Whose Art, Whose Agenda?
The Critic Sees by Jasper Johns
You can now read John Holt’s answer to the question “What is Contemporary Art?” at Escape into Life. I think the questions he raises deserve a response.
He begins by saying that Kandinsky “anticipat[ed] a new era of spirituality and meaning in art, a new evolutionary stage in consciousness”, adding, “of course, that did not happen.” He then goes on to argue that “contemporary art” is a phenomenon of modern Western culture. Moreover, it is “phenomena…controlled by an agenda, a shifting cannon defined and leveraged by marketers and academics of taste within the Western Eurocentric tradition.” This is seen in contrast, he argues, to “non-Western preindustrial cultures” where art is “woven seamlessly into ritual, myth and everyday life.” And this begs the question: “Whose art is it anyway? What purpose does it serve (the people)? Is “contemporary art” authentic in any way and if so to whom?”
So far so good. But now Holt states that since contemporary art is a phenomenon of modern Western culture, then consequently the answer to those questions must be: “a white male continuum from the Italian Renaissance.” Which means, of course, that everyone else is “marginalised”, “unacknowledged” and “even derided”.
So far Holt has said nothing that I might take issue with, apart from thinking that his position is an extreme one. Taking such a stance can be useful for the purposes of debate. But of course having drawn into question the matter of who “controls” the conversation on contemporary art, Holt is not content to end it there. Given what he has said so far, one might think he fights for the people, that he would like to see the conversation undertaken in an arena where the common folk determine the path of inquiry. Therefore he begins by quoting Loretta Sarah Todd, a Métis/Cree filmmaker:
But what of our own theories of art, our own philosophies of life. Our own purpose for representation? By reducing our cultural expression to simply the question of Modernism or Post Modernism, art or anthropology, or whether we are contemporary or traditional, we are placed on the edges of the dominant culture, while the dominant culture determines whether we are allowed to enter into its realm of art.
And here is the line in the sand that Holt draws. All of these art terms–even the question itself—he argues, are controlled by white men in modern Western countries.
We need to hear from The Others. This is what I take from Holt’s response to the question. And still, all well and good. I agree. It is the argument for hearing the voices of those who have been suppressed. Is that why he then goes on to say that “Art is the linguistic outpouring of the present moment”? Linguistic. There is no room in that term for a metaphorical reading of the languages of visual forms. Linguistic means the language of words. Here is where I begin to have trouble with Holt’s position. It’s not a minor point. From here Holt goes on to argue that “some aspects of modernist and contemporary art practices is a form of exploitation” of marginalized people, by “appropriating” their ideas and using them as “an exciting “other”…to spice up the narrative of the Western mind in search of something new.” Now the enemy is the Western artist himself, almost always a white man, keeping The Other down in a selfish search for novelty. To be exact, this is the enemy as it has been handed to us as the official story.
But that’s unacceptable. Did Picasso, for example, exploit Africans by appropriating some of their forms and ideas? If so then he also “exploited” clowns, bulls and bowls of fruit. He did not exploit them by virtue of his success. But his success did allow others to exploit them. And we all know who they are: dealers in African “artifacts”. If Africans are pushed to the margins in a consideration of Picasso’s art, it’s not because he did it. On the contrary, he loved and celebrated their work. Who then does the exploiting?
Holt thinks that Duchamp helped to initiate this questioning or deconstruction of the official story. And he ends his article with a description of a story by J. R. R. Tolkien. It’s not the fact that they are both white men, both representatives of that Western tradition that is odd. It is that Duchamp, probably more than any other single artist, influenced the particular discourse on art that we all participate in today, and that Tolkien actually stands apart from it. How to explain this odd contradiction?
In short, what is at issue here is who will “control” the conversation. This is the issue that Holt raises. By combining these two highly unlikely sources—Duchamp and Tolkien—Holt himself is attempting to get a handle on the discourse. And why wouldn’t he? Isn’t that what writers do? Just as Loretta Sarah Todd wants her voice heard. Not to drown everyone else out, but to be a participant. Duchamp is the darling of modern art discourse, the champion of discourse on art as art. The Authority. To somehow cobble that with the story “Leaf by Niggle” is to attempt to garner some control over that discourse while maintaining a support of the common lot—all of the marginalized others, the “little” people, to use Tolkien’s word. It’s a word he uses over and over in that story, which drips with sentimentality for the “little” guy of no consequence, just trying to get by. It’s hard to miss the overseers in the story who determine Niggle’s fate. Who are they?
“Leaf by Niggle” is more than sentimental and patronizing. It upholds the populist love of illusionistic art. It is not quite clear if Holt upholds populism in the arts, but it’s important to remember that one can give an arena to the voices of marginalized people without patronizing or romanticizing them.
Finally, Holt says, “And so I have the fanciful notion that all living artists, poets, musicians, dancers, dramatists, novelists, sculptors are somehow making art in preparation for a future existence into which they will enter at the point of their death.” Back to Kandinsky. We have here the notion of an artist as someone who has no active role in making the world here and now. Jean Dubuffet’s statement does not mean that artists abdicate the discourse on art, but that they will always complicate it—and I’m very glad that they do! Yes, they envision other worlds, but not because they are disengaged from this one. If all they are doing is preparing for a world that can only arrive after their death, then that leaves the conversation in the hands of academics, critics and businessmen. The most I can say for this position is that The Stranglers wrote a great song about it: Everybody Loves You When You’re Dead.
Mark Kerstetter steals time away from restoring an old house in Florida to write and make art. His story Mountain is the winner of the Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award. His poetry has been published in Shaking Like a Mountain, Unlikely Stories, Evergreen Review and other journals. He is the author of The Bricoleur.