As developed nations actually produce and manufacture less and less, the aggressive expansion of intellectual property should come as no surprise. Defunct companies that produce nothing are bought and sold for fantastic sums for only the patents they hold, so that one mega corporation may sue another or compromise their markets or limit their competition. We are in the business of producing plans and ideas, and thus any notion set to paper may have economic value. Scholarship is not above the fray, and it is more than a little sad to see areas of intellectual pursuit that depended on community interaction and spirited discourse limited by an economic bottom line. As I have discussed in the past , fair use should provide a mechanism for intellectual and cultural advancement within the framework of copyright, yet the mechanism and enforcement of the principal in the law is sorely lacking.
This brings us to the utter ridiculousness of the estate of David Smith and the rights management organization VAGA seeking to impose limitations on the works of Lauren Clay. Clay has made miniature, brightly colored papier-mâché works that reference (or copy) Smith’s Cubi sculptures, and when VAGA executive director Robert Panzer told Artinfo.com that “The importance of a work of art can lose its value when people reproduce it without permission. There’s ethical questions, legal questions here.” he’s right, only that he’s completely wrong. The ethical and legal questions raised are concerned with free expression, not any hypothetical loss of value to David Smith’s estate. When he states that Clay is not “familiar with the relevant legal issues.” he’s essentially assuming his own interpretation of fair use to be law:
“What she did was make them look just like the original,” he said. “Are you transforming it to make a new idea? We don’t think it’s transformative enough. She didn’t make enough of a comment. She just changed the medium. She said, ‘Look, I’m going to make it colorful and pretty.’”
So a female artist has taken sculptures from the cannon of art history that are steeped in overt masculinity and stripped them of their bombastic scale and aggressive materiality by rendering them on an intimate scale in common craft materials? This is essentially the art world’s version of satire, which is clearly protected as fair use. In “making them pretty” Clay has taken a specific form and reversed its meaning by simply manipulating material, color, and scale; if that is not transformative I don’t know what is.
Clay’s is not a deep statement, but it doesn’t have to be to be protected; satire tends to have a limited shelf life after all. The more troubling issue is that nearly any morphology can be owned and any form or geometry can quickly become off limits. It was easy for many to side against Richard Prince as a wealthy artist poaching from a less known photographer and using his work to sell paintings for millions of dollars; but Patrick Cariou’s case of the little guy was ever only going to be the exception. Here we can see the easy abuse of power that will be the common application of limiting fair use. Appropriation may never result in an artwork that is popularly loved, but is a process and principle ever more important to defend for just that reason.
 It plays ‘Hot Shots’ to Smith’s ‘Top Gun.’ (David, not Tony.)
 When one yells that the emperor has no clothes on, once he goes and gets dressed it’s on to the next issue. However as far as the inequality of gender in the art world goes, it’s probably safe to say that the whole business is not likely to be putting a robe on any time soon.
 Which should probably not be a surprise when gene sequences (i.e. life) can be owned as intellectual property.
My essay on the reopening of Donald Judd’s studio after extensive renovations was published in the journal Big Red & Shiny (volume 2, issue 9) originally published on May 20, 2013. You can read it here.
Walking into Cheim and Read feels like visiting a gathering of old friends. Raphael Rubinstein has laid out a thesis for an alternate narrative of painting in the 1980’s that is not unknown, but is still not as recognized as it could (or should) be.[i] The artists he has pulled together all sought a way forward for the medium once the project of modernism collapsed into the late Sixties singularity of Minimalism and Conceptualism and threatened to obliterate it.[ii] The primary historical narrative has painting starting to find its way back with the new image painters, but only managing to reclaim the stage with the emergence of the bad boy neo-expressionists, who seemed to get by on brash youth and an injection of wall street capital that also (not coincidentally) supercharged the market.[iii] But to a man[iv] they were ultimately much less influential to the practice of painters going forward; if there is a hopeful lesson to be found here, it may point to the superficiality of immediate market success, so frustrating to watch from the outside, may ultimately be very limited in its long term historical affect. By contrast the painters of Reinventing Abstraction have had a much deeper and far reaching influence. They were known as painters’ painters[v] even as they were emerging, and as Postmodernism became less of novelty and was assimilated into historical perspective they had more influence as younger artists who found the personal language they employed provided a much more expansive arena in which to operate and find their own way forward.[vi] A certain part of this may lie in the versatility and depth of abstraction as a new[vii] visual idiom, or it may be as simple as the right group of artists intersecting in the right time and place and they just happened to embrace the currents of recent practice. That critical discourse or the market did not immediately embrace them should not disguise the breadth of their accomplishments.
