You are here

Art 'R' Us

America, being the land of images -- home to Hollywood and Madison Avenue, the beacon of freedom that illuminated the world, the source of homogenizing culture -- doesn't seem a likely candidate for iconoclasm, but looks are deceiving.
Ted Byfield

Issue #20, April 1995

'Cultivate your legitimate strangeness.'
— Rene Char

A few years back, at the invitation of an appropriately (which is to say, rectangularly) bespectacled and coiffed art-world maven, I found myself facing a highbrow panel discussion peopled with some serious heavyweights. Of all the speakers present, though, only one captured my heart, the suave novelist Anton Shammas. After wryly demurring on the subject of 'theory,' he confessed that though 'the wily third-worlder' inside him wanted to disrupt the decorous proceedings, but went on to speak simply of those theoretical moments that had captured him: Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's notion of a minor language, Walter Benjamin's image of the storyteller, and Mikhail Bakhtin's meditations on just how slippery language can be. On hearing this list, I sighed with contentment and anticipation like a marquise in a libertine novel as she awaits a tete-a-tete with her heartthrob; unlike a marquise, though, I wasn't let down — nor was I on the next day when I cheerily bought Shammas's novel, Arabesques. So it was all the more dismaying when, a few months ago, I found my way to Pere Lachaise, Paris's graveyard to the stars, but, as I passed the graves he describes so affectionately, was unable to find that of Guattari. Maybe it was best that way; at perfect moments like that, my shyness comes out and I feel like a bumbling suitor only to be bedeviled by something wilier still.

Language is the field I till and my playground too; 'art,' in a word, is a sideline. When asked, I usually say that I work as an editor and occasional writer; when Im in an expansive mood, Ill sometimes admit that I 'collaborate' with a friend on what he calls 'art.' Almost never do I identify myself as an 'artist' — I'm not comfy with the term (it seems like frill, a too-proud name for what I do, better left for others to bestow as an honorific). In that respect, I'm quite American: I don't put much truck in art.

Practicing art for several years has taught me a few valuable lessons — about the domain of my responsibility (where my considerations and anticipations of possible interpretations should leave off); about the difficulty of fishing for forms of expression that are committed yet equivocal, enigmatic yet comprehensible; about the role and play of commentary and elaboration, both my own and others'. Whether I'll continue to make artwork, I don't know; whether I'll ever be able to stop — even if it's not at all evident that thats what I'm doing — might be a better question. In fact, I know it is a better question, since it cannot be answered.

So I claim that 'I don't put much truck in art,' yet go on to assert that I may not be able to stop or may continue without even realizing it. What's that about? One could give 'subjectivist' answers to this question, that is, answers that trace the roots of my reluctance or uncertainty to character traits — and it seems reasonable to assume that they might tell some of the story, maybe even much of it. But not all of it: after all, it seems safe to assume that my earlier metaphors, those of the expectant marquise and bumbling suitor in a French novel of two hundred years ago, were mostly literary — I may find some sympathetic chord in it, but the social construction of my self surely isn't eighteenth-century and French. No, if I'm reluctant to style myself an 'artist' or doubtful of the validity of 'art,' I've been imbued with these values by the culture in which I was raised.

America, being the land of images — home to Hollywood and Madison Avenue, the beacon of freedom that illuminated the world, the source of homogenizing culture — doesn't seem a likely candidate for iconoclasm, but looks are deceiving. This country has become terrified of images, frightened to death by their ambiguity, mortified by what they might or might not mean or say. 'Left' and 'right,' or what pass for these, might disagree on which images they dislike, but they largely agree on a structural point: images are powerful and the most dangerous ones exert the most appeal. Images entice and lead people astray, it is said; they encourage or maybe even force people to become things, to believe things, to do things. One will say, for example, that 'racist' representations affirm, condone, perpetuate oppression; the other will say that 'immoral' representations — of sexual matters, of violence — will corrupt our youth. Social scientists, as often as not the handmaidens of ideology, step in to study the question — and, in doing so, regardless of their findings, lend it institutional credence ('While the findings are inconclusive, experts have studied...'). Small wonder that they do: the very thesis, however complex its machinations, that an image can somehow make someone believe or do something is patently idiotic. Except when this belief predominates — in which case it is not this or that image that makes anyone do anything but, rather, the unspoken injunction you will do this or that. And artists, if they've realized this simple truth, aren't about to clue anyone else in on it: doing so would dispel what little 'power' they have the power that's attributed to their work and, through still more magical thinking, has devolved upon them.

