The Spiral's Wake
The Clinton Crew, Storytelling, Art History, Ambivalence, and my father
by David Roesing

My father was always interested in history. Conservatives often are. A stubborn man, he was disinclined to believe that the past had happened randomly, that there was no structure to be gleaned from it’s swirling chaos. He came to believe that there was an order to it, one that he perceived. The past as premise; the tides of American history crash in and retreat in a calculable cycle, governed by a celestial body. A drawable structure.

He worked in politics. Began his career doing campaign work on the ground, ended it as executive for a large alcohol company. He was a very successful person, led a good life in the bottom quarter of the top 1%, and stopped working in 2000, a hair over 50. He would say he never really retired, his business card now simply reads: “strategic counsel”, a phrase which some in our extended family find ominous.

With his remaining years he endeavored to write a book about his ideas and their interaction with electoral politics. The book became something of a joke in the family. He reveled in describing it, and yet he never really started writing it. He didn’t know enough yet, he would say, or the timing just wasn’t right. It eventually stopped being a joke.

The book’s thesis was simple: there is a predictable pattern to the way new ideas bubble up in the American political system. That it takes forty years for an idea to go from conception, to movement, to electoral ratification. Of course, he mapped this interaction structurally.

“People tend to think linearly, but history is more complicated. It’s not a line, or even a circle,” he would often say. “It’s a spiral.”

* * *

Christopher Ho, a former teacher of mine, has written a very provocative essay on this website, called the Clinton Crew. To summarize, Ho identifies a cohort of young artists (many of whom are friends of his) who grew up, “between AIDs and 9/11”, and whose work reeks of civics in the communitarian sense, but lacks a certain political engagement that has characterized previous generations. He praises the good hearted nature, and civility of these “privileged white artists” and states that we should choose to see this as a positive development, while implying that we may look back and find that there was something lacking in this period.

The essay says some very big things about a very small area of the art world, where I happen to happily reside. Chris’s description of this scene is largely accurate in my opinion, but his conclusion that this should be welcomed as a positive trend is unconvincing and possibly premature. The language is also a little unfortunate. “White” and “privileged” are both distracting terms, as they have an imperial connotation that jarrs wildly with Chris’s conflicted championing of this crew.

The word privilege is worth unpacking a little. It’s a pretty subjective term, as any privileged person is quick to point out. In the essay it is used to describe people who went to RISD, which is completely legitimate, but it suggests something larger, and more troubling: income stratification has infected the art world, and we’re probably not going back. Consideration of this should give just about anyone pause, but I don’t think it’s a useful frame around the aesthetic analysis of any individual artist, or any group as small as the one Chris is talking about.

It’s worth asking whether the economic stratification that has characterized American life in the last twenty years is warping the art world in such a way as to remove the tensions necessary for “political” work to resonate.

* * *

Economically speaking, we’re still living in the morning of Ronald Reagan’s America. Indeed, the conception of the spiral lurched out of my father’s giddy observation of this. A proud footsoldier in the Reagan revolution, a believer in the Lafler curve and that money trickles downward if you only set it free, he felt he knew the key to Reagan’s success: timing. Goldwater lost in 1964 because he had been ahead of his time, but people came around, and in 1980, Reagan campaigned and won explicitly on his desire to lower taxes and increase defense spending. My father was convinced that the simplicity of those ideas and the fervor with which Reagan advocated them meant that that the country had deemed those ideas mature, ergo, he had the right to implement them.

Working in Washington, he came to believe that these pivot moments were exceedingly rare, and that in fact the last such moment had been the enactment of the New Deal. The way he saw it, generations had a tendency to refine or reverse one another upon each coiling of the spiral. He used a seasonal metaphor to explain this process. Ideas matured in summer (Reagan), their wake occurred in fall (G.H.W. Bush and Clinton), a lack of ideas dominated winter (G.W. Bush) and the beginning of new ideas occurred in spring (perhaps Obama).

There came a point in our relationship when every political conversation we would have ended with him retreating to the spiral. Every major issue (climate change, energy, health care) couldn’t be addressed because we were in a winter, and no one had a popular idea about how to tackle the problem. The repetitiveness of this explanation did not wear well with me, especially as it left so much out. Why is the civil rights movement not a major political transformation? Voting rights? Women’s suffrage? Any recent war? Medicaid? Dad had the certainty of his experience, and the confidence of his success, but I came to wonder if they had rotted his judgement.

