Joshua Decter on the intersection of doubt and commitment in art.
Copyright 2013 JDLT
Joshua Decter’s career as a writer, curator, art historian, and theorist has spanned three decades and many trends, turns, and other shifts in artistic practice and cultural institutions. Art Is a Problem: Selected Criticism, Essays, Interviews and Curatorial Projects (1986-2012) (Documents Series) is a collection of Decter’s writing that includes essays, interviews, reviews, and curatorial texts, and encompasses a wide range of artistic methods, critical concepts, political issues, and debate on the practical and possible roles of art in culture at large. On the occasion of the book’s forthcoming publication by JRP|Ringier in January 2014, and preview of which can be found here, Decter recently sat down with me to talk about the ethos of his work—and why art continues to be a problem.
—Chelsea Haines for Guernica
Art engenders important problems, yet it is also a problem.
Guernica: How did you arrive at the book’s title?
Joshua Decter: It took some time. But upon arrival, it seemed the most effective means of embodying my longstanding ambivalence about art, criticality, and other matters in a humorous, plaintive, and hopefully serious manner. I think many people have, and continue to, harbor doubts about whether art is a useful vehicle to engage with, or engender change within, broader political, economic, social, and ideological conditions, even as we struggle to reconcile this doubt with commitment and optimism. Art engenders important problems, yet it is also a problem. So why not be a bit provocative, and deploy a title that might startle some readers.
Guernica: You started your career as a critic and curator around the same time as a massive rise in interest in the relationship between art and politics. How do you see this shift being indicated in your writing over time?
Joshua Decter: I grew up resolutely middle class in Manhattan and was taken to museums and galleries by my parents, so art was always a part of my life. After college, I participated in the curatorial/critical studies component of the Whitney Independent Study Program (ISP) from 1984 to 1985, where I met artists such as Andrea Fraser, Mark Dion, and Glenn Ligon. There I engaged in a year-long one-on-one theory tutorial with Benjamin Buchloh—experiences that drove home the point that one cannot think about art outside of its embedded relationship within larger systems. And the ’80s were actually a rather contradictory period in New York, [there was] a significant expansion of venues and markets for contemporary art, as well as the emergence of various forms of art and cultural activism and politically-engaged practices. There are some relevant parallels to today’s situation. When my art criticism first started being published in the mid-’80s, part of me wanted to tear down the idols of art history, while another part maintained faith in—the illusion?—that art could be oppositional in some way.
These illusions began to fade a bit while working in my first curatorial job at an institution, PS1, in the late ’80s. A few years later, in the early ’90s, I became increasingly uncomfortable with how the work of the aforementioned generation of Institutional Critique artists—my friends and peers—seemed to have become at home within the institutions under critique. The bogeyman became the sugar daddy. These contradictions bothered me. Still do to a certain extent. So in a way, my problem with art is just how smoothly critique has been assimilated within museums and other cultural institutions. And now, how institutions have evolved into contradictory platforms. I’m conflicted, since I still want art to put pressure on conditions of economic, social, and political injustice, yet unsure about what results from that pressure. And this is not merely a theoretical dilemma—it’s also an existential question about one’s work and position in relationship to the field.
Guernica: You make your personal subject position very explicit in some of the essays in the book. Do you think of that as a way of creating a form of resistance—making your voice visible so your writing is not seen as detached critique, but a subjective stance?
Joshua Decter: When I first started writing, I thought that the occasional use of first-person voice could help to make more of an impact, and reflect my frustration with how art criticism seemed to be becoming a form of hagiography—whether in relation to the putatively more rigorous art historically- or theoretically-oriented varieties, or the more supposedly accessible kinds that emphasize prosy or journalistic qualities. I endeavored to spice things up in what I thought to be politically responsible ways—to be polemical when it seemed strategically necessary or tactically appropriate. My writing methods and styles have changed and evolved over the years, and I’ve probably unlearned as much as I’ve learned. For instance, I wrote quite differently for Arts Magazine in the 1980s than I did for Artforum in the ’90s and the 2000s. When I co-founded the purposefully short-lived Acme Journal in the early 1990s, one of the motivations was to rethink the place of art criticism at that time, because it was considered to be “in crisis”; the perennial crisis of criticism… Just like the perpetual crisis of capitalism. And I took up organizing exhibitions and symposia, as well as teaching, to materialize ideas in ways not always possible through writing.
