Joshua Decter grapples with art’s inherent contradictions; the Los Angeles race riots; and a contemporary artist’s social allegories in response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Art is a Problem.
Yael Bartana, Kings of the Hill, 2005. © MoMA PS1
Art may have become a problem only because it is no longer really problematic. Art—however we may choose to define, de-define, re-define, or un-define it—is on the verge of becoming so thoroughly assimilated into, or integrated within, global social, economic, ideological, and institutional networks that it may no longer be able to pose any problems to those systems. As a result, art seems increasingly insulated from deeply critical questions that would seriously compromise its validity or value. It is also tenable to suggest that this has been art’s odd predicament for quite some time. A more difficult question to consider is whether art ever did pose any problems—and what criteria or metric would we use to measure this?
Some would argue that art’s assimilation—its distribution into broader networks—allows it to act, so to speak, upon the imaginations of more publics and in increasingly complex, subtle ways than at any other time in recent history. To others, art’s ubiquity merely tranquilizes its transformative potential. Sectors of the global contemporary art market may have become economic drivers of employment and wealth, but this does not mitigate the anxiety that comes with acknowledging art’s discomfiting paradoxes: it is a creative practice that still can generate meaning beyond itself; a robustly investable class of commodity that reinvents the terms of its own language; and a specialized cultural product that aspires to critical, yet demotic, social and political germaneness. Yes, there are circumstances in which art has surfaced as a vehicle of dissent, resistance, protest, opposition—seeking to question power and authority, intolerance and repression, and economic and social injustice. The variously termed political, social, critical, interventionist, public, participatory, and other “turns” are testimony to ongoing efforts at cultivating a verifiable agency and/or utility for art and artist. Yet, paradoxically, the more tolerant or liberal a society becomes, the more art becomes a naturalized, normative element within an environment of unfettered (and perhaps increasingly undifferentiated) creative production. At the same time, we might say that art embodies these self-same contradictions. Art is an aporia. To express it differently: art can only allegorize its indeterminate relationship to itself, and to everything else. Critical writing may have the capacity to cut through the fog of art’s ambiguities and shed light on its contradictory place in the world, but such discourse can do nothing to vitiate these contradictions. To some, this is inspiring; for me, it is occasionally exasperating.
In order to be critical, we must convince ourselves that our sovereignty as critical thinkers is meaningful and tangible, even while acknowledging that this very sovereignty is the result of precariously occupying a mental space that is at once inside and outside power.
Engaging in critical processes—i.e., questioning, pressuring, and troubling things as they appear to be—may temporarily reduce the psychic pain unleashed by the contradictions of art and its global systems, even though it is in no way ameliorative of these conditions. (For better results, take Ibuprofen.) In order to be critical, we must convince ourselves that our sovereignty as critical thinkers is meaningful and tangible, even while acknowledging that this very sovereignty is the result of precariously occupying a mental space that is at once inside and outside power. We find creative, even pleasurable, ways to maintain the self-delusion—a suspension of disbelief—that our sovereignty as critical beings is beyond contradiction. It would be hypocrisy not to admit that my criticality is located both outside of and within these contradictions. If anything, this book reflects an ongoing struggle to reconcile the limits of criticality (and criticism) with a continuing desire to imagine that the questioning of things might have some relevance beyond a relatively closed discursive spice or community (that is itself constituted both inside and outside power). It is emblematic of the endless circularity of reconciling one’s doubt and skepticism with a sense of commitment to art and artists. The kind of thinking that privileges doubt may dwell in a precarious state in relation to various audiences and receptions (academic, non-academic, or other), yet we also understand that skepticism can be fodder for the radical chic mill. Doubt and skepticism are infinitely marketable. It’s a truism that criticality and/or criticism is perpetually in crisis, and that dissent can be recuperated for other applications; e.g., dissent as an iPhone app. Yet one may also conceive of doubt as the prerequisite to a commitment to art, artists, and people. Once we work our way through doubt, or at least assuage our skepticism, commitment and engagement may ensue. And so we might consider doubt not as anathema to commitment, but rather as the necessary prerequisite for it.
