|t byfield on Wed, 27 Dec 95 09:39 MET|
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|Art in America (Art 'R' Us)|
I just stumbled onto this essay (at <http://english-www.hss.cmu.edu/bs/ 20/Byfield.html>, which I'd completely forgotten about. I whipped off last spring for a student journal at Berkeley, _Bad Subjects_, which is associated with an informal cultural studies mailing list <firstname.lastname@example.org>. The essay was written after a flamewar about the social virtues of aesthetics (as though we had any choice); a lot of people on the mailing list seemed to believe that art and artists are, as someone put it, "elite." (Heh heh.) Anyway: as a result, the essay is very American in its concerns. (The essay's name, "Art 'R' Us' is a reference to the U.S.'s first national toy-store chain, "Toys 'R' Us'.) So much for the apologia. > > ART 'R' US > > Ted Byfield > > 'Cultivate your legitimate strangeness.' > - Rene Char > > A few years back, at the invitation of an appropriately (which is > to say, rectangularly) bespectacled and coiffed art-world maven, I > found myself facing a highbrow panel discussion peopled with some > serious heavyweights. Of all the speakers present, though, only > one captured my heart, the suave novelist Anton Shammas. After > wryly demurring on the subject of 'theory,' he confessed that > though 'the wily third-worlder' inside him wanted to disrupt the > decorous proceedings, but went on to speak simply of those > theoretical moments that had captured him: Gilles Deleuze and > Felix Guattari's notion of a minor language, Walter Benjamin's > image of the storyteller, and Mikhail Bakhtin's meditations on > just how slippery language can be. On hearing this list, I sighed > with contentment and anticipation like a marquise in a libertine > novel as she awaits a tete-a-tete with her heartthrob; unlike a > marquise, though, I wasn't let down -- nor was I on the next day > when I cheerily bought Shammas's novel, Arabesques. So it was all > the more dismaying when, a few months ago, I found my way to Pere > Lachaise, Paris's graveyard to the stars, but, as I passed the > graves he describes so affectionately, was unable to find that of > Guattari. Maybe it was best that way; at perfect moments like > that, my shyness comes out and I feel like a bumbling suitor only > to be bedeviled by something wilier still. > > Language is the field I till and my playground too; 'art,' in a > word, is a sideline. When asked, I usually say that I work as an > editor and occasional writer; when Im in an expansive mood, Ill > sometimes admit that I 'collaborate' with a friend on what he > calls 'art.' Almost never do I identify myself as an 'artist' -- > I'm not comfy with the term (it seems like frill, a too-proud name > for what I do, better left for others to bestow as an honorific). > In that respect, I'm quite American: I don't put much truck in > art. > > Practicing art for several years has taught me a few valuable > lessons -- about the domain of my responsibility (where my > considerations and anticipations of possible interpretations > should leave off); about the difficulty of fishing for forms of > expression that are committed yet equivocal, enigmatic yet > comprehensible; about the role and play of commentary and > elaboration, both my own and others'. Whether I'll continue to > make artwork, I don't know; whether I'll ever be able to stop -- > even if it's not at all evident that thats what I'm doing -- might > be a better question. In fact, I know it is a better question, > since it cannot be answered. > > So I claim that 'I don't put much truck in art,' yet go on to > assert that I may not be able to stop or may continue without even > realizing it. What's that about? One could give 'subjectivist' > answers to this question, that is, answers that trace the roots of > my reluctance or uncertainty to character traits -- and it seems > reasonable to assume that they might tell some of the story, maybe > even much of it. But not all of it: after all, it seems safe to > assume that my earlier metaphors, those of the expectant marquise > and bumbling suitor in a French novel of two hundred years ago, > were mostly literary -- I may find some sympathetic chord in it, > but the social construction of my self surely isn't > eighteenth-century and French. No, if I'm reluctant to style > myself an 'artist' or doubtful of the validity of 'art,' I've been > imbued with these values by the culture in which I was raised. > > America, being the land of images -- home to Hollywood and Madison > avenue, the beacon of freedom that illuminated the world, the > source of homogenizing culture -- doesn't seem a likely candidate > for iconoclasm, but looks are deceiving. This country has become > terrified of images, frightened to death by their ambiguity, > mortified by what they might or might not mean or say. 