Bureaucracy, Tyranny, and Woke Aesthetics
Post #1869 • July 9, 2020, 12:07 PM
I. Bureaucracy and Woke Aesthetics
Art does not progress. The goodness of later art does not obviate or efface the goodness of earlier art. But in order to remain in a state of goodness, art has to change. Its conventions get used up by repetition and overmining. Clement Greenberg recognized this phenomenon within later Abstract Expressionism. He described it in “Post-Painterly Abstraction” (1974):
What turned this constellation of stylistic features into something bad as art was its standardization, its reduction to a set of mannerisms, as a dozen, and then a thousand, artists proceeded to maul the same viscosities of paint, in more or less the same ranges of color, and with the same “gestures,” into the same kind of picture.
True to form, he didn’t generalize from the specific case. (Contrary to his reputation, he hardly ever did.) But I believe that one can. Once artists exhaust the conventions, the ambitious among them become obliged to defy those conventions. If they succeed, that defiance becomes the new conventions, and the process repeats itself. I realize that this sounds like a stereotypical historicist dialectic, but my mental picture of it looks more like breathing, and the result is not progress, but stasis to the extent that stasis can be had in a universe that moves like Heraclitus’s river. Art doesn’t progress, but it moves with urgency in a manner that resembles progress if it’s going well, like a hunter chasing game. The path is not an ascent, but a sloppy, meandering, unstandardized loop.
The defiance derives material from two sources, the present and the past. Post-abstraction Guston found it in comics and Piero. Nina Chanel Abney uses the Cubism of Stuart Davis to depict a certain vision of contemporary black life. You can see this phenomenon in any artist who’s even remotely interesting.
But we have a new problem not witnessed before in art history. Since Manet’s Dead Toreodor from 1864-5, to pick something, we’ve had 155 years of various modernisms requiring the defiance and re-establishment of conventions. After Pop, the last hegemonic style, the process accelerated as stylistic hegemony diffused into multiple, smaller streams. Now we can’t even locate the dominant art of our age. We may have exhausted the defiance-convention cycle itself through repetition and overmining.
I suspect this because art is so eagerly reaching outside of art for its current conventions. Namely it has latched on to a loose collection of political concerns that its adherents try to brand as Social Justice. I regard that as an insult to social justice. It rejects a vision of common humanity that necessitates social justice in the first place. It substitutes for it a cynically and dishonestly described power dynamics that is leading us straight into autocracy. As such I prefer to call it Woke Ideology.
I’ve criticized Woke Ideology in other forms, regarding AICA-USA’s Black Lives Matter statement, Met director Max Hollein, the Portland Museum of Art’s N.C. Wyeth exhibition, and more. The latest comes out of the Mellon Foundation, the largest granting body in American arts, which has announced that they are totalizing their focus on social justice.
Since its founding, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has sought to strengthen, promote, and defend the arts and humanities as essential to democratic societies. An increased focus on just communities comes at a moment in which a national spotlight is shining on widespread—and longstanding—social and racial injustice. The new mission notes that the Foundation’s focus will be on building “just communities enriched by meaning and empowered by critical thinking where ideas and imagination can thrive” and animated by a belief that “the arts and humanities are where we express our complex humanity.”
This is the vacuous language of bureaucracy. Though all but meaningless, it describes an extremely defensive posture. It positions art subordinately as a work-servant to democracy, justice, and communities. It characterizes art as a location where we—all of us—express ourselves, thus troping art as a toilet. The first thing you want out of new art, and last thing you want out of a toilet, is surprise.
Micah Mattix responded:
How long will it be before praising a work of art for its aesthetic excellence alone is a revolutionary act? Nearly every literary prize now takes into consideration the race and politics of authors when naming shortlists and winners. When they don’t, they get into trouble. More and more, what matters when it comes to literature today is the “utility” of a work—defined, of course, in a very narrow way—not its excellence, as if the utility of a work of art isn’t found precisely in its excellence. This is how Wallace Stegner put it in “One Way to Spell Man”: “It would be idiotic to defend the arts for pseudoscientific or pragmatic reasons, for any ‘usefullness’ as ‘communication’ or ‘therapy’ or anything else that they may incidentally have. They are indispensable precisely because they are expressions of truth, a way of understanding, at the deepest level, the world of man.”
