Last week we asked our readers and contributors what are the obligations of a critic writing about a political work of art. This is one of several responses we will publish throughout the week. The debate started with a review and its follow up.
In 2007/8 Hammond showed Fallen at the Whitney Museum of American Art, to resounding… silence. It was more or less ignored by the press, the public was mildly entertained by the novelty of having words printed on leaves (this wore off quickly), and ultimately whatever thesis Hammond was aiming for, in my opinion, fell flat, leaving the question… if leaves fall in a gallery space, and no one is there to read them—do they make a difference?
Steinhauer’s coverage suggests that it does. Yet, Hammond’s Fallen itself is not new, nor (of course) are the views that it suggests. What is new here is how it is being described, how it is being grappled with, critiqued, and unpacked in the language of Steinhauer’s first piece. For example, the term “soggy,“ to describe leaves, has the goal to be wistful, but it swiftly undermines and forgoes the reality of the metaphor that this pile of leaves is, in fact, a pile of bodies. The value judgment about “natural death“ versus death-by-war strikes me as naïve. Death, ultimately, is always untimely (I think of here, “To sleep, perchance to dream…“), as it is something that involves a sense of missing, of longing, so it inevitably will cause discomfort because those left behind are usually some combination of nostalgic and selfish and, faced with the reality of human demise, death becomes in our modern society (a society that discourages people from openly displaying grief) an inconvenience. Death is natural because it is unavoidable, it is inconvenient because it cannot be plotted out. What is unnatural is what war does to the physical form, what it requires of those bodies, as the world around them is “made” and “unmade” (to allude to Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain).
The error here is this: journalistic peer pressure should not prompt a half-apology at the expense of Iraqi bodies.
I wonder where in this can one find a more detailed dissection of the so-called “natural world” and how it relates to the installation—Hammond’s “autumn leaves,” are, ultimately, American leaves. They are recognizable to the American eye, because they are found in our backyards, in our streets, on our windowsills. If we are to ask, “Why not Iraqi names [/bodies]?” we ought to also ask, “Why not Iraqi leaves?” For example, to integrate leaves from Iraq’s olive trees would be a more precise cultural nod to those fallen and would call out to UN sanctions in trade of goods ranging from date syrup to olive oil, embargos and restrictions that have resulted in the funneling of such (natural) goods through other spaces, such as Lebanon. How can we integrate and engage with the socio-politic rumbling beneath the mass and, even further, how can we find language to talk about the piece that hails from the same vernacular that it makes use of—material-wise—eco-criticism and the manner with which it has the capacity to inform/deepen the punchline of Hammond’s work (in short, art criticism, take a back seat—where is Lawrence Buell in all of this?).
The follow-up seems to be steeped in a generic liberal marinade—guilt. “For some of us, it’s easier to care about dead Iraqis than dead American soldiers,” Steinhauer writes—is that the case? What audience is she speaking to? And does she agree? The writer disservices Hammond’s piece, by being vague (“…probably more”—can we be more precise?; the use of “good” and “bad”—the proverbial seppuku of any mode of criticism; the allusion to “horrible things” leads me to ask, “What ‘horrible things,’ Jillian?”, to which there is no reply)—in this way, she does a disservice to her own position and to the history of critique itself. Bottom line—critics are not neutral. They are allowed to have opinions, and are better for it. The best ones, ranging from Clement Greenberg to Roberta Smith to Paddy Johnson, exercise their individual right to tap around a work of art and see if what it’s built on is structurally sound.
Hammond’s work is not my cup of tea (formally I’d prefer if it were a leaf of another color), but after reading these two pieces, the proclaimed aim “…to accept the piece on its own terms…” comes across as a defeat, a backing down. Accepting artwork is not the job of the critic, just like accepting the world around one is not the job of the artist, the writer, the philosopher, the dreamer; the two go hand-in-hand. Work is made because what the world offers around us is not enough, and work is critiqued because sometimes its purpose and its function need to be challenged, reinforced, advocated for, and brought down. Steinhauer’s piece, because it addressed the pile of American bodies as alchemized by Hammond’s hand, toed the line of nationalism—patriotism, even. Noting that American lives were lost and it was sad on a blog for a journal like Guernica that has had the likes of the venerable Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy grace their pages is a bold move. Yet, regardless of one’s personal politic, is pointing that out so wrong? What’s more, is it an affront to some amorphous brand of liberalism? To awareness? To global politic? In an era where it’s hip to be liberal (whatever that means) and everyone is doing it (“I did not inhale!” we swear!), critics who have the guts to stand up to their decision (in this case, to focus on the American side of things and speak about what she [the writer] knows and can relate to, rather than pontificate about the abstract of that which is beyond the next door), especially when approaching political artwork (that’s what Hammond’s work is, whether she wants to admit it or not), more kudos to them. The error here is this: journalistic peer pressure should not prompt a half-apology at the expense of Iraqi bodies; rather, dare to be galvanized! Fire up, read and research, and come back with a cannon!
“The Beach” by Legacy Russell. C-Print, dyptic, 2008.