Monday, July 7, 2008

Being Serious without Being Boring

In a June review of Louis Camnitzer’s show at Alexander Grey Associates, Caroline Busta in Artforum describes a 1978 piece by the artist, that refers to the death penalty and power dynamics.

"The text on the plaque positions the artist-genius as dictator and the viewer as being at his mercy: THE GENIUS OF AN ARTIST IS DEFINED BY THE PUBLIC THE ARTIST CHOOSES TO DEFINE HIM AS A GENIUS. A MISTAKE IN THE CHOICE OF A SINGLE SPECTATOR CAN CREATE THE DIFFERENCE BETWEE BEING A GENIUS OR ONLY A NEAR GENIUS. TO KILL THAT PARTICULAR SPECTATOR IS THE MOST SIMPLE AND DIRECT WAY TO BECOME A TOTAL GENIUS. […] But seen today Sifter functions primarily as a reminder of the era in which it was produced; one in which such earnest, literal, politicized artistic gestures had real agency."

There’s a general consensus that a 1960s revolution-minded attitude is naïve or outmoded. I do get this, to a certain extent. You can’t change the world overnight (anymore). And you can’t pretend to know what’s best for a diverse society. It’s didactic, a bit arrogant and usually heavy-handed. This way of thinking has seeped into the art world, where art with a mission is seen as arrogant or earnest. I get this – to a certain extent.

I’m just wondering how art with a position can distinguish itself from what’s become a reigning cynicism. How can art “impart a sense of political responsibility,” as Busta says, without being suffocating or uninteresting?

My initial guess is: avoid the irony, favor the metaphor.

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