Early this October, the International Center for Advanced Studies in Art—part of New York University’s Department of Art and Art Education—sponsored three public panel discussions under the general rubric “Art for the 8o’s.” An adjunct to a graduate seminar in “Art and Ideas” that is given twice yearly by the International Center, “Art for the 8o’s” has convened every fall and spring since 1981. This semester’s offering took the form of a question: “Should Artists Have the Last Word? A New Look at the Role of Critics and Art Historians.” The list of invited speakers included such notable figures in the contemporary art scene as the critic Leo Steinberg and the artist Leon Golub, and the advertised program was ambitious indeed. The first session was to plumb “The Collision Between Art and History: Does art exist for its own sake or does art have an impact on society and history?” The second, “Process or Object?” bore the subtitle “What is the ultimate significance of art?” And the third, confining itself to somewhat more parochial matters, was to be devoted to the question “Art or the Artist? Should art be evaluated in terms of the process that produced it, or only by the object that results from it?”

One may, I think, be forgiven certain qualms about the scope of the program. Public disputations on the “ultimate significance of art” and such are usually questionable guides to the significance of art, ultimate or otherwise. Still, it was difficult to know exactly what to expect. The schedule and roster of speakers were not settled until the last moment, apparently, and I went with the impression that perhaps all of the dozen or so invited speakers would contribute to each of the discussions—a state of affairs that could only have rendered an already daunting agenda impossible. As it happened, two or three critics or scholars and one artist participated in each session. After delivering a brief set of more or—quite often, alas—less prepared comments, the panelists discussed the theme at hand amongst themselves and fielded questions from the audience.

According to Dr. Angiola Churchill, co-director of the “Art and Ideas” seminar and head of the Department of Art and Art Education at NYU, the public discussions that accompanied previous installments of “Art for the 8o’s” were very well attended, often attracting an audience of five-hundred or more. But this season—no doubt partially due to the confusion over the schedule and format—attendance suffered. Only fifty to seventy-five people an evening turned out for each discussion, and of those some number were students enrolled in the associated graduate seminar. NYU’s Eisner-Lubin Auditorium seemed especially cavernous with so little company.

Nevertheless, the underlying pedagogical intentions of the events invested them with considerable interest for anyone concerned with contemporary trends in art theory and criticism. As Dr. Churchill explained in her opening remarks, the discussions that were staged in conjunction with “Art for the 80 V were conceived in part as a “launching pad” for a new series of courses in art theory and criticism that the International Center is now contemplating. In this sense, however sparsely attended, they may be taken as something of a barometer of current fashion in those disciplines.

The presentations varied greatly in quality and style, from the hyper-academic speculations of Herman Parret, a professor of philosophy at the University of Louvain, to the elusive personal meditations that the painter Dorothea Rockburne offered about her experiences making art. The comments of Deborah Drier, senior editor of ARTnews, and Alan Wallach, associate professor of art history at Kean College, New Jersey, fell somewhere in between. Both made cogent but fairly commonplace observations about the troubled place of art in contemporary “bourgeois” society. Leo Steinberg’s brief but urbane and witty remarks on the relation between art and criticism undoubtedly marked the intellectual highpoint of the event. He deftly showed how intertwined the categories “artist” and “critic” can be, pointing out that whenever an artist articulates his response to a work of art, even his own, he assumes the role of critic. Mr. Steinberg also displayed a charming patience and generosity in his exchanges with fellow panelists and members of the audience, and his presentation, which he illustrated with a discussion of a painting by Eric Fischl, provided the program with its only real example of applied art criticism.

Indeed, for symposia entitled “Art for the 8o’s,” there was surprisingly little concern with the particulars of art or aesthetic experience. The term “art” was frequently invoked, as a kind of talisman, but one often discerned an undercurrent of feeling that seemed not only indifferent but downright inimical to the practice and experience of art as art. Observers of current trends in the New York art scene will not be surprised to learn that the preferred alternative was the practice and experience of art as an ideological tool. As Michael Brenson noted in The New York Times last spring, “The most provocative topic in the art world this year is once again the relationship between politics and art.” In fact, the enlistment of art in the service of political ideology—seemingly so passe a few years ago—has emerged as the art world’s newest vogue. It almost goes without saying that the politics in question tend to be decidedly left of center; but it is important to note that this is irrelevant to the larger issue—the freedom of art from direct political manipulation and ideological commitment. The point is simply that, in many circles today, “being an artist” (and, a fortiori, being an art critic or theorist) practically requires that one view art as a repository of ideological “prejudices” of one sort or another.

