Reading or at least browsing the massive (weighing five pounds) Intense Proximity: An Anthology of the Near and the Far, the catalogue for the 2012 Triennnale Exhibition in Paris. Reading also Donald Preziosi and Claire Farago, Art Is Not What You Think It Is, Blackwell-Wiley, London, 2012. And aroused to write by an article of Barry Schwabsky in The Nation, “Living With Disjunction: Manifesta 9 and Documenta 13”

Let me preface this with the warning that I have not enough specific knowledge of Contemporary Art to authorize myself as a critic, but then the contrary, adequate knowledge, is equally burdened. In order to justify spending a decent chunk of time with a subject one must find something redeeming about it or believe there is something hidden beneath it. Pure negation does not exist, the critic will at least hope to embolden readers who can imagine something worthy of saving or transforming. For instance my criticism of current jazz cannot go very far because I have heard little that appeals to me, and so my knowledge of it is minimal and superficial. The academic category of jazz studies is the preserve of its appreciators and defenders, who are today teaching jazz in the schools and have something at stake. As a job requirement they must assume the continuity of present and laudable past, as if new heroes of this art form are just waiting to be born and will be recognized as such.

Similarly I have striven in vain to appreciate what goes under the name of Contemporary Art (not to be confused with art that is contemporary, made in the present time period). My interest in art is in viewing things that attract and intrigue me aesthetically, pleasuring me often with ambiguity, whether intended by the artist or not. I take suggestions from curators but prefer to be my own, which for art shows means to be a curator of curators. I often find what I want in art that is currently being made but rarely in what is framed self-consciously as Contemporary Art, which always comes with a curatorial message as its reason for being selected. Yes, the artwork can be abstracted from its imposed meaning, but that meaning is meant to override spectator initiative (including the intention to promote spectator participation). At best I browse Contemporary Art as an amateur ethnologist, curious about its denizens and its place on the cultural map. The interesting questions for me are about the curatorial decision: “what do they want us to think and why; how does this artwork illustrate their point?” Once the message has been deciphered, however wonderfully packaged, there is no point in looking anymore, and it is to the experience of looking that I am attracted, of being absorbed in an artwork, letting it work on my sensibility and imagination. Lacking passion for the curatorial project my critique is going to be superficial, cannot defend itself adequately. It can easily be dismissed by those who believe in the purpose and function of Contemporary Art enough to make it an essential part of their lives.

Nonetheless I am irked enough by it to stick my neck out. I sense a loss of other options. And I have my own stake in visual art, as a spectator with epiphanic, quasi-religious experiences that go back fifty years, and as a participant myself, painting abstract works for ten years as my most engaging artistic activity. Closer to home today, I witness how unavoidable is the massive social and financial power of Contemporary Art, making it a model for the staging and framing of the kind of music that I do.


In “Living With Disjunction: Manifesta 9 and Documenta 13,” Barry Schwabsky writes of the 2012 Paris Triennale: “The exhibition concerns the links between art and anthropology, and ‘the preponderance of ethnographic poetics in the work of contemporary artists.’…[A]mbiguity is the strength of the exhibition: creating an atmosphere in which the border between art and ethnography becomes porous without demanding of each work that it illustrate this permeability. Rather, as [curator] Enwezor writes, the ‘salient question is how to live with disjunction.’”

But what disjunction would arouse such a strong question as how to live with it, and whose question is this? It is assumed to belong to the audience for Contemporary Art, those who know that the social order they enjoy is the agent of the disjunction between the art world of which they feel a part and the world that has resisted, that has held to its difference despite the pressures of centuries of penetration, exploitation, and the effort to convert it to the ways of the West. This audience is brought in touch with its other via ethnography, which seeks to deal with the non-West through its (Western) methodology of empirical investigation, and through artists who address themselves to the other sympathetically or present themselves as representing that other directly. It is first the other that has been forced to live with the disjunction in the form of colonialist, post-colonial, and now globalist pressure, and has resolved this for itself variously through resistance and accommodation.  The agent responsible has for centuries built a culture based on the disjunction and has reaped the benefit as well as the guilt of betraying its humanitarian principles. It has become the job of High Art to soothe the conscience of that culture, to show that it cares and wants to help those it has dispossessed. “Ethnographic poetics” is to today’s contemporary artworld as the self-accusatory anti-racism that began in the sixties among liberal and radical whites was to the earlier period. A major difference today is the huge amount of art-world, philanthropic, and governmental funding that has been committed; it is by no means a self-motivated consciousness-raising movement but is highly institutionalized.

