Thursday, May 05, 2011

The Art World: A Boring Festival of Liberals ?

In a free-wheeling and fabulous conversation about the art world on the Leonard Lopate Show a month ago or so, art critics Ken Johnson, Irving Sandler, and Amei Wallach spent a bit of time discussing with their host how orthodox the art world has become. Led there by New York Times critic Ken Johnson (who has a groovy-looking new book out), the discussion eventually led came around to the idea that the art world has become a lecture-y "liberal festival" and that the only thing that might be shocking in the art world would be to see some ultra-right-wing artist rise in prominence.

Here's a transcript of part of it, showing how they got to that point [all typos mine]:
Irving Sandler: We're in a situation of total pluralism...and this may have had to do with the idea that any conception of avant-garde had become outdated.

Ken Johnson: Art can appear in almost any form, but the orders of the art world are pretty tightly policed ideologically. You see very little...there's no tea baggers art at any of these fairs. There's a lot of kinds of expressions or sensibilities that aren't allowed in these. You could say that it's a "liberal festival."


Leonard Lopate: Now there was a time when artists could shock you. And we still had a situation at the Smithsonian recently, but I remember when Rudy Guiliani wanted to close down the Brooklyn Museum because of Chris Ofili's use of elephant dung on a religious work...

Amei Wallach: ...and he hadn't seen it...

Leonard Lopate: Yeah, well, but that's a whole other issue.... Most recently we had a Marina Abramović show at MoMA where there were nude people standing around, and it didn't cause much of a stir.

Ken Johnson: There's nothing as shocking in the art world as what you can see in the movies.

Leonard Lopate: So the movies have changed it all, Ken?

Ken Johnson: I don't know if that's what changed it, but yeah I think popular culture upped the ante on transgression in a way that the art world finds it hard...

Irving Sandler: This is part of the death of the avant-garde...I don't think that anything can shock anyone who at all follows the art world.

Leonard Lopate: So the Dada-ists could along today and people would say "Ho hum...more of that"?

Irving Sandler: Exactly.

Ken Johnson: No, the only thing that would be shocking in the art world is if a great Teabagger painter came along...

Leonard Lopate: Are you talking about the Tea Party?

Ken Johnson: Oh...I shouldn't say that. I should say...if some ultra right-winger, conservative...

Leonard Lopate: We're on Public Radio, you know. You could be getting me into a lot of trouble, right now Ken. You work for The New York Times, don't you?


Ken Johnson: I'm just saying that the politics...

Leonard Lopate: The opinions expressed by my guests are not necessarily those....

Ken Johnson: The politics of the art world are very orthodox. So the only thing shocking that might happen in the art world that would be shocking to people in the art world would be something that really veers away from that particular orthodoxy...

Leonard Lopate: It's true. I've been to an awful lot of shows where I've been told that I should protect the environment, I shouldn't be a sexist, I shouldn't be a racist...and

Ken Johnson: ...and I'm in favor of all that...

Leonard Lopate: Yeah, but...there's something slightly boring about being told things that you think you already know. Who...who are they addressing with that?

Irving Sandler: Well, you're talking about bad political art...

Leonard Lopate: But there's so much of it...

Irving Sandler: There is, but there's also good political art that really makes you think. Think of someone like Hans Haacke, for example.
Amei Wallach then describes some other good political art (the recent Krzysztof Wodiczko exhibition at Lelong), but I have to say I know what Leonard was talking about. It's sort of my personal pet peeve (as I've said before) that statistically there is so much bad political art. I don't have exact numbers, but I'm very confident in saying that most political art really, really sucks (that is, even more than most art in general).

And, as much as I agree with Ken that perhaps the only way the art world could be shocked would be for some highly conservative artists to claim center stage, 1) we would only recognize an artist as such if their work or life was highly political, and 2) therefore the majority of their work (or that of their followers) would statistically have to fall within the "also sucks" category. Both of which make the rise of some extreme right-wing art star(s) even less likely.

But, most people would agree that the avant-garde is dead (and, along with it, its relentlessly progressive march), and so, even though it may take some time, I do expect to see highly conservative values being expressed in competent art work more and more. I told Ken this recently, and he said it wouldn't matter...because people like me wouldn't show it in galleries.

I disagreed. I said I would. be continued....

