Jasper Johns, White Flag (1955)
"I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America."
-Alexis de Tocqueville *note PICA will have a support meetup November 9th
This wont be terribly popular to all art ears but its time to take stock. Some were shocked by the presidential election last night, others (mostly younger than Baby Boomer voters) were less so but still had a hard time confronting the ugly truths that lead to it. In short, the tenor and shape of liberalism of the past 20+ years was dealt a bit of a death blow and things will be a bit more critical or probing now. In other words the "Art World" will be looking to find its more critical-radical roots and stop being th comfort food of liberal/conservative elites. This will effect art to a point and I expect the art world will find some its lost edge again. Thomas Jefferson famously considered education to be American democracy's biggest Achilles Heel and de Tocqueville has always had the first and last word on our anti-intellectual bias. It looks horrible but we did survive Dick Cheney, and with Trump at least we do know what to look for. Overall, Garrison Keillor's Washington Post piece
did a good job but doesn't address the Arts role in this. Basically, cultural capitals like New York, Portland and Los Angeles take on a kind of permissive City State vs anti-intellectual Nation State dynamic, yet to fix things places outside of the city will be key and liberal smugness wont help. That means that culture has to become nimble and more mobile and not just of the city. Portland is on the front lines (good thing Chloe Eudaly will be on City Council). Places like New York, Portland, Seattle and San Francisco are under pressure from markets which have been pricing out artists and galleries. Yet, there still need to be new laboratories of culture that leverage those market pressures to support safe zones for artistic experimentation within city cores. With so much hate there will need to be islands of tolerance where there can be a real fight.
It wont be an easy sell for Art. Because of that persistent anti-intellectual bias in the USA those in the Arts and Culture camp have always been on the outside of the mainstream for both parties. Despite this, "culturalists" have a major role to play in the next 4 years in the United States. Why? Because the best art embodies a supple yet razor sharp incisive way of thinking and it is ok to create disagreements over it. The long standing anti-intellectualism needs to find champions of ideas and ideals that Americans can rally around (some may have a start in Art... though Art itself has no answers). I'm talking about the arts helping to inform leaders who can have truly substantial disagreements together, and learn to do so through culture and therefore respectfully disagree... not some forced and false consensus which was the way softer boomer liberalism of the past 20+ years has been. Things will be re-radicalizing and re-intellectualizing and it was inevitable. The arts will become a little more dangerous and less like the pet of the rich it has increasingly become over the past decade or so.
Art is like an instrument panel for what is going on in the culture and a gym for minds which require to exercise critical thinking and experiences. Capital "A" Art isnt doctrinaire or zero-sum thinking... in a word it exists because it is nuanced and substantive without being ossified in interpretation. Sadly, the recent election was anything but nuanced. I characterize it as more of a shouting match sneer off, effectively making this about personality without addressing ideals much. It was incredibly parochial and vulgar with one side being a bully and the other doing a "I'm rubber your glue" diatribe. I forgot how bullies usually win those. The only real counter is an instance on a nuanced and questioning approach to life. That nuance is how artists live... no nuance = no Art. Artists are like the physicists and poets of living with stronger and different priorities and they imbue it upon their work in a way that makes those values, ideas, approaches and observations portable.
What does it mean for visual art, well there will be a good hard look at liberal ideals and values and a ratcheted up polemic content? Here are some predictions:
Anything gilded will be a not so secret code for Trump... the hair of course will be everywhere.
Garbage art has already been falling out of vogue as it has already hung around too long but this worn out celebration of anti-expertise suddenly looks like a caricature of liberal elite values, which just lost a major election. It is done, it looks like a failed left, which had a more than secret love affair with failure. Those of the truly progressive left want winners and that means toughening up.... goes for the art, "pick up your room, clean up the mess."
Curators/Directors that act more like a cross between lawyers and political PR strategists (playing quiet cultural defense) will continue to lose the interest of Gen X and Millennials (uggg generational terms). Basically, a lot of curators often sound like the liberal elites they work closely with and dont seem to be that interested in how the art became what it is. A lot of work that is being championed was twee and cute. That work no longer entertains.... at least not in Portland.
Art that addresses uncertainty, the environment, rights (questions of basic humanistic equality for all women, LGBTQ, immigrants), shelter, food, income inequality and the built environment/natural world divide will be more important.
Art that complicates our previously more monogenic views of minorities, immigrants, men and women rather than illustrates them will have more value. The borders and barriers around them will have increased attention.
Truly incisive critical thinking not just art world posturing will have more value, things just became more serious and less careerist. The art world has been obsessed with itself and its own very farmed salmon style ecosystems. Art without strong criticism is the same as farmed salmon. It may increase the # of fish but it isnt as robust. We need more robust thinking and insights... a robust critical apparatus provides that.
Just like during the Bush/Cheney years protest art will have more cache and things like the occupy movement will become more potent... things will organize. I call this social purpose art, some of it is great... the rest just serves a purpose. Honestly I'm very interested in seeing how this becomes more serious. The idea that there were too many lifestyle artists being pumped out by MFA programs will get second and third look. Perhaps not everyone is an artist but protest is everyone's right in the USA, no matter your political persuasion. Having such polarized sides means things are going to get rocky.
There wont be a lot of happy shiny art but technology, particularly virtual reality will matter. Paintings will still matter (especially rigorous abstract work as alternate universes that explore infinities that abstraction affords)... but they will need to make a better case for themselves than the last 8 years of zombie complacent formalism that simply looks like art where nothing is at stake. Was Zombie Formalism the liberal doodle? Instead, installation art that can engage lots of people rather than decorate homes will be more important.
How does Portland fit into this? Well, I am working on a larger essay but as the capital of conscience for the USA (Obama and Bernie Sanders both had immense support among the vast youth here) Portland needs to protect its character by valuing the edgier artists here as part of the edgier progressive fueled ecosystem. Too much public money and attention goes to quirk fetish, and we need to see artists as our multifaceted moral and aesthetic compass... not as entertainers. Overall, Portland's institutions tend to be less edgier than the art scene is on the whole and that needs to change because many of our curatorial decisions tend to turn their cultural amplifiers up to a blistering 6, when Portland itself goes to 11.