Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Letter to Colleague / Lecture Ideas- Art and Politics in 2011

A while back, I was very glad to see your return to (art-making)- and your comment yesterday on Velasquez raised some interesting ideas about Art and politics, and I've got the germ of a humanities lecture/presentation forming. I would greatly value your thoughts on it.

In the news of course is Ai Wei Wei, the brilliant, uneven, and mostly apolitical Chinese avant-garde artist just recently held up as a model of muscular Chinese cultural leadership, and who is now in indefinite detention. Two years ago, a former soldier at Tienanmen took out his old photos and made paintings of them. These were not only suppressed, but nearly eradicated from the internet in spite of front page New York Times coverage. At the University of Washington, one of the Department Chairs (Zhi Linn) has been making traditional paintings based on hundreds of years of capital executions, as well as documenting Chinese labor in the United States - in Zhi's case, the extraordinary quality is essential to making the message much more emotionally resonant than the horrifying facts.

At a personal level, I noticed (the journey of several people from politics towards Art-making in various forms.) We haven't ceased to be political, but we have made Art-making an essential process of forming the substance, and dynamically expanding it, of our values. Critically, this is done in work that is not expressly political.

You may know Walter Benjamin's famous "Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," the art world's most overused defense of mass images and cultural production as, by their nature, liberating in the old Marxist sense. Somewhat ridiculously in retrospect, Warhol's diminished Duchampian work was identified- incorrectly I feel- with a general sense of liberation. The poetic and the humanistic, the work of the New York School painters in particular, began to be identified with privilege, while the massed, graphic, concept-heavy, ironic, anti-artisan, and propagandistic were identified with movements of liberation. To this day, in contemporary art, a huge contingent is contemptuous of traditional art values, taking a very unexamined view that the individuality, romantic, humanistic, poetic work is by nature intellectually unsophisticated and merely a commodity. This movement favors the conceptual, the anti-craft, the technological. This is driven by a historical association of the avant-garde with Marxism; its modern form is something of a politically disconnected art world creature. A visit to Target will tell both of Warhol's influence and his political vacuity.

But a strong counter-reaction has developed; oddly, as painting and drawing become less common as practice, they are becoming MORE valuable in the culture, and I would contend, (potentially) more threatening to many varieties of brutal oppression. And all without being expressly political.

The core of this idea becomes: political, religious, and scientific ideas are incomplete systems for forming coherent social values, and making social realities. Failed ideologies tend to become fundamentalist, and tend to crack in the face of unexpected pressure. Art, the most fundamental cultural impulse, defining better than any other activity what makes human beings human, is both an indispensable and inevitable system for building not only culture, but society as a whole, especially defined broadly, as distinct acts of creative execution in any form, from Las Meninas to motorcycle design.

Most especially, I am interested in how the act of art-making itself changes and deepens perception of life, and how this generates social norms in real society. Also, how this competes with commodified, or propagandistic, cultural production. ( Years ago at Reed, I read an excellent paper on the Beatles which contended that their love songs had a powerful and liberating social effect - In my view , his version of pop culture, humanizing, was the opposite of Warhol, which was literally fine art's version of wholly commodified culture.)

The arc I want to trace here is:

  • A) Art increasingly is regarded by scientists as the characteristic that most defines and distinguishes human beings.
  • B) How does Art make what we think of as us?
  • C) Expressive artworks, even by individuals doing non political work, are regarded as priority threats, requiring brutal suppression, by governments, religious, social, and economic organizations. Why?
  • D) Why would someone who has political influence and a potential career which can lead to substantial personal economic, social, and even spiritual rewards, move away from this toward the extreme uncertainty of art-making.
  • E) How does art-making, distinct from art-consuming, change one's thinking? (We can look to art There is interesting new neurology on creative thinking, for example, that sheds some light.)
  • G) What is the mechanism of social change leading from art-making? How does the visual experience exist as intellectual inquiry?
  • H) If Art is bigger than politics, what is the failure point of political thinking - what does it mask, and hinder?

What I have in mind is creating a one-hour lecture and brief presentation of my artwork - which is largely apolitical - but that links art-making and the resulting ideas with potentially profound political impacts. Ai Wei Wei is in prison for, it seems, making the inevitable conclusion and point of so many contemporary artists: so many structures of power are absurd, vain, cruel, greedy, and temporary.