It is understood by now that all art is ideological and all art is used politically by the right or the left, with the conscious and unconscious assent of the artist. There is no neutral zone. Artists who remain stubbornly uninformed about the social and emotional effects of their images and their connections to other images outside the art context are most easily manipulated by the prevailing systems of distribution, interpretation, and marketing.
—Lucy R. Lippard, in the catalogue of the “Art & Ideology” exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York

Everyone who follows the course of current events in the art world must nowadays be aware of a troubling development that has lately manifested itself with increasing frequency. This is the concerted attempt now being made by a dedicated alliance of artists, academics, and so-called “activists” to politicize the life of art in this country. Not since the heyday of the anti-war movement in the Sixties and early Seventies have we seen anything quite like the present effort to impose a sectarian political standard on both the creation and the criticism of art. In more and more exhibitions, publications, symposia, and other public events, 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, preprogrammed exercise in political propaganda.

The tone in which these exhortations are articulated varies from the stridently militant to the earnestly “concerned.” But the message is invariably the same: in art, priority must now be given to a politically inspired “content,” as it is called; and in criticism, the governing assumption is a belief that all claims to aesthetic quality are to be regarded as mere subterfuge, masking some malign political purpose. It (almost) goes without saying that the politics being served by this effort to discredit all disinterested artistic activity is the politics of the radical Left. Its favored themes at the moment are nuclear disarmament, radical feminism, and support for revolutionary movements in Central America. The favored targets, of course, are the policies of the United States government in particular and the political and cultural institutions of democratic capitalism in general. Adding some piquancy to the whole shabby endeavor is the fact that a sizable part of this blatant political activity is funded, precisely because it claims to speak in the name of art, by such public agencies as the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the Department of Cultural Affairs of the City of New York—yet another example, I suppose, of supplying the rope to those who are eager to see us hanged.

Thus, since early December—to look no further back than that—the art calendar has been fairly crowded with these unlovely political events. The busiest sponsor of them has no doubt been the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. In a four-month period (December through March) it has organized, with the aid of federal, state, and municipal funds, two full-scale exhibitions on the requisite themes: “The End of the World: Contemporary Visions of the Apocalypse” and “Art & Ideology.” “The End of the World” was mainly (though not entirely) devoted to the cause of nuclear disarmament, and, while paying ceremonial lip service to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as a source of inspiration, actually derived its political rationale from Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth. In “Art & Ideology” we were offered a more explicitly Marxist account of American society together with arguments (in the catalogue) calling for the political criticism of all cultural activity. The New Museum would appear to have embraced Lucy R. Lippard’s dictum—that “There is no [politically] neutral zone” for art in our society—as a fundamental principle, and one naturally wonders if anyone involved in the governing of this institution understands that the principle itself is totalitarian in its very essence.

Meanwhile, the mall of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, another institution supported by public funds, was given over to a more specialized political event—a show of objects and installations produced (as it was said) “by artists who are concerned about current U.S. policy in Central America.” This was an undisguised propaganda effort in support of the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary movement in Central America, and staged to coincide with a program of exhibitions and speaking events, both in New York and elsewhere, organized by a group calling itself “Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America.” In January this “Artists Call” group also won the support of a number of private art galleries, which gave over their space to its activities, and the eager cooperation of publications such as Arts Magazine, Art in America, The Nation, The Village Voice, and sundry “alternative” journals around the country. At the same time, the Edith C. Blum Art Institute on the campus of Bard College chimed in with a political exhibition called “Art as Social Conscience,” which, not surprisingly, included many of the same artists featured in the shows at the New Museum and the City University mall and praised in the pages of Art in America and The Village Voice. There was also a show devoted to “Women & Politics” at the Intar Latin American Gallery—another event, by the way, supported by funds from the NEA, the New York State Council on the Arts, and New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs. And then, lest the point of all this effort be lost on us, two of our leading art schools—Cooper Union and the Pratt Institute—joined in sponsoring a symposium in the Great Hall at Cooper Union on the theme of “War in Art.” The speakers, of course, were mainly those prominently represented in the exhibitions and publications already mentioned. Their basic message is easily summarized: Since war is a terrible thing, we should all take up a position of radical pacificism and leave military victory to our enemies.

