Re: [-empyre-] Re: what is to be done: the public secret

Warning:  The truth is not out there ….

I am finding myself in a rather remarkably tricky position here given my own history as an artist and cultural producer. Perhaps that is best, as it allows me a measure of validity to take a rather polemic stance in this discussion.

It appears that we have come full circle from the questions and positions which I posed in my initial posting. “It could be suggested that Roger Buergel's laudable utterance of “what is to be done?” is being imagined within a seeming consensual utopian dream for global salvation through the exhibition of various cultural practices. My reading of the subtext of his statement is as a collective consciousness or understanding of art practices as inhabiting the realm of an almost secular spiritualism and, as such, a wish for artists to engage in a somewhat evangelical aesthetic response.

During the course of the past 15 years or so, and especially so in urban pockets of Northern California, I have witnessed a regional cultural specificity of art practices which reflects the imperative and enculturation of a wider political spectrum. It takes the form of revamping mid- 20thc notions of engaging with issues of possibility over those which now demand we engage with issues of necessity … those of survival, of social and cultural welfare, if you will. In other words we ( at least those of us in the US and I suspect elsewhere as we have seen) ) no longer have the luxury of engaging with the “possibility “of intrinsic forms of art practice as we ( at least some of us ) are now necessarily preoccupied with "necessities" required by our own and others survival.

This engagement appears to include:

1. an advocation - a pragmatism if you will - that mirrors a form of 20th c US New Deal-style political activism. Only this time around it is without the benefit of substantive governmental public funding and support. It is now incumbent upon those individuals who can now afford to engage with cultural production to provide such support to those that may not be able to do that for themselves.
Where I feel discomfort is in:

a. the unfortunate glare of neo-colonialism which now is truly privatized within the dynamics of class relationality and cultural practices;

b. The vulnerability of the sustained life of such efforts when they are subject to the fickleness of privatization and the marketplace.

c. The binary opposition of the economics of the art market with those of the narrowcasting of 20thc notions of the social function of art. By this I refer to the seeming inability to see value in art practices other that those of the market value or those of the use value associated with community art practices. Does art practice not have an intrinsic cultural value in and of itself? How does one negotiate and re-situate that meaning within the construct of this binary frame?

2. A charge to American artist and intellectuals (often synonymous with the Left here in the US) to take the fight for social justice out of the ivory tower, out of the galleries and museums and back into the streets … of wherever.

3. That art will rehabilitate an increasingly pessimistic and theoretical liberalism, for which hopelessness has become fashionable... as a viable agent for social change. The affirmation that art practices can offer communities what self-respect can offer individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement - in whatever form that may take.

4. The implication that in order to make meaningful social contributions, artists need to more or less kick their conceptual habit. This may harken back to Melinda’s earlier statement and demand more critical discussion.

Whether an artist/interventionist needs to speak the plain language of Dr. Phil’s "tough love," a political /analyst, or secular theologian of the religion of utopian democracy. At least some artists have chosen the role of active rather than that of passive spectator or the lap poodle with a Mohawk fashionably populating the marketplace.
However, this persistent identification with what is perceived by many to be a liberal/leftist political position ( re: G.H earlier response) locates artists in a seemingly moral high ground - as privileging a particular set of values for art practice and human interaction. It defines an artist as not one who continually advances existing vocabularies ( dominant cultural legacies ) but one who is reinscribing existing social-economic imperatives and, subsequently, must then defend the position created by that reinscription.

This is tricky and becomes increasingly problematized for any attempt to situate an individuated cultural socio- politico- artistic discourse. It is easily ( and often wrongly ) construed as a demonstration that one lacks the broad-based intellectualism, sophistication, courage, enterprise and elasticity this thought requires. It calls for an artist to be pulled in all directions needing to be simultaneously everywhere … and nowhere.

