New York is the center of the contemporary art world, and it is here–among the ever-increasing number of galleries that are consuming, kudzu-like, former light-industrial neighborhoods–that you’ll find some of the most imaginative, non-conformist, and independent-minded people on earth.
Not. In truth, anyone who–like me–has spent time in the company of artists, critics, and dealers knows that, east of Hollywood, a more narrow-minded, parochial, morally myopic lot you’re not likely to find. Especially when it comes to politics, where the narcissistically fashionable anti-Bush, anti-Iraq war, anti-American sentiment typical of our “creative class” holds total dominion. Now, if our artists’ “activism” produced decent art, we might, I suppose, excuse it as the necessary foibles of a class of people who, like rock-’n’-roll performers, are paid to remain forever adolescent. Unfortunately, given the unrelentingly jejune, cynical, ugly, ill-conceived, and utterly predictable results we see in the galleries, such is not the case.
Here’s just a small sample of the “socially engaged” (as with just about everything else in the excruciatingly self-conscious art world, quotation marks are required) work littering the post-election art scene. In a group show titled “The Presidency” at the aptly-named Exit Art–a nonprofit kunsthalle located in Hell’s Kitchen–we’re treated to, among other creations, reproductions of the official portraits of all 43 presidents, digitally altered to reflect their “corruption rating” on a scale of one to ten (two for Washington and Lincoln; ten–surprise!–for George W. Bush). There’s also a straitjacket painted with the American flag; and a line of plaques that list the “war crimes” of every president since FDR, followed by a hangman’s noose, alluding to the execution of Axis war criminals after World War II. In case we miss the point, the exhibition includes a drawing of the White House composed of the artist’s own feces (with an accompanying video apparently documenting its creation).
Down in Chelsea, we find in the American Fine Arts Gallery a show called “Election.” This aesthetic cavalcade offers such delights as a photograph by paleoliberal Hans Haacke (who in the 2000 Whitney Biennial had an installation piece likening Mayor Giuliani to Hitler) called “Star Gazing,” which depicts someone wearing an Abu Ghraib-style interrogation hood fashioned out of the canton of an American flag. Noted sculptor Carl Andre weighs in with “Welcome to Bush World,” a montage of images of Iraqis either dead, wounded, imprisoned, or suffering at the hands of American troops, mixed in with members of the Bush administration. There’s also a video showing disjointed scenes of Baghdad made last year by a member of the organization “Voices in the Wilderness,” which an explanatory wall label describes as a “peace team” involved in “resisting the war and occupation in Iraq.” What the label left out, not surprisingly, is the contempt with which most of the Iraqis I met in Baghdad viewed “Voices,” along with other anti-war groups then active in the city.
On 57th Street, the George Adams Gallery is offering “Bush-wacked”–which is, as its title suggests, a self-indulgent mess of anti-Bush propaganda: images of Bush 41 drowning in oil, Bush 43 shot Kennedy-like in the head, fortune cookies that contain Bush malapropisms. There are also oddly racist works, such as Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, a large drawing of Bush 43 seated next to Condoleezza Rice as he plays piano scales, as well as cartoonish pictures that include Bush urinating on Colin Powell. Subtle this ain’t. It’s not even mature. Instead of the hoary comment about modern art–”My kid could do that”–one feels like shouting at these gallery owners, “My kid thinks like that.”
Even more responsible art venues have fallen prey to the moral myopia of the criticize-America-first crowd. Just east of Times Square is a smallish, but well-respected, museum called the International Center for Photography. Running until the end of November is an exhibition of 17 of the now-infamous images of abuse and humiliation at Abu Ghraib prison. According to ICP literature, this display of downloaded photos highlights how new forms of photography “contradict the studied heroics of 20th century war photography” and demonstrate how war is “systematic cruelty enforced at the level of everyday torture.” A worthy theme. Except that the show–which bears the accusing title “Inconvenient Evidence”–omits any reference to Nicholas Berg, Paul Johnson, or the other captives whom terrorists beheaded in front of video cameras recording the deeds.
“We wanted to do an exhibition based around the pictures from Abu Ghraib,” ICP curator Brian Wallis explained to me. “The idea was to show how these images do an end run around the Bush administration’s expertly managed propaganda war involving Iraq.” What about showing the beheading videos, or photographs of burning bodies falling out of the World Trade Center–and do an “end run” around the mainstream media’s suppression of terrorist barbarism? “The ICP is a museum,” Wallis answered evasively, “we’re not a forum for dealing with abstract political issues.”
And here we have the truly infuriating aspect of the art world’s stabs at political relevance: They want it both ways. Their sensitive temperaments–and apparent belief that artists, whose education centers around color wheels and grades of brushes, have a clearer understanding of political and social realities than people who have built entire careers in these areas–compel them to speak out on the “issues.” But when challenged about the incoherency or outright idiocy of these statements, they retreat behind the excuse of “Hey, what do you want, it’s only art.” More aggravating still, humanitarian “outrage” expressed under the rubric of aesthetic freedom is nearly impossible to criticize, let alone stomach–especially when the outrage often seems based on the Republicans’ brutish refusal to extend the NEA gravy train to individual artists so they can create more valuable art equating the United States with our Islamofascist enemies.
This, at least, was the feeling I got at a seminar of “politically engaged” (again, the necessary quotation marks) artists in Manhattan recently. It was the same phenomenon I encounter all too often in my benighted corner of the world: artists who proudly show their latest “work” created with the explicit intention of assisting Kerry’s election (long ago, people called art like this “propaganda,” but never mind), while expressing anti-GOP, anti-war views as unvaried as pledges of solidarity at an old-style workers’ soviet. Weary of this uni-thought, I asked the panelists why, in a social milieu presumably known for its creativity, there existed such an unrelieved similarity of opinion? “Good question,” a gallery owner replied, and then proceeded to take a question from another audience member about the dire state of government funding for the arts.
Come to think of it, I don’t have an answer, either. Well, maybe I do. It seems to me that the more you listen to experts in any particular field–from foreign policy to economics to, yes, aesthetics–the more disagreements you find: informed opinion stimulates debate. Indeed, I’ve heard artists argue for hours over the merits of minimal versus conceptual art. Uninformed opinion, on the other hand, tends to be emotional, based on personal prejudice and reliant on the legitimizing power of consensus. Which is another way of saying, as New York Times art critic Ken Johnson recently suggested in a review of the Exit Art show, some “artists should keep their art and politics separate.” Few of us, I wager, care what Colin Powell or Alan Greenspan thinks about contemporary art–why should we care what artists think about Iraq or the economy? I’ll gladly pay attention to someone with the genius of Goya–whose “Disasters of War” prints are the gold standard for anti-war imagery–but to the majority of today’s artists, I’d say (to paraphrase Laura Ingraham), Shut up and paint.
–Steven Vincent is a freelance author in New York and author of In The Red Zone: A Journey Into The Soul Of Iraq.