'Left' and > 'right,' or what pass for these, might disagree on *which* images > they dislike, but they largely agree on a structural point: images > are powerful and the most dangerous ones exert the most appeal. > Images entice and lead people astray, it is said; they encourage > or maybe even force people to become things, to believe things, to > do things. One will say, for example, that 'racist' > representations affirm, condone, perpetuate oppression; the other > will say that 'immoral' representations -- of sexual matters, of > violence -- will corrupt our youth. Social scientists, as often as > not the handmaidens of ideology, step in to study the question -- > and, in doing so, regardless of their findings, lend it > institutional credence ('While the findings are inconclusive, > experts have studied...'). Small wonder that they do: the very > thesis, however complex its machinations, that an image can > somehow *make* someone believe or do something is patently > idiotic. *Except* when this belief predominates -- in which case > it is not this or that image that makes anyone do anything but, > rather, the unspoken injunction *you will do this or that*. And > artists, if they've realized this simple truth, aren't about to > clue anyone else in on it: doing so would dispel what little > 'power' they have the power that's attributed to their work and, > through still more magical thinking, has devolved upon them. > > Still, this loathing of images is entirely misplaced, which is, I > think, why it is a *loathing*. Worse still, when it mixes with > Americans naive belief in social transparency (a faith that the > truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth will reveal our > 'selves,' our 'truth') and deep-seated antimodernism and > anti-intellectualism, the result is a kind of aesthetic > know-nothingism: > > *Art is elite. Picasso is a genius. I don't know about art, but I > know what I like. Yeah -- a black canvas. Artists are elitists. > Norman Rockwell. Art is irrelevant. The Thinker. All those > striped-pants artists ever do is sip wine at trendy openings and > kiss curators' asses. Advertising is getting really arty. Andy > Warhol was an artist alright -- a con artist, haw haw. Arts and > crafts fairs. Arts become degenerate -- that Mapplethorpe stuff, > the NEH should get the axe. You gotta have art. Two trendoids > contemplate a nail in a wall, until a worker comes up and hangs a > painting on it. 'I went to the MoMA and the Modern and the > Guggenheim; tomorrow I'll spend the day at SoHo galleries.' Dunk a > crucifix in piss and sell it. Victim art. The hand pointing at the > other hand. Performance art. I could've done that. A starving > artist. Marcel Duchamp and his bicycle wheel on a stool. Abstract > public sculpture in parks and plazas. But the children will get > ideas. 'Interesting...' Art expands your horizons. That's not art, > that's politics. Art doesn't reflect societys interests. Starving > artist sale! sofa-sized paintings at low, low prices. But this is > just ugly who the hell understands this crap? It'll be a mortal > blow to American culture if art is privatized. Looks like a > Jackson Pollock, if you ask me. My life is my art. There should be > a law. Children are born artists.* > > The flipside of this public twaddle is the elegant privacy of the > vacant and careerist 'art world,' which has fled to the high > ground of arcane, directionless, and self-referential > pseudo-academic theory -- a group thats very much party to the > belief that art is somehow 'more.' Fringed with up-and-coming > designers, wayward architects in search of big-buck renovation, > hordes of self-styled 'intellectuals' (who'd never dare to call > themselves that), and baroque teenyboppers, this crowd gads about > in silly costumes from openings in New York to conventions > ('fairs') in Germany, touting this years model as *the* > problematic height of the perennially deconstructed avant-garde > myth. > > Or so, at least, we're told. > > Aside from this model's reductivism (and *I* am surely not the > source of that), it has a big problem: founded as it is on public > commentary, appearance, and all manner of productivist and > professionalist assumptions, it fast-talks its way around the > source of it all -- artists, or art workers, if you will. That is, > suckers (like me, I suppose) whose efforts, beyond being > 'expensive' and 'time-consuming,' are born of love and hate, of > the ambivalent spaces between things and words and pictures, of a > communicatively