The Main Event

John Haber
in New York City

Political Art after 9/11: Part I

I am not a political columnist. I shall merely state my own conviction that I write, just days after the November 2004 election, in the wake of yet another disaster that art failed to prevent.

Can art do better? Must it? Anna Somers Cocks seems to think so. "Why," she demands, "is art not reflecting world events?" Her article, from The Independent for June 17, 2004, sees "no artistic engagement with the big, threatening issues that hang over us." It looks even better in print journalism's headline font. Sargent's The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1882)

If Cocks cannot find political protest anywhere, Roger Kimball, managing editor of The New Criterion, sees it everywhere. "Increasingly," he claims, "art history is pressed into battle—a battle against racism, say, or the plight of women or on behalf of social justice. Whatever." His new book, The Rape of the Masters, denounces a supposed cabal of leftists that has taken over art history and driven out the art. "What," he wants to know, "has happened to the main event?"

Choosing sides

Surely both cannot be right. They beg one to choose sides in a crucial debate, a debate as familiar from politics as from art. The debate concerns the very possibility of art at the intersection between personal expression and the public sphere. Can it become reductive or meaningless? Must it? Or can it restore urgency to protest in the face of "zero tolerance."

In politics, the left wants the excluded to speak, while its proclivity for self-consuming debate can easily make any speech inadequate. On the right, the rhetoric of McCarthyism has translated effortlessly into a world without even a Red menace: a powerful enemy still lurks and still determines every response. As in politics, too, the dissemination of Kimball's new book, through articles, excerpts, and interviews in his own and other publications, reflects the cool efficiency of the conservative media machine. And, just as in politics, all too many people tune out the whole thing.

Naturally art and politics often have some of the same dynamics. Postmodern and feminist assaults have done well to hit art institutions hard. That includes not just museums, but the styles and personalities associated with representation and Modernism alike. Meanwhile, one after another backward-looking introduction to art promises a respite from the culture wars, in the simple comforts of Romantic expression, pleasure, and plain old good taste—which I myself have been trying in vain to lose for years. And all the same, the art market grows, museums expand, audiences follow suit, and it takes a determined mind to care about disputes at the edges. A site like this one can hardly avoid tracking all those issues month after month.

And that, I want to argue, is exactly how art does choose sides—by getting down to work, work that no critic can honestly disentangle from the world. For all their differences, Cocks and Kimball share a curiously literal and sadly conservative view of art and ideas. Both see politics and ideas as necessarily remote from personal passions. Both see politics as about choosing sides and art as about seeing both sides of the story, and both find those incompatible. One writer wants to recover the connection between politics and art, and one wants to sever it. They should ask instead whether artists in this world can ever avoid it.

This essay pursues the argument in theory. In a second part, I shall turn to some recent exhibitions. However, I am in fact debating whether theory can exist apart from practice and vice versa. If then, as both sides have it, politics requires the earnestness of a detective story, first the facts.

For starters, then, Cocks has it wrong: artists have repeatedly engaged the post-9/11 world with authority and humility—year after year after year after year after year after year after year. They have fought public opinion to deny what has become a distracting cliché, the necessity of silence after the Holocaust. And that does not even take one to the intense months before and after the American election. For a time, it looked like the Drawing Center might yet risk conservative wrath by affirming art's place at Ground Zero.

Ordinary mortals, ordinary art

Does that settle it, then? Does it make Cocks plain wrong and, perhaps, Kimball plainly right? Not if one takes their words seriously. Not if one has to travel to academia and ignore art markets, as when Kimball drives to Bard College. By political art, neither really means what I shall describe in the accompanying review—toy soldiers, desert sand boxes, and laughter at smoking guns. And that is where their rhetoric starts to merge.

True, Cocks notes, artists are engaged socially, as individuals and as celebrities, helping to raise money for the cause. Paweł Althamer uses the occasion of his retrospective to stage a coat drive for the Bowery Mission, while also frankly including pained self-portraits. They also, she notes, continue to offer political commentary in their art, especially in America. That still, however, leaves the hard work undone.

"One would have expected an intense blast of production if artists wanted to live up to the role in which they have been cast for over a century—as exponents of humane and liberal values, as revolutionaries, gadflies, the ones who see further than ordinary mortals." Art does not do its job, it would seem, until artists transcend their humanity. In this context, a show calling itself "Love/War/Sex" sounds pitifully human.

Kimball would surely agree. One can see it in his stance, above the personal, social, and political attachments of Cock's "ordinary mortals." Recall that "battle against racism, say, or the plight of women or on behalf of social justice. Whatever." Whatever. Seen one injustice, one minor obstacle to unregulated markets, seen them all. No wonder, Kimball's hatred of feminism aside, his title so casually invokes rape.

Both propose to rescue art by raising it above art itself. Listen to them again. Here is Kimball: "The result is that art becomes an adjunct to an agenda: an alibi for . . . you can fill in the blank by consulting this week's list of trendy causes."

