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May 18, 2004

Our Institutional Revolutionary Party

I want to take Cinque's remarks (in part a response to me) and run with them a bit. These thoughts have been rumblings in my head for some time.

First a clarification.

Again, overall my comments were more germane to the 2003 show (or at least my memory of it) than this year's. Insofar as they do apply to 2004, it is mostly insofar as they are emblematic of the worst tendencies on show. I honestly did not mean to come off as totally negative on the Stray. There was some great art to be found this year. It's just that I find the inflated pretensions of it all detract from the work. And isn't the artwork what it's supposed to be all about?

And no, Cinque, I don't recall Piwonka's "ETA Good Friday." I seriously don't remember anything from Fresh Up Club's booth. And I worked my way through it, as diligently as I could manage, at least three separate times.

Finally, it's not so much the work that I found to be so gratingly quasi-political in '03 but the curatorial style. This is not to say that these displays were really overtly political or critical, but rather that they seemed to deal in the style of those politicisms or critical truisms that have been the stock and trade of 'edgy' art for decades now. In fact, I think my point is that this stuff is actually decidedly not political, just unnecessarily confrontational. In the end it's a predictable confrontation that settles into something of an irksome sibilant buzz rather than the raucous riot that was probably intended.

Yet as I struggle to wade through the muck, trying to give the art itself the chance it deserves and silently cursing the dissonant strategies of these provocateurs, a little critical voice nags at me: "it's not noise, it's 'Problematization.'" This, I think, is my real issue: the mystification and fetishization of radicality. Frustration for frustration's sake, as if mere frustration were criticality, and further as if criticality were a positive virtue in and of itself.

In a sense it's this paradoxical notion of an institutionalized radicality that has managed to achieve currency in the idea of subversion or criticality in themselves as normative criteria of art that I find ridiculous. To normalize revolt is to ensure its vacuity. The idea of a truly self-critical establishment is laughably idealistic. And insofar as we don't care about the content of such provocations, provided they prove sufficiently provocative, we find ourselves merely plumbing the shallows of a new formalism.

I find the analogy Cinque raises to be utterly spot on: "This is what happens when the status quo learns to manage the very counterculture that would claim to destroy it. It makes room, it provides comfortable chairs, it contains it as a safe little commodity." This is the dilemma of the avant-garde (at least the avant-garde for avant-garde's sake) in the past decades: having achieved some sort of hegemony of its own, or at least finding an establishment capable of capitulating in some respects, what's left for the ensconced radicals but to preach fiery jeremiads to the choir and defend their gate from the onslaught of straw men? Resistance and revolt only have meaning when defined against the status quo.

I'd been mentally preparing some sort of post to this effect after reading this interview with Jake Chapman [via Ariana]. Regarding the Chapmans' rectifications of Goya, Jake says:

We hoped to intercept the overtly humane sentiments found buzzing around Goya's lascivious disasters and restore the morbidity of the project, which, in the hands of interested professionals, had become morally cathected. We were attracted to Goya's Disasters of War because their institutional reclamation into the pantheon of progressive art was a pre-eminent example of Modernist retro-determinism. We were curious as to how the polarity of such unbound violence could be reversed and conducted to serve positive ends.

Then, before the 'paradox of iconoclasm' buzzer can sound, he draws back from his claims of "positive ends" (problematic insofar as this might imply the very progressive reclamation he'd like to denounce) to insist the their strategy is merely one of "inertia" (whatever that might entail) with the recognition of the futility of even this: "suffice to say, given the hard-wired redemptive prejudices... it was doomed to fail."

[Update: On review in the sober light of morning, it would seem the interview actually refers to the Chapman's 1994 Goya-derived sculpture, Great Deeds Against the Dead, not necessarily an iconoclastic gesture and probably all the more susceptible to the claims of progressive criticism.]

The point Chapman misses, I think, is that it is the job of the status quo institution to view even such problematic works in a redemptive light. Presented with the legacy of taste that is the accepted canon, each generation picks its horses, lauding some and rejecting others. The former necessitate some form of positive legitimization. Moreover, the status quo is expected to be virtuous. However, while this legitimization certainly might provide an objectionably sanitized interpretation of a work, the institutional version is hardly wholly determinant, unable as it were to be undercut by personal experience. The official 'reading' might be seen to carry the day, but it cannot control, let alone prevent, alternative readings.

One might say that this is precisely what the Chapmans' provide: an alternate, or rectified, reading against the institutionally sanitized version. But, as Jake himself seems to acknowledge, such an act is itself readily subsumable by the very "redemptive impulse" they're trying to "short-circuit." Beyond a mild and brief furor, their fit of iconoclasm settled quite gently into the institutional folds. Especially considering that their strategy of critique through appropriation is hardly an unpopular one these days and that the brothers, all their bluster aside, really are rather status quo themselves, this was pretty much par for the course and ultimately unexceptional. "Oh my, those Chapman brothers are at it again!" No doubt future (and for that matter current) curators and historians will be charged with the task of legitimizing the Chapmans' schlong-nosed toddlers within the comfort of the steady frame of discourse. And yet, for all the nifty contextualization, I doubt future audiences will easily overlook their depraved grotesqueness (consider this a description, not an evaluation).

Quite frankly, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes doesn't need Jake's and Dinos' help. Indeed, if there were ever a work or works of art resistant to such institutionalization mentioned above, whose affective resonance exceeds the limits of historical context and textual supplement, Goya's Disasters would be a candidate. These depictions of the severest corporal brutality require little by way of explanation or elaboration.

Works of art are persistent in themselves, if not in their meanings. However hard we may try to possess them, they will outlive our interpretations and, for that matter, extend far beyond our grasp even at the moment. These sovereign forms enter the web of our experience and achieve significance through engagement with our contexts and the historicity of thought and perception, but they will still always exceed us. They need no rescuing through iconoclastic effacement or supplement, but merely to be approached and looked at again, in the very space they open up before us. This is where the true radicality of the image can be found.

I hope I haven't rambled too inanely. Really, it's way past my bed time.

"Our Institutional Revolutionary Party"
Posted by Dan at 04:37 AM

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Referenced in this post:

Archive: This is worse—Goya
Artnotes: ...new meaning for the term 'dickhead'
Bare and Bitter Sleep: Ramblings on Politics in Art
Bare and Bitter Sleep: Space is the Place
Guardian: Great Deeds Against the Dead—Jake & Dinos Chapman
Guardian: Jake & Dinos Chapman: the Rape of Creativity
Iconoduel: Stray Show Assessment (sort of)
PavModern: Rectification: An interview with Jake Chapman—Jennifer McCamley