[-empyre-] Fwd: complicit post

Christiane Robbins cpr at mindspring.com
Tue Jan 5 19:06:56 EST 2010

I admit to feeling a bit overwhelmed by the complexities and  
theoretical commingling coming to light during this past week of this  
welcome discussion  Clearly, there are a number of issues whose  
relevancy is unquestionable – yet whose challenge may deserve a thesis  
or two to appropriately address ( although Sean has offered us a  
terrificly astute articulations!) I only wish that I had the time  
necessary to do justice to the unpacking of the complexities bearing  
on this discussion including, i.e. the inevitable forces of class  
structure and bearings, shifting definitions of modernism, the  
domestication of post-modernism, the institutionalization of  
structuralism, the infusion of post-secondary visual art education  
funded into the public sphere during the late 20thc thus resulting in  
studio art ( and media) practices which occasionally collided and  
ruptured the conventions of working and middle class.  Consequently  
the market was presented with an imbrication - a hybrid aesthetic  
practice - which embedded popular culture signifiers and mores within  
the intellectual legacies of “fine art.”  This is not to forget to  
mention the fluid and tailored minor-cord definitions and  
codifications of “art” being bandied around on this list itself, as  
well as attendant historical, situational and geo-cultural contexts.

So … in the spirit of participation, I’m going to bring up a wholly  
untheoretical premise, which rather indirectly addresses the notion of  
complicity ( as defined as deriving benefit thru one’s willing and  
knowing participation in a particular endeavor) specifically in  
relation to contemporary visual art practices + the 4th/5th paragraphs  
in Johanna's introductory post.  It strikes me that using the  
strategies of relocation and historical reference (primarily from the  
USA, as that is the context with which I am most familiar) may shed  
some minor ray of light.  Somewhat problematically, cultural  
production from the States is being discussed (unquestionably) as the  
global imperative that underscores the logic and capital based  
dynamics of the market.  If my reading is accurate, this is what many  
on this list may be referring to as the art market – + all of its  
attendant tendrils of institutionalization, including the academy.

I find myself infinitely curious as to where such underlying  
assumptions derive – that is, what lies beyond the obvious ( and  
seductive ) drip stream of Art Forum chatter, stylin’ art world  
comings and goings,  as well as the inevitable plethora of incisive  
hip syllabi, bibliographies and theoretical citations.   I question as  
to whether the complicity to which Johanna and others illustrate is a  
new arrival … or is it more simply a much needed throwing back of the  
curtain and exposing OZ – again.

Heretofore, have we ( the representative, collective “we “who populate  
this list) simply fooled ourselves into thinking that we are something  
other than what socio-economic studies and database characterizations  
reveal? Does this nascent awareness of  “complicity” reside more  
within ourselves?  Have the myths embedded in art practices - which  
have donned various cloaks of invisibility for the last 50 + years -  
simply led us into a path of self-deception through a conceit of  
disassociation ?   Have we only now realized that, perhaps, we have  
been wading through the murky realms of cultural constructs and  
production where Baudelaire’s quip speaks to an uncanny resonance:   
“self-delusion is the key to happiness.”

Due to one of my current projects, I have been dragged by my thumbs  
into reading  “Bobos in Paradise …”, 2000, by the neo-conservative  
American pundit David Brooks ( http://books.google.com/books?id=5R6Bx3LRBuEC&pg=PA70&dq=david+brook+%2B+bohemian&cd=1#v 
=onepage&q=&f=false ).   Admittedly, this is an abrupt right turn and  
intellectual ramping down of Adorno + friends…. but one which provided  
a surprising perspective that may be worth our consideration.