In “Art for the 8o’s,” the major contributions to this view of art occurred in the first session, by far the most focused and polemical of the program. The participants in that session were the critic Douglas Crimp, who is associate editor of October magazine, Carol Duncan, who teaches at The School of Contemporary Arts, Ramapo College, New Jersey, and writes on female imagery in art, and the painter Leon Golub, whose retrospective at The New Museum in New York this fall occasioned much favorable critical attention. The organizing theme of their exchange, entitled “The Collision Between Art and History,” was the subordination of art to political imperatives.

Mr. Crimp spoke first, reading part of a paper in which he attacked the “neo-conservative” practice of attempting to segregate questions of artistic merit from questions of political rectitude. The chief targets of his attack were Hilton Kramer’s article on art and politics that appeared in the April 1984 issue of The New Criterion (“Turning Back the Clock: Art and Politics in 1984”) and the allegedly “distorted” view of the history of modern art that the Museum of Modern Art’s curatorial policies were said by Mr. Crimp to perpetrate.

In order to appreciate the radical drift of Mr. Crimp’s argument, let us first look back for a moment to Mr. Kramer’s article. Castigating “the concerted attempt now being made ... to politicize the life of art in this country,” Mr. Kramer reviewed several recent examples of this impulse, most notably the “Art & Ideology” exhibition mounted last winter at The New Museum and the potpourri of exhibitions and other events sponsored by “Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America.” “In more and more exhibitions, publications, symposia, and other public events,” Mr. Kramer observed,

we are once again being exhorted to abandon artistic criteria and aesthetic considerations in favor of ideological tests that would, if acceded to, reduce the whole notion of art to little more than a facile, pre-programmed exercise in political propaganda.

And as a kind of motto for these endeavors, Mr. Kramer quoted Lucy R. Lippard’s contention, in her manifesto for the “Art & Ideology” exhibition, that “There is no [politically] neutral zone” for art.

Mr. Crimp gave a detailed criticism of certain aspects of Mr. Kramer’s essay, accusing him of deliberate misrepresentation and even, if I heard aright, of “red-baiting.” But the real issue between them was the concept of art as it has developed in Western culture since the eighteenth-century. At bottom, what Mr. Crimp objected to was Mr. Kramer’s insistence that the value of art be determined primarily by aesthetic, not ideological, criteria.

For his part, Mr. Crimp not only advocated the politicization of art, he urged the abandonment of “the very notion of fine art in the interests of social production.” He praised the work of Duchamp and German Dada in this context, but the sterling instance of his desideratum was the work of the Soviet avant-garde in the 1920s. Here, in the productions of Agitprop, the Theater of the Revolution, and the photography and propaganda pieces of Alexander Rodchenko, he found the desired “mass productions for a mass audience.” Mr. Crimp did not champion such works as artistic creations; rather, he valued them as political creations, as harbingers of the goal of “a final transformation of the modernist aesthetic, which would irretrievably and irrevocably alter the conditions of production and reception as they have been inherited from bourgeois society and its institutions.” Thus the envisioned view of art, Mr. Crimp stressed, “did not consist of an aesthetics with social implications; it consisted of a politicized aesthetic, a socialist art.” Eschewing mere aesthetic concerns, art would then take its place as an instrument of social activism. It would become, to use Lenin’s blunt phrase, “a cog and a screw” in the service of a political ideology.

Given this, it is not surprising to discover that the newly re-opened Museum of Modern Art fails to fulfill Mr. Crimp’s dream of a socially engagé art institution. In part, this has to do with the Museum’s curatorial decisions—its decision, for example, to give greater prominence to Picasso and Matisse than to Mr. Crimp’s heroes, Duchamp and Malevich. But even more seriously, by relegating much of the work of the avant-garde to departments other than painting and sculpture—to photography or architecture, for example—the Museum “imposes a partisan view of the objects in its possession.” That much of the work of the avant-garde happened to be in photography or architecture might seem a reasonable explanation for its consignment to these departments. But Mr. Crimp objects to the very division of the museum along departmental lines, arguing that the priority granted to painting and sculpture is reactionary and elitist. (One of the things he would like to see accomplished, incidentally, is the “destruction of easel painting” as an art form.)

