Even before finishing Chris Gehman’s “Rhetorical Manoeuvres in Art, Part 1,” I find it almost irresistible to check my artist’s statement for the crimes of inflated rhetoric he rightly describes (full disclosure here). Reading further, I find I agree with Gehman’s diagnosis: the current generation of emerging art school graduates, struggling to place ourselves in a highly competitive and financially precarious “industry,” all too often become complicit in over-inflated and intellectually obfuscating descriptions of our work. Whether this be through the production of our artist statements, project descriptions, or grant applications, the practice is pretty endemic, and Gehman provides ample examples (though the jab at knitters is, I think, a little bit unfair for a practice that continues to be trivialized as feminine and crafty).
Whatever the causes—including the structure and costs of arts education, the demands of the market, the habits of critics, the utopian ideals of many artists, and public funding structures—inflated political claims don’t tend to flatter the artist and her work or serve the interests of the social movements and political struggles she cites. This last point is crucial: while university-trained artists (and art writers, as cheyanne turions states in her response to the column) may frequently produce work out of a desire to be involved in political struggles, they are just as frequently distanced from these struggles because of their class position.
I am reminded of a wonderful presentation recently given by artist, curator and writer Luis Jacob as part of a panel on “Contemporary Anarchism and the Arts” at the North American Anarchist Studies Network Conference (January 15-16 2011). In his presentation, Jacob performed a nuanced art historical analysis including several Jean-Léon Gérôme paintings as well as contemporary work by Joan Simmel and Chris Curreri, making the argument that artworks primarily become political not through their content but through their ability to elicit a response on the part of their viewers, demanding that they take a position, which entails both genuine thought and decision making. Jacob contrasted making a decision to making a choice, the poor substitute for thought offered to us by the (neo)liberal tradition. Jacob, arguing that enabling singular thought is not only a political but specifically an anarchist move, simultaneously showed that this depends not on the content of the artwork, the intention or political orientation of the artist, but in the way that the work of art comes to life though interactions with its viewer. In effect, he argues, we are all potential anarchists, whether we like it or not.
What I find so astute about Jacob’s argument, and so liberating, is that it redistributes the onus of ensuring the political efficacy of art throughout the entire process of production, up to and including the viewer. This gave me occasion to think about what I would describe as a distinction between performative and representational politics in art. I take performative politics to describe the implication of an artwork in an actual political process that is taking place in the social world. This crossover of art and politics can occur in the process of production or in the reception of the artwork, or perhaps in both. As Jacob argues, this type of politics needs not be accomplished through explicitly “public” artworks such as those labeled social practice, but equally through arguably the most socially detached and representative art form, painting. In keeping with this lack of formal discrimination, an artwork that is supposedly engaged in a political practice (or a political action itself, for that matter, such as many street demos), may fail to perform affective politics and remain in the realm of the representational. The distinction will be made in time, by the collective of producers, critics, and viewers affected by the work. The necessary condition for artworks to perform a politics is simply that they work—that they enable processes of singular reflection, contributing to the process of forming political agency in their audience. In this, there are obviously degrees of effectiveness, i.e. how many people are affected and what they do as a result. For better or for worse, this is not something that can typically be measured.
Gehman ends with a disquieting affirmation of Barnett Newman’s exasperated dismissal of artists as birds who had better concentrate on being bird-like instead of attempting to school themselves in ornithology. The deskilling of artists, Gehman argues, constitutes forgetting how to fly, made all the more embarrassing by overblown claims of transatlantic migration. If flight—i.e. the production of politically effective artworks—is indeed the goal, and I would agree here, we must figure out how to get off the ground.
In all of this, I hear a rather urgent call to attention. As artists and/or writers, it is our responsibility to clearly articulate two things in relation to artworks. On the one hand, we must be honest about how the work of art comes to life in the world (from production to reception) and the way that this implicates both producer and product in relations of production that have real political repercussions. On the other hand, we have a responsibility to clearly articulate the full scope of our political aspirations—to state our positions. Finally, we need to be clear about the distinction between these two things, and to be honest about whether they meet or not. This, in my mind, is what constitutes real criticism, and it is something that artists, critics, and audiences need to practice more often. At the risk of pushing this metaphor too hard, I’ll end with this: sincere critique is perhaps the only thing that will make us realize we’re actually chickens bred to stay obediently in our pens, flapping around ineffectually while laying tasty little eggs for the market.