Rubenstein sees a precedent for Reinventing Abstraction and its careful (re)examination of history in the Whitney Museum’s exhibition High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967 — 1975. A show for which David Reed served as an advisor[viii], it showed the breadth of painting practice that flourished in the lofts of lower Manhattan in the wake of minimalism and the ascendance of conceptual art. The artists in lower Manhattan continued to paint and explore ideas opened up by the color field and minimalist painters that were their neighbors, spraying the paint or starting to take its material supports apart to explore the underlying sense of shape. What was conspicuously absent from High Times, Hard Times was an integration drawing as method of creating a subjective psychological space within the painted field. Where the artists of High Times, Hard Times experimented with the possibilities inherent in the varied syntax of the painting as an object[ix], the artists of Reinventing Abstraction let individual facture of the hand reintroduce drawing into their work.[x] Any two marks set beside each other begin to create space and therefore a degree of illusionism and reference; from there it is a short step to the reintroduction of personal forms and subjective symbolism within painting, and the complete rejection of the purity that seemed to be the endgame of modernism. Stuff was back in advanced abstract painting in a way it hadn’t been since the heydays of de Kooning and Guston.
The entire first, smaller room at Cheim and Read brings the reliance on drawing inherent within each work into sharp focus. The works of Terry Winters, Carroll Dunham and Bill Jensen of the time all made use of biomorphic and natural forms[xi] that emerged from a seeming collision scientific imagery with a rediscovery of the pleasures of paint. The combination of painterly process and forms derived from a subtle examination of nature became something of a trend itself within the early Eighties; these three works form a starting point to trends that branch out and carry through the exhibition as a whole.
Winters’ project has always relied very heavily on drawing, and the composition of Point is recognizable as a single piece of paper that fits multiple studies writ large. The scale of his paintings sometimes disguise the affinities they share with the scientist’s notebook.[xii] Leonardo left codices filled with similar drawings that mapped his thought process across the paper, and a number of more recent examples of such studies are currently on view in the WMAA’s show of Edward Hopper’s drawings. The primary forms are not rendered so much as built out of strokes of paint. In some areas Winters employs a heavy black line that reads almost as charcoal drawn over the paint; other areas are scrubbed and washed away in a veil of pale color; it is a testament to his technical understanding of the complexities of his material that the picture is in such immaculate condition after more than 30 years, with little cracking or unintended surface incident that usually comes with pushing the limits of paint to such extremes. Winters’ building up of his forms echoes Stanley Whitney’s gestural brush marks of paint weaving into shapes that oscillate across the surface. It is tempting to see these loose knit forms as being slowly subjected to increasing gravity and further coalescing and refining themselves into the careful grids of colored blocks he is now known for.
Dunham’s composition is roughly determined by his plywood support. The disparate elements are connected and reconciled through a sort of doodling exquisite corpse; tubers and root forms extend from knots and shift in volumetric space as they cross flat bands of color dictated by the veneer grain. The flat demarcations of color carry through in the next room in David Reed’s transparent overlays across enlargements of swirling gesture. The precision of design via demarcation carries through in Jonathon Lasker’s deadpan arrangement of shapes and Jack Whitten’s inscribed geometry and flat rectangles of color.
In The Tempest Jensen’s spore like form floats in a similar space to Winters’ but he takes the primacy of his material further, troweling his paint onto the canvas and unifying the surface under a heavy impasto. Where Winters’ orchestration of surface variation plays to an analytic construction of the image’s components and mostly respects the distinction between figure and ground, the directness of Jensen’s masonry approach reveals a greater emotional subjectivity. Drawing from earlier symbolist artists such as Ryder, Hartley, and Dove, Jensen builds a space that not only holds the form, but shifts around it and seemingly moves through it; figure and ground oscillate according to shifting perceptions with only the drawing of the erstwhile subject to keep the delineation in check.
