Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The New On-the-Ground Reality | Open Thread

Walter Robinson offers a lovely recount of the AICA/USA Distinguished Critic Lecture at the New School delivered by Holland Cotter recently (even if, as Cotter himself acknowledged the constant temptation to, Robinson gave in to the urge to pen a piece "designed to call attention to himself." :-). The end of Walter's report reminded me of an article a friend had forwarded and it ties in with the same paralyzing set of options noted in the text of the short story excerpt I posted on Monday. Here's Walter:
By the end of his talk, Cotter had, in his own quiet way, delivered something of a polemic. He called the art world a "middle-class gated community, protecting its territorial and entrepreneurial interests, and thus inherently conservative," and seemed to wax a bit puritanical when he said "no selling art as pleasure to our over-pleasured audience."

But he spoke undeniable truth when he praised artists who were actively engaged with the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and early ‘90s, heralding the "exceptional range of new art made in response to on-the-ground reality." We could certainly use a little more of that today.

I thought a bit about the amazingly honest and urgent art that emerged from the AIDS crisis and how there does indeed seem to be little to match its intensity today, despite an economic crisis, two wars, rampant corruption, widespread poverty, terrorism, and radical fundamentalists of all stripes gaining political power. The 1980s and 90s were not all that long ago. Why are we all so seemingly comatose in comparison? Why are we all so seemingly meek in the face of these outrages?

Indeed it seems that something fundamental has changed since the era when governments were truly afraid their people would rise up and revolt if they didn't assure the basic necessities. Theories I've heard as to why this is so range from the anesthetizing/de-revolutionizing effects of minor luxuries (like TV and McDonalds) to Big Brother-esque information gathering capacities that prohibit revolutionary plans from furtively spreading far and wide enough before the authorities can break them up.

Those days may actually be ending. There is something approaching new anger being expressed in parts of the world. Riots in Greece. Riots in France. Riots in England.

David Seaton (an American journalist living in Europe) recently examined what all this means on his blog:
Up till now the children of the credit bubble have had little to rebel against, all the things that the 1968 generation fought for, especially sexual freedom, this generation have had in abundance. While they enjoyed their freedom or became bored with it they became proficient with computers, cell phone messaging and social nets, all valuable skills for potential agitators. Now as politicians like David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy are attacking their futures, their education and even their future pensions, they have something more challenging than "Grand Theft Auto" to test their skills against. And perhaps they will be able to do something that the students of 1968 couldn't do in those times of prosperity and full employment, make common cause with working people and the older generations.

Now the battle is not just about personal freedom and imperialist wars as it was back them, it is about health, education and welfare: the basics.
Threats to the basics (health, education and welfare) fully explain the anger in the gay community as well as the power of the art created during the AIDS crisis. But Seaton goes on to explain the wider revolutionary threat lurking...the one that could see larger unrest here in the US. And contrary to the propaganda you hear on Fox News and its like, the threat is NOT socialist sensibilities. Quite the opposite. Seaton:
I'm astounded at how oblivious Cameron and Sarkozy are to the danger they are running.

Regular readers of this blog know that one of my favorite hobby horses is criticizing the blockheadedness of post Cold War politicians who seem to have totally lost their fear of popular wrath.

Those who are cheerfully going about the work of dismantling the welfare state seem blissfully unaware that the welfare state was created by men as, or even more conservative then themselves, (Bismark, for example) in order to avoid revolutionary social movements which would destabilize and jeopardize the entire economic system and society itself. This was a strategy that was so eminently successful that it practically has destroyed revolutionary praxis.

In my opinion dismantling the welfare state at this time is similar to a person who has successfully survived an operation for lung cancer and endured the ensuing chemotherapy and then, finding himself now in remission, decides that it is ok for him to go back to smoking, the very thing that caused his cancer in the first place: idiotic.
I have always thought it idiocy (or at least a serious historical ignorance) for the financially comfortable to not recognize governmental security nets for the masses as a small price to pay for domestic tranquility. History is chock full of revolutions spawned by aristocratic lack of compassion, revolutions that brought down vast empires. Still, here in the US we see the GOP hellbent on ending "entitlements" even as they offer only tired and long disproved trickle down theories for how to generate jobs. This is a recipe for revolution if ever there was one.

