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