New York-based writer, curator, art historian and theorist Joshua Decter joins us in the Studio to discuss his new book, Art Is a Problem: Selected Criticism, Essays, Interviews and Curatorial Projects (1986-2012), (JRP|Ringier, 2014) with Simon Sheikh. He generously agreed to share an excerpt from the book's preface with the ICA Blog:
The paradox of sovereignty consists in the fact (that) the sovereign is, at the same time, outside and inside the juridical order.
—Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 1998
Oh, make me wanna holler
And throw up both my hands
Yea, it makes me wanna holler
And throw up both my hands
—Marvin Gaye, Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler), 1971, written by Gaye and James Nyx, Jr.
If art is a problem, this book does not claim to be the solution. And if this book creates problems, art may claim to offer remedies. Why title this selection of writings on art, curatorial practice, architecture, cities, and other cultural matters, “Art Is a Problem”? Doesn’t this risk marginalizing the book? Or, engendering varying degrees of unease, confusion, fear, and loathing among the very communities and publics that would constitute the readership? Might the title even spur accusations of philistinism? Or, will the title be understood for what it is: a serious yet tongue-in-cheek provocation that invokes the manifold problematics of art? Needless to say, there are bigger problems in the world than art, but one has to start somewhere.
Art may have become a problem only because it is no longer really problematic. Art—however we may choose to define, de-define, re-define, or un-define it—is on the verge of becoming so thoroughly assimilated into or integrated within global social, economic, ideological, and institutional networks that it may no longer be able to pose any problems to those systems. As a result, art seems increasingly insulated from deeply critical questions that would seriously compromise its validity or value. It is also tenable to suggest that this has been art’s odd predicament for quite some time. A more difficult question to consider is whether art ever did pose any problems—and what criteria or metric would we use to measure this?
Some would argue that art’s assimilation—its distribution into broader networks—allows it to act, so to speak, upon the imaginations of more publics and in increasingly complex, subtle ways than at any other time in recent history. To others, art’s ubiquity merely tranquilizes its transformative potential. Sectors of the global contemporary art market may have become economic drivers of employment and wealth, but this does not mitigate the anxiety that comes with acknowledging art’s discomfiting paradoxes: it is a creative practice that still can generate meaning beyond itself; a robustly investable class of commodity that reinvents the terms of its own language; and a specialized cultural product that aspires to critical, yet demotic, social and political germaneness.
Yes, there are circumstances in which art has surfaced as a vehicle of dissent, resistance, protest, opposition—seeking to question power and authority, intolerance and repression, and economic and social injustice. The variously termed political, social, critical, interventionist, public, participatory and other “turns” are testimony to ongoing efforts at cultivating a verifiable agency and/or utility for art and artist. Yet, paradoxically, the more tolerant or liberal a society becomes, the more art becomes a naturalized, normative element within an environment of unfettered (and perhaps increasingly undifferentiated) creative production. At the same time, we might say that art embodies these self-same contradictions. Art is an aporia. To express it differently: art can only allegorize its indeterminate relationship to itself, and to everything else. Critical writing may have the capacity to cut through the fog of art’s ambiguities and shed light on its contradictory place in the world, but such discourse can do nothing to vitiate these contradictions. To some, this is inspiring; for me, it is occasionally exasperating.
Engaging in critical processes—i.e., questioning, pressuring, and troubling things as they appear to be—may temporarily reduce the psychic pain unleashed by the contradictions of art and its global systems, even though it is in no way ameliorative of these conditions. (For better results, take Ibuprofen.) One’s survival in this professional (para-professional) field, however, depends upon sublimating this state of affairs, even though it is quite possible to build and maintain a career (as an academic, an artist, or other cultural producer) by generating endless reams of discourse on all of these contradictions, thereby producing further contradictions. Hypocrisy and the engineering of career are not strange bedfellows. Another way to think about critical activity—whether it is expressed through writing, curatorial practice, journal editing, teaching, or organizing a symposium—is that by engaging in some form of it (as a negative dialectics, for instance), we are at the same time putting the best possible face on the reality that criticality (and criticism) is in the wilderness. In order to be critical, we must convince ourselves that our sovereignty as critical thinkers is meaningful and tangible, even while acknowledging that this very sovereignty is the result of precariously occupying a mental space that is at once inside and outside power. We find creative, even pleasurable, ways to maintain the self-delusion—a suspension of disbelief—that our sovereignty as critical beings is beyond contradiction. It would be hypocrisy not to admit that my criticality is located both outside of and within these contradictions. If anything, this book reflects an ongoing struggle to reconcile the limits of criticality (and criticism) with a continuing desire to imagine that the questioning of things might have some relevance beyond a relatively closed discursive space or community (that is itself constituted both inside and outside power). It is emblematic of the endless circularity of reconciling one’s doubt and skepticism with a sense of commitment to art and artists. The kind of thinking that privileges doubt may dwell in a precarious state in relation to various audiences and receptions (academic, non-academic, or other), yet we also understand that skepticism can be fodder for the radical chic mill. Doubt and skepticism are infinitely marketable. It’s a truism that criticality and/or criticism is perpetually in crisis, and that dissent can be recuperated for other applications; e.g., dissent as an iPhone app. Yet one may also conceive of doubt as the prerequisite to a commitment to art, artists, and people. Once we work our way through doubt, or at least assuage our skepticism, commitment and engagement may ensue. And so we might consider doubt not as anathema to commitment, but rather as the necessary prerequisite for it. Although this may seem an odd way to commence a book that organizes 25 years of art criticism, writing, curatorial projects, interviews and other activities into seven distinct yet interrelated chapters, I like to think that by acknowledging the limits of criticality (without surrendering to an ethos of post-criticality), an ethical position can still be defended, although this too may be a form of self-delusion. And so one is left in a continuous state of conflict and uncertainty: does any of this activity and production matter? What does “matter” actually mean? Why remain committed? Each time a portal seems to emerge through which to make an exit from this field, I cannot step through it.
