[-empyre-] The Circus Is in Town
jhaber at haberarts.com
Sun Jan 3 01:17:15 EST 2010
The Circus Is in Town
To really get started today with first of three parts to the argument,
before the language lessons, the plight of the artist. As I say, if it
seems too familiar, feel free to skip ahead or come back tomorrow, but
it does connect, honest!
Now, 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 and museum blockbusters as
modern-day to 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. 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, who began respectively in commercial art and on
the street -- and who never let one forget it. Nonprofits increasingly
play by the same rules. 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. Attributions to Velazquez,
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 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 cliche 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 tomorrow to the word itself.
More information about the empyre