Brian Dupont: Artist's Texts

An artist's writings on art.

Archive for November 2012

More Questions: On Criticism and Political Art

In the wake of underwhelming critical response to Creative Time’s fourth summit on artistic activism, Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lambert released an open letter to critics writing about political art on their Center for Artistic Activism website. While I begrudge them neither the use of art to maximize the effect of their social activism or their appeal to political consciousness to aid them in finding an audience for their art, I think they oversimplify the intersection of art and activism, how art is seen, and how it is understood. The “art world” is too varied to define so broadly[i]; the interests at play from the various sites are too different. This variety extends to the interactions between criticism, activism, artists, and the body politic. The danger with rendering such simplistic generalizations is that if they ultimately undermine art as a tool to affect the change they seek.[ii]

Creative Time sees the artist as telling truth to power, and there is a long, laudable tradition of such statement within the arts, but such actions do not require inclusion within the bounds of artistic practice. After all many, many artists have participated in political actions[iii] or made work that engage with and challenge social issues[iv], and critics have not found any of this work impossible to address. One may certainly ask if they approached the issues with the same interest and understanding that originated with their aesthetic concern, and that in turn may make it more difficult to assess if the ideas raised have merit.[v] But that then begs the question as to why seek the attention of art critics, instead of more general media coverage that would go farther in promoting their agenda? If their goal (or the goal of any artist – activist) is to effect change, and the form of the work must be promiscuous in order to facilitate that goal, why is it necessary to be art? In laying out their premise it seems that despite Duncombe and Lambert’s claims to the contrary, efficacy becomes a central issue. How do the causes supported by activism benefit from the intervention of an artistic practice? If the “art” is not adding something to the message, it both demeans the art and artist[vi] and obfuscates and lessens the political point.[vii]

A fundamental issue is that if artists are going to entertain the notion that art can address any sort of discourse with the broader world, then the critics who write and think about art must be accorded a separate expression. Work by journalists, poets, philosophers, ethnographers, and even artists may be grouped under the rubric of ‘criticism.’ The term can be taken as any thinking about art and the understanding of its structure, but my reading of Duncombe and Lambert and their desire to make the critic (at least partly) responsible to the work’s social efficacy[viii] reduces such thinkers to mere cheerleaders. It would be a separate matter if they were calling for better or more thoughtful criticism.[ix] I think they would have a hard time finding anyone ready to defend the broad state of current art writing and its interaction with the market as the pinnacle of critical thought, but that does not excuse a call to press criticism into blind service to the goals of the artwork.[x]

The critic is only necessary if the work in question is to be treated as art, rather than activism; the latter finds its apotheosis by its ratification or rejection within the political system, but the former is a set of ideas and relations forever in flux. Whether working for short or long term social gain, activism has a specific and visible political end. On the other hand the point of art is a continual engagement and dialog about the work and the structures around it. Criticism is necessary to further a substantial dialog, but is much less useful within the political organization necessary for successful activism. The revision, doubt, constant examination at the heart of artistic discourse is at odds with political action.[xi]

The new critical tradition they call for would take the “art” out of the discussion of the work of “artist – activists” in favor of a pragmatism more amenable to politics. What is lost with the “art” is the disparate individual interest that drives people to become artists[xii], and for critics to interact with them and their work. Just as it is important to allow for art that embraces the political, space must also be defended for work that does not. Ultimately in asking for an “art that intends to change the very way we see, act and make sense of our world” Duncombe and Lambert have articulated the goal of (nearly) every artist, whether they work politically or not. Similarly, what is needed is not new standards, language, and traditions for critics and thinkers, but only a more careful application of the ones they already have; if the discussion is bigger than art, it’s probably not really a discussion about art.

[i] See my essay Site Specificity: Art & the Mainstream Part 2 for a discussion of the intermingling of various sites within the art world.

[ii] Starting with their assertion that the audience for most art is critics, and through the discussion on tradition, medium, and mastery, the stereotypes and generalizations run thick without any corresponding real world examples. If critics are the audience, then doesn’t the blame ultimately lie with artists for making that work?

[iii] For example, consider everyone who contributed to the Peace Tower, despite its genesis in a period where vanguard art rejected any outward reference beyond pure aesthetic experience.

[iv] Think of the work of Goya, the Mexican muralists, Guston, Golloub, Spero, Chicago, Keinholz, Kruger, Holzer, Wojnarowicz, Weems, Hammons, Steinbach, Saul, the Gorilla Girls, the Art Guys, Gonzalez-Torres…

[v] Another implicit argument is that the political goals and beliefs they espouse are the ones to be championed. Especially in an election year, that seems obviously wrong.

[vi] As they are reduced to the attention grabbing schtick of good advertising.

[vii] As the confused viewer is more concerned about figuring out what they just saw, rather than why it was important.

[viii] One cannot state that questions are good, but then qualify as to the purpose, or speak to the need to aid political art without implicitly drafting critics into their own political ranks.

[ix] After all, who ever really wants to defend critics?

[x] It would be just as unthinkable as forbidding comment or criticism on certain work, and ultimately no different than a state dictating the terms of discussion. In calling for “a world in which artists work collectively in an embedded engagement with society.” Duncombe and Lambert are effectively asking art and criticism to support societal engineering on the scale appropriate to Gandhi or Goebbels.

[xi] Which may be why the Occupy movement had trouble gaining traction with a political procedures based on artistic process.

[xii] Instead of teachers, community activists, or social workers. Just because the interests or job titles overlap is not a reason to collapse them all together into a single pile.

Written by Brian Dupont

November 1, 2012 at 6:55 am