Why Art Sucks: 57 Cultures and Nothing On

The local art scene has turned into a refuge for the creatively challenged.

In a sense, identity-based works do fulfill one role of art: They reflect the larger culture, or more specifically, the larger culture's obsession with the idea that everyone has a story to tell. And in its feel-good democratic approach, identity art refuses to recognize that some stories aren't all that compelling, or that some storytellers are more gifted than others. Thus the proliferation of work in the "personal journey" or "personal documentary" vein--call it My Story About Me--the kind of art that, not incidentally, is easy to do, but hard to do well. A related genre has other people talking about what kind of people they are: At the Women in the Director's Chair series last January, for instance, films were screened in which old women talked about being old women, teenage girls talked about being teenage girls, and lesbians talked about "the formation of their sexual identities." It's the art-world version of reality TV and endless screens of personal Web pages.

Identity art also points to the fact that, even though the Me Decade has long since passed, a certain brand of therapeutic self-absorption never did go out of fashion; instead, it found its way into the studio. One strain of such art is preoccupied with identifying and exploring personal problems--laying blame, making accusations, confronting issues: therapy lingo that translates into art about the fallout from child abuse, from being an adopted Korean, from being a black male. There's art that documents one's oppression (therapeutic buzzword: "silence") or sexuality (therapeutic buzzword: "desire"); art concerned with naming, owning, claiming, and reclaiming one's self; art burbling with I'm Okay/You're Okay affirmations. A dancer "noted for helping artists create a safe environment for groups or individuals to explore issues of import to them" came to town recently to conduct workshops; were these artistic forums, or group therapy happenings? At a confab earlier this month to announce the McKnight Foundation's increase in support for the arts, the numerous "culturally specific" arts organizations that have arisen in the last five to 10 years were described as "safe places" for folks to begin their explorations as artists.

I'd like to think that artists in need of such safety would instead retreat to the privacy of a therapist's office, but it's dismaying how popular their brand of art has become with the funding organizations on whom so many fledgling artists rely. Moreover, what's with this galling kid-glove approach, this presumption that creative people are toddlers in need of coddling, with arts organizations as some kind of daycare center? In my experience, "safety" as regards art is usually a shortcut to self-satisfaction, nothing more than a synonym for mediocrity. Art that flows forth from that kind of place is bound to be as captivating as yellow smiley faces and daily affirmations.

To the contrary, good art is more often a by-product of risk and instability. How else can hard, sometimes ugly questions be asked, truly radical ideas formed, striking visions made manifest? If an artist is feeling strung-out and vulnerable, then more power to her--perhaps she's onto something. Judy Chicago, for instance, in a talk at Walker Art Center a couple weeks ago, made reference to a particular summer as one of the most difficult times of her life. Yet she didn't retreat to some arts organization in search of healing (and maybe a handout); she was too busy embarking on another of her monumental projects.

A steadfast belief in the moral/therapeutic benefits of art is hardly new, but has been around throughout this country's entire history (it was the only way pleasure-hating Puritans and pleasure-suspicious Protestants could justify art). But when that belief intersected with the popularization of therapy in larger society over the past couple of decades, it was perhaps the single worst thing that could have happened to art. I doubt the artists I've known would find the creative process "healing" in any simple sense, but at some point two seriously mistaken notions took root: that personal problems make for good art, and that art can somehow heal those problems. Such ideas are an insult to artists, and to audiences asked to sit in on these dramatized or visualized therapy sessions.

I'd always believed that the best art was all about pushing past boundaries--scrambling them and challenging them, but certainly not celebrating them. Art is, after all, a means of communication, something which often seems to go forgotten in a world preoccupied with "self-expression," and it follows that one mark of great art is its power to remain resonant for all kinds of people, to keep giving up secrets long after its creation.

Yet as people, artists or otherwise, retreat to their niches, ostensibly for comfort and support, it becomes easier to envision a society of boxed-up beings disinclined to communicate with anyone outside. This is why identity art is ultimately such a dead-ended, hermetic genre. Not only do its artists have little to say to those of unlike tribe, but beyond expressing solidarity or affirming common beliefs, how much can identity art say even to those who identify? Take the photographs of transsexuals by Loren Cameron, featured in town at two successive art exhibits earlier this year. These mediocre portraits do assert the existence of transsexuals in the most obvious way--they "put the images out there," as it's often said--though, even with the help of some written testimony from their subjects, they accomplish little if anything more in evoking the incredibly complex experience of a sex change.

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