Three Little WordsJohn Haber
in New York City
The Artist's Complicity
Bruce High Quality Foundation University
Are artists, any artists, complicit with a venal, oppressive system? Must they be? Or is the whole idea just more politically correct garbage? To quote Adam Gopnik, "modern art makes its own moral luck."
In the abstract at least, and in museums, I am left deeply pessimistic. I just happen to be at Duke University as I sit down to write, where the Nasher Museum is a largely empty tribute to family money. In galleries, though, I often come away elated. There is still a break with "purity" that opens possibilities without pandering. One can see it in a revival of abstract painting that is not all that abstract, as well as wonderful multimedia and photography projects. Still, it is not as if these efforts disrupt the system, fail to reflect it, or miss being absorbed by it.
It might help to tease out complicit, not to mention system. Take just three little words—explicit, implicit, and complicit. They might sum up, I shall argue, three attempts at escape from a corrupt art world. This is my theoretical side, with a mix of history, philosophy, and language lessons. If that has you looking for an exit, I shall conclude with a present-day test of artists who can laugh at the system. They can also become stars of the show while hiding their names behind a collective, the Bruce High Quality Foundation.
Want a moral or two, then, up front? One is that in the past it was plausible to set a strategy to avoid complicity. You could set yourself apart from commerce, or you could embrace it as a storyline. Neither seems all that transcendent any longer, although either can lead to some very good art. But the upside is more strategies available to address and refuse selling out. And, second, it is still possible for those of us not making art to pass judgments, even if that never sets us above the artists.
Before the language lessons, however, the plight of the artist in the Generation X art world. It sounds like Postmodernism 101, but forgive the recap before I look for another layer of history in the dictionary. If it seems too familiar, feel free to skip ahead! Where Johanna Drucker, to name just one scholar, has taken up complicity with the culture industry, here I shall focus on contexts of politics and the art world.
Surely some artists are complicit, or at least other artists and the public like to think so. Many outside the arts, as well as some critics, think of displays of dead sharks, reality TV about art, and museum blockbusters as modern-day geek shows, with dealers and museums as carnival barkers. Most artists think of them as a diversion of resources and attention from their own aspirations. And then the public flocks to see them, artists compete to enter them, and critics write about them with gusto. These are not hypocrisy, no more than are dealers who hate the art fairs. I know no insincere critics, and artists deserve to earn a living from what they love.
As for the system, art is of course a product in a capitalist society. It is also a successful enough society, give or take human suffering, to profit from even its critics. Auction prices soar for Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, sometimes in collaboration, who began respectively in commercial art and on the street—and who never let others forget it. Nonprofits increasingly play by the same rules, like the Nasher Museum or the move of Jeffrey Deitch from Soho dealer to LA MOCA. Big museums like MOMA absorb alternative spaces like P.S. 1, while the New Museum now flaunts a star director, a star collector, star artists, and star architects, most blatantly with its sellout to the Dakis Joannou collection. Attributions to Diego Velázquez, Michelangelo, Leonardo, or Vermeer that museums rejected thirty years ago now draw crowds and make curatorial careers.
Many critics would go further. Works of art represent, critique, and celebrate, and that ambivalence permeates art at its worst and at its best. In the same way, art of the past gave past societies their image. To complicate matters, many—including many artists in traditional media—think of critical theory as part of the circus. They see even the most palpable, lavish, and visceral installations as heirs to conceptual artists and to conceptual art. It may seem strange to attack capitalism or artists for thinking too hard, but they do.
To complicate things further, critical theory also insists that art reflects its time and place. Art must and it should. And understanding that deepens an appreciation of art past and present. But a deeper appreciation is not the same as mere celebration, for it points to fissures within political and social norms. One can understand Rembrandt as inescapably of the Dutch Baroque and, increasingly, a commercial failure. One can see art as at once a product of its age, constituting its age, and rebelling against its age.
