We live in a time of extraordinary moralizing. You may have noticed a no-holds-barred competition to see who is the most morally pure, and who isn’t, either by birthright or by belief.
There’s always some of that going on. When I was growing up it issued from the religious right. Nancy Reagan famously advised to “Just say no to drugs”. Judas Priest had to go to court because their records allegedly contained subliminal messages when played backwards that caused a boy to commit suicide. Jessie Helms wanted to cancel NEA grants because of homoerotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. Women were fighting for the right to have an abortion.
Today, I fear it is even worse. We have extreme moralizing in strict accordance with a revolutionary paradigm, narrative, belief system, whatever you want to call it, which is itself just another narrow and skewed interpretation of reality [what version ever wasn’t?]. The art world has been overtaken by this cultural revolution, and must adhere strictly to its agenda at all costs.
These are dire times for art and artists that don’t clamor aboard the bandwagon and swear allegiance to the cause (which for many would mean a permanent back seat, or bowing out gracefully as not deserving a place in the art world]. This is assumed to be for the greater good, but forcing art to subordinate itself to a political agenda — whichever end of the political spectrum — is never going to be a good thing.
The general ethos when I was growing up was that if you weren’t doing anything to hurt anyone else, than whatever you did was nobody else’s business. People wanted personal freedom, and that included to be a little bit bad by conventional standards. We all knew that “you are innocent until proven guilty”, and you had to do something pretty bad to be considered a criminal, or worthy of punishment. As kids we chanted, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me”. if someone did something wrong, well, we could “forgive and forget”, and they could “turn over a new leaf”. We didn’t tell on our classmates or we would be tattletales.
Everything’s done an about-face. Now it’s the left who do the finger pointing, finger wagging, and seek to censor or destroy art. Today, we don’t worry so much about sticks and stones, but are much more disturbed by anything someone says that’s wrong on social media, and there’s no statute of limitations. We are hyper-vigilant about use of language, body posture, and even unconscious “micro-aggressions” that are as debatable as they are, on the surface, inconsequential by yesterday’s standards. One is no longer innocent until proven guilty, but the accusation itself is enough to make one a target of an online crusade, and to lose ones job.
Art criticism has been replaced by rigorous moral examination for impurities, and art similarly strives to make the correct political points, all according to a particular paradigm and narrative. To open an art magazine today is to find out who has been purged from which institution for crimes against social justice, and to keep track of rallying cries for various progressive causes.
Check out a sampling of headlines from just the last 3 days, at the online art magazine, Hyperallergic.
- After 70 Former Workers Cite “Toxic Work Environment,” MOCA Detroit Terminates Executive Director.
- Three Museums Suspend Jon Rafman Exhibitions Following Allegations of “Predatory Behavior”
- The Persistence of Structural Racism in Canadian Cultural Institutions.
- Slavery and the Dehumanization of Modern Life.
- #SayHerName: An Illustration of Breonna Taylor Will Cover September’s Oprah Magazine.
- In South Los Angeles, Art Is a Force for Community Empowerment.
- Why Would a Museum Display Skulls of Enslaved People in the First Place?
- With a Convincing Parody Website, Artist Group Calls Out Pay Inequity at Guggenheim.
- Peeling Back the Hidden, Colonial Layers of Museum Objects.
- In London, a Khadija Saye Installation Encourages Black Women to Take Up Space.
- Philadelphia Museum of Art Concludes Workplace Assessment After Allegations of Abuse.
- 40 Artists and Writers Respond to 40 Objects “Mistaken” for Guns by the Police.
Not only does the art world have a political agenda, it would be more accurate to say that the political agenda has an art world. While I might support some of the political causes, and oppose some of the ostensible wrongdoings, the point is that the pages of some popular art magazines are drenched in a thick and creamy political sauce. There’s precious little real-estate left to dedicate to art as not seen through a political lens.
Never was a fan of morality dictating art
When I was much younger and going to community college, my Contemporary Literature teacher had us read John Gardner’s “On Moral Fiction”, and write an essay about it. I wish I still had the essay. I went to the library and found some philosophical essays on the topic, and choice quotes to the effect that anyone who confused morality with art was stupid. I think I was probably the only person who decided to take on Gardner, rather than echo his sentiments. For the record, by today’s standards, Gardner as a bit conservative.
I’m not that kind of artist. What makes a work great or not is not its morality. To me, judging art by morals is like judging guitar solos by what the musician ate for breakfast. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about ethics, and I can make an ethical case that the imposition of ethics on art is itself unethical.
Art does not have to advance a cause exterior to itself to be legitimate. To say otherwise is to say art is worthless unless it serves another practical purpose. That’s what’s called in today’s parlance a “dick move”. That’s moralists bullying artists, and insisting they do what they are told.
And if an artist makes better artistic achievements than I do, but is an A-hole, said something wrong, labeled people, or even committed unjustified violence, that doesn’t make me the better artist, and I’m not interested in eliminating the competition. I’d like to think that my good morals make me potentially a better artist, but the art has to stand on its own.
If you are going to get in a fiddle-playing competition with the Devil, you don’t get to disqualify him ’cause he’s the bad guy (and there does seem like a whole lotta’ disqualifyin’ goin’ on]. Win first, praise the proof in your pudding later.
An art critic is now an arbiter of morality
Someone incidentally called my attention to an art critic’s admissions of where he’d made mistakes, and it’s entirely a list of not aligning properly with the highest moral principles of the radical left. Here are some samples.
