Cultural and Political Conundrums
Guerrilla Girls, “Do We Still Have to be Naked to get into the Met. Museum?”, 1989, poster
“It couldn’t be more simple. A vote for Republicans is a vote to destroy Democracy.”
— Rob Reiner
Forty years seems like a long time but does not feel like a long time. For the art world, both in America and internationally, the last two generations have produced a sea change for the better. For the country as a whole, however, our political culture has performed more like a strengthening rip-tide threatening to asphyxiate much of value.
The art world is one among a number of sub-cultures that have successfully, if not fully, transitioned away from a cultural environment long monopolized by not just a particular tribe but a sanctimonious mindset that propagated the illusion of objective dedication to access and equity where none was in fact intended. Exclusion was, according to tribal lore, a corollary of standards not achieved by those not admitted to the inner sanctum. Time and again I would hear this view echoed by so many occupying perches in that now-receding art world, from part-time teachers struggling to get on the tenure track right up to curators and directors of our foremost museums.
Guerrilla Girls, “Beyond the Streets,” 2018, installation of posters
That is not to say that the art anointed as elite in that world was ordinary; for the most part it was elite. Biases and mistakes in judgment allowed individuals of lesser talent and creative brilliance to achieve undeserved prominence. Race and gender bias meant that many whose talent should have qualified them were excluded; and virtually none lacking that special genius gained entry. The overall quality of art presented in top galleries and museums implied that the gatekeeping system was doing its job. And as a self-proclaimed progressive bastion the established art world at least pretended to believe the myth of its own objectivity.
So many of the artists that those of us of a certain age revered then and still revere stick in our memories with good reason. As a self-regulating system perhaps without parallel, post-war culture has been a magnet for an extraordinarily adventurous brand of individualism not limited only to its artists. But the old gatekeeping order was bound to collapse, deserved to do so, and has.
Maren Hassinger, “Twelve Trees #2,” 1979, Los Angeles installation, wire rope. Photo: Adam Avila
Forty-plus years ago the Guerrilla Girls turned feminist rage into data gathering, and data gathering into art that was dismissed by the art institutions they critiqued. Maren Hassinger made stand-offish wire rope sculptures that were relegated to gritty non-profit spaces. Suzanne Lacy enacted her youthful feminist rage into self-focused, sexually tinged performances directed mostly at her peers. The Chicano performance collective ASCO channeled pent-up frustration into an evening of graffiti-making at — or rather on — LACMA.
Thirty years later, though its original members had long since gone their own ways, ASCO became the subject of a LACMA retrospective. Lacy is now much in demand, producing major projects involving hundreds, sometimes thousands of participants and civic organizations at museums such as SFMOMA, New York’s Queens Museum in New York, and most recently at The Whitworth Gallery Manchester, England. Over the last decade Hassinger has been featured at the ICA Boston, the Brooklyn Museum, The Contemporary Art Museum Houston, and in Los Angeles at the Hammer Museum and LACMA. Her affinity for wire rope has remained and evolved into some of the most complex sculpture and installation you are ever likely to see. The Guerrilla Girls have steadily produced major message-driven installations that remain very critical of the very institutions now eager to host them — the Tate Modern, Minneapolis’ Walker Art Museum, the Venice Biennale, the UK’s Whitechapel Gallery and other international showcases.
Maren Hassinger, “Untitled Vessel (Large Body),” 2021, stainless steel wire rope on steel armature,
armature fabricated by Michael Benevenia, 67 x 54 1/2” diameter. Photo Aam Reich. © Maren Hassinger
Banksy became an international star, familiar to millions well beyond the art world, because of, not despite his visual rhetoric of social protest and demand for meaningful inclusion, inspiring a new generation of artists to dedicate themselves to aesthetics driven by social observation and messaging. Corie Mattie is one notable Banksy offshoot who gained notoriety with her very first street mural, “Cancel Plans. Not Humanity.” The Covid pandemic instead of driving her crazy. got her to make hope the driving point of her aesthetic. Personal philosophical advice rather than enraged criticism is its purpose. The difference between Banksy and Mattie echoes hip hop culture’s shift in emphasis from gangsta’ to inspirational a generation ago.
The implicit resistance of a typical museum curator in decades past was that inclusiveness would lead to a degradation of standards or, worse, general chaos that would undermine the art world’s value to its audience. The opposite has happened. This is at least in part because the art world is not only aesthetically but ethically rooted in disorder as something of a starting point. Artists respond to the world by imposing their personal response as they see it, be it emotional, intellectual, or spiritual. What visual art, along with all other forms that purport to aesthetic objectives, is very much about is extracting both responses and ideas for improvement. Forward movement with no end point drives the above-mentioned artists and so many others. This is a special and important conundrum because to sustain creative productivity, in these terms and times, requires a deep faith in the creative process coupled with a deliberate disregard for where it leads. Creative freedom occurs in the suspension between these contradictory principles.
Suzanne Lacy, “Net Construction,” 1973, performance at UC Santa Barbara
In the much larger world of politics a completely different conundrum is edging us towards disaster, one far removed from the virtuous cycle of maturation that has taken hold in the art world and elsewhere. What we are seeing is a reversion to what for decades were regarded as dead letter practices driven by a growing hysteria that is being deliberately fueled by interests antithetical to the American project itself. One political party is now dedicated to exploiting that hysteria, that fear of a loss of place and privilege, in order to monopolize power.
