We live in a moment of extreme ideological confusion. The Soviet Empire and cold war seem to have have ended almost overnight. Like so many social and political spectacles in America now, the Clarence Thomas – Anita Hill drama seems to have come and gone without an author, and no one with a radical or conservative label can provide it with an appropriate script. Magic Johnson, a globally revered heterosexual sports hero, has the HIV virus. Clearly many assumptions and categories on which people have been depending to make sense of their lives have crumbled.
The degree of our confusion can be felt in our language. In the last couple of years the discussion of culture has been shot through with words like quality, multiculturalism, minorities, ethnicity, Eurocentric, community, margins and mainstream, each one emotionally loaded and intellectually vague. Like all buzzwords, they tend to encourage not curiosity and responsibility but complacency, defensiveness, finger-pointing and rage. When words get in the way of seeing, they must be scrupulously defined or else shelved. We seem to be unable to do either.
Does anyone realize the degree to which our words and categories have broken down and how much communal intelligence and will it is going to take to rebuild and reinvent them?
While our cultural language can now produce, at least in me, a kind of vertigo or nausea, our art is healthy. No dominant tendency exists and any attempt to fashion the kind of art star that was commonplace five years ago is immediately suspect. This is a good time for abstract painting, for video, for photography, for the kind of sculpture that defines itself within the context of the site for which it is made, and for theatrical thematic installations that combine different media, such as photography, found objects and painting.
The art world grows ever more international. New Yorkers can regularly see contemporary art from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. Several European countries have been exploring America’s reputation as a culture of cultures. Chicano artists have been shown in France. A broad survey of African-American artists is being planned for Japan. In the United States the achievements of African-American artists have still only begun to be recognized. A recession that is squeezing numerous galleries and museums must not be allowed to stop a process of aesthetic justice that was well underway last season and that is having an increasing impact around the world.
This is a good time for the kinds of discussions within artists’ studios that had been largely absent from the hyped-up, money-laden ’80s. In New York, many more artists are talking to one another about art and ideas and the world around them. Many artists are willing and eager to be installed alongside very different artists in group shows. Among artists of all kinds there is a longing for clarity and communication.
The need to struggle with the confusion of the moment is apparent in the countless panels organized across America in 1991 to discuss issues like multiculturalism, quality and power. I think these panels have generally been more revealing for their inconclusiveness and stalemates than for their answers. The down side of choosing panelists because of race, gender and sexual preference is that it puts pressure on almost everyone on the panel to represent 21 particular position, which tends not to encourage conversation but to reinforce walls.
In short, there is a lot of artistic energy and more honesty among artists than I have seen in a while. But we are also stuck. In the privacy of coffee houses, studios and galleries, there may be real openness and discussion, but in the public arena, we have become a culture of buzzwords and positions, and almost nothing is being engaged. The peer panel process of the Endowment offers one of the few forums where real debate between a variety of positions is not so much encouraged as expected to take place. Compromising this process in an America in which people are consistently being pitted against people would be one more sign of a national failure of vision and nerve.
The crisis of the National Endowment for the Arts has caused real damage. In 1989 people throughout the United States were judging the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano without feeling any responsibility to look at them and think about them first. Columnists had a ball writing derisively about Karen Finley covering herself with chocolate, but which of them actually saw her perform? The feeling that it is acceptable to sit back and judge the creations and behavior of others from a few images or from a few inflammatory remarks in a newspaper is a sign of a provincial nation. Like it or not, the Endowment has become a symbol of our cultural will and ambition as a nation.
Since 1989 we have had a harder and harder time getting beyond the immediate effect of words. This can be felt across the political spectrum. For example, I constantly hear pronouncements about European art and culture. I am the child of European parents, I have been around European art from the time I could walk, and I would not pretend to know what European art and culture really are, or what a “Eurocentric ideal” is.
Everyone has his or her Europe. Mine is an apostle of doubt, curiosity, independence, individual worth, dialectics and spiritual aspiration. The Europe that guides me has seen very well the dangers of stereotypes, demagogues, straw men and group thinking, and is uneasy with all of them.
We need generalizations, but they have never betrayed us more than now. When we say African art, we are usually referring to the art of sub-Saharan Africa, but Morocco, Libya and Algeria are Africa, too. At a recent symposium organized by the Center for African Art in New York, contemporary African artists said they did not consider themselves African, and that the category “African” was a Western construct. Nor did they indicate that they felt obliged to be more sensitive to work in the villages and cities they grew up in than they are to the art the encounter throughout the world. They asked to be treated as individuals. They want to be looked in the face.
I think we should now be looking for artists whose work helps us to feel that we can look our artistic, political, psychological or human situation in the face.