Still, this loathing of images is entirely misplaced, which is, I think, why it is a loathing. Worse still, when it mixes with Americans naive belief in social transparency (a faith that the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth will reveal our 'selves,' our 'truth') and deep-seated antimodernism and anti-intellectualism, the result is a kind of aesthetic know-nothingism:

Art is elite. Picasso is a genius. I don't know about art, but I know what I like. Yeah — a black canvas. Artists are elitists. Norman Rockwell. Art is irrelevant. The Thinker. All those striped-pants artists ever do is sip wine at trendy openings and kiss curators' asses. Advertising is getting really arty. Andy Warhol was an artist alright — a con artist, haw haw. Arts and crafts fairs. Arts become degenerate — that Mapplethorpe stuff, the NEH should get the axe. You gotta have art. Two trendoids contemplate a nail in a wall, until a worker comes up and hangs a painting on it. 'I went to the MoMA and the Modern and the Guggenheim; tomorrow I'll spend the day at SoHo galleries.' Dunk a crucifix in piss and sell it. Victim art. The hand pointing at the other hand. Performance art. I could've done that. A starving artist. Marcel Duchamp and his bicycle wheel on a stool. Abstract public sculpture in parks and plazas. But the children will get ideas. 'Interesting...' Art expands your horizons. That's not art, that's politics. Art doesn't reflect societys interests. Starving artist sale! sofa-sized paintings at low, low prices. But this is just ugly who the hell understands this crap? It'll be a mortal blow to American culture if art is privatized. Looks like a Jackson Pollock, if you ask me. My life is my art. There should be a law. Children are born artists.

The flipside of this public twaddle is the elegant privacy of the vacant and careerist 'art world,' which has fled to the high ground of arcane, directionless, and self-referential pseudo-academic theory — a group thats very much party to the belief that art is somehow 'more.' Fringed with up-and-coming designers, wayward architects in search of big-buck renovation, hordes of self-styled 'intellectuals' (who'd never dare to call themselves that), and baroque teenyboppers, this crowd gads about in silly costumes from openings in New York to conventions ('fairs') in Germany, touting this years model as the problematic height of the perennially deconstructed avant-garde myth.

Or so, at least, we're told.

Aside from this model's reductivism (and I am surely not the source of that), it has a big problem: founded as it is on public commentary, appearance, and all manner of productivist and professionalist assumptions, it fast-talks its way around the source of it all — artists, or art workers, if you will. That is, suckers (like me, I suppose) whose efforts, beyond being 'expensive' and 'time-consuming,' are born of love and hate, of the ambivalent spaces between things and words and pictures, of a communicatively self-indulgent desire — need, maybe — to express something quite unclear, for reasons we don't really understand, to people we don't know.

In itself, this is a difficult quest to undertake, let alone to maintain year after year — particularly when failure looms large, is everywhere, and takes many forms. One can be talentless, uninspired, uninspiring; be at the wrong place, at the wrong time; be talented but unsellable; be too impatient and give up; lack connections; be overly modest or overly immodest; a woman and/or non-white; get a few too many horrendous reviews; be impossible to deal with (e.g., overly neurotic); become mired in one's job; be overly principled and refuse to talk the necessary trash; be too theoretical or cryptic, or be too simple and earnest; be unwilling to ingratiate oneself; be on the tail end of a waning trend; be seen as somehow unpresentable (e.g., physically unappealing or 'lowbrow'); burn out too quickly; or give up for myriad reasons. Or, failing all of the above, ones efforts might never quite click.

This isn't a sob story about how difficult it is to 'be' an artist — on the contrary. In the grand scheme of human activity, it's fairly easy to involve oneself in art, and it's pretty pleasant too: one gets to express things and, with some perseverance, might even make a little money doing so. To do it for a living is another story — that almost certainly involves years of thankless effort, moving to one of a handful of cities where the cost of living is a constant menace, forsaking a career for odd and uncertain jobs (mostly menial), and plunging into the art world in a big way, to dwell among people who're either rich or would have you believe they are. Much of this can be adventurous and fun; much of it can be hellishly boring and demeaning.

Still, the people in the funny clothes are the ones who are most legible at such gatherings: they simply exude creativity, emanate nonconformity, project something that seems somehow vaguely related to things avant-garde. The ones who somehow seem less visible, though — when they aren't temping, waiting tables, hauling sheetrock, or slaving over a hot graphics setup — are more likely to be' artists.' People laugh at the waiter's line 'Well, I'm really an artist,' but, aside from simple spitefulness, what exactly is so funny? Their seeming delusion? What's deluded about working at a menial job to support an effort that seems more important? Their pretension? That seems unlikely, for lots of reasons — not least among them that we're all, more or less, in that situation. Their failure? What, does the fact that someone isn't Sappho or Michaelangelo or William Gaddis or Tricia Brown make their efforts thereby worthless? Worthless to whom, and according to what criterion? Or, instead, is the commonplace nature of this bind the source of humor? Hardly grounds for laughter, that.

