April 27, 2012

The merging of agent and idea


My wife says that the only thing that could have made this image more bitingly accurate is if they pushed the spotlight in the second panel to highlight the little artist's face.

It's experiential, we're told. The artist is exploring (remember what I said yesterday about exploration) concepts of race/ethnicity/gender/body image/disability/religion through his or her own standing as one who experiences life through the lenses of said worldview, or at least, has taken on the mantle of affectation for the purposes of producing art that transcends merit and acts as a sort of mass therapy, a quest for validation of a chameleon "I" that seeks little else. In other words, it can be Facebook on canvas.

This sort of internal exploration is purported to be able to generate observations that can be more generally applied to the group of people experiencing a certain attribute, or even further, to society itself. This ambition usually stalls once we're actually looking at them.

In the fall, the National Portrait Gallery exhibited a hodgepodge of mostly terrible art from contemporary Asian American artists (there were some stunning images of hair by Zhang Chun Hong), the sort of identity delimiting, unnecessary, patronizing, "hey we're people too" redundant rhetoric that NPR slings on a weekly basis in defense of nothing. But I digress.

You can boil the rest down to pop-art slop collages and professionalized Instagram self-portraits. Look at me eating fruit. Look at me in my New York apartment. Look at me in this dress, that dress, in crazy makeup. Look at me naked. If the point is to cast (explore?) our banal modern impulse to capture our likeness in solitude for electronic posterity in a different light, that's one thing, but there was no indication of intent beyond an equally base representation of self.

This isn't a nostalgic plea for change. Artists, musicians and writers have always been driven by ego. It takes ego to have the guts to express yourself in such intimate ways, to insinuate the darkest parts, to lay bare threads that can be pulled together to weave a tapestry, a version of the person behind the work. Artists have always represented themselves in portraits. Writers always include themselves in their work.

I think the new self-portrait, the XML tagged, Facebook-inspired self, is only cathartic, however. It's a different artist that delves into a subject (object?) and digs out the guts of it, trying to hone that feeling inside them into an enlightened thesis. Call attention to a thing outside of oneself; look at this amazing thing; look how we interact with it; look how it touches us. It makes me, the artist, feel this way. Does it make you feel the same? Are you absorbed in its being as much as I am? In different ways? Can you see what I see?

It's important to remember too, that like everything else in this town, the NPG's stimulus for curating this particular show, as with others of its kind, was purely political. The curator wants to make a statement as much as the individual artists do. When we cross into identity politics (willingly or unwillingly), we step into that awful territory of art-as-activism, which, like religious art (and often guided by the same impulse), is not art at all. I've always liked what Philip Roth has said about engaging an audience:
You asked if I thought my fiction had changed anything in the culture and the answer is no. Sure, there's been some scandal, but people are scandalized all the time; it's a way of life for them. It doesn't mean a thing. If you ask if I want my fiction to change anything in the culture, the answer is still no. What I want is to possess my readers while they are reading my book--if I can, to possess them in ways that other writers don't. Then let them return, just as they were, to a world where everybody else is working to change, persuade, tempt, and control them. The best readers come to fiction to be free of all that noise, to have set loose in them the consciousness that's otherwise conditioned and hemmed in by all that isn't fiction. This is something that every child, smitten by books, understands immediately, though it's not at all a childish idea about the importance of reading.
Control. It's key here. Perhaps I'll write about that sometime.

Art's always been about me. But the "me" of old was an agent of an idea; some loved the attention they received for representing their ideas skillfully, some shunned it. In recent years, agent and idea have merged. Affectation has become a stand-in for self.

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