Guernica: The two texts we selected for Guernica were published eighteen years apart and they both express very deep concerns related to identity politics.
Joshua Decter: “The Fractious Hybrid State (Of Things)” (1992) was written for the catalogue of a group exhibition at Exit Art. I was not obligated to talk directly about the artists or the exhibition itself, which was liberating. This essay was triggered by having watched the riots unfold in Los Angeles live on television in New York, following the acquittal of the police officers who had beaten Rodney King. I visited Los Angeles not long after the rioting and wanted to write about this social turmoil, and also endeavor to think about these events in relation to people who had influenced me considerably during that time, namely Cornel West and Edward Said.
I was particularly engaged with West’s Martin Luther King-inflected ethos of building coalitions amongst progressive intellectuals and activists, and thought that this essay presented an opportunity to reflect upon possible interconnections—indirect, certainly—between the fractious conditions in Los Angeles and the fractiousness within certain enclaves of the art world at the time—particularly in regard to the debates surrounding identity—race, ethnicity, and class—politics vis-à-vis the function of discourse, and questions of institutional inclusion and exclusion. And, perhaps most importantly, my subject position as a white critic in the midst of all of this.
In terms of the 2009 Artforum piece on Yael Bartana, I was very intrigued with her sophisticated and fresh approach to the Israeli-Palestinian debacle, and how she reconsidered questions of identity, history, ritual, and memorialization in relation to the complex politics of representation in Israeli culture. As someone who was raised in a family wherein these issues were debated rather frequently, Bartana’s aesthetics seduced me, so to speak, into reimagining the possibilities of art as a mode of political allegory.
I think for a long time people have been uncomfortable with the expression, “political art.”
Guernica: In the earlier essay, you’re really talking about the role of the intellectual and the critic in relation to activism. In the second essay, you are writing about the work of an artist whom you consider to be complicating notions of artistic activism—work that is compelling aesthetically, that illuminates a problem but does not offer a solution. There’s a constant question on the role of so-called political art: is it meant to manifest political change or should it merely affect individuals based on its aesthetic form? I appreciate that you point at both of these potential results in your writing and are able to address both with a level of optimism.
Joshua Decter: I think for a long time people have been uncomfortable with the expression, “political art.” Yet the effort at coming up with alternative rhetorical ways to express the interrelationships between art and politics, itself a problematic construction, has been equally frustrating. My earlier essay that focused on social discord in Los Angeles as a means of thinking about other matters was much less about the question of art per se, or the institutionalization of art, than it was about trying to reassess the politics of being a critic in relation to a broader political and social territory. This was an important moment for me as a thinker and writer because I was able to get out of the cycle of thinking about how everything needs to be connected back to art.
In terms of the Bartana text, it was originally written for Artforum, and the language I used was probably a bit over-determined in terms of a “theoretical” voice, even though I endeavored to ground it in observations about the “real politics” of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. It’s interesting to point out that the earlier text references the Palestinian-American critic and theorist Edward Said, and the Bartana essay also discusses Emily Jacir, among other artists whose work engages with both the local and global attributes of identity politics, political struggle, historical memory, and so on. And although one can be a very different writer for various contexts and platforms, and at different historical moments, there are certain key ideas and commitments that one returns to, such as social justice.
I think if you devote a life to art, an understanding of art’s contradictions is just built into your work.
Guernica: Writers employ different rhetoric when they are trying to reach different readers; the readership of Artforum is simply different to that of the New York Times or a catalogue for Exit Art.
Joshua Decter: There’s certainly an imaginary notion of readerships that we have for these contexts. Whether these readerships are real, and if you can meet their expectations, is a different question. I’m curious about the reception of the book—the title of which is Art is a Problem—and how it will make its way into discursive, public spheres. Although the book does contain some materials that problematize art and its various contexts—this has been one of my responsibilities as a critic, writer, curator, and educator over the past few decades—this is not an anti-art tome in any way. I think if you devote a life to art, an understanding of art’s contradictions is just built into your work. But there is still the question: What are our tolerances for these irreconcilable problems of art? At the same time, I don’t want this kind of question to be misconstrued as an endless complaint about art. Providing opportunities for people to enunciate these problems is healthy for public culture, even a political responsibility, and is not meant to be a negation of art, nor an abrogation of taking art seriously. Quite the contrary. One of the roles of the critic, writer, curator, and educator is to shed light on inconsistencies as one encounters them—including one’s own.