This tension between material process and drawn subject continues through Reinventing Abstraction: Joan Snyder both renders a landscape and builds it out of furrows of paint. In Beanfield with Music the landscape imagery reinforces the physical sensation conveyed by material presence. Whitten juxtaposes a painterly field of tar-thick acrylic combed through to expose underlying areas of electric hue.[xiii] His frenetic scribbling, scratching marks stand in sharp contrast to the precision of his geometric constructs. The emotional resonance of his subject grows out of the tension between the opposing aesthetic modes in his employ. Louise Fishman’s calligraphic swirl is as concrete as anything in the exhibition; her glyph-like form loops around and against the limits of her canvas, positive and negative space laboring against mutual gravity. Where Fishman concentrates her material into a small tightly controlled space, Pat Steir thins and spreads hers in liquid loops of expansive gesture across the largest canvas in the exhibition. Her color is tough and solid, reminiscent of stone and rust, but her thinned pigment sprays from her brush in layers according to the force and direction of her whole body. In all of these works the artist’s gesture is yoked to description of a form or shape that sits within a specific space.
When Rubinstein investigates abstraction, it is inevitable that the discussion will turn to the current trend he named as Provisional Painting, but this is not an exhibition dedicated to genealogy. Despite the reach of his idea, either to young artists working today, or much further back through historical precedent, the artists in this show would almost unilaterally disavow that their work aimed to be anything less than a complete, coherent statement.[xiv] In parsing abstraction’s contribution to painting one finds the roots of Provisionalism run deep, but that depends on how much mark making and material, brush stroke and painterly gesture read as specifically “provisional” rather than inherent elements of the medium that a particular painter may choose to employ. Does the exposed support or thin materiality of color field painting (or before that Rothko and Newman) mark their work as provisional?[xv] Likewise de Kooning’s avoidance of resolution?[xvi]
Gary Stephan’s painting employs one of his signature template forms, but sets it hovering in a nocturnal, sfumato atmosphere. The template itself is built out of thickly glazed layers of paint, and merges with a deep space rendered in transparent washes. The surface eschews excessive brush strokes in favor of a straightforward approach that is nothing if not traditionally finished. Nozokowski’s forms are reminiscent of Stephan’s (so much so that I was momentarily confused that this might be Stephan’s contribution), but again the forms have crisp edges and the layers of shape and color attest to a complete and contained pictorial logic. David Reed takes the limiting of facture even further; his painting evidences the meticulous and labor intensive process his work is known for, with layers of paint repeatedly sanded smooth as the image of a gestural Rococo brushstroke is transformed and reinterpreted in a manner such that the artist’s hand is turned into a method of mechanical reproduction. The surface of the painting is a tromp l’oeil simulacrum of its source material; the subject of the act of painting is set at a reserved original distance.
Elizabeth Murray and Lasker both provide paintings that might appear provisional, but require a greater amount of planning than such a label suggests. Both work from a plan and preparatory drawings rather than just recklessly diving into a painting. Despite the cartoonish simplicity of Murray’s composition in Sentimental Education, her shaped supports require precise and labor intensive construction. With the foundation of her picture being so specific idiosyncratic shape it is a testament to her skill as a painter that the work appears so fresh; the scumbled surface, hazy light, high-key colors and jigsaw shapes could easily come off as the mere scaled up production of smaller statement, but instead read as an improvisation of the highest order. On the other hand, that Lasker’s Double Play looks like a production diagram executed deadpan is precisely the point. Every element is as carefully orchestrated as politician’s speech, with even the thick, expressively painted shape coming off as rehearsed instead of spontaneous. His practice casts a critical eye on the work of his peers, but such assessment indicates careful consideration, not any sort of “lack of finish,” “self-defeating strategies,” or “dandyish nonchalance.”[xvii]
On the other hand Stephen Mueller and Mary Heilmann both engaged with concerns we now call “provisional.” In Delphic Hymn Mueller arrays each element casually across the canvas; where Lasker follows a strict design, Mueller gives the impression of arranging things he just happened to stumble across. Drips, overspray and tossed off daubs commingle with areas of hard edge geometry. However his work continued to evolve, and Delphic Hymn now looks like a transitional painting to his mature work. It points to how he would continue to approach the organization his compositions, but doesn’t give away how his forms would tighten into striated symmetry and his paint would combine hard edges and electric atmosphere. Heilmann’s Rio Nido certainly seems more provisional than the other fourteen paintings in the show, yet the label is hardly a slight. There is a playful simplicity in the painting that is emblematic of her mature practice. Blocks of bright, brushy color are overlaid with a dynamic black shape that is “punched” through with holes so that the original colors shine through. Whatever polemic it might subsequently be tied to does not alter its status as a strong statement by individual artist pursuing her own concerns first and foremost. The same can ultimately be said for each painting on view.
