MSB brainstorming

14 July 2007

Leonard Bullock: I’m old enough…

Is it permissible to speak about artworld nepotism on this forum, or in any environment for that matter? Many of us who have established networks with our sympathetic colleagues often hear other reasons for someone achieving a remarkable string of successes.

This isn’t in the least cynical. Actually, the notion that these things are due a different dispensation of respect because they’re “private” only promotes more nepotism. One could argue that it’s far more cynical to maintain this kind of stoic silence when conflicts of interest are the rule. It’s tantamount to capitulation: silent capitulation.

Hey, I am not always willing to play along with these things, and at least in part, it’s due to some circumstances of my childhood. I have reached a certain age. Let’s say a ripe age. I’ve lived here in Switzerland for more than ten years now, but I admit that I haven’t acquiesced to many of the local politesse; particularly those that encourage one not to voice objection. Not to say there aren’t people here who can shout “foul!” Predominantly, though, this society doesn’t encourage outspokenness.

This I recognize from my own country. I should be more specific; although I’m an American my origins are first “southern,” meaning the southeast of north America: the Old South. When I was growing up in the 60’s there was, to put it mildly, quite a lot of political turmoil. Some of you may know it by reputation, or remember the news of that time, and some of the prominent figures. Martin Luther King comes to mind, of course. It was called many things. The movement. The civil rights struggle. There was the voting rights act of 1964, which guaranteed access to voting for people of color in the southern states.

You can still see the demonstrations, the speeches of Martin Luther King, and the riots on YouTube. That doesn’t always tell you much, but it gives one a visceral sense of the intensity of that moment.

Support for the movement divided communities, divided families, mine included; it was almost something impossible to evade. Passiveness could be taken to be support for the old system. I remember people expressing the opinion that they’d just wish that things could stay the way they were. They didn’t like the uproar. They avoided the polemic. They believed that if they resisted passively that things would quiet down eventually.

Well, that’s not what happened.

People who’ve lived through things like this have the inclination to believe things don’t change unless someone, (or many), speak out. So I apologize for being of that mold; and believing that is also to believe in the Will, I suppose. One doesn’t believe in speaking out if one is a fatalist, or has a deterministic weltanschauung. One speaks out in the belief that it can mean something.

Now, I believe that it is clear that I’m speaking about a kind of engagement in the politics of the art world, however small or large that might be in each artist’s or critic’s, or curator’s time in it. It’s not a fine distinction. I’m speaking about the distinction between active politics in ones own realm and the invocation of “political” themes: the supposed genre of “political art.” (In the 19th and early 20th century much of what we call “political art” today would have been called history art.)

Example: Gerhard Richter’s “RAF” (Rote Armee Faktion / Baader-Meinhoff) series which caused quite a stir in New York during its exhibition at MOMA. That would probably have been registered as history painting in the 19th century. As Manet’s Death of Maximillion was received as historical art, although the subject was an occurrence of the day. It was a contemporary subject.

Richter’s “RAF” caused a great deal of debate not because it selected the RAF as its subject, but because there were those, Jed Perl included, who weren’t convinced that Richter’s invocation of this particular aspect of living memory when rendered in photorealist technique was convincing as a work of art. The claim was that it depended on the selection of an extrinsic value, the memory of the era of the RAF, to inform these works, to support them, but this wasn’t to be seen in any way within the works themselves. Perl even argued that perhaps this series, after having done the job of invocation of a subject, were disposable. In other words the paintings themselves were without aura; they were empty signifiers. In effect like throwing ones voice.

OK, I don’t want to weigh in on this aspect of the question. My desire is to illustrate an example of how one particular aspect of “political art” might be described. The Richter series being one of the most prominent of the genre.

Frequently, what we receive as political, or which causes a “political” response, occurs through the variables of context. In the midst of the central American civil wars of the 80’s there was an exhibition in London of Titian’s The Flaying of Marsayas. It depicts the aftermath of Marsayas’s musical competition with the god Apollo. Having lost, he is subject to Apollo’s will, and Apollo has decided to have Marsayas flayed (skin peeled off) alive. At that moment, it struck a chord in the debate on the Contras, C.I.A. and torture to achieve political ends. A Venetian painting some five hundred years old, using as its theme a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, at that particular moment seemed to many viewers to implicitly reflect a bitter subject on the minds of many. The dialogue stirred by this visceral work of art — which I feel I needn’t argue was probably not any made with any sort of specific political prognostication intended — astonished many. That something from the Renaissance, or the proto-Baroque in this case, could create such a debate as an image for the suffering of a contemporary event. (Later in the decade Leon Golub’s “Torture’ series took its that place as an image for that suffering, more specifically addressing the current event. )

I suppose one always has to pose the question; is this inherently a political act? Can one select an inherently political subject. Can political art have an inherently political meaning, or are all gestures only political contextually? Even having chosen what may be deemed political in the contemporary world, we may not achieve the desired “political” effect. Viewed in this manner it becomes increasingly problematic to categorize what we describe as political art as anything more than an expression of our will for it to be so.

