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Art is a Problem by Joshua Decter - Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics

Art is a Problem
By Joshua Decter
December 16, 2013

Joshua Decter grapples with arts inherent contradictions; the Los Angeles race riots; and a
contemporary artists social allegories in response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Art is a Problem.

Yael Bartana, Kings of the Hill, 2005. MoMA PS1

Art may have become a problem only because it is no longer really problematic. Arthowever we may
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choose to define, de-d efine, re-d efine, or un-d efine itis on the verge of becoming so thoroughly
assimilated into, or integrated within, global social, economic, ideological, and institutional networks
that it may no longer be able to pose any problems to those systems. As a result, art seems
increasingly insulated from deeply critical questions that would seriously compromise its validity or
value. It is also tenable to suggest that this has been arts odd predicament for quite some time. A
more difficult question to consider is whether art ever did pose any problemsand what criteria or
metric would we use to measure this?
Some would argue that arts assimilationits distribution into broader networksallows it to act, so
to speak, upon the imaginations of more publics and in increasingly complex, subtle ways than at any
other time in recent history. To others, arts ubiquity merely tranquilizes its transformative potential.
Sectors of the global contemporary art market may have become economic drivers of employment and
wealth, but this does not mitigate the anxiety that comes with acknowledging arts discomfiting
paradoxes: it is a creative practice that still can generate meaning beyond itself; a robustly investable
class of commodity that reinvents the terms of its own language; and a specialized cultural product
that aspires to critical, yet demotic, social and political germaneness. Yes, there are circumstances in
which art has surfaced as a vehicle of dissent, resistance, protest, oppositionseeking to question
power and authority, intolerance and repression, and economic and social injustice. The variously
termed political, social, critical, interventionist, public, participatory, and other turns are testimony to
ongoing efforts at cultivating a verifiable agency and/or utility for art and artist. Yet, paradoxically, the
more tolerant or liberal a society becomes, the more art becomes a naturalized, normative element
within an environment of unfettered (and perhaps increasingly undifferentiated) creative production.
At the same time, we might say that art embodies these self-same contradictions. Art is an aporia. To
express it differently: art can only allegorize its indeterminate relationship to itself, and to everything
else. Critical writing may have the capacity to cut through the fog of arts ambiguities and shed light
on its contradictory place in the world, but such discourse can do nothing to vitiate these
contradictions. To some, this is inspiring; for me, it is occasionally exasperating.

In order to be critical, we must convince ourselves that


our sovereignty as critical thinkers is meaningful and
tangible, even while acknowledging that this very
sovereignty is the result of precariously occupying a
mental space that is at once inside and outside power.
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Engaging in critical processesi.e., questioning, pressuring, and troubling things as they appear to be
may temporarily reduce the psychic pain unleashed by the contradictions of art and its global
systems, even though it is in no way ameliorative of these conditions. (For better results, take
Ibuprofen.) In order to be critical, we must convince ourselves that our sovereignty as critical thinkers
is meaningful and tangible, even while acknowledging that this very sovereignty is the result of
precariously occupying a mental space that is at once inside and outside power. We find creative,
even pleasurable, ways to maintain the self-d elusiona suspension of disbeliefthat our sovereignty
as critical beings is beyond contradiction. It would be hypocrisy not to admit that my criticality is
located both outside of and within these contradictions. If anything, this book reflects an ongoing
struggle to reconcile the limits of criticality (and criticism) with a continuing desire to imagine that
the questioning of things might have some relevance beyond a relatively closed discursive spice or
community (that is itself constituted both inside and outside power). It is emblematic of the endless
circularity of reconciling ones doubt and skepticism with a sense of commitment to art and artists.
The kind of thinking that privileges doubt may dwell in a precarious state in relation to various
audiences and receptions (academic, non-academic, or other), yet we also understand that skepticism
can be fodder for the radical chic mill. Doubt and skepticism are infinitely marketable. Its a truism
that criticality and/or criticism is perpetually in crisis, and that dissent can be recuperated for other
applications; e.g., dissent as an iPhone app. Yet one may also conceive of doubt as the prerequisite to
a commitment to art, artists, and people. Once we work our way through doubt, or at least assuage
our skepticism, commitment and engagement may ensue. And so we might consider doubt not as
anathema to commitment, but rather as the necessary prerequisite for it.

