Monday, May 14, 2007

The Limits, Part II: Gratuitous Activity and Avid Complicity

Michael Waugh, the brilliant artist (who exhibits with Schroeder Romero) and Associate Director of one of my all-time favorite alternative art spaces (Momenta Art), offered a thoughtful response to the post on whether there are ultimate limits in art. Mike and I have been friends for years, and he elaborates on his thoughts on his blog here, but I disagree with several of the points he makes in his comment and want to explain which and why. First Mike's comment though:

Schjeldahl's idea that art is “the privileged zone of gratuitous activity” is pretty commonly held, the idea being that art patronage guides art – as it has for millennia. In the modern era, this idea is used to reduce art to a kind of philosophical “play” in which philosophical, moral, formal (etc.) beliefs are “tested,” at best, illustrated (and made accessible so that they can enter the zeitgeist) at worst.

But, Ed, I really thank you for your blog entry because it got me thinking of some connections.

I just finished a biography of Thomas Jefferson, and I’ve been thinking about the revolutionary ideas that exploded across the globe in the 18th century with the French and American revolutions. Before Jefferson, democracy was envisioned as merely overturning the hereditary nature of aristocracy (John Adams and Washington did not believe every citizen deserved a vote because the general population was too dumb). The real revolution happened with Jefferson, in which the abstract democracy held power not an aristocracy. One of the cornerstones of this Jeffersonian change was the evolution of the 4th estate, journalism, as the vital seed that empowered the voters to make decisions and limit the aristocratic pretensions of those in office.

So here’s my point: in a democracy, the rich and the elected are not supposed to hold the ultimate power, an informed public is supposed to wield that power. The “rule of law” referred to by the Leone article has been a phrase behind which the Bush administration has hidden because they have taken it upon themselves to interpret the rule of law, which is not their role ESPECIALLY when faced with “threats of a nature unlike any that it had previously faced” that the law did not foresee.

OK, so how does this relate to art, Burden, and Schjeldahl? Well, there may well be artists who merely produce work for rich patrons – just as there may well be journalists who cater to the ideology of their owners (read: FOX news) or their advertisers. Powerful people, governments, and corporations may well try to (and often succeed) at directing and limiting journalism. But that is in violation of our democratic system.

So it is with art: Powerful people, governments, and corporations may well try to (and often succeed) at directing and limiting art so that art merely reflects the tastes and beliefs of collectors. When this happens, art fails to serve what is supposed to be the seat of power: the people.

What is incredibly troubling to me is that the trajectory begun by the Duchampean impulse has been co-opted so that “avid complicity on the authorities’ part, kept being redrawn to corral the effacements.” This means that many artists have become modern day court jesters, ridiculing or testing the limits of the norms set by the powerful – without challenging the basis of those norms and doing nothing to challenge the undemocratic consolidation of power in this country.

Wealth and heredity were supposed to have been replaced by democracy, by the people. If we hold this truth to be self-evident, then the patronage that artists should seek is not rich collectors but the democracy itself. I don’t think this has ever really been realized: serving the people does not mean making simpering public art. Serving the people should mean that art, like journalism, should help to expose the structures of power that can lead to the un-democratic entrenchment of that power. In the most banal sense, this could mean exposing the random nature of societal norms, shocking people into wakefulness. But once people are awake, a rigorous critique is not just necessary but required.

The problem in the arts, like in the rest of our society, is that the Jeffersonians never envisioned corporations or global capitalism. Just as this 5th estate (corporate capital) has shifted the balance of power in politics and in journalism, it has shifted the nature of patronage in the arts.

The struggle in the arts, in journalism, and in our daily lives is to find a way to put checks on institutionalized power. Mere delight, mere beauty, mere effacement do nothing to serve the patronage of democracy.
I totally agree that journalism's role in our version of "democracy" is to empower "the voters to make decisions and limit the aristocratic pretensions of those in office." I disagree that art is supposed to serve that same role, however. But let me back up.

I understood Schjeldahl's term “the privileged zone of gratuitous activity” to include artists, not only art patrons. In other words, I think by "gratuitous activity" he means art making, not collecting or patronage. The "privileged zone" therefore is the elbow room society (as a whole) and the taste makers in particular give to those who engage in that gratuitous activity. The most influential members of that society as a whole may be the art patrons who fund/support that activity, but even they can't protect an artist who too greatly abuses the privilege (think, again, the Chocolate Jesus artist).

