March 28th, 2009


The arrow and the frame

It's 1987. Art is a zone for the enactment of symbolic reparations for real injuries to real people: natives dispossessed by colonial adventures, women oppressed by patriarchy, blacks up against apartheid, gays besieged by AIDS. Welcome to the art world depicted in Sandy Nairne's series of films State of the Art, now available in its entirety for free in the art documentaries section of the Factual TV website.

It's fascinating to watch these films 22 years later. The perspectives and preoccupations in them seem very 80s, very PC. The self-declared criticality of the artists interviewed seems, in retrospect, weirdly conformist. The films reflect the institutionalisation in the 1980s of movements which had been marginal in the previous decade: identity politics, post-colonial, queer and feminist perspectives. Gender and race are "constructs without an objective basis in science", open (apparently) to change if they can be "interrogated" by sufficiently critical artists, those willing to "intervene and raise questions". The recurrent themes in the films are identity, politics, power, the victimhood of minorities, guilt, cultural imperialism, patriarchy, objectification, critique. These themes are being raised by people in 1980s clothes, at 1980s biennials sponsored by 1980s banks, opened by 1980s politicians who make 1980s speeches before returning to their 1980s agendas of privatization and incentivization.

State of the Art probes deeply enough into these contradictions to question the questioning: to be aware that an Australian biennial in which Aboriginal artists are featured might be part of the racism it seeks to displace (the Aboriginals say as much), that an Eric Fischl painting of a naked woman can be accommodated into the system of objectification it seeks to refute, and that when Cindy Sherman, commissioned by Vogue, claims to be subverting the magazine's imagery ("amongst all these gorgeous women in the magazine there would be these really sick little people"), she's as likely to confer health on her own images as infect the other images in Vogue with their sickness. As Sherman herself puts it, "I wanted to enter the culture. I was also making fun of the culture as I was doing it". In 1987 I could have said exactly the same thing. I was also wearing the same specs --the obligatory frame design of 1987, Rayban Wayfarers. All the ambitious, entryist social critics were wearing them.

1987's dance moves -- and I mean that metaphorically -- were as predictable as its spectacle frames. When the ambivalence of art begins to look like a way for entryist artists to have their cake and eat it, when satire starts looking a tad too enthusiastic for the things it's supposedly "undermining", along comes a critic to point out the "hypocrisy". Here's curator Joan Borsa on Eric Fischl's paintings of naked women in suburban bedrooms: "Many of Fischl's paintings simply restate the attitude towards women that is so prevalent in the commercial patriarchal culture he denounces. In this way, Fischl's work succumbs to the culture it attempts to expose. Once purchased, many of those desirable objects are absorbed back into the very culture they critique."

Hmm. Fischl's work succumbs to the culture it attempts to expose? I wonder if it could do anything else? His images go "back in" to the culture? But were they ever outside it to begin with? The argument between Borsa and Fischl isn't actually an argument at all, it's a field -- the field of the 1980s. Think of an argument as an arrow, pointing in a particular direction. Think of the context of the argument as the field, defined by a frame. The argument is an arrow contained within a frame. Conventional wisdom says that the most important thing is what direction your argument, your arrow, is pointing in. Are you with Borsa, or are you with Fischl? The important thing is to choose! But let's bracket positionality for a moment. Let's say the most important thing is the frame.

Or, as the film quotes Stuart Hall as saying: "Broadcasting reproduces with remarkable exactness the forms of parliamentary democracy and of democratic debate upon which other parts of the system are constituted. For though the major parties sharply disagree about this or that aspect of policy, there are fundamental agreements which bind the opposing positions into a complex unity. All the presuppositions, the limits to the argument, the terms of reference which those elements within the system must share in order to disagree. It is this unity which the media underwrite and reproduce." Implicitly, the art system works the same way.

I happened to be reading this entry on my Friends Page yesterday. Pickwick describes how, on visiting the TV Tropes website's Race Tropes page, which talks about racist stereotypes and exoticisation, he found ads for "Asian girls for love & marriage". "Well done there, Google AdWords. I suppose it's nice that you're illustrating the point," he commented. "Mind you, it can work the other way - if I'm reading my forums while logged out, it's amusing to note that homophobic threads always attract ads for gay dating sites, and anti-Muslim threads attract ads for saris, usually."

Maybe -- just maybe -- it doesn't matter whether you're anti-gay or pro-gay. What matters is that you're looking at gay topics. That's all Google AdSense cares about, and maybe it's wise. You're on the topic, you're in the field, you share the framing. I'm reminded of how my Secret life of Eurabia piece discovered Norwegian fascists with an amazingly deep knowledge of Islamic history and the pre-14th century concept of "dhimmitude". The only other people so well informed are, of course, fundamentalist Muslims.

The Politics episode of State of the Art sees a sorry succession of recantations. Victor Burgin has -- in the name of "complexity" -- abandoned the revolution in favour of entryism and the micropolitics of identity. Leon Golub admits that while being owned by Saatchi might change his work, he hopes his work will change Saatchi. Terry Atkinson can't take "left wing heavy booting" seriously any more, and is delving into that exemplary 1980s genre, Magic Realism.

Only Beuys really emerges as a strong, radical figure (his work still looks great), though the film catches him in the narcissistic process of signing hundreds of posters of his own self-portrait, like a successful self-mediator playing the star game. You can't help wondering whether artists so easily marked by the 1980s were simply chameleons in the previous decades, too. If they changed their spectacle frames or the cut of their jeans so easily, why not change their politics too, calling for revolution in the 60s and 70s, speaking of "complexity" in the 80s?

At that point -- being me -- I can't help swiveling my gaze over to Japan and saying "You know, you guys are well out of the whole critique / hypocrisy schtick, that guilty, angry circle of reparation and recrimination we call art." No Japanese artist ever stood up and proclaimed that they were outside of society, critiquing it. And no Japanese critic then rose up to point a righteous finger of accusation, declaring the artist, after all, "complicit" and "hypocritical". That tedious ritual -- one which goes back to Romantic ideas about the artist being, somehow, outside of society, a spokesman for the mad, the visionary, the downtrodden -- simply doesn't waste anyone's time in Japan. A Japanese artist (and for "Japanese artist" here we could substitute "Western designer" or "Jeff Koons", notably absent from State of the Art) can wear this year's trendy glasses without issuing semi-obligatory post-protestant statements expressing cautious condemnation of the society that made them. Time saved.

I've often thought of something Brian Eno told Wired magazine in 1995. "My tastes aren't that different from other people's," Eno told Kevin Kelly. "I always know that if I like something now, enough other people are going to like it soon enough. For instance, when I got into female body builders, every guy I knew was saying, Oh god! It's gross! I said, Oh yeah, this is just the last wall of resistance before they finally admit that they think these women are enormously sexy. Sure enough, they do now. I just admit to my tastes sooner. I don't have any embarrassment about what I like. It doesn't threaten what I've liked before even when it appears completely inconsistent with it. I don't mind the tension, and I don't think I have to compromise my whole theory of life to accept this thing. If I'm attracted to something, I immediately surrender to it. I offer no resistance to being seduced. Because I offer no resistance, I think that I sometimes touch things more quickly than other people do."

I don't claim I could ever capitulate, myself, with such stylish speed (I still hate the Lisa Lyon look, for instance). But if the frame is really what counts, and the arrow is what spins, giving in to Lisa might also be time saved. Anyway, she's stronger than me.