* * *

The Fractious Hybrid State (Of Things)


I am in the process of completing an essay on the contradictions of the notion of multiculturalism as
it pertains to the domain of contemporary art and visual culture vis--vis this countrys rather
unstable socioeconomic fabric, when it is brought to my attention that civil violence has erupted into
the streets of the South Central Los Angeles community as a direct response to the not guilty verdict
reached in the trial of four white L.A. police officers accused of using excessive force in the
apprehension and arrest of black motorist Rodney King. I turn on the television, and a mlange of
images transmitted live via satellite flood into my domicile. The events unfold, the news coverage is
disorganized and reactive: a helicopter hovers above the streets of South Central, sending pictures of
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an urban topography steadily descending into social unrest and violence. It is immediately clear what
is happening: the predominantly black residents of that community have begun to register a general
protest against an acquittal which seems to re-confirm their worst fears that the countrys judicial
system is inherently unjust to African Americans, that it systematically favors whites. I am angered by
a verdict delivered by a mostly white jury in a police brutality trial held in Simi Valleya Los Angeles
suburb with a mere 2 percent black population. It is clear that the judicial system failed in this
instance.

The class and race conflicts which always seem to


simmer beneath the surface of this society reached a
boiling point.

The sense of social, economic, cultural, and political disenfranchisement that must be felt by black
citizens within a community racked by gang warfare, ubiquitous drug traffic, and black-on-black
crime, is difficult to imagine. Following the verdict in the Rodney King trial, that community let loose
from years of pent-u p frustration regarding the cycle of economic and social decay, disempowerment,
and social marginalization. The class and race conflicts which always seem to simmer beneath the
surface of this society reached a boiling point; for some, the rage was unmanageable, leading to a
micro-civil war: angry black youth beating white motorists who had strayed into South Central, angry
Korean businessmen organized into a paramilitary organization, firing at looters in defense of their
properties. Clearly, the beatings, arson, and lootings were perpetrated by a relatively small contingent
of irresponsible, desperate, or criminal elements; ironically, it is reported that the looters comprised a
multiracial coalition (predominantly black, but also Latino and Anglo).
But we are all implicated, regardless of our race, cultural identity, economic status, or social class; it is
a question of how we position ourselves in relation to the complexities and contradictions. Perhaps I
have fallen victim to the media spectacle of the situation; maybe Im caught up in a mass cultural
logic that transforms real social upheaval into a theatrical proliferation of televisual abstraction. Maybe
my white, liberal identityitself a hybrid site of ideological, emotional contestationhas been coaxed
towards an enhanced self-criticality. Cornel Wests 1990 essay, The New Cultural Politics of
Difference, has been useful:

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In the recent past, the dominant cultural identities have been circumscribed by immoral patriarchal,
imperial, jingoistic, and xenophobic constraints. The political consequences have been principally a
public sphere regulated by and for well-to-d o White males in the name of freedom and democracy.
The new cultural criticism exposes and explodes the exclusions, blindness, and silence of this past,
calling from it radical libertarians and democratic projects that will create a better present and future.
The new cultural politics of difference is neither an ahistorical Jacobin program that discards tradition
and ushers in new self-righteous authoritarianism nor a guilt-ridden leveling anti-imperialist liberalism
that celebrates token pluralism from smooth inclusion. Rather, it acknowledges the uphill struggle of
fundamentally transforming highly objectified, rationalized, and commodified societies and cultures in
the name of individuality and democracy. This means locating the structural causes of unnecessary
forms of social misery (without reducing all such human suffering to historical causes), depicting the
plight and predicaments of demoralized and depoliticized citizens caught in market-d riven cycles of
therapeutic releasedrugs, alcoholism, consumerismand projecting alternative visions analysis and
actions that proceed from particularities and arrive at moral and political connectedness. This
connectedness does not signify a homogenous unity or monolithic totality but rather a contingent,
fragile coalition-building in an effort to pursue common radical libertarian and democratic goals that
overlap.1

My desire is to reach out beyond the rhetorical enclave of


academic discourse, and the institutional and social
limitations attached to that language.

