Why Art Sucks: 57 Cultures and Nothing On

I HATE ART, I've taken to saying to friends lately, and only half jokingly. I'm not talking about pretentious beret-wearers, or obtuse theory masquerading as art, or even just bad art. I'm talking about art that's had vitality and surprise and play and pleasure sucked out of it, art that's only concerned with its rightness and virtue, art that urgently--desperately, one might say--foists its Message on the audience. I'm talking about a particular, not insignificant share of the art that enjoys recognition by major funders these days, and has found a measure of prominence in local galleries, museums, and performance spaces.
I don't need, for instance, to be told by performers that the message of Diva X, a recent and otherwise quite funny show at Patrick's Cabaret, is "self-love for all that you are... without apology, without qualification." Nor do I want to hear that "Women are strong, spiritual, powerful, and beautiful," as a recent film screened at Walker Art Center's Women in the Director's Chair series proclaimed. Simply reading that a dance piece is about the state of U.S. arts funding is enough to make me stay away, and I can only pity the theater critic for this publication, who, along with the audience, was asked to perform a breast self-exam as the finale of For Our Daughters, a play currently running at Illusion Theater. I read the notes for an installation commissioned by Intermedia Arts and the Jerome Foundation, one that purports to criticize images that are "sexist and stereotypical, portraying white male sexism and racism," and--well, it's beyond commentary.

With creative endeavors such as these coming to the fore over the last few years, I've grown to miss the kind of art that buries secrets or struggles, that gives something up without insisting on what the something is. Yet it seems that works without a blunt agenda--those that are more concerned with narrative or aesthetics--have become an elitist indulgence. In the art world as elsewhere, the multiculturalism that appeared so revolutionary 10 years ago has curdled into a fractious politics of identity, resulting in a new and, for the most part, incredibly banal didacticism: work that "explores" this personal issue or "documents" that social problem, that "provokes" the viewer regarding the artist's identity, or "confronts" the artist's traumas (usually of childhood origins). Art has become burdened with the duties of affirming, establishing, or asserting "identity," with healing or otherwise helping a certain "community," or imparting platitudinal messages of social or political import. It's become a therapeutic forum in which everyone insists on having her say before an audience of witnesses, believers, potential converts, or even penitents.

As art gets parsed into a multitude of niches based on Identity, it follows that the standards for judging such work are lowered, eliminated, or qualified into irrelevance. This is because the foundation of identity art isn't aesthetics, but rather its maker's existence: I am, therefore I make art about it. For example, what is artful about a series of enlarged snapshots of a baby boy? Or, for that matter, home videos that show this kid doted on by his parents, squirming through his first haircut, being taken on what is probably his first Hawaiian vacation? Considering that these pieces were shown in Heterogeneous, a recent exhibit "by Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender Artists," you can probably guess: He has two mommies, as the well-known children's book puts it, a fact that apparently makes him an artistic subject unto himself. The same question applies to art that vigorously and overtly espouses an Issue, like the For Our Daughters "play," whose larger share consists of women talking about their experience with breast cancer--on videotape.

When art is so literally about this artist or that political agenda, how can anyone pass critical judgment on it? Some proponents of identity art go so far as to say that traditional conceptions of good and bad art no longer apply; so-called "cross-cultural criticism" is debated, questioning whether a critic has anything useful or valid to say about an artwork unless critic and artist are of the same tribe. I've played variations on this argument in my own head, too. I once felt guilty if I didn't pay my respects to every item at a museum or gallery; after all, didn't each artist deserve attention? I likewise used to wonder how I could admire the work of Pablo Picasso, when I pretty much take historians' word on it that he was a cheerful misogynist. Eventually, juicy biographies notwithstanding, I came to see that it was his art and not his person that mattered.

Now, however, it seems as if the artist's identity is not merely a bit of context, part of art's backdrop; the work demands to be read in terms of its maker. In "What Are Masterpieces," Gertrude Stein argued that great art is mostly "about identity and all it does and in being so it must not have any." In other words, of course an artwork can only be utterly specific--of its time and place, of its maker--but it must also transcend those specifics.  

If sexuality, for instance, were as big an issue in Rome in the early 1500s as it is in our culture, the Catholic Church wouldn't have dreamed of commissioning a homosexual to paint the Sistine Chapel; for his part, it's likely that Michelangelo--limited either by his culture or by himself to making "queer" art--wouldn't have been able to conceive of such a project. Similarly, if Toulouse-Lautrec were applying for grants in today's artistic climate, he probably wouldn't win one for his bawdy scenes in Parisian cabarets, but he'd stand a good chance if he claimed to be exploring his oppression as a dwarf. Ditto Lord Byron and his clubfoot. And perhaps Flannery O'Connor would have crafted a series of memoirs about the trials and triumphs of being disabled, instead of sublimating her difference--as a crippled woman, as a devout Catholic in a small Georgia town--into exquisitely hard pieces of fiction. She would have been mindful, and could have reminded her readers in turn, that women are strong, spiritual, powerful, and beautiful.