Brook’s book offers an explication of his views of today’s “cultural  
elites” – whom he labels “Bourgeois Bohemians” or “Bobos” – and whom  
he defines as a synthesis of bohemians and middle class conformist  
consumers.  His chapters on Transcendentalists and The Culture War  
(pg. 73 – 85 ) have some analogous bearing on this discussion and the  
contested site(s) of the bourgeoisie and the bohemian - who share a  
remarkable resemblance to what has been posited as today’s complicit  
academic artist. Brook’s references the 1960’s book,  Growing up  
Absurd by Paul Goodman who rhapsodizes about the mythological Beats  –  
“ Their main topic is the system with which they refuse to  
cooperate…..” “ Goodman was savvy enough to notice something else  
about the beats.  Though they were dissidents and though they rejected  
affluence and all that, the beats actually lived pretty well. It was  
their spirit of pleasure that made them so attractive.  In a passage  
that brilliantly anticipates the BOBO consumerism of today, Goodman  
observed, The Beat subculture is not merely a reaction to the middle  
class or to the organized system.  It is natural.  “

And then Brooks continues on ….discussing the evolution of the  
Bohemian subculture as it turned into a “mass movement” – suitable for  
the covers of LIFE and LOOK magazine. He locates a binary mirroring of  
these disparate BOBO elements which eventually lead to their ironic  
fusion that seems to characterize the complicit artist/academic framed  
in our discussion this week.

That’s it for tonite - once again, thanks to you all for such an  
engaging discussion –


Begin forwarded message:

