Friday, November 04, 2005

The intolerant myopia of visual artists?

The Georgia O'keefe Museum is having an internet confernence on the 1980s. I'll spare you my thoughts on the overall unbalanced politics of the debate. I worked for a major NY cultural organization from 1983-2000 and I am convinced that US arts struggle for two reasons: 1.) the professional arts administrator class created permament institutions that saw their own survival as the reason to be thereforenever expiring to let the new in and 2.) the export of US culture forces all consumptive media to be subject to market forces including funding sources.

Anyway there was one post (4th from the bottom) by Olu Oguibe that I thought asked some very tough questions and perhaps the only really meaningful post of those that I have read.

The visual art world, however, spared itself this kind of indulgence, at least to the very best of my knowledge. Instead, the vocal minority in that world, just like the vocal minority on the Right, made it palpably uncool to question the ‘Divine’ right to liberty and artistic license. Seldom was it permitted to ask; Who are we speaking to when we make art, who are we making the art for, what is it we are trying to say with some of the art that provoked conservative assault and how effectively or not do we manage to get those points across, how well were those points being understood? No one seriously asked: When we step out of the protected territory of the artist’s studio and step into the world, what are the ramifications and what must we expect? When we enter the realm of public patronage, what can we insist on and what can we expect to get away with? When we accept municipal and state funding, does that make us perhaps accountable to much more than the sacred muse of individual genius? When clamber up the high-ground of artistic license, on what parameters do we do so and within what perimeters? In the course of the culture wars and their aftermath, the visual art community shied away from one crucial issue, the issue of Responsibility.

And, because many pertinent questions were drowned in the deluge of art world outrage and self-pity, many equally pertinent lessons were not learned. Instead, it seemed that the only lesson learned, at least certainly by artists, was that controversy pays. Because the pertinent lessons were apparently not learned, the art world continues to be harassed and terrorized at will not by the majority of society, but by the vocal minority of conservative fundamentalism. Hence, the repeat scenario of the Brooklyn Museum vs. Mayor Giuliani and the City of New York at the turn of the century, on which occasion the response of the visual art community was anything if not predictable: the chorus repeating the age-old line, “Damn Censorship!” Hardly anyone asked: how do we get across to the silent majority to whom the rabid Right always appeals when it mounts its assaults on cultural expression, and get that majority used to the idea that we are all tax-payers, after all, and have equal rights to the cultural largess of public funds? No one broached the notion that perhaps it is time to engage in a deeper, wider, more serious discussion on the nature and politics of individual cultural expression and representation especially in the public space. And of course, no one was allowed to acknowledge that all dissent has a right to representation, including the protests of the real and supposed philistine minority, that in the case of Mr. Ofili’s use of animal dung to represent a major Christian icon, believers in that Faith had a right to hurt, shock, and outrage; in other words, that outrage is not the exclusive right of the all-knowing, supposedly more cultured, art community. The universal cry of “Damn Censorship!” occluded, as it continues to, the fact that the gains of other critical struggles are being gradually and incrementally eroded every day by artists under the guise of free individual expression, which for instance is why, again in the case of Mr. Ofili’s controversial work, no one paid heed to the fact the use of animal dung to represent a woman’s breasts may indicate a little more than artistic license and freedom of expression, that indeed, it may also serve as a fine example of the return of male license to the image and representation of the female in art.

When the visual art world replicates the intolerant myopia of the philistine, fundamentalist minority as it did during the culture wars by getting caught in the motions of the moment and fighting shy of broad and deep self-reflection, it not only leaves itself open to attack without devising a strategy of effective response, it also allows related and no less important questions to go under the sludge. When we fail to take advantage of certain moments in history to redefine the liberties that we call on society to uphold, we lose sense of the meaning of those liberties and why they matter, why it is important to defend and uphold them. In my thinking, the Era of Reagan and the immediate aftermath was one such lost moment.

So the dirty little secret "the visual art world replicates the intolerant myopia of the philistine, fundamentalist minority" is there - what do you think?

1 Comments:

Anonymous Don said...

And of course, no one was allowed to acknowledge that all dissent has a right to representation, including the protests of the real and supposed philistine minority, that in the case of Mr. Ofili’s use of animal dung to represent a major Christian icon, believers in that Faith had a right to hurt, shock, and outrage; in other words, that outrage is not the exclusive right of the all-knowing, supposedly more cultured, art community.

Amen to that! It's amazing that an artist can attack someone's religion and then cry foul when they are called on it.

Very interesting post. I'd add one thing.

It is possible that the so called silent majority is actually more in line with the so called philistine right. After all, look at the last presidential election.

The current all knowing, cultured, art community may actually represent a small fraction of American thinking. It may be delusional to think that the problem is simply that it is not appealing to the middle majority the way the right is.

It may, in fact, be way out of step with the silent middle majority.

2:17 PM  

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