self-indulgent desire -- need, maybe -- to express > something quite unclear, for reasons we don't really understand, > to people we don't know. > > In itself, this is a difficult quest to undertake, let alone to > maintain year after year -- particularly when failure looms large, > is everywhere, and takes many forms. One can be talentless, > uninspired, uninspiring; be at the wrong place, at the wrong time; > be talented but unsellable; be too impatient and give up; lack > connections; be overly modest or overly immodest; a woman and/or > non-white; get a few too many horrendous reviews; be impossible to > deal with (e.g., overly neurotic); become mired in one's job; be > overly principled and refuse to talk the necessary trash; be too > theoretical or cryptic, or be too simple and earnest; be unwilling > to ingratiate oneself; be on the tail end of a waning trend; be > seen as somehow unpresentable (e.g., physically unappealing or > 'lowbrow'); burn out too quickly; or give up for myriad reasons. > Or, failing all of the above, ones efforts might never quite > click. > > This isn't a sob story about how difficult it is to 'be' an artist > -- on the contrary. In the grand scheme of human activity, it's > fairly easy to involve oneself in art, and it's pretty pleasant > too: one gets to express things and, with some perseverance, might > even make a *little* money doing so. To do it for a living is > another story -- that almost certainly involves years of thankless > effort, moving to one of a handful of cities where the cost of > living is a constant menace, forsaking a career for odd and > uncertain jobs (mostly menial), and plunging into the art world in > a big way, to dwell among people who're either rich or would have > you believe they are. Much of this can be adventurous and fun; > much of it can be hellishly boring and demeaning. > > Still, the people in the funny clothes are the ones who are most > *legible* at such gatherings: they simply *exude* creativity, > *emanate* nonconformity, *project* something that seems somehow > vaguely related to things avant-garde. The ones who somehow seem > less visible, though -- when they aren't temping, waiting tables, > hauling sheetrock, or slaving over a hot graphics setup -- are > more likely to be' artists.' People laugh at the waiter's line > 'Well, I'm really an artist,' but, aside from simple spitefulness, > what exactly is so funny? Their seeming *delusion*? What's deluded > about working at a menial job to support an effort that seems more > important? Their *pretension*? That seems unlikely, for lots of > reasons -- not least among them that we're all, more or less, in > that situation. Their *failure*? What, does the fact that someone > isn't Sappho or Michaelangelo or William Gaddis or Tricia Brown > make their efforts thereby worthless? Worthless to whom, and > according to what criterion? Or, instead, is the commonplace > nature of this bind the source of humor? Hardly grounds for > laughter, that. > > There's not much point in going on, because the source of the > humor is all too clear: there are many, many people who would like > to express something, somehow, and our society (and our culture) > makes it impossible for them -- many, many of them -- to do so. > These people are legion, far more numerous than the liminal fringe > of actor-waitrons and artist-carpenters. You knew the joke I was > referring to, you'd heard it before; had the rest of what I've > said, about why the joke isn't all that funny, occurred to you? > Probably not. If this seems piddling, think again: questions like > this tell a great deal about who or what we identify with -- for > example, abstract, impersonal forces over the individuals (who, > collectively, form 'people') they demean, distort, and destroy. > These forces have no power outside of the people who blithely > identify with them. This is a pretty simple idea. > > There are a thousand valid grounds for criticizing art, > contemporary art, artists, the art world, the classicization of > art, formalisms of all types, the practice of art as we understand > it, the shallowness of much art, the role that art plays and the > interests it serves, and so on. So what? For every object, > practice, institution, belief, construction, or contingent > arrangement of affairs, there are valid grounds for objecting to > it. That there is room and cause to object to something, anything, > is a testament to the peculiar breadth of the world, but doesn't > mean that one should do so. On the contrary, it means, if > anything, that one should be very circumspect -- and, above all, > *creative* -- with one's criticisms. One should choose one's > targets well. > > So -- not