Mellon proved that the posture was defensive when reporters challenged the obvious politicization of the arts awards, and the organization answered by gaslighting them. Mattix again:
[Mellon Foundation director Elizabeth] Alexander said in an interview that there wouldn’t be “a penny that is going out the door that is not contributing to a more fair, more just, more beautiful society.” How they are going to decide which projects contribute in this way is unclear. When asked if the focus on social justice is politicizing the largest supporter of arts and humanities in America, Alexander said that social justice “isn’t political any more than social injustice is political.” So, when Mellon gave The Justice Collaboratory at Yale (you see how supporting “underrepresented” artists works) a $5.25 million grant for its Million Book Project, it wasn’t making a political statement regarding the “cruel and unjust reality of the American penal system” or the “systemic inequities in our conception and application of the law” (my emphasis). It was just supporting an organization committed to truth. Alexander told Len Gutkin at The Chronicle of Higher Education: “It is mischaracterizing it to say that there is something inherently political about trying to create a more fair and just society. And that there is not something equally political about denying resources or denying the humanity or denying the possibility of so many people.” I am sure she really believes this, which in itself could be taken as proof that the arts don’t expand one’s capacity for seeing other points of view or “critical thinking.”
The “all art is political” crowd has changed its tune, it would seem. But this only looks like a contradiction of principles if you fail to recognize the real, singular principle, which is to hoard power.
Woke Ideology as an artistic convention, hereafter Woke Aesthetics, will eventually collapse from overuse like any other convention. It was never very enabling and is already breaking down. (Imagine, if you can, the second person to use Davistic Cubism to depict the black experience.) But Mellon money and other support will keep it in play longer than it would otherwise. Too, hard as it is to admit artistic defeat, it will be even harder to admit ideological defeat by way of artistic defeat. People will praise and even fund complete twaddle before they admit that the party is over.
In certain respects the party never got properly started. You may recall back in 2017 when Kara Walker wrote in an artist statement, “I am tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of ‘having a voice,’ or worse, ‘being a role model,’ Tired, true, of being a featured member of my racial group and/or my gender niche.” The full title of the exhibition was,
Sikkema Jenkins and Co. is Compelled to present The most Astounding and Important Painting show of the fall Art Show viewing season! Collectors of Fine Art will Flock to see the latest Kara Walker offerings, and what is she offering but the Finest Selection of artworks by an African-American Living Woman Artist this side of the Mississippi. Modest collectors will find her prices reasonable, those of a heartier disposition will recognize Bargains! Scholars will study and debate the Historical Value and Intellectual Merits of Miss Walker’s Diversionary Tactics. Art Historians will wonder whether the work represents a Departure or a Continuum. Students of Color will eye her work suspiciously and exercise their free right to Culturally Annihilate her on social media. Parents will cover the eyes of innocent children. School Teachers will reexamine their art history curricula. Prestigious Academic Societies will withdraw their support, former husbands and former lovers will recoil in abject terror. Critics will shake their heads in bemused silence. Gallery Directors will wring their hands at the sight of throngs of the gallery-curious flooding the pavement outside. The Final President of the United States will visibly wince. Empires will fall, although which ones, only time will tell.
Note, that was the exhibition title, not the artist statement. Conversely to H.L. Mencken, who did not care for black people but saved his worst opprobrium for the white citizens of the State of Georgia, Walker doesn’t think much of white racists but she directs preemptive strikes at her immediate circle, which is diverse and intellectual. For further deflection, she said in her statement that her work is “not exhaustive, activist or comprehensive in any way.” She didn’t aim that at the good ol’ boys, who at least are not targeting her personally. And this malaise had darkened the sky years before Mellon decided to go all in on Woke Aesthetics.
The Mellon Foundation is hardly alone in doing so. Creative Capital, for instance, described how they selected their 2019 awards like so:
[Alice Gray] Stites notes that many artists are addressing “urgency of the socio-political climate while evoking or referencing timeless conditions.” The best projects, [Rasu] Jilani said, not only address these critical issues, but offer “potential solutions.” Jilani noted a common theme of “speculative futures”—projects that reimagine inclusive and equitable futures for the oppressed through rigorous interdisciplinary examination, bringing a sense of optimism to our dire political moment.
[Jillian] Mayer mentioned that deliberate consideration of material and medium to promote the concept or message was a key factor in her favorite projects. Several panelists mentioned common themes of gender identity and politics, immigration and the refugee crisis, First Nations and indigenous (de)colonial history, stories of diaspora, the Anthropocene climate, and mass incarceration. Artists pursuing timely topics in an engaged and rigorous manner with the potential to “catalyze dialogue and energize networks” excited [Sixto] Wagan.
