In the art world, “democracy” means wearing a t-shirt that says “The only Bush I trust is my own.” It means pinning a button to your shirt that reads “I only sleep with Democrats” or “Dykes for Bush.” It also means dancing around to a punk band while dressed as a carrot, bringing your kids to frolic in a wooden cage marked “Abu Ghraib,” buying cookies with icing that reads “Bush is an a--h----,” spotting demi-celebrities crossing 10th Avenue (Sandra Bernhardt? Tom Verlaine? Björk?), and chatting up like-minded friends in the elevator to the open bar with “Didn’t I see you at the party last night? Weren’t you wearing a gold lamé dress? Are you Icelandic? Do you know Björk?”

“Democracy” is an art term that means “Elect Kerry.” It is also an art term that means “You might get to see the Icelandic pop-star Björk.” I learned such lessons the other Sunday at a fundraiser called “The Liberty Fair,” sponsored by Downtown for Democracy. D4D is a Political Action Committee that uses soft money raised in the arts community to pressure uninformed citizens in swing states to vote for John Kerry. The fair blocked off Twenty-Second Street between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues in the heart of Chelsea’s gallery district on Sunday, September 12, just for this purpose. The event cost $50 for general tickets and $500 for a VIP pass with better access to Björk. Here is how D4D described the fundraiser on its website:

The Fair’s booths, stalls, performances and entertainment put an avant-garde spin on New York City’s famed street festivals, with shades of Ye Olde Village Fayre, and appealed to both art connoisseurs and their children. There was cookie decorating and face painting with some of America’s top artists; t-shirts and tattoos specially created for the event by more contemporary art stars; a marching band and a kissing booth; a freak show, a confessional, an enormous decadent all-day feast; special cocktails, dancing, tarot cards, palm reading, makeovers and much more, all presented by your favorite visual artists, writers, performers, designers and dealers.

In reality, The Liberty Fair was a zoned-out dud, with unmanned tents collapsing in the wind and a smattering of paid guests milling about Twenty-Second Street. The one true highlight came around 5 p.m. when the couple of the moment—Matthew Barney and Björk—moseyed through the fair with Baby Barney and a stroller positioned like a cowcatcher flinging sycophants hither and yon. In its “Above and Beyond” listing of the fair, The New Yorker had written that Mr. Barney would be roasting a pig, thus crowning him frat-boy artist to the stars. No such luck, unless said pig was consumed very early in the event and its carcass quickly picked clean by ravenous vultures nesting in the High Line. Instead, we got an Icelandic nymph carrying a plastic bag from Radio Shack while wearing gold moon-boots and a poncho BeDazzlered with pearls. This is what “democracy” means to the art world.

In the September issue of Artforum, which was dedicated to the topic of art and politics, Arthur C. Danto wrote of the 2004 Whitney Biennial,

American artists are on balance satisfied with the existing political structure. There was nothing in the 2004 Biennial that, were we to see it from the outside, would cause us to want to change the way we are for others. That may finally be the way that, for better or worse, the art in it was political.

Danto has a connoisseur’s nose for politics as only an unreconstructed leftist can possess, and he is correct. The art world is far from political in the way that Danto or an activist artist like Hans Haacke would like it to be. This is not 1968. This is not even 1993, when the Whitney Museum held its most race conscious, politically dreary, in yo’ face, sucka! Biennial in history.

When Danto argues that the art community is now satisfied with the “existing political structure,” he does not mean that artists will be voting for Bush anytime soon. Far from it. But it is clear that the art world’s commitment to anything other than itself is merely skin deep. In an environment where “everything is political,” and with liberal politics as the default mode, very little in contemporary art imparts genuine political importance. Politics is a fashion statement of belonging and nothing more, just as an artist like Barney can be “shocking” in the most conservative and accepted and celebrated of ways.

At the 2004 Biennial, Danto noted that “one defining attitude of younger artists in the show was a nostalgia for a certain activism that had vanished from the scene.” The art scene has rarely been more escapist than today. Artists makes a pastiche of the heroes of the past, identify with position-less politics, and take refuge in past events. Is it any wonder why “democracy” here means “Elect John Kerry”?