I am in the process of completing an essay on the contradictions of the notion of multiculturalism as it pertains to the domain of contemporary art and visual culture vis-à-vis this country’s rather unstable socioeconomic fabric, when it is brought to my attention that civil violence has erupted into the streets of the South Central Los Angeles community as a direct response to the not guilty verdict reached in the trial of four white L.A. police officers accused of using excessive force in the apprehension and arrest of black motorist Rodney King. I turn on the television, and a mélange of images transmitted live via satellite flood into my domicile. The events unfold, the news coverage is disorganized and reactive: a helicopter hovers above the streets of South Central, sending pictures of an urban topography steadily descending into social unrest and violence. It is immediately clear what is happening: the predominantly black residents of that community have begun to register a general protest against an acquittal which seems to re-confirm their worst fears that the country’s judicial system is inherently unjust to African Americans, that it systematically favors whites. I am angered by a verdict delivered by a mostly white jury in a police brutality trial held in Simi Valley—a Los Angeles suburb with a mere 2 percent black population. It is clear that the judicial system failed in this instance.
The class and race conflicts which always seem to simmer beneath the surface of this society reached a boiling point.
The sense of social, economic, cultural, and political disenfranchisement that must be felt by black citizens within a community racked by gang warfare, ubiquitous drug traffic, and black-on-black crime, is difficult to imagine. Following the verdict in the Rodney King trial, that community let loose from years of pent-up frustration regarding the cycle of economic and social decay, disempowerment, and social marginalization. The class and race conflicts which always seem to simmer beneath the surface of this society reached a boiling point; for some, the rage was unmanageable, leading to a micro-civil war: angry black youth beating white motorists who had strayed into South Central, angry Korean businessmen organized into a paramilitary organization, firing at looters in defense of their properties. Clearly, the beatings, arson, and lootings were perpetrated by a relatively small contingent of irresponsible, desperate, or criminal elements; ironically, it is reported that the looters comprised a multiracial coalition (predominantly black, but also Latino and Anglo).
But we are all implicated, regardless of our race, cultural identity, economic status, or social class; it is a question of how we position ourselves in relation to the complexities and contradictions. Perhaps I have fallen victim to the media spectacle of the situation; maybe I’m caught up in a mass cultural logic that transforms real social upheaval into a theatrical proliferation of televisual abstraction. Maybe my white, liberal identity—itself a hybrid site of ideological, emotional contestation—has been coaxed towards an enhanced self-criticality. Cornel West’s 1990 essay, “The New Cultural Politics of Difference,” has been useful:
“In the recent past, the dominant cultural identities have been circumscribed by immoral patriarchal, imperial, jingoistic, and xenophobic constraints. The political consequences have been principally a public sphere regulated by and for well-to-do White males in the name of freedom and democracy. The new cultural criticism exposes and explodes the exclusions, blindness, and silence of this past, calling from it radical libertarians and democratic projects that will create a better present and future. The new cultural politics of difference is neither an ahistorical Jacobin program that discards tradition and ushers in new self-righteous authoritarianism nor a guilt-ridden leveling anti-imperialist liberalism that celebrates token pluralism from smooth inclusion. Rather, it acknowledges the uphill struggle of fundamentally transforming highly objectified, rationalized, and commodified societies and cultures in the name of individuality and democracy. This means locating the structural causes of unnecessary forms of social misery (without reducing all such human suffering to historical causes), depicting the plight and predicaments of demoralized and depoliticized citizens caught in market-driven cycles of therapeutic release—drugs, alcoholism, consumerism—and projecting alternative visions analysis and actions that proceed from particularities and arrive at moral and political connectedness. This connectedness does not signify a homogenous unity or monolithic totality but rather a contingent, fragile coalition-building in an effort to pursue common radical libertarian and democratic goals that overlap.”1
My desire is to reach out beyond the rhetorical enclave of academic discourse, and the institutional and social limitations attached to that language.
As an art critic operating within the territory of a privileged contemporary art culture, how can I hope to articulate a meaningful and persuasive account of the contradictory nature of our hybrid culture? Who constitutes the audience for this text? What are the conditions of its receptions? What type(s) of communications does it establish within, and beyond, the parameters of the art world? How do we identify those parameters? When I extract a quote from an African American cultural critic, incorporating it within my discourse, what, if any, are the sociopolitical implications of this act? In the spirit of cultural, racial, ideological, political, and intellectual coalition-building, I may be weaving an elaborate intertextuality, but my desire is to reach out beyond the rhetorical enclave of academic discourse, and the institutional and social limitations attached to that language. But reach out to where, and to whom? The streets of South Central L.A., or New York’s Harlem community? New lines of verbal and visual communication have to be opened through intercultural, interracial, inter-ideological, inter-political and inter-economic coalitions and dialogue.
