by Carlos Rosales-Silva
During the first week of December 2014 two narratives unfolded on my Instagram feed.
People were sharing images and video from protests and rallies decrying continued police violence against black people. On one of these nights almost 10,000 people marched through the streets of New York City. We were confused, scared, and most of all angry about a Grand Jury decision not to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the killing of Eric Garner on Staten Island this past summer. The Pantaleo decision came after a long year of continued acquittals for white police officers (or assholes acting like police officers) who had killed unarmed Black citizens. This verdict came after hundreds of years of continued physical and psychic violence against the Black citizens of this country.
There were also party pics from Miami Basel.
It is increasingly difficult to be an artist in this moment. I am having a hell of a time imagining what utility art has in the fight against the deeply-ingrained, white supremacist system of law in this country. I am questioning what role artists are playing in a New York that has the highest homeless population on record. Going to my expensive studio in south Brooklyn to move paint around feels completely useless, hyper-privileged, and gentrifying. Seeing photographs of my supposed peers drinking free booze and partying with the wealthy elite of this country during this time makes them seem complicit in destructive systems. By extension It makes all artists participating in the market seem complicit. I haven't been to the studio in a month. It does not seem relevant.
Some would say that we are in a post-historical age, that our current period is one of atemporality. Artists are no longer on a forward trajectory. There is no real solid ground moving forward because there is no longer a singular narrative that drives western art history. The internet has created global access to any number of divergent narratives. Atemporality is a nice concept, but when it is applied to spheres outside of the arts the major narratives of the past represent themselves assertively.
Initially, when confronted with this feeling of powerlessness in the studio, I immediately thought of the 1990s. In 1992, during the height of AIDS and identity art, Adrian Piper explained that "the American habit of somnambulism about its criminal past is such that it took the American art world decades to reawaken the aesthetic vocabulary of social resistance and engagement narcotized by Greenbergian formalism." And that "the erasure of content particularly political content was a Madison Avenue inspiration long before it was a gleam in Clement Greenberg’s eye."1 Reading Piper's words, it is a little too easy to view the last 14 years of canonized/market-ready American contemporary art as a disappointing extension of our country's hyper-nationalist, paranoid, self-medicating post-9/11 climate.
This is entirely evident in the arena of popular culture, which is not only an indicator of what our country wants to consume but also our largest international export and a medium of dissemination for our social and political agenda worldwide. In the last 15 years we exported countless films featuring digitally created destruction and death (Transformers, Superman), revealing our collective obsession with our own and other’s decimation. Studios and producers are unwilling to diversify casts of characters outside of token caricatures because the consumers accept these boundaries and exclusions. Cultural imperialism is real and brutal, but history shows it is not impervious. The early 90s were a fairly impressive time for diversity in mainstream cultural production. Boyz n the Hood, Malcolm X, American Me, and Mi Familia--films made by and for Latino and Black audiences all came out between 1992 and 1995. Philadelphia was the first mainstream film to tackle AIDS and homophobia, in 1993. Selena was crossing over into pop music in 1995. Rap, hip-hop, and R&B started to rule pop music. Visual artists had been dragging out various conceptual issues starting with the rejection of Minimalism in the late 60s. Politically inclined artists in the 90s were part of a larger zeitgeist, one that broke through and had real effects. People that had been othered for the rest of this country’s history were seeing themselves represented on the larger cultural landscape. I want to believe there is real power in what we do and make as artists. We are presenting alternate viewpoints, even when they are abstract or obtuse. Ultimately the problem with this line of thinking (a line of thinking that has only ended in frustration for me personally) is that our entire cultural paradigm has changed. A shift in perceptual consciousness has occurred over the last two decades with the proliferation of the internet and internet-accessing devices.
Atemporality. The current zeitgeisty painting show at the MoMA asserts as much in it’s statement of intent, claiming to present a timeless group of works not bound to any formal language or art-historical model. Five years ago, legendary cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling delivered a lecture at Transmediale.2 Regarding the cultural possibilities of our current era, he said that “the immediate impulse is going to be the ‘Frankenstein Mashup.’ Because that’s the native expression of network culture. The ‘Frankenstein Mashup’ is to just take elements of past, present, and future and just collide ‘em together, in sort of a collage.” So that is where we are at with artwork that is “free” of any sort of historical momentum. Sterling goes on to argue that we are in a rebuilding stage, recuperating from the impossibility of a master historical narrative, and that this rebuild could take decades: “We are into an era of decay and repurposing of broken structures, of new social inventions within networks.”
The past year is a heartbreaking example of this predicament. We are currently witnessing the emergence of a historically ignored social narrative. Access to the internet and smartphones by poorer and underserved citizens of the United States has, for the first time, allowed oppressed communities to document their struggle in real time and disseminate materials throughout a worldwide network with no filters or roadblocks. This has been shocking and revelatory to those who were not already aware. More importantly, this technology has been empowering in it’s ability to transmit these narratives. When I sit in my studio unable to work, overwhelmed by our current social climate, I think of the video of Eric Garner being choked to death. I think of witnesses live-tweeting Mike Brown’s murder. These and other atrocious crimes are reminders that while we may pretend to be conceptually free from history, so many of our citizens are not physically free from a historically oppressive system of power. The very real history of oppression in this country has not been solved by a proliferation of technology. Technology has given us proof. What we choose to do with this proof is crucial.
We are currently sitting in an art world that seemingly has no time or patience for political action during a period of renewed attention to the social disparities in this country resulting from an unprecedented information age. So I guess I am wondering what the fuck is even possible. I’m not advocating for radical political art in the white cube. I don’t believe those sorts of gestures wield any real power at this point. That being said, the widespread aversion in the arts to engage in any sort of political conversation for the last few years has me wondering if my initial impulse regarding a sort of cultural conservatism wasn’t totally off-base. I believe there is a leftover reluctance to engage politically and socially after the soft rejection of social practice, identity politics, and relational aesthetics. With that in mind I am currently more interested in the actions we can take around our artistic practices, gestures we can make in the positions we hold as makers and ambassadors of culture, teachers, employees, employers, and citizens. These gestures do not have to be apparent in our artwork. A few possibilities: teachers can rally against conservative administrations, employers can diversify their workplaces, consumers can subvert personal flow of capital to socially/politically effective organizations, those who have trust funds can divest from sketchy markets, and ultimately we can set examples from the unique social platforms we hold as a creative class. As artists, curators, gallerists, and administrators we hold a considerable amount of social capital. This capital is real and can be expended in a meaningful way.
The return of the art object’s status as capitalist object is not surprising, and the push and pull between socio-political conceptualism and neo-formalism has become part of the major western art historical narrative. This back and forth is somewhat comforting, but also presents an interesting problem to solve as the field of art-making continues to expand. I think expansion is key here. Since master narratives are no longer central, why do we have to push and pull between socio-political action and formalism? We have been presented an opportunity to imagine, present, and live out an infinite number of better futures with the destruction of a single track historical narrative. Our practices can expand in three dimensions and can include not only everything but everyone.
1 Bruce Sterling, “Atemporality for the Contemporary Artist”, Wired, February 25 2010, http://www.wired.com/2010/02/atemporality-for-the-creative-artist/
2 Adrian Piper, “The Logic of Modernism,” in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Alexander Alberro Blake Stimson, (Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press 1999), p 549