No doubt there have been other similar events which have escaped our attention. In the midst of such a well-organized campaign, one cannot be expected to keep track of every episode. But one other exhibition should be mentioned here—the show called “Dreams and Nightmares: Utopian Visions in Modern Art” at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. This, too, claimed Nineteen Eighty-Four as its ostensible inspiration, and was not only more historical in its outlook but a good deal more circumspect than the other shows I have mentioned in keeping a discreet distance from the kind of open political commitment that is now standard policy, for example, at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. Yet “Dreams and Nightmares” was, all the same, a political exhibition. Careful as it was to exclude anything that might contain an explicit condemnation of current U.S. government policy—the Hirshhorn Museum is itself, after all, a government institution—the whole conception of the exhibition was pacifist in spirit, and clearly owed its inspiration to the anti-nuclear movement. It certainly showed no interest in distinguishing artistic quality from the most facile exploitation of political emotion, especially in its selection of contemporary examples.

I do not propose to attempt a detailed critical evaluation of all of the art which has been offered to us in these political exhibitions and extolled in the various texts and speeches written to advance its fortunes. Except for the historical examples included in the “Dreams and Nightmares” exhibition at the Hirshhorn, most of the art brought together in this ideological extravaganza exists on such a low level of artistic discourse that almost any critical analysis, even the most negative, would inevitably have the effect of suggesting a higher degree of aesthetic seriousness than, in fact, can be found in the work itself. The whole notion of artistic achievement is, in any case, what most of this art is specifically intended to repudiate, and it would therefore violate the spirit of the art—as well as the function of criticism itself—to pretend otherwise. Linda Weintraub, director of the Blum Art Institute at Bard College and organizer of the “Art as Social Conscience” exhibition, made the point herself with admirable candor in declaring that “The works are designed, unabashedly, for political and societal ends.” Whether or not the show could claim any aesthetic merit was not a question she found it appropriate to address.

She was right not to do so, of course. Where aesthetic merit, or even aesthetic intelligence, is not the issue, the discriminations appropriate to the study of art are clearly not called for. Yet what, then, was the show doing in the Bard College art gallery, which exists (we may presume) for the purpose of educating students in the experience of art? The whole point of an exhibition like “Art as Social Conscience” is not to illuminate the experience of art but, in Linda Weintraub’s words, to “jolt the viewer into a new awareness of today’s most pressing social issues.” The exhibition announcement, gotten up to resemble the front page of a newspaper, helpfully enumerated what these “pressing social issues” were assumed to be: “nuclear war, unemployment, toxic waste, feminism, Reaganomics, and other timely social issues.” (The list was by no means complete, by the way. It omitted, among other things, the subject matter of a particularly odious little video tape in which the purposes of the American CIA and the Soviet KGB were presented as very much alike, quite as if the political systems they serve were equally evil.) It is theoretically conceivable, perhaps, that there might somewhere exist an artist capable of making a significant work of art out of such materials, but I frankly doubt it. What we can be certain of is that neither Linda Weintraub nor anyone else has yet discovered such an artist—and the awful fact is that she doesn’t even know that she hasn’t, so eager has she been to present these political substitutes as if they were artistic achievements.

It may be worth adding that the artistic nullity of the work in this and similar exhibitions would not, in my opinion, have been affected in any degree as art if its political content had been designed to promote the interests of President Reagan’s economic program or an increase in the defense budget or his re-election campaign. (It’s not likely that it would have been so designed, of course—or, if it had been, that Bard College would have exhibited it.) Bad art is bad art, whatever its political purpose, and only the most zealous supporter of the “no neutral zone” doctrine could seriously believe otherwise. I frankly doubt that Linda Weintraub is a true believer in this pernicious doctrine. Unlike the folks at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, who seem to believe in little else, she is probably not keenly interested in most of these issues or terribly well-informed about them, but has only succumbed to a current cultural fashion—but that, alas, is precisely the way the politicization of art is hastened on its course. Every militant “activist” like Lucy R. Lippard needs a great many Linda Weintraubs in order for her political goals to be realized.

