[-empyre-] Guilty as Charged?
jhaber at haberarts.com
Mon Jan 4 01:06:43 EST 2010
To pick up from yesterday, language reflects the conflicts in the term's
history. 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 is mere wordplay, but already the
blame game has shown its power -- but also 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 history painting and 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 my 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
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 often felt 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 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 in my installment
tomorrow to go one step past distinct cognates to roots that "explicit,”
"implicit,” and "explicit” share after all.
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