t byfield on Wed, 27 Dec 95 09:39 MET

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

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 <bad@english.hss.cmu.edu>. 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'
        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.'