by Christopher K. Ho
One approach to the question would be to enumerate that which epitomizes the era’s aesthetic sensibility. The list may include the dappled omni-directional light of Dawson’s Creek, hunter green Jeep Cherokees, the font Courier New, individually wrapped Asian pears, Portishead’s “Glory Box,” Vail, oversized plaid shirts, l’eau d’Issey, and James Spader. Perhaps more productively, this golden generation’s art can be grafted onto a semiotic square. The latter approach possesses three advantages at least. First, it would transform that generation from an actual demographic to an abstract position that all artists, regardless of age, can now engage and occupy. Second, it would locate that position among a constellation of related artistic positions, and thus illuminate the terrain of—and perhaps suggest a direction for—very contemporary art. Third, it would be felicitous: in the ‘90s, everyone fancied herself a semiotician.
Entering the ‘90s, much advanced art mined a single, if undoubtedly rich, opposition, between the personal and the political. This dyad and its proxies guided the discursive arc of the late twentieth century and underpinned, for instance, the standoff between neo-expressionist painting and institutional critique, or, broader, that between history-as-successive-individual-geniuses (a ‘60s residue of a waning modernism) and the imperative for work to socially transform and politically engage (a ‘70s revival of historical avant-gardes). The ‘80s witnessed a complete and seamless synthesis of personal identity and political ideology in identity politics. Artists as diverse as Barbara Kruger and David Wojnarowicz turned marginal and/or oppressed subject positions into political platforms while, inversely and simultaneously, academic counterparts proved ideological “truths” to be personal opinions [diagram 1].
Such a synthesis signaled the epitome as well as the exhaustion of the personal-political opposition, prompting artists to search elsewhere for stimulus. That identity politics itself soon fell under criticism added urgency to the search. (Looking back at the ‘80s, Walter Benn Michaels in his 2006 The Trouble with Diversity could broadly fault identity politics, and indeed the entire enterprise of “identity” that came to prominence during the decade, for precipitating the subsequent slide into pluralism, under which rubric ideological beliefs became mere “cultures” and, as such, rendered impotent.) How can the opposition between personal and political be renewed and/or elaborated? Should it?
A possibility explored in the early ‘90s was to recast politics as policy. Pioneering artists like Susan Lacy, curators like Mary Jane Jacobs, and, later, collectives like Detroit SOUP countered the abstractness and absolutism of political ideology with the reality and contingency of implementation. They modeled their respective practices not on (grandstanding) politicians but on (anonymous) administrators who transform theory into applicable laws and programs, who transit between ideology and society. From grass roots activism to community collaborations to microfinance, these and others engaged with local organizations and labored over infrastructural details. Political ideology tempered into policy, which in turn crystallized into civic duty.
In play, then, are three terms: personal identity, political ideology, and civic duty. They nearly complete a semiotic square. A slippage between identity and identification begets a forth term. While identity is possessive—yours or mine—identification is intersubjective: I identify with you, understand you, and empathize with you. In this way, just as politics morphed into civics, personal identity might broaden into ethical responsibility. While difficult to cite (pure) artworld examples, iterations abound in American philanthropy. The Peace Corps, Habitat for Humanity, C.A.R.E., and Teach for America are humanitarian organizations grounded on ethics in the vein of Kant’s sensus communis, or common feeling [diagram 2].
That these non-profits and NGOs originated and are affiliated with a demographic that I, as an immigrant, view as privileged and white is of interest because it is this very demographic that arguably now dominates the artworld. What are aesthetic analogs to NGOs? Here, the semiotic square becomes useful. For a secondary opposition, between civic duty and ethical responsibility, shadows the primary one, between personal identity and political ideology. And it generates three mediating points in addition to identity politics [diagram 3]. Community-based art and mainstream humanitarian organizations occupy two of these additional points, on the left and right. Though they issue from different worldviews—“1968” versus Christian goodwill—they mirror one another. (Indeed, the missions and manifestations of, say, Habitat for Humanity’s work in New Orleans and Jane Jacobs’ 1991 Places with a Past in Charleston uncannily rhyme.)