In his essay “Secular Criticism,” the Palestinian American literary and cultural critic Edward Said called for the critic to overcome the pernicious specialization of the insular academic realm (as a literal institutional space, as well as a codified system of theoretical language-formations), and work to recognize the humanistic obligations of the intellectual to operate, “…in that potential space inside civil society, acting on behalf of those alternative acts and alternative intentions whose advancement is a fundamental human obligation.”2 Following Said, I would like to suggest a transformation of the Enlightenment model re-inscribed in his text (e.g., “acting on behalf…”) into a differently articulated conception, so that the so-called alternative can manufacture the self-empowerment to act on my behalf, reversing Said’s potentially problematic hierarchy of authority. Yet today, the penal system in this country has become the school for a disproportionate percentage of young black men; the failure of the public educational system for the so-called inner city, low-income youth of this country is pandemic, and is connected to other systematic problems within this nation’s institutional, social, and economic infrastructure. The fiction of equal opportunity is made graphically evident at the flash point of reactive urban violence.
Take a good look at today’s America: the contradictions and complexities of racial segregation persist, and have become even more firmly entrenched within a seemingly vicious cycle of economic, ideological, educational, and political relations which produce wide gulfs between cultural empowerment and disempowerment, representation, and non-representation. A recent study published in the New York Times once again indicates the almost absurd disparity of economic power between the relatively small percentage of wealthy Americans (who continue to control, proportionally, the majority of capital), and the low-income populations (whose opportunity to improve their economic condition has begun to deteriorate); this is a disparity made even more glaring as fortunes and opportunities also decline for the middle class.
It is abundantly clear that cultural capital remains in the hands of a select, primarily white, network of experts, specialists, connoisseur, galleries, curators, collectors, artists, writers.
And so what do people mean when they use words such as “multiculturalism” or “cultural difference” in today’s art world? It is abundantly clear that cultural capital remains in the hands of a select, primarily white, network of experts, specialists, connoisseur, galleries, curators, collectors, artists, writers, etc. The rise of the alternative space in the early 1970s attested to dissatisfactions with the consolidation of the so-called mainstream venues for specific types of practices, and the development and emergence of localized, community-based art centers within the city similarly demonstrated a desire for new frameworks of self-representation and self-presentation. Yet such developments have produced a rather paradoxical situation: the virtual segregation of practices by artists of color (where African American, Asian American, Latino, etc. who live and work in different urban contexts or communities other than those officially sanctioned by the legislators of the supposed mainstream) from other cultural venues that might offer them a greater stake in the art marketplace. The whole rather dead-end issue of mainstream versus alternative, center versus periphery, in terms of contemporary visual arts culture suggests a logic of inclusion and exclusion that must be overcome on conceptual and institutional levels, for it is clear that artists within certain ethnic communities beyond the domain of SoHo would like to establish enhanced degrees of cultural-economic autonomy and control that suggest a productive interface (in)between distinct urban sites of artistic production.
Yet, I am also somewhat uncomfortable with my own motivations as a white art critic attempting to discuss issues of race relations, class, and cultural identity in relation to the contemporary art world, particularly as I have sought to bring into this discussion the recent events in South Central L.A. as they indicate the contradictory status of the notion of multiculturalism. My discomfort arises from an understanding, however incomplete, of the contradictory and complex nature of my so-called white identity, and the degree to which this hybrid, unstable identity itself evidences an ambivalent relationship to constructing a discourse on other cultural, racial, and ethnic identities.
The dream: to develop a more authentic understanding of cultural identity as a means (to paraphrase Cornell West) of establishing or locating affiliations between distinct conditions of race and gender. West’s call for coalition-building in order to identify overlapping libertarian and democratic agendas for whites, blacks, and others, as well as his demand that the new cultural critics explore different territories and avoid disciplinary and institutional closure or insularity, seem to be essential prerequisites for the struggle to resolve the glaring contradictions and enormous systemic problems facing our hybrid, yet fractious society.
1. Cornel West, “The New Cultural Politics of Difference,” in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, ed. Russell Ferguson et. al. (Cambridge: The MIT Press and New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1990). p. 35.