The confusion of Contemporary Art and all other art that is contemporary is promoted to indicate that the art that truly matters is that which the most prestigious institutions and its curators favor. Contemporary Art is a self-conscious genre that joins specific artists selected to be given a high profile (the emerging, the established, and the canonical), a unified political/cultural message controlled by the curators, and the high stakes of financial reward and prestige. It justifies itself today in a gesture of “raising questions,” and “developing [the audience’s] social and intellectual posture to allow them to break free from preconceived ideas.” (the latter quote from the Trienniale’s webpage, “The Challenges of Mediated Learning” . This solidifies the alliance of this art world with the contemporary academic world, and not just the disciplines of art history, as in the past, but with literary studies, anthropology and others that pose themselves as the significant critics of society and culture. As a gesture, raising questions is considered sufficient in itself, for it leads to the raising of ever more questions. It would seem naïve to propose answers that did not anticipate themselves being overturned; everything will eventually be challenged, so why stick one’s neck out for the guillotine of history? Moreover, the disjuncture is presented as a flattened-out, undialectical fact, and facts cannot be changed, only our views of them. Art is then adequately political when our views of this and similar facts are enlightened, that is, brought under control.

The gesture and stance of raising questions is itself historical, a consequence of the shock that was registered with the collapse of ideological certainty on the cultural left in the latter part of the 20th century. What has followed has been the certainty of uncertainty, the avantgarde as self-aware, self-questioning, and self-referential, and impotent: how do we live with the world as it is, with no more utopian prospects or unshakeable convictions? The subject—we ourselves–are only safe if withdrawn from earlier models relating thought and action positively–the liberal Idea of Progress, Marxist theory-praxis, utopianism, and the earlier avant-garde of movements and manifestoes–into a position of questioning as an unsurpassable state of being.

Artistic director Okwui Enwezor, speaking of the Trienniale:

“Can the seemingly opposing, yet complimentary systems of the imagined national space be reconciled in an exhibition project within contexts in which the very structure of multiple identity, social expression, and individual autonomy have become part of the national conversation? Is contemporary art capable of joining this debate? Or to rephrase it, is contemporary art and its various systems of legitimation, mediation, and diffusion brave enough to explore the risky limits of identitarian excess and the paralysis which immobilizes art and artists from taking critical positions within the space of culture and beyond the circumscribed borders erected by an art system intent on reflecting only its own entrenched values?”

These are not questions but political statements meant to persuade, intimidate, and close off discussion that does not confirm them; just like the most transparent ideologue he accuses his imagined opponents of cowardice. Raising questions is directed from the curator-guide to an audience and not reflexively to the challenger. It presumes the hierarchical, pedagogical model of master who knows and instructs, and pupils who understand themselves as needing guidance and are marked by an absence. If the master thinks the pupil has not gotten the lesson it must be repeated in a new form with a new examples. Such appears to be the case here, since the fundamental lesson that Art [validated as worthy of its capital A] has a high social and moral purpose has been consistently presented for some time now, elaborated in various ways since at least Matthew Arnold. The master challenges  presumed ignorance today called “received opinion,” assumed to be taken for granted by the other (the pupil). Postmodernism and its concern with alterity and the Grand Narrative was supposed to correct this stance, but, if Art advocates wanted to be considered relevant to our re-politicized times, they couldn’t help but recreate the pedagogical hierarchy.

However, it is not the core audience for Contemporary Art that is the challenged, unenlightened other; this role is projected outside of that audience onto what was earlier called “the mass,” the demos, which is invited to participate in Art on the terms provided. The core is already one with the proselytizers. For instance, the broad distinction between art as the imaginative, autonomous activity par excellence, a view associated with a bygone modernism, and as “an approach to reality” has become a shibboleth of Contemporary Art in favor of the latter.  “Reality” has earlier taken the appealing form of everyday life, consumerism, and lifestyle. Belief that this is a progressive turn in Art history marks that core, sustained audience as the enlightened. All forms of progressive faith require an outside other who still hasn’t “got it,” and hopefully will be drawn in to the shows and be convinced. What the core audience “gets” is but a confirmation of its enlightenment and no challenge to it. In fact, the regime of “everything is questionable” provides a buffer protecting those who profess themselves radical; anyone questioning the questioner is thrown into the camp of the unenlightened.

Schwabsky begins his Nation article with a mild critique:

“Art, or rather its context, is becoming more loquacious. It’s gotten to the point where art isn’t supposed to exist until the public is told why it exists, what it means, whose interests it serves. Curators now prefer staging discussions of art to presenting works. The run-up to this year’s Documenta, the most prestigious of the great recurrent international art exhibitions, included the publication of no fewer than 100 booklets over a period of two years, with contributions by economists, anthropologists, art historians and experts of every other stripe, while each of the hundred days of the exhibition is accompanied by several lectures, conferences or readings.”

It should be noted that parallel to the official art world no academic conference lecture is now complete without PowerPoint visuals. In both cases the visual is valued as illustrating ideas, of concretizing their meaning. At least in academia the institution backs up, indeed encourages argument against those presenting papers, including of course those who present themselves as radicals and revisionists. In the rapidly expanding, globalized art world, so filled with optimism for their projects, there is little room or incentive for questioning the premises of the institutions and curators.