[-empyre-] Unfolding Complicity

John Haber jhaber at haberarts.com
Tue Jan 5 01:01:57 EST 2010

Thus far, then, complicity in art seems two sided in its implications, 
but clearly distinct from other characterizations, with roots all its 
own. In fact, the more one looks, the more artists sound guilty as 
charged, and the more artists ought to want it that way. Fried was 
really rejecting a kind of complicity in Minimalism -- as an interactive 
art form. Like much performance art and digital art, it needs the space 
of the work and its audience to complete it. In contrast, the real 
guilty parties tell the audience to shut up, listen, and applaud their 
work's scale, expense, and commodity value. When Urs Fischer has a 
tongue stick out of the wall of the New Museum, the crowds near the hole 
wash out the interactivity, just like the crowds for Koons's overeager 
"Puppy” in Rockefeller Center.

Take just one last set of roots, however, for an additional sense of how 
wrong it is to apply an institutional critique without nuance. Explicit, 
implicit, and complicit all start with the idea of a ply, or fold. The 
explicit folds outward -- or unfolds like a narrative. The implicit 
folds inward, so that one must tease it out. The complicit literally 
folds with or alongside a system. This puts complicity in the awkward, 
guilty, and yet promising position of working with things as they are 
while not becoming absorbed into them.

Explicit art claims to stand outside the system but cannot always keep 
its promise. At the same time, implicit meanings, including irony and 
ambiguity, depend on an ideal of fine art's complexity that may no 
longer apply. Complicity's meaning makes clear why it is so hard to 
escape and so dangerous, yet not always fatal. Folds can lead to the 
essential tears and fissures. They also suggest multiplicity -- so that 
one can learn to speak not of the system or the art world so much as 
systems and art worlds. This is why institutional definitions of art 
break down, since no one is in charge of board certification or counting 

All this folding and refolding also has a history, apart from the 
dictionary. For Marcel Duchamp and Dada, appropriation promised, 
explicitly, to make the whole idea of fine art obsolete. When the 
"Pictures generation” repeated the strategy, it allowed art to exist, 
but with criticism as its implicit content. When the Young British 
Artists did it all once more, its shocks no longer aspired to criticism. 
Rather, Damien Hirst, the Chapman Brothers, Tracey Emin, and Chris Ofili 
all rub one's nose in the realities of sex, death, ritual, and 
consumption -- while putting themselves on center stage. That puts them 
in the insular tradition of such British artists as Francis Bacon, and 
many find them decidedly complicit.

Complicity is more and more difficult to escape. A folding over could 
stand for the increasing ability of the system to enfold and encompass 
anything. A top mainstream critic on his Facebook page, Jerry Saltz, 
recently offered to read artist statements and prune them of "abstract” 
words. In print, he also called "Puppy” the work of the decade -- with 
such adjectives as "perfect,” "powerful,” "glorious,” and 
"phantasmagorical.” I shall take discourse on the society of the 
spectacle anytime. Again, vital critical vocabulary is under suspicion 
along with art, and good readers should know better.

 From Duchamp to shock art, no single strategy retains its power, but a 
strategy for art also opens new meanings with each incarnation -- what 
followers of Jacques Derrida have called iterability or citationality. 
One may worry that shock art has proved wrong the previous versions, as 
escape from art or as criticism of art and society, but with luck each 
citation actually multiplies critical vocabularies of the future. 
Alongside new media, old media become new. One can only ask for a 
self-conscious complicity, one determined to divide and multiply art 
worlds. One last lesson of the word "complicity” is that art is always 
both a private and public affair. It has greatest interest when it folds 
both inward and outward at once, which is why I conclude a longer 
version of this on my Web site with a review of some artists, the Bruce 
High Quality Foundation, who give it the old college try by making 
gaming the system their art.

Want a moral or two to make sense of this? One is that in the past it 
was plausible to set a strategy to avoid complicity. You could set 
yourself apart from commerce, or you could embrace it as a storyline. 
Neither seems all that transcendant any longer, although they might lead 
to some good art. But the upside is more strategies available to address 
complicity. And, second, it's still possible for those of us not making 
art to pass judgments, even if that doesn't set us above the artists.

John Haber

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