Tuesday, April 9, 2013

On art and artists in Asheville, contemporary art and its implications (Is something rotten in the art scene?)

The Question

For years, Asheville has been seen as an arts destination. The reasons are simple; lots of artists result in lots of art produced which enters the market, which draws in the money, which ultimately draws in more artists and the circle slowly but surely perpetuates itself. Whether or not artists can squeek out a living in such conditions is an entirely different question from the one I will be asking today and it can be found in a conversation, which this article will try to dovetail into, from some two years ago printed in the Xpress. Similar topics have been raised later on Craigslist and Ashevegas. The question that will be dealt with here is the state and nature of contemporary art, its (non)existence, and its representation here in Asheville.

Contemporary art seems to have been largely redefined in Asheville. Whether this is a mistake or a concerted effort is unclear. What is clear however is that within this definition are included various practices such as crafts, pottery, fabrics, performing arts, music, and so on. The term therefore gets rather muddied by a definition which itself is blurred because it does not know what it wants to be. In a typically postmodern pluralistic way this definition could be satisfactory, but only until ontological questions arise. The only way to solve this issue is to truly define what one is talking about. Here we should therefore make the distinction between contemporary craft and contemporary fine art. It is always within the definition of contemporary fine art that contemporary craft is included and ultimately represented. When one speaks about contemporary art, one is really speaking about contemporary fine art, with its tradition rooted in painting, sculpture and the avant garde.

Aesthetically speaking there may not be much of a difference between what one would call contemporary craft and contemporary fine art and that is fine, what one sees however is the implication in the reasoning behind creating it. There the difference is between two types of injunction, that of the struggle and that of enjoyment. Firstly, by and large the history of avant garde art (which unfortunately today is as much a simulacrum as it is a myth peddled by commercial interests in art) is that of the radical leftist struggle directly opposed to the conservative enjoyment (small pleasures, beautiful images which nonetheless result only through chaotic production, the enjoyment is in the making already and not just in the finished product, and so on). Secondly, that same history was split into two independent epochs, that of the early 20th century transgressions of values and the elimination of boundaries of art and late 20th century resistance to its appropriation by the market. It is as if to circumvent the original strategy of defining ourselves and our art, we have accepted the conservative ethos of enjoyment precisely so that we would not have to deal with the burdensome task of having to explain our position and ultimately defending it against possible criticism, here resistance ceded its position to appropriation. This was apparent already in 1985 on the national level, when Hal Foster wrote in his polemic Against Pluralism that “ as a general rule pluralism tends to absorb argument” and that “one can only begin out of a discontent with this status quo: for in a pluralist state art and criticism tend to be dispersed and so rendered impotent. Minor deviation is allowed only in order to resist radical change.”

Art for pure pleasure doesn’t need to be defined, it simply is, and that is why it becomes pedestrian and uninteresting as soon as it is made. It is not wrong to create such art however (therapeutic effects of such art are well known), but it is on the other hand a devious comparison which suggests that art borne out of pleasure is directly synonymous with art borne out of struggle. Here I believe the old Abstract Expressionists (most of whom did not have their first solo exhibitions until they were well into their 40’s and 50’s) would laugh at just the simple suggestion of such a comparison and it could be said that their tendency toward disliking Pop art is rooted in this differentiation between art for pleasure and art as a struggle. It was easy for Pop artists to make art and get famous by celebrating consumerism because of the struggle by the Ab Ex painters that smoothed and paved their way. It is as much a case these days, here and now, in which art for pleasure has largely sidestepped the need for ontological struggle precisely because it was the earlier struggle by serious artists that made this situation possible. This art eventually replaced and devalued its predecessor on the condition that it can use it as its philosophical undercurrent. The avant garde tradition gets espoused no matter how duplicitous the art that gets created in its wake actually is.

Is it time to wake up from this dream however? No true contemporary art magazines do any reviews of Asheville art galleries or museums (art papers, artforum, etc. I don’t mention juxtapose because street art in my opinion belongs in the streets. By its inclusion in the gallery system its vitality gets completely lots, but this is another conversation entirely). Virtually no great contemporary artists, from New York, Los Angeles and so on, ever exhibit here. The one exception might be Mel Chin, who can however be considered local as he lives not far from here in Burnsville. This however has more to do with access to this artist, rather than the desire by the museum to promote contemporary or conceptual art.

