Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Beginnings and Endings: Thank you for reading + Clash of '85

Dear Prairie Artsters readers,

It's taken me a while to figure out what to do with this site. I thought about carrying it forward to where ever I land, but there is something inherently specific to both the place and time that goes beyond a title change. At one point I had seriously thought about handing this off to someone, anyone, who would take this on, but alas, none of them have followed through. And in the end, Prairie Artsters was a personal project, and it will end as a personal project.

The past five years has been an experiment and a ritual to my practice of writing. I began Prairie Artsters in 2007 as a response to being repeatedly denied a local platform for the type of arts dialogue I wanted to read and write, namely, reviews and critical perspectives on contemporary art. PA subsequently leapfrogged over the local platform into a national and international dialogue, and I was eventually offered a biweekly column in Vue Weekly which I held for three and a half years. The scope of PA expanded beyond Edmonton almost within its first year and the content also expanded from reviews into observations, studio visits, and audio recordings. My approach to writing would change over this period from art reviews, a style that began from my socio-historical readings of literature and film studies into a style more adaptive for magazines and art world art speak while trying to remain thoughtful and engaging. By 2011, four years after I began PA and nine years since I first started professionally publishing, I was growing weary of keeping pace with the same routine, the same hustle, of seeing the same type of work and writing the same kind of words. I left around this time last year for a six month stint in the UK where I learned to write again by having to reposition the value of writing. I have since relocated to Vancouver where I have started a new platform, Post Pacific Post, which I would hardly call an arts writing blog, though many of the posts are art-related. Prairie Artsters will remain an archive of a certain type of writing about a certain period in time, and I thank you to all who have supported this project.

In no particular order, I want to thank all the contributors who have written for Prairie Artsters over the years, the websites and webmasters who found the page interesting enough to link from all corners of the world, the jury members who supported PA's growth and existence through The Edmonton Arts Council and The Alberta Foundation of the Arts, David Berry who invited me back to write for Vue Weekly, every reader and subscriber who found the time to say or write a message telling me they had engaged, and to my closest collaborators who fueled everything.

This last post has also been prompted by reading "Clash of '85," Lucy R. Lippard's last column for Village Voice. While I only match half her number of years as an an arts writer at this point and was never fired, many of her sentiments resonate. In trying to find an online version of the article, I found none, so here reprinted with no permission is the full text, originally from Village Voice, June 11, 1985, and reprinted in The Pink Glass Swan, The New Press, New York, 1995.

- af

Clash of '85
Lucy R. Lippard

Pass or fail? Honors or ignominy? This month I'm giving a couple of college commencement addresses, and I'm graduating at the same time. I've been fired by the Village Voice for "bad writing . . . narrow subject matter . . . fuzzy politics . . . lack of aesthetic judgement and princple . . . boring content . . predictability" (direct quotes from my dispatcher [Kit Rachlis] who is not a Murdoch henchman).

I was constantly assured, however, that my politics was not the problem, or rather that the problem lay with the form rather than the content of my politics. After thirteen books and a few hundred articles, I don't worry a whole lot about my writing ability. I believed the political line because during the four and a half years at the Voice in which my failings escaped the editor, no one ever interfered with what I wanted to say or how I wanted to say it. But my friends tell me I'm not suspicious enough. Being fired is, after all, interference on a pretty grand scale. And it's not, alas, as though the woods were full of people writing regularly on the social and political art being made outside (and sometimes, inside) the institutional art contexts.

I want to spend this last column not complaining (though I do hope it's clear I'm mad as hell) but examining what I've been trying to do since January 1981. I was hired with the understanding that I would not be a general art reviewer but would cover feminist, activist, and community arts. I've liked having a monthly networking vehicle in which to criticize, analyze, and catalyze a developing national movement of Left culture. Introducing a great variety of models for social art practice is part of a collage strategy that includes political organizing with four different cultural groups, freelance curating, and writing in books, art magazines, and catalogs; and coediting three small periodicals.

This communal base has nourished me personally and stimulated and informed my writing, which owes a great deal to collaboration, discussion, and dispute with my fellow cultural workers. I started writing "journalism" in Seven Days in 1976 and it has helped punch holes in my art-centered specialization as I try to be accessible to a much larger audience. I like the monthly column format because I don't have to start from scratch explaining where I stand with each article; it gives me a place to develop a sort of trialogue between writer, artist, and people working progressively in all fields -- who may or may not realize how important culture could be to their own effects.

When I graduated from college in 1958, then-senator John F. Kennedy was the speaker. He said politics wasn't a dirty word, and it was too important to leave to politicians. (After the Bay of Pigs, one had to agree with him.) The same might be said of art. It's recently occurred to me -- long after it occurred to plenty of other people -- that after all these years of trying to make (some would say force) connections between visual art and daily life, I was missing the link of culture itself -- the ground in which both art and politics must grow. Culture in the full sense, not just the other arts, but the whole fabric, including how we eat and dress and work and make love as well as make art -- a general culture in which we are all collaborators, which does not exclude so much as embrace the so-called avant-garde along with many other manifestations.

This view of culture, which has actually been expanding over the past six years or so, and has even had ramifications within the art "scene" itself, takes risks with the notion of artistic purity guarded by the academies. Artists are learning not only from other disciplines, but from the needs and experiences of their audiences. And subject matters. Maybe I'm jaded after twenty years of writing about art, but increasingly I need to know what the work I see is about, or what the artist thinks s/he is making art about. This doesn't disallow abstraction or any other generic art form except that which refuses to acknowledge its role as communicating on any level.

Of course nothing's settled and we're still looking for a patch of relatively steady ground on which to build a form and language as brilliantly unbalanced as our times. Progressive art will go on dancing on the edge between action and reaction, opposition and affirmation; it will move out, then withdraw for reflection; it will mediate with aesthetic integrity between the old imposed criteria and new assumptions about what constitutes "quality." It has to be visible in the face of whiteout and co-optation and subtly subversive at the same time. As we reevaluate the relationship between the concerned and talented individual and the broader viewer of culture, we've got to learn to write about it differently, to embody the critical function of art itself, which is what I'm trying to do.

I'd be the first to concede that I haven't been a proper art critic for some time now. I've never liked the antagonistic implications of the title anyway. A painter friend asked me recently if the role art plays as an agent of consciousness and change is more important to me than the other roles it plays, and I had to answer yes. I respect those "other roles" but I have become less interested in writing about the object or exhibition per se and more interested in the contradictory, mysterious ways in which artists and objects or actions enter society, in what images mean and do to people, and how contact or lack of contact with people in turn affects what artists do. So when I write about a single artist, I try to weave her or his work into the general cultural/political fabric in order to avoid further isolation. For similar reasons, I mix up high, low, and popular cultures; and when I put together a show