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Sat, Mar. 28th, 2009 02:17 am
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.

35CommentReply


(Anonymous)
Sat, Mar. 28th, 2009 02:57 am (UTC)
Diversity Sucks

"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."
Are you amazed because you didn't think Norwegian fascists (or any other kind) don't know who and what they oppose? How much more convenient to reduce them to stereotypes of stupid racists who can't even add with the help of their fingers let alone people who do the research to justify the ancient adage "Know they enemy."


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Mar. 28th, 2009 03:27 am (UTC)
Re: Diversity Sucks

I don't know, I felt like these Norwegian fascists might have known all about the STASI fifteen years before, and then switched to stuff about UFOs and how giant reptiles run the Federal Reserve, and then gotten interested in the Y2K bug, and then started educating themselves about radical Islam. And of course the only people who know more than Norwegian fascists about the giant reptiles running the Federal Reserve are... the giant reptiles running the Federal Reserve themselves.


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uberdionysus
uberdionysus
Troy Swain: Black Box Miasma
Sat, Mar. 28th, 2009 01:53 pm (UTC)

Totally.

Personally, I really wish this whole drive to have artists engage like philosophers would diminish, diminish, diminish.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Mar. 28th, 2009 09:52 am (UTC)

Jeff Koons is largely garbage. Everybody knows it, except him.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Mar. 28th, 2009 01:39 pm (UTC)

I don't agree. I think he's a kind of shaman of capitalist dreams, and his persona is his greatest achievement. The absolute absence of criticality towards his own culture is perpetually refreshing, and I say that as someone ultra-critical of that same culture. He's an "honorary Japanese". He doesn't believe in freedom outside the system. For him, freedom is entirely inside the system. He has invented a new baroque metaphysics of satisfaction (and yes, that includes self-satisfaction).


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Mar. 28th, 2009 01:45 pm (UTC)

Is the search for originality necessary for progress or a tedious ritual? Did you have a change of heart on friday?

I think you've misunderstood those statements. One is about critique, the other about originality. I'm saying that what we call art in the West is often the enactment of this pantomime where an artist says "Our system is bad", and is rewarded by our system, and then a critic points this out and says "You're a hypocrite!" That doesn't happen in Japan. But art does happen in Japan, and it can be original. The abandonment of critique is not the abandonment of originality.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Mar. 28th, 2009 02:31 pm (UTC)

Having now read the TV Tropes Race Tropes page, I'm appreciating the Google AdWords approach even more. The structuring oppositions between this page and the TV shows it "critiques", and between the racist and anti-racist positions it sketches, are paper thin. The text is a successionof racial stereotypes ("Arabs are terrorists, billionaires or belly-dancers") attributed to TV, but amplified and further simplified here. Field and framing is everything, direction counts for nothing. Only East Asians are allowed, in this text, some actual cultural differences (the "good difference" of their intelligence). The concluding thought is that "personality is not connected to skin colour" -- ie a wishy-washy universal individualism the text has already contradicted in the East Asian example, which allowed a connection between a certain race and certain cultural and biological traits (intelligence, family orientedness).

Edited at 2009-03-28 03:38 pm (UTC)


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rinusvanalebeek
rinusvanalebeek
rinusvanalebeek
Sat, Mar. 28th, 2009 03:38 pm (UTC)
the frame and the arrow

if i understand right, every framed discussion is self-referential. The arrow is intended to extend the discussion into society, add political (or other -ical) aspects to it.
A discussion within a frame opposes views: the status quo against the critic. The dualist result (a struggle for progress) fits into darwinist ideology.

Framing is like setting up a catalogue of interests.
Outside the catalogue there is a whole range of topics/lifestyles/products/etc you can choose from -> the frame and the arrow

Inside the catalogue ( a chosen frame) you can engage in every activity, blogging and commenting included -> the arrow and the frame



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(Anonymous)
Sat, Mar. 28th, 2009 04:26 pm (UTC)

I always find it a bit strange that you're constantly banging on about how there's no such thing as being outside society, and yet you've exiled yourself from your homeland and seem to be extraordinarily bitter about British society.

No Japanese artist ever stood up and proclaimed that they were outside of society, critiquing it? Not even Yoko On, a self-proclaimed outsider? There are surely shedloads of Japanese artists who have felt alienated from Japanese society, given the numbers who end up in Europe or the U.S. No Japanese artist peddles outsiderish romanticism? Really? Never read a Murakami novel? Never read Mishima's Confessions of a Mask? I dunno.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Mar. 28th, 2009 04:48 pm (UTC)

I always find it a bit strange that you're constantly banging on about how there's no such thing as being outside society, and yet you've exiled yourself from your homeland and seem to be extraordinarily bitter about British society.

I don't think I'm "extraordinarily bitter" about British society -- I grumble about it and knock it, which is a totally British thing to do, you know! -- but I also rave about the bits I like.

Anyway, using the logic of today's entry, the direction I'm pointing in (praise, blame) isn't the important thing. The important thing is the field I'm in, the frame of reference. And that is still a British frame of reference, wherever I happen to be physically.

Sure, there are some Japanese artforms which are more critical than others -- Itami's films, perhaps. And what you notice in many of those cases (Dazai, Mishima, Itami himself) is that outsiderdom, insofar as it is possible, results in death. In Mishima's case, it was an either/or situation: either I integrate my view via a military coup or I must die. Do you see the logic behind that? It's that there is no halfway house, no comfortable inside-outside stance. You must either become a new mainstream or perish in the attempt.

I was talking, though, mainly about Japanese visual artists working in Japan. Yoko Ono is a cultural hybrid, having done almost all her significant work outside Japan.

By the way, Mishima's Confessions of a Mask is very much not a finger-pointing identity politics tract about the need for gay rights. Rather than seeing the narrator becoming engaged in a political struggle with clear enemies in the state or social convention, we see his sense of being different turn into a series of violent sado-masochistic fantasies. Difference is experienced as pain, because society cannot be blamed.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Mar. 28th, 2009 07:14 pm (UTC)

"I've often thought of something Brian Eno told Wired magazine in 1995."

Really, how often exactly?


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fishwithissues
fishwithissues
jordan fish
Sun, Mar. 29th, 2009 01:34 am (UTC)

I feel pretty much the same way about "conscious" / "socially-aware" / rap I was into in the early 2000s. See also: <a href="http://beyondrace.com/>Beyond Race Magazine</a>. Cool name!


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harveyjames
harveyjames
harveyjames
Sun, Mar. 29th, 2009 02:28 pm (UTC)

Have you read much of Alan McGee's twitter? You get a really hilarious insight into what his life is like. Here is what he likes: swimming in the pool

Here is what he dislikes: WAGs in his pool, cunts in his pool


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stanleylieber
stanleylieber
Stanley Lieber
Mon, Mar. 30th, 2009 06:43 am (UTC)

keep going!


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Apr. 1st, 2009 05:41 am (UTC)

OKAY, BOURDIEU.


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