Sunday, September 30, 2007

Art is different, but the same. But different.

If the old avant garde is dead, what took its place?

Veteran indie pop band Imperial Teen come back after five years with a new release, and the cover looks like the poster for a Garry Marshall movie. Why did the band and the art director make this choice? Were they satirizing middlebrow Hollywood sensibilities? Maybe in part. But the cover also speaks in a trusted visual language. Whether or not they went to see The Runaway Bride, fans will get this image.

Consider artists making decisions along these lines with every work they put out. That's the subject of Johanna Drucker's 2005 book Sweet Dreams: contemporary art and complicity. Now, in contemporary culture, two years can be a long time. And there are other ways that it's always been a long time. One of the promising artists profiled here, installationist Jason Rhoades, died in 2006 at the age of 41. But I think Drucker's insights are still relevant and will continue to be so for some time.

Merrian-Webster defines "complicity" as "association or participation in or as if in a wrongful act." Thus saying that contemporary art is built on complicity sounds accusatory. But while Drucker sometimes takes issue with the claims that artists make for themselves, this is not a jeremiad.

The thrust of the book centers on a contrast between twentieth century avant garde theory and twenty-first century practice. There was always an assumption (per Drucker) that art existed apart from institutions of the broader culture, such as church, state, or capitalist enterprise. And it was also thought that artists could and should maintain a critical distance.

But what if art as administered now is an institution in itself? One that is intrinsically bound up in other institutions (church less now, but business and culture industry more.) What does this say about artists and their "distance?"

In Drucker's formulation, artists are not rebellious and critical in the way that modern or post-modern theories would have them be. They conduct trade with the broader culture, and benefit both economically and aesthetically.

Fine art operates in a formal dialogue with its own (many) traditions and the glut of visual culture's offerings. Imaginitive work is currently being created beyond the boundaries of policed aesthetic correctness, often in explicit dialogue with the culture industry. While visual culture seems poised to overwhelm fine art through its massively capitalized appeal and claim on the market share of public attention, fine art continues to challenge consensual norms through surprising means.

So there may be criticism, but it comes from within.

This book has theory, no doubt about it. And some of her judgments and interpretations are debatable. But the nice thing is that this isn't a book of academic formulae with a few artworks squeezed in to prove a point. Drucker, also a noted typographer, enjoys, appreciates, adn shows enthusiasm for the artists and works she describes.

And the fourth chapter limns several forms "complicity" in art can take. There are a few directions taken here. Some are more interesting than others. But the sheer variety is a hopeful sign.

I'll probably come back to this book a few times.

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