Labels: art world, politics


Anonymous Gam said...

bravo for saying you would.

Maybe you're just yanking the chain, or maybe Im a radical or something.
But in my view, the idea that the avantgarde = shocking is founded on a fallacy.
that fallacy being innovation is necessarily shocking and castrophic

as so many people are apt to know - they'll know good art when they see it
because art is implicit- its unstated- its about relations, it engages on an individual to "individual' personal level

art isn't about explicit logical constructs. its not about definitions nor necessarily contoversy.

Great art is innovative as its relation engages on a level beyond the norm
we don't need to be shocked to get it, but that we get the innovation is beyond words.

innovation: stemming from the Latin innovatus, pp. of innovare "to renew or change,"
To be in a relation renews our indivduality with the other. It's ourselves that is reborn
- shock isn't the only means to change, renewalcan be silent, gentle seductive and slow. The renewal can be a metamorphisis
, and a change of season, a maturing of teh wine or cheese, and not simply a schocking schism of death. Change can be subtle and still be significant.

As art is implicit - it continually defies our logical descriptions.
It's not explicit logic, but a condition, like any relation (unique for all, yet always common)

avant-garde = innovation but shocking isn't necessarily innovation

I don't think the avant-garde is dead. It still innovates. Our understanding of that innovation needs to keep pace.

5/05/2011 11:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

The problem is that conservatives are disinclined to use art for political purposes in the first place. Although there are certainly older precedents (and arguably conservative ones), most political art of the last hundred years has been art of protest in one way or another. William F. Buckley Jr.'s mission statement for the National Review reads, "It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it." Never has anyone so artfully summed up the antithesis of progressivism. In February there was a dustup at Pratt that concerned a politically conservative art student not being allowed to show in the normal thesis exhibition schedule. (The details didn't look terribly damning of Pratt, upon closer inspection.) The story was picked up at Arma Virumque and while there were some sympathetic expressions of anti-liberal sentiment, a lot of the commenters in the thread justifiably pounced upon the formal shortcomings and amateurism of the art in question. (Some went further. "He's been in art school five years?! A real John Galt type, this kid. Rugged individualism at its finest.")

The issue is not whether you (in particular) would show work with a conservative critical angle, but that you wouldn't show work with no real conceptual angle, and that's a more truly conservative position to take with art. If you (in general) are of the opinion that humanistic values and conceptions of art and beauty are not in continual need of radical expansion, the sensible thing would be to gravitate towards an amenable project and aspire to show it at one of the many galleries in the world that isn't Winkleman's. I'm speaking here as someone who was invited to your gallery as part of #class to critique conceptualism. The real critique would have been to decline to participate, but I have a sense of humor.

I guess we'll have to wait to see how you continue this. Most political art is terrible, just as you say. But the conservatives are the very people who feel no inclination to remedy that problem. Maybe the only reason I think it would be fun to try is because as a libertarian, I'm not highly conservative.

5/05/2011 12:13:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

but that you wouldn't show work with no real conceptual angle

watch this space...

I'm speaking here as someone who was invited to your gallery as part of #class to critique conceptualism. The real critique would have been to decline to participate, but I have a sense of humor.

I think that would have a loss for both those who appreciated your participation and for "real critique." Personally, I think the real critique would have been to limit your presentation to a painting that simply silenced everyone there.

5/05/2011 12:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

watch this space...

I am intrigued.

I think that would have a loss for both those who appreciated your participation and for "real critique." Personally, I think the real critique would have been to limit your presentation to a painting that simply silenced everyone there.

Thank you. By "a painting that simply silenced everyone there," do you mean one of mine? I guess you're right - in a perfect world I would have unveiled a creation that would have sent everyone hurtling to the floor with a crippling episode of Stendhal Syndrome. But my work isn't that good, and I don't think it would prove anything about conceptualism even if it was.

5/05/2011 12:48:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Well, I'm not sure you or anyone can "prove" anything about conceptualism, per se, anyway. You can posit opinions and back them up, but that's still only a critique (i.e., an opinion). The appeal will remain for those for whom conceptualism is fulfilling.

But I do think it could do what one might argue effectively dismisses conceptualism, if only temporarily, which is to produce (as in present) something that defies words.

"To restore silence is the role of objects." ---Samuel Beckett

5/05/2011 12:56:00 PM  
Blogger Doreen said...