> From: Christiane Robbins <cpr at mindspring.com>
> Date: January 2, 2010 10:21:08 AM PST
> To: soft_skinned_space <empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au>
> Cc: empyre at gamera.cofa.unsw.edu.au
> Subject: Re: [-empyre-] complicit post
> Reply-To: soft_skinned_space <empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au>
> Dear Johanna,
> Many thanks for your post which astutely articulates and reflects a  
> number of conversations with friends and colleagues that I’ve had  
> during the past few months.  Specifically, I so appreciate your  
> candor and courage and do hope that your post will open up a space  
> for this productive conversation.... for Sweet Dreams are made of  
> these .... ( apologies for the pun which seems somehow appropriate  
> gesture of nostalgia within the haze of New Years'!)
> Kevin Hamilton initiated an earlier attempt in mid-late November.   
> The resonance of the last sentence in his post stayed with me – “Any  
> thoughts? Maybe a public listserv isn't the safest place to have  
> this conversation? Kevin Hamilton."  I felt a chill as I read his  
> sentence as it fully evidenced the dynamics to which your email  
> alludes.
>  So … now ... thanks to the continuum of Empyre and Nicholas we have  
> the introduction of this topic for January – one which is wholly  
> welcome and necessary.
>  I will respond more fully in the days to come –
>  Chris
> On Jan 2, 2010, at 6:59 AM, Johanna Drucker wrote:
>> All,
>> This is meant as an independent start, not a response to John's  
>> post, which I shall take a look at later today. I just wanted to  
>> make an initial statement here before engaging in discussion.
>> JD
>> Complicity
>> I believe in art and I believe that aesthetic objects and  
>> expressions do something that other things do not. What is the work  
>> that aesthetic objects do and what are the grounds for critical  
>> apprehension of that activity? My answers to these basic questions  
>> does not fall far from the formulations of earlier aestheticians— 
>> refinement of discriminatory sensibility, appreciation of purposive  
>> purposelessness, shock effect that wakes us to experience, and the  
>> opening of the space for experience itself. Works of art and the  
>> work of art objects are remarkable, unique, and provocative because  
>> they give form to thought in material expressions that make it  
>> available to a shared perception. From that, all kinds of cultural  
>> effects follow.
>>             When I titled Sweet Dreams, I was well aware that the  
>> term “complicity” was provocative, suggesting as it does that the  
>> critical stance of moral superiority to “common” or “mass” culture  
>> taken by many critics and artists was being called into question.  
>> But at the same time, I was not suggesting that the acknowledgment  
>> that we are – all of us – part of systems of consumption,  
>> careerism, professionalism, promotion etc. that are the inevitable  
>> apparatus of our conditions of work and existence–meant that we are  
>> necessarily aligned with values of oppression and exploitation. But  
>> I was trying to point out what feels like blindness (even bad faith  
>> at its extreme) in two worlds I know well – that of radical,  
>> innovative art practice and that of academic work focused on  
>> cultural production across the arts and media. I simply wanted to  
>> point out that we are all operating inside the same system that  
>> becomes reified as the object of critical study. None of us are  
>> outside its machinations, nor, if we are honest, outside the drives  
>> and desires it instills in us or to which we subscribe.
>>             I was originally motivated to write Sweet Dreams  
>> because of the enthusiasm I had for contemporary artists whose work  
>> had a playful relation to mass culture that did not begin with the  
>> assumption of negativity that was characteristic of some early 20th  
>> century avant-garde practices. If we revisit Italian Futurism, we  
>> find Marinetti, for instance, fully engaged in mass media as a  
>> thematic inspiration (‘wireless imagination’) and as instrument and  
>> means of realization (the language of publicity, typography of  
>> advertising, use of radio, pamphlets, newspapers as sites and  
>> instruments of the work). Dada and Cubist collage work is not  
>> antithetical to mass culture, but toying with its materials and  
>> their potential as elements of aesthetic expression. Surrealism has  
>> a long career of absorption into fashion, film, popular culture.  
>> While the useful critical tenets of Russian Formalism, particularly  
>> those of Viktor Shklovsky, stress defamiliarization as a way to  
>> recover aesthetic experience from the numbing mechanical effects of  
>> daily life, they are not more focused on mass culture as the enemy  
>> than on other routines and habits. Mass media becomes an object of  
>> critical disdain and denigration with the fearful recognition of  
>> the power of propaganda to create a “mass” whose hysterias are both  
>> destructive and self-destructive. Media studies arises from the  
>> terrors wrought by the first world war, and takes the form we know  
>> best through the writings of the Frankfurt School, particularly  
>> Theodor Adorno, in response to the rise of fascism and the  
>> contemporary free-market demon, the culture industries. But the  
>> legacy of Adorno’s aesthetics is problematic for us because it has  
>> become academic, and because it is premised on a description of the  
>> world and of art that have become formulaic.
>>             I was at an end of patience with watching my university  
>> colleagues self-promote their critical insights through cultural  
>> studies approaches that are intellectually bankrupt and morally  
>> suspect. These are highly educated, well-paid, privileged  
>> individuals with mortgages, retirement accounts, good cars, kids in  
>> private schools, who are brand-conscious style mavens who  
>> constantly produce the same jargon-ridden pablum that promotes the  
>> “critique of mass culture” while living entirely as a dependent  
>> upon it. The hypocrisy of cultural studies as currently practiced  
>> in the academy is repulsive—if you live a bourgeois lifestyle, at  
>> least have the decency to admit that it is a desirable and pleasant  
>> mode of existence, and that the goal of a sane society might be to  
>> guarantee the same level of stability and security for all human  
>> beings. This is not a platform to promote consumerism! But to  
>> pretend that “we” critically enlightened academics, by pointing out  
>> the ideological operations of mass culture, are outside it is  
>> patently ridiculous!
>>               Likewise, I was done with the postures and rhetorics  
>> of “political” artists – whose careerist strategies were all  
>> cloaked in a language of self-justification, martyrdom to their  
>> didactic sense of superiority to the world around them—as if they  
>> were not themselves keen to be promoted as the new celebrities of  
>> an art culture whose hierarchies of fame and rewards are modeled to  
>> conform to other celebrity industries. Didactic art is the bane of  
>> contemporary thought. It is always subsumed to its agenda, always  
>> illustrative, always circumscribed by its assumptions. Activist art  
>> is a different matter, though it walks a thin line between  
>> patronizing benevolence and community empowerment, it can be an  
>> agent of actual change, creating cultural capital and symbolic  
>> force. But whether they are involved in didactic, activist,  
>> escapist, purist, or any other work, artists can’t conceive of  
>> themselves or their work as outside of or superior to the  
>> conditions of their own production. That is all I meant by  
>> complicity. We are all part of the current system of corruption,  
>> destruction, exploitation with all that that means in local,  
>> environmental, global, social, economic terms. You can’t get  
>> outside that. We all work from within.
>> _______________________________________________
>> empyre forum
>> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
>> http://www.subtle.net/empyre
> C h r i s t i a n e   R o b b i n s
> - J E T Z T Z E I T   S T U D I O S -
> ... the space between zero and one  ...
> Walter Benjamin
> " The present age prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy  
> to the original, fancy to reality,
> the appearance to the essence
> for in these days
>  illusion only is sacred, truth profane."
> Ludwig Feuerbach, 1804-1872
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
> http://www.subtle.net/empyre

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