12 May 2007

Response to Jason

Jason Laning and I must stop hijacking this thread about alternatives to commercial art galleries and have our political discussion elsewhere. Jason, thanks for continuing this important discussion with me.

To catch up folks who didn't invest in the links:

In a nutshell, Jason is involved in Institutional Critique and wants to change the total fucking horror we witness by more traditional means of protesting the power structure from the outside. And while we agree that these are totally horrific times, I think that Zizek is right, that the rhetoric of protest he is referring to has been completely co-opted by those who want to control us, and that we have to figure out a new language for dreaming and changing. I think that the strategies of institutional critique and the (now conventional) rhetoric of protest does more to distance and romanticize real problems like poverty and inequality and WAR, and that the tools Jason wants to use are generally used to let rich imperialists off the hook and keep all our oh-so-civilized hands clean.

Where we left off, Jason used Thoreau's Civil Disobedience as an example of how to bring down the mighty evil Bush administration.

Jason:

I understand your take on Thoreau as being active. I guess the crux of my argument is that this kind of action used to make much more sense than it does now.

Protests are not effective when they are called "focus groups" by the president, and when the point of the protesters seems to be to disassociate themselves from the government (ie, Not In My Name) and not to take ownership of it. Don't pay taxes? That is a strategy of the rich, and while I hate the idea of paying for all this dying, I don't want to leave things we need unfunded (like superrich people get to do...)

And voluntary imprisonment? It looks so strange in the context of Guantanamo to think about voluntary imprisonment. It seems so quaint (to use a Gonzales-ism) to think that anyone gives a fuck that you have imprisoned yourself when we are holding people who have done nothing wrong in jails and torturing them for years.

We simply do not live in a society that values life in a way that makes your voluntary imprisonment meaningful.

At the risk of sounding highfallutin', I am looking for a new rhetoric of protest--new ways to dream about better days for all. And that is probably going to shake out like everything else in life. It's probably going to be impossible to just go out and find, and it is probably going to need some sideways action.

For this reason, I do think that the most political things one can do right now are not explicitly political, but more generally intellectual. And I think that this is true because we have lost our very language for action and dreaming. I want to know what the world looks like when humans engage, because there is so much disengagement (masquerading both as apathy and as protest). I want to know how to increase the negative capacity of the average citizen, because we have to be able to stare down such horror. I want to make complexity interesting, because Karl Rove is counting on your eyes to glaze over.

I want to know how to talk about truth in a way that is not about power and not about relatavism, because the powerful have co-opted relativism and are using it to perpetrate the biggest fucking lies.

Jason, in other words, I want to examine power, and truth, and figure out how much power an artist can have to find truth, because truth is a rudder. I think that work is also a rudder, and so I want to know what work looks like, and I want to strip away all the romantic layers of distance that cover everything and ask empowering questions like how does it work? What is holding all this up? What is the structure that is over me? What happens if I touch this? What happens if I break it? I can't do this from the outside. Well, I can, but I can't get the same kind of information. It is one thing to critique someone else's building, and another entirely to make your own. I want to look at all this evil we have wrought with the intimacy of a tinkerer, not the distance of a critic.

I am sure that you will find these tactics distressingly vague, especially since we have argued about political art in the past. But you know, I honestly believe that hammering away at this problem like Thoreau, no matter how much I respect Thoreau's work many years ago in bringing about a total revolution in thought, is not going to do anything today except make folks feel okay about living in an empire.

I think that this is why art and artists and intellectuals (the Thoreaus of right now!) have so much to offer. I think that this is why MLS is wrong, that this is a great time to be an artist. It is a paradoxical time when at the same time we are so urgently lost and so totally comfortable. It's like we are living in that last two minutes before you jump out of bed, realizing that you are an hour late for work. I want to be ready, I want to know where my pants and my toothbrush are. Anything can happen. It is a time of amazing potential, and I don't want to be saying no to it. I want to figure out how to say yes in a way that is meaningful and good and is not a lie or a gloss.

Frankly, if I knew what that meant, I would stop making art and start going and doing it. But I don't know yet. So I screw tires together and think about it.

6 Comments:

Anonymous nick said...

Deborah--

Excellent stuff. You bring a thoughtfulness, seriousness, and clarity to the idea of the "political" that is moving and rare.