Although most conceptual art is now concerned with "designing" their visual content.

5/05/2011 01:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

HA! Not sure you can pull it off, but I'm curious.
I agree with Franklin. Perhaps my summation isn't exactly how he intends it, but I feel a stance against conceptualism is more shocking than simply trying to show some counter argument to the prevailing "image" of a liberal, progressive art world.
The Art world has become Bourgeois, that is what it caters to, and it may try to look progressive but it is a staid commercial marketplace, unwilling to challenge that too much because doing so would be suicide. And, in that sense catering to right-wing agendas (an imaginary audience of which currently doesn't know how to appreciate art anyway) is more of the same just in a slightly more pandering way.

5/05/2011 01:17:00 PM  
Blogger Rico said...

“there's something slightly boring about being told things that you think you already know.”
The issue with political art, imho, is simply that it is (with some very rare exceptions) instantly dated. It is tied to a moment in time at a point in our culture when time is a streaming torrent. I think political art in this day can be compared to the history paintings of the 19th century Academy. At best they can transcend, but most likely they are the vanities of the distant past. The metaphors are irrelevant, even charming. The points are mute.
As money and power coalesce, we trend toward new Academies. The avant-garde becomes codified. Is this intentional or is it organic? That is an honest question. People love to blame the ubiquitous Art Market for the state of art, but as Ken Johnson said in that segment, “The politics of the art world are very orthodox.” I would argue that orthodoxy is a very conservative (not in caps) position. It is antithetical to risk.
The truly avant-garde movements of the past did not hinge on nor seek approval from their own contemporary Art World. They were out to destroy it, and themselves and their careers in the process if need be. They were schismatics. Saddle someone with $60K of student load debt for their MFA and see how willing they are to leave, much less destroy an establishment that promises them fame and auction success.

5/05/2011 01:39:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Although most conceptual art is now concerned with "designing" their visual content. prescription is a little over-simplified, not to mention increasingly outdated.

5/05/2011 01:56:00 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Doesn't the competency of a work of include the values it espouses? Put another way, doesn't a good artwork express something that is worth expressing? If that's true, if you were to find a competent conservative artist, it would be one who expressed something worth expressing in conservatism. Which implies there is something worth expressing in it...

Which maybe there is (I'll remain agnostic for the moment), but don't pretend that by putting forward one artist or another you're not also promoting the beliefs expressed in their work, which is to take them on for yourself. And if you only take them on in the name of some kind of pluralism (which applied to the political sphere, is nothing more than liberal wishy-washiness), then once again you've simply reproduced the hegemonic liberalism of the art world.

To mark a real political shift, this hypothetical competent artist producing politically conservative artwork (as opposed to simply a conservative artist producing seemingly a-political artwork, which is probably not that uncommon), he/she would have to be backed by a similarly minded supporter, and not just another tolerant liberal.

I guess I don't see why you would show an artist whose work you didn't believe in. Or otherwise I don't see how you can believe in an artwork expressing deathly politics—seems an oxymoron (agnosticism abandoned).

I'd leave the "balance" to Fox news.


5/05/2011 02:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

But I do think it could do what one might argue effectively dismisses conceptualism, if only temporarily, which is to produce (as in present) something that defies words.

Some people will not be struck dumb. I made this point in my talk, albeit backhandedly, that a lot of art aficionados have no access to the experience of art except via a literary style of appreciation. (I also said afterwards that artists who genuinely want to pursue conceptual art ought to do so. My problem was with the academy.) The object that can inspire silence is necessary, but so is the viewer capable of silence.

I have to add that Ken Johnson is not one of my favorite people. His review of Anthony Caro at the Met was a hatchet job and late last year, when faced with the question on how to program the arts on Governors Island, he denigrated four successful artist-run efforts and called for yet another biennial. Among critics, no one defends art-world establishment values harder than Johnson. That is itself a kind of conservatism apart from where he might fall on a political spectrum.

5/05/2011 03:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

What REALLY, is conservatism? Other than a no or a wet blanket.

Are you, Edward, hinting that you are giving Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump a show? Are they conservatives or caricatured clowns of "Conservatism"?

