Sunday, January 25, 2009

Forget the Art World: Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and the Future of the Avant-Garde

So there I was, lounging around on the couch, swilling coffee, munching a scone and beginning to suspect that this Sunday's New York Times was one of the dullest in recent memory, when the lovely and talented Valerie Archambeau drew my attention to a piece by Randy Kennedy on street art, the occasion of which was the installation of Shepherd Fairey's famous Obama portrait in the National Portrait Gallery. The article began with an anecdote about the artist Banksy, which woke me up more than the three cups of Intelligentsia Finca Santuario had been able to:

In 2005, the British artist Banksy — then on the verge of becoming probably the world’s most famous street artist — walked into the Museum of Modern Art and three other New York museums done up in a beige raincoat and fake beard, looking more like a subway flasher than a “quality vandal,” as he called himself. Once inside he furtively mounted his own work among the masterpieces, relying on speed and two-sided tape rather than curatorial consent as his way into the collections, at least until guards noticed. “These galleries are just trophy cabinets for a handful of millionaires,” he wrote later in an e-mail message to a reporter, explaining his dim view of museums and his desire to see his work inside one purely to poke fun at the whole idea. “The public never has any real say in what art they see.”

This is great stuff! For one thing, it offers a fantastic example of an actual avant-garde action, something much rarer than you'd think, given how often the term 'avant-garde' gets thrown around. Often, it seems to be some sort of synonym for formal oddness, but in its more restricted sense the term refers to art that takes the institutions of art (museums, galleries, art history, the high-gloss prestige factory that goes by the name "the art world," etc.) as its medium, and takes a critical stance toward the norms of those institutions. As Jochen Schulte-Sasse put it, "the historical avant-garde of the twenties was the first movement in art history that turned against the institution 'art,'" and in 2005 Banksy was clearly working in this mode. I mean, his real medium wasn't the visual art he was posting on the wall — it was the act of posting something in that particular space. Compare Banksy to someone like, say, Damien Hirst, and you can really sense the difference: Hirst is sometimes called avant-garde, but he's entirely a creature of the "art world," making stuff that is discussed and sold in terms dictated by that world — but the Bansky of 2005 was standing outside that scene, and meddling with it.

I've met plenty of people (they shall remain namless) who like the kind of thing Bansky did in '05 so much that they've talked of it in heroic terms, as if taking, say, art history as one's medium made one's work superior to work in other media like, say, paint or clay or stone. I've always thought there was an irony to this: the guys I'm thinking of are way too postmodern to dream of forming a hierarchy of art based on genre (you know: tragedy is better than comedy, or classical music is better than rock music, or whatever). But they seemed to set up an even more restrictive hierarchy by claiming that the medium of an artwork made it inferior or superior to other works. In a way, their position is just a twist on Kant's idea of barbaric taste in which a work is valued not for its form, but for the kind of stuff it's made of. If you call a piece of jewelry beautful because it is made of diamonds and platinum, or you admire a car interior because it is done up in leather, you're engaging in the kind of taste Kant called barbaric. I don't see how this is much different if the medium in question is conceptual. But I digress: Banksy's artwork (or art action) is good stuff, I think, regardless of the medium.

Anyway. Randy Kennedy's article got me thinking about two historical developments pertaining to the avant-garde, the first of which I suppose is an irony, and the second of which is best described as an incipient historical tipping point.

Here's the irony: while the avant-garde set out to attack the institutions of art, it has in large measure been absorbed by those institutions. Although Banksy has been pretty successful at keeping his work from being turned into museum and gallery fodder, such has not been the case for many avant-garde types. I don't think I've got much more to say about this than what I said in an article in Action Yes last year:

It is certainly true that institutions such as museums, galleries, literary anthologies, academic departments of art and literature, and the like are still with us, having withstood the assaults of the avant-garde. And it is equally true that these institutions have absorbed the very avant-gardes that challenged them, to the point where Peter B├╝rger can complain that “the demand that art be reintegrated in the praxis of life within the existing society can no longer be seriously made” (35).

There is a great irony in reading a statement like this, from the National Gallery of Art’s archive commemorating their 2006 Dada exhibition: "448 works in a wide range of media, including collages, assemblages, photographs, prints, drawings, paintings, posters, films, and audio recordings were presented in this multimedia installation that traced the history of the Dada movement.... Audio recordings of sound poems by Hugo Ball, Kurt Schwitters, and Raoul Hausmann were played in listening chambers, and selected short Dadaist films were shown in a continuous loop in a special viewing area within the installation. An audio tour was narrated by National Gallery of Art director Earl A. Powell III and others." The idea of a special viewing area is anathema to the movement that despised the institutional separation of art from the bustle of life, and unless Earl A. Powell III was present during his narration, and visitors were equipped with wet sponges to hurl at him, the spirit of the movement that invited viewers to take axes to artworks was deeply violated. Even such resolutely anti-institutional neo-avant-garde practices as Allan Kaprow’s Happenings (and his later Activities) have fallen prey to the institutions of art they were designed to challenge and circumvent. These participatory and deliberately spontaneous and ephemeral entities have been filmed, documented, and embalmed by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, whose Kaprow exhibit is called (apparently without irony) “Art as Life.”