We all need to acknowledge the problematic position that we have created in our attempts to bridge the gap between the conventions of the market place of art practice, social theorizing and political activism. In doing so, this concession is just as much an invitation to enter this labyrinth of the intricately wrought contestations of the art world, as it is an admission of possible conceptual inadequacy driven by the exigencies of social necessity. Certainly, we can justify the compromises of any of these modes of cultural engagement as problematic precisely because they constitute an inscription of a new mode - one that is impossible to validate in the present as “a new vocabulary ... which will have its utility explained only retrospectively". We will only be able to look back from the ever-receding future.

As critic Sande Cohen states in Academia and the Luster of Capital "'Historical thought,'" writes Cohen, "is a way of establishing the power of what is believed to be irreducibly social.... We have to say that past 'victims' nonetheless 'resisted'; we have to say that a better future is possible; we have to say that we are not socially extraneous, but necessary agents of larger processes."

All best,


On Jan 25, 2007, at 10:53 AM, Sharon Daniel wrote:

I just want to say to Henry that I agree - the phenomena that he lists certainly fit the definition of the public secret, particularly because of their apparent intractability. It is difficult to know what is to be done in the face of such overwhelming problems. It is much easier to slip into collective denial. How do we force ourselves to face our own self- annihilation? and at the scale of the problems Henry addressed? The list he posted - his focus on overpopulation and depleted resources - made me think of an interestingly controversial project "A-Portable", a refurbished shipping container that functioned as a mobile gynecological clinic designed by Atelier Van Leishout in collaboration with Dr. Rebecca Gompers, founder of "Women on Waves" in Amsterdam. "A-Portable" was designed to allow Dr. Gomperts to make first trimester abortions available where the procedure is illegal by performing them in international waters - 19km from shore just outside national jurisdiction - free of charge. "A-Portable" was exhibited as a work of art in the Venice Biennale and the subsequent media attention was intended to provoke activism that would lead to legislative change. There were many questions around the actual use of "A-Portable" after the exhibition and initial launch. I admit have not followed the history of the project and I don't mean to suggest that it was a successful intervention but I bring it up merely as an example of a pragmatic strategic approach to both education (direct education in the clinic setting and political education through the media) and activism that operated, in part, in the realm of art practice and exhibition. It also provided a catalyst for legal activism. I was very taken with a quote from the text, which accompanied the exhibition at the Venice Biennale,

"To understand the work one must move from ontology, (what is art?) to pragmatism (what can art do?). Herein lies a possible revival of avant-garde politics - no longer historically "ahead", nor operating through shock and estrangement, but rather producing works that make things possible right now..."

I think that A-portable actually did operate through shock and estrangement and, I think that is why it succeeded in getting the attention that it did - - if it was ever really operative it could also have changed the realities of the individuals and communities it engaged. While I tend to see the latter as much more important there is the problem of scale that Henry's post makes clear.

There are many answers to the question "what can art do?" in productive and practical resistance to the public secret at varying levels of scale - Ricardo's post provides a number of really productive answers in the realm of grass-roots activism and critical pedagogy which do not rely on shock estrangement and do not always get the attention of the art world or media that is necessary to facilitate social change.


Sharon wrote:

There are secrets that are kept from the public and then there are "public secrets" - secrets that the public chooses to keep safe from itself, like the troubling "don't ask, don't tell." The trick to the public secret is in knowing what not to know. This is the most powerful form of social knowledge. Such shared secrets sustain social and political institutions. The injustices of the war on drugs, the criminal justice system, and the Prison Industrial Complex are "public secrets."

OK - here's a few public secrets:

1. There are too many people.
2. We are way into overshoot and unless massive sacrifices are made immediately
in terms of economic and material wealth that is re-directed into mitigation
efforts, the planet will experience a massive die off in the 21st century.
3. Government exists to protect and project the interests of the ruling class.
4. We Are Atlantis.

empyre forum

Christiane Robbins

J e t z t z e i t
Los Angeles  l  San Francisco

... the space between zero and one ...
Walter Benjamin

The present age prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, fancy to reality, the appearance to the essence for in these days illusion only is sacred, truth profane.

Ludwig Feuerbach, 1804-1872,
German Philosopher

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