Understandings like these are, again, neither contradictory nor hypocritical. If anything, they are a cliché, and I apologize for having to run through them all. One can see the bad and the good side of the story as two versions of Modernism and Postmodernism. The first echoes Marxism, feminism, gender theory, and other demands for change. The second accepts all the above, plus philosophical pragmatism and deconstruction. One can see them, in fact, as alternative definitions of complicit, so let me circle back next to the word itself.
Language is as tricky as history, because it reflects exactly the same conflicts. If art is complicit with the system, then logically it must also be implicit in the system. Conversely, the system must then be implicit or explicit in the art. This sounds like mere wordplay, but already the blame game has shown some limitations. No one would say that the system is explicit in the artist. You can see how lawyers and linguists earn a living, so I had better pull out the dictionary after all.
If I ask what complicit means, as opposed to implicit or explicit, it seems reasonably clear. It also has a surprisingly distinct etymology. It has a modern English cognate in accomplice. This makes sense, since the system is presumably the culprit, with the artist along for the ride. It also shares roots with a more innocent word, compliment. That, too, makes sense, if one thinks of the traditional role of court portraiture—or the extremes to which Jeff Koons will go to flatter his audience.
Note, though, the distinct ethical associations of a word's twin roots. They correspond to the ethical history that I found in the twentieth century. For many an older Marxist, the system is criminal, with the artist aiding and abetting the crime. In turn, as for Walter Benjamin, the system may respond by betraying its abettors, not just by sentencing artists to prison or death, but also by making such ideas as fine art and originality obsolete. For him and others, before and since, artists can respond as well—by speaking truth to power. Feminism and appropriation art have had just that aim, especially for generation of artists starting in the late 1970s. I felt their urgency again just this past year with Jenny Holzer at the Whitney.
However, a compliment is also a nice thing, especially if paid the artist. And this corresponds to the murkier version of critical theory. People argue no end whether Warhol and his successors compliment or subvert celebrity culture, Cindy Sherman compliments film noir, or Sherrie Levine compliments Walker Evans. Perhaps they would not be able to subvert their inheritance unless they did compliment it. No question, however, that they take the inheritance as a compliment to them. This has to do with what I have called the "postmodern paradox"—how, for all the antagonism, Modernism and its critics keep one another very much alive.
Look up explicit, and its cognates come from other sentences entirely. Chief among them is to explain. Political art tries to explain something, but so does formalism, in making explicit the nature of a medium. Both promise alternatives to complicity, as when Clement Greenberg distinguishes fine art and kitsch. At the same time, art can be too explicit—the heart of all the old complaints about formalism and political art alike. Similar associations come with sexually explicit imagery, as both daring and way too obvious.
Art, then, has an obligation to leave a good deal implicit. To continue the associations, it engages in another kind of criminal conduct, duplicity, and a good thing, too. Plato rejected art for lying, even while he was telling stories, but formalism fails in its own goals of making art's nature explicit by refusing to accept a fiction. When Michael Fried traced the notion of theatricality from Rococo morality tales through Romanticism's inward turn and finally to Minimalism's stark public places, he was asking if one could morally accept fictions. To sort out which of the charges still hold, I want next time to go one step past distinct cognates and shared roots to answers for artists.
Thus far, then, complicity in art has meanings and roots all its own. In fact, the more one looks, the more artists sound guilty as charged, and the more artists ought to want it that way. Fried was really rejecting a kind of complicity in Minimalism—as an interactive art form. Like much performance art and digital art, it needs the space of the work and its audience to complete it. In contrast, the real guilty parties tell the audience to shut up, listen, and applaud their work's scale, expense, and commodity value. When Urs Fischer has a tongue stick out of the wall of the New Museum, the crowds near the hole wash out the interactivity, much like the crowds for Koons's overeager Puppy in Rockefeller Center.
Take just one last set of roots, however, for an additional sense of how wrong it is to apply an institutional critique without nuance. Explicit, implicit, and complicit all start with the idea of a ply, or fold. The explicit folds outward—or unfolds like a narrative. The implicit folds inward, so that one must tease it out. The complicit simply folds, like a poker player afraid to continue, or else it works within the system. This puts complicity in the awkward, guilty, and yet promising position of working with things as they are while not becoming absorbed into them.