In the end, though, one gathered that Mr. Crimp’s distaste for MOMA has more to do with its function as a museum than with the way it has discharged its curatorial mandate to identify, preserve, and exhibit works of art. For in his view the real problem with MOMA is that it de-radicalizes even the radical works it exhibits, taming them, making them familiar, inviting us to look at them as—well, as art. Thus Mr. Crimp was outraged that a poster by Rodchenko for the Theater of the Revolution should be placed directly above a poster advertising martini. Despite their formal similarity, which Mr. Crimp acknowledges, such juxtapositions put the objects on a footing of equality, deliberately blurring “important distinctions in use value” and “transforming Agitprop into advertising.” In his ideal society, clearly, the art museum would have no place.

But, to begin with, it is well to note that this is something that all museums do. As Malraux pointed out in The Voices of Silence, museums by their very nature tend “to estrange the works they bring together from their original functions.” In the museum, viewed as a work of art, neither a poster by Rodchenko nor a Madonna by Duccio retains its original function—acting as revolutionary propaganda in the one case, as an aid to or symbol of religious devotion in the other. These more immediate appeals are deliberately complicated, aestheticized. One may lament or applaud this fact. But in complaining that MOMA fails to distinguish between the “use value” of the objects it exhibits, Mr. Crimp—as he surely knows—is attacking the very idea of the museum as a place for the appreciation of art.

Unfortunately, in rejecting the idea of the museum, Mr. Crimp at the same time threatens to elide an entire dimension of human experience. His position renders inaccessible that ennobling “delight in appearance” for its own sake that Schiller, in On the Aesthetic Education of Man, claimed for distinctively aesthetic appearance—“that is, appearance which neither seeks to take the place of reality nor needs to have its place taken by reality.” The crippling effects of such a politically motivated rejection of the aesthetic dimension emerged with special clarity in Mr. Crimp’s criticism of MOMA’s alleged submission to “the corporate view of art.”

Now there may be in fact much worth criticizing about corporate support of the arts as currently practiced in this country. Its penchant for high-visibility, “blockbuster” exhibitions, for example, or the consequent tendency to measure the success of a show by the size of the crowd it attracts are hardly improving the quality of our cultural life. But Mr. Crimp had something quite different in mind in attacking “the corporate view of art” at MOMA. Referring to a museum press release that described the Bell Helicopter that is suspended above the fourth-floor escalator as a “peculiarly memorable object,” he responded that it was memorable indeed, since helicopters figured in virtually all of a series of drawings he had recently seen by Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugee children. Furthermore, he informed us, the helicopter that hangs in MOMA is manufactured by the Fort Worth corporation Textron, a “major defense contractor,” which also builds helicopters that are currently in use in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and elsewhere in Central America. The clear but unspoken message was that the Museum of Modern Art, in choosing to exhibit the Bell Helicopter, directly implicates itself in the decisions of the United States government regarding Central America.

A similar logic was at work in Carol Duncan’s assertion, with which she began her rather peregrine presentation, that the donor of the Brown Pavilion at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts had made his money building airstrips and landing pads during the Vietnam War and from nuclear power plants. The Vietnam War. Nuclear power plants. Obviously Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts represents the monied interests of the Military Industrial Complex. This curious but alarmingly common paralogism, which confuses provenance with function, blinds those under its spell to the most elementary distinctions. Pre-empting art with ideology, it renders any properly aesthetic appreciation of things impossible.

Of course, the ideology in question need not be confined to politics as traditionally understood. Almost any social issue or special interest can be so enlisted. As Michael Brenson noted in his Times article:

. . . the definition of “politics” has expanded to the point where, at the moment, it seems as if it might supercede [sic] and swallow up all artistic criteria. Within some art and art-critical circles, “political” now applies to cultural imagery, the functioning of the art market, the artist’s attitude towards any subject and the creative process itself. In other words, the word “political” has become a filter through which all art can be perceived and judged.

Miss Duncan proved to be the evening’s specialist in such maneuvers. For while she began by confessing that she was “not really sure that artists should be political,” she nevertheless maintained that “the major meaning of art is really its ideological use.” But her interest was drawn chiefly to the ideology of sexual politics. The museum as it has developed in Western culture, she told us, does “an ideological number on the visitor that has to do with male-female relations and what is really said about women in the museum, and male attitudes toward women.” Thus Miss Duncan wanted to turn MOMA into MOPA—The Museum of Patriarchal Art—and to “reorganize all those collections and . . . have large galleries that identify works as galleries of male pathology, for example. Featuring, first of all, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and all those works by Picasso . . . .” Picasso, she said, did not “create a single image in his whole life of a woman as a human being.” (I wonder if Gertrude Stein would have agreed?)

Leon Golub’s remarks came as something of a surprise.