I'm actually ambivalent about this institutionalizing of the anti-institutional. In a way, it's a neutering of the work. But it's also how I find out about it. I suppose it's like pinning a butterfly to a mounting-board and putting it under glass: you kill the thing in order to show it to people. (I'm not totally against this: I've got a bad-ass Malaysian Cicada mounted in a frame on the mantlepiece, and love looking at the thing. It must weigh a half pound).

So much for the irony, and my, or our, complicity in it all. What about the thing I'm somewhat clumsily calling an 'incipient historical tipping point'? Let me back into the point I want to make by taking a look at Bansky's comment about galleries. “These galleries are just trophy cabinets for a handful of millionaires,” said Bansky, “the public never has any real say in what art they see.” I want to say he's right in that first bit, in that galleries and museums are trophy cases for millionaires. Trust me on this: I'm an art-school brat, and I've been around this stuff long enough to know that the kind of cultural-capital accumulation games, the exclusions and class-establishing ploys Pierre Bourdieu described in Distinction are very real. But I've got a couple of reservations that keep me from flat-out endorsing Banksy's statement. Firstly, while galleries and museums are trophy cases for millionaires, they aren't only that. They have a host of functions: like libraries, they sometimes serve as impromptu daytime homeless shelters; they also serve as safe upper-middle-class date venues; they also provide what they claim to provide — access to many wonderful works of art that can mean a lot to a viewer. These aren't mutually exclusive functions.

As for the second bit of what Banksy says, I actually disagree: the public has a great deal of choice about what it sees. In fact, it usually chooses not to see what's in a museum. Many people rightly catch on to the millionaire trophy case function of galleries, and feel unwelcome there. So they choose not to go. Bourdieu has some good stuff about this in Distinction, in the sections on the "entitlement effect." But I'm already digressing and meandering, so I'll leave off with it and not quote Bourdieu right now. Anyway, the popular rejection of galleries connects up to a statement by another artist discussed in Kennedy's article, Shepard Fairey, and this brings me at last to the idea of an incipient historical tipping point for the avant-garde.

But the Shepard Fairey moment [the installation of his portrait of Obama in the National Portrait Gallery] may be less significant for what it says about how museums view street artists than for how those artists have come to view museums — how for many younger artists, street and otherwise, museum enshrinement no longer represents the kind of end zone it did for many who came before, even those like Keith Haring who began with street art and deep misgivings about the establishment. In interviews, Mr. Fairey, 38, has stressed how honored he is to be in the National Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution and about as American as a museum can be. He has also stressed that he doesn’t see it as a place in a hierarchy but instead on a kind of continuum, right alongside the work he creates with the police on his trail or album covers for bands or work commissioned by huge companies like Dewar’s or Saks Fifth Avenue...

What's interesting about this passage is the way it shows us that the de-hierarchizing tendencies of our time are really starting to amount to something. I mean, it has always been the case that the official art-world was only one of many fields for aesthetic activity. But the art-world hasn't always seen itself that way, and it has often been able to project the illusion that it was the scene that mattered. But centralization and hierarchization continue to wane (probably for technological and socio-economic reasons too big for us to fully grasp, let alone change, even if we wanted to, which I don't). And this has implications for the avant-garde. I mean, as late as 2005 Banksy could still talk about galleries and museums as if they were the dominant force that we needed to rebel against, and he could work against them using the fine old tactics of the avant-garde. But (to lapse into unforgivable academese) avant-gardism of this kind is intended as the negation of a dominant set of institutions. And we're reaching a point where this kind of action makes less sense than it once did. What do you do when those institutions have been swamped amid all the other venues for aesthetic production and display? Attacking a giant Godzilla is one thing, but what to do when the miraculous shrink-ray of postmodernity reduces that Godzilla to just one more regulation-sized iguana among many others? You've got to change your game. The way Shepard Fairey has done.

All of this resonates with a conversation I had with my colleague Dave Park the other day. He'd stopped by to pick me up on the way to a brunch party and we sat around getting tanked up on coffee and talking Foucault and Bourdieu (Dave's a social scientist, and knows his way around this stuff by different paths than I do). We got on to the notion of utopias and their negation in anti-utopias, and Dave proposed the idea of heterotopia: that is, of the rejection of the notion of an ideal-world, and of the negation of that ideal-world by its critics (who hold up implicit or explicit counter-utopias). The true happy state is a plural one, a heterotopia of many possibilities. The best case for art now seems to be heterotopic, rather than the false utopia of the official art world, or the negation of that utopia by the old-school avant-garde.