Art beyond left, beyond right, beyond Utopia
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Just when I thought I’d figured out how to unravel the pretzel logic of Damien Hirst’s latest exhibition (he hires people to make lousy paintings, which means they’re actually really good paintings masquerading as lousy paintings, and the worse people think they are the better and more valuable they become?), I come across David Levi Strauss’s piece “Considering the Alternatives: Are ‘Artists’ Really Necessary?” in the April issue of the Brooklyn Rail. As someone who appreciates irony, I must confess there’s a danger to the practice wherein Levi Strauss unintentionally bounces off truths while trying to confound and entertain the local cognoscenti.
To begin with, these artists or poets he speaks of have been a pain in the ass since the beginning of time, at least since Socrates. In Plato’s Republic, another hilarious work of ironic satire, the Socmeister suggests that we blow the poets kisses, place a victory cap on their brow, show them to the city gates, and make sure they get the hell out of town. They still haven’t gotten the hint.
Taking issue with the posited notion that Americans “love art,” Dave Hickey has stated that “Americans don’t like art. Get used to it.” It could be argued that they feel this way because they are ignorant, or insensitive. Actually they don’t like it because they don’t need it, and they don’t need it because they have achieved that goal sought by the great philosophers and economists from Hegel to Marx to Galbraith, namely, Utopia! Yeah, that’s right, Utopia.
All this didn’t begin on September 11, 2001, no way. A warp in the matrix began about a hundred and fifty years earlier in that town where lots of wacky things get their start, Paris. Gustav Courbet had the audacity to actually attempt to put art at the service of “realism.” To compound this outrage, he thumbed his nose at the academy by exhibiting the paintings they refused to display at the Exposition Universelle of 1855 in his own private “Pavilion of Realism.” Here’s the rub: this artistic search for the “real,” this quest for the “truth,” begins a strange metamorphosis. Although controversial from its inception, and given its interpretations through the likes of Cézanne, fifty years later Courbet’s “Realism” is cited as the source for the beginnings of cubism by Gleizes and Metzinger as well as Guillaume Apollinaire. So now the bizarre changes begin. Realism begets impressionism, which begets cubism, which begets abstractionism, which begets minimalism, which begets conceptualism, which in essence negates visual art as a practice. How did realism end art? By exposing the illusion that is art. By deconstructing the elements that create illusion and learning how to manipulate those elements to create whatever you want. Illusion becomes myth, myth becomes dogma. Unleash your hounds of dogma, you won’t need them here in Utopia.
According to Harold Rosenberg, there is no “right wing” in the art world, there is only the art world or “the Academy.” I’d extend the “dark side” to any institution that seeks to ossify or bureaucratize any aspect of art or subjugate it to other interests such as philosophy, business, religion, politics, science, etc. Like it or not, you’ve been gerrymandered into Utopia, and the unique physics of Utopia state that ideas must whimsically morph into their opposites. Here’s an example: The feminist movement of the late 1960s struggled valiantly for years attacking “the myths of (male) genius and mastery deemed necessary to the making of art; the lack of social expectation of achievement and ambition for women.” Now women have made remarkable inroads in all aspects of society, and yet the most acclaimed piece of “feminist art” that’s come down the pike in years, the epitome of this struggle, is Andrea Fraser’s “Untitled,” a video in which Fraser charges a male “collector” $20,000 to have sex with her. Utopia.
Similarly, earlier this year Chris Burden suddenly resigned his professorship in protest from UCLA. Why? A student pointed what was believed to be a loaded gun at his head during a “performance art piece.” Burden thought that the administration was wrong in not taking “appropriate disciplinary actions” against the student. This coming from an artist who virtually made his career by having himself shot by an assistant in one piece and firing several shots from a pistol at a 747 on approach to LAX in another. A gun enthusiast artist having second thoughts? Utopia.
On April 10, 1969, at an official public hearing, the Artworkers Coalition declared, “All persons who regard themselves as artists are artists, no matter what their activities.” During an appearance on Scarborough Country defending the above mentioned “Untitled” by Fraser, Jerry Saltz asserts that “if the person is an artist and they say it’s art, the agreement is it’s art.” There it is, folks, anyone who regards himself as an artist is an “artist,” and anything they say is art is “art.” Yes, we have arrived in Utopia. It was never a question of whether “artists are really necessary,” but what it means when everyone is an “artist” and everything is “art.”
Here in Utopia, all our problems fade away. Worried about grad students becoming art stars before they’re twelve? No problem. Now we can enjoy the experience as they slip back into grumpy uncommercial obscurity while they’re still young enough to enjoy it. Those resistant dissenter artists will live in communities where all the people are resistant dissenters. Who do you resist and dissent against when everyone is a dissenter? Those unsightly detainees, they’re actually participants in “time based performance art pieces.” See how life is simplified here in Utopia?
Now that we are all artists, the worst charge that can be made against any of us is not crimes against humanity, or injustice, or suppression. Now the worst thing we can be charged with is making “bad art” or maybe “really bad art.” As for the free market, what we really want here in Utopia is a free market of ideas. Yes, we’ve arrived in Utopia. Was it worth the trip? Restless pioneer that I am, I’m ready to tie my dogma to a tree and move on. Next stop, ARTOPIA.
JAMES KALM has written extensively on the Brooklyn art scene. In 2006 he began posting video reviews of local art exhibitions at his two YouTube channels that have generated over six million views.