Art After Liberalism, Part 5: The Postliberal Art World
Post #1906 • November 24, 2021, 4:59 PM
["Art After Liberalism" is a paper rejected by the 53rd Congress of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA), supported instead by readers. Index: Proposal, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.]
Most of art history took place under conditions that were patently illiberal, or much less liberal than they have been until recently in the West. Humanity has spent the majority of its time on this planet under the rule of kings, sultans, emperors, tribal elders, warlords, Pharaohs, and similar potentates. Even the democratically elected exceptions rose to power on highly constrained versions of democracy, the first of which included women only a century ago. (An inclusion, note, that was prompted by Western liberal ideas about individual rights and existential equality.)
Art thrived anyway. Edo Japan, the Carolingian Empire, Song China, the Kingdom of Aksum - take your pick, someone was making objects that are still delightful to behold, under circumstances that were not liberal in any sense. We don't find an exception to that rule until the rise of expressly anti-liberal political projects, notably historical communism and fascism. It has to be said that not all of that material, even, is entirely bad. Nolde was a committed National Socialist. Russia produced a worthy avant-garde that included Kazimir Malevich, at least until the era of state-sponsored socialist realism.
This question is worth thinking about further, perhaps at book length: How is it that some illiberal regimes are artistically productive, while others are artistically hamstrung? We have a clue in the routing of the early 20th-century avant-garde movements in Germany and Russia. My hypothesis: It's axiomatic that any art sponsored by the regime is going to uphold the priorities of the regime. But it matters crucially whether those priorities are connected to the already extant values of a particular people, or whether they represent a theory about what their values ought to be, an abstract template upon which humanity should be molded. Marxism is such an abstraction. So was Aryanism. For all their respective paeans to Russian glory and German blood, they were essentially fantasies about what their populations ought to value. That the regimes succeeded in inculcating those values to a great degree does not change the fact that their effect on art was stupefying.
In other words, it matters crucially how the regime answers the question "Are the natives any good?" as discussed in Part 3. "Yes" is potentially enabling. "No" is a recipe for failure.
This brings us to the contemporary art of postliberalism. Despite Scott Reyburn's inability to find results for it on Google, it does indeed exist. It is the very art of the progressive postliberal regimes that dominate the institutions. Connected to those regimes - because that's where the money and status are - is a class of administrators and critics whose careers are devoted to enforcing those values.
Which are what, then? An ethos that, because it is progressive, disdains the European phenotype, its extant values, and its history, particularly its history of male accomplishment, and because it is postliberal, favors collective obligations, intolerance, command economics, and existential inequality in order to reduce the number of specimens of the phenotype among its ranks, alter their values, and denigrate their history. Its program of existential inequality manifests as monomaniacal valorization of non-white, non-male, non-straight, and non-able-bodied identities. It takes the assumptions of endemic moral inferiority that has long been directed at Jews, applies them to all whites, and recasts the Jews as prototypically white.
A full accounting of examples of that ethos would be never-ending. But only since last fall:
1. The 2021 start of an exhibition by Philip Guston was canceled because people of color on the National Gallery security staff told the museum's director that they would feel uncomfortable working around the Jewish artist's paintings. The director subsequently told the press that Guston had appropriated black trauma in order to make the art, and the head of the Ford Foundation, which backs the exhibition, characterized the work as "incendiary and toxic racist imagery." Even many critics of the decision to postpone the exhibition, such as Steve Locke, lamented it on the grounds that the art in question was an exemplary act of white self-debasement that ought to be exhibited and emulated.
Guston is the first artist I ever saw make paintings about white complicity and silence in the face of white supremacy, putting on a Klan hood to examine his white selfhood.... He took on his own whiteness and complicity and silence and showed them to the public. He could have kept making the luminous abstract paintings for which he was known, but he had the unfinished business of the vile world to address. He implicated himself—red-handed, stumbling and swollen with potential violence—at a time when he did not have to do anything. He pointed the finger at himself and made it clear that whiteness carries a legacy of violence of which he was a beneficiary.
That is what accountability looks like.
