Saturday, March 23, 2013

Artist Is Shocked To Discover Postmodern Theory May Be Relevant To Real Life

I recommend Joshua Alston's thoughtful piece in The Feminist Wire, "Confessions Of A Black Morrissey Fan." I had some immediate thoughts about it but ultimately decided to leave Alston's comment section free of abstruse reflections from this particular long-winded White person. So I'm writing them here instead.

Alston brings up that classic predicament of enjoying art by an artist who personally is odious in some way, whether they violate one's core principles or they are bad, bad people. (I've written about this issue before). Though Alston doesn't mention it many such articles weigh the guilt of giving money and support to the odious artist through CD purchases and the like with the enjoyment the listener or viewer gets from the art. Many also point out that there are many other, better artists out there to whom one could devote time and money, people who could use the money and publicity. So there are typically three considerations for consuming art by odious artists:

1. The effect on the artist,
2. The effect on the viewer, and
3. The effect on (and existence of) the cultural climate in which the art exists and is consumed (i.e. the other artists, what the act of consumption means to the outside world, and even the cultural context in which one may try to judge how relevant the particular act of odiousness is).

For Alston, though, there is the added predicament of not only disapproving of the artist, but also being the object of the artist's aggression because he belongs to a class of people who are made out to be "The Other" by the artist's actions (Morrissey is "probably" racist according to Alston's analysis*, and Alston is a fan who is Black).

When I (a woman) consider the experience of consuming art made by egregious misogynists, of being The Other while involving myself with the artwork, it is different than, say, reflecting on Caravaggio's murderous personal life and thinking, "What an asshole. But this painting is nice." Because Caravaggio's crimes had nothing to do with me it is easy to assume the role of Any Given Viewer of his paintings. He intended his paintings to be seen by viewers, and I'm a viewer.

But when the odiousness is misogyny I am not Any Given Viewer. I am The Other and the object of alienation. And yet there I am, seeing and judging the artist's work as if I belonged in their very closest circle. It is akin to being accidentally invited inside someone's home when one knows one is not ordinarily welcome. As a viewer that can put one in a position of unexpected power, or it could feel eerie or gross. Even when the viewer puts aside their personal involvement and adopts a clinical interest it is impossible to have that no-questions-asked feeling of invitation into the direct experience of the art.

To put it another way, I said "[Caravaggio] intended his paintings to be seen by viewers, and I'm a viewer." However when an artist's othering mindset is shared by their culture, and often by the viewer's culture as well, they probably think of a generic "viewer" as automatically not inclusive of that Other. It's a type of attitude which many people are unaware of having in which they categorically speak of "people" and the Other as two separate groups. For instance, "All these immigrants are making it really hard for people to find jobs," ("people" isn't inclusive if "immigrant") or "What nobody understands is that when women say one thing they really mean another," ("nobody" means "no man").

So when the misogynist artist makes art for a "viewer," they don't mean me, and why would they?

It's also an attitude that precipitates the tendency of TV producers to cater to a generic "audience" of imaginary middle class white men, although that is beginning to change. Yet Others in the audience experience this alienation (often as skepticism) at the same time that they get swept along in the emotions and narratives that the artists intend to create, which ultimately distances the Other from the direct experience of getting swept up. The Other instead experiences "getting swept up" as relative to his or her feelings of alienation, and relative to his or her relationship to the artists within society.

A rare flipping of the "audience is automatically male" script: famous "sweater girl" Jane Russell enjoys the other side of the sexually objectifying gaze in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The scene is unusual in that, I assume, it was written for the benefit of women in the audience at the expense of male audience discomfort. [Image: A sporty white woman holding a tennis racket frolics through an array of muscled white men wearing tiny skin-colored swimsuits and sticking their butts up at her. In the background more Adonises in tiny swimsuits strike showy poses while "working out" on gym equipment.]


Which brings me, as always, to postmodern theory.

I think most anyone can agree that in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, the Modernist era in art history, there was some very pronounced "othering" in US society. In a time before "women's lib," when the Civil Rights Movement was still organizing itself, and the phrase "coming out" hadn't even been invented, many groups were not intended to be part of the generic "viewer." And, more concretely, these Others were barred from success and influence as artists within the predominant avant-garde art world. And yet Modernist art and Abstract Expressionism were touted as a "universal" experience. Leading Modernist artists and critics believed that undeniably riveting ideas such as Jungian archetypes, gestalt visual experience and children's and/or "primitive" art were unifying, transcendent and universal for both artists and viewers. The pristine cavernous museums (and museum-like wealthy homes) were purported to create a vacuum around the art to replace the banality and specificity of cultural context. The goal was to allow The Artist Free And Alone With His Pure Art and The Uninhibited Viewer Alone With The Pure Art.

Mark Rothko, No. 14 nestled in the cavernous prime real estate of the MoMA.

It's a cool idea, but problems start popping up immediately. First off, it costs a freaking fortune to build and maintain a Modernist museum or home to facilitate such uninhibited Viewing In A Vacuum. How exactly you can achieve "universality" with such a massive glaring class barrier is anyone's guess.

Second, the overwhelming Whiteness and maleness of the artists (even Marcus Rothkowitz, famous for painting work that feels transcendent, changed his name to Mark Rothko because his given name couldn't transcend The Art World's WASPiness) and the overwhelming wealth of the gatekeepers of such artwork, must have created quite the sense of alienation for many, many people. One wonders, for example, how it must have felt for an African viewer to see famously African-mask-inspired Picasso paintings heralded as a universal "new" art, at a time when most African countries were under European colonial rule and most actual traditional African art was considered more curious artifact than art in European collections. One may also wonder what it was like for a woman to be told that de Kooning's immediate, urgently painted nudes were a "universal" experience of male desire (well, I don't have to wonder because someone actually said this to me in art school. My reaction was to think "yeah right, universal!" while also putting in a good faith effort to pretend to see the piece as a man; in other words I was swept along but with a sense of remove).

