Schoolmarmy Regurgitation of the Correct Political Opinion is Not Performance Art

Righteous political posturing is not synonymous with significant artistic achievement.


The art world is so afraid of the political moralists that it is compelled to make any trivial political protest into front-page art news, and refuses to criticize it, even as art. Allow me to put a little perspective on this boring-ass, preachy, completely unoriginal content and delivery. No, just because you are protesting in the name of a good cause doesn’t mean your art is automatically radical, important, relevant, or above criticism. That would be waaaaay too easy! This visual art doesn’t have ANY visual component whatsoever, nor is there anything to the performance other than tacking up a few labels. And is it just me, or do other people wonder about the satisfaction of making or viewing art that doesn’t use the imagination or creativity in the slightest?


why would I bother to criticize such political work?

Surely this art is on the “right side of history”. Not so fast. I don’t think the subordination of the art world by a political agenda is a good thing. It’s potentially a horrible thing, but we are supposed to feel comfortable with it because the politics are ostensibly noble. I see it as a very dangerous precedent, and it has recently been tied with censorship, the destruction of art, and I believe misguided campaigns against artists who did nothing wrong. When there’s a struggle between art and politics, I’m on the side of art.

This doesn’t mean you can’t protest art, but to call that protest itself newsworthy-art subordinates art to ideology. Art is under attack by an overarching narrative which demands its enlistment. Sorry folks, I’m going AWOL, as a contentious objector. When I signed up for art I didn’t sign on to be a cadre in someone else’s political revolution. Art, for me, is NOT a tool of politics.

What at first seems like a woman fighting up against coddled male artists getting away with mistreating women, is really a battle for control over the art world between the social justice movement and art institutions such as the Met. It is offensive rather than defensive.

If it’s social justice we want, fairness, and integrity in the art world, than let’s pan back and see if that’s what we are really doing, and defer to a higher moral/ethical standard. I think censoring art, attacking artists, and placing politics above art is NOT the big picture, and falls well short of a more universal and enlightened level of justice. We might ask ourselves whether social engineering is a good, and if this peformance art is attempting to engage in social engineering. We can also pan back to cultural relativism, and ask if we are enforcing the contemporary conclusions of a singular culture, and if that might not ultimately be an arbitrary imposition upon reality. Art asks these sorts of questions and weaves in and out of dotted lines, ideology does not. When we apply righteous, simple-minded, predictable, activism to art, we slam a cookie cutter on it.


Artist Michelle Hartney affixed her own labels next to artworks in the Met. Can you guess why? Let me give you one clue, and if you have been alive in the last few years you can fill in the rest yourself.  The artists were Picasso, and Gauguin (she’s also protested Balthus).

Michelle Hartney doing “performance art” at the Met.. [Photo by Becky Levi].

You nailed it, her labels basically say the esteemed artists were misogynists and worse.

[Note: I conducted this experiment on my girlfriend, without telling her which artists, and she rightly guessed the placards must be about either white privilege or misogyny.]

We can all agree that the artists in question, by today’s standards, and even those of their own time, appear to have taken advantage of girls and women, and were otherwise abusive. Nobody supports that shit, any more than we do child labor, torture, or any of the other obvious bad things everyone and their children know they are supposed to revile against.

I have more respect for the “tree huggers” who chained themselves to trees to prevent them from being cut down, and didn’t call it art. It wasn’t art when I protested the war on Iraq, and I made some funny drawings on signs, and several political cartoons. If you are going to call sticking labels in a museum “art”, than there’s a whole lot of political protest that deserves the same label and attention. Members of Greenpeace got in a raft between a Japanese whaling boat and whale, to save the animal, and ended up having a front row seat view of a harpooning. That wasn’t considered art. So what makes it art, patting yourself on the back for it?

o1401063 14th January 2006 Southern Ocean
Greenpeace inflatable caught in the harpoon line that was shot directly over the heads of the activists as they were trying to defend the whale in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.
(c)Greenpeace/Kate Davison

She didn’t even write her own text, but instead quoted other sources. If this were an undergraduate art project and I were the teacher, I’d give it a “B” for effort. I’d say that one might want to at least come up with a political criticism that hasn’t already been beaten to death, even in museums and galleries, and one might also want to come up with a tactic that hasn’t also already been used.

There was that “performance” last year at the Manchester Gallery, where a Waterhouse painting of nymphs was removed by artist Sonia Boyce, and instead people were greeted with a text asserting that the Pre-Raphaelites, or at least that room in the gallery, portrayed woman as either femme fatales or passive sexual objects, or something like that.

So, stickin’ some text on the wall next to a painting, or where a painting was, is hardly original.

