Why Art Sucks: 57 Cultures and Nothing On

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

Get it? Got it? Good. Because with most art of this type there's little point in trying for engagement, seeking to find where you stand in relation to it. Usually the artist or the institution has done it for you, with lengthy and prominently placed artist statements, with ever-larger and aptly named didactic labels that hang alongside the art--or sometimes with the text-laden art itself, an artifact that seems to be merely an excuse to append its Message. Some exhibits, moreover, are so aggressively informative they're more like bookmobiles parked inside the art space, such as the Genders that Be show last month at Intermedia Arts, which featured (in addition to a modest amount of art) a whole roomful of books, periodicals, pamphlets, and videos on gender issues.

Whereas much identity-based art addresses the idea of "communities under siege by the dominant culture," I've grown frustrated with an art world under siege by therapists and healers, social workers, community activists, evangelistic educators, political provocateurs, dysfunctional victims, and of course, identity artists. Some of these people call themselves, without irony, "cultural workers" or "cultural activists." They promote gatherings like a recent one that promised to "strip away the mystery and mystique" of art. To me, more surely than any funding cuts, these are signs of a crisis in the arts. Since when must art be stripped of its mystery? Why must art events be illuminated with officially sanctioned discussions, forums, and such--many of them freighted with the air of either a moribund college course ("The PC Dilemma") or a cathartic group hug ("A Discussion About Asian American Sexual Identity")?

Indeed, like outcome-based education, the whole enterprise surrounding this realm of art has a distinctly utilitarian edge to it. As novelist Jonathan Franzen remarked in writing about the state of fiction in this month's Harper's, "It does seem strange that with all the Marxists on college campuses, more is not made of the resemblance that multiculturalism and the new politics of identity bear to corporate specialty-marketing--to the national sales apparatus that can target your tastes by your zip code and supply you with products appropriate to your demographics." From this vantage point, there's a certain late-capitalist logic to the contemporary arts scene, with benevolent bureaucracy overshadowing the product itself as a plethora of niche nonprofits spoonfeed expertly programmed and endlessly explicated artistic endeavors to various "communities." Those Marxists might also reflect on the political economy of arts funding itself: There are decided advantages for the bourgeoisie in "giving voice to" and "empowering" the more marginalized groups with arts grants that promote separatism (and solipsism) in the name of "celebrating difference."

Then again, one could view the arts' obsession with moral uplift as a result of the siege mentality that's taken hold amid chronic NEA battles: If the arts are under attack from the outside world, perhaps they can be "saved" by brandishing some kind of social or educational imperative like a white flag.

Partly this is a sad and ill-fated attempt to make up for a longtime lack of arts education. In fact, the local art scene has come to resemble a giant school: one that serves a largely snow-white realm, and is known for its veneer of therapeutic niceness as well as its ample funding. (In terms of arts grants, the dollars-to-artists ratio here is greater than that of either New York or California.) Arts funders take roll call at the front of one of the classrooms, while a multicultural passel of artists sit at their desks writing out grant proposals. They're the eager students, shooting their hands in the air--"creating awareness," as it were--seeking and accepting acknowledgement from the Dominant Culture, from the Other. Some of these artists receive recognition and rewards for work that would be given an unceremonious "F" in a more competitive atmosphere; here, it seems, most anyone can get an "A" for effort. But no matter. As always, the artists of real interest are those who've left the classroom altogether--those who, to paraphrase critic Dave Hickey, are probably outside smoking behind the bleachers.

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