[-empyre-] The Circus Is in Town

John Haber 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.

John Haber

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