When it comes to protesting Picasso, well, Emma Sulkowicz (famous for carrying a mattress around as protest against rape] posed in-front of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, also at the met, as well as paintings by Chuck Close, in order to protest the same general thing.

Emma Sulkowicz on January 18, 2018. Photo by Sylvia Kang.

Same museum, same message (perhaps slightly different, but, both well within the #metoo movement), same year. Of course, Milo Moire did a nude performance, with a baby, in 2015, to protest the portrayal of women in painting.

I guess some things never get old. Or even if they do, if we are not in solidarity we are alt-right, Nazis, or worst possible label of choice [even if we voted for Bernie, and NOT because he had nads, but because he was the only REAL liberal].


It’s anecdote time, and i have 2 of ’em

1)

Roundabout 25 years ago I went with a friend to Huntington beach, which we lived near, to see the night whatever-you-call-it that happens there. I guess it’s just people walking around and shopping and checking each other out. Well, there were some evangelist types shouting their messages about sin and whatnot, and I decided (perhaps I’d had a beer or two) to join them, and started shouting: “Do not flounder in iniquity. Do not flounder in a sea of your own self-perpetuating iniquity”.

Probably that was a dickish thing to do, but, also kind of funny. I had such zeal! One of the real evangelists eventually came over and counseled me, rather brotherly, that I might want to “refine my message”.

So, uh, that would be my advice to Michelle Hartney, not, mind you, that anyone gives a hoot what I think, as she’s infinitely (now) more well known and taken seriously than I am. I think I’m an irrelevant pariah, from the perspective of the art-world at large.

2)

Probably the reason I did the stunt performance art above was that I did performance art in college, over two decades ago. Once, when my infamous art bad-boy teacher, Paul McCarthy, accused me of being “locked in the rectangle” because I made some assemblage type pieces on board, I built a large rectangle at home (kind of like “the stocks”), and had myself locked into it naked, facing the elevators, on the 4th floor of the UCLA art building, with signs on both sides of me boldly declaring, “Paul McCarthy says I’m ‘Locked in the Rectangle'”. That’s just one of my performances. I used to go around my grad school wearing a home-fashioned, comic space helmet, handed out ridiculous flyers about space aliens, and so on. The campus police once tackled me because I was causing a disturbance, and they thought I was insane. They were particularly bothered that I had a piece of baloney sticking out of my back pocket (“for later”). You’d think it might have occurred to them I was joking. I also used to show up to graduate seminars after pouring condiments on my shaved head, and cracking an egg or two on top, and then act like nothing was out of the ordinary (on reflection that’s probably because they insisted that because of my biology at birth I was “the norm”). Those performances did not even merit mention in my graduate art classes.

I didn’t bring themselves up myself because I didn’t see them as original. They were in defiance of the dogma that was being thrown down (political conceptual art ONLY!), and they were ironic (sort of self-and-performace-parodies), but I couldn’t see doing performance art as MY thing. For conceptual or performance art to signify to me, it had to at least present a new concept or a novel presentation. Rehashing old radical gestures did not, and does not strike me as timelessly radical. The art world begs to differ, apparently.

Doing this same thing a quarter century later, with a different cause, doesn’t get off the runaway. When I did my nude protest piece I didn’t even anticipate anything other than proving I wasn’t “locked in the rectangle”. Today’s performance artists have themselves photographed with the full expectation that they will make art news headlines, and they are right. A cynical person might say this may be more about self-promotion than anything else, and they may be right.


So, yeah, I agree wholeheartedly that being a brilliant or accomplished or celebrated artist doesn’t give you a free pass to abuse women. No, that is disgusting behavior. DUH! I’m also against using people as guinea pigs in medical experiments, and, uh, slavery, genocide, and using chemical weapons on school children.

Hartney is apparently immune to irony. Here is her statement to artnetnews about her piece:

“I think people are coming around to the idea that providing historical context doesn’t take away from a work of art… Museums almost infantilize viewers by thinking they can’t handle having this biographical information. What’s wrong with with having an aesthetic opinion about a piece of artwork and other feelings about the artist himself? I look at Gauguin’s painting on a aesthetic level, and they are amazing and beautiful. But I also think he was pretty horrible to take three teenage brides. I can have those two feelings about it.”

There’s a hypocritical line in there about the museum ‘almost infantilizing’ viewers by presuming they can’t handle the darker facts of the artists’ biographies. Why conclude that? Much, much more likely, they don’t think that a placard next to the paintings in question is the place to address it, as opposed to articles, videos, catalogues, and books, where one customarily covers biographical information.

I knew about Picasso being a jerk to women 25 years ago, when, still in Jr. College, I read Francois Gilot’s book, “Life with Picasso”. And another book I had about Gauguin’s art detailed his escapades. None of this information is particularly new, or surprising.

