Three Little Words

John Haber
in New York City

The more I live among artists, the more I am convinced that they are fakes from the minute they get successful in the smallest way.
      — Marcel Duchamp (letter to Katherine Dreier, 1928)

The Artist's Complicity

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." Is he right?

In the abstract, at least, I am left deeply pessimistic. I just happen to be at Duke University as I write, where the Nasher Museum is a largely empty tribute to family money. In galleries, though, I often come away elated. There is a break with "purity" these days that opens possibilities beyond 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. Bruce High Quality Foundation's BHQF University (Susan Inglett gallery, 2009)

To escape the trap, it might help to tease out the whole idea of complicit, not mention system. I shall take just three little wordsexplicit, implicit, and complicit. They represent, 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. For a practical example, a related article looks at the struggles of open studios and at artists who can laugh at the system. They also become stars of the show while hiding their names behind a collective, the Bruce High Quality Foundation.

Want a moral up front? First, in the past you could come up with a strategy to avoid complicity, and it mattered deeply to your art. You could set yourself apart from commerce, like much of Modernism, or you could take it as a story line, like much of Postmodernism, so that you could properly address it. Neither seems all that plausible these days, although either can lead to some very good art. Second, that has an upside, though, because old strategies the second time around become new, and artists everywhere these are revisiting old media in new ways. And, third, those of us not making art can still judge it—but that never sets critics above the artists.

The circus is in town

Before I get to the language lessons, let me recap the plight of the artist. It sounds like Postmodernism 101, but it helps to get some recent history before adding another layer. 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 the politics of the art world.

Surely some artists are complicit, or at least other artists and the public like to think so. They 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 see them as a diversion of resources and attention from their own aspirations. And then the public flocks to see them, artists compete to join them, and critics write about them with gusto. They are not hypocrites either, no more than are dealers who hate the art fairs. They honestly deserve to earn a living from what they love.

As for the system, art is a product for sale, in a capitalist society. It is also a successful enough society, give or take human suffering, to profit from even its harshest 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. Flexible (Estate of the artist, 1984)Big museums like MoMA absorb alternative spaces like PS1, while the New Museum now flaunts a star director, a star collector, star artists, and star architects, most blatantly with its sellout display of the Joannou collection. Attributions to Diego Velázquez, Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Vermeer that museums rejected thirty years ago now draw crowds and make curatorial careers.

Art reflects its time and place. Art of the past gave past societies their image, too, and it was often a gorgeous image. 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 see art as at once a product of its age, constituting its age, and rebelling against its age. One can understand Rembrandt as inescapably of the Dutch Baroque and, increasingly, a commercial failure.

Works of art represent, critique, and celebrate life, and that ambivalence permeates art at its worst and at its best. To complicate matters, many people, including many artists in traditional media, think of critical theory as part of the circus. They see lavish installations as heirs to conceptual artists and to conceptual art. It may seem strange to attack artists for thinking too hard, but they do. It might be better to accept one's ambivalence, as part of thinking and feeling deeply about art.

In sum, one can hate the system, distrust the artist or the dealer, and still admire what they do—maybe all the more once one understands the art's compromises with its time. One can see the bad and the good side of the story as two versions of Modernism and Postmodernism. The bad side reflects the insights of Marxism, feminism, gender theory, and other demands for change. The good side accepts a degree of pragmatism and deconstruction. One can see them, in fact, as alternative definitions of complicit, so let me circle back at last to those three little words.

Guilty as charged?

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, I know, but it means that the blame game has its limits. No one would say that the system is explicit in the artist. You can see how lawyers and linguists earn a living, so let me pull out the dictionary and explain this better.

Complicit, for one, seems reasonably clear. Yet it 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 rather nice thing, especially if paid the artist. And this corresponds to the less critical 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. Maybe they could not 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 "postmodern paradox"—how, for all the antagonism, Modernism and its critics keep one another very much alive.

Look up explicit, and its cognates are quite different. Chief among them is to explain. Political art tries to explain something, and so does formalism, by making explicit the nature of a medium. Both promise alternatives to complicity, just as Clement Greenberg distinguished fine art and kitsch. At the same time, art can be too explicit, becoming simplistic—the heart of all the old complaints about formalism and political art alike. Similar associations come with sexually explicit, 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 when it refuses to believe in the imagination. When Michael Fried traced the notion of theatricality from Rococo morality plays 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, suppose next that I go one step past distinct cognates and shared roots, in search of answers for artists.

Unfolding complicity

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 like it that way. Fried was really rejecting a kind of complicity in Minimalism, between the art object and its audience—making it the first truly interactive media. Like much performance art and digital art, it needs the space of the work and its audience to complete it. In contrast, over-hyped artists 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 Puppy in Rockefeller Center.

Damien Hirst's Two Pills (Gagosian, 2004)Take just one last set of roots, for another example 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. 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 the ideal of fine art's infinite complexity for the discerning eye alone—an ideal 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, it still shocked, but it 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.

Yes, complicity is more and more difficult to escape, and everyone is part of the real world, but everyone, too, has a genuine personal story to tell as well, in or out of art. 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, although he has also complained of "Neo-Mannerism." 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 there is also good news: a given strategy finds new resources each time because of its past—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. And yet each citation actually multiplies critical vocabularies of the future. In sum, again one can complain about the present, but can always look to the past with admiration and look to the future for more. One can only ask for a self-conscious complicity, determined to divide and multiply art worlds.

B.C.: Before Chelsea

Have I relied only a wave of developments in critical theory, starting around 1970, rather than just plain looking? Consider next four reasons why I started there—and they will also help explain why critics matter, but not because they are lofty superiors to artists. First, that period heavily scrutinized the "fine arts" and art institutions. It has included October editors in the domain of modern and 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 has continued ever since.

Second, critical theory foregrounded the attack on purity as never before. That includes the ideological purity associated with Walter Benjamin, the formal purity associated with Theodor Adorno, and the idealism associated with Georg Lukacs, regardless of their motives. It makes for a rich 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, a source for John Berger or Rosalind E. Krauss, to the very real museum since Thomas Hoving, including hype, crowds, growth, 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. And that process continues today, with so many works revisiting imagery and abstraction in old and new media alike. We live in interesting times.

Now, you could object, the 1970s were what I shall call B.C.: before Chelsea. One could talk of an institutional and economic "nexus," but then one could visit pretty much all the downtown galleries comfortably in a day. Although Jackson Pollock had made a national magazine long before, the shift from artist to celebrity was only beginning. That includes artists like Hirst and Dash Snow, star architects for museums, the assimilation of alternative museums by major ones, globalization, and the price boom. A Chelsea gallery has had a show of art 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 sells despite the critique, with larger and larger installations and 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 you will just have to visit some of my other reviews for examples and excitement. In sum, complain all you like, but art is a mess, and real people are making that mess with all their hearts—which means that critique will sometimes, just sometimes give way to possibilities and to wonder.

BACK to John's arts home page

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.


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