I feel (somewhere down deep) deludedly perhaps that without the racism, homophobia and xenophobia your average tea party person is just an underpaid family man or woman trying to raise their children in a healthy environment but are co-opted by the "clowns" through their own misguided fears.
I admit that as a very heavy-handed and perhaps even circular way to see it; and if you can step outside of that argument to enlighten me of another view then I'm interested to see it.

Otherwise, maybe it's fundamentalism more than conservatism that is providing a shock factor.

5/05/2011 04:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The saying “Preaching to the choir” keeps coming to me when I think of the art world right now and especially with, so called, political art but, I have to say, also with a lot of other work out their right now which claims to be highly conceptual, deeply researched based or... just rock ‘n’ roll fashion art (or whatever one calls that).

The thing is most people, most real people (in other words people not in the art world) don’t give a !*#%$ about art and especially art that doesn’t fit their definition of what art should be and should look like. So when an artist is telling us that he/she is making this/that to bring awareness to whatever cause or to challenge peoples’ perceptions or to uncover some lost history then most people are yawning while the people in the art world are scratching their collective chins and comparing/contrasting it with something that they saw briefly in a coffee table book but didn’t read cause it was written so obtusely as to hide the fact that the author really had nothing to say about it.

When we all basically agree with each other inside this bubble of the art world and the rest of the world looks on at us and what we do with bemusement then maybe there is something wrong. I don’t think the answer is to just let the other people with opposite politics or opinions into the bubble, I think maybe we need a pin.

5/05/2011 06:30:00 PM  
Blogger Kerry said...

I think the new coming conservative is really just classical liberalism. It's where I see myself standing. This seems to be more of a natural way of living and organizing ourselves into a civil society where respect for life and unalienable rights are the norm. In it's basic form it's live and let live. In fact, I think many today who view themselves as "liberals" hold dear the philosophy of classical liberalism but confuse it with being a progressive liberal - which is really nothing but more of the same oppressive, warmongering, police-state government that this living earth generation has experienced so far. Dunno what Ken is afraid of, but it worries me that he's a gatekeeper.

5/05/2011 09:31:00 PM  
Blogger Rachel Harvey said...

This is an interesting concept that I have personally been grappling with recently while struggling to describe my art and why it is important-- all in the context of grant proposals. Being smack in the middle, as opposed to outside, the "box," it's a challenge to be "interesting."

Amongst other things, I've decided I'm an environmental artist-- I paint it, pure and unadulterated. My work may not be the latest thing, but it's what you want to look at after a long day's work: a reconnection with the natural world.

5/05/2011 09:40:00 PM  
Blogger Kerry said...

Ed, correction needed for comment poster named Kerry. I misread your last sentence and I'd like to correct my post by deleting the last sentence. Sorry for the mix up.

5/05/2011 09:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My definition of conservative art would be Fine Art. I could never live with a Francis Bacon or Mark Rothko painting, they are to fucking heavy. I could live with beautiful landscapes or old masters.

5/06/2011 11:27:00 AM  
Blogger markcreegan said...

Some conservative political art proposals:

1) Two Clocks on the wall, side by side, totally different looking and set at different times. Title: Its Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve.

2) The artist is underneath a fake floor in the gallery, he is repeating this sentence: "Abolish the Estate Tax Now!"

3) A neon sign that says: Drill Baby Drill!

4) An artist group called John Birch Society Foundation conducts a social practice work called "Charter School", they distribute vouchers in front of the Whitney.

5) A film of Atlas Shrugged, oh yeah...check.

5/06/2011 12:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there really much "conservative" art out there? Although there are exceptions, I just don't see any Teabaggers thinking that art is a useful or justifiable expenditure of time, money or thought

5/06/2011 01:38:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

The avant guard isn't quite dead, it's just wearing a different cloak. The whole dialogue Ed presented is taken from an obvious late 20th century perspective of a bunch of intellectuals on their way out. The term "conceptual" has had its meaning blurred to indecipherability. Time to jettison everything and rethink the problem from the current perspective.

5/06/2011 02:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

a little further afield. In terms of the escalating debate between liberalism and conservatism an intriguing concept on "political" positions or 'intellectual" positions is introduced over at

The concept goes like this:

Reasoning is generally seen as a mean to improve knowledge and make better decisions. Much evidence, however, shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests rethinking the function of reasoning. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade.

imagine - the whole debate is actually just about being able to debate It won't stop one from taking positions or arguements, but it does put it all in an intriguing light.