What we are seeing is not the politicization of art. Pace Walter Benjamin, this is the aestheticization of politics. The great irony of Danto’s criticism is that he is appearing in a glossy magazine—Artforum—that is indistinguishable in size, shape, and content from the Fall 2004 Saks Fifth Avenue catalogue. Both advertise designers like Prada and Marc Jacobs. And where Artforum is not advertising a clothing designer, it is advertising artists whose work draws more times than not on the industries of fashion and pornography. Danto has merely supplied the ad copy and Penthouse Letter to the system, contributing to the very problem he seeks to criticize.

It is said that artists make the trend. But of course nations and cultures set the trend, and artists respond and recreate and record the trend, thereby creating the permanent reflections whereby we see the trend. Flaubert followed Napoleon to Egypt. Gauguin followed the well-sailed routes of literature’s adventuremen to the South Seas. The New York School liberated Paris five years behind the allied armies. Art is an indication of the health of the culture, and the greatest periods in American art in the past hundred years ran concurrent to our most confident times: in the years leading up to World War I, in the 1920s, and following World War II through the mid-1960s. The modern movement collapsed at the same time, nearly to the second, that cultural confidence fell apart in the late 1960s. It saw a brief revival in spite of itself only in the 1980s under Reagan.

The New York Art Barometer has rarely looked bleaker than right now, with its catch-as-catch-can reheating of the Eighties scene: a half-hearted return to painting with some ACT UP rhetoric and cocaine optimism to boot. Nostalgia the second time around is even less vital than the first, and the thought that “all art is political” (as everyone says it has become) is far more frightening to me than the prospect of “political art,” which at least leaves open the possibility of non-political art.

The numbing idiocy of the art scene this fall is staggering. It sent everyone scrambling. Andrea Rosen Gallery may print “Are you registered to vote?” on its door, but the video art running inside the gallery (by Annik Larsson) is no less brain-dead. Cheim & Reid Gallery holds a fundraiser for John Kerry and is surprised to lose a major client (A Republican art buyer? Well, good riddance! says John Cheim).

Confidence will win out over doubt. The question is, what is going to give, and how? From where will the new vitality come? For a while now I have harbored the notion that outsider or “naive” art will refreshen the well, not through aesthetic novelty, but through the novelty of creating art that is necessary. The new American Folk Art Museum, rising next to the Museum of Modern Art, has shown the way with some superb recent shows. It is also possible that artists and scholars will defibrillate the movement of high modernism from its heart attack in the early 1970s. There is also a third possibility, suspect but equally plausible: the preponderance of unquestioned left-wing art will give rise to a right-wing countermovement engaging the notion that “all art is political”—which of course today means that “all art is left-wing.”

One of the barbarians knocking at the gates is Scott LoBaido. A right-wing art activist and painter (yes, there is such a thing, creating portraits of Ronald Reagan, Rudolph Giuliani, and George W. Bush), LoBaido has been making news for two decades. He has also been arrested numerous times for activist stunts: for example, he invited reporters to Eastern Parkway and hurled horse manure at the façade of the Brooklyn Museum in response to Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary, famously created with a collage of pornographic images and elephant dung. He also caused a minor disturbance at the 1993 Whitney Biennial.

Daniel J. Martinez, the artist who created the racializing museum tags for that show (one read “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white”), is back this month with a gallery installation based on Ted Kaczynski’s hideout, decorated in Martha Stewart paints. Why is it that a phony art activist like Martinez can find gallery space on Fifty-Seventh Street but LoBaido operates on the margins? The lie of the contemporary avant-garde is that it is radical. Anything but. This lie became a little more apparent in September after a show of LoBaido’s work at “Tribute,” a gallery located in lower Manhattan off Broadway, just to the right of that sculpture of the bull-market bull, and way outside the art-world center.[1] Although turned down by every mainstream gallery, LoBaido received sustained media exposure that should be the envy of any artist for this exhibition, which was timed to run during the Republican National Convention. He generated large writeups in The New York Times, Roll Call, and the Associated Press, not to mention appearances on cable news. Nevertheless, I had not heard of Tribute Gallery before encountering LoBaido in the Times, and I have yet to notice LoBaido listed in any art publication, even after the media hits. In other words, while a known commodity, and based in New York (albeit, ahem, in Staten Island), LoBaido continues to work wholly outside the art establishment.