Mr. Reiner’s observation should, in America, have no merit. But in the upcoming 2022 and 2024 elections his prescription is correct. No matter how principled millions of Republican voters may be, their party no longer embraces but seeks to destroy the project launched by the founders. They constantly harp on language that insists otherwise; rank and file partisans dress in 19th century costume to convey their patriotism. But the Republican Party of today is about as genuinely patriotic as United Russia (Russia’s Putin-controlled majority political party), the Chinese Communist Party, or the Workers’ Party of (North) Korea. There is little moral or qualitative political difference between Vladimir Putin referring to his invasion of Ukraine as a “peacekeeping operation” and Donald Trump suggesting in speeches that the 2020 election was “stolen.” That Putin is able to prosecute and imprison Russian citizens who insist his Ukraine “peacekeeping” is an “unprovoked war” evinces a degree of power that Trump and many in the Republican leadership aspire to. The very freedoms on which American democracy rests are being exploited by these folks to destroy our system, as Steve Bannon enjoys saying, to “burn it down.”
Suzanne Lacy, “What Kind of City? A Manual for Social Change,”
2021, installation at The Whitworth, Manchester, UK
On the other side of the aisle Democrats still, and rightly, adhere to the ethical principles and standards of civic discourse that evolved from the founders’ vision, and produced the broad architecture and relative stability of the post-World War II world order. Today America hosts only one political party capable of winning elections and that is dedicated to honest, inclusive governance and to those elections being free and fair. This is a situation that cannot be tenable for long. Sooner or later the authoritarian party will gain, and therefore abuse power. Or the Democratic Party will embrace the tactics and tone of the other party in order to keep them out of power, effectively eradicating democracy by depriving both parties of our guiding principles. In the meantime, its very adherence to democratic traditions has weakened the current ruling party to such a degree that most pollsters and pundits regard the 2022 midterms as a foregone conclusion.
The present state of Democrats political disadvantage began with an ill advised complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, which alienated a number of Independent moderates. This alienation was made chronic due to Democrats’ failure to pass two pieces of legislation in the Senate. It is easy and fair to target Senator Joe Manchin (D-WVa) as the singular reason that the voting rights as well as the second infrastructure bill both failed. But the failure of both fellow Senators and the President to bring him on board was real.
ASCO, “First Supper (After a Major Riot),” 1974, performance.
Photo: Harry Gamboa, Jr. Courtesy of the artist and Marlborough Contemporary
They negotiated against their own bills, effectively empowering Manchin to redraft both, and then proceeded to back off the only condition they had attached to making such concessions: to vote on both infrastructure bills at the same time. It was fully reminiscent of former President Obama’s foremost tactical error when dealing with Republicans on healthcare. Concessions were made to obtain votes and counter-concessions, except once the legislation was watered down the other side felt no further compunction to pay up. The ethical failure may have been with Republican leadership in the earlier case and Mr. Manchin in the recent one. But the political effect has been devastating. For otherwise energized liberals both defeats were disheartening. The so-called “enthusiasm gap” has been both measurable and significant beyond regular Democratic voters and activists, filtering down to some of the Independent voters who often put one party or the other into the majority. The parallels to the 2010 electoral defeat are obvious in every way but one. The Republican Party today is clearly and demonstrably on a mission to destroy American Democracy. That was not at all clear in 2010.
The House’s January 6th Commission has, to date, made matters worse, despite of having gathered many volumes of information that bolster the case for the criminality of Trump and his co-conspirators. The limited but damning information known publicly also deepens it, making it abundantly clear that a coup formulated in good part by the seat of its pants has metastasized into a broad national conspiracy with a clarity of purpose that goes beyond the corrupt lusts of one individual. While this drive to upend Democratic governance has been taking place in full public view, the January 6th Commission has been steadfast in its original decision to complete its inquiry before holding a single public hearing. Worse, some Democratic Party members serving on the Commission have resisted making a criminal referral to the DOJ because they fear that it will be vulnerable to the accusation of politicizing the process.
Corie Mattie, “Cancel Plans. Not Humanity.”, 2021, mural. Photo courtesy of Corie Mattie
Meanwhile Republicans, led by Trump (if you have avoided listening to what he says at his rallies I cannot blame you, but just listen to one) politicize everything they do, vividly, brazenly, and with no hint of intellectual integrity or moral shame. Democrats are an occupying force, evil pedophiles who are corrupting our children in preparation for lives for which they are being groomed as sex slaves or worse. This has lead to the great political conundrum of our day, but it is actually deeply historical. The Big Lies that feed the urgent and emotional fear by many that one side poses an existential threat to the country have exactly no basis in fact. But these lies work, the more so as they have become normalized.
This is precisely what makes the Republican Party of today itself the existential threat to Democracy that they routinely proclaim the Democratic Party to be. But the emotional intensity and willfulness of the Democratic Party base is clearly less intense than that of the Republican Party base. Precisely because Democratic leaders wish to produce a degree of bi-partisanship or non-partisanship, and to act within the constraints of the law, much of their base is not only not as energized; it is discouraged. Switch those two votes, televise one January 6th Commission hearing after another, and you have a very different political dynamic.
Over the next six months Democrats are preparing to defend themselves when defense is in fact a prescription for certain electoral defeat. Their conundrum is that it makes perfect logical sense for Democrats to sell their generally positive policy record, and indeed to argue the importance of expanding their majorities so that voting rights and infrastructure bills that just barely failed can be enacted. But none of this, whatever their sample groups and polling services tell them, will work because it approaches the political case backwards. They need to grasp why the art world (and other components of our culture) has made so much progress: by arguing for the principles that are at stake in advance of the topic interests of the day. And it wouldn’t hurt to meditate on Corie Mattie’s good advice: “Cancel Plans. Not Humanity.”