Art Won’t Save Us

Street poster depicting Barbara Kruger’s New York Magazine cover. Photo credit: Anna Khachiyan.

When the art world resistance is hacked by the attention economy

1. In the wake of 2016’s stunning electoral upset, the liberal media went scrambling for a silver lining — and they found it, of all places, in the art world. Over at The Cut, house expert Jerry Saltz declared the post-election comedown a “crucible of possibility” and “call to action,” even going so far as to imagine a scenario straight out of the movies, in which “artists will work with mechanics to disable deportation buses by night.” Meanwhile on Twitter, literary doyenne Joyce Carol Oates volunteered, “Artists thrive on turbulence & estrangement from Establishment/authority–so T***p presidency would not be total disaster, for some,” a tweet that swiftly earned the distinction of being “the whitest take of the whole election.”

2. Fast forward to 2018, and the theory that a Trump victory would be a shot in the arm for a creative class that had sleepwalked through the Obama years hasn’t quite panned out. Instead of the artistic renaissance predicted by the likes of Saltz and Oates, what we got was more of the same: the standard wheatpaste-inspired street art pablum; a second wind for the spiritual heirs of selfie feminism; a reverie of liberal pearl-clutching and self-flagellation repackaged as an updated version of institutional critique. That, and panels — lots of panels — endlessly “unpacking” the role of art in the age of Trump.

3. The rise of Trump has birthed a brave new vanguard of protest art that, all hype aside, mostly amounts to corny wordplay and vapid sloganeering: Marilyn Minter’s “PUSSY GRABS BACK” protest banner at the Kushner-owned Puck Building; Barbara Kruger’s “PRUMP/TUTIN” cover art for New York Magazine; Martha Rosler, another highly regarded feminist artist and veteran of the Vietnam Era’s heyday of radical transparency, posting a “PRESIDEBT TRUMPF” campaign sign to her Facebook page. Then there’s the pied piper of the silver lining theory, Saltz himself, gallivanting around Instagram in a homemade “NOT MY PRESIDENT” t-shirt.

4. Together these efforts occasionally took a more tactical approach, adopting wholesale the language and imagery of actual sixties’ protest movements and work stoppages. Think here of the “Dear Ivanka” campaign, which invited artists to appeal directly to the First Daughter, an avid collector of contemporary art, whose politics are seen as being nominally more moderate than her father’s. Some among them even went so far as to publicly disown artworks acquired by Trump and her husband Jared Kushner in the hopes that they would plummet in value. It’s a funny way of resisting, when many of the same institutional interests also happen to be in bed with the scions of oligarchs and arms dealers. Or consider the J20 Artists’ Strike, billed as a call for arts institutions to take a stand against President Trump by closing shop on Inauguration Day. As anyone who’s ever worked in a factory will tell you, a strike is only as useful as the cost it inflicts through the labor it withholds. But why should we care about the labor withheld by gallerists, curators, and social media managers in an industry that routinely comes under fire for its exploitative labor practices?

5. Maybe none of this is very surprising given the art world’s fortuitous immunity to political fluctuations. It makes sense, after all, that the people who stood the least to lose from a Trump win could also afford to be among the most vocal about its administrative failures and moral excesses. For those who prefer to do their activism from the comfort of booze-fueled gallery dinners and WiFi-equipped airport lounges, political dissent is not so much an inalienable right as a lifestyle perk.

6. Artists, of course, have always liked to think of themselves as rebels but, the truth is, as long as art remains a prestige economy of the free market — a glitzy barnacle on the side of global finance — it cannot be an effective tool for political change. The best it can hope to do is comment on the political situation after the fact, “thematize” it as it unfolds, or in rare, purely serendipitous cases, anticipate it. There’s also another way that art can theoretically influence political attitudes, and that’s on the level of cultural consciousness, in the spirit of Andrew Breitbart’s darkly prophetic mantra: “Politics is downstream from culture.”

7. In order for art to have momentum as a political force, it must have the capacity for mass appeal. Yet the relationship between the art world and the general public has historically been one of mutual mistrust. We’re still dealing with the aftershocks of Rudy Giuliani’s pugilistic crusade to shut down the Brooklyn Museum’s 1999 exhibition of Young British Artists, a cultural skirmish that pitted the public’s perception of artists as deviants against artists’ view of the public as philistines. In other words, art in its current form is broadly incompatible with populism of any form, whether of the traditionalist or progressive variety, since it draws its cachet precisely from its elitism and exclusivity.