What is more than almost infantalizing for museum viewers is being preached at via vigilante labels providing information that we either already know, or we may not be primarily interested in. People don’t necessarily to go the museum to get lectures in morality, and witness (tame) guerilla political protest art.

Further, and worse, these activist-artists ultimately seek to take power over the art institutions and decide what is represented. One of her choice quotes for her wall labels included this statement from Roxane Gay:

There are all kinds of creative people who are brilliant and original and enigmatic and capable of treating others with respect… There is no scarcity of creative genius, and that is the artistic work we can and should turn to instead.

Tucked in there is the notion that we should be looking at the art of morally decent artists and NOT work by the likes of Picasso, Gauguin, Balthus, Close, and company. Here they hope to apply a moral litmus to decide what we are to  “turn to instead”. THAT is some scary shit masquerading as wholesome goodness with a cherry on top. It is anything but. It is a proposal that arbiters of morality decide for us what art is worthy, instead of basing it on inherent worth or artistic standards. This is another instance where the precedent is absolutely dreadful, but we are supposed to trust Roxane Gay or Michelle Hartney to not abuse such authoritarian power over art.

Uh, no. I don’t trust the religious right with that power; nor the children of the Khmer Rouge; nor the Chinese students of the Cultural Revolution; nor today’s radical social justice advocates. I don’t trust anyone to wield their moral authority over art. I wouldn’t trust myself with that power. And anyone who would propose to do so, I especially hold in suspicion.

Another of her quotes, this one from comedian Hannah Gadsby, sets a kind of tone that doesn’t sit well with me at all:

The history of western art is just the history of men painting women like they’re flesh vases for their dick flowers.‘…Cause it doesn’t get any better with modern art, I tell you. I trip on the first hurdle. Pablo Picasso. I hate him, but you’re not allowed to. I hate him. But you can’t…

It says precisely nothing about art, and is mostly about hating, hating, hating Picasso. Hartney’s Instagram post with this text includes hashtag fuckpicasso and fuckgauguin...

This kind of vituperative rhetoric against Picasso raises the possibility that the cause of fighting misogyny might be an excuse for misandry.  When there’s talk of protesting artists, censorship, controlling who is seen, and so on, I want to be reassured with very reasoned, cautious, and broad arguments, not the rants of a comedian. I want to see the benefit of the doubt given, and innocence upheld until guilt is proven, not attestations of hatred. In short, I fear not their possibly narrow morality, but the possibility a greater immorality lurks beneath it: not justice, but injustice (perhaps misdirected vengeance). Too often the punishment sought by the protectors of virtue outstrips the infraction, if history or the world stage can be used as reference.

This is why we have laws and checks and balances: to help prevent bias and distorted perceptions from causing injustice (not that we don’t get enough of that anyway). But this protest art operated on its own authority, in which case an individual took it upon herself to publicly denounce artists in a museum. We’ve seen artist/activists go a bit overboard recently, such as in an attempt to close down a Dana Schutz show on spurious charges of white supremacy and inciting violence against people of color and indigenous people… all because of an interpretation of her painting of Emmett Till, which was not in the show in question, and which had been selected by curators as anti-white supremacy for the Whitney Biennial.

Because of a highly debatable interpretation of Schutz’ painting, counter to her own, social justice advocates sought serious damages to her career, as well as the destruction of the painting in question. This should indicate to reasonable people that there’s a real risk that those seeking justice in the art world are also seeking to punish, and the victim need not be really guilty. This kind of art world frontier justice may not, in the long run, live up to greater standards of ethics.

Even if I agreed with the politics AND the underlying narrative and ulterior motives, this kind of art bores the living crap out of me, because it neither has original content, nor presentation. That it automatically must be front-page news, with so little effort involved, just makes it more of an embarrassment to the art world. It’s no more interesting than when the religious right were protesting works of art they found offensive to their morals. Either way, I don’t want politics crammed down my throat in lieu of art.

So, can we please separate the politics from the art, so that we can honestly discuss the art?

This art is boring, uninspired, and not even that intelligent (if you can’t see the hypocrisy of thinking lecturing people like a schoolmarm is the antidote to infantilizing them). It’s not risky because it’s preaching to the choir.  The art world and the institutions in question already support the political agenda of the artists, and that’s why these events are guaranteed to get institutional coverage. It’s as daring as protesting Trump at a Hillary Clinton rally.

On that note, how about yet another anti-Trump art piece for the next headline? Y’know, something that reminds us he’s bad. And then let’s take down some Picasso’s and Gauguin’s and put the anti-Trump art up there instead, because the institution is supposed to be about starting conversations.

 

 

~Ends

 

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