The main reason we have the relative calm we have in the US, despite punishing unemployment and rising poverty, is not patriotism or minor luxuries, in my opinion, but precisely those New Deal like safety nets put in place over the last century. In other words, governmental assurances that people will still have some access to the basics--health, education and welfare--the things that without, they are most likely to, well, "Act Up."

Chisel away at those and you greatly increase the odds of costly riots and civil unrest. With over 9% unemployment and states strapped for cash, it's not at all likely there are law enforcement resources up to the task of quelling widespread revolts either, so it would be fool-hearty to put your faith in the police state should things get very desperate.

Consider this an open thread on art, basic needs, and the pending revolution.

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9 Comments:

Anonymous brandon juhasz said...

artistically, it makes me think of the Cartier-Bresson quote about Edward Weston:

"The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks"

11/17/2010 10:23:00 AM  
Blogger Saskia said...

It also doesn't go over very well when the same government chipping away at pensions and other necessities rejects an amendment to also reduce their own pensions, a little noticed fact that friends in France were emailing in mass during the riots!
Of course that same thing happens in the US all the time, so it's hard to understand why we're so much more complacent about it-- less sense of entitlement, maybe? I remember as far back as the early 90's, my father (who owns a small business) pinning down our senate representative at an art reception and telling them, "I'd like to be able to offer my employees the same health care that you get." Of course back then, my father just got a smirk and a look that said, "What are you, crazy?"
It will be interesting to see what the next few years will bring here and in other countries, but a shake down wouldn't be surprising, and may just be well needed.

11/17/2010 11:26:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

I love art galleries. But they're the last place I'd look for any solutions to our social and economic problems.

11/17/2010 12:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

Yes, well I agree with everything you say about how things are and where they're going. I find it astonishing that working class people would back the republicans or the tea party. I guess declining educational standards are finally bearing fruit for the rich men who run both of those cults, now that regular folk are not smart enough to see what they're really all about.

And about the art thing, it seems to me that galleries, although there are specific exceptions of course, have little interest in looking at topical work. I believe the reason is simple, no one will buy it. People who buy art are doing pretty well financially, and they surely don't want to hang something on their walls that will remind them that there are a lot of people out there that are struggling.

Unless the photographer is a bankable name or if the image is of an event from the past, there is little chance of getting anyone to pay attention.

Perhaps it's time for museums to step up and start taking chances with work that is more topical and less likely to gain notoriety on a rise up through the gallery industrial complex.

11/17/2010 05:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In a nutshell - government has the power to make changes i.e. laws. People do not (for the most part) despite the belief that WE do i.e. "democracy." The everyday worker, the average Joe, carries the burden to support everything from politicians' salaries and benefits to infrastructure i.e. taxes. Governments are a business, yet they do NOT run their business as a business. The rob Peter to pay Paul. When that shell game can no longer be successfully played, they then demand more from the average Joe in the form blood & sweat and money. Forget ethics and morals - they really don't exist though we pretend they do.

11/18/2010 01:35:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

...art, basic needs, and the pending villains

Maybe it isn't so much contemporary art isn't speaking of the next revolution, but that it is speaking of the actuality of the boogie man under our beds...

Yesterday I saw a Damien Hirst exhibit at the GDB art gallery in Montreal http://www.debellefeuille.com/news

and while having a hot wood stove bagel and cheese with a cafe afterwards, it struck me ... maybe I've had Hirst's intentions wrong all along. Maybe it was just the clear acrylic coated concrete floor, but there seemed a repeating theme through this collection of his works :