8. In any case, art’s cozy rapport with capital means that its potential role as a political agent was compromised long before such basic questions of transmission and circulation could even begin to be addressed. When we talk about the art world, after all, we are always implicitly talking about the art market — or otherwise, those fringe aesthetics and grassroots communities that operate outside of its primary value index and are therefore obsolete within its organizing discursive framework. Today, the sort of dissenting viewpoints rewarded by this discourse are those that are unlikely to deviate from polite bourgeois opinion.

9. It goes without saying — or it should, anyway — that Trump is a particularly libidinal, in-your-face example of everything that’s wrong with a society where politics is experienced primarily as entertainment. But the trouble with the standard liberal critique of Trump is precisely this flair for performative outrage, one that privileges clashes in sensibility over questions of policy. Now that the art world has found an unlikely muse in the figure of a widely despised Twitter addict, artists can continue churning out insider art while keeping their moral alibis and outsider bonafides intact.

10. Even so, all of this is somewhat beside the point, given how expertly Trump’s base has leveraged the aesthetics of neoliberalism against its principal ideologues in the liberal establishment. With the triumph of Trumpism, one could argue, we have finally hit a wall in the collective imagination, or what the late, great cultural theorist Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism”: the aesthetic-ideological complex that not only enshrines capitalism as the normative political-economic system but, in fact, obviates any efforts to envision an alternative order.

11. In effect, the Trump administration has at last solved the conceptual problem originally proposed by the Russian avant-garde and later advanced by the Socialist realists: how to orchestrate a seamless integration of the imaginable and the material, or what art history textbooks commonly refer to, in rosier terms, as the “total synthesis of art and life.” What’s more, it has done so under a devoutly capitalist regime. But if the Soviet era was marked by a cynical veneer of compulsory optimism, our neoliberal epoch is one in which terminal ennui is openly celebrated, whether ambiently, through the flat affect of memes and internet slang, or more measurably, as with the Balkanization of the internet itself into grievance-based identitarian factions.

12. Taking the Russian analogy to its logical conclusion, we can think of the Trumpian turn from the angle of the late Soviet parodic style known as “stiob,” an overidentification so extreme it’s impossible to tell whether the position it adopts is a genuine endorsement or an elaborate troll. Are Trump’s diplomatic blunders, draconian decrees, and late-night Twitter meltdowns the strategic design of a new breed of authoritarianism that thrives on confusion rather than repression or merely a byproduct of his contempt for the norms of conduct? Is his revolving cabinet of cartoon villains and prop-store cadavers a stylized piece of political theater or just a classic case of professional nepotism? Is he a madman or a mastermind? Either way, Trump performs his own incompetence so well that it makes any attempt at parody seem overdetermined to the point of absurdity. In the process, he exposes the impotence and hypocrisy of his liberal critics, unmasking their piety politics as nothing more than compensatory posturing.

13. In this climate of nihilism, any act of dissent, whether sincere or calculated, is automatically aestheticized to such a degree that the distinction becomes moot. Take, for instance, the Guggenheim’s gold toilet controversy. Senior curator Nancy Spector denied the White House’s request for a Van Gogh loan, offering instead Maurizio Cattelan’s gold-plated, potty-themed sculpture America, presumably for its formal resonances with Trump’s personal taste. The inside gag no doubt flared off a momentary pang of catharsis and solidarity for art world cognoscenti. But over time, stunts like these only play into the hands of Trump’s populist messaging: elites care more about symbolic progress than they do about meaningful reform.

14. So far, the “artistocratic bohemians” of the art world, as Saltz calls them, have arguably done little to offset this stereotype. The issue, in part, is class-related. The rollback of public services and arts funding, along with the skyrocketing of property values, that accompanied the ideological triumph of neoliberal consensus over the last several decades, have been especially hard on artistic production. For all of its enlightened rhetoric and “woke” social justice advocacy, today’s art scene is steeped in cultural conservatism.

15. In part, it’s generational. It’s no coincidence that many on the frontlines of the art world’s so-called “resistance” (Saltz, Rosler, Minter, and Kruger included) belong to a generation that still believes in the purity of the transgressive gesture. Yet the legacy media model they grew up with and rebelled against is ill-equipped to contend with the emergent digital platforms that presently mediate political affinities in evermore dizzying, nonlinear ways. As Angela Nagle argues in Kill All Normies, her précis of the online culture wars, the alt-right has successfully co-opted the prankish, postmodern strategies of the New Left at a juncture when political binaries no longer apply and liberal counterculture has gone mainstream.

16. Having convinced themselves that fascism is back and Russian collusion is everywhere, the art world’s would-be revolutionaries are content to ignore the more systemic dangers lurking among the digital networks that increasingly govern our everyday existence. The viral footprints of initiatives like “Dear Ivanka” and J20 draw their energy from the data we hand over to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, activating an algorithmic power structure that parcels out virtual real estate according to its monetizability. While it’s clear that Trump is a monster of the current moment, his persona represents a throwback to a simpler time when empires went head-to-head and strongmen dominated the world stage. Any truly serious political project to emerge from the art world would do well to start with this uncomfortable reality, taking a long, hard look at its own participation in platform capitalism instead of seeking solace in rehashing the battles of the past.

