August 25, 2009

Four Dialogues 1: On ‘The Port Huron Statement and the Origin of Artists’ Organizations’

During the New Langton Arts debate a few weeks ago, Renny Pritikin, who with his wife Judy Moran directed the organization in its first decade and more, mentioned to me an essay he’d written that elaborated some of the early ideas behind the institution. I asked him to send it my way, and a week later it arrived by mail. Called “The Port Huron Statement and the Origin of Artists’ Organizations,” the essay connects the student movements of the 1960s in particular,  ideas of participatory democracy espoused by the Students for a Democratic Society in 1962 with the impulses and modes that defined Langton’s founding and first decade. You can find the original essay here; what follows below is a dialogue about the essay in retrospect. Renny is Director of the Richard L. Nelson Gallery and the Fine Arts Collection at the University of California, Davis.

JM: So, thanks again for this document. It’s interesting, and I think the reading you put forward, of the origins of parallel institutions emerging from new practices and political commitments both, and not one or the other, has the feeling of a historical truth. It’s interesting to me how something like the Port Huron Statement seems almost to gesture towards an anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist viewpoint, well different in concept than, say, the other powerful Left ideas in play in that moment — say, Marx and Mao by way of the Black Panther Party, and Fidel Castro-style foco theory, rooted in a redirection or re-radicalization of Lenin.

RP: I agree, though I think the Panthers overlapped a bit with SDS in the participatory democracy idea.

JM: Right. Their platform drew on a lot of different Leftisms I guess. Given the ideas you mark out, Langton’s later embrace of support from the government, by way of the National Endowment for the Arts, would seem to have produced a sort of conceptual and constitutional conundrum, no?

RP: Yeah: anarchists on the dole. I’ve heard that all my life. Peter Schjeldahl once said to me that artists taking NEA grants was evil. It seemed such a stance of privilege. Leslie Scalapino responded, “Oh Peter, $5000 isn’t going to corrupt anyone…” My feelings were that it was a victory of political agitprop to make “them” pay for organizing something designed as resistant. Leftists are citizens too, and what we were getting was such a pittance compared to the funding going to the Right. We were reclaiming, in a post-McCarthy way, our rights. It just seemed Ivory Tower and unworldly to say that taking money was inherently corrupting or meant we were being bought off, if you could prove that what you were doing was important and uncompromised. The people at the NEA at that time — Jim Melchert, Leonard Hunter, et al. — were definitely radical thinkers themselves.

JM: I am trying to say something different, though. I am exploring the role of the state, amongst the various “Lefts” on offer in the 60s. In the 60s most of these “lefts” were, roughly speaking, communist or socialist, if they embraced any one ideology. After the 60s we’ve tended to see politics as a sort of Manichean relationship between state socialism, and capitalism or the free market. Anarchism, which was seen as a real third way in the early part of the 20th century, had by the 1960s basically been left behind or gone underground. So I’m interested to see a thread that is recognizable as anarchism in your third paragraph — that is, a highly informal organization, based in consensus: an essentially syndicalist sort of organization. And so what I am saying is not that artists’ organizations made a bargain with the capitalist devil in the 80s, but that you traded in something like an anarchist conception and structure for something much closer to the kinds of organizing and arts support that apply in state socialism. And so, while you remained resistant and on the Left, it’s a different Left. There may have been a subtle realignment in program and self-conception.

RP: Yes, that does make sense. I didn’t see your point at first. State socialism has such a namby-pamby sound to it. I think the programs were an amalgam of a little of this and a little of that. I think of our monthly curatorial committee meetings, which lasted until I left in 1992…anyone on the board was invited. We went through each proposal that came through the doors, and proposals from staff and board, each one vetted for relevance, how it would affect our understanding of our mission — was it a new direction or policy? Was that OK or not? Meetings lasted for hours and hours. If that ain’t a model that for me was anarchist, I don’t know what could be. I’ll always have the stand that changing programs have little if nothing to do with sources of money and everything to do with pragmatism, felt need, opportunity, leadership, fluke, ad infinitum.

JM: At the end of the essay, you seem to be interested in Mary Jane Jacob‘s embrace of an “alternative” mode at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, a mainstream institution. You quote her saying, in Art in America, “We can think of ourselves as a resource center as well as a museum… If an artist has a proposal we don’t say, ‘Well, you can’t mess up this wall.’ If it is interesting to the institution, we want the artist to use [MOCA] as a laboratory, like a studio.” But what happens, in their embrace of this mode, to the alternative organizational model, and the politics?

RP: I was bitterly sarcastic about MOCA and even angry, though of course that was the march of history. I think at Yerba Buena I was able to take the forms of the Langton aesthetic, but not the grass roots politics. I did insist on artists on the board and on the paying of artists’ fees, but it just wasn’t the same.