Looking then at Schjeldahl's statement in context:


In pragmatic terms, art is a privileged zone of gratuitous activity, with boundaries maintained by the agreement of the vested authorities. Artists of the Duchampian sort delighted in effacing the boundaries, which, with increasingly avid complicity on the authorities’ part, kept being redrawn to corral the effacements.
I understand Peter to be saying, not that the art is being made solely to please rich patrons, but rather that the vested authorities collectively make decisions that promote/preserve certain efforts by artists and, essentially (if only temporarily), reject others. In other words, when an artist pushes beyond the known boundaries at any given time, the vested authorities can either 1) reject the product or 2) redraw the boundaries to include the new, boundary-breaking work. I personally do this constantly (i.e., redraw my own boundaries to include some new idea into what I consider a worthy exploration or approach to art making). I pride myself on being open minded toward this end. I consider the alternative (limiting my personal boundaries to thereby exclude new or cutting-edge ideas) to be a lapse of responsibility. That doesn't mean anything goes, but it does reflect my belief that the boundaries are (and to my mind, should be) ever-expanding. If an artist jumps out too far ahead of my comfort zone, I'll admit it and reject the work, but to think that I currently possess enough knowledge to conclude my boundaries should be chiseled in stone is antithetical to why I'm interested in art in the first place. Therefore, it's a bit unfair to me, I believe, to suggest I'm in any way attempting to contain or control an artist because of this complicity. Quite the contrary, I'm attempting to give the artist more elbow room (that "privileged zone") in which to attempt his/her gratuitous activity.

But getting back to Schjeldahl's point, this complicity on the part of the authorities does indeed create a crisis for artists, but it's not one of being reduced to a court jester serving at the pleasure of the uberwealthy, but rather of not being able to use transgression (which we've come to expect and, quite frankly, I've come to find tiresome) to distinguish oneself and having to find some less-worn avenue toward attention.

Mike's argument to me boils down to one of his final thoughts: "The struggle in the arts, in journalism, and in our daily lives is to find a way to put checks on institutionalized power."

I respectfully, but wholeheartedly, disagree. The role of art is NOT to put checks on institutionalized power. The role of art may sometimes be to speak truth to that power, perhaps (when addressing the matter at all), but to "find a way to put checks on institutionalized power" is to let an individualized political point of view (and let's face it, no single artist fully understands, let alone represents the will of "the people" [as if that were some definable homogenized majority]) guide the decision-making process in art production to such an extent that the truth will , in all but the very rarest of cases, be compromised, resulting in propaganda, not art.

Having said that, I believe that speaking the truth to the powers that be is an incredible thing for art to be able to accomplish. I believe it's something that art perhaps can do better than other messaging toward capturing the imagination of enough people to effect real change. But if an artist is more interested in change than he/she is in expressing the truth via his/her work, the result will be something less than art, IMO, and won't serve anyone well. Least of all the artist. The tricky thing about expressing the "truth," you see, is it cannot emerge from an individualized political point of view. It cannot emerge from a position that dictates its role is to check the power of corporations or authoritarian governments. It can only emerge from objective analysis, an honest expression of the whole picture, and that rarest of gifts only a few possess, insight. A good dose of talent doesn't hurt either, but....

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27 Comments:

Anonymous joy said...

this is an amazing post, Ed. must digest...back later.

jg

5/14/2007 11:16:00 AM  
Anonymous juryduty said...

I'm not digesting everything. Fr'example:

"when an artist pushes beyond the known boundaries at any given time, the vested authorities can either 1) reject the product or 2) redraw the boundaries to include the new, boundary-breaking work."

"If an artist jumps out too far ahead of my comfort zone, I'll admit it and reject the work"


Why should I accept anyone's ceiling other than my own - yours or theirs?

THE ARTIST IS THE VESTED AUTHORITY, FOR FUCK'S SAKE!!!

5/14/2007 12:22:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

I think you've struck at the core of things here. A new narrative will be discerned -- maybe this will be part of it.

The art can speak to the issues directly or indirectly. But the artist can also model the process on the issues.

For example I think that artists whose work changes with reasonable frequency over the years are more in touch with these social/political realities than artists whose work appears roughly the same year after year.

But this changing is (or perhaps should be, anyway) a cumulative result of a number of factors -- world view, process, personal interest, etc -- that arise from a life developed over years through myriad small decisions.

More later. Awesome post --

5/14/2007 12:32:00 PM  
Anonymous bambino said...

goddamit w...

5/14/2007 12:34:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

juryduty,

no one is asking you, as the artist, to accept anyone else's boundaries (the mere fact that I explain that I try to being open minded about where mine are is evidence that I expect artists to ignore them). But that doesn't change the fact that I have boundaries, am entitled to have them, and am entitled to act according to them. That may mean I end up being left behind, but it doesn't obligate me to accept everything every artist I meet presents as equally valid, true, or worthy of my attention.