 


Editors’ Note, 3/20/18: Some of this material was previously published on Anna Khachiyan’s blog​.

Comments (23)

  • Samuel DiSalle says:

    this is great. thank you for actually bothering to look at the situation we’re in for what it is and being consistently honest and intelligent about it

  • Is he a madman or a mastermind? He’s an idiot.

  • Lol true Jeffery, I can’t take a critique of the art world’s critique of the current regime seriously with the question “Is he a mastermind?” in it.

  • I’m used to journalistic prose stretching the meanings of words, but a “libidinal example” really threw me for a loop…

  • Copy&Paste says:

    Anna Kachiyan Blog:
    ” On the Whitney Controversy “, March 23, 2017.

    “Artists would like to think of themselves as agents of political change, but the fact remains: art is a barnacle on the side of capital, which is why it can never be a political platform. The best it can hope to do, then, is comment on the political situation after the fact or, in rare, often purely serendipitous cases, anticipate it. ”
    .
    “Art Won’t Save Us” 19 Marzo, 2018.

    “6. Artists, of course, have always liked to think of themselves as rebels but, the truth is, as long as art remains a prestige economy of the free market — a glitzy barnacle on the side of global finance — it cannot be an effective tool for political change. The best it can hope to do is comment on the political situation after the fact, “thematize” it as it unfolds, or in rare, purely serendipitous cases, anticipate it.”
    .
    “Who can save us from ourselves?” … Copy and paste.

  • Copy&Paste says:

    Has no one read her “books”?

  • I think this piece is on time and on point. Right now, like it or not, the ruling class of this country (and the commercial art establishment that feeds off of it) is tentatively OK with Trump, in as far as he’s not taking their money or their freedoms, yet.

    Individual artists are hurt by the massive cuts to federal arts programs, but the Art World doesn’t care that much about the type of people who live and work grant-t0-grant or residency-to-residency.

    The future is ugly though. We’re still in the 1933 phase of Hitler, before anybody believed he would put into practice what he was saying.

    The knock on Shepard’s We The People project is fair, in as far as it’s very general and very safe in the face of a man who not only doesn’t care about the noble sentiments behind them—he relishes mocking and torturing this brand of safe humanism. However, Shepard supported a project I was also involved in before the election (Trump Le Monde) that gave a much darker and more urgent glimpse at what was coming, but in what you so rightly call the “attention economy” that vision has been pushed farther and farther back in the onanistic hysteria over each new outrage. The big picture has been clear all along, but no one will raise a fist to fight back until they take the first blow.

  • From the 18th through the 20th centuries, there were several instances of great political art–i.e., art that had an impact on “mass culture.” Most of this came about because of printmaking, which enabled single works of art (i.e., paintings) produced for the elite class to spread as copies, mostly in the form of etchings, sometimes in the form of reproductions in magazines, among the middle class. Examples range from William Hogarth (“A Harlot’s Progress”) to Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (better known as Goya), Edouard Manet, George Grosz, and Pablo Picasso (in his one and only work of political art, but a brilliant one, “Guernica”). Today, however, mass culture is dominated by moving images (movies and music videos), and serious fine art takes place within an elitist and hermetically sealed art world,

    In short, it’s damn hard to think that serious fine art will ever again have an impact on mass culture.

  • Heath Legerdemain says:

    criticism is fun and gets you points. we all know how to skewer.

    arguing for a more just alternative and mapping out how to get there is hard and nobody knows how to do it.

    we remain at square one!

  • this is an exciting piece and i think it is necessary for this platform, which might get a lot of traffic from the people who are in the crosshairs of anna’s writing.

    also ??? what is the point of criticizing someone for self-plagiarizing something they stated on a dinky blog if it is going to be put forth and further developed in a space with a larger audience?