It is however the bottom point—the flipside of identity politics—which intrigues. It is here that I locate the Clinton Crew, the generation of artists that grew up under the liberal, prosperous, and relatively stable administration of that President. This group is—I believe—fundamentally, if not fully, decent; and it is decency, rather than expression or politics or identity or recent art’s other cynosures that distinguishes its work.
I am both (barely) a part of this generation and deeply admire it. Like the sociologist Shamus Khan, who recently in Privilege chronicled his (ambivalent) encounter with America’s modern elite when he went east for prep school, I, too, at a similar school, was struck by my classmates’ general goodness and progressive idealism, born of plenty, not persecution. Their social and environmental awareness likewise impressed me, coming from a conservative, largely Asian (if affluent) suburb in California. Later, teaching at RISD in the early 2000s, I would encounter more of these seemingly emotionally secure, neurosis-free people—products of liberal, educated parents and baby boomer wealth, who grew up, as one friend summed, “between AIDs and 9/11.” In the ‘90s, the worldview of New England elites momentarily expanded to become the norm across America.
Less political (or more politically secure) than previous generations of artists, the Clinton Crew’s art is fittingly less trenchant (or truculent) and lower key. Consider the modest, virtuosic work of sculptors Ivin Ballen, Tatiana Berg, and Colby Bird, and painters Joshua Abelow, Dana Frankfort, Roger White, and (something of the group’s dean) Chris Martin [figures 4-9]. For those steeped in the ‘60s and ‘70s, White’s muted canvases alight with discrete moments of brush- and pencil-work appear bereft of substance. But neither does “neo-conservative,” the ‘80s counter-term to “critical” apply; that appellation presupposes its own polemic. (Pushing the religious analogy, White’s paintings are more Episcopalian than evangelical.) Likewise, Ballen’s expertly cast Aqua-Resin pieces and Bird’s causal-composed arrangements would read as formal and material rather than political.
“Civil” perhaps best describes the work, with its implications of facility and sociability alike. And social grace indeed earmarks the Clinton Crew. Free of the anxiety of influence, they also support, rather than compete with, each other. Abelow’s blog showcases colleagues, classmates, and friends’ work. (The Clinton Crew’s members are both medium-biased successors to relational aesthetics and the first Facebook generation.) Mostly image sequences devoid of commentary, posts positively affirm rather than polemicize or (self-)promote. Physical haunts include Alex Gartenfeld and Matt Moravec’s West Street Gallery, Margaret Lee’s 47 Canal, and, among others in Bushwick, Regina Rex and Kevin Regan and Ellen Letcher’s (now defunct) Famous Accountants. Artist-critic Stephen Truax has described the last two as “entrepreneurial,” and indeed that they are for-profit differentiate them from legacy non-profits like White Columns and Artists Space. They do not—or not necessarily—oppose or propose alternatives to the commercial main.
If the Clinton Crew’s constituents are fundamentally decent as people and their works civil in nature, then their professional practice is genuine and committed. Free of irony and cynicism, emboldened by various BFA and MFA programs, they are groomed to inherit, not disrupt. For this reason, they have neither piqued into an avant-garde nor settled into a movement. If they have an art-historical paternity, it would be Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent, not Tatlin or AbEx. As the press release to Ben Godward’s 2011 exhibition New Monuments at Leslie Heller Workspace—including himself, Liz Atzberger, Audrey Hasen Russell, and Letha Wilson—aptly describes, “the works shown here are both new and monumental, with an attitude toward the cherished institutions of past practice that is irreverent, but stops short of disrespect or outright dismissal.”
Earlier, I claimed that the Clinton Crew is fundamentally, if not fully, decent. To paraphrase Simon Critchley, politics without ethics is blind, and ethics without politics is empty. The maxim’s first half applies to much advanced practice of the ‘60s and ‘70s; the second to art of those who came of age in the ‘90s. Decency rarely harms. But it may not suffice. The task remaining for the Clinton Crew is to motivate ethics into action, to self-diagnose and test its own strengths and weaknesses, and to prove its art is more than merely good. I believe it is up to the task.