25 January 2008

More on Invidious Distinctions

Last night I had the pleasure of introducing Steve Kurtz who was lecturing at the University. I thought it might be useful to post my remarks. So, with apologies for the length, here they are.
Introductory Remarks to a Lecture by Steve Kurtz
24 January 2008

We in the contemporary west confront powerful, pervasive pressures to gerrymander the world in such a way that two of our central practices, art and politics, occupy separate, distinct domains. These are pressures that artists, for a variety of reasons - some admirable, some less so - find it difficult to resist. Artists who do approach the frontier of art and politics seem anxious when doing so, even when they themselves are well-established, working in recognized media, and so seemingly less susceptible to criticism and recrimination. Consider a couple of examples.

In the run-up to the 2004 elections, sculptor Richard Serra designed this striking poster that proclaimed “Stop Bush” against the background of a stark abstract depiction of the notorious image from Abu Ghraib of a hooded prisoner standing on a box, arms extended, wires dangling from his fingers. While the politics here are obvious, when queried about the work Serra insisted that it was not “art.”

Elegy to the Spanish Republic #34 ~ Robert Motherwell (1953-54)

Conversely, over the course of several decades Robert Motherwell produced by some counts hundreds of large, powerful, abstract paintings, each entitled “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” followed by the relevant number. While these paintings clearly constitute a massive artistic undertaking, in a 1959 lecture discussing the canvases Motherwell declared that he himself had “no special interest in politics.”

Serra and Motherwell, each from a different direction, seem to struggle mightily to keep art and politics at an appropriate distance. There are, however, dissenting voices who urge us to resist that temptation. For example, in a 1946 essay, George Orwell reminded readers that:
“The opinion that art should have nothing to do
with politics is itself a political attitude.”
And in an essay published just this month, writer, critic and activist Rebecca Solnit notes that:
“Apolitical art and artless politics are the fruit of a
divide-and-conquer strategy that weakens both;
art and politics ignite each other and need each other.”
As member of the Critical Art Ensemble, our speaker this evening Dr. Steven Kurtz has persistently sided with dissenters like Orwell, Solnit, and others in ignoring the common divide between art and politics. That much at least is clear from his title - “Crossing the Line: Interdisciplinary Work in a Society of Fear.” I cannot possibly so much as sketch the entire body of work that the CAE collective has generated over the course of two decades. Suffice it to say that they have produced books, performances, interventions and visual pieces in several media. Their work has appeared in numerous prominent cultural institutions in both Europe and the U.S. They have won a number of awards for their work, including the 2004 Leonardo New Horizons Award for Innovation and, most recently, the 2007 Wynn Kramarsky Freedom of Artistic Expression Prize from the Andy Warhol Foundation.

I want to focus briefly on what I think is a crucial feature of Steve Kurtz’s work with CAE. For what is striking about that work is not just that it crosses the lines purportedly separating art from politics, but how it does so. I take as a point of departure a remark by South African artist William Kentridge who, in characterizing his own work, says:
“I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of
ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures, and
uncertain endings; an art (and a politics) in which
optimism is kept in check and nihilism at bay.”
That is an ambitious agenda. It seems to me that by pressing critical questions, challenging standard narratives, and advancing alternative interpretations, Steve Kurtz and his collaborators approach the intersections of art and politics in very much the fashion Kentridge sketches. Theirs is hardly a message of optimism. In the most recent of their half-dozen books Marching Plague: Germ Warfare & Global Public Health, for instance, CAE details how various agencies - including corporations, government bureaucracies, elected political representatives, medical centers, the media, the military and, yes, universities - in various sometimes blatantly corrupt, always threatening combinations, partnerships, and alliances have established overlapping political-economic interests in generating and sustaining an atmosphere of fear in the post- 9/11 United States. There is a daunting, systematic character to the forces that they depict. I for one, find it difficult to sustain much optimism in the face of their analyses and, especially, of Steve’s recent travails.

On the other hand, as their name implies, the collective remains committed to criticism rather than nihilism, activism and resistance rather than despair or resignation. In just the opening pages of Marching Plague the CAE, if sometimes only tacitly or by way of contrast, invokes a panoply of criteria in light of which they (and we) can ground our criticisms of and responses to the depredations of powerful agencies and alliances. I have in mind here the way CAE gesture toward conceptions, however besieged they may be in practice, of individual autonomy, publicity, transparency, reality, truth, health, usefulness, sanity. In keeping with these criteria, their project is not to tell readers and audiences what to think but simply to prompt us to think and reflect and to afford us with resources that will make that reflection productive.

In 1927 philosopher John Dewey, himself extremely skeptical of efforts to gerrymander art and politics, noted that:

“The function of art has always been to break through the
crust of conventionalized and routine consciousness.”
By focusing our attention on the contemporary sources of what we take to be conventional and routine, CAE adopts a challenging task, namely to demystify the workings of power and the origins of our common fears and apprehensions. In so doing they strive to avoid the extremes of both naive optimism and disabling nihilism. For their efforts they have achieved well-deserved recognition from those receptive to their critical perspectives. They also have attracted attention from powerful entities - including the FBI and US Attorney - who, seeing the CAE’s work as a threat, have taken it upon themselves to police the bounds of art and politics. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Steven Kurtz who will speak to us this evening about his work with CAE and what happens when one does cross the line.

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Blogger rod said...

To add to your quotations on this matter, J. L. Borges also said that "Those who say art should not propagate doctrines, usually are refering to doctrines contrary to their own".

It's funny to see how wonderful socialist realist cinema has become since there's no USSR there to beat us with a big red club.

Great blog.

26 January, 2008 18:13  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Thanks, I will hunt down the Borges comment.


26 January, 2008 20:14  

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