And now Cocks: "Here is the problem. So much art is currently dependent on ideas, so accustomed to being a fleeting metaphor that it is hardly visual at all. It is like trying to oppose the image of the Twin Towers with a pun." And that indeed is the problem. Neither has time for ideas, metaphors, puns, and play, when that is exactly what art involves—political or otherwise. An artist like Paul Chan can oppose the image of the Twin Towers with a pun on unearthly domains that Cocks could never imagine.

Plain speaking and high seriousness

Art's free play has at least one lesson: as deconstruction teaches, what one excludes may offer more insight into one's meaning than what one leaves in. Consider, then, each critic's agenda, starting first with Cocks. She tells artists—among the few people left who do not necessarily do what they are told—what to do. And she does so in the name of sticking up for the right of people opposed to imperialism not to do what they're told.

Logic aside, the demand has some problems. Cocks does not exactly tell artists what to believe or what message to convey. That would look obviously suspect. She asks merely for attention to events. Yet she asks implicitly for far more. After all, one can rule out as propaganda the contrary demand—that artists churn out patriotism.

Her demand also overlooks much actual political art, including the puns and images on which they thrive. I should like still greater recognition that all art is tied up in political forms, institutions, and beliefs. Cock's demand implicitly rejects that. It is too subtle to count.

A richer awareness of political art, like my singling out these opposing critics, need not mean taking left and right, then splitting the difference. Rather, Cock's call hardly aligns her with a meaningful political stance at all. Instead, it amounts to a stance on art's form and audience. It ends up implying that artists have a duty not to any particular message, but rather to communicate more plainly. Perhaps critics and lecturers should be explicating more plainly instead.

Cocks serves as a reminder of a transatlantic gap. A New Yorker takes protest, cynicism, and creativity all in stride. As I found in London last year, what to an American may seem like adolescent shock art there often carries a weighty message. Ironically, British Postmodernism and the Royal Academy, where Cocks continued the debate in a symposium, share a tradition of high seriousness.

The British perspective adds insight. If Damien Hirst considers his art a meditation on institutional permanence and mortality, viewers should see more—or at least hold him to higher standards. However, in the wrong hands, the same perspective can blind one to art and politics alike.

The politics of taste

Not surprisingly, political conservatives demand much the same blindness, only more shrilly and simplistically. "In a word," Kimball writes, "what we are witnessing is the triumph of political correctness in art history." If the language of politics is already intruding, his very title shows no qualms about that. The Rape of the Masters appropriates a feminist issue to denounce feminism and to defend a male conception of the artist as master. The subtitle, How Political Correctness Sabotages Art, makes anyone who questions that a terrorist.

Kimball's overt argument starts with selective, anecdotal evidence. He makes a single article on John Singer Sargent, for example, stand for academia as a whole. Note already the reduction of scholarship and Sargent's watercolors or artist portraits to a party line, in hope of replacing it with another party line. Real journals publish scores of articles that will vanish from memory, because that is what the university is all about—a process of dialogue and discovery.

Next comes the caricature of everyone involved. T. J. Clarke, who has brought so much new critical life to what he called "the painting of modern life," becomes the kind of Stalinist who dismisses Impressionism as a bourgeois fallacy. Hirst, so often derided by the mainstream as well as the left for embracing consumer and celebrity culture, here becomes a shallow leftist satirist of exactly that. And never mind that, in his own opinion at least, Hirst seriously attempts to grapple with art's relationship to such humanistic concerns as memory, transience, and mortality. For that matter, never mind if Sargent's family portrait—the girls gloriously at sea beside inanimate but lovely Asian vases in an ill-defined, dark room—does everything but simply praise the majesty of Boston wealth.

Finally comes the hypocritical combination of nostalgia and avoidance—of appealing to a lost past while refusing to articulate Kimball's own charged demands on the present. One never gets a chance to ask what kind of art he does admire, somehow gutted of any engagement with the world other than the exercise of good taste. The appeal to the good old days against the alleged political elite becomes an excuse to promote an elite political agenda of his own.

Kimball's previous essay collection hammered home that same message, under cover of a repeated, unexplained, and unexamined appeal to beauty. William Bailey's work, he promises, has the virtue of beauty, from the delight of first looking to the growing perception of its measure. So does Mark Rothko's, once one dispenses with lesser work from the dregs of Rothko's estate. A retrospective of Kazimir Malevich allows one at last to see in his abstractions not "mysticism" or "revolution," but beauty.

I do not have a problem with calling their art beautiful—even though most artists I know, including abstract artists, have little or no interest in satisfying that ideal. I have a problem with using charming adjectives as a substitute for understanding. I have a bigger problem still with using them to bludgeon art and its admirers that dare to question facile, repressive understandings and the world they represent. Kimball only pretends to slam political art and criticism. In reality, he uses art criticism to assert a political position, one dedicated to salvaging even Malevich, a Communist and a Russian nationalist, for the cause of tastefulness. Kimball is practicing precisely what he denounces, with a vengeance.