One of the large dilemmas the art world is struggling to see clearly is this: On the one hand, there is now a great deal of pressure to acknowledge the existence of a racial, religious and sexual essence. There is a deep yearning to find and protect some core of history and identity that members of each race, religion and sex share and that are believed to play decisive roles in the way each member of that “group” responds and feels.
On the other hand, there is now widespread agreement that we are all hybrids and an insistence that none of us has easily definable limits. that each of us can be anything we want to be. and that any attempt to impose physical or intellectual limits on anyone because of race, religion, sexual preference or gender is intolerable.
One point of view believes in something fixed and unchanging, the other in fluidity and change. One insists upon the necessity of approaching artists within their particular contexts. the other assumes that each of us flows into multiple contexts and can be evaluated in a multitude of terms.
My sense is that the relationship between these two historical pressures, one insisting upon the weight of ethnic, religious and sexual identity, the other upon a global perspective, is totally unresolved.
And that a lot of conflict and anxiety in the air now, including the confusion of critics as to how to evaluate or even talk about work by artists from other cultures – or even how to begin defining what another culture is – is a product of this irresolution.
In my opinion, any serious critic of contemporary art now has to be responsive to both this ethnic and this global pressure, but he or she has to be a good deal more convinced about the imagination and intelligence of artists who demand to be approached within their own terms than about artist eager to throw their responses to art and history into the combative, risk-filled, whoever-said-life-was-fair world arena where the greatest glory and influence are conferred.
Perhaps the clearest sign of institution confusion in the art world is the impasse over the word “quality.”
I think we should stop using the word.
I want to be very clear what I am saying here. I am talking about the word, not the idea. I was brought up almost next door to the Museum of Modern Art and my earliest memories of the museum are a child’s awe before van Gogh and Gauguin. When I was 11 years old I visited the cathedrals of Chartres an Vezelay and the caves of Lascaux. I am always looking for art that offers an encounter that is intense, multi-layered an inexhaustible. I am drawn to art that can show me better what I already know, and that can show me aspects of myself and the world that I have been unable or unwilling to see. Any art that succeeds in doing either is spiritually illuminated, whatever its content or form.
When I am dealing with the art of a culture clearly different from my own, what I want to understand most is the experience of that art within its culture – in other words what happens to someone in that culture when he or she encounters or lives with that scroll, or mask, or painting, or effigy or mound of sand or earth. Once I feel the depth of response to that art, I will always respect it and its tradition.
Does that mean I will automatically see it as the equal of the art I value most? No. But it does mean that the object and its culture will become part of me, that I will begin to try to engage that culture in what I write, and that I will have a better way of measuring the object against others that culture produces. And it means that I will be able to consider the strengths and limits of my ever-changing, ever-elastic, unpossessable culture better. It also means that I might – and indeed do – either find a cultural comparison totally inappropriate, or consider the object every bit the equal of art I value most.
One reason why I think we should stop using the word quality is that in the realm of contemporary art, far more often than not, the word now gets in the way of the recognition of quality. Consider the effect of the words “good” and “bad.” If you say a work of art is bad, you usually dismiss it without further thought. If you say to yourself, a work of art is good, you will probably remember it, but the word often functions as a license to turn the page or to go on to the next room. The word “good” tends to stop the process of feeling and thinking that all good art sets in motion. When you are so worried whether a work upholds the highest standards, you are less likely to recognize what that work has to offer, particularly when its inspiration or message or content is different or difficult.
To insist on the word “quality” is now to insist upon control. Some of the most influential contemporary art challenges a sense of control. It is only through a relinquishment of control that a full experience of any art is possible.
One problem with calling a moratorium on the word “quality” is that it gives the impression that those who do not use the word do not care about good art.
The most serious question is this: If we do not use the word quality, is there any way of assuring that the very particular aristocracy of experience that the best art offers – an experience that carries within it a recognition of all that human beings are capable of and share – will be respected and preserved?
I believe this experience can probably only be respected and preserved now if the word “quality” is put aside. I also believe that right now the weight of responsibility is not so much on the wielders and brandishers of the word as it is on those who resist it. The value of art that has been overlooked or that has not yet been appreciated cannot simply be claimed; it is not enough to write about art offering historical and political analysis and contextual information. All the art that convinces and endures has been written about with knowledge, passion and poetry, and with a built-in responsiveness to respected aesthetic positions either openly hostile to that art or disinclined to take it seriously.
When language is equal to the experience of art and the writing has sufficient national outlets, the problem of doing justice to the art in question will resolve itself. Reviving our language, doing justice to good art wherever and whatever it is, and preserving the spiritual vitality and core of art, may amount to the same thing.
Michael Brenson delivered these remarks in February to the National Council on the Arts in Washington, D.C. He was an art critic for the New York Times for nine years.