There's not much point in going on, because the source of the humor is all too clear: there are many, many people who would like to express something, somehow, and our society (and our culture) makes it impossible for them — many, many of them — to do so. These people are legion, far more numerous than the liminal fringe of actor-waitrons and artist-carpenters. You knew the joke I was referring to, you'd heard it before; had the rest of what I've said, about why the joke isn't all that funny, occurred to you? Probably not. If this seems piddling, think again: questions like this tell a great deal about who or what we identify with — for example, abstract, impersonal forces over the individuals (who, collectively, form 'people') they demean, distort, and destroy. These forces have no power outside of the people who blithely identify with them. This is a pretty simple idea.

There are a thousand valid grounds for criticizing art, contemporary art, artists, the art world, the classicization of art, formalisms of all types, the practice of art as we understand it, the shallowness of much art, the role that art plays and the interests it serves, and so on. So what? For every object, practice, institution, belief, construction, or contingent arrangement of affairs, there are valid grounds for objecting to it. That there is room and cause to object to something, anything, is a testament to the peculiar breadth of the world, but doesn't mean that one should do so. On the contrary, it means, if anything, that one should be very circumspect — and, above all, creative — with one's criticisms. One should choose one's targets well.

So — not forgetting, please, the fact that unthinkingly drifting along the currents of abstract, impersonal forces is both a hallmark and a mode of inhumanity — how does one choose one's targets? Well, in large part, ones targets are as predetermined as the means of choosing and criticizing them — and, don't forget, as predetermined as the notion that 'one' 'can' or 'should' 'choose' 'targets' at all. The fact is, we have very little choice on the matter of choosing our targets of criticism: hence the paragraph of pabulum above, about how 'Art is elite. Picasso is a genius. I don't know about art, but I know what I like. Yeah — a black canvas,' and so on. This is most of what we hear uttered publicly, officially, widely, privately, its most of what you hear in your head; the rest of what we hear is 'anecdotal,' or, say, 'deeply imbricated in the superstructural practices that, historically, have brought about the notions of the 'individual' and 'expression,' and further have served to conflate and reify these notions in the form of the commodified, fetishized 'artwork.'' That's not a quote — that's just a Marxist-type summary criticism I jumbled together off the top of my head. I got it from the same place Cain got his wife, the same place we get everything in our lives: elsewherever. The same place that 'art' comes from.

And if that seems obvious, well, it is. It isn't thereby boring or without importance.

From the standpoint of various rather arch schools of thought, my remarks might seem lazy, loopy, trivial, self-serving, amoral, deluded, uncritical, reactionary, and/or counterproductive. Perhaps they are: after all, I might seem to have argued that the fundament of ethical criticism is 'creativity,' which is surely the most mystified of mystified realms (for those who think spatially; I prefer to think — or to think that I think — in time). Still, I see no other fount of ethics, of criticism, of production, of expression; still less do I see a way of codifying the — literally — absurd impulse to continually reorganize the boundaries of the organism or groupuscule (i.e., to act) in a way that will guarantee an ethics, morality, propriety, or even a purposiveness.

'Art' is hardly the answer; if anything, it is an empty field (or open field, as you will) that permits one to say and do things that no other field permit and that, in itself, is a fine deal. 'Art,' really, is a fancy, transhistorical name for miscellaneous — a category the anthropologist Marcel Mauss rightly denounced (from the standpoint of a taxonomist, which is not mine) as 'the signpost of ignorance.' Were it a question of will, of vision, of beauty, this rant would be Romantic, right up there with the ceaseless, malingering drivel of Picasso — but it's not; rather, it's a question of bastard wiliness, of confusion, of an accidental magnificence that needs no observer to complete itself. What is art? 'Art,' I wrote in a paper in eighth grade, 'is in the eye of the beholder, unless he's wrong.' I stand by this definition.

So here I have sought to lure you, the reader, away from the sorrows of rigor — away from public discourse, away from perceptions, away from spitefulness, away from formalism and relentless evaluation — and toward the silliness from which what we call art issues. Whether I've succeeded, whether you're convinced (or even remember) my lament about America's iconoclasm, I don't know. Whether whatever impression this 'essay' makes lasts, I can't know.

Whether it tells the whole story...well, it doesn't, of that I'm certain — but, as Jacques Lacan once said: 'I always speak the truth. Not the whole truth, because theres no way to say it all. Saying it all is literally impossible: words fail. Yet it's through this very impossibility that the truth holds on to the real.'

And whether the things I've said are true...well, as Cervantes put it: 'and even if they were not, and some pedants and graduates turned up to snap and growl at you behind your back in the name of truth, you need not bother about them a bit; for even in they convict you of a falsehood, they cannot cut off the hand with which you wrote it.'

Or did they?

Ted Byfield lives in New York and works as a freelance editor and occasional writer. His collaborative work (with Lincoln Tobier) has been shown in New York, San Francisco, Hartford (Conn.), Chicago, Hamburg, Gratz (Austria). His last author bio in Movement Research said it all: 'He's up and down about the art thing.'