Artists are the ultimate authorities of what's "art," yes, but with the caveat that until they have the power that comes with gaining the world's attention, they're still in need of that complicity of the other type of authorities (i.e., those who build, curate, and purchase the work for the museums and other institutions that have the power/resources to preserve their art). Otherwise, they'll toil in obscurity.

5/14/2007 12:37:00 PM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

Mike's argument to me boils down to one of his final thoughts: "The struggle in the arts, in journalism, and in our daily lives is to find a way to put checks on institutionalized power."

Golly, I read his statement to a much different end. As I experience it, art is a form of expression. The above is certainly one possibility from a broad range. But I found myself focussing more on this notion of redrawing boundaries to corral new works. More than anything, this seems to be an emasculation of expression.

A close female friend of mine has a rather high pitched voice and slight, girlish lisp. All her adult life, she has struggled with an unfortunate social reality. Most everything that comes out of her mouth gets deemed "cute." But, her opinions have a greater range than mere "cute" interjections. I know she laments these dismissals. She's said so on several occasions.

Schjeldahl's characterization reflects more than a positive affirmation of the art-worthiness of new artworks. Though corraling livestock does indeed imply some valuation of those animals, it is also a means of confinement and control. The art world, as it functions now, often serves as a corral confining artistic expression to a corner that is socially accepted as wholly dismissable should any of said expressions (not just transgressive ones) become inconvenient for anyone (not just the rich and powerful).

Mr. Waugh's thoughful post touched a deep longing to truly connect with my audience, to serve some meaningful relevance in their lives. For me, being an artist is a vocation. The calling I responded to is a bit more complex and engaged than a desire to be shelved away as some sort of "cute" curio.

Not saying this is new or unique to our moment in history. But in my own practice, it feels more evident than ever before. Of course my angst my be exhasperated by the overall erosion of the "citizen" within all segments our society.

5/14/2007 12:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The struggle in the arts, in journalism, and in our daily lives is to find a way to put checks on institutionalized power."

“I believe that speaking the truth to the powers that be is an incredible thing for art to be able to accomplish.”

If I had to walk into my studio every day to deliberately do battle with institutionalized power, or to be the voice of truth, I think I would wither and DIE. As it happens, I see far too much artwork with that type of intention aforethought and it bores my eyes and exhausts my brain. Even work that strives to be overtly meaningful bugs me. Its so arrogant to think one’s work might be the voice of truth. It seems to me that approaching art making that way just kills art dead—its so stilted and suffocated

I would hope artists still feel free to go into their studios every day with the hope that what they make will be beautifully designed and executed. If it should turn out that a by-product of those efforts are found to be “truth” or “transgressive” or are helping keep democracy democratic, well, that’s great. Those are concepts many of us hold very, very dear—just not as the primary “function” of art.

5/14/2007 12:40:00 PM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

toil in obscurity

addendum: can I get a T-shirt with some version of this printed on it?

5/14/2007 12:42:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

The art world, as it functions now, often serves as a corral confining artistic expression to a corner that is socially accepted as wholly dismissable should any of said expressions (not just transgressive ones) become inconvenient for anyone (not just the rich and powerful).


But the alternative to expanding the boundaries (what's also seen as "corraling" the artist) in response to the sort of work (Schjeldahl terms it "Duchampian" in nature) that intentionally delights in effacing the boundaries is to essentially tell the artist "No, we won't consider what you're trying to tell us." In other words, for the art viewing public, transgressive artist have created a Catch 22, shouting, essentially, "Look at me, I have something important to tell you, but note that you can't actively accept it, because if you do, you'll disempower my message, so you must utlimately reject it to validate it." It's silly and in the end more about the artist's ego than it is their message.

By the way, I've gone on about this paradox before here.

can I get a T-shirt with some version of this printed on it?

Don't they pass those out at MFA graduating ceremonies? ;-)

5/14/2007 12:50:00 PM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

In other words, for the art viewing public, transgressive artist have created a Catch 22

I agree here on this point. For me, it's when that corral nets all of us--not just those banking on transgression--that I get dispirited.

And like I said, this isn't a novel challenge. The world and society are big entities with juggernaut inertias. Is it a fools errand to push against either and expect to register some sort of recognizable feedback? For me, that desire for results (not activist results mind you--but even call-and-response results) is an integral part of being an artist.