And so on. The organization gave out fifty awards of $50,000 each, and 45 of them went to artists for the purpose of valorizing their own identity groups. I know from having been one of the applicants for that cycle that the organization gave us no guidance that they were going to use these criteria. In 2020, they gave out 35 awards, and described the selection process in terms that parroted the previous year’s:
Laleh Mehran, Creative Capital Awardee and panelist in this cycle said that the “urgency of pressing current issues were very much present in the applications—including the Anthropocene, environment, and immigration.” Artistic activism was just one way that artists are tackling important civic and political issues. “I was pleased by the serious activist work being done by so many of the applicants,” said [Roderick] Schrock. “It was striking, to engage with this work in the review process, and a reminder of the vitality and necessity for artists to be publicly vocal and engaged with the wider world.”
This is the chief power of bureaucracy: standardization, the route by which good art goes bad. Bureaucratic Woke Aesthetics prompts a dozen, then a thousand artists to maul the same sentiments, in more or less the same ranges of themes, and with the same “gestures,” into the same kind of art.
There’s something I’ve been thinking for years, but have never said publicly until now: If the institutional art world was a car, it looks suspiciously like Whitey is handing the keys over to people of color right at the moment when the needle on the gas gauge has started touching the E. There is nowhere to refuel in sight. In fact, the people of color are the fuel, in a vampiric sense. They’re going to have to get out and push, obliged as they are to recapitulate patently European aesthetic maneuvers and their American derivations, for their own identitarian purposes, because the formal possibilities have been explored to death. The money from the foundations and the attention from the museums thus become both the highest honors in the field and a spent series of consolation prizes. They are, like much else done in the name of fighting racism, racist.
II. Bureaucracy and Tyranny
Hannah Arendt, from On Violence (1969):
Today we ought to add [to the list of traditional structures] the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion: bureaucracy or the rule of an intricate system of bureaus in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called rule by Nobody. (If, in accord with traditional political thought, we identify tyranny as government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done. It is this state of affairs, making it impossible to localize responsibility and to identify the enemy, that is among the most potent causes of the current world-wide rebellious unrest, its chaotic nature, and its dangerous tendency to get out of control and to run amok.)
That impossibility of localizing responsibility enables Elizabeth Alexander to spout obvious lies at reporters on behalf of the Mellon Foundation. Art, having expended itself, threatens to take the bureaucracy with it. The bureaucracy has found a great ally, therefore, in Woke Ideology, which envisions a bureaucracy of coerced egalitarianism that surpasses any totalitarianism ever seen.
On this subject we turn to Ibram X. Kendi, whom Boston University just granted, not just a professorship, but an entire academic department to work out his autocratic conception of antiracism. For one, Kendianism is expressly anti-capitalist. Capitalism, for all its flaws, remains the only suitable system for allocating scarce resources among free peoples. But here is what Kendi has to say about the capitalist (How to Be an Antiracist, 2019):
While on the one hand he organized capitalistic methods of exploitation to their ultimate degree of efficiency, he curried favor with the victims of his policy and his power, and in a short while became the leader of their struggle against himself. “Against himself” is here only a figurative way of speaking; for this great master of lies knows how to appear in the guise of the innocent and throw the guilt on others. Since he had the impudence to take a personal lead among the masses, they never for a moment suspected that they were falling prey to one of the most infamous deceits ever practiced. And yet that is what it actually was.
I have misled you. That was Hitler (Mein Kampf, 1925). This is Kendi:
The conjoined twins [of racism and capitalism] are two sides of the same destructive body. The idea that capitalism is merely free markets, competition, free trade, supplying and demanding, and private ownership of the means of production operating for a profit is as whimsical and ahistorical as the White-supremacist idea that calling something racist is the primary form of racism. Popular definitions of capitalism, like popular racist ideas, do not live in historical or material reality.
Treatment of his Stage 4 colon cancer provided Kendi with a vision of how to eliminate racism:
Saturate the body politic with the chemotherapy or immunotherapy of antiracist policies that shrink the tumors of racial inequities, that kill undetectable cancer cells. Remove any remaining racist policies, the way surgeons remove the tumors. Ensure there are clear margins, meaning no cancer cells of inequity left in the body politic, only the healthy cells of equity. Encourage the consumption of healthy foods for thought and the regular exercising of antiracist ideas, to reduce the likelihood of a recurrence. Monitor the body politic closely, especially where the tumors of racial inequity previously existed. Detect and treat a recurrence early, before it can grow and threaten the body politic.