The play of images

Even the most earnest pleas for art to turn to politics or to beauty have an inherently conservative cast. I mean not just by restricting artistic freedom. I mean not even by holding up an academic ideal of illustration—or, conversely, of formalism. I mean by ignoring the range of engagements that art and artists always have, in theory and in current practice. Cocks and Kimball argue for a ham-fisted notion of political art, which may be why they overlook how politics and memorials enter every Biennial and every public display.

Artists have every right to do the best they can with what they know and what they have. They must even know when to abstain. I, too, have not found it necessary—or practical—for my life to grind to a halt while I excoriate George W. Bush, satisfying as that would be. "It is impossible to overestimate the power of images to shape history," Cocks writes. One could easily forget that images can numb or overpower the mind as well.

No doubt any attempt to stimulate emotions, the intellect, and perception is making political progress. Two cheers for formalism, even now. But equally important, the most truly human response to the real world can take more time and nurturing than Cocks allows. In my reviews, I have repeatedly hoped to suggest how art of the past has anticipated the harshest of postmodern criticism—and how the same criticism can find greater meaning in art of the past. If art responds better to history a year from now, it may shape history all the more.

Conversely, if criticism looks amateurish or cartoonish to Kimball, so does most of what one encounters in gallery-going. It is certainly far from his straw man of rabid Marxists directed from above by the art world Comintern. Ah, for the days of a real enemy—but conservatives like things better without the Cold War anyway: now one can invent threats to decency without having to feel bound by the constraints of the actual world.

Political art remains vital, even inescapable. And that is because it always is personal—and always part of the play of images from art and popular culture beyond politics. It is because one can define Modernism only as envisioning futures, even as that very goal makes it seem to many to belong in the past.

Theodor Adorno famously argued that the Holocaust had rendered art impossible. Had my own speechlessness after November 2, 2004, proved him correct? No, for art exemplifies the very necessity of expressing the inexpressible. It does so when Renaissance artist pictures gods in a human world or when a contemporary artist pictures a human world in paint and picture tubes. It does so when it pictures its own embeddedness in the political economics of art. It grows dated only when it chooses to express the expressible today, only to trap itself in the no longer expressible of tomorrow.

A job to do, a dream to dream

Appearances to the contrary, political art is alive and well, and so is talking about political art. It may not get any better or healthier, depending on what one means by well, but it is everywhere. Then again, how could one ever have expected otherwise? One reason is surely the Modernism's ambivalent legacy. It announced the hopes of revolution in Russia and the death throes of liberal democracy in Germany. It proposed the worldliness of the art object in opposition to a specific manifestation of capitalism, kitsch.

On the one hand, it was crushed by politics and denounced by politicians. Its very idealism—in the guise of formalism's reach for the sublime or a violent expressionism alike—grew to stand for escapism. On the other hand, its very practical failures and vocabulary of mass movements in art make it a part of the political history of the twentieth century.

Postmodernism added to the ambivalence. It reintroduced politics, with feminism—or indeed feminisms—and art about blackness. Yet the earnestness alienated politically motivated artists and audiences by turning over too much power to the curators. It rebounded by celebrating diversity, freestyle. It mourned Ground Zero as its home with Isa Genzken. Yet the same groups may object once again, this time for its easy pleasures.

Such criticism has value: it brings art, political or not, back to earth. And it need not narrow the definition of the political, when artists themselves know better. It need not force the political into a tight space between dogmatism and escapism that may not leave enough room to dream. It need not overlook political and economic pressures, precisely when they impinge on artists and shape the conditions of their work. It need not overlook the vast reach of art, precisely when politicians themselves put a new media performance ahead of fact.

The case is akin to another imperfect parallel, between art and science. Scientists have a job to do and a dream to dream. Their work is continually entwined with political consequences. A Nobel Prize winner in chemistry—my own great-uncle—led the first gas attacks, and later scientists developed nuclear war. Scientists investigating environmental damage must at times navigate between academia and industry, and they must speak out in public for what they know. Yet if they drop everything to make science into political praxis, whatever that is, the world is in trouble, but that still leaves room for environmental art.

Both sides should remember the same line: in dreams begin responsibilities. So can changes in conscious awareness, even political conscience. Sometimes only the inexpressible—the cost of lost ideal or a human life—is worth saying. Moral Ambivalence is not the same thing as complicity with the real world or the art world. In the second part of this essay, I shall look at some artists who are saying it.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

Anna Somers Cocks wrote in anticipation of a June 29, 2004, panel at the Royal Academy, London. Roger Kimball's latest title is The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art (Encounter, 2004). Related articles turn to "September 11," the National September 11 Memorial, and the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

 

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