Thursday, October 06, 2005

Art Without Elites

I came across this recent article by James Pinkerton at TechCentralStation that describes the forces that influence the direction of public art and the changes brought about by the new media. Pinkerton explains the demise of the International Freedom Center planned to be built on Ground Zero as the result of objections raised by opinion makers on the internet, radio, and cable news outlets. Apparently the anti-American disposition of content intended for the Freedom Center was part of on ongoing pattern of taxpayer-funded art projects administered by a kind of artsy elite, or as he calls it, the “Arts Intellectual Complex” (“AIC”):

Working together, the elites of the media and the culture have mostly controlled "Big Art" -- the complex of museums, monuments, and galleries that help to shape the way we think about society, history, even politics.

Pinkerton then relates the awarding of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1981 with the AIC, illustrating how they were able to win the public relations battle to advance a design that expressed sorrow and defeatism. The AIC was clever to cloak their anti-war positions with aesthetic gobbledy-gook as well as mischaracterizing their opponents as cultural philistines. Twenty-five years later, with the rise of a hydra-headed mass media, the veil of aesthetic gobbledy-gook would finally be removed to reveal the naked anti-American opinions of most members of the AIC, and the International Freedom Center was removed from ground zero by New York’s governor following a condemnation by New York Senator Hillary Clinton.

Though Pinkerton makes a convincing argument that the impregnable power of the AIC has been seriously undermined, his final paragraphs pose good questions regarding stewardship of culture:

So the media have been democratized, and the cultural elite has been eclipsed. From a right-leaning point of view, is there anything not to like about this turn of events?

Only this: Having taken power from the left, having dethroned Dan Rather and his ilk, the libertarian-right must now prove that it can use power effectively -- in politics and also in culture.

As George W. Bush is discovering, it's not so easy to run the show, to find that the buck -- and the bills, and all the blame -- is stopping at his desk. And the same holds true for Ground Zero. Pataki & Co. have put a stop to the all-too-familiar tax-funded values-bashing of the past few decades. But now it's the conservatives' turn to see what they can do, as an alternative.

If the leftist worldview has now become unacceptable in validating public art, what worldview shall replace it? Should there be a conservative art elite, much less no elite at all, as it is contrary to conservative disdain for elitism? If an elite does not steer the aesthetic currents in a culture, would the alternative of unguided artist lead to a greater output of beauty?

These are questions I’ve always been confronted with since I became involved in the field of architecture. In school I was involved enough with art majors to observe up close what they were making, and also the classes in theory and history that were informing their work. It was very clear that that the professors imparted a narrative that was part of the current intellectual orthodoxy of the time. Names of particular scholars were dropped, movements were explained by what seemed a logical string of events, and contemporary art and design was presented as the most obvious and therefore evolved stage of development. For young impressionable college students, this made the world of art more accessible, and it reinforced in us a romantic notion how we would continue the noble work of our predecessors, the elites.

It would take many years and greater technical confidence in our artistic vocation to question the intellectual orthodoxy. However, by that point we realized there was no alternative narrative to reference to, no alternative group of elites that mobilized powerful resources to promote aesthetic ideas I agreed with. We were left to construct our own framework of ideas, our own understanding of historical movements and influences, and our own pantheon of great intellectual luminaries in aesthetics and design. The cooptation by cultural elites of government institutions to promote their agendas is alien to individualistic and independent artists and designers. Especially when looking back at the correlation between the political developments of the twentieth century and the open political engagements of many artists, one wonders what the world would be like when that correlation disappears at the start of the twenty-first century.

One thing that seems clear to me at the beginning of this century is the abandonment of collectivism. Though totalitarian movements persist in the world in the form of islamic fundamentalists, ecological extremists and nationalist minority militias, their stature is far too fragmented to effect any substantial influence to the majority of people in the world. Most people have embraced to some degree technologies that enhance individualism, from the internet to cell phones, to the ability to temporarily set up businesses from anywhere at anytime. The traditional structure of communities, which was essentially a network of people confined within a geographic area (neighborhood, town, city, etc.), is quickly being substituted by virtual communities, where your best friends are likely to live thousands of miles away and you rarely see your next-door neighbor. New groups of like minded people do form, but each member is limited in how much they associate their individual identity with the group. In many ways, there is tremendous freedom in virtual communities, because as soon as you decide that you have had enough of a group, you can simply not reply to emails or deny access. For almost all of human history, individuals submitted to the group, and leaving the group was impossible. It was just as impossible to join a new community since many were bound by tribal and blood ties.

Socially, the information revolution has ushered a 'brave new world.' But will this be the case artistically? Pinkerton identifies the 'Arts Industrial Complex' as a kind of community that has taken upon itself to act as the vanguard for artistic development nationally (and internationally at times.) Tribal ties are alive and well in the AIC, beginning with their alumni identities, which art school they attended under which professor. Many in the AIC feel closer to those who share their philosophical tastes and an understanding of post-structuralist theory than their downtrodden neighbors in the streets of Manhattan or Boston. Traditional communities fostered professional apprenticeship, and the AIC was careful to champion the work of particular artists and designers through the awarding prizes. Geography often was key in sustaining the AIC, who favored the consolidation of 'hip' areas to a handful of major cities like San Francisco, Boston, and most notably, New York. Traditional communities by their very nature are weary of outsiders, and to express pride of your midwestern or southeastern cultural roots would only bring disdain.

But just as the academy in our universities have been steadily losing their prestige and relevance in the last few decades, the AIC was likewise succumbing to a similar fate. Each controversial and deeply unpopular selection of artistic prize-winners further alienated the elite from mainstream culture. The International Freedom Center fiasco was a continuation of this pattern, but this time the very integrity of the AIC as a meaningful community was threatened by the faceless forces of the internet and outside individuals. Will the latter bring in a new artistic order with new elites, or will it change the purpose of art itself? Will art become a vehicle for the dissemination of ideas of elites or will it simply try to ambiguously evoke beauty? Maybe these questions aren't so new as I'd like to believe.