Alex Gloor , (and a partner who wishes to remain unnamed), have recently caused an uproar with their series of T-shirts about the RAF. These are made in limited editions and have been sold in fashion outlets. The response was heated enough that a few of the stores removed the shirts from their display, saying some customers were offended by the use of these terrorists as a fashion item. (I wonder if these people were equally incensed by the use of Mao Tse Dong, or John Wayne as icons of another sort of propagandistic representation? Thus far no one in the western art sphere that I can recall has taken the challenge to use Osama Bin Laden’s face for similar purposes. Perhaps because that would so predictably coquette. Images of starving babies in Africa are being called P.C. Porn in New York.)

Gloor recognizes that there are a number of implicit questions invoked by the representations of the Red Army Faction. He’s aware that in history the first time around these things which rate as tragedy are farcical on the second go round. So what does it mean that there are children running around Basel and Zurich with Brigitte Mohnhaupt’s face on a T-shirt?

The political aspect which seems to be missing is an active critical commentary in art practice now. By that I mean any direct address of the politics of the art world. Active politics within our own realm. This kind of art does come about occasionally. Many contemporary artists have made works of this nature . In some of my paintings I’ve included texts in letraset as with my own parenthetic harping. A little noise from the cheap seats, something impure. Mark Staff Brandl has raised this in his “Cover” works to levels of engagement in the art debates not seen since Ad Reinhardt. The added twist with Brandl is double because when one sees them one is struck by the quality of their making. The dual aspect, not exactly a divide between the haptic and semantic; those two aspects fuse in these works.

So the question, “Where is the critical and curatorial attention to such art making? Why isn’t work along these lines more frequently exhibited?”

Sometimes I think rather than reveal these territories of art, curators act as a kind of prophylaxis against disseminating art which might subvert their position as arbiters of the dialogue.

The Guerilla Girls are a well known example. Beginning in the 1980’s a group of anonymous (women) artists began to make protests in the form of shows, advertising, and a very prominent poster campaign to protest the fact that the art world was so dominated by men. This was a call to arms and an effective one. Since that time the ratio’s have significantly changed. Unfortunately, this kind of activism, albeit propagated by artists wearing masks, is rare. Feminism created an institutional critique within the art world which made the movement called “Institutional Critique” seem irrelevant by comparison; at least in as far as it might have any legitimacy as an active political inquiry into art world power structures. The goals of “Institutional Critique,” that which we view as a movement, doesn’t so much criticize the systems of the art with political aspersion, but it opens up the ways and means behind the scene, and is more along the order of revealing an epistemological syntax within the contemporary hierarchy; rather than disturb the preconceptions of such a hierarchy it revealed patterns. This is something that could enthrall some who aren’t familiar with the structures of contemporary art institutions of all kinds; for those who’ve been around for a while it just don’t offer anything very racy.

It’s interesting to view, or I should say to read, ones way through the “Situationists” show at the Tinguely Museum, to note one has to read assiduously to remember that Debord mentions on a number of occasions his belief that the ‘society of spectacle” had already been achieved in the DDR and the old fiefdom of Russian communism. This seems a quaint bit of youthful foolishness now, because even those who still have sympathies in that camp are aware of the details of the Stalin regime, and many of us have had direct word of life under the Stasi. Sure, Debord denounced the R.A.F. terror, but only because it increased the pressure on the man in the street. Weren’t the utopian schemes of the Situationists leading in the same general direction? The means were distinct from the RAF; the RAF were decidedly pragmatic by comparison. How much sympathy did one have with their goals? I think that it was possible today to ‘read’ this in the show at the Tinguely, but I knew what to look for.

It’s humorous to view this in retrospect, because the aims of the Situationists were valorized and transformed for another purpose; there’s a quote in the museum folder one receives on the show: “Es ist wichtiger, unseren Blick auf die Strassen zu veraendern als unseren Blick auf die Malerei.” Debord. Truly the core critique of the Situationists is anti-art, and it has been reified specifically into anti-painting. If there is a sense that painting is something exemplary of corruption in the art world here is one source of that attitude. Of course those of us who’ve read Debord know that probably wasn’t his main objective. Looking back it seems “The Society of the Spectacle” was primarily another manifesto for a particular aesthetic outlook, and that is the very best we can glean from it. There’s an entire industry trying to interpret it as something that it wasn’t in its own time. Now it seems like the Situationists chose too many soft targets, like the aged Charlie Chaplin.

Is this debate between the Utopians and the Anti-Utopians a political debate within the art? There are times when I would say, yes, of course it is, because the stagecraft that goes into dividing the spoils, the agonistic conflict behind any endeavor is political; and this is precisely the kind of politics which I’ve been saying rarely comes to the light of day as an open motif of art. As it would be, say, if someone made the uproar over the denial of a special 300,000 SF grant to Pippiloti Rist a theme of their work.