Willem de Kooning, Woman III.

And thus as people of color, people under colonial rule, women and eventually GLBT people began to have a greater voice in society in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, artists of those generations began making art that pointed out these hypocritical tendencies of Modernism of the 40s, 50s and 60s and attempted work that operated outside the Modernist paradigm.

My apologies, at this point, if you are not familiar at all with Postmodern art history or Postmodern art theory, because it's too complicated to describe adequately and I'm not going to try. You could probably skip to the last few paragraphs just fine.

It may be clear to readers familiar with Postmodrn art history that I'm gearing up to discuss Mierle Laderman Ukeles (the feminist performance artist famous for performing maintenance work in museums as art), Nam June Paik (famous for abstract sculptures made from screens playing abstract video art, which linked pop culture directly to High Art), the writings of Rosalind Krauss and Griselda Pollock. Or Yoko Ono who, as rumor has it, met John Lennon whilst exhibiting a work which crystalizes the postmodern emphasis on the interaction between viewer, artist, process and the institution of the gallery / museum: the viewer had to hammer a nail into a piece of wood hanging in a gallery (Lennon wanted to hammer the first nail; Ono said no, and they eventually agreed he could hammer in an imaginary nail-- a perfectly Freudian analogy for Lennon, who was married at the time that he and Ono began a sexual affair a few months after the hammer incident).

Of course this is far from the only way to describe the transition from Modernism to Postmodernism, or these artists' works. In fact what I described above is not really what I was taught in art history; I learned the "highlights" version of art history: important names of artists and the French philosophers who preceded them**, and that there were Fluxus artists, Minimalists, Feminists, Conceptualists and so on. This all helped in understanding Postmodern art theorists and critics such as Krauss, Pollock, Miwon Kwon and Laura Mulvey. And then suddenly the 1980s and 1990s were filled with important names of Black women artists, gay artists, artists documenting sex work, artists from Africa and Latin America, artists immersed in cultures of poor or "lowbrow" socioeconomic classes, and many more marginalized artists.

Maybe I'm just the last to catch on, but it took me quite a while to link the systematic Postmodern dismantling of Modernist framing with the blossoming of a new expressive language used by these marginalized groups. I think I had the idea that a bunch of artists simply got tired of the confines of Modernism and dismantled them because they happened to really, really value conceptual freedom and were very hung up on semantics. And then these marginalized groups swooped in and took advantage of this new art language and "identity art" happened. Now that I think about it, that's kind of a silly narrative.

It's especially silly since I kept reading Kwon and Krauss and thinking "well this is fascinating [and it really is!] but why does it matter that the viewer occupies the same space as the sculpture? Why does it matter that the artist's process shows? Don't people figure this out on their own? Why is all this attention being paid?" And mostly I wondered, "who uses this theory? Is this stuff even relevant outside of the MoMA?"

But those observations popping up during the social upheaval of the 60s and 70s, makes a lot more sense if you consider Alston's post and the experience of being an artist's Other (and, by extension, a marginalized group in society). I said before that part of that experience is considering the cultural context: well, that was part of what was missing from Modernist art. When sculptors were obsessing over the space in between the viewer and the sculpture, when Ukeles brought attention to the Museum building and staff, when Ono invited the viewer to puncture the board with the nail, when Paik brought pop culture (video) inside the Museum walls, when "Earth Artists" took the viewer outside of the gallery completely, they were bringing attention to the cultural context of the gallery and of art's place in the real world.

And as Alston has considered at length the relation ship between him as the listener, and Morrissey personally, he wonders, should he see Morrissey perform live? How will he, the listener, affect Morrissey by showing up in person? How will his showing up affect the cultural context-- will he be lending support to the phenomenon wherein Morrissey says racist things and is still fawned over, still put on a literal stage?

Alston's urgent and important questions would be irrelevant in the prevailing Modernist framework. Yet his emphasis on the power of face-to-face interaction and of the listener's effect upon the artist are of special relevance to Postmodern art. As artists like Ana Mendieta used their own bodies and personal narratives as the "canvas," and as performance art and "happenings" flourished, the conflation of the Artist with their art and of the Viewer with the artistic process were forced into the immediate present through face-to-face interaction and personally involved performance. Here was the perfect new language with which to raise such questions as Alston's, at a time when marginalized groups were raising such questions around the rapidly changing world.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaall that being said, however, I have absolutely no idea if Alston knows or cares about the concepts and history I just discussed. But it is pretty gratifying to recognize Kwon and Krauss's ideas in thoughtful, relevant pop culture writing like Alston's. Especially since after leaving very small confines of the academic art world, noooooobody ever talks about this stuff. Even contemporary (post-post-modern?) academic artists complain about the existence of all this fucking confusing elitist theory. Luckily, though, people like Alston are out there using it.

*So, whether or not Morrissey thinks or does not think any particular thing-- and whether or not he intended to make racist remarks, i.e. what is in his heart of hearts-- is not really up for debate in this post or comments. Because regardless of what Morrissey may believe Alston has written that he experienced Morrissey's actions as racism and that is experience is real. I have no reason to dispute Alston's claims of his experiences nor, let's be honest, am I actually going to look up the history of everything Morrissey has ever said. So this post accepts the undisputed reality of Alston's experience of racism. TL;DR please don't use the comment section to talk about if Morrissey is or isn't racist.

**Lesson learned: anything worthwhile was probably preceded by a French philosopher.

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