2. Edward Said, “Secular Criticism,” in The World, the Text and the Critic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983). p. 30.
Revised version of essay originally published in catalog for The Hybrid State exhibition, Exit Art, New York, November 2, 1991 through January 25, 1992.
Disputatious claims of belonging and emplacement; boundaries and flows; communication and misunderstanding; historical narratives in contradiction: These are the preoccupations of Yael Bartana’s post-documentary, allegorical practice. Born in Israel in 1970, Bartana makes work that delivers resonant poetic-political reflections on the cultural, political, geographic, psychological, and religious irreconcilabilities of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. Indeed, both seem incapable, in their mutually reinforcing fears and misunderstandings and their reciprocal—indeed, at this point, ritualistic—gestures of discipline and punishment, of forging a workable two-state solution. Yet Bartana’s work cannot be considered activist in any normative sense. It is best understood within a broader context of artists (e.g., Emily Jacir, the Atlas Group with Walid Raad) who hybridize conceptual structures, documentary codes, and post-representational strategies, deconstructing assumptions of truth and stable ideological systems while remaining within the proximity of realpolitik. Artists such as Bartana, Jacir, and Raad inhabit post-colonial, post-diasporic transnational identities and interstitial real and imaginary geographic spaces. Their practices reactivate the viewer’s relation to—not complicity with—the entanglements of these conflicted worlds and illuminate the interdependencies of artistic and political labor for viewer and producer alike.
Velocities mutate and a subtle time lapse of sensuous dissolves and fades makes it appear that the vehicles are moving through one another, creating ghostly afterimages and displacing real-time modalities.
Bartana’s P.S. 1 show—her first institutional exhibition in the U.S.—features several works produced over the past eight years. The earliest is “Trembling Time,” 2001, a deceptively simple video that embodies the contradictions of a society tangled up in secularity and urbanity on the one hand and religiosity and a deep commitment to historical commemoration on the other. From atop the Hashalom Bridge in Tel Aviv, Bartana shot that city’s main highway during the event marking the start of Israel’s Remembrance Day, which honors fallen soldiers: sirens wail across the country, broadcast on all media outlets; a minute of silence is observed; and the nation briefly grinds to a halt. Initially, it is a rather mundane scene. Cars and trucks pass below at normal speed, but then velocities mutate and a subtle time lapse of sensuous dissolves and fades makes it appear that the vehicles are moving through one another, creating ghostly afterimages and displacing real-time modalities. A siren is heard; cars gradually come to a stop; the passengers step onto the asphalt, stand in the middle of the highway, and then return to their vehicles. We are witness to a historically transcendent memorialization that is at once tangible and phantasmic—a momentary break with a normative order of things that has, itself, become normalized. Significantly, Bartana’s simultaneously narrative and non-narrative depiction of the episode is looped, alluding to the tautology that is intrinsic to all rituals, including rituals of non-reconciliation. The work is testimony and counter-testimony, at once documentation and a displacement or de-realization of the event into other (i.e., aesthetic) terms—what might be described as a process of social abstraction.
Questions of responsibility and territory or place come to the surface in “Wild Seeds,” 2005, a two-screen installation that presents images of a cluster of Israeli teenagers playing a game devised by Bartana that reenacts the struggle by Israeli police to evict settlers from illegal outposts. The young actors take on the requisite roles: those playing the settlers seek to establish themselves as an interlocked, horizontally positioned unit of resistance on the ground; those playing the police attempt to pull them apart and eject them from their entrenched positions. Yelling and screaming ensue. On the second screen, perpendicular to the first, the rhetorical battle is translated from Hebrew into English: “A Jew does not deport another Jew”; “Where is your conscience?”; “Motherfuckers,” etc. Smiles suggest it is all in good fun, yet there are also moments of uncomfortable laughter and tension, as well as real physical struggle, mirroring the larger existential struggle. We understand that Bartana has enacted a social-symbolic episode that allegorizes the extent to which Israeli society has been torn apart by territorial claims, with the state becoming the hegemonic other, the institutional bad cop, in the eyes of some extremist settlers. It’s a powerful indictment of the schizophrenia of a society that may or may not be able to heal its largely self-inflicted wounds.
