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JOHN O'BRIEN

ACTIVISM ISN'T A
FOUR LETTER WORD


Recently, I was thumbing through the 2001 Yann Martel book, Life of Pi, when I opened, by chance, to the last part of his author's note where he writes about his gratitude in receiving a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. He states "without whose grant I could never have brought together this story....If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams." Thoughts about that passage and the ever increasing need to actively support the arts got me ruminating.


Yann Martel, "Life
of Pi", front cover.

In addition, the recent spate of activism by many (including myself) that has helped focus the attention of politicians, in particular the Mayor of Los Angeles, on the importance of a fully functioning Los Angeles City Cultural Affairs Department led me to thinking (once again) about the public or civic role of the artist in the world today. So who cares, right? Won't art go on anyway, won’t great art continue to be created by great artists, irrespective of whether or not there is any support, social, political or otherwise? I don't know the answer to that question, and that is why I want to speculate on the ideas engendered by Martel's note.

I will assume, for the purpose of this essay, that we are all citizens of this city. That is, we all belong to the urban concentration known as greater Los Angeles. Long since Plato died and his Republic, with its democratic ideals, has yielded a less than perfect model, we still remain anchored, here and now, by our mutual citizenship. I don't know of too many artists who dwell on this commonalty much these days. Most people I come into contact with participate as media citizens, watching what the media produces about the world around us and perhaps also participating in the voting process. What is the artist's role, if any, as a citizen?

So many aspects of an artist's persona, public and private, seem to me to be hangovers from the residual and hopelessly outdated Romantic model of the isolated genius. Yet most every time the argument is broached as to how this persona could be modeled differently from the inherited one, the Art World itself tends to resist any re-formulation of the role that artists might play in life, outside of the imagination.

In part, I regard this as an educational dilemma. After all, how could you fuel the hunger of any young person to go into many thousands of dollars worth of debt to the universities "producing" today's artists without offering in exchange the possibility of sexy art star status to at least aspire to? (Elsewhere in time [Back in the March, 2002 issue--Ed.] in this magazine, the opposite side to this coin, and the absurdity of this promise, has been amply spelled out by the ever corrosive but thorough logic of Mat Gleason.) But the configuration of this persona is also likely to be a biproduct of the fierce need for independence felt by most of those practicing within the fine art world. That impulse may often clash with the conforming pressures inherent in the commercial and/or academic environments, but such contradictions are not only inevitable, in many ways they produce necessary internal friction, both personal and social. In any case, I'd like to explore some of the aspects of this persona deserving of scrutiny without dismissing the web of urban myths surrounding the role of the artistic genius. What I am most interested in is arriving at relevant questions and the myths preceding them, because later this is going to be used in a series of interviews which I will be conducting with critics, gallerists and curators exploring how they view and work with artists today.

The artist is no longer just a creator of art, but really is the critic now (reversing without disassembling Donald Kuspit's assertion that the critic is artist). This is true more so today than ever before, because the agency which dispenses criticism and levies critical value in the sphere of contemporary art is language, and language is now an essential part of every contemporary artist's presentational baggage. It may have been the short-lived conceptual art shift from art objects themselves to text which started the ball rolling, but it has been the academic arts community and its definition of the crit, context and literacy to have kept this massive shift moving. Whether the myth, and pleasures, of the dumbstruck genius silently plying their craft in a liquor besotted garret has been supplanted or not, the fact remains that artists may feign unintelligibility, but they are generally quite cognizant of the literal flood of words; historical, technical, contextual and critical, which surround and defineworks of art.

So, what of this? Does it make any difference? Is it something artists should do more about, like writing? Or should we just wait until the next Gary Kornblau addresses art issues? You'd think with all the conceptualism floating around, a few more paragraphs would be coagulating, but I'm not holding my breath. I'm just observing a strangely literate set of art makers.



Steve Roden, “The Silent
World,” 2002, oil/wax on canvas.
Courtesy Suzanne Vielmetter
Los Angeles Projects.
Artists now tend to be multifaceted in the reference points they draw on, and are often more recognizable for the thematic core of work that eschews a signature style or medium. The artist is finally polyhedral, looking at genre and the various techniques available for making art objects and images, through as a means and not an end. I don't mean to suggest that there is a diminishing of craft or even a reduced sense of passionate commitment to the physical and pictorial formation of images and objects, it is just that there is a greater flexibility allotted to an artist's approach to self identification through art production than was feasible under modernist tenets.