Before encountering Baudelaire, Marx, Benjamin, Marcuse, Adorno, Foucault, Greenberg, Steinberg, Krauss, Bürger, or even Barthes, it was the writings of American critic Harold Rosenberg—in particular, his 1972 book, The De-Definition of Art—that convinced me to engage with contemporary art. Rosenberg (born 1906, died 1978), is perhaps most associated with the notion of “action painting” in relation to the Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s. Yet it is within his criticism of the late 1960s and early 1970s that we find an effort to scrutinize the contradictions of art and the art world—many of which remain with us today. Rosenberg offered a direct engagement with key issues: the putative death of art, the dematerialization of the art object, Conceptualism, performance, the art-as-life/life-as-art discourse, participatory art, the relationship of art and politics, the avant-garde and mass culture, art and the academy, among other matters. In “DMZ Vanguardism” Rosenberg argued that although the ideological conditions of negation that were a prerequisite for the making of the historical avant-garde were no longer applicable, the idea of vanguardism (or a “socially reconciled avant-garde,” as he puts it) had become a stronger driving force than ever before in the field of contemporary art, because of the need to perpetuate the mythologies of the vanguard’s social defiance. He therefore characterized the vanguardism of the late 1960s and early 1970s as a “demilitarized zone”: “In sum, while art today is not avant-garde, neither has it been absorbed into the system of mass culture … ”. He suggested that contemporary art endlessly reconstituted or reproduced an already outmoded logic of crisis that had once belonged to the historical avant-garde period, as a kind of bad faith theatrics. In “Set Out for Clayton” Rosenberg weighed in on the debates concerning art and life, aesthetics and the real, and the democratizing effects of art: “If there is no difference between art and life, there is no difference between the artist and his public. Instead of representing creative mysteries, the artist becomes a group leader. Collective projects, not the cultivation of individuals, are the aim, and it is sufficient that participants are kept cheerfully occupied.” For all of the doubts he harbored regarding certain forms of art (as well as certain claims made about art by artists, critics, curators, historians, and others), Rosenberg was more concerned about the deleterious effects of mass culture, having absorbed the lessons of Adorno and Horkheimer’s book The Dialectic of Enlightenment, and in particular their chapter on the “Culture Industry.” And so Rosenberg maintained faith in the notion that art still had the capacity to generate a space for the self-development and self-expression of the individual as a necessary bulwark against broader social homogenization and political repression.
A participant in the quasi-academic milieu of the Whitney Independent Study Program as a Critical and Museum Studies Fellow in the mid-1980s, I endeavored to hone the skills that would enable a critique of art’s inter-relationship with institutions and power, while at the same time learning how to operate as an institutional curator within those same systems of power; I somewhat naively imagined that it was tenable to construct a discursive space in which new forms of critical interrogation could root out inequities of power, pernicious ideologies, and other societal evils. Yet I harbored doubts.
The transaction wherein a museum offers a platform to an artist for the performance of a critique is not simply an instance of the benevolent institution supporting and protecting artistic expression (the permissions granted by invitation); it also reflects the increasing power of tolerant institutions—and, by extension, the institution’s benefactors, constituencies, and publics—to absorb, assimilate, and weather such critiques. During this early period, it was Jean Baudrillard’s writings that began to enter my system like a disease (the symptoms of which occasionally return). The alluring pessimism and seductively hypnotic disenfran-chisement of art that surfaces in Baudrillard’s essay “Gesture and Signature” in the 1972 book For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, seemed a powerful antidote to the claims being made about art’s transformative capabilities, or its critical powers:
“Modern art wishes to be negative, critical, innovative, and a perpetual surpassing, as well as immediately (or almost) assimilated, accepted, integrated, consumed. One must surrender to the evidence: art no longer contests anything, if it ever did. Revolt is isolated, the malediction “consumed”… Modern art, midway between critical terrorism (ideological) and de facto structural integration, is quite exactly an art of collusion vis-à-vis this contemporary world. It plays with it, and is included in the game. It can parody this world, illustrate it, simulate it, alter it; it never disturbs the order, which is also its own.”
At the time, Baudrillard seemed to capture one of art’s fundamental problems (or, at the very least, one of my problems with art): that art really did not pose any problems, because as an object of exchange, it embodied and endlessly reproduced the broader economic, social, and cultural logics already embedded in its DNA, so to speak. Contradictorily, however, I endeavored to maintain a sufficient amount of faith that there were art practices capable of problematizing normative social and political conditions—which I often identified with the institutional-critical art of contemporaries and friends such as Mark Dion and Andrea Fraser. My doubts would resurface whenever I observed the increasing compatibility and interdependency between institution and the purveyors of (institutional) critique. I probably expected that when museums invited artists to produce critical inter-rogations, such commissioned interventions might lead to a fundamental transformation of the power and economic structure of the museum. But it became apparent that institutions were basically outsourcing critique to artists, and though these artists understood the contradictory conditions of their practices, and often played along in sophisticated ways with their so-called complicity, this situation was unnerving. ■
Excerpt from Joshua Decter’s preface to Art is a Problem ©2013 the author, Joshua Decter, and the publisher, JRP|Ringier.