Let us look a little more closely at some representative objects that have been presented to us in these exhibitions as works of art. In the show at the City University mall we were shown, among much else, a huge, square, unpainted box constructed of wood and standing approximately eight feet high. On its upper sides there were some small openings and further down some words stencilled in large letters. A parody of the Minimalist sculpture of Donald Judd, perhaps? Not at all. This was a solemn statement, and the words told us why: “Isolation Box As Used by U.S. Troops at Point Salines Prison Camp in Grenada.” The creator of this inspired work was Hans Haacke, who was also represented in the “Art as Social Conscience” exhibition by a photographic light-box poster attacking President Reagan. Such works are not only devoid of any discernible artistic quality, they are pretty much devoid of any discernible artistic existence. They cannot be experienced as art, and they are not intended to be. Yet where else but in an art exhibition would they be shown? Their purpose in being entered into the art context, however, is not only to score propaganda points but to undermine the very idea of art as a realm of aesthetic discourse. President Reagan and his policies may be the immediate object of attack, but the more fundamental one is the idea of art itself.

If it were possible to entertain any doubts on this score, they would surely be put to rest by several of the essays which the guest curators of the “Art & Ideology” exhibition at the New Museum have contributed to its catalogue. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, for example, who teaches art history at the State University of New York at Westbury, defends the propaganda materials he has selected for this exhibition by, among other things, attacking the late Alfred H. Barr, Jr., for his alleged failure to comprehend “the radical change that [modern] artists and theoreticians introduced into the history of aesthetic theory and production in the twentieth century.” What this means, apparently, is that Alfred Barr would never have accepted Professor Buchloh’s Marxist analysis of the history of modern art, which appears to be based on Louis Althusser’s Lenin and Philosophy. (Is this really what is taught as modern art history at SUNY Westbury? Alas, one can believe it.) On this point, at least, Professor Buchloh is surely correct, for what he offers us as art in this exhibition would probably never have been accepted by Alfred Barr as any sort of work of art at all. Here is Professor Buchloh describing one of the propaganda items that he has selected for the show—a series of photographs and printed documents assembled by Fred Lonidier and given the title, L. A. Public Workers Point to Some Problems: Sketches Of The Present For Some, Point To The Future For All?:

L. A. Workers Point to Some Problems . . . was published in excerpts in two issues of the weekly paper The Citizen, the official publication of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO and was exhibited in both union halls and at the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art. The work addresses the questions of the detrimental impact, not to say disastrous consequences of federal and state legislation in favor of corporate and entrepreneurial interests on those sectors of public life and culture, that we would not normally be confronted with as a museum- or gallery-visiting art audience, since the system of representation that we traditionally refer to as “the aesthetic” by definition extracts itself—as it seemed—from the economic and the political reality of the basis of culture in everyday life, in order to construct the aesthetic mirage that generates pleasure due to its mysterious capacity to disembody and dissociate our perception from the weights and demands of the real. Lonidier’s work successfully counteracts that tendency . . . .

We can at least be grateful that Professor Buchloh is not employed to teach expository writing, but this still leaves students of the history of modern art at SUNY Westbury in quite a lurch.

The situation at SUNY Stony Brook appears to be no better. Another guest curator of the “Art & Ideology” exhibition is the redoubtable Donald Kuspit, professor of art history at SUNY Stony Brook, and here are his concluding remarks on the two artists—Nancy Spero and Francesc Torres—he had selected for this show:

The works of Spero and Torres deal with martyrdom in the cause of freedom, humanity, and justice, a cause which seems uncertain because we see it only in critical, oppositional form, as a kind of protest against existing reality. We do not see what a world without torture of women and war would be like. Spero and Torres do not want us to see that future, for that would be to offer the Utopian in place of the critically effective—the critical as social action. Such critical action is the only kind that can heal the split of spirit, for it alone shows us the futility of administrative control—the planned bombing missions, the planned murder of women—of destructive dominance.

