Courage and the Artworld

Protesters in Philadelphia, 2020. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

We might fondly cling to the notion of artists as risk-takers; the reality, for observers, is that artists are held back or holding back

One side-effect of having an antiauthoritarian personality is that if you announce you’re going to do something, or that you’re not going to, then you become an authority figure to yourself and, quite possibly, end up defying your own edict. So, a few weeks ago in one of these columns I noted that Berlin’s galleries had started to open up again but that I wasn’t going to go, and shortly afterwards I went to see a show.

I enjoyed it – no names, this isn’t a review – but it was the rare case where looking at art felt like escapism. Outside, in Kreuzberg, was our increasingly normalised metropolitan hellscape, with masked pedestrians leaping out of the way of unmasked ones hypnotised by their phones and the atmosphere electric with plausible paranoia. Inside, amid air-conditioned whiteness, was an exhibition that had opened before the lockdown, closed for several months, and then reopened. I went round it a couple of times, slowing myself, dealing with a swirl of dissonant feelings. It wasn’t quite normal in there: one of my surgical mask straps had snapped on the subway, so it was dangling distractingly around my ear; all that the gallery staff were talking about was how many visitors were covering up and how many weren’t. But the show, revolving around what would have been some fairly standard aesthetic concerns circa six months ago, wasn’t entirely of our altered world either. Art, formerly something you’d turn to in order to have your perceptions upended, had suddenly become a melancholy consolation, a dream, like listening to a favourite record of your vanished youth.

I left wondering, and not for the first time, what kind of cultural production would come after this, what mode it was likely to take. And I thought first, perhaps inevitably, of the 1980s and early 90s and the art responding to the AIDS epidemic. There was, back then, a spectrum of complementary responses from activism to mourning, from General Idea and Keith Haring to the fierce pussy collective to David Wojnarowicz to Ross Bleckner. And while some of the markers of this crisis are, of course, different, others are similar: gross and callous governmental failure in the case of neoliberal regimes, an almost numbing sense of loss. And, in our moment, a larger illumining, exceeding the pandemic, of how little our political masters value individual human life. Predicting the art that might respond to this is a hiding to nothing, especially in a news cycle moving as fast as this one, and the artists of three decades ago didn’t have to deal with galleries being shut down (although in some cases they preferred billboards anyway); but anger and bone-deep sadness seem likely to be on the cultural agenda. Artists mostly don’t want to be journalists, nevertheless, and what one might also anticipate is a feeling-tone of trauma expressed in art that, in iconographic terms, doesn’t speak directly to what’s been happening, but is perhaps more akin to the grim tickle of a phantom limb. That said, art has been reflecting the grimmer aspects of modern life for a long time now. I wonder if there’s also room for it to encompass something else.

My habitual experience when I see art that touches me deeply is a sense of improbable expansion, of being in the presence of something larger than myself, hard to grasp (attempting to do so is part of why I write), filling me and exceeding me. In recent weeks, when I’ve touched that feeling it has often come from places outside of art, and at one point recently it came from reading. A little preamble: a few years ago, I read a Paris Review interview with the American novelist James Salter, liked it, but wasn’t particularly amenable to the writer’s personality, which seemed foursquare and shaped by his pre-writing life as a graduate of the West Point officer school and then a fighter pilot. Things have to find their moment, though, and lately a writer for this magazine mentioned that he was reading Salter; I tried again with his 1997 memoir, Burning the Days, and, caught by his prose’s mix of muscularity and emotion, I went back to his interviews. His outlook, he said repeatedly, was perhaps old-fashioned. It was founded, and had perhaps been grooved into him by his education, on a sense of fortitude. Speaking of a writer he admired, Irwin Shaw, Salter said that ‘he seemed to know how to behave. He was courageous.’ It was the latter word that struck me, and the notion that courage might be something akin to a life code.

There is, indeed, no shortage of courage in the wider world right now. I write this shortly after seeing, amid countless other examples of resilience in the face of state-sanctioned violence, footage of a white girl leaping ahead of a young black man at a protest near the White House against the police murder of George Floyd, and shielding him repeatedly from police in riot gear. That’s fearlessness on a life-or-death scale. One might ask what the artworld as it’s currently constituted – impossibly enmeshed in contradiction and capitulation, propped up by dirty money, facilitating alternative capital flows and structurally conservative, its output shaped by the whims of collectors – has to do with courage. One might indeed ask that question fairly, since audacity can seem in short supply as either a subject or driver of artistry. On the contrary, contemporary art – even where it points towards serious subject matter – has in many ways become steadily more risk-averse, such that a gulf has opened up between pretensions to forward-thinking practice and the way that both artists and institutions behave.

To recap, wearily: most of the shows you’ll see these days offer genteel variations on preconceived conceptual narratives, as if artists were trapped in an invisible prison of circumscribed aesthetics, a constricting corridor of subject matter choices. The gender and racial balance of exhibited artists remains, obviously, woeful. Critics, multitasking and feeling compromised or with one eye on the catalogue-essay economy or a job in an institution, often fail to criticise or do so very selectively. Biennials have trafficked in the baggiest of concepts in order to fit in the curator’s favourites. Museums and galleries, particularly of late, shout out Black Lives Matter on social media but don’t reflect such allegiances in terms of who they hire or exhibit. The seemingly monolithic nature of the system aside, all of this on some level is a result of failures of nerve on the part of individuals who could contribute to things happening differently, but are surrounded by others who don’t dare.  

Ironically, the platform that art has – at least for some – has never been larger, at least for now. Whether it stays the same size or shrinks, the contemporary art infrastructure has spent a decade or so sedulously expanding its audience, all while ­­– it seems – mostly supporting art that has ever less to say. We might fondly cling to the notion of artists as risk-takers and questers, and everything else as a support system for that; the reality, for observers, is that artists are held back or holding back and culpability lies, in one way or another, with most of us on all echelons of the system. This is not to speak of storm-the-barricades courage, or to suggest that anyone has only one part to play, but courage is scalable. Let’s, for the moment, assume that aforementioned enlarged audience is still there, and that art might constitute a staging ground for what could be classed as courageous acts, whether political or ‘merely’ aesthetic (I’m not sure those two are entirely divisible). What would that art look like, and with whom would the injunction to live bravely stop? Clearly not with the artists.

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