[-empyre-] Guilty as Charged?

John Haber 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.

John Haber

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