Oh well. I guess I should get on the horn to my alma mater and demand my t-shirt now. ^_^

5/14/2007 01:03:00 PM  
Blogger Mark Creegan said...

I think there is a need here to define "trangressive" works of art. To my mind the type of work that came close to such a thing were the Situationist International, who to a large degree, created pamphlets and events which influenced the 1968 student rebelion and wildcat strikes in France.

If we merely say transgressive work challenges our taste and morals, well I think that just falls under the standard job of art (as it has since the 1880s anyway) and seems to devolve into this "chasing the dragon" game that drug addicts know about.

I also think art's power to be truly transgressive has been reduced due to the general socio-economic trend toward information/service based economies. Things tradionally seen as outside "art" have become more and more like "art", thus reducing arts power of even seeming transgressive beyond stylistic poking.

5/14/2007 01:16:00 PM  
Blogger Molly Stevens said...

Art is an elite activity. It's really not a democratic one. Artists are really not "the people" (which I think folks use to mean "members of the working class"). It is only honest to accept this, which doesn not mean we have to address it ad nausea in our work. However, I personally feel it is the artist's responsibility to use our privilege to reflect on the world and the way it functions (which does not mean dogmatically).

5/14/2007 01:30:00 PM  
Anonymous juryduty said...

... until they have the power that comes with gaining the world's attention ...

There's something of a chicken-or-egg question here:

Perhaps the power that comes with gaining the world's attention comes from HAVING the power to gain the world's attention, and by self-curating that power within one's self - toil in obscurity ... until you can get it to fly.

Chris Burden didn't become Chris Burden by waiting to be allowed to become Chris Burden - he made himself himself, and the curatorial/institutional complex (see what I just did there?) followed.

Just like Banksy, the subject of the other art-world article in the same NYer issue (only he didn't choose the MFA route).

5/14/2007 04:23:00 PM  
Anonymous jason said...

This comment has been removed because it linked to malicious content. Learn more.

5/14/2007 04:36:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Chris Burden didn't become Chris Burden by waiting to be allowed to become Chris Burden - he made himself himself, and the curatorial/institutional complex (see what I just did there?) followed.

But the C/I/Complex redrew the boundaries to then incorporate (see what I just did there?) Burden's work into the dialog. But I see your point. Burden's power, per se, wasn't affected by the attention he got. His fame and the power that brings was, though.

5/14/2007 05:27:00 PM  
Anonymous ml said...

When has art not been constrained by systemic institutional power? The idea that democracy will change this is just weird. Instead of pleasing an elite, now art is supposed to please the masses? Instead of pleasing two or three bosses, it's liberating to please sixty bosses?

But comparing art to journalism explains why so much of what I see is not interesting. Maybe the success of Martin Ramirez's show indicates that we should accept that very often the strongest, most compelling works are by artists who don't give a damn what anyone else thinks about their work.

5/14/2007 06:13:00 PM  
Blogger Sunil said...

"The struggle in the arts, in journalism, and in our daily lives is to find a way to put checks on institutionalized power."

I am not too sure if I read the statement in the same vein as you did Ed... The way I saw it was that the artist has the power to create compelling pieces of work (be it writing, poetry, painting or photography among others) that can have the public who are too busy to realize transparent transgressions sit up and take notice and tell individuals with the institutionalized power that the transgressions are not in favor of the common good. If the fourth estate would have paid a little more attention than run with prevailing notions four years back, we would not have been mired in our current quagmire in the Middle East. We are currently living in the midst of the initial stages and the attendant trickle down arising out of the greatest income inequalities on the populace. If the 'artists - (read writers, poets, painters or photographers among others)' do not highlight this aspect now and wake up the right set of people who can help, our children face a much more daunting world than we have today...

5/15/2007 03:13:00 AM  
Blogger the expat/pissedpoet said...

Why does Louis B Mayer's aphorism "If I want to send a message, I'll use western Union" come to mind?

5/15/2007 06:13:00 AM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

Jason's words from above --

...Instead, he suggests that artists can check power, and preserve democracy, by making (and critics, gallerists, etc. by allowing) more critically-engaged art within a flawed system -- a system that he admits is faulty because it has failed to replace wealth and inequality with democracy.

...the flawed system that led to the global domination of corporate power needs to be changed. Systemic change is primarily a political problem ... one in which aesthetics has only a very small part to play. While a more critically-engaged art may indeed play a role in raising public awareness about the abuses of institutional power, the undemocratic concentration of corporate power will remain as long as the system that birthed it remains.


