The Editors and Advisory Committee of ARTSEEN would like to applaud Roberta Smith for the stand she took in “Post-Minimal To The Max,” her recent article in the Sunday edition of the New York Times (February 10, 2010). We want to lend our support in the hope that she will continue to publicly develop her viewpoint, and not let it fall by the wayside as she moves on to other timely topics. As longtime advocates of many of the artists whom Ms. Smith spotlighted (Thomas Nozkowski, Peter Saul, Nicole Eisenman, Stanley Whitney, Dona Nelson, Dana Schutz, Philip Taaffe, Rackstraw Downes, Joe Zucker, and Lois Dodd), we would like to comment on a few of Ms. Smith’s statements; to supplement her list of artists with others deserving of more attention in New York and its environs; and to continue to extend our examination of the art world’s institutions and those we perceive as their agenda-driven gatekeepers.
As Ms. Smith made quite clear, New York museum curators “have a responsibility to their public and to history to be more ecumenical, to do things that seem to come from left field. They owe it to the public to present a balanced menu that involves painting as well as video and photography and sculpture. They need to think outside the hive-mind, both distancing themselves from their personal feelings to consider what’s being wrongly omitted and tapping into their own subjectivity to show us what they really love.”
We would go a step further and state unequivocally that many of these individuals have not only shirked their public responsibility, they have turned the museums into playgrounds for an elitist group of trustees and globetrotting art fair devotees, stocking their exhibitions primarily from “powerful galleries.” And if our position is not clear enough, it will become more so in the coming months through in-depth articles and well-researched drawings examining the actions of particular individuals, their public statements and their exhibition track record.
In her well-reasoned and thoughtful article, Ms. Smith made three other statements that we would like to single out:
1) After 40 years in which we’ve come to understand that dominant styles like Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Pop are at best gross simplifications of their periods, it often feels as though an agreed-upon master narrative is back in place.
2) What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand. A lot but not all of this kind of work is painting, which seems to be becoming the art medium that dare not speak its name where museums are concerned.
3) The consistent exposure to the big-statement solo exhibition becomes self-perpetuating, as these shows condition not only curators but the public to expect more of the same. I realize to my horror, for example, that the idea of seeing a survey of contemporary painting at the Modern makes me squirm. It would look—I don’t know—too messy and emotional, too flat, too un-MoMA.
We believe that the master narrative never truly went away, that it has been nurtured and reinforced by many different parties. The main thrust of the master narrative, as Susan Stewart argues, is “the attack on art from within aesthetics—the death- or end-of-art argument we have inherited from Hegel.”[i] How this deplorable situation came about is easy enough to understand. Over the past forty years, many tenured philosophers and would-be philosophers have spent much of their time justifying their intolerance of any activity that can be characterized as creative. Making something “out of intense personal necessity, often by hand” has repeatedly been denounced as old-fashioned, backward-looking, and, worst of all, romantic. Whether they have aligned themselves with Plato, Kant, Marx, Freud, Benjamin, Saussure, Barthes or some combination of theoretically orthodox DNA, these zealots believe that anything made by hand is inferior to a product of the mind. This is the ghetto into which painting, drawing and sculpture, along with certain kinds of film and photography, have been driven, the door locked and the key thrown away.
An optimist, Stewart goes on to say that: “As any working artist knows, art practice that proceeds under the shadow of theory is doomed to allegory; and as any working aesthetician knows, theories of art bound to particular historical practices are doomed to apologetics.” [ii] Although Stewart thinks otherwise, it is by now routine for artists to make a name for themselves by carefully defining a practice affiliated with an established theory, albeit one diluted for easy consumption. Such a theory is often based on simplified assertions under the guise of semiotics: the delimitation of art’s purpose to an approved-of institutional critique; the death of art as implicitly defined by relational aesthetics; and the assertion that art making must be deskilled. To put it plainly, making art by hand is forbidden.
The paradox is that making art by hand can in fact accomplish these tasks. What has been lost, as Ms. Stewart and Ms. Smith both seem to recognize, is faith in the mysterious, non-linguistic channels through which art accomplishes its unique task, including its resistance to colonization by language. It is art’s ontology to function visually and to evoke the tactile, to engage both the mind and body of the viewer. Instead, many of our institutional guardians have sought a prescriptive approach to ensure that visual art works “properly.” These gatekeepers want to dwell in the more easily manageable world of ideas, rather than in the messiness of reality and the tangled threads of aesthetic impulses. They want art that can be domesticated by criticism, which is why the work and legacy of Jackson Pollock remain important. He does not signify the end of something, as so many would like to believe, but rather reaffirms not only the continuum of painting, but also the preposterousness of the reductive hypothesis.
Such is the tyranny of today’s art world, with its emphasis on catchphrases and theoretical strategies. If you wish to succeed, you’d better be a “conceptual” painter, photographer, sculptor, or jack-of-all media. Otherwise, you are a throwback to a bygone era. If you are unwilling to submit your art making to a programmed means of production (i.e., claim a “conceptual” stance), and actually use your hands, you knowingly court neglect, misunderstanding, dismissal, and even ridicule. It is not that painting has fallen off the wall, as some have tiresomely argued. It is that the art world has fallen into the black hole of the “big-statement.” This can take the form of leftist political posturing, but is a collage easily connected to Hannah Höch or a painting of Condoleezza Rice done in less than a day really all that earth shattering? Or is it self-congratulatory and conventional, a way of flattering the viewer’s self-importance?
How deep and ingrained is the conceptual mindset in New York’s institutional venues for modern and contemporary art? Consider again this revealing disclosure that Ms. Smith was brave and honest enough to make: “I realize to my horror, for example, that the idea of seeing a survey of contemporary painting at the Modern makes me squirm. It would look—I don’t know—too messy and emotional, too flat, too un-MoMA.”
We at ARTSEEN support all art that does not conveniently fit into master narratives. We don’t put a premium on art for claiming a “big statement.” We don’t privilege content over form or deem form a burdensome encumbrance. We don’t cleave the mind from the hand. We promise to stay tightly focused on this subject because we believe that the gap between civic responsibility and what Frank O’Hara called “the living situation” continues to grow unimpeded. Like Stewart, we “see no reason to presume [that] art is a cultural production; such a presumption tends towards a representative function for art and masks the ways in which culture itself is an aesthetic production.”[iii] Contrary to what some grumblers have opined, it is not about the haves and the have nots; it’s about those who do and those who don’t.