Explicit art, like much political art, claims to stand outside the system but cannot always keep its promise. At the same time, implicit meanings, including irony and ambiguity, depend on an ideal of fine art's infinite complexity for the discerning eye alone that may no longer apply. Complicity's meaning makes clear why it is so hard to escape and so dangerous, but it is not always surrender rather than a serious artistic strategy for painters and conceptual artists alike. Folds can lead to the essential tears and fissures. They also suggest multiplicity—so that one can learn to speak not of the system or the art world so much as systems and art worlds. This is why institutional definitions of art break down, since no one is in charge of board certification or counting votes.
All this folding and refolding also has a history, apart from bad wordplay and the dictionary. For Marcel Duchamp and Dada, appropriation promised, explicitly, to make the whole idea of fine art obsolete. But Warhol showed that art could break all its promises and still persist, and when "the Pictures generation" repeated the strategy, it allowed art to exist, but with criticism as its implicit content. When the Young British Artists did it all once more, its shocks no longer aspired to criticism. Rather, Damien Hirst, the Chapman Brothers, Tracey Emin, and Chris Ofili all rub one's nose in the realities of sex, death, ritual, and consumption—while putting themselves on center stage. That puts them in the insular tradition of such British artists as Francis Bacon, and many find them decidedly complicit.
Complicity is more and more difficult to escape. A folding over could stand for the increasing ability of the system to enfold and encompass anything. A top critic, Jerry Saltz, recently offered on Facebook to read artist statements and prune them of "abstract" words. In print, he also called Puppy the work of the decade—with such adjectives as perfect, powerful, glorious, and phantasmagorical. I shall take scholarly discourse on the society of the spectacle over this nonsense anytime. Again, when vital critical vocabulary is under suspicion along with art, good readers should know better.
From Duchamp to shock art, no single strategy retains its power, but a strategy for art also opens new meanings with each incarnation—what followers of Jacques Derrida have called iterability or citationality. One may worry that shock art has proved wrong the previous versions, as escape from art or as criticism of art and society, but with luck each citation actually multiplies critical vocabularies of the future. One can only ask for a self-conscious complicity, determined to divide and multiply art worlds. But have I relied too heavily on a wave of developments in critical theory, starting around 1970, rather than Dada and the Frankfurt School—or just plain looking? Consider next four reasons, with a bit more history.
B.C.: Before Chelsea
First, the end of the 1960s represents a development of critical theory (an increasing buzz word) that scrutinized the "fine arts" and art institutions. While, for example, a short reader edited by Hal Foster, The Anti-Esthetic, included Jürgen Habermas with his framework of communicative action beyond art, other changes in the air included other future October editors in the domain of contemporary art, T. J. Clarke and others in art history, feminism, and media studies. Mainstream American philosophy offers a parallel in the institutional definition of art. This trend continues ever since.
Second, critical theory foregrounded the very attack on purity as never before. That includes ideological purity associated with Walter Benjamin, formal purity associated with Theodor Adorno, and idealism associated with Georg Lukacs, regardless of their motives. I should not wish to focus on them exclusively, but it is useful as history.
Third, critical theory reacted to the realities on the ground. Art had seen Greenberg, with his assault on kitsch and with his Kantian influence. It had seen the "triumph" of American painting and the change from the "imaginary museum"of André Malraux in France, which John Berger furthered to radical aims in Ways of Seeing and Rosalind E. Krauss in her writing, to the very real museum since Thomas Hoving and blockbusters.
Last and most important, critical theory resonated with artists. Artists developed new approaches to appropriation, feminism, new media, Neo-expressionism, and earlier Fluxus, to name just a few. Alongside new media, old media become new.