JM: It reads differently to me in your essay, though. I don’t hear the sarcasm or anger – you seem to be objectively observing the “impact all this alienation from twenty-five years ago has had on the mainstream society it intended to leave behind.” In some ways you could actually be proud, that you transformed the mainstream in real ways. Your last sentence, though, I find a little cryptic: what’s this cracked glass?

RP: I was trying, awkwardly, to bring it back to an art context with a reference to Marcel Duchamp, as someone who had revolutionized how we see.

JM: All this adds other layers to New Langton’s circumstance. Not only have many of the styles and media it once supported been embraced by larger institutions, but so too have its curatorial methodologies (in altered form). And Langton became not a “parallel” institution, under Sandra Percival’s leadership, but an aspirational one. She wanted it to become something like the New Museum—and to do so by moving once and for all from a troublesome collective-cooperative-consensus model to a strongly defined executive one. Though you can see what Langton’s board hoped for, it seems wrong-headed in retrospect.

RP: Yes, I agree, and it was clear to me from the first days of her regime.

JM: I have a rather different read of the 1960s than the one you put forward in the essay. It seems to me that the new visibility and “hardening” of institutions (which provokes these strong resistances and alternate models), comes along with a hardening of identities, into sociologically-defined demographics and market-based consumer categories. And the latter phenomenon becomes a serious problem for the former. The civil rights movement quickly becomes Ebony magazine and Motown; the women’s movement transmogrifies into “You’ve come a long way, baby,” etc. Isn’t this the historical moment that these disruptive social forces are forced to to play out in the realm of culture and the market?

RP: I don’t see the conflict; the alternative space movement becomes a method of urban renewal, sure; we’re still just talking about different ends of the cycle. Punk anger and anarchism becomes purchasable at Sears, and kids in Kentucky still have pink Mohawks; rap, as community-based art form, becomes gangsta acting out. Doesn’t everything just start over every twenty years?

JM: But I’m not talking about radical styles being domesticated by the museum or pop culture. Indeed avant-gardes often militate for their inclusion in the academy and museums — it is a long story that begins well before the 1960s. This is why F.T. Marinetti can urge the destruction of all museums, and then proudly submit his work and service once space is offered. I don’t see this as a crushing contradiction as some might. I am trying to get at something different: the way that the emergence of new subjects of history (in movements of decolonization and equality and civil rights of all kinds) seems to happen simultaneously and alongside the reification of these identities by the market — almost as if the same claim opens up both doors at once: “I AM a man!” and “Have it YOUR way!” (Or even…this.) No doubt mine is a generational perspective; it’s a pretty bleak picture I understand.

RP: I think that line of thinking could be misread as insensitive. Back in the 80s there was this big Hollywood movie starring Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton that was a biopic about Jack Reed the American communist who participated in the October Revolution. Judy’s comment at the time was, “Gee, I didn’t realize that the entire Russian Revolution took place so Beatty and Keaton could have a love affair!” Well the feminist, civil rights, and new left movements didn’t happen so that Ebony etc. could sell the values back to us. These two things can’t be made equivalent. I know the line of reasoning is that our current consumer society is built on selling back to us our values in products. But that doesn’t, in the real world, begin to be the same as what those movements accomplished, the overthrow of these enormous oppressions. There was an old vulgar joke about an ant fucking an elephant and saying, “Take it all bitch!” To me, that’s the scale of the relationship of the mediation of those movements with the impact they had on the world—on lived lives, as they say.

Comments (3)

  • actually, Fidel Castro is not at all a bad man. Cuba has one of the best government medical care in the world -.;

  • Julian Myers says:

    Hi Marcella, that’s a great question, and one for which I don’t have an easy or single answer. I was thinking in that moment of two fascinating, melancholic diagnoses of “The Sixties” that have been the keystones of my understanding of that historical moment: Chris Marker’s 1977 film Grin Without a Cat, and Fredric Jameson’s 1984 essay “Periodizing the Sixties.” Neither one offers much by way of a solution. I certainly agree with Renny that the overthrow of these enormous imperialist oppressions is probably the central story of the 20th century, and one that shouldn’t be downplayed. I don’t share, however, his sense of the relative triviality of reification (ant vs. elephant); and I do have in mind older political formations (anarchism, pre-Marxist socialisms, etc.) which do take place precisely on this crucial conjunction of yours: “philosophical/behavioral.”

  • julian, i am curious what you think would be an alternate model for the ‘hardening’, if indeed there is one at all? i have a feeling that subscribing to cultural groups or subgroups seems a sure recipe for failing regarding alternate resistant models. seems the shift would have to be a deeply philosophical/behavioral one, that would be quite hard to implement and get people to commit to.

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