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.

In this sense, most identity art is unbearably shallow. It's a badge, really, static and schematic, usually reliant on an exclusive batch of symbols and referents. It's limited in what it communicates, and therefore very easy to read. (Which may be why, as a critic looking at such art, I often feel myself in the position of a child being taught a lesson.) It confirms membership in a club, and because clubs have a stake in maintaining their ranks, it precludes the removal of the badge in order to dig through whatever it is that lies beneath--the stuff that makes up the person, that is, not the "identity."

According to identity-politics dogma, defining and expressing oneself in terms of gender, ethnicity, race, or sexuality is a radical gesture: no more closets, no more shame. But "celebrating difference" sometimes means a short trip to another kind of bondage. As James Baldwin put it in a 1984 interview: "Speaking out of black America, when I had to try to answer that stigma, that species of social curse, it seemed a great mistake to answer in the language of the oppressor. As long as I react as a 'nigger,' as long as I protest my case on evidence or assumptions held by others, I'm simply reinforcing those assumptions. As long as I complain about being oppressed, the oppressor is in consolation of knowing that I know my place, so to speak."

So it's easy enough for artists to remain safe in their ghettos, making work about their oppression or the intricacies of their identities (my mom is a WASP, my dad is a Japanese American, and I myself am involved with a Latina, having come out as a lesbian after confronting some feminist/shame/oppression issues that surfaced when I was working as a stripper...). One will notice that plenty of artists with marginalized backgrounds have achieved success in the larger culture precisely because they have something to say to that culture; identity art, to the extent that it purports to do anything outside its own ghettos, is preoccupied with creating "awareness," to use another genre buzzword. It's an ultimately stultifying goal: Those of like tribe may identify, those of unlike tribe are supposed to sympathize or feel guilty. Viewing a recent local installation titled "i am more than just a postcard," for example, spectators were offered a way to correct their consciousness--which up until then, presumably, didn't include an awareness of contemporary Native women--by purchasing postcards with pictures of these women on them. Beyond getting viewers to nod their heads in agreement or hang them in guilt, what does such art really do--and what of interest does the artist have to say?

Well, art and exhibits based on identity may make reasonably well-educated or open-minded art patrons feel better about themselves. On this level, they constitute a kind of medicine cabinet full of pseudo-therapeutic tonics (women's dance, black male performance art, transgender photography, queer film, Native painting) that salve the conscience of those more progressive members of the "dominant culture." They certainly won't change any mind that's not already open, however: Art may help us to see things in different ways, but if it were capable of creating world peace, it would have done so by now.  

If the arts could be said, ideally, to offer a panoramic view of the world and the infinite range of human experience it contains, then the practitioners and proponents of identity art are running in the opposite direction, willfully putting on blinders that limit them to a range of trite and true issues. And those who stray from the path may be accused of betraying their "community," as happened to filmmaker Todd Haynes, who is gay, and who made one of the most devastating and complex movies of 1995, Safe, about a wealthy suburban heterosexual woman. In following its tragically clueless protagonist, the film makes a subtle yet caustic critique of mainstream society and the price one pays for living in it passively. It's a statement that no doubt had its seeds in Haynes's consciousness as a gay man (he calls Jean Genet a major influence), but it was all the more forceful for its adaptation to broader issues and audiences.

Taken to its extreme, this tendency to make art only about what one knows, or who one is, is a denial of imagination itself. Women make art about menstruation, motherhood, rape, or their oppression by men; Native Americans about historic injustice, contemporary prejudice, or spirituality; blacks about race and rage; gays about their sexuality. How could these kinds of limitations fail to encourage the promulgation of clichés, whether they're righteously preached or bathed in feel-good treacle, whether they're "embracing various communities" or "celebrating difference"? Here are some of the eye-opening, mind-bending things I've learned from art in the past few years: Child abuse is horrible; there's funny gender stuff that goes on between men and women; straights get nervous when queers come on to them; Natives are still getting screwed over by the U.S. government; you have to fill out a lot of forms to get an arts grant; the situation in Bosnia is atrocious; conservative, anti-NEA politicians say the darnedest things; guns are phallic symbols; there were gays among ancient China's nobility; censorship is bad; Asian women and Caucasian women have different standards of beauty.

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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