After all this, Leon Golub’s remarks came as something of a surprise. Golub is an accomplished and forceful, if somewhat melodramatic painter, and his reputation has soared in recent years as his increasing interest in overt political subjects and public taste have intersected. But though he is a self-confessed “political artist” who can proclaim that “all art is propaganda at some level,” he was the only one of the three panelists who displayed any real appreciation of the qualities of art as art. He also recognized, incidentally, that only in Western Europe or the United States would it be possible for him to practice the kind of art he is interested in unhampered by state sanction. Mr. Golub was taken aback by Mr. Crimp’s uncompromising call for the politicization of art no less than by Miss Duncan’s extraordinary treatment of Picasso. His main interest, he told us, was in the fate of “history painting since David,” but he nonetheless made a plea for the cultivation of all styles and genres of art—abstract as much as figurative or narrative work—and he insisted, to his colleagues’ obvious displeasure, that art had meaning and value not reducible to its ideological “content.”

The evening concluded with a long question-and-answer period. One audience member, an artist who had emigrated to the United States from a Communist country, complained that the proceedings that evening had a familiar ring. He felt, he said, that he had heard the same thing before he came to this country, “that my work is valuable if I serve either the politics of the government . . . or if I fight against those politics. I cannot choose the path in between . . .” This of course put the panel in an embarrassing position. In such circles, being from a Communist country naturally confers an aura of legitimacy, making one as it were a spiritual brother-in-arms. But here was this fellow who had the cheek to call into question the demand for a politicized art and who wondered why his art couldn’t be appreciated for its own sake, as art.

It cannot be said that Mr. Crimp actually addressed this point but he did explain that things are not as different here as they might seem from the way they are in a Communist country. For here the notion of art for art’s sake functions as the “official state ideology” just as Socialist Realism does in countries of “actually existing socialism.” Only it’s all the more insidious in the United States because the mechanisms of control are less obvious. What we have here is a system of “totalized assent,” Mr. Crimp said, adding that “there is almost no such thing as an opposition . . .” “So you’re not sitting there?” a woman in the audience interrupted cruelly, but to no effect. And with a panache that reminded me of Herbert Marcuse’s wonderful idea of “repressive tolerance"— wonderful because it is the sort of thing that can never be refuted by empirical reality—Miss Duncan elaborated that it is one of “the contradictions of a liberal Western society” that it incorporates dissidence, thus rendering it harmless.

Inevitably someone asked whether Mr. Crimp was advocating the reduction of art to propaganda—that was, I confess, what I had thought he wanted to do—but, no, he explained, he wanted a “politicized art,” not propaganda. Offering the work of Hans Haacke as an example, he explained that “there can be a politicized art that isn’t strictly propaganda.” What he had in mind was Mr. Haacke’s “Isolation Box,” an eight-foot, unpainted wooden cube bearing the sign: “Isolation Box As Used by U.S. Troops at Point Salines Prison Camp in Grenada.” One of the works that Mr. Kramer had attacked in his essay on art and politics, “Isolation Box” was exhibited last winter at the City University’s Graduate Center Mall as part of “Artist’s Call.” As Mr. Crimp affirmed, this piece makes “a direct political statement.” But he denied that it is propaganda. By the same token, one could complain that the grocer had given you only six eggs when you’d asked for half-a-dozen. Perhaps Mr. Crimp had some intelligible distinction in mind here, but I suspect that this is a subtlety that one must espouse in order to grasp.

The really disturbing thing about the evening was not the quality of the discourse—appalling as it often was—but the thought that this was representative of the material out of which a major university proposed to forge a new series of graduate courses in art criticism and theory. Such blatant politicizing can only mean the abnegation of art as an independent realm of endeavor. And apparently this is just what Mr. Crimp would like to see happen. For him, one gathered, the only alternative to a politicized art is an extreme aestheticism, a view of art as a completely autonomous activity, unrelated to human hopes, dreams, and fears. But one can criticize the politicization of art without therefore subscribing to such aestheticism. “Poetry,” as Auden said in his elegy for Yeats, “makes nothing happen.” But this doesn’t prevent it from moving, refreshing, enlightening us, from having a profound effect on how we see ourselves and the world around us. Between l’art pour l’art and l’art engagé there is a considerable area of artistic latitude. Indeed, it is in that middle distance that most artists, living and dead, have chosen to work, though Mr. Crimp and his fellow critics, embracing the strict dictates of ideology, would have us limit our allegiance to one extreme.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 3 Number 4, on page 83
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