I should explain, perhaps, that when Professor Kuspit refers early on in his essay for the catalogue to “the totalitarian mentality”—which he does repeatedly—he appears to have in mind the “existing reality,” as he calls it, of American life.

This, then, is the kind of mentality—to use Professor Kuspit’s term—that characterizes not only the “Art & Ideology” exhibition but the larger drift toward politicization we see making such headway on the art scene today. The notion that “There is no neutral zone” for art in our society has by no means become the dominant point of view of the art world. Far from it. At the moment it remains the program and commitment of a dedicated and well-organized minority faction. Yet to judge by the position lately won by an institution like the New Museum of Contemporary Art, it is now an accepted notion—quite as if it represented little more than an aesthetic option—and this is itself a frightening prospect. It is to the New Museum, strangely enough, that the Reagan administration has entrusted responsibility for representing American art at the 1984 Venice Biennale. This is a development so bizarre that it quite takes one’s breath away. Having worked its way up from an “ alternative” space to an established institution, enjoying the patronage of government agencies and private foundations, the New Museum has now become a power in the art world, and that is very bad news indeed.

At the moment it remains the program and commitment of a dedicated and well-organized minority faction.

Yet the role of the New Museum, dismaying as that may be, and the other events I have been describing here, ghastly as they are, are finally less important in themselves than for the larger historical impulse they represent. For what we are now witnessing in this movement toward the politicization of art in this country is an attempt to turn back the cultural and political clock. And it is not to the radical counterculture of the Sixties that this movement looks back for its model and inspiration, despite the many resemblances it may bear to the outlook of the Sixties, but to the radicalism of the Thirties when so much of American cultural life was dominated by the hypocritical “social consciousness” of the Stalinist ethos. It is to a contemporary version of this old “social consciousness” that the protagnists of this political movement in the art world wish to confine the life of the artistic imagination. Hence the attacks on modernism and on such champions of the modernist aesthetic as Alfred Barr. For this new generation of radicals, it is the cultural life of the Forties and Fifties—when American art and literature finally vanquished the last respectable traces of the Stalinist ethos—that can never be forgiven. The Forties marked a great turning point not only in the history of American art but in the life of the American imagination, and any attempt to return American culture to the ideological straightjackets of the Thirties must inevitably attempt to discredit both the achievements and the values that belong to the post-World War II period. Hence, too, the increasingly raucous attempts to dismiss the accomplishments of the Forties and Fifties as nothing more than the political products of the Cold War.

Reflecting on this curious turnabout in our artistic affairs and on the apocalyptic note that is sounded again and again, ever more insistently, as the battle cry of the new cultural radicals in their campaign to politicize the life of art, I am reminded of a passage in one of the last of Lionel Trilling’s many essays on this theme. In “Some Notes for an Autobiographical Lecture,” which was posthumously published in a volume called The Last Decade: Essays and Reviews, 1965–75, Trilling gave us a glimpse into the train of thought that had led him to devote so much of his critical attention to what he described as the “unmasking” of “Stalinist-colored liberal ideas.”

Behind my sense of the situation [Trilling wrote] was, I think, a kind of perception that I might call novelistic—that there was in the prevailing quality of the intellectual-political life a kind of self-deception: an impulse toward moral aggrandizement through the taking of extreme and apocalyptic positions which, while they seemed political, actually expressed a desire to transcend the political condition—which, as I saw things, and still do, meant an eventual acquiescence in tyranny.

It is, once again, toward precisely such “an eventual acquiescence in tyranny” that the doctrine announced in the statement, “There is no neutral zone,” promises to lead us.

A Message from the Editors

As a reader of our efforts, you have stood with us on the front lines in the battle for culture. Learn how your support contributes to our continued defense of truth.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 2 Number 8, on page 68
Copyright © 2022 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com
https://newcriterion.com/issues/1984/4/turning-back-the-clock-art-and-politics-in-1984

Popular Right Now