Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Art considered as a Tweet

In the bad old says of, well, I think some intervals before the Renaissance, most of the art produced in europe was in support of the church. Sculpture and paintings mainly served to decorate religious buildings, and that was that. Art served primarily to support and amplify the dominant dogma. It was not supposed to challenge, to enrich, to enlarge the human mind, it was there to show you what you already believed, and urge you to believe it harder.

In the modern era, we see challenging Art which does enlarge, enrich us. And then, gradually, those ideas sometimes move slowly from radical avant-garde ideas to, as it were, settled dogma. At this point there is still a nice opportunity for artists to fall back into the church mode, and make more or less endless pieces which glorify and amplify that existing dogma. They may even pretend to be avant-garde.

Case in point. American Monument. This is an installation of 25 record players, each with a record of audio relevant to some police killing of an African American. This is packaged together with some large piles of documentation surrounding these cases, and I dare some some other things.

Now, I think cops shoot too many black people in the USA, let's stipulate that. Let us also stipulate that I could be mis-reading this installation, missing out on something.

That said, this does not strike me as a subtle work that enlarges our understanding of anything. While it is complicated, a lot of material had to be assembled, records had to be made, and so on, it is not particularly illuminating. This installation does not appear to offer any nuance, any alternative or more complex view of anything. The function appears to be, entirely, to validate the already held ideas of whoever might go see it.

This exhibit, in short, appears to be functionally equivalent to a tweet: WAKE UP PEOPLE #BlackLivesMatter

The tweet is about standing up and being counted, about taking part in what one hopes creates the appearance of a wave of nearly unanimous or at any rate large and dominant public opinion. This notional tweet ain't wrong. I support it. I probably have tweeted stuff like that myself. But the tweet, busting out my schoolboy arty bollocks, does not critically engage with anything.

Side note: the "with" part of "engage with" is redundant. I only ever say it ironically or by mistake.

American Monument, quite apart from the kerfuffle over the firing of the director who commissioned it, appears to be an incredibly complicated way of doing essentially the same thing. The artist is working that sort of comet's tail of the avant-garde, in which she can simply make elegant, complicated, work that validates the ideas the critics already hold, and can thus more or less rely on a positive reception. Nobody ever went broke telling The King that he's right.

Compare with Lewis Bush's work on the tax haven that is Jersey, which you can see a few sample bits from here. I've seen some other things, and the exhibited work is a bit more complicated, he's sticking diagrams on top of some of the photos and whatnot, so it's not just a bunch of rectangles on a wall.

Now, Lewis certainly could have thrown up a bunch of shit that boiled down to a tweet: CAPITALIST NEOLIBERALS SUCK #ElectCorbyn

He chose not to. He appears to be taking a more nuanced view. He's showing us things we did not know, he's digging into a narrow slice the neoliberal/capitalist clusterfuck and revealing it in ways we did not expect, did not know. We come away, perhaps, enlarged, smarter, changed.

Now, to be fair, I have seen neither American Monument nor Trading Zones, so I am guessing a lot here. But if my guesses miss the mark, they at any rate delineate the kinds of things that can go on, and my conclusions could as well be applied to other things.


  1. "Now, I think cops shoot too many black people in the USA, let's stipulate that.'

    Yes, let's! But a whole swath of the country does not so stipulate, and a whole other swath who does stipulate would still feel awfully uncomfortable when faced with the specific facts on display and what they really say about our country. (I live in Seattle, and I would say a large chunk of the population here fits in that latter category, maybe myself included.) So I tend to think the exhibit is a little more complex--and capable of artistic merit--than a tweet.

    1. But the point is that none of those people were going to go!

      The church art was not intended to convert the Moors, who were never going to enter the church except to raze it. The Catholic church was not the only dogma around, but in its own spaces it was.