That the Klan tore down a Guston exhibition in Los Angeles in 1930, and that a black figure in a Guston mural was defaced by someone using a firearm to shoot out the eyes and crotch, went unmentioned. By his own description, Guston was concerned about the problem of evil, not whiteness. That whiteness and evil equate in Locke's mind tells you what you need to know about the progressive postliberal imagination. That Locke thinks that Guston was trying to "grapple with his own complicity in white supremacy" shows you the kind of hostility that characterizes the progressive postliberal approach to history.
2. The Andy Warhol/Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant selections for 2020 almost entirely eliminated white men from its 22 awards. The specialty of one of the two exceptions is "artists from the African continent and its diaspora" whose research "encompasses major themes of the Postwar-era such as post-colonialism, (trans)nationalism, and biennialism."
3. The 2020 AICA-USA Distinguished Critic Lecture distinction went to the author of “U.S. individualism isn’t rugged, it’s toxic — and it’s killing us” for the LA Times.
4. Of the 42 Creative Capital winners for 2021, four of them were white men. One of them is gay and making a project about that, one of them is disabled and making a project about that, one of them is partnered on a project with a member of the Ojibway, and the fourth is working on a project tagged "Climate Change & Sustainability," "Community & Place," and "Environment & Ecology."
5. The Frick announced (PDF) that it is mounting a series of pop-up exhibitions, "Living Histories: Queer Views and Old Masters," that intend to "initiate fresh conversations with the institution’s traditional figurative holdings, with particular emphasis on issues of gender and queer identity typically excluded from narratives of early modern European art."
6. A Hogarth exhibition at Tate Britain was found to contain wall labels denigrating the art. One describes a self-portrait like so: “The curvaceous chair literally supports him and exemplifies his view on beauty. The chair is made from timbers shipped from the colonies, via routes which also shipped enslaved people. Could the chair also stand in for all those unnamed black and brown people enabling the society that supports his vigorous creativity?”
7. The 2021 AICA-USA Distinguished Critic Lecture distinction went to Legacy Russell, thus marking the tenth year in a row that the organization has avoided conferring that honor upon a white man. (Who, for the record, was Peter Schjeldahl.) Her talk is promised to "explore and occupy the footnote as a conceptual and theoretical frame, a radical site of Black, queer, and feminist collaboration and decolonized creative praxis that extends through and beyond the architectures of the book or the essay themselves." Ms. Russell is also a 2021 recipient of a Creative Capital award.
8. The proceedings for the 53rd AICA Congress, from which this paper was rejected, has been announced. Of more than two dozen presentations, one of them is by a Western white man.
Whether the ensuing art or criticism is any good is mostly beside the point in the progressive postliberal conception of quality. To put it gently, it's hard to hit a target that you're not aiming at.
As exclusionary as this ethos is of white men, it is just as exclusionary of artists who are not white or not men but are also not making art about their respective identities. (Or climate change, which has become the topic of refuge for white, insufficiently marginalized artists who want a piece of progressive postliberal action.) It is likewise hardly rushing to embrace conservative critics of color. Point in fact, progressive postliberalism originated in the West and is largely the self-validation project of a white elite that can afford to implement it. That it helps some non-whites in the process is a side effect. (I would go even farther, and say that progressive postliberalism attempts to dress up a class war as a race war so that the have-nots can be rebranded as bigots. But that will have to be the subject of another essay.) Its technical approaches are as diverse as its range of allowable opinion is narrow. Other art gets made, but its makers are kept away from prizes and opportunities, either for reasons of identity or for failing to uphold the ideology.
So we don't have to imagine what a progressive postliberal art world would look like, because we're living in one. What of a conservative postliberal art world? This is more difficult to determine. Scott Reyburn referred to a "brazenly right-wing 'Political Art' show currently ruffling feathers at the Ujazdowski Castle Center for Contemporary Art in Warsaw." Indeed, artists in a concurrent exhibition at the same venue were moved to condemn it. Yet Manick Govinda reviewed the exhibition and remarked,
It is a pity that these artists have framed the exhibition as hateful, Islamophobic, fascist and anti-Semitic. I do wonder if they actually saw all the works on display. Some of the work is uncomfortable, angry, and there are a few that are completely offensive and distasteful, but the majority of the artworks are against real injustices, and portray real struggles in regions and nations that are theocratic, corrupt, undemocratic and violently authoritarian.
Alas, postliberals don't object to authoritarianism. The crux of their complaint is that representative democracy and self-checking government in which everyone's vote counts the same does not allow the kind of ad hoc exercises of power that are supposedly necessary to keep evil at bay. It turns out that even this "brazenly right-wing" show is brazenly liberal.
