I note this humiliating penchant to allow for the possibility I'm doing it again by assuming an association between two ideas I've recently encountered. The first was in a book published by the Century Foundation about how we must regain full use of the civil liberties that have been curbed in response to the terror attacks on 9/11: Liberty Under Attack
The second input comes from an article by The New Yorker's Peter Schjeldahl on the work of Chris Burden. In putting Burden's work into a historical context Schjeldahl suggests:
Congress, including twelve Democratic senators, .... deferred to a president who in many ways has abandoned policies and principles that have served the country well throughout its history. General John Shalikashvili, a former chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff, put it well: “The U.S. has repeatedly faced foes in its past that, at the time they emerged, posed threats of a nature unlike any that it had previously faced. But the U.S. has been far more steadfast in the past in keeping faith with its national commitment to the rule of law.”
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. It was a silly game, in the end. Ultimate limits were discovered, most pointedly by Burden, whose influence on conceptual and installational artists, to this day, is immeasurable. He defined art, in an interview in 1975, as “a free spot in society, where you can do anything”—anything, he might have added, that society will let you do. (Dennis O’Shea wouldn’t let him die.) Context is all. The complexity of Burden’s attitude became clear in 2004, when he and Nancy Rubins resigned their longtime teaching positions at U.C.L.A. to protest the university’s decision not to expel a student who, in a class, had played Russian roulette with a fake but real-looking gun, then had left the room and set off a firecracker in the hall. In a university, Burden said, “there are rules of speech and decorum.” Some disputants in the controversy, which dragged on for months, accused him of hypocrisy. He insisted on a cardinal difference between an act performed in an art space for an audience that had been warned and one sprung on students in a classroom.Pre-dating these new additions to my mental database was a proposal by an artist for a piece in that involved shooting up the pristine white walls of some gallery with a machine gun. I told the artist I hope he gets to do that some day (implying "but it won't be in my space").
OK, so by now you're scratching your head and thinking "He's inhaled too much floor paint fumes," hasn't he? Possibly. But the notion Schjeldahl offered that "Ultimate limits were discovered, most pointedly by Burden," in art, combined in my head with the comment by General Shalikashvili that "The U.S. has repeatedly faced foes in its past that, at the time they emerged, posed threats of a nature unlike any that it had previously faced," to suggest to me that Schjeldahl is most likely wrong. Burden did not discover the ultimate limits. We simply can't imagine them at this point because they'll be of a nature unlike any that we've previously considered.
Which is not to be mistaken as a call for even more dangerous performances, mind you. (I would have smacked the Russian Roulette artist upside his head had he pulled that stunt on my watch, but that's more out of fear than anything else.) But the notion that physical danger is the ultimate limit strikes me as somewhat, well, limited. Yes, I agree that life is everything, and once that's gone, the rest is reduced to footnotes, but there are other boundaries beyond the physical endurance types (like the spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and physical skill variety) that are still ripe for boundary pushing in my opinion. Burden's most infamous performances generally risked one, final, conclusion, but didn't permit for success to be measured within a physical achievement. He would either passively die or survive. But that ignores the third option: to actively thrive. The exclusion of that option is his work's greatest failing in my opinion.
But I'm getting off track. My question is whether or not it's ever possible to reach the "ultimate limit" of the imagination. If there's one lesson from history we should have learned it's that there's always some surprise in store for us. I fully understand Burden and even Schjeldahl's desire to dissuade young artists from continuing Burden's earlier explorations, but I thought the best argument for doing so was the one of context Burden offered, not the notion that the ideas therein have been exhausted. Surely that's more likely to encourage some young Turk to attempt to prove them wrong, no?
Labels: art criticism