The Response

The concern of the second section, or rather the concern over preemption of the response to the first, is the response itself. There are three kinds of responses to this conversation about lack of contemporary art in Asheville and unfortunately, despite best intentions by all participants, they do not resolve any issues, but rather perpetuate the symptom

First is the conservative, who says that ultimately artists that bring up this issue are just complaining for the sake of complaining, that they should stop looking for a handout, put up or shut up, and that they don’t want to pay with their tax dollars for someone to sit on their ass in a studio, and so on. This reaction is completely wrong and uninformed, and misses the point completely, because it attacks the artists and not the idea originally espoused. It reaffirms its position through the constant negation of a serious problem, by substituting it with the artist and treating it as a symptom. It says, that the problem is only a problem because the artists themselves are the problem. Second is the liberal position, who instead of confronting the issue does what the conservative does (substitutes the artists for the problem), but elevates himself above the rest by giving out “enlightened” advice rather than attacking the artists. This is also completely wrong and uniformed. If we were to look at the two responses, we will see that they are two sides of the same coin, one an obverse of the other, but acting as if they were different. Here a Zizekian example might shed some more light on this issue. It concerns the injunction by a father to his son to go see his grandmother. The authoritarian (conservative) father says to his son “you know that this weekend is your grandmother’s birthday! Go and see her and wish her a happy birthday and it doesn’t matter if you had other plans because she is your family and that is the most important thing!” On the other hand the post-modern permissive (liberal) father says to his son “son, I know that you have some things to do this weekend, but it is your grandmother’s birthday and it would be really nice and she would enjoy it so much if you came and wished her a happy birthday” and so on down the line. The difference here is that the second injunction says that not only do you have to do exactly what the first one proposes, you also have to like it. Similarly, the advice given out by the liberal carries within it this hidden aspect, that not only do you have to listen to what I say, but you have to like it as well.

Both opinions only seem to enter the conversation not to really solve a given problem but to diffuse the situation because they believe the situation is just fine the way it is and it’s the fault of the others that things are the way they are.

The third type of opinion is the complete agreement with all other opinions and as such is useless to propel the conversation further. I believe we need a fourth, critical opinion which never appears and this is the opinion which actually deals with the real problem at hand, is able to understand it, reflect on it and give it a new impulse by creating a reaction to it. The problem with the first and second response is that as soon as the conversation starts, it quickly devolves into personal attacks without confronting the actual issue. This is due to the misreading and misinterpreting of the given problem. If the issue is contemporary art, then because of its broad definition, there is too much at stake for everybody, which gives way to feelings of being challenged.

This challenge is however what could be considered criticism. After all, the word crisis is included in the word criticism, and the main function of critique is to bring a certain crisis to the subject at hand. The need for art criticism in Asheville is long overdue, and I believe that there are two types of responses/obstacles to be overcome. First, which says we need criticism, but only the good kind of criticism. For most artists, critique is harsh and personal and typically recalls the art school style criticism that most students loathe and fear. This type of criticism is too harsh and personal for most artists to take publicly in a forum or in the media. Second, is the belief that criticism is inherently bad and should therefore not exist because it stifles creativity. It is the latter attitude that gave rise to the giving out of E for effort in school and is largely responsible for the elevation of mediocrity to the level of high art, and ironically is itself responsible for stifling creativity because it disperses the potential rather than concentrating it.

The Afterthought

Just so the above are not just empty words, I propose a few steps that we as artists can take in order to counteract the pluralistic tendency toward art and hopefully recover its true center, which is inherently anchored in philosophy and polemic, rather than cheap entertainment and consent.

Start a radical left think tank about art and philosophy

Set up philosophical symposia and presentations during exhibitions, at your studios, your houses that deal specifically with art and cultural critique

Start writing and publishing a zine with actual art criticism, a blog like this one might do, and I am open to having others publish their ideas, opinions and criticisms


(to be continued)