I realized after my piece had been edited and was being titled that I had left out a key artist in that first gallery… This omission is particularly awful because …. Mehretu was the only woman artist …
Right. He didn’t make a mistake in his elucidation of the content of the art, but on who was or was not included, and this was particularly grievous because of the biology of the artist he overlooked. He could have done ethically better.
I had mistakenly referred to a photograph by Nadia Huggins… as depicting a man’s head bobbing in seawater, when actually the images was of the artist’s own bald head. … I had missed Huggins playing with gender tropes, and this mistake, to which I readily admitted, was used to make the argument that I … was not equipped to critically assess the show.
Here the critic was not the right person to assess a show dealing with certain gender issues. He wasn’t aware enough or sensitive enough to the specific sociopolitical content.
I was completely unaware of the dialogue with participants, archive study, and outside research… Sometimes objects are only the remnants of something much more profound that happened offstage.
A critic needs to know what’s going on behind the scenes in order to assess the social value of an artwork.
In my concern for not being overcome with outrage and indignation I erred on the side of somewhat explaining away her [Cindy Sherman’s] work. I call it “atrocious,” but I don’t quite call it out.
Here the critic erred on the side of not condemning Cindy Sherman harshly enough for a very early series where she depicted herself as a full range of bus riders, which included black people. His article was titled Cindy Sherman in Blackface, and he refereed to her work in question as “obviously deplorable”, an “odious failure”, “ethically atrocious”, and a “racist aesthetic production”. Another moral blunder! He’s guilty of mincing his words, and could have used stronger adjectives. And if he’s overstating the case, and if it’s shading comfortably into slander, so be it in the name of the good.
We must never inadequately denounce anyone guilty of works offensive to the greater cause of social justice, equity, anti-racism, and inclusivity… Best to err on the side of inflicting the most possible damage to the enemy. As he explains in the article, “in my criticism I try to make space for probity rather than fury and willingness to engage rather than to demean or dismiss — as long as what artists, curators, dealers, and other writers are doing is not supporting racist, genderist, and dehumanizing policies.“ It is up to today’s art critic to decide who deserves these labels (and of course we can trust that it can’t be just anyone who disagrees with their belief system), and then to dismiss and demean them with righteous fury. If only he had hit Sherman harder when he had the first opportunity!
But I always want to ask once we’ve taken the culprits to task: What do we do tomorrow? Anger isn’t enough. I don’t want revenge; I want a revolution.
The job of the art critic is to take out culprits in order to advance a revolution against … … … see below].
Cancel culture provides an outlet for anger and resentment at being demeaned, disempowered, and discarded by the prevailing culture that is generally white, heteropatriarchal, conservative, Christian, and vehemently protective of the current racist and sexist social order, but it doesn’t know how to legislate positive outcomes.
The art critic of today necessarily opposes — and is an active member of a revolution against — the [real or exaggerated-to-the-point-of-the-imaginary] racist, sexist, white, heteropatriarchal, conservative, Christian culture. Cancel culture may be taking it a little too far, but any and all means necessary are justified when used to attack the designated enemy and evil other. It occurs to me that when he says the “prevailing culture” is “vehemently protective” of the “social order”, does that not imply that he reciprocally vehemently wants to overturn that culture, and could that desire not be connected to vilifying that culture? Does the vehemence and intolerance exist primarily in the culture in question, or in his radical opposition to it? His idea of America or western culture is a ridiculous caricature spawned in 90’s radical academia — based on “critical theory” (it’s actually supposition, not theory — that is part of a postmodern mindset that automatically rejects anything that was sacred in the past as evil.
Some may wonder if the real mistake of the art critic was subordinating art to politics in the first place, let alone enforcing a delusional, revolutionary agenda on the art world.
However you slice it, and wherever you may find yourself on or off the political spectrum, one thing is certain: we are in the most moral era in generations (certainly in my lifetime). Moral exactitude is now so important that we examine all art with a fine-toothed comb for any possible transgression. Should we find the art or artists offensive than we need to weed them out and take down their art: to do anything less is to shirk our responsibility. Conversely, we must promote the appropriate work of the right artists whose “practice” serves to advance the progressive agenda. Who the artist is and what they do outside of their creations may be as or more important than whatever it is they create. Everything is in the service of the cause, and art is no exception. Quite to the contrary, art is expected to lead the way of the revolution, and if it isn’t part of the solution, it’s part of the problem.
After living through the high morality of the religious right, and now a quarter century of the radical left version, I’m getting kinda’ sick of all the moralizing. I’m too young to have experienced the McCarthy era directly, so among the remaining competitors, today’s social justice left are the strictest moralists with the most harsh punishments I’ve had the displeasure of encountering.
I’m still someone who grew up with “sticks and stones…”; everything being OK if you don’t actually hurt anyone; people being innocent until proven guilty; I’m OK, you’re OK; whatever consenting adults get up to being their own private business; live and let live; and art being kinda’ against morality rather than the cutting edge of the blade. Art used to symbolize imaginative freedom, and everyone wanted more freedom. We didn’t want “the man” or Big Brother poking their noses in our business.
Now, like it or not, support the revolutionary agenda or not, we are a culture of extreme morality, and we take no prisoners. We are eager to turn in our own neighbors and coworkers to Big Sister, and congratulate ourselves for doing so.
Admittedly, I kinda’ liked it better when the art world was a bit more like witches and witchcraft (art being imaginative, mysterious, transcendent, or even a craft…), and its tactics were a bit less like the Inquisition and the Malleus Maleficarum (taking out culprits with maximal denunciation].