Alas, he is not the first person to think that he had identified humanity’s ultimate sickness, and thus was filled with longing for a courageous doctor to cut the rot out once and for all. Hitler again:
It would be a mistake to think that the followers of the various political parties which tried to doctor the condition of the German people, or even all their leaders, were bad in themselves or meant wrong. Their activity even at best was doomed to fail, merely because of the fact that they saw nothing but the symptoms of our general malady and they tried to doctor the symptoms while they overlooked the real cause of the disease. If one makes a methodical study of the lines along which the old Empire developed one cannot help seeing, after a careful political analysis, that a process of inner degeneration had already set in even at the time when the united Empire was formed and the German nation began to make rapid external progress. The general situation was declining, in spite of the apparent political success and in spite of the increasing economic wealth.
Racism is for Kendi what the Jew was for Hitler, a locus of hatred, publicly excoriated for the purpose of mobilizing a mass movement. Eric Hoffer (The True Believer, 1951) described much of what goes on in Kendianism, the Movement for Black lives, and related recent activism:
Not only does a mass movement depict the present as mean and miserable—it deliberately makes it so. It fashions a pattern of individual existence that is dour, hard, repressive and dull. It decries pleasures and comforts and extols the rigorous life. It views ordinary enjoyment as trivial or even discreditable, and represents the pursuit of personal happiness as immoral. To enjoy oneself is to have truck with the enemy—the present. The prime objective of the ascetic ideal preached by most movements is to breed contempt for the present. The campaign against the appetites is an effort to pry loose tenacious tentacles holding on to the present. That this cheerless individual life runs its course against a colorful and dramatic background of collective pageantry serves to accentuate its worthlessness.
Hence the Mellon’s new focus on “widespread—and longstanding—social and racial injustice” instead of, say, visual excellence. This is not to say the the injustice is an invention. Rather, the art bureaucracies are using the injustice to justify a defensive alliance with Woke Ideology, necessitated by the enervated state of art that would otherwise enervate the art bureaucracy in turn.
Ludwig von Mises once said of the champions of socialism, “They promise the blessings of the Garden of Eden, but they plan to transform the world into a gigantic post office.” Kendi made plain his desire for total bureaucracy in a 2019 proposal for an anti-racist Constitutional amendment:
To fix the original sin of racism, Americans should pass an anti-racist amendment to the U.S. Constitution that enshrines two guiding anti-racist principals: Racial inequity is evidence of racist policy and the different racial groups are equals. The amendment would make unconstitutional racial inequity over a certain threshold, as well as racist ideas by public officials (with “racist ideas” and “public official” clearly defined). It would establish and permanently fund the Department of Anti-racism (DOA) comprised of formally trained experts on racism and no political appointees. The DOA would be responsible for preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity, monitor those policies, investigate private racist policies when racial inequity surfaces, and monitor public officials for expressions of racist ideas. The DOA would be empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.
Leave aside the question of whether racial inequality is necessarily evidence of racist policy, the asking of which makes you a racist according to Kendianism. Leave aside the fact that the last constitutional amendment that required the creation of a wholly new enforcement structure was the 18th, for temperance, which retains the distinct dishonor of being the only amendment to be repealed by another amendment, such a disaster it was. Kendi’s proposals are invitations to calamity. Arendt:
The greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.
As Mises recalled in Bureaucracy (1944):
On January 15, 1838, the Prussian Minister of the Interior, G. A. R. von Rochow, declared in reply to a petition of citizens of a Prussian city: “It is not seemly for a subject to apply the yardstick of his wretched intellect to the acts of the Chief of the State and to arrogate to himself, in haughty insolence, a public judgment about their fairness.” This was in the days in which German liberalism challenged absolutism, and public opinion vehemently resented this piece of overbearing bureaucratic pretension.
Half a century later German liberalism was stone dead.
And nigh a century after that American liberalism is getting overrun by Woke Ideology, which is full of bureaucratic and tyrannical impulses. The woke ideologues will insist that this is all about democracy and justice for the people. Mises again:
Bureaucratic management means, under democracy, management in strict accordance with the law and the budget. It is not for the personnel of the administration and for the judges to inquire what should be done for the public welfare and how the public funds should be spent. This is the task of the sovereign, the people, and their representatives. The courts, the various branches of the administration, the army, and the navy execute what the law and the budget order them to do. Not they but the sovereign is policy-making.