12 May, 2007 13:41  
Anonymous jason said...

Are you speaking of this kind of Institutional Critique? If so, please demonstrate how I have in any way engaged in, or advocated, such a practice. I have almost no interest in so-called Institutional Critique; I'm not sure where you got this idea.

more traditional means of protesting the power structure

I have to admit, I find it endlessly fascinating that someone would consider the anarchist tactics that I have proposed to be traditional. If only it were so! But perhaps you misunderstand my position. Like you, I'm not a huge fan of protests (which are mostly symbolic acts), but have instead proposed direct action, or direct intervention (I'm not talking about art), in the power structure, as a way of dispersing power. I specifically stressed that I was for "mass movements" based on "education and organization" that involve "non-cooperation with the government." This is a far cry from what the President refers to as "focus groups." I have very little faith in the power of peace marches -- which have become a form of institutionalized protest (although I still attend many of them, as I think it is the least we can do, because they may have some positive benefits).

Where we left off, Jason used Thoreau's Civil Disobedience as an example of how to bring down the mighty evil Bush administration.

This is a bit of a stretch. You were constantly charging that I was proposing inaction; I was offering Thoreau's example as a demonstration of ways that anti-authoritarians have been inspired to oppose authority. I differ from Thoreau most significantly in the respect that I advocate mass movements. He was more of an individualist. If only a small group of people refuse to pay taxes, or break the law, or fill the prisons then, yes, this is largely a symbolic, ineffective act. But if a mass movement of people were to perform these same acts, the government would come to a screeching halt. War would cease to exist. You simply can't go to war without the cooperation of the governed. That's why, as I've acknowledged repeatedly, we're all complicit in the crimes of our nation -- we're enablers of a kind of global economic imperialism.

I want to know how to talk about truth in a way that is not about power ... I want to examine power, and truth

This reads like intellectual schizophrenia. Do want to engage the political (which literally means a discussion of the social relationships of power) or not?

Thoreau's work many years ago in bringing about a total revolution in thought, is not going to do anything today except make folks feel okay about living in an empire.

I can assure you that those who "get their hands dirty" by risking imprisonment and abuse at the hands of the NYPD don't "feel okay about living in an empire."

But I don't know yet. So I screw tires together and think about it.

This has a rather ironic ring to it, considering that you spent so much time on Winkleman's blog accusing me of inaction. What exactly are you trying to convince me of? To stop pursuing radical political revolution and instead make abstract art?

I think you probably misunderstand me most by thinking that I am proposing art as a way to cure what ills society. I'm am not. I have very little faith in the power of art to transform society. It should be clear by now that I am instead advocating for a mass movement based on non-hierarchical organization and education. I am against hierarchy because hierarchy breeds war, violence, and oppression (think about it, war is always about either (a) one state trying to impose its authority on another, or (b) one state trying to escape from the authority of another; further, the vast majority of violent crime is performed by the economically poor, because the domination by the economic ruling class has left them desperate).

I agree that art can be useful as a form of self-examination that aids in the journey towards truth and understanding. But I think that while art can, of course, play a role in political revolution, it is only in its capacity to aid in education and organization that it can truly affect societal change.

13 May, 2007 09:02  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Hmmm. I'm just going to get on part of this, I don't have time to write a little essay.

Jason, I can't help but get all caught up on the abstract art thing. It's like a curse word with you, you spit it out as if "making abstract art" were the equivalent of "fiddling while Rome burns" or "jacking off."

At the risk of taking the bait... I actually don't make abstract art. I am working actively with representation.

And even if I were making abstract art... so what?

I question your notion that art should be didactic. I believe that art can and should elevate the mind, and I think that this is a separate function than education.

I mean, who am I to educate anyone? I can muse and fabricate and get to really specific places that nobody else would go...

...but I don't have much to teach.

You realize that you are creating a hierarchy when you decide that artists have something to teach everyone else... don't you?

And that following through on this pogrom, I mean program of educating folks with your art just makes you a mouthpiece of whatever educating institution buys into your spiel, right?

Even if it's just the cultural idea of you as some starving artist in a garrett somewhere... you still wind up as a part of a cultural hierarchy with the power to educate over someone else.

I don't get your argument. You want something that you can't have if you use the tools that you offer.