Albert Einstein, disheveled pocketwatcher and noted physicist, analogized a black holes effect on gravity to the effect a bowling ball on a bed has on a marble. My father’s optimism has a near gravitational effect on his thinking. It runs so deep it came to express itself physically. His smile, his heft, the way he sleeps. He just doesn’t have any inclination for anxiety, about me, about the country, about the impact of some of the policies he’s advocated.

When we talk about being an artist, and what kind of life that might mean for me, he does an interesting thing. He doesn’t know anything about art, painting, galleries, the system, nothing, so he draws on his own life. He draws on the narrative of his own success.

He discovered his love for politics in college, the thrill of the campaign, the fun of it. He knew that’s what he wanted to do with his whole life. But this was 1966, and the complicated political infrastructure that we now take for granted didn’t exist.

“My parents thought I was crazy. ‘You want to do what? Consult on campaign’s?’ A consultant wasn’t really a job back then. They thought I would end up living at home with them.”

He loves to tell this story, in part because that’s obviously not how it worked out. He happened to pick the perfect time to get into the consulting field, the exact moment that Roger Ailes was reinventing how campaigns would work in the television age. He spent a bizarre first year as a photojournalist in Providence, but other than that he basically had the life he wanted.

It’s always hard to know how to take this story, and the implication that I should compare my life as an artist to his as a consultant. The total faith he has in me is impressive, and stiffening. But I always feel like it says something bleak about the role of the artist today, that he is so quick to conceive of it as just another professional path.

“The single most important desire in my life has been for you to follow your dream, and pursue being an artist.” He’s always meant that even though neither of us know what it means.

* * *

It’s hard not to think of art history in narrative terms. The life of a human is so short, and the amount of art produced so voluminous. A sky full of glittering stars, and we choose to see a warrior wearing a belt.

If there seems to be a break between the Clinton Crew and those that came before them, there are a number of factors to consider. Economics, education, aesthetic trends, technology, “generational temperament”. It will be awhile before we know what to look to.

But I think my dad’s zany theory points at something that is useful to think about here. Once invented, form tends to recur through time, to become relevant again, but at the loss of its shock and politics. It becomes something different. Students for a Democratic Society becomes Occupy Wall Street. The Velvet Underground become the Strokes. As Marx phrased it, “History occurs twice, first as tragedy then as farce.”

Let’s take my father’s idea at face value here for a moment. The forms and language used by the Clinton Crew still largely come out of an earlier era. The work today harkens back to that world, with a winking formalism, freed from the ideological or political claims that were so often made about their predecessors.

But it’s not a period that we should be comparing ourselves to. We are not in a radical moment, and we’re at a very different economic point. Inequality most closely resembles that of the 1920’s and 30’s, and I think it’s here we should look for analogies.

The “Precisionist” movement of the 1930’s probably doesn’t ring a bell for many, in part because they weren’t really a movement, properly understood. They didn’t have a manifesto, or even a totally rigid set of aesthetic principles. But they were a close group of friends, who included artists like Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth, Joseph Stella and Georgia O’Keefe. They were a supportive crew, almost all of whom had been to art school, and many to graduate school, during a period of economic hardship for much of the country. Their work recycled the tropes of their modernist forebears, cubism mostly, and used them to, well, do something vaguely poetic, vaguely critical of their era. It’s hard to know what to make of them now, they so clearly were the last gasp of a particular era, and yet were definitively not of the era that followed them.

They are not forgotten. Time has revealed their work to be quite populist. They exist somewhat to the side of the major art historical narrative of their century, but live on as important historical documents of America’s visual attitude in a time of transition.

* * *

For all my quibbles, the term “The Clinton Crew” is probably apt, but double edged. Bill Clinton was probably the most talented politician of his generation, and indeed a quintessential example of that generation’s flaws and virtues.

The scuttlebut one hears around tabled PBS shows is that Clinton is somewhat wistful about not having major crisis occur during his presidency, something that could have elevated him into the ranks of the great presidents. An occasion he could rise to. But that kind of thinking is narcissistic. As artists we can influence our environment. But we don’t get to choose our moment. We can only try to be sensitive to it’s bend and to our wake, and pray it’s not passing us by.