... like enamel surfaces sans texture, reproduced by blind mechanical technologies.
... like color customized plastic skulls with painted over inserted eyeballs, sans retinas, blind to sight.
... like so many butterflies covered in evolutionary camouflage, mosaics of patterns of staring, unseeing eyes that will never blink.
... like self portrait X-ray patterns, undiagnosed- hanging for examination by absent doctors of medicine, leaving the surface, skin, wrinkles and blemishes all untouched, unseeable.
...like skulls, void of all value to the lives they once sheltered, now covered in precious light refracting multi-faceted diamonds.
...perfect manufactured surfaces and unseeing sight seeking shifted value
Hirst's work here seems to juxtapose appearances, the immaculate surface with our submerged understanding of value-meaning. Like, so much pristine packaging, where the promise of inherent satisfaction would be lost, if we were to open its contents to our sight. Like so many versions, beckoning as manufacturing abundance, promising us dreams without the exhaustion necessary for sleep.
Where John Berger speaks of beauty as the exception, grace only of its juxtaposition with the vulgar and mundane, - Hirst seems to deliberately close down our vision, leaving us gleaming surface, with only the glitter and glitz to camouflage the glitch. Leaving us only appearances, pointedly leaving us blind to the insight we will only find among our foolishness and folly -beyond any stained and scuffed patina.

oh to but dream with our eyes wide open! , we might find inpsiration dancing among the juxtapostions of our reality, among surface and being, among words and understanding, among art and objects. Hirst must know hidden behind the appearance of perfect glossed surfaces, our dreams and lives can't be fulfilled. That appearance is not the visible.

If the great artists use as their ground the paradigm shifts of their epoch, then few other have consistently shown us as Damien Hirst has here, that we no longer live in the stone age, nor the bronze age, nor the industrial age, nor the space age, but the age of advertising...

I'm reminded of a church in central america, in the center of town, where the tourists come to stand in amazement at the trimmed and manicured sculptures of shrubbery in its front lawn, where on Sundays if you enter the church, the people stand in humble awe under the splendor of its interior decorations, but if you so happen to wander, to slip outdoors and meander to the very back of the church, placed strategically beyond the altar and apex, one will find a small rock grotto and likely a fresh offering, for the Virgin Mary. Beyond the surfaces of appearances, one finds significant meaning. As in life, as in art.

Juxtapositions. We might mistakenly believe that the victors write history, but it is the juxtaposition of the future with the past that circumscribes our understanding of history. To see the future (and any pending revolution), we need to see the present so as to know the juxtapositions in play in our understanding. Hirst seems to be saying that we won't find it in appearances, as much as advertising and our manufactured gloss trys to convince us this is so.

If we wish the revolution to succeed, we need to know which dungeon we stand within.

11/18/2010 07:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not sure what Anonymous 1:35 is referring to. I see a resurgence in political and topical work. In fact, it seems to be what most university, regional and non-profit galleries show.

When I first began my art career, I was making large photo realist drawings that had urban subject matter. Galleries were throwing solo shows at me (these were all non-profit spaces or university galleries). When my work became more conceptual and I dropped the urban subject matter, the exhibition offers dried up. Maybe it was a question of a change in quality, but somehow, I believe it was my change in focus. At one studio visit where I was showing the curator (another non-profit) my new conceptual work, the curator seeing a framed photo realist drawing with the urban subject matter that happened to be on the wall in my living space said to me directly, that if I had more of the urban photo realist pieces, they would show THEM.

However, I was told in art school when I started the urban drawings, that if I continued on that path, I would never have a career.

I changed my focus in my art, for a lot of complex reasons, but mainly as I learned more about art, I began to find political art limiting conceptually.

11/18/2010 10:18:00 AM  
Anonymous nemastoma said...

I actually found the massive manifestations in Paris a couple of weeks ago against the Sarkozy Government somewhat misplaced. Instead of directing much of their anger towards changes in domestic plans, such as extending the kickoff of employees' pensions an extra two years, thousands of people should have taken over the streets to protest his expulsion of Roma from France. This is racism, pure and simple. And hardly anyone blinked, hardly anyone protested.

11/18/2010 04:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a 50-year old artist, active in local politics and devote 20-30 hours a month to working on social change issues. I don't choose to drag that part of my life into the studio but, rather, prefer to use my artmaking time engaged in a formal quest that feeds and nurtures me.

If I want to promote social change I'll talk to someone or work on a newsletter or flyer. When I want to get back to what sustains me, I go into my studio, shut the door, and turn to my art.

11/19/2010 03:59:00 PM  

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