Political change happens when people are engaged. I see a landscape full of unengaged people. I want to deal with that. I want to create opportunities for engagement--period.

And that has real political weight.

Making political art is preaching to the choir. Or worse, it excuses the rich imperialist's participation in the Empire.

Making art that offers connections, a new dream language, a new way of thinking about problems and their solutions--I argue that *this* has more political power than fine art dressed up as propaganda.

15 May, 2007 22:21  
Anonymous jason said...

And even if I were making abstract art... so what?

I couldn't care less. The context of my original comment (and subsequent explanation) was to explain to Edward_ (according to his experience as related in his post) why a socialist artist, interested in dismantling capitalism in order to create a more humane economic system, might not want to work within the commercial gallery system. That is all.

You then criticized me for proposing inaction, which I did not. Neither did I propose Institutional Critique; nor do I engage in it. Nor did I say that all art should be didactic, and shouldn't be abstract. I didn't even suggest that I don't like abstract art, because I do (sometimes). I just don't think that abstract art is very useful as radical political action.

My comments about abstract art were meant to be taken within the context of artists (like the socialist in Edward's case) who are tired of horrible things being done in their names and as such intend to work for a specific kind of radical social change (e.g., dismantling state-capitalism and replacing it with a non-hierarchical system). Obviously this does not apply to you, so why do you keep pressing the issue? You have stated over and again that you are not interested in working for specific social change, but instead want to use your art to offer things like "a new dream language." I have no problem with your desire to make art about such things, as long as you do not support or contribute to the harming of others in the process.

Not everyone is a teacher. If you don't feel that you have anything worth teaching, then please don't -- it's much more important to educate oneself first. My suggestions were intended for those interested in participating in radical political movements--where education and organization are key, and art plays a very, very limited role.

16 May, 2007 00:13  
Blogger Art Powerlines said...

Jason said: I just don't think that abstract art is very useful as radical political action.


Russian Constructivism did exactly that, it was radical political action and as Stalin was gaining control he saw the potential of art as a tool for propaganda, so he established Socialist Realism as the official art form. The United States saw it too, and Rockefeller along with the help of Greenberg and others, established Ab Ex as the official art form. Abstraction was depoliticized, and it became only about composition, line, style etc.

The Russians took social realism from the U.S. and the U.S. took abstraction from the Russians, both used it as a tool for their own purpose.

Every contemporary art movement (as we know it) in the U.S. has been in direct reaction (built on top of) the Ab Ex movement. Their is no real foundation, for if we took it away, the whole of October and the likes would come crumbling down like a house of cards.

What is the referent point?

One cannot talk about the political unless we can include abstraction, abstract art - in everyday life.

16 May, 2007 09:58  
Anonymous jason said...

Russian Constructivism did exactly that...

If you read the next sentence I wrote (after the one you quoted), it will answer your objection. It reads:

"My comments about abstract art were meant to be taken within the context of artists (like the socialist in Edward's case) who are tired of horrible things being done in their names and as such intend to work for a specific kind of radical social change (e.g., dismantling state-capitalism and replacing it with a non-hierarchical system)."

Despite the various political ideologies attached to abstract painting in its earliest conceptions as a Modernist art movement, today, when it functions politically at all, it is largely as a symbol of wealth, or elite decor, for the upper class (not exactly the radical political meaning that I had in mind!). As such, it has rightly found its place in hotel lobbies and stuffy museums, where it is usually ignored by the general public.

If you want to argue that abstract painting's greatest political power was as a propagandistic tool for the hegemonic interests of U.S. power, well, I'm clearly not going to argue with you there. Part of the problem with abstract-art-as-activism is that it's so easily co-opted by someone else's political movement (consider, for instance, that there were Russian abstract paintings and American abstract paintings that were stylistically similar, but used for oppositional purposes).

Regarding Russian Constructivist painting, it's doubtful that it played any significant role in the Bolshevik overthrow of the Czar. Socialist Realism, on the other hand, was probably a more potent, albeit limited, political tool, because it contained signifiers that were intended to communicate outside of formal art discourse (but I didn't say anything about this kind of art, just abstraction).

Besides, what's the point of arguing about whether abstract art is effective as political activism? Deborah admits that she doesn't even make it, nor is she interested in political activism.

18 May, 2007 13:22  

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