Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Art in the New Nation of Obama

First the victory speech, in three parts (it can be clicked through), for anyone who went to bed early last night.



The right guy won last night, in my opinion the only possible guy. A McCain/Palin administration was unthinkable. I heard a number of people say they would move to Australia or Canada in such an eventuality. Then again, many spoke similarly before four years of Bush Père and eight years of W. Despite the suffering brought on by the Republicans - the wars, the sagging economy, the unilateral invasions, the stupid arrogance and secrecy, the lies and doublethink, the alienation of the US in world diplomacy, the hideous, hateful partisanship - America is amazingly resilient.

Obama has brilliantly revealed this. When he declared his candidacy in 2007, my first impulse was to consider it premature. That he was doomed to failure. That despite his obvious charisma, competence and compassion, America was still too racist to elect a President of color. I am nothing short of jubilant that he has proven me wrong. That he has jolted us to transcend all the pettiness and hate.

Obama is supremely eloquent, a master orator. He can bring his audience to tears or to plateaus of joyful expectation. But his is also a stern presence, promising that his election is just the beginning, that it will be a long, uphill battle to reclaim the promise of America. He might be a former professor of constitutional law, but also has the demeanor, the glare and righteousness, of a fire and brimstone preacher. Or of a strict father, whose approval we seek above all else.

His thesis - that we must all work together, burying the habitual immaturity, self indulgence and slackness, is a refreshing slap in the face, a slap that could well reverberate throughout the art world. And not just in the obvious realms of public and political art, which would by necessity address imperatives of a newly energized, engaged society. But also in general art praxis, where boring, obscure, self referential, slacker ironies would not so much be outlawed as just seem laughably empty, ridiculously lame, inappropriate. This is not to suggest that art under Obama would be humorless or politically didactic, or would revert to a neo-WPA socialist realism to greet the New Depression. Rather that some of the nonsense would fall away naturally, finally revealed as bloated, top heavy, pretentious and irrelevant.

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Art that is “bloated, top heavy, pretentious and irrelevant” has in fact been here for some time. However, the watershed event of Obama’s election, and of his candidacy being fairly unanimously and enthusiastically embraced by the art world (at least here in New York, but I assume across the country), tends to make explicit what was once implicit. It brings things to a head.

I am not suggesting the incoming president, nor his yet to be appointed cultural czar, will be setting the agenda for art practice and content. Merely that the art world does not exist in a vacuum. That exposure to and advocacy of larger political and economic concerns might lend a note of “clarity and quality of vision” (as per Ian). It could well invigorate, change tolerances, allow for a certain impatience with prevailing self indulgence or banality.

This is not a top-down model, of politically correct art being vetted by a new administration in Washington. But with the economy in the tank, the ordeal of a hotly contested election just behind us, and the promise of greater challenges and trials yet to come, it would be ostrich-like to ignore the effect this will most likely have in our not so insulated precincts of art.

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It’s good to see some spirited debate. But has this thread become a moratorium on the failure of art criticism? An interesting topic, to be sure, but not the original one. Let me add that, while several AWS contributors hold jobs as critics, criticism is not actually published on this site. Here we seem to deal with the meta-. To borrow from the political arena, and for lack of a better word, here we are “pundits”. In any case, I would agree that “criticism is a symptom, not the sickness”.

The original open ended query was how a new administration might influence the arts in America in terms of praxis, policy, institutions, priorities, moods - the zeitgeist, if you will. It should be obvious that no one suggested aesthetics be mandated by any government, whether in Washington or more locally. And I imagine the new administration might have a few things on its plate before arts policy comes up. Although we often hear the bailout money loaned to banks might be invested in repairing a decaying infrastructure of roads, bridges, schools and other public works. It smells a bit like FDR’s New Deal, putting Americans to work for America. In that case, I wonder about a 2008 equivalent to the old WPA that would put artists to work, and the political baggage, “correctness” or otherwise, that might accompany the government in an expanded role as patron of the arts.

In their debates, Obama and McCain argued over strategies for streamlining the federal budget, for pruning programs that don’t work. There were dueling metaphors. McCain wanted to use an axe, Obama a scalpel. Both are good sculptors tools, and both are subtractive; after their use, you wind up with something physically (if not aesthetically) less. The new administration, acknowledging the shrinking economy, has fronted with notions of pragmatism and austerity, a new elegance and modesty of means, a new spirit of sacrifice. They will start out by eliminating a lot of “bloated, top heavy” programs.

Art, mostly made and sold in the private sector, will undoubtedly follow suit, if only due to economic necessity. Even should there be money to support the physical creation of certain fatuous and self indulgent work, a decimated customer base will soon winnow out the excesses. There will be a cleaning of the stables. And to continue the metaphor, some of the stables themselves will need to close their doors.

But the real question is whether the effect on the art world will only be economically determined, or whether the government will set a tone that trickles down. I obviously support the latter contention. Art is not created in a vacuum, and responds to a larger political regime, sometimes in accord, sometimes in opposition, frequently in ways that cannot be predicted. To use one of Catherine’s words, art in America feeds “opportunistically” at a larger social and cultural table, where it receives education, information, news, theory, idle chatter, jargon, rumor … as well as funding.

(These texts originally appeared in an Artworld Salon thread on changing practices in the art world under an Obama administration.)

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