Bartana’s practice gains force by functioning as a response to localized realities while at the same time generating social imaginaries that productively dislocate us into regions of broader political allegory. Potentially, this allegory operates on transnational terms and, possibly, as a means of allowing us to project ourselves to territory beyond normative media representations. In “Summer Camp,” 2007, we discover black-and-white images of people of apparently European descent riding camels through an idyllic desert landscape, cacti and palm trees blowing in the wind. A phrase appears: “To the pioneers in Palestine.” It turns out that we’re looking at a print of the 1935 Zionist film Awodah, directed by Helmar Lerski, which, according to curator Sergio Edelsztein, was “commissioned to promote the immigration of European Jews to pre-state Israel, hailing agricultural development as a collectivizing epic.” Bartana recorded footage of the reconstruction of a house in the Palestinian village of Anata, near Jerusalem, that had been demolished by the Israeli Army. The rebuilding project was organized by the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) in opposition to the Israel Defense Forces’ tactic of razing homes suspected of housing militants or their families. Bartana skillfully edited her ICAHD documentation so as to echo the Zionist-socialist-realist style of the utopian narrative of the historical film. With composer Guy Harries, she created a new score based on her previously reedited version of Paul Dessau’s original heroic-modernist music for Awodah, now incorporating traditional Arab music to suggest the inevitability of cross-cultural hybridization between Israel and Palestine—an ironic consequence of their entwined fates. We cannot help experiencing or reading one film (and one history) through the filter of the other.
One recognizes a wry reminder of just how selective a nation’s memory can be, and how we forget that our collective destiny is predicated on the fate of others.
We are, in other words, invited by Bartana to reflect on the profound contradictions of Israel’s settlement policies in the occupied territories in relation to its own history. If the Jewish people cannot be separated from the land of their biblical heritage, why should there be a different standard for Palestinians, who make their own legitimate claim? This transgenerational dispute is now ultimately a question of equal rights under the law, at least within the current terms of occupation. In its Tel Aviv incarnation, Bartana’s show, untitled at P.S. 1, was called “Short Memory.” One recognizes a wry reminder of just how selective a nation’s memory can be, and how we forget that our collective destiny is predicated on the fate of others. Bartana’s work eloquently reminds us of the disturbing psychosocial media feedback loop of tit-for-tat violence—the trauma of conflict endlessly reanimated—that taints Israelis and Palestinians alike. By extension, she implicates all viewers, us, within a seemingly hopeless complexity that is calling out for imaginative acts—dare we say cultural and artistic operations—of global responsibility and engagement.
Bartana may not be claiming that art can ameliorate calamity, but she does appear to have just enough faith in the emancipatory potential of allegories of social justice, even as her work functions as an allegorical rendering of social injustice. As an artist, she can only hope to reengineer these social, political, cultural, and religious entanglements into another kind of representation, a conflictual zone of deferred imaginary reconciliations. Within her cartography of trauma, the land is not transfigured into an essentialized condition, but rather is conceived as a post-territorial space that simultaneously precedes and exceeds, includes and excludes, religion, culture, politics, ideology, and perhaps even representation itself. In other words, the land is a space of possibility wherein social imaginaries may cross-pollinate with realpolitik. Might her practice be understood as an aesthetics of restorative justice deployed into the space of quotidian injustice?
Revised version of text on Yael Bartana’s survey show at MoMA PS1, New York, October 19, 2008 through May 4, 2009. Originally published in Artforum International, April 2009.
Find Guernica‘s interview with Joshua Decter here.
Joshua Decter is a New York-based writer, curator, art historian, and theorist. In addition to Art is a Problem, Decter is co-author of a forthcoming book in Afterall’s Exhibition Histories series on the 1993 exhibition, “Culture in Action.” He has curated exhibitions at PS1, the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, Apex Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Kunsthalle Vienna, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, and was a curatorial interlocutor for inSite_05. Decter founded the MA Art and Curatorial Practices in the Public Sphere program at the University of Southern California, and has taught at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies, the School of Visual Arts, NYU, and other institutions.
All texts excerpted from Art is a Problem by Joshua Decter. Preface: © 2013 Joshua Decter and JRP|Ringier Kunstverlag AG. “The Fractious Hybrid State (Of Things)”: ©1992 Joshua Decter, Exit Art, and JRP|Ringier Kunstverlag AG. “Yael Bartana: an aesthetics of restorative justice deployed into the space of quotidian injustice”: © 2009 Joshua Decter, Artforum International, and JRP|Ringier Kunstverlag AG. Reprinted by permission of the author.