The exhibition itself strains at the limits of a single work per artist and the confines of the gallery. There is enough depth to the subject for a deeper museum survey, but that would require a different venue; as one moves through the spacious hanging in the front galleries, the large paintings by Whitney, Whitten, and Snyder feel constricted in the rear spaces. It is hard not to see the art world’s hierarchies coming into play, with the bigger names associated with prestigious retrospectives accorded more breathing room. At the same time I wouldn’t want to see a single painting cut, and the pairings and unexpected sightlines of the hanging serve to reveal unexpected relations between works. These are paintings that I’ve (and I suspect many others) have spent years looking at, and if they don’t all quite fit quietly and seamlessly together, that only makes the party that much warmer and more inviting.
[i] As stated in the catalog essay The Lure of the Impure.
[ii] But not really; artists never stopped painting so the various recurrences of “the death of painting” are always more a matter of critical or theoretical contrivance than artistic practice. This is certainly held up by the perverse practice on the part of artists to find any small corner of art history that has been debased or ignored and start gleefully playing around with supposed retrograde concepts.
[iii] Rubenstein’s historical discourse includes some frank discussion on the influence of the market in shaping critical reception.
[iv] And they do seem to be entirely men. Their seems to be much more diversity among groups of artists and movements not awash in money.
[v] I don’t think anyone every looked to Schnable or Salle for virtuoso performances in pigment, and the critical discourse that surrounded their work seemed to focus on pastiche and theory rather than formal analysis (the deficiencies of which needed to be explained away more than anything).
[vi] My experience was that as I became committed to abstraction, painters like Winters and Jensen provided touchstones that applied to my own sensibility and interests where people interested in employing figuration found deeper sources from which to work. The repercussions of such influence is that it spawns legions of pale imitations, and I certainly made my own fair share of watered-down Terry Winters paintings. Artists can’t be blamed for this aspect of success, but the hope must be that eventually that influence grows farther from the source to become its own thing, a different practice. The lessons of the Neo-Expressionists don’t run nearly as deep, and little wears thin more quickly than an art school enfant terrible.
[vii] At least relatively speaking when compared to the vast history of representation in western art.
[viii] The cross-pollination between High Times, Hard Times and Reinventing Abstraction is extensive; aside from Reed, Fishman, Heilman, Murray, Snyder, Whitten, and Steir were included in Katy Siegel’s exhibition. This is probably another point of evidence to just how much smaller the art world in New York was three decades ago. My own suspicion is that the amount of money circulating through art world helps determine its size, and before the wall street boom of the 1980s resources were much more scant.
[ix] Robert Ryman turned such experiments into the subject of his entire practice, but the artists focused on in High Times, Hard Times were not nearly so programmatic.
[x] Walking through the exhibition, I kept thinking back to Bernice Rose’s group exhibitions that focused on drawing, Drawing Now and Allegories of Modernism. I was very surprised to learn that only Winters and Steir were included in the later show; it goes to show that no matter how obvious Rubinstein’s thesis may seem now, the attention paid these artists has changed substantially in the intervening decades.
[xi] The introduction of this subject matter brought “nature” back into the discourse of painting without succumbing to either the saccharine conventions of Sunday plein air painting or any need to resort to ironic reserve in order to be taken seriously. It continued the trend where serious art needed to evidence a “rigor” of approach while opening up the possibilities of what might be deemed “appropriate” subject matter by maintaining a universal scope of subject.
[xii] These similarities are more evident in his drawings and prints, which are much closer in scale to such sources.
[xiii] These subtleties are difficult to capture up in reproduction; they barely register in the catalog illustration where they read as the white of the canvas priming. That photographs only provide close approximations of a painting’s surface reality is a problem that afflicts many of the works in Reinventing Abstraction. I am beginning to suspect that this is a trait shared by most of the more interesting paintings that are made where the medium is so important to the formation of the image and the varied possibilities of paint are fully exploited.
[xiv] Rubinstein admits as much, declaring that the stated (and decidedly non-provisional) intentions of the artists shaped his approach to the exhibition.
[xv] One could see the potential for a division between the otherwise very similar art of East Coast abstractionists and the “Finish Fetish” artists of the West Coast.