Indeed, what's going on at the Ludwig and the Műcsarnok in Budapest hardly strikes me as reactionary. In 2019, Hungary passed some kind of culture law that was widely condemned as putting the institutions under de facto Fidesz control, but it's hard to ascertain from the English-language media what effects it had. I don't doubt that they were serious, but I can't gauge whether they were worse than what goes on under progressive postliberalism even without state coercion. Ai Weiwei, in a recent interview with PBS, said that "In many ways, you’re already in the authoritarian state. You just don’t know it." When interviewer Margaret Hoover pressed him further, he added that many things in America resemble Mao's Cultural Revolution, "like people trying to be unified in a certain political correctness. That is very dangerous." A conservative postliberal regime could hypothetically become sufficiently authoritarian to impose restrictions on the display of art, but we don't see any such thing outside of China. Mimsy, one of the artists in the Ujazdowski show, did once see her work banned - in London.
In a recent article in Tablet, Connor Grubaugh analyzed Hannah Arendt's most infamous essay:
Just as Arendt envisioned, the ideology that calls itself anti-racist has steadily expanded to demand the leveling of inequity in ever more and further flung domains—however ill-suited to analysis in racial categories—while doing depressingly little to correct concrete injustices or materially assist the disadvantaged. It has also formed an alarming alliance with corporate business interests, especially in the technology sector, that stand to benefit from the flattening of hierarchical or exclusive social institutions (such as labor unions) and the elimination of laws designed to protect them. Yet this is not, as many liberals would like to believe, merely the radical perversion of an earlier virtuous doctrine, the corruption of civil rights by “identity politics.” Nor is this malaise imported from abroad, via Frankfurt and Paris, as conservatives tell the story. The truth is more difficult to accept: Anti-racists of the woke left are consummating a dangerous potential that Arendt recognized was always latent in the rhetoric of civil rights and the American conception of equality, but is only now being fully realized.
Arendt had developed a notion of society as consisting of three realms, public, private, and social.
Social life, a thoroughly modern phenomenon in Arendt’s view, is an ambiguous hybrid of public and private. Society (in the familiar sense of “civil society”) is the realm of productive labor and commerce, to be sure, but it also has a more expansive meaning. Whenever we congregate together outside the home, Arendt says, to pursue our livelihood or enjoy the company of others or do anything together other than engage in public affairs—whenever we sort ourselves and self-segregate according to our likes and interests, or our affinities—then we are acting in the social sphere. Society is the sum of all nonpolitical and nondomestic communities, the place where free association and differentiation trump the political rule of equality. In short, it is the realm of discrimination: “What equality is to the body politic—its innermost principle—discrimination is to society.”
Arendt realized, sixty years in advance, that the elimination of discrimination from social life was going to result in totalitarianism in political life.
The public and the private are always threatening to swallow society from opposite ends, but society cannot serve its function of promoting pre-political community and checking atomization unless it remains perpetually in between. As a “hybrid” sphere, society is distinguished by paradox rather than formal definition; to deny one element of the antinomy in favor of the other will throw it dangerously out of balance. In essence, Arendt believed that the attempt to give social prejudice state sanction (segregation) and the attempt to eliminate society altogether (anti-discrimination) are equally tyrannical: “The moment social discrimination is legally enforced, it becomes persecution, and of this crime many Southern states have been guilty. The moment social discrimination is legally abolished, the freedom of society is violated.”
As soon as even one viewer is engaged, art has entered Arendt's social sphere, where discrimination is necessary. The attempt to eliminate every trace of oppression from that sphere is causing the outcome that Arendt predicted - a breakdown of the conditions of freedom upon which art depends for its existence apart from one as an illustrative arm of an interested political effort. We're seeing this now, and we're going to see more of it, in more varieties, if liberalism is not defended from within the premises that it can support. This will require liberals of progressive, conservative, and libertarian leanings to put aside their considerable, longstanding differences to come together on its behalf. Without that, criticism worthy of being called that is going to become impossible, and footnotes are not just going to be where Legacy Russell finds a "radical site of Black, queer, and feminist collaboration," but the societal space in which all of art operates, the old work having been relegated there, and the new work unable to escape them.