forgetting, please, the fact that unthinkingly drifting > along the currents of abstract, impersonal forces is both a > hallmark and a mode of inhumanity -- how does one choose one's > targets? Well, in large part, ones targets are as predetermined as > the means of choosing and criticizing them -- and, don't forget, > as predetermined as the notion that 'one' 'can' or 'should' > 'choose' 'targets' at all. The fact is, we have very little choice > on the matter of choosing our targets of criticism: hence the > paragraph of pabulum above, about how 'Art is elite. Picasso is a > genius. I don't know about art, but I know what I like. Yeah -- a > black canvas,' and so on. This is most of what we hear uttered > publicly, officially, widely, privately, its most of what you hear > *in your head*; the rest of what we hear is 'anecdotal,' or, say, > 'deeply imbricated in the superstructural practices that, > historically, have brought about the notions of the 'individual' > and 'expression,' and further have served to conflate and reify > these notions in the form of the commodified, fetishized > 'artwork.'' That's not a quote -- that's just a Marxist-type > summary criticism I jumbled together off the top of my head. I got > it from the same place Cain got his wife, the same place we get > everything in our lives: elsewherever. The same place that 'art' > comes from. > > And if that seems obvious, well, it is. It isn't thereby boring or > without importance. > > From the standpoint of various rather arch schools of thought, my > remarks might seem lazy, loopy, trivial, self- serving, amoral, > deluded, uncritical, reactionary, and/or counterproductive. > Perhaps they are: after all, I might *seem* to have argued that > the fundament of ethical criticism is 'creativity,' which is > surely the most mystified of mystified realms (for those who think > spatially; I prefer to think -- or to think that I think -- in > time). Still, I see no other fount of ethics, of criticism, of > production, of expression; still less do I see a way of codifying > the -- literally -- *absurd* impulse to continually reorganize the > boundaries of the organism or groupuscule (i.e., to act) in a way > that will guarantee an ethics, morality, propriety, or even a > purposiveness. > > 'Art' is hardly the answer; if anything, it is an empty field (or > open field, as you will) that permits one to say and do things > that no other field permit and that, in itself, is a fine deal. > 'Art,' really, is a fancy, transhistorical name for > *miscellaneous* -- a category the anthropologist Marcel Mauss > rightly denounced (from the standpoint of a taxonomist, which is > not mine) as 'the signpost of ignorance.' Were it a question of > will, of vision, of beauty, this rant would be Romantic, right up > there with the ceaseless, malingering drivel of Picasso -- but > it's not; rather, it's a question of bastard wiliness, of > confusion, of an accidental magnificence that needs no observer to > complete itself. What is art? 'Art,' I wrote in a paper in eighth > grade, 'is in the eye of the beholder, unless he's wrong.' I stand > by this definition. > > So here I have sought to lure you, the reader, away from the > sorrows of rigor -- away from public discourse, away from > *perceptions*, away from spitefulness, away from formalism and > relentless evaluation -- and toward the silliness from which what > we call *art* issues. Whether I've succeeded, whether you're > convinced (or even remember) my lament about America's iconoclasm, > I don't know. Whether whatever impression this 'essay' makes > lasts, I can't know. > > Whether it tells the whole story...well, it doesn't, of that I'm > certain -- but, as Jacques Lacan once said: 'I always speak the > truth. Not the whole truth, because theres no way to say it all. > Saying it all is literally impossible: words fail. Yet it's > through this very impossibility that the truth holds on to the > real.' > > And whether the things I've said are true...well, as Cervantes put > it: 'and even if they were not, and some pedants and graduates > turned up to snap and growl at you behind your back in the name of > truth, you need not bother about them a bit; for even in they > convict you of a falsehood, they cannot cut off the hand with > which you wrote it.' > > Or did they? > > ------------------------------------------------------------------ > Ted Byfield lives in New York and works as a freelance editor and > occasional writer. His collaborative work (with Lincoln Tobier) > has been shown in New York, San Francisco, Hartford (Conn.), > Chicago, Hamburg, Gratz (Austria). His last author bio in _Movement > Research_ said it all: 'He's up and down about the art thing.'