Take one part liberal guilt about race, two parts political correctness, and add a large measure of contemporary lit-crit speak about art. Mix well in a macédoine of whatever leftist political clichés are current this week and, presto! out comes Okwui Enwezor, the Nigerian-born political science major turned curator turned art world star du jour. As The New York Times recently reported on the cover of its Arts page on February 12 (and then in long follow-up articles in subsequent issues), the thirty-eight-year-old Enwezor was recently tapped to be the artistic director of Documenta, the huge German-based exhibition of international contemporary art that takes place every several years and that opens in June.
The Times was ecstatic. Documenta, its reporter wrote, “is to contemporary art what the Olympics are to sports.” If the Times reporter had been thinking about rigged juries, ruthless politicking, and the triumph of publicity over achievement, she might have been on to something. But we fear that she intended to praise the Documenta exhibitions by invoking a realm of endeavor where native excellence was everything.
In fact, for as long as anyone can remember the Documenta exhibitions have represented the triumph of celebrity and politics over art. Under Okwui Enwezor’s stewardship, the subjugation of art to politics is not simply a taken-for-granted background fact, it is the declared raison d’être of the exhibition. “I can’t understand how you can sequester art from politics and social upheaval,” Enwezor said. He is very concerned that Documenta not be just “an optical manifestation”—i.e., art that one looks at—but rather “a public sphere where ideas that do not lend themselves easily to optical representation can be articulated”: in plain English, a manifesto. In a series of exhibitions—at the Guggenheim Museum, at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City, at the Art Institute of Chicago (where he is an adjunct curator), Enwezor has used art to illustrate what are essentially political sermons. He has no training in art history. But he talks a good line. And these days actually knowing something about art is practically a liability. As one of Enwezor’s colleagues at the Art Institute explains: “Over the last half-century, conventional classifications of art-making, and the attendant practice of an absolutist connoisseurship—having an ‘eye’ in the old-fashioned sense of the world—have become largely irrelevant to the field of contemporary art.”
In other words, “the field of contemporary art” is art in name only. It poaches on the prestige of art—“art” is the glamorous sugar-coating—but really it is a form of sloganeering. In the run-up to the opening of Documenta, Enwezor is jetting around the world—Vienna, Delhi, St. Lucia, Lagos—to gather “historians, social scientists, anthropologists, writers, filmmakers, artists, and more” in seminars (“platforms,” he calls them) with titles like “Democracy Unrealized” and “Creolite and Creolization.” Dilating on such activities, the cheerleaders at The New York Times hail Enwezor’s “fresh intellectual perspective.” But in fact, the politicizing mandate that Enwezor is pushing has long been business as usual in the trendy precincts of academia. (Look, to take just one example, at the career of Rosalind Krauss.) The governing imperative is “Anything but art!” Politics, sex, literary theory, blatant careerism: all of that (“and more,” as the Times might say) is on the menu. But not art, never art—at least not art considered as art, as something whose immediate claim is (to use Enwezor’s diminishing epithet) “optical.”
Thomas Wagner, writing recently in the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung about Enwezor’s transcontinental “platforms,” said just about all that needs to be said when he described them as “a traveling postgraduate course in which a small flock of the initiated doles out politically correct tuition for all those who were not paying attention when cultural studies was on the curriculum… . [T]he process is clear: the seminar comes first, the art comes next.” We have only one small emendation: The seminar comes first, second, and twenty-seventh; art really never makes it at all.
What we are witnessing with the rise of figures like Okwui Enwezor is the next stage in the politically-motivated effort to turn art into a form of social activism. It operates primarily by insinuating the principle of egalitarianism into the realm of aesthetic achievement, urging us to judge art not by the standard of artistic excellence but by the standard of social justice. This cannot be done in too bald-faced a manner, however, because the activity must still be sold to the public as “art.” Otherwise, where would one get the funds to pay for those trips to Vienna, Delhi, St. Lucia? Those exhibitions at the Art Institute, the Guggenheim, and P.S. 1? Therefore an irrelevant scaffolding of “theory” is introduced to rationalize the suppression of aesthetic values in favor of political imperatives. This makes it possible to purvey objects of nugatory artistic value and pretend they are important because they “challenge” or “transgress” traditional ideas about art. It is a mug’s game. But as P. T. Barnum understood long ago, there’s a sucker born every minute. Indeed, we suspect that Barnum would have harbored a grudging admiration for Documenta, the career of Okwui Enwezor, the flacks at The New York Times. Considered as an episode in the history of showmanship, it is an impressive feat. Considered as a cultural or artistic event … Well, “this way,” as Barnum put it, “to the egress.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 7, on page 1
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