Archive for November, 2010

Not In My Backyard

November 14, 2010

            The New York Times reported a story on a 600 page, redacted US Justice Department report that Nazi’s were given safe haven in the US (less than 10,000). The report was 6 years in the making and, according to a Justice Department spokesperson, is incomplete and not totally accurate. One of the comments posted in regard this story was “Other nations do it, so what?”

                        In the chapter entitled The Misadventures of Critical Thought, Ranciere writes: “That is the truth of the concept of spectacle as fixed by Guy Debord: the spectacle is not the display of images concealing reality. It is the existence of social activity and social wealth as a separate reality…” (Pg. 44 The Emancipated Spectator) One of the implications of this interpretation of Debord’s insight, is that, like the commentator to the NYT article, we all take for granted that it is so. This complicity becomes startling in an instant like the 6-years-in-the-making, incomplete Justice Department report (sounds like the PHD thesis of a professional student). But what about in one’s backyard?

            A recent emailing offered application to the John Michael Kohler arts/industry residency. I guess I should have felt privileged to be included on their mass mailing solicitation. Visual art residencies are practically ubiquitous, like Skowhegan, Anderson Ranch, Vermont Studio Center, Art Students League in NYC, etc. They are also international. Participation seems to be a de rigueur presence on the resume of any self respecting, professional artist (the more the better, international earns bonus points along with frequent flyer miles). Why is this so? What exactly goes on there? Oh, art is made. It is a phenomenal opportunity for someone to “get away” and focus, concentrate entirely on their art. Learn new things. And it is where someone else takes care of the mundane, pays the bills, provides the materials/equipment along with the social milieu. One finally can make art the way it ought to be made. Etc. Can’t beat that with a stick, now can you? Wouldn’t want to even if you could.

            Conflating the NYT article with artist residencies and Ranciere’s quote, one can only speculate on the complicity of art residencies with the maintenance of spectacle. That these residencies are a separate reality is by definition (no one actually is an everyday, registered-to-vote resident there). The largest part of their attraction is their guilt by association with higher education visual art programs. The ability to work with featured artists who will provide instruction is the primary draw (usually college art instructors supplementing the income not provided by the sale of their art). In addition, the environment and economy of these programs parallels that of the higher ed. Fine Art experience. So why not do all this in your own backyard, on your own time, without making it an exclusive vacation experience? The standard retort is that too many mundane matters are pressing at home to focus on my art (where people know me and burden me with all their preconceived expectations – no one “knows” me at an art residency), that the equipment, materials, know-how, and deadline timetable are all structurally assembled there (insuring that everyone goes home with a trophy), residency involvement is prestigious (contributing to the distinguishing demands of a professional resume), etc.  In sum, one could simply reply: “Art is not made in my backyard”. It is a separate experience, like one’s college art classes. That, by definition, such art would be disconnected from the everyday lives of those experiencing it is of no concern. Along with the NYT story commentator, one could also say “Everyone does it, so what?”

            Is it any wonder that Ranciere interprets Debord’s spectacle as “social activity and social wealth” that is a “separate reality”?

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Imperialism As An Artistic Category

November 5, 2010

            “Abstraction as an artistic category” is what Jaleh Mansoor uses to consider the work of Mona Hatoum in an excellent essay, Mona Hatoum’s Biopolitics of Abstraction in the recent October 133. The association of the Enlightenment’s project of establishing universals in its philosophic discourse with abstraction is referenced through many of Hatoum’s works. Mansoor goes on to note how Hatoum’s critique of the universal through her utilization of an abstract orientation parallels Judith Butler’s insights on the doctrine of universality being in the service of imperialism and colonialism. From the perspective of the history and substance of criticism, this is a marvelous materialization of the nature of critique promoted by Edward Said (archive post Where Art Becomes Critical  April 26, 2010). Hatoum critiques (and dissembles) the western assumed “naturalness” of universals through her use of abstraction, and the grid in particular. Her work is at once within the framework of the history of western art while at the same time “performed” outside that history (culture). She truly is not at home in her home (the western art perspective that she utilizes as a “media”).

            Though absolutely wonderful as a criticism, one wonders just how much of the Enlightenment’s facilitation of the imperialist strategy Hatoum’s artwork managed to escape. Critiquing the “universalizing” bias of the West through its own means (the presumed universal practice of “abstracting”) is certainly quite effective and pertinent. But what else is there? It comes off as a critique of the Enlightenment project, and of the inadequacy of this project. From the perspective of creativity and imagination, one is still left with only the Enlightenment project of imperialism without any other recourse or alternative. Is it also an admission that this (the imperial strategy) is the only game in town? An entirely crude analogy would be the recent election in the U.S., where prior to the election the much ballyhooed goal (of those wanting to be elected) was to improve the economic well being of the American populace. But immediately upon election, the perpetuation of gamesmanship (eliminating the current president and rendering him completely ineffective) became loudly proclaimed as job one. The status quo of political governance being primarily concerned with which party is in power rather than consideration for the conditions of the citizenry never changed. Likewise one wonders whether Hatoum’s work is critical of imperialism per se, or rather, who gets to be imperial?