It is seen in open debate, as when Benjamin Buchloh interrogated Gerhard Richter on this subject some fifteen years ago. In works of art it is rare. Perhaps that is because those who might naturally undertake these motifs would be given to the Situationist deployment. The read as you go. Read-while-standing aesthetic. In other words most of those inclined to this aesthetic might be inclined to denounce certain attitudes as a matter of course; notions of autonomy, or transformation for instance, or aura for that matter. Anything that smacked of the numinous was anathema to the Situationists, clearly.

Why then do we see so little in the way of the internal art world politics from the children of the Situationists? I think its clear that they are preaching to their own congregation of like-minded aesthetes. Besides most of what this division puts out is in the realm of various and sundry structural critiques. We are in a manneristically formalist phase for Concept Art. It is very self aware. It speaks of itself to itself, and frequently the uninitiated viewer is of little consequence. A high degree of self consciousness alone is not required for all works of art, but one can scarcely imagine any contemporary Concept Art without this as a prerequisite; the urgency of formalization under these conditions is not surprising. (Hey, it was bound to happen. I mean this era of formalism and hyper-self-reflexiveness among the concept practitioners. It’s happened in painting several times. One has to admit it to oneself and move on.)

What I’d like to ask someone to respond to in this forum is this: would it not be logical to think that we would look to the children, the followers, the spawn of the Situationists and ask, where can we find a current example of civil courage from this following? I’m sure there are some. I could rake my memory. (I’ve already mentioned the Guerilla Girls, but most of them actually produced objects, even paintings in their daily lives. and besides, I think that Feminism has a more varied political and aesthetic correspondence than Situationism. In my opinion it was far more practical and radical. It addressed very specific problems that it wanted to change in the immediate future. It wasn’t utopian. Feminism was far more radical!)

It would be too blunt and vulgar to say that the Situationists spawned much of the Utopian Conceptual Formalism so common today, except that in so many cases I do believe it. I am anti-utopian and I am luckily not alone. This conflict between utopian thinking vs. anti-utopian is nowhere better displayed than between Buchloh and Richter in that famous interview/debate. It can be easily found on this machine. Actually, considering the history of the late 20th century any notion of Utopia stirs my contempt. The Spectacle is no longer the big, fully conceived picture in the eastern block, but mere fashion.

My contention is that the attitudes and tools left to us by the Situationists have occasioned little inter-art world criticism and I’d like for someone to tell me that there is some reason — other than an implicit weakness in political speculations intrinsic at the core of that movement — that this division hasn’t rattled the art world with revelations, yes letters of protest.

A few years ago I made my own protest within the confines of my then gallery. I was working with Tony Wuethrich in Basel. He was curating a drawing show that would include some of the new members of the gallery and he wanted to round out the new group with other sympathetic artists. I can’t remember how this came about, but Tony was being advised by Walter Dahn on who he should include in the show. Walter was pressing Tony to put some of his current students from Braunschweig in the show. Now, this is always something to the dealers advantage. The student has nothing to lose, and rarely talks back. By the time I could say anything to Tony, it was presented to me as a fait accompli. I am one of those people who started too young and I am very skeptical about this part of the system. (Sure, I’m a hypocrite, but I’m not one of those people who believes that to be the bearer of new ideas one must ally oneself with the merely young.)

There was enough time for me to make some new drawings, and in one I wrote, in letraset; “I’m old enough to have fucked the mothers of some of the kids I show with now.” I made certain Tony was notified. He liked the drawing enough that it went into the show, nonetheless. Now, that’s not an example of a profound risk, but Tony was my bread and butter in those days. I thought I was also making a statement about the increasingly cynical search for easy fodder in an art world uncritically swallowing anything which could be bought and sold regardless of questions of maturity, investment or personal autonomy, and ... — I could make a long list but I’ll spare you.

Ah, another funny thing about that whole situation is that Tony sold that piece to a very properly dressed couple; prim we might say in English. You never know.

Is there an unspoken law that the internal intrigues of contemporary art scene are not fit subjects for works of art? There are so few examples of this genre it does beg the question. At the very least one could speculate that it probably isn’t a good carrier move to make this the theme of ones work. Where might works of this kind be hiding? Is it possible that they exist but the power brokers scheme to keep it out of sight? Or is it a form of self censorship implicitly required by artists to have any hope of advancement?

These are certainly subjects for inquiry, aren’t they? Isn’t it legitimate to question the power structures of our own field?

The history of political eras is just as often about means as ends. That’s probably why there’s so much dispute, which goes on indefinitely. The most effective aspects of what might be termed “political” in our era are frequently pragmatic and a sometimes a little boring: sort of like unfinished business.

I would like to send this out as an open question: Where is this aspect of “Political Art” hiding? Who would be the James Gillray of our era? Ok, I’m searching around for some figure in whom we could all agree was the genuine article. One that might fill my requirements rather than those of the art press. Who do you know who really bites the hand that feeds them in our back yard?

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