This may well also be traced in part to academia and its need for having its MFA conferees delve into multiple areas of specialization within the Department of Art before they are cast out into the Art World. As Doug Harvey's recent description of Steve Roden's multiple strands of art production illustrate the overall output of an artist is now viewed for how everything "will undoubtedly become incorporated into the artist’s coalescing gesamtkunst [in English, “total art”—Ed.]." Gone is the commitment to just one set of technical and stylistic guidelines, for it is in the total life's work, that the equation is resolved. In that vein, it was revelatory to hear Roland Reiss recently speak of his re-incarnation as a highly successful abstract painter after his about face, at the height of his success and at the time of his retrospective, away from his work in sculptural, miniaturized, figurative tableaus.


Roland Reiss, “Remax/Ocotillo,”
2003, acrylic and mylar, 19 x 24”.
Courtesy of DoubleVision Gallery.



Alison Foshee, "Turkey Oak,"
staples on paper, 11 x 13"
The artist is part of an acknowledged group. The artist, if not a citizen, is certainly a community member. The artist is no longer the solitary creator of idiosyncratic art works which live in a world isolated from everything else. Both the AIDS epidemic, in a tragic way. and the art world’s university-based networking, in a more comical way, have illustrated how interconnected artists really are in their production and in their creativity. There is still little room for art directors in the art world (as always there are exceptions that come to mind, Jeff Koons and Mark Kostabi in this case), but tacit acknowledgment of the sig-nificance of crisscrossed networking is emerging regularly in artist-organized exhibitions, in peer to peer invitational exhibitions and ad hoc arts community driven web sites (like www.zerodegreesart.org, for example, that sets up and monitors the balancing act called surviving in a major urban center like Los Angeles).

I have no doubt that there still are a certain number of self proclaimed hermetically sealed identities out in their own wilderness, producing their outsider stuff to who know what eventual earth shaking effect. But I wonder if you hack such a recluse’s internet connection or got hold of their magazine subscription list whether you wouldn't find a predominance of Art World magazines subscribed to and Art World sites bookmarked? I don't consider the supposition cynical. Even that artist on the outside can stay informed, even connected to peer activities without having to strike forth. Where would that “outside” actually be anyway? Consider how Lee Bontecou distanced herself from the art world thirty years ago, yet has now reached near canonical status with the full blown, time lapsed re-entry that landed at the UCLA Hammer Museum in the course of a national tour recently.


Lee Bontecou, “Untitled,” 1998,
welded steel/porcelain/wire mesh/
canvas, 7 x 8 x 6’. Courtesy
the UCLA Hammer Museum.

Finally (for now), the artist has become active in structuring the art world itself. Today, the artist is often an activist, whether literally or implicitly, and cannot collectively withdraw from that role without undermining the stability of the art world itself. Contrary to the declared anarchical tendencies purportedly rife within the art world, there is a lot of evidence of activism traveling under an assumed identity. As I looked around the greater L.A. area and tried to count up the organizations directed or supported by artists, I ran out of time rather than organizations and situations worthy of investigating. F.A.R. and beyond, the landscape was dotted with small but influential art (activist) groups whose primary constituency consists of fellow artists, and whose activism is all about the supporting art world. Now, in large measure, these are people who may not like the word ‘activism’ applied to them. Yet what is it that artists are doing when they donate artworks, pay to go to parties where those art works are auctioned off to raise funds for designated causes, if not engaging in activism? Maybe it is just words like ‘activism’ and ‘citizen’ that keep the Art World from openly embracing the common conditions that make artists and the Art World interdependent. Maybe the words need to be freshly examined and in fact used for the activities they describe, not the semantic halos they conjure up about social do-gooders and artsy wannabes. If we aren't careful, if we don’t stake out the meaning of these territories and find our roles, we might just end up fostering a system that so favors commerce as to sacrifice our collective imagination, leaving us believing in nothing more than personal gain and substituting true creativity with vaucuous dreams. What do you think, my dear fellow Citizen?