I'm with you. Could I suggest that we're all still thinking in paradigms that are (IMO) obsolete?

Something needs to happen with Democracy to adapt its ideals to the power issues we're facing, the scale and insidiousness (although granted probably not the character) of which the architects of American-style democracy could never have anticipated.

It needs to go to the next level, just as this democracy was 'the next level' in a sense from what preceded it. This is an ongoing narrative, true?

As artists it looks to me like the most powerful role we can play in bringing the cultural and political milieu along is to embody this next level ourselves, in our lives, and let that embodiment breathe into our work -- as has already begun to happen, I believe.

It's a much more subtle approach than generating political art, or highly sarcastic art. As such its communications are more nuanced.

Art emerging in this way will tend to bring people along through many small discoveries that they can make. I've seen it happen.

Art making may indeed be an elite activity. Even so, aren't most of us are still working-class stiffs to enough of a degree that what we do can have street-level accessibility without sacrificing the higher aspirations we have for it?

5/15/2007 07:06:00 AM  
Anonymous joy said...

right on, Bill Gusky!

I guess I find Michael W's position, though appealing for its earnestness, to be naive. What I see is the desire to hook art up to an agenda, something that, with all the best intentions, usually ends up trivializing the art without implementing the agenda.

also, I agree with ml:
"When has art not been constrained by systemic institutional power? The idea that democracy will change this is just weird. Instead of pleasing an elite, now art is supposed to please the masses? Instead of pleasing two or three bosses, it's liberating to please sixty bosses?"

Yes: "democracy" is being used (by MW) as an overly-general catch-all term... idealized, unspecific. I also think the opposition he sets up between "elitism" and "democracy" is simplistic... but hey, you gotta love 'im.

5/15/2007 10:51:00 AM  
Blogger aurix said...

hi ed. so let me ask you this: in your opinion, what role does art play? or what role should it play?

5/15/2007 06:02:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

what role does art play?

I'm sure there's no definition of that that won't be controversial, which in part is related to the role I see art as playing (i.e., as a conduit toward understanding, or at least discussing, what it is we mean by the really big questions, such as why are we here? what makes us who we are? what is pleasure? what is beauty? what is pain? what is the meaning of death?). To my mind such undertakings are only truly valuable when done with honesty, insight, and talent. There are other factors that serve those three (such as humor, beauty, innovation, spectacle, etc.), but those three are the ultimate inputs (for lack of a better word) that lead to great art, IMVHO.

What great art can eventually, under the right circumstances, lead to (i.e., things like enlighten us or improve our political situation) is secondary to art's role of raising the level of understanding and/or debate. In other words, it's art's role to show us the truth of our lives...but not to command/direct/urge us to act.

5/15/2007 06:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He just described religion?

5/15/2007 07:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I liked the bit about the possibility of going beyond Ed's expectations, that even famous artists could do that if they tried. Teacher/ preacher syndrome.

5/15/2007 08:41:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

He just described religion?

He? Who are you talking to?

I liked the bit about the possibility of going beyond Ed's expectations, that even famous artists could do that if they tried. Teacher/ preacher syndrome.

Assuming you're the same Anonymous (and even if you're not), let me introduce you to the concept of a personal web log (aka blog) in which the convention is to record and discuss, if others are willing, one's opinions. I'm merely answering the question someone was kind enough to ask me as honestly as I can. Understanding that context might help you move past a bit of that passive agressive third-person cheapshot swiping you're engaging in here. You're free to disagree with me (like anyone else), but your presumed personal audience is one you really should cultivate on your own blog.

Just sayin'

5/15/2007 10:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ed-
Okwui Enwezor has some wonderful thoughts on contemporary artists/meaningful roles. I don't know how directly he adresses the issue in his published work, but he is beautifully eloquent.

5/17/2007 12:49:00 AM  
Anonymous Mike Waugh said...

I think some people latched onto my usage of journalism and incorrectly assumed that I said that art should be journalistic. Ug. That would suck.

No, my point was that art should not serve the powerful and merely reflect their philosophical underpinnings. Just as journalism should not serve the powerful and merely reiterate their propiganda.

An earnestly naive artist would try to "expose"lies or illustrate injustice. Leave that to the journalists please. That kind of art makes me cringe.

Art that explores philisophical underpinnings need not address anything political or socially redeeming. I, however, prefer art that has some relevance to the real world. But my post wasn't about that. So please don't put words into my mouth and claim that I support pedantic art.

And as for the "anonymous" poster whose brain hurts. Awwwwww. I am really sorry that you are mentally challenged.

5/28/2007 11:29:00 PM  

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