[xvi] He famously struggled with any resolution to a picture, and the spaces his women inhabit after the late ‘40s are largely indeterminate vehicles for painterly gesture as much as descriptions of place.
[xvii] As described in The Lure of the Impure.
To declare one’s self a painter, and one committed to abstraction at that, is to stake out a space for one’s artistic practice that would seem to be essentially limitless. When faced with near infinite possibilities, the first thing one often does is to set some boundaries so as to establish a direction. Within the cannon of modernism that direction was a tied to a narrative of a manifest expansion of art, but with the ascendency of a post-modern condition the very idea of progress has become suspect. When painting was declared dead, abstraction was the only idiom in play, but since that fall it has been playing for smaller stakes when compared to the greater concerns of culture. When painting has been seen to be at the forefront of artistic production, it is usually for a re-entrenchment allied with a surge in the market.[i] So what is there to say when so much contemporary production in a given medium seems to shift in a certain direction?
The rise of so-called provisional strategies in abstraction was first identified by the critic Raphael Rubinstein[ii] and has subsequently been expanded by other curators and writers[iii] who have enlarged his basic taxonomy into an ever widening ecosystem of artists who seemingly eschew craft, finish, precision, virtuosity, and even ambition. The central problem is that the discourse surrounding provisional strategies does not rise above identification. The label is trend-spotting or cool hunting for the newest fashion, but since the provisional is not an organized movement, school, or even well defined set of tendencies it can easily be applied to almost any art or artist. Rubinstein linked them to some of the most heralded names in contemporary painting, which helps cement the idea within our visual vocabulary, but the underlying biology has gone largely unaddressed. Fleshing out of the connections to the practice of younger artists and scenes other than at the pinnacle of the art market points to not just how diverse and vibrantly varied these strategies have become, but also how they have diffused throughout recent history and are used without any reliance on a central dogma.
The unfinished nature of “Provisionalism”[iv] was encoded into the DNA of modernism with Manet’s vacant, scumbled spaces and the en plein air canvases of the Impressionists. From there historical precedent is rife with a churn of examples: it is found in the chance compositional strategies of the Dadaists and Surrealists[v], in the struggle with resolution of the action painters of the New York School, in the inclusion of commonplace objects and physical detritus in Johns and Rauschenberg, in the destruction of the painted surface in Klein or Fontana or Burri[vi], or in the sculptural accumulations of Arte Povera or the performative remains of the Gutai group.[vii] Fertile ground was found where a direct gesture was (or is) left unmediated or where painting intersects with sculpture and its nature as object. The legacy of both process based abstraction and Post-minimalism[viii] is that painters have been able to fundamentally reassess notions of composition, failure, and finish. With the contemporary ground for art so open as to appear strip mined and barren, the question becomes why artists are increasingly drawn to methods of working that embrace the casual, the provisional?
An obvious place to start is with the germination of an artist’s practice and the influences exerted at the beginning on the structures where art is made. As any organism evolves, adapts and grows into the geography it occupies, young artists working in major metropolitan areas face increasing pressures of limited space and economic constraints on their time. The urgency to make work trumps fetishistic perfectionism or the unifying, grand statement. As big things come from small beginnings, the work is seen as something that can incubate and expand as circumstances and successes dictate, or constrict during hard times. As their practice develops and their career progresses they may move on to more finished modes or not, but that early experience remains.[ix] In this regard Rubinstein’s focus on artists who are much more established is telling as he is pointing to how the trends have been tested and utilized successfully; that there may be a host of failures[x] speaks to the vitality of the underlying idea.[xi]
Likewise, craft has been downplayed within the current art world[xii], and the extra time[xiii] it takes is seen as something that can be outsourced to specialists, assistants, and fabricators. The singular artist as a true craftsperson has become increasingly rare.[xiv] While a provisional approach need not scorn craft and careful construction, the tenacious expenditure of time and labor required to fully employ that knowledge and experience sits at the opposite end of the production spectrum. Any spectrum will tend towards concentrations now and then, and then adjust and change over time. When I first moved to New York it seemed as if the galleries were filled with clean paintings that must have required miles and miles of masking tape to produce, and as I was enthralled with my new (but very worn) surroundings, I couldn’t for the life of me understand why young artists weren’t mirroring the scuffed, scratched, and beaten surfaces around them. These surfaces spoke to a deep history and a different kind of beauty and it was only a matter of time before there was a shift back (or back to) a handmade art that embraced a patina of habitation and use.
