20/2005 12:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

james lenard. What about Redon? Fantasy lovefest.

10/20/2005 02:24:00 PM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

james lenard. What about Redon? Fantasy lovefest.

What about 'im? He did a lot of observational paintings as well. But the paintings of angelic figures in particular do get me a bit more...

Oddly, I see a connection between his work and Joan Mitchell's. (Maybe it's just a formal connection?) For my dime and minute, I'd rather get lost in one of her canvases.

On a sort of related note, lately, I've been doing a lot of visual and historic research on unicorns for a work in progress that (i think) deals with some existential notions of faith, spirtiuality, and the soul. I've been particularly inspired by Pliny the Greater's accounts of the Unicorn in India and by medieval tapestries, such as these housed at the Met's Cloisters. (Even though my imagery runs more along the lines of 60's-70's psychedelia meets little girl's bedroom poster.)

Though I'm engaging the fantastic, I remain cautiously skeptical. The unicorn piece I'm working with (i think) simultaneously denies while struggling to affirm their existence.

Hell... maybe I'm dealing more with legend than fantasy. Not sure.

10/20/2005 03:24:00 PM  
Anonymous mark said...

Ed, I enjoy your blog quite a lot, and this is an especially interesting discussion. Getting back to the topic of political art, if it’s not too late, I have a couple thoughts:

First, I wonder how critical it really is to the success of political art to reach or persuade those with opposing viewpoints.

I think it is also valuable to “inspire the converted” (I think inspire is more fair than the pejorative “preach to”). In the linked essay, for example, Teachout refers to the cathedrals of Europe as great political art. They certainly are great, and my guess is that they weren’t intended to persuade people of Jewish or Muslim faith to become Christians, but rather to strengthen the faith of people who were already Christians. (Teachout also seems to include Angels in America among his list of failures because it presupposes a politically like-minded audience, but if this is failure I could use a bunch of it in my art!)

Certainly, making art that inspires people to work for positive change responds to a real demand, as anyone who’s been to a political rally knows. And it’s probably a more achievable objective, for a visual artist at least, than making art that aims to persuade people to change their opposing view.

Second, as an artist whose work is occasionally quite political, I can’t support a call for artists to make “purple” art. Like most artists, I make art because I’m compelled to. In my view, an artist who is compelled to make purple art should make purple art, and artists who are compelled to make “blue” art or “red” art should make that. The unfortunate blue and red artists are likely to have a harder time gaining acceptance – the art world has always preferred its art “purple,” in my view.

It seems to me that political art is a subset of conceptual art, and that when it fails it does so in the ways that conceptual art fails more generally – a weakness for one-liners, sensationalism, lack of visual appeal, etc. An artist needs to use all of her talents and tools (beauty, humor, illusion, insight, etc.) to avoid these pitfalls and make the best art she can, whether its purple, red or blue.

10/20/2005 04:41:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

great rant Mark. I don't agree with everything you wrote, but appreciate your concise clean prose...a few specific responses:

First, I wonder how critical it really is to the success of political art to reach or persuade those with opposing viewpoints.

Reaching or persuading is immaterial. Telling their truth is what I'm arguing for. I don't think you can do that justice, though, if you're bent on insulting them. You have to have respect for their truth, if not their conclusions, to tell it.

The Cathedrals example you use to support this assertion provides insight into the key here, IMO. A synagogue or mosque can be very successful "art" to a Christian without causing them to convert. Perhaps the Church invested in art to order to inspire it's flocks, but it invested in "ART" to do so. Had it invested instead in what I believe you end up with if you only tell half the truth (which in my opinion is what you're telling if you're not investing in learning why the opposition feels the way they do...which should be clarified to note that doesn't mean you don't still disagree with them, only that you understand why they feel that way well enough to account for it), propaganda, we would see the falseness of it today, even had it convinced folks long ago. What you see today and agree is still true in any older church or building or sculpture or painting is undoubtedly Art. The world has changed far too much since the artist's time for anything but truth to still touch us: the specific Red arguments or the Blue arguments have faded from memory, the lines have all blurred...only the truth remains.

Second, as an artist whose work is occasionally quite political, I can’t support a call for artists to make “purple” art.

Purple art isn't art that doesn't take a stand. It's art that acknowledges both sides of a dispute. It can conclude the Red or Blue is wrong...in fact, to be political art it has to, but it can't offer up the Blue argument as if it were handed down by God. It must build its case honestly, assuming the best that can be assumed of the opposition, and persuade through the truth. The problem with Angels in America, for example, is that it acts as if the middle of the country shouldn't be allowed to be confused on the issues of gay sex or AIDS...everyone has to catch up quickly and appreciate the reality of the dying people's lives, including their politics. It suggests that just because it should be clear that you love your son whether gay or straight because he's your son, you have to embrace his political views to do so. There's a little concession to the humanity of the Mormon mother, but very little, until the end. Treating her, until her epiphany, as if she was mostly a cartoon. (Of course, many of the characters were cartoons, but they weren't damned for being so like she was.)

Don't get me wrong...I LOOOOOOVE Angels in America LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, ...it really makes me happy...but I can see a few false positions in it, and I'm not even trying. It's great art, but it could have been better.

Take opener...take can of worms...

10/20/2005 05:13:00 PM  
Anonymous mark said...

Thanks for the thoughtful responses, Ed. I probably agree with you on your basic premise -- it's important to try to try to do justice to the other side's truth, within reason. Certainly when there are clearly two or more "truths," (e.g., Israeli-Palestinian issues), it's fair to ask the artist to consider them as even-handedly as possible.

In many cases it's hard to believe there is a second "truth." For example, more and more tax cuts for the wealthy -- it's hard to imagine anyone knowledgeable and intellectually honest still actually believes this is good for the country. I would feel foolish or dishonest if I treated these kinds of views with the respect due something that is at least partially "true." There are also examples (e.g., evolution vs. intelligent design, climate change, holocaust deniers) where the opposition's entire strategy is to claim there is a real debate, even though there is none among those most knowledgeable (scientists and historians). In these cases, acknowledging two "truths" would grant the opponents a propaganda victory they haven't earned. Could I make art that considers people with these sorts of views "worthy of being considered the intended audience"? Would I even want to try? I don't know, to be honest.

Perhaps these examples are too obvious. Anyway, thanks again for the great discussion.

10/20/2005 09:40:00 PM  
Blogger bill said...

Ed_,

Normally I would've emailed you--this thread is no longer active, and I have been out of the loop for some time--but I wasn't able to locate an address for you. A few thoughts (and some good examples of the genre) jotted at the ole blog:

http://ffactory.blogspot.com/2005/04/political-art.html
http://ffactory.blogspot.com/2005/05/more-smart-political-art.html

Best,
Bill

10/24/2005 12:39:00 PM  

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