However, all this was what I shall call B.C.: before Chelsea. One could talk of an institutional and economic "nexus," or some other fancy term, but galleries still lay further downtown, and one could visit pretty much all of them comfortably in a day. Although Jackson Pollock had made a national magazine long before, much was still to come. That includes the shift to celebrity artists like Hirst and Dash Snow, star architects for museums, the assimilation of alternative museums by major ones, globalization, and the price boom. Recently a Chelsea gallery opened a show by twenty-six present and former staff members—surely larger than the entire staff of Soho galleries in 1975.
On the one hand, all this makes critical theory all the more more pertinent, even prescient. On the other hand, art's success escapes the critique. Contemporary art at its most disturbing has continued to reject "purity," with larger and larger installations with slick multimedia, almost like New Year's in Times Square. In other words, be careful what you wish for. One last lesson of the word complicity is that art is always both a private and public affair. It has greatest interest when it folds both inward and outward at once, and I shall conclude with some artists who give it the old college try.
On a front partition in Chelsea, facing the street, hangs a copy of The School of Athens. An unknown hand has covered each face with white paint and beady red eyes. Evidently Raphael has entered his Mannerist phase—and then some.
In a photo in the back room, young men and women cluster on the stairs outside Sufi Books, in Tribeca. For a mask, most wear only a touch of attitude. So which is the Bruce High Quality Foundation, the philosophers or the pranksters? And which is the "Bruce High Quality Foundation University," the wisdom of the ages or fresh blood for a tired art world? The main gallery has a whole circle of blackboards, plus some severely mangled desks and chairs. Welcome to class, and get ready for competing makeup tests.
The artist collective has indeed opened a "free nonaccredited university," right next door to Sufi Books. In keeping with their anonymity, the Bruces enroll students based on peer review, although with some room for guests. Classes this fall included "occult shenanigans" in art and "art history with benefits." They could be offering an alternative to the stranglehold of top MFA programs—or parodying it. The university may not be quite as democratic as it sounds, but do not despair. As one blackboard in Chelsea has it, "In the future everyone will be a foundation."
Obviously the gallery's extension course does not look much like higher education either. The kindergarten blackboards come with accessories, like a noose and sports equipment. Only some, like an abacus or a paperback by L. Ron Hubbard, have much to do with instruction or indoctrination. They also surround a cross between a red-brick school building, minimalist sculpture, and a NASA space capsule. Inside, the music that opened 2001: A Space Odyssey serenades mysterious glass vials. Art could be entering a new age or just lost in space.
The Bruces thrive on site-specific work—like a film about zombies watching movies this past summer, in the theater of an abandoned military installation on Governor's Island. They also countered Christo's The Gates in Central Park, in 2005, by tugging a miniature gate around Manhattan. They were riffing on Floating Island, an unrealized project by Robert Smithson. And there, too, they left open where tribute ends and taunting begins. Not the Idea but the Thing Itself could mean either one. The title, out of Wallace Stevens, has added irony for a team of conceptual artists.
The thought of half a dozen schoolteachers talking at once, one to a blackboard, sums up the ruthlessly controlled anarchy of art now. So do the chalk messages, like "You can't always get what you want, but you can always call room service." I am not so sure about the astronomy lessons, which seem more like an inside joke. The Bruces come perilously close to one as well, although a funny and persuasive one. At P.S. 1, as one of just five contemporary artists asked to contribute to "1969," their piped lectures ignored the surrounding older art and stick to the curriculum. Even the assemblages, like a Ronald Reagan mask hiding a loudspeaker, make the 1960s seem like ancient history.
Have the Bruces gone in no time from gadflies to insiders—or taken both ideas to new levels? Five years back, they offered themselves as hot-dog vendors outside "Greater New York," the show of emerging artists. P.S. 1 has already chosen them for the next version, and they will appear in the 2010 Whitney Biennial, too—which they can then challenge in a "Brucennial." It takes a moment to realize that they are having only their first solo show now. According to another blackboard, "What happens in the art world stays in the art world." Maybe so.
The Bruce High Quality Foundation ran at Susan Inglett through January 23, 2010. The rest of this article began as a contribution to the news group Empyre, on its January 2010 topic of complicity. A related article takes up cultures of complicity with thanks to Johanna Drucker.