5/07/2011 08:25:00 AM  
Anonymous David Richardson said...

I agree with George. The avant guard is elsewhere, and we don't really see it just yet. I think conceptualism has been so absorbed by artists, the art establishment, and is so relentlessly pumped into art students that it is everywhere, in every effort, and so only draws attention to itself when it is really weak (99% of the time) or possibly really good (I'll try to think of an example).

I love the Beckett quote Ed posted above. "To restore silence is the role of objects." ---Samuel Beckett
Absolutely love it.

Thinking of conservaticism that could be radical I offer one of my favorite quotes: "The challenge of the age is to maintain ordinary sensibilities" - Issey Miyake.

5/07/2011 10:56:00 AM  
Blogger Balhatain said...

Wow. When I mentioned some of the problems with political bias based on specific social themes I was stamped as a "conspiracy theorist" among other things.

I do think that conservative themed art is 'out there'-- and I don't think it is all just "Jesus art" or dull. Conservative themes explored in art does not mean that the method of creation has to be conservative in the traditional sense.

Here is an article I wrote about it--

5/08/2011 10:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Ries said...

In the art world, an orthodox conservative pretty much draws the line at representational art. With representational art, its also easy to apply the capital Q word- Quality.

This is why artworld conservatives hate Duchamp so much. He did two very important, transgressive things-
First, he realized that the corporate capitalism of the industrial revolution was separating the craftsman from the product. In an industrial setting, capitalism no longer needs trained, skilled, certified craftsmen- and so, it can free itself of the profit draining guilds, and use human beings as interchangeable button pushers.

Duchamp separated the art from the craft- previously, artists had to be excellent craftsmen first- skills in draftsmanship and paint handling were imperative to be allowed to even try out for the Academy.

But Duchamp’s genius was creating art that did NOT require craftsmanship. The invention of the found object, and the elevation of pure idea changed everything.

Artworld conservatives hate this. When they use the codeword “conceptual”, what they are really saying is that it cannot be art unless it is based on hard won craftsmanship, on drawing and painting and sculpting skills.

Obviously, every work of art has an underlying concept- Vito Acconci masturbating is no more “conceptual” than the Mona Lisa- but where the two differ is in the former being essentially all idea, and no craft, and the latter being completely reliant on craft to convey the artistic concept.

When Duchamp said ideas, words, text, and even found objects could be art, he ripped the roof off the sucker, and it is impossible to rank ideas hierarchically the way you can objectively say that this bowl of fruit is more realistic than that bowl of fruit. If there is no agreed upon standard, then all we have is opinion- which is exactly what Duchamp wanted to point out, and which burns the conservatives so much.

Amusingly enough, it was the guilds, and the academy, which are the antecedents to present day Unions, that were the conservative bulwarks against heretical art. And Duchamp was anti-Union, to say the least.

The other thing Duchamp seized upon was to take advantage of the way industry and capitalism made workers free agents- initially so they could be paid less, and tossed aside when used up. But Duchamp saw that an artist as free agent could break free of the academy, of the requirement that an artist work in an approved style.

Of course, previous to Duchamp, there had been the occasional maverick- but they were poor, unknown, and shunned for the most part. Artists who wanted to be paid for their work had to affiliate with a power structure- usually a religious or political one, which were often the same thing, and make art that reinforced the party line. Certainly there were some excellent artists that chose this route, as the only real way to make art for a living- there are some damn good paintings of fat burghers and baby jesuses out there.

Politically, governments have always used art as propaganda to support their positions and agendas, from Cathedrals to campaign posters. Interestingly enough, both left wing and right wing art looks and functions essentially the same. Hitler and Mussolini, or Stalin and Mao all abhorred abstraction, the art of ideas, and artists as free agents. They all endorsed and supported realism, irony free and happy.

Conservative Art looks just like Communist Art. And the people that conservatives describe when they use the epithet “liberal” are exactly the same people that Mao called “reactionaries”. Ai Wei Wei would no doubt be reviled as a “liberal” if he lived in the USA.

In fact, the most innovative, challenging, and interesting artists are not on the right, or on the left, but firmly in the middle. Centrist governments, which are generally social democratic, have produced almost all the “modern” artists since the 19th century.

5/14/2011 12:47:00 AM  

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