Most of the tyrants, despots, and dictators are sincerely convinced that their rule is beneficial for the people, that theirs is government for the people. There is no need to investigate whether these claims of Messrs. Hitler, Stalin, and Franco are well founded or not.
Remember this if you read Kendi any further, because he talks continuously about policy. It sounds reassuringly wonkish unless you understand that policy is just another way of loading a gun.
III. Tyranny and Woke Aesthetics
It would be trivially easy to engineer a succès de scandale against Woke Aesthetics. It would also strike a moral blow against nascent tyranny. This wouldn’t be like Balthus scandalizing the French bourgeois, or Paul Cadmus scandalizing the Navy. We’re talking about people who compete with one another for social standing over who can take offense at ever smaller slights. They are pearl-clutching conformists down to their bone marrow. With people like that to scandalize, one could start a project after reading this in mid-July and be world-famous by Labor Day.
But that won’t address the bigger problems. Firstly, Woke Aesthetics is a side effect of exhaustion in visual art. One can’t really blame the bureaucracies for trying to preserve themselves. Mattix may be correct that a purely aesthetic appreciation may soon become the most radical stance possible. But such revivalism can’t compete with Woke Aesthetics and its attendant moral urgency. Art bureaucracies (in which I include adjacent systems, namely the ones in which Kara Walker found herself enmeshed, to her dismay) didn’t reach for it because it is true, but because it has vitality, at least at the moment. Orwell made a similar observation about Nazism when he reviewed Mein Kampf.
Secondly, if the defiance-convention cycle is broken, then we have to innovate from principles more basic than style. Anti-Woke art won’t be enough. (Though it will be amusing, and it would be good to have some amusement while we work out what to do about the foundering of the core mechanisms of civilization.) We have to assemble an entire ethos in a way that preserves what the best art does for us but is not merely revivalist.
While I don’t know yet what that looks like, I’m growing convinced that it will have to be aggressively, maybe even performatively anti-bureaucratic in attitude. I say this sheepishly. I benefited enormously as a Fulbrighter last year, and the Fulbright organization is a bureaucracy par excellence. Back to Mises:
...bureaucracy in itself is neither good nor bad. It is a method of management which can be applied in different spheres of human activity. There is a field, namely, the handling of the apparatus of government, in which bureaucratic methods are required by necessity. What many people nowadays consider an evil is not bureaucracy as such, but the expansion of the sphere in which bureaucratic management is applied. This expansion is the unavoidable consequence of the progressive restriction of the individual citizen’s freedom, of the inherent trend of present-day economic and social policies toward the substitution of government control for private initiative. People blame bureaucracy, but what they really have in mind are the endeavors to make the state socialist and totalitarian.
But while bureaucracy per se is neither good nor bad regarding management, it is patently bad as an artistic approach. The Fulbright required nothing of me artistically except that my project somehow relate to Vienna. I responded by doing my utmost in the time allotted to make something unprecedented in its form and quality. (Whether I succeeded I submit to your judgment.) That is the opposite condition of Bureaucratic Woke Aesthetics, in which managers evaluate proposals based on ideological conformance, and the artists respond with slight variations on the same critiques that everyone else in their circle is making. Consequently the jurors at Creative Capital end up sounding like a bunch of amnesiacs, talking about doggedly repetitive submissions as if they were new discoveries.
Which leads me to conclude that an art bureaucracy is fine as long as everybody involved is properly ashamed of it. I won’t name him, but I got into a conversation with one of the officers at Fulbright Vienna about the past and the future of the Fulbright/Q21-MQ residency program that I was doing. “You know,” he said, “these artists can be a mixed bag.” I replied, “Man, you’re lucky if you get the mixed bag.” If everybody has functioning standards for themselves and their work, and some humility, an art bureaucracy can work out well enough.
But we’re clearly passing out of the age of ethical standards and personal accountability, and into the age of ideological standards and public accountability—an age of tyrannies that threatens to culminate in an Age of Tyranny. Good new art, whatever form it takes, is going to have to fight this, even if it means a bitter divorce from the rest of the system and cultivating an intensity of free-thinking that could potentially get you destroyed.