In the 1960s and early 1970s, art and politics were peas in a pod. For die-hard critics like Barbara Rose, who lived through these decades in New York, that was the time to be alive. Art was good then, and now it sucks.
That all may sound rather black and white, but its literally the argument Rose makes in the pages of this month’s Brooklyn Rail. While elegantly worded—like anything you’d expect from a life-long art critic— “The Politics of Art” succumbs to an almost fairytale devotion to an era of true political art. It’s a crank of an essay, and unless you believe that yesterday’s art heros are better than today’s “kitsch purveyors”, you should be miffed.
The problem with contemporary art, for Rose, is how it pretends to have political content, when in reality it looks like the cultural industry it’s supposed to push against. (If it looks like a duck, and talks like a duck…)
Very little of this work, whose apology is that it is “consciousness raising,” amounts to more than superficial agitprop, often executed in the same slick style as the publicity and propaganda it presumably criticizes. This process thus duplicates in art the same nightmare we see everyday on TV or the Internet.
One has to wonder who she’s thinking about, since she’s talking about work over the span of forty years, and doesn’t offer up a single example. But oh, well. Whomever these artists are, art schools haven’t made them any better either.
Today’s artists, she believes, are no different from the vapid art they produce, taught to keep in line by the professionalization of art practice. “This painless integration into the cultural status quo is, moreover, the implicit objective of leading M.F.A. programs,” she claims, “which rather than developing “old fashioned” manual skills, teach budding artists how to thrive within this system. Thus the Whitney Biennial is but a step up from the Whitney Studio Program.”
Fair dues to Rose on that. Too many recent M.F.A. graduates take no risk in their work thus producing collector-friendly work upon graduation. Further, when the main benefit reaped from taking part in M.A., M.F.A., and post-professional programs looks like nothing more than a bigger Rolodex—and an “in” with leading museum professionals, art dealers, and the like—some serious re-evaluation of higher education needs to occur. It’s here, however, that Rose choses to engage with an irrelevant and stodgy Greenbergian debate of high versus low culture:
Today there is no shame on the part of artists pandering to and celebrating the base and uneducated taste of their public. At the Metropolitan Museum an exhibition of Warhol’s followers ends in a gallery exalting art as business.
There are arguments against the Met’s Warhol exhibition—having influenced nearly everyone, Warhol is hardly a unifying theme for a show—but Rose isn’t making them. Instead, she indulges in a kind of elitism that doesn’t have much place in criticism today. To say that this type of show is for the “base and uneducated” misses the mark that, in fact, there’s nothing wrong with uneducated taste. Often, it communicates more clearly and honestly than what’s fretted about within the white cube anyway.
From here, Rose launches into a back in the day argument, and that’s when things really start to go downhill. “[T]here was a time,” Rose waxed, “when artists risked physical abuse and exile in an attempt to change the course of history.” Mark di Suvero, an artist who exiled himself to France from 1971-74, is her poster child:
The newsreel footage of police beating a crippled Mark di Suvero at an antiwar protest in Chicago remains a sickening reminder of that dark era. In protest di Suvero erected a 100-foot high Peace Tower in Los Angeles on which other artists hung their works in solidarity. Ultimately di Suvero went into exile vowing not to return to the United States until the Vietnam war was over. To keep his word, he did not attend the funeral of his beloved father, instead creating the monumental steel sculpture “Mon Pere, Mon Pere” in his honor which could not be seen in the U.S. until the war ended.
Di Suvero seems to be an extreme example of, assumedly, political devotion—not every artist hopped over the border during this time—and it doesn’t offer much in the way of advice for artists today. And what would that get them, anyway? It’s not like art solved all the world’s political problems in the 1960s and 1970s. Would today’s young artists be better off by moving to France? Making towers of peace? Or protesting more? It’s telling that Rose never mentions the Occupy movements in her essay, which caused a board shake-up at Momenta Art.
It’s unclear, what, if anything, Rose knows about these contemporary movements, and that’s a problem. It means she’s dividing entire generations of artists into do-gooders and do-nothings, without any apparent purpose or end. It means the act ultimately looks like nothing more than ethical one-upmanship. For young people, that’s a pretty rotten deal.