I don’t have a nickel to my name.” LoBaido met me at his show a few days before its closing. He is thirty-nine, a tough, his hair slicked back, speaking in outerborough staccato with that central-casting, wise-guy lilt. He is eagerly awaiting the latest Britney Spears video, so he tells me, due out later that afternoon. “The art world? I’m here to shake it up. I’ve been doing this for twenty years. Why? Because the arts are so important to us.” He waves a printed-out email from a supporter. “This guy is filthy rich. Does the art world know about me? The art world knows about me. But they won’t write a f------ thing about me … excuse me. I want them to criticize my brush strokes. I have a message to deliver, but my message is on canvas. What happened to the excitement in art? I’m the rebel. I’m the Abbie Hoffman.”

LoBaido walked me through his paintings. One image featured a larger-than-life-size portrait of our fortieth president in front of the American flag (“Who is my biggest influence? Is it Picasso? No. Ronald Reagan”). Another painting, even larger, called Peace Through Strength, showed an American flag with the outline in reverse of a dove and a fighter jet (“F16, fully loaded”).

LoBaido got his start in the 1980s painting flag murals in Staten Island and “Led Zeppelin on dungaree jackets.” His style is photorealist and street with elements of the surreal. His subject matter is pop and politics and kitsch. When not painting politicians, he creates dream-like scenarios that feature the Rat Pack; Spears is also a recurring character.

Many of LoBaido’s political paintings place figures in fantasy scenarios. KO depicts President Bush knocking out Michael Moore—based on an image from the Ali-Foreman fight. Nunzio’s Pride is a portrait of a three-legged dog on three pedestals carrying a flag around his waist (“That’s my dog. He’s become a patriot because of all the talk radio I listen to. I adopted him. We met each other in a bar”). A more fantastic and less photorealistic image called The New York Giants: FDNY-RUDY-NYPD shows the heros of September 11 in the guise of Saint George slaying the dragon (“I stole the horses from Rubens”). Another image: George W. Bush’s fantasy NASCAR vehicle about to run over a donkey (“I’m a big NASCAR fan. If you know anything about NASCAR, it’s a patriotic event. I saw Bush at the Indianapolis 500. This is how George Bush’s car should look”). There is also Bush holding up the head of Osama bin Laden in the pose of the headless horseman—a painting called Have Faith (this was the image featured in LoBaido’s Times article).

It wouldn’t take much imagination to envision LoBaido invited to a Whitney Biennial. His art, which comments directly on the American experience, and which is no worse, technically, than the work of many of his left-wing counterparts, might be considered a political novelty and some insurance against the complaints of bias. Yet it could also be that such work would knock the pastiche of politics right out of art. The art world, with its illusions of engagement, is scared of nothing more than such a challege. Beyond his politics, this is the threat posed by an artist like LoBaido.

One painter who screams artist-of-the-moment is Will Cotton. He is a rising, glossy star who paints in what one might call the contemporary academic mode. If John Currin is the Ingres of this school, Cotton is Delaroche. His latest large paintings at Mary Boone feature nudes in candied landscapes that are sexually suggestive without conveying a meaning more significant than their own producibility.[2] Cotton is a technical painter and clearly banks on his skills to back up his laughable scenes: a curly red-haired nude supine on a puff of pink clouds (Cotton Candy Cloud), a figure in lace underwear reclining in a forest of toffee wrappers and swirled lollypops (Untitled), a gamine figure relaxing amidst Hershey pine-cones (Kisses), and a black woman with white cream smeared across her buttocks in Ice Cream Cavern (Ooh, is this one about race?). The writeup for the show informs us that Cotton paints elaborate dioramas of candy, then cut-and-pastes his nudes into the images. The results are partly Matthew Barney and partly Barneys New York. When he is not painting, by the way, Cotton decorates cookies for The Liberty Fair. That about sums up the depth of this artist.