The greatest threat to the continued relevance of abstract painting is the possibility of its ossifying into a new academy. All too often, the guides that are laid out when a journey begins harden into not only a map for individual practice but an expectation that others will follow it as gospel. Examples of dedication to the tenets of modernist abstraction can be found as bad décor and the unironic and uninterested embrace of banal geometry.[xv] Advances in the formal structure of painting are usually of a specific time and do not easily translate through generations. Dealing with the fractured visual space of today’s culture via a retreat to cubism would read as quaint; to wrestle with one’s personal struggle to express a personally authentic gesture on a blank canvas in the vein of the abstract expressionists would seem histrionic and unseemly. This is not to say that these (or any other) references are unavailable, but only that to effectively function in the present[xvi] they must be approached and utilized within a contemporary framework lest they be mere exercises in nostalgia.[xvii] Academies are about perpetuating their own ideas and ideals, of achieving stasis rather than growth through challenge and evolution. The latter is a function of unseemly mutation, of embracing rather than rejecting the aesthetic other. In this regard Provisionalist trends over the last century serve as an antipode to any strict formalisms, geometries, or theories that may infest the medium.
The current proliferation of provisional abstraction should not just be analyzed as a swing of the art historical pendulum or knee jerk rebellion against stuffy elders. It does any artist a disservice to suggest that they merely respond to their history and environment to the exclusion of finding something deeply affecting at the core of what they make. Artists today[xviii] are confronting an increasingly ramshackle future where aesthetic, political, economic, and ecological promises have been revealed as failures. If they are seeing a future where issues of scarcity become more urgent, materials must be recycled or scavenged from surplus[xix], and long-held political standards become increasingly irrelevant, it would seem natural to see trends in painting (re) emerge that question formal equivalents of these standards. The long-term success of painting can be attributed to its ability to colonize and assimilate outside ideas and approaches, stretching form and content to the breaking point so that the project of the medium is ultimately made stronger. If a provisional vocabulary can provide a timely reinvigoration of the expression of individual concerns, that should be all the ambition anyone needs in a painting.
[i] Think of the circumstances of the Neo-expressionists, the allies of Dave Hickey’s crusade for beauty, the rise of Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bilds.
[iii] See Sharon Butler’s New Casualists essay for the Brooklyn Rail, as well as further essays by Sam Cornish on Abstract Critical, Lane Relyea on Wow Huh and an anonymously penned feature on The Painted Wrd. (And this list is by no means comprehensive.)
[iv] You can only dance around the language for so long before just breaking down and labeling it as an “ism.” The problem is that the tendencies, strategies, methods, and concerns that would make up “Provisionalism” do not have the same unifying focus that bound together more familiar “isms” of art history.
[v] See Inventing Abstraction at MoMA
[vi] See Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void at MOCA.
[viii] Specifically how aesthetic concerns interact with an art object that has been reduced to a remnant of an action.
[ix] It may be coincidental that Provisionalism has emerged as the competitiveness (and expense) of M.F.A. programs has turned the emerging artist towards a more professional track, but it also cannot be ignored that it seems that young artists with more limited time make up the broad base of provisional work.
[x] Of which there will necessarily be exponentially more of, but in appealing to an evolutionary context I hope that the broader process of integrating different ideas points to the number of failures proving the project’s success.
[xi] Imitation still being not only the sincerest form of flattery, but also indication of influence.
[xii] To say nothing of our broader culture and the world in general.
[xiii] And therefor expense.
[xiv] I’m thinking of painters like Terry Winters or Bill Jensen, or sculptors like Martin Puryear, who even though they have assistants, are deeply engaged with the craft associated with their materials and are not turning the production of their work over to fabricators or an atelier system.
[xv] If extended into the sculpture, the tendency becomes ever more pronounced in the monumental, blocky stone carvings and welded metal assemblages that barricade office plazas and concourses.
[xvi] And thus present them to and communicate with contemporaneous audiences.
[xvii] At this point Impressionism is the province of Sunday painters and naturalists with a flair for color.
[xviii] Young and old alike; the historical context shows that the trends encompassed by Provisionalism are neither a new phenomenon nor only the province of the young.
[xix] Perhaps this is where painting finds common ground with the so-called new aesthetic, as the rise of the digital is built on rapidly obsolete and repurposed technologies.
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.
[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?
[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.