  • Group Therapy says:

    There is no other event so spectacular and with such a large audience as the MOMA blog (EEUU).
    There is an evident jump in hierarchical level . That is why i will make a comment …

    Let’s copy and paste

    1. Want to convince someone of something entirely untrue? Just repeat it, even architectonically… But, by keep on repeating it. over and over doesn’t makes it true, it just become institutional.
    2. “People are taught that their liberation requires them to “tell the truth”, to confess it to someone (a priest, psychoanalyst, or weblog), and this truth telling will somehow set them free.“ ( Nihilism and the News, Blogging as a Mental Condition. Geert Lovink. 2007)
    3. “Blogs bring on decay of the 20th century broadcast media, and are proud of their in-crowd aspect in which linking, tagging and ranking have become the main drivers.”(Zero Comments, Geert Lovink)
    4. http://quillette.com/2015/12/04/rebellious-scientist-surprising-truth-about-stereotypes/
    5. “Thus UBIK glibly neuters the bloodshed of Tahrir Square and the sacrifices of Egyptian activists, a genuflection to the Emirati state’s political agenda. The installation, though cloaked in ostensibly subversive language, is an indifferent, art-lingo-inflected scopophilia (“spectator sport”) masquerading as concern, a pantomime of SUPPORT for human freedom in which UBIK strokes his hosts while goading an uncritical audience into dismissing EMANCIPATORY movements. As if auditioning for one of the many ethically suspect K Street lobbyists facilitating the UAE’s capture of liberal culture, UBIK asks, is democracy even worthwhile? What are the “pros and cons” of freedom?“ Brilliant …(https://hyperallergic.com/66348/when-artspeak-masks-oppression/ )
    6. You can collaborate and help the abandoned pets. Please comment …

  • Darren Chudgarth IV says:

    Artists need to embed themselves in political organisations that regularly engage with class struggle.
    Political discussion groups, picket lines, and protests are a necessary part of any worthwhile artist’s education.

    Also, please stop reading so much Deleuze.
    If it’s a French theorist you’re after, please go with Althusser.

  • Dealing with nepotism in the workplace says:

    http://www.caesuraonline.com/caesura-online/2016/11/10/political-art-a-failed-project

    “Political” Art: A Failed Project. November 10, 2016
    by Allison Hewitt Ward

    ///////
    You just wait …. Anna will be a notary. (remember May’68)

    By “Dealing with nepotism in the workplace”

  • I really loved reading this! Really good.

  • Group Therapy says:

    OH YEAH!! REALLY GOOD!!!

    Make this viral please
    Facebook Fraternities, Instagram Fraternities, Twitter Fraternities, Come on!!!!!!

  • Alan Martinez says:

    To me it’s strange that the article focuses on Trump when for me the “Art World’s” major political dilemma is to examine and curtail its own role as an agent of gentrification. #boyleheights

  • Son of Jerry Saltz says:

    “Being a bad girl in the latest issue of SFMOMA”
    baby boomers are selfish!!
    Coming soon … Gentrification is over hyped

  • Nice Post admin. i love the way you write post and it’s very creative. i will surely share this post. cheers !!
    from: All naat mp3 download

  • Stage Player says:

    Has any “truly serious political project” ever emerged from the art world? As opposed to the endless parade of those that only manage to take themselves seriously? I would be surprised if you could point one out to me.

    Taking the art world to task over its politics or its economics—which are hardly inseparable—is now as much a neoliberal pastime as anything else, seated in institutional academicism and the necessary production of “critical literature” just like this list-cum-article; there is no originality here. Critique has been successfully and thoroughly woven into the cultural fabric for some time, and has been utterly sanitized no matter the platform. I think immediately of the Vanity Fair “prank” video that was produced in collaboration with- and took place at- the Whitney in 2017, wherein Gagosian senior-staffer Derek Blasburg refers to the content of the joke art project he and celebrity Katy Perry have poorly orchestrated as dealing with “the two-faced capitalist system we are currently living in.” If Vanity Fair, Gagosian, Katy Perry, and the Whitney can make the mockery of anti-Capitalist critique the premise for a promotional viral video and continue on their merry way, than this article is nothing but an example of a well-defined stage from a horribly unfunny parodic cycle. I’m sure if asked, the author of this article—a white NYU art history graduate student—would gladly speak at the Whitney to let everyone know that art won’t save them, but they would have to pay her fee, of course.

    “In this climate of nihilism, any act of dissent, whether sincere or calculated, is automatically aestheticized to such a degree that the distinction becomes moot.”

  • Anthony Stepter says:

    Some very good points in here, especially at the end, but I’m kind of over art writers who critique artists for not being effective enough in their politics without giving some shine to artists who are legit participating in movements for social change. They exist. We have plenty in Chicago and maybe they don’t do it for the credit, but when a writer fails to acknowledge the people who have arrived at the same conclusion and moved their practice accordingly, that labor is kind of erased. Maria Gaspar and 96 ACRES, Laurie Jo Reynolds, dozens of people who make up the Prison Neighborhood Arts Project, the folks who organized the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial. That’s just artists in Chicago whose particular focus is prisons. I agree that the time for snarky superficial transgression is over, but we also need these art historians, writers, and critics, to acknowledge that “the art world” isn’t a thing anymore. It’s many art worlds and some of them are out in the street already.

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