But didn’t September feature its share of modern masters, you ask? If you went looking for it, yes. Salander-O’Reilly put on a sleeper hit called, of all things, “Modern Masters,” Mary Ryan Gallery exhibited the prints of Joan Mitchell, Alexandre Gallery had the tiny paintings of Lois Dodd, and Barbara Mathes Gallery held up the modern masters to some contemporary painters.[3]

The Salander show contained one of the best Adolph Gottliebs you’ll ever see (Burning Red, 1973), as well as a bold Marsden Hartley from 1933–1934 (Garmisch, Partenkirchen). Mary Ryan’s Mitchell prints were a more mixed lot, considering the unalloyed triumph of Mitchell’s Whitney retrospective two years ago. The Bedford series from 1981: muddy, the colors crashing into one another. The 1992 diptychs, however, overcame these problems by dividing the color layers into separate fields. Here was an abstract expressionist refining her art up to the very end (she died that same year). None of the integrity was lost in this late work, and the lyrical clarity remained—in fact, it rang forth.

The Dodd paintings at Alexandre resound in a different way. Dodd has produced fifty works on five-by-seven panels, each a painter’s snapshot of nature’s wonders: fields, a garden, the seascape, a host of flowers, the eclipse of the moon. Dodd blocks out color-space in the Milton Avery mode, but she is softer than the master, a little less hard-edged and a little more at ease. The easiness does not necessarily translate into great painterly achievement in each five-by-seven card, but Dodd reaches a beautiful conclusion through the collective powers of her painted moments.

The Mathes exhibition pitted seven contemporary artists again such masters as Ad Reinhardt and David Smith. Though they tried, the contemporary team did not rise to the occasion—Lance Goldsmith and most notably John Zinsser came the closest. Lesson learned: the champions of twentieth-century modernism have yet to be bettered. The modern movement still provides the most renewable energy source known to art—and a force to be reckoned with. This show testifies to that fact.

A final, small surprise for the art season was Ai Weiwei. His exhibition at Robert Miller Gallery is his first in New York since 1988.[4] Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist and the son of Ai Quing, one of China’s most celebrated poets. Exiled as a boy from Beijing thanks to the Cultural Revolution, Ai Weiwei made his way to New York City in 1981 to study at Parsons and to reject the propaganda art of the Chinese communist regime. Here he fell under the influence of Duchamp, Dada, and Conceptual Art (oh well). He became a political, conceptual artist.

When I first heard of this show, I thought, now here is a low-point. Miller did not miss a beat in capitalizing on Ai Weiwei’s most banal icon in its advertizing: the word “F---,” painted in huge neon letters on four large panels, was reproduced on the exhibition mailers. But Ai Weiwei is a more complex artist than this one piece leads you to believe: he can create a terrifying sculpture of bicycles (think old Beijing), a wooden bench in the shape of China, and a series of photographs with him flipping the bird at world monuments. This artist is angry. You know what? He has a right to be angry.

One of the defining images of the show is a photograph of Ai Weiwei giving the up-yours to the White House. This image has been separated from the series and placed in the front window of the exhibition window. Aha, you think, another anti-Bush exhibition. It is only once inside that you notice the date of this great work: 1995.

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  1. “Scott LoBaido” was on view at Tribute Gallery from August 25 through September 20, 2004. Go back to the text.
  2. Will Cotton at Mary Boone Chelsea Gallery opened on September 11 and remains on view through October 24, 2004. Go back to the text.
  3. “Modern Masters” opened at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries on September 8. “Lois Dodd: Flashings” opened at Alexandre Gallery on September 1. Joan Mitchell opened at Mary Ryan Gallery on July 14. They each remain on view through October 2, 2004. “Under the Influence” opened at Barbara Mathes Gallery on July 30 and remains on view through October 9, 2004. Go back to the text.
  4. Ai Weiwei opened at Robert Miller Gallery on September 9 and remains on view through October 9, 2004. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 2, on page 48
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