As an art critic operating within the territory of a privileged contemporary art culture, how can I hope
to articulate a meaningful and persuasive account of the contradictory nature of our hybrid culture?
Who constitutes the audience for this text? What are the conditions of its receptions? What type(s) of
communications does it establish within, and beyond, the parameters of the art world? How do we
identify those parameters? When I extract a quote from an African American cultural critic,
incorporating it within my discourse, what, if any, are the sociopolitical implications of this act? In the
spirit of cultural, racial, ideological, political, and intellectual coalition-building, I may be weaving an
elaborate intertextuality, but my desire is to reach out beyond the rhetorical enclave of academic
discourse, and the institutional and social limitations attached to that language. But reach out to
where, and to whom? The streets of South Central L.A., or New Yorks Harlem community? New lines
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of verbal and visual communication have to be opened through intercultural, interracial, inter-
ideological, inter-political and inter-economic coalitions and dialogue.
In his essay Secular Criticism, the Palestinian American literary and cultural critic Edward Said
called for the critic to overcome the pernicious specialization of the insular academic realm (as a
literal institutional space, as well as a codified system of theoretical language-formations), and work to
recognize the humanistic obligations of the intellectual to operate, in that potential space inside
civil society, acting on behalf of those alternative acts and alternative intentions whose advancement is
a fundamental human obligation.2 Following Said, I would like to suggest a transformation of the
Enlightenment model re-inscribed in his text (e.g., acting on behalf) into a differently articulated
conception, so that the so-called alternative can manufacture the self-empowerment to act on my
behalf, reversing Saids potentially problematic hierarchy of authority. Yet today, the penal system in
this country has become the school for a disproportionate percentage of young black men; the failure
of the public educational system for the so-called inner city, low-income youth of this country is
pandemic, and is connected to other systematic problems within this nations institutional, social, and
economic infrastructure. The fiction of equal opportunity is made graphically evident at the flash
point of reactive urban violence.
Take a good look at todays America: the contradictions and complexities of racial segregation persist,
and have become even more firmly entrenched within a seemingly vicious cycle of economic,
ideological, educational, and political relations which produce wide gulfs between cultural
empowerment and disempowerment, representation, and non-representation. A recent study
published in the New York Times once again indicates the almost absurd disparity of economic power
between the relatively small percentage of wealthy Americans (who continue to control,
proportionally, the majority of capital), and the low-income populations (whose opportunity to
improve their economic condition has begun to deteriorate); this is a disparity made even more
glaring as fortunes and opportunities also decline for the middle class.

It is abundantly clear that cultural capital remains in the


hands of a select, primarily white, network of experts,
specialists, connoisseur, galleries, curators, collectors,
artists, writers.

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And so what do people mean when they use words such as multiculturalism or cultural difference
in todays art world? It is abundantly clear that cultural capital remains in the hands of a select,
primarily white, network of experts, specialists, connoisseur, galleries, curators, collectors, artists,
writers, etc. The rise of the alternative space in the early 1970s attested to dissatisfactions with the
consolidation of the so-called mainstream venues for specific types of practices, and the development
and emergence of localized, community-based art centers within the city similarly demonstrated a
desire for new frameworks of self-representation and self-presentation. Yet such developments have
produced a rather paradoxical situation: the virtual segregation of practices by artists of color (where
African American, Asian American, Latino, etc. who live and work in different urban contexts or
communities other than those officially sanctioned by the legislators of the supposed mainstream)
from other cultural venues that might offer them a greater stake in the art marketplace. The whole
rather dead-end issue of mainstream versus alternative, center versus periphery, in terms of
contemporary visual arts culture suggests a logic of inclusion and exclusion that must be overcome on
conceptual and institutional levels, for it is clear that artists within certain ethnic communities beyond
the domain of SoHo would like to establish enhanced degrees of cultural-economic autonomy and
control that suggest a productive interface (in)between distinct urban sites of artistic production.
Yet, I am also somewhat uncomfortable with my own motivations as a white art critic attempting to
discuss issues of race relations, class, and cultural identity in relation to the contemporary art world,
particularly as I have sought to bring into this discussion the recent events in South Central L.A. as
they indicate the contradictory status of the notion of multiculturalism. My discomfort arises from an
understanding, however incomplete, of the contradictory and complex nature of my so-called white
identity, and the degree to which this hybrid, unstable identity itself evidences an ambivalent
relationship to constructing a discourse on other cultural, racial, and ethnic identities.
The dream: to develop a more authentic understanding of cultural identity as a means (to paraphrase
Cornell West) of establishing or locating affiliations between distinct conditions of race and gender.
Wests call for coalition-building in order to identify overlapping libertarian and democratic agendas
for whites, blacks, and others, as well as his demand that the new cultural critics explore different
territories and avoid disciplinary and institutional closure or insularity, seem to be essential
prerequisites for the struggle to resolve the glaring contradictions and enormous systemic problems
facing our hybrid, yet fractious society.
Notes:
1. Cornel West, The New Cultural Politics of Difference, in Out There: Marginalization and
Contemporary Cultures, ed. Russell Ferguson et. al. (Cambridge: The MIT Press and New York: The
New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1990). p. 35.

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2. Edward Said, Secular Criticism, in The World, the Text and the Critic ( Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1983). p. 30.
Revised version of essay originally published in catalog for The Hybrid State exhibition, Exit Art, New
York, November 2, 1991 through January 25, 1992.

* * *

Yael Bartana: an aesthetics of restorative justice deployed into the space of quotidian
injustice.
Disputatious claims of belonging and emplacement; boundaries and flows; communication and
misunderstanding; historical narratives in contradiction: These are the preoccupations of Yael
Bartanas post-d ocumentary, allegorical practice. Born in Israel in 1970, Bartana makes work that
delivers resonant poetic-political reflections on the cultural, political, geographic, psychological, and
religious irreconcilabilities of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. Indeed, both seem incapable, in their
mutually reinforcing fears and misunderstandings and their reciprocalindeed, at this point,
ritualisticgestures of discipline and punishment, of forging a workable two-state solution. Yet
Bartanas work cannot be considered activist in any normative sense. It is best understood within a
broader context of artists (e.g., Emily Jacir, the Atlas Group with Walid Raad) who hybridize
conceptual structures, documentary codes, and post-representational strategies, deconstructing
assumptions of truth and stable ideological systems while remaining within the proximity of
realpolitik. Artists such as Bartana, Jacir, and Raad inhabit post-colonial, post-d iasporic transnational
identities and interstitial real and imaginary geographic spaces. Their practices reactivate the viewers
relation tonot complicity withthe entanglements of these conflicted worlds and illuminate the
interdependencies of artistic and political labor for viewer and producer alike.

Velocities mutate and a subtle time lapse of sensuous


dissolves and fades makes it appear that the vehicles are
moving through one another, creating ghostly
afterimages and displacing real-time modalities.

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Bartanas P.S. 1 showher first institutional exhibition in the U.S.features several works produced
over the past eight years. The earliest is Trembling Time, 2001, a deceptively simple video that
embodies the contradictions of a society tangled up in secularity and urbanity on the one hand and
religiosity and a deep commitment to historical commemoration on the other. From atop the
Hashalom Bridge in Tel Aviv, Bartana shot that citys main highway during the event marking the
start of Israels Remembrance Day, which honors fallen soldiers: sirens wail across the country,
broadcast on all media outlets; a minute of silence is observed; and the nation briefly grinds to a halt.
Initially, it is a rather mundane scene. Cars and trucks pass below at normal speed, but then velocities
mutate and a subtle time lapse of sensuous dissolves and fades makes it appear that the vehicles are
moving through one another, creating ghostly afterimages and displacing real-time modalities. A siren
is heard; cars gradually come to a stop; the passengers step onto the asphalt, stand in the middle of
the highway, and then return to their vehicles. We are witness to a historically transcendent
memorialization that is at once tangible and phantasmica momentary break with a normative order
of things that has, itself, become normalized. Significantly, Bartanas simultaneously narrative and
non-narrative depiction of the episode is looped, alluding to the tautology that is intrinsic to all
rituals, including rituals of non-reconciliation. The work is testimony and counter-testimony, at once
documentation and a displacement or de-realization of the event into other (i.e., aesthetic) terms
what might be described as a process of social abstraction.
Questions of responsibility and territory or place come to the surface in Wild Seeds, 2005, a two-
screen installation that presents images of a cluster of Israeli teenagers playing a game devised by
Bartana that reenacts the struggle by Israeli police to evict settlers from illegal outposts. The young
actors take on the requisite roles: those playing the settlers seek to establish themselves as an
interlocked, horizontally positioned unit of resistance on the ground; those playing the police attempt
to pull them apart and eject them from their entrenched positions. Yelling and screaming ensue. On
the second screen, perpendicular to the first, the rhetorical battle is translated from Hebrew into
English: A Jew does not deport another Jew; Where is your conscience?; Motherfuckers, etc.
Smiles suggest it is all in good fun, yet there are also moments of uncomfortable laughter and
tension, as well as real physical struggle, mirroring the larger existential struggle. We understand that
Bartana has enacted a social-symbolic episode that allegorizes the extent to which Israeli society has
been torn apart by territorial claims, with the state becoming the hegemonic other, the institutional
bad cop, in the eyes of some extremist settlers. Its a powerful indictment of the schizophrenia of a
society that may or may not be able to heal its largely self-inflicted wounds.
Bartanas practice gains force by functioning as a response to localized realities while at the same time
generating social imaginaries that productively dislocate us into regions of broader political allegory.
Potentially, this allegory operates on transnational terms and, possibly, as a means of allowing us to
project ourselves to territory beyond normative media representations. In Summer Camp, 2007, we
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discover black-and-white images of people of apparently European descent riding camels through an
idyllic desert landscape, cacti and palm trees blowing in the wind. A phrase appears: To the pioneers
in Palestine. It turns out that were looking at a print of the 1935 Zionist film Awodah, directed by
Helmar Lerski, which, according to curator Sergio Edelsztein, was commissioned to promote the
immigration of European Jews to pre-state Israel, hailing agricultural development as a collectivizing
epic. Bartana recorded footage of the reconstruction of a house in the Palestinian village of Anata,
near Jerusalem, that had been demolished by the Israeli Army. The rebuilding project was organized
by the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) in opposition to the Israel Defense
Forces tactic of razing homes suspected of housing militants or their families. Bartana skillfully edited
her ICAHD documentation so as to echo the Zionist-socialist-realist style of the utopian narrative of
the historical film. With composer Guy Harries, she created a new score based on her previously
reedited version of Paul Dessaus original heroic-modernist music for Awodah, now incorporating
traditional Arab music to suggest the inevitability of cross-cultural hybridization between Israel and
Palestinean ironic consequence of their entwined fates. We cannot help experiencing or reading one
film (and one history) through the filter of the other.

One recognizes a wry reminder of just how selective a


nations memory can be, and how we forget that our
collective destiny is predicated on the fate of others.

We are, in other words, invited by Bartana to reflect on the profound contradictions of Israels
settlement policies in the occupied territories in relation to its own history. If the Jewish people
cannot be separated from the land of their biblical heritage, why should there be a different standard
for Palestinians, who make their own legitimate claim? This transgenerational dispute is now
ultimately a question of equal rights under the law, at least within the current terms of occupation. In
its Tel Aviv incarnation, Bartanas show, untitled at P.S. 1, was called Short Memory. One recognizes
a wry reminder of just how selective a nations memory can be, and how we forget that our collective
destiny is predicated on the fate of others. Bartanas work eloquently reminds us of the disturbing
psychosocial media feedback loop of tit-for-tat violencethe trauma of conflict endlessly reanimated
that taints Israelis and Palestinians alike. By extension, she implicates all viewers, us, within a
seemingly hopeless complexity that is calling out for imaginative actsdare we say cultural and
artistic operationsof global responsibility and engagement.
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Bartana may not be claiming that art can ameliorate calamity, but she does appear to have just
enough faith in the emancipatory potential of allegories of social justice, even as her work functions
as an allegorical rendering of social injustice. As an artist, she can only hope to reengineer these
social, political, cultural, and religious entanglements into another kind of representation, a conflictual
zone of deferred imaginary reconciliations. Within her cartography of trauma, the land is not
transfigured into an essentialized condition, but rather is conceived as a post-territorial space that
simultaneously precedes and exceeds, includes and excludes, religion, culture, politics, ideology, and
perhaps even representation itself. In other words, the land is a space of possibility wherein social
imaginaries may cross-pollinate with realpolitik. Might her practice be understood as an aesthetics of
restorative justice deployed into the space of quotidian injustice?
Revised version of text on Yael Bartanas survey show at MoMA PS1, New York, October 19, 2008
through May 4, 2009. Originally published in Artforum International, April 2009.
Find Guernicas interview with Joshua Decter here (http://www.guernicamag.com/art/more-problems/) .

Joshua Decter is a New York-based writer, curator, art historian, and theorist. In addition to Art is a
Problem, Decter is co-author of a forthcoming book in Afteralls Exhibition Histories series on the
1993 exhibition, Culture in Action. He has curated exhibitions at PS1, the Center for Curatorial
Studies at Bard College, Apex Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Kunsthalle
Vienna, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, and was a curatorial interlocutor for inSite_05. Decter
founded the MA Art and Curatorial Practices in the Public Sphere program at the University of
Southern California, and has taught at Bard Colleges Center for Curatorial Studies, the School of
Visual Arts, NYU, and other institutions.
All texts excerpted from Art is a Problem (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/3037641959/ref=as_li_tf_tl?
ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=3037641959&linkCode=as2&tag=gueamagofarta-20) by

Joshua Decter. Preface: 2013 Joshua Decter and JRP|Ringier Kunstverlag AG. The Fractious Hybrid
State (Of Things): 1992 Joshua Decter, Exit Art, and JRP|Ringier Kunstverlag AG. Yael Bartana: an
aesthetics of restorative justice deployed into the space of quotidian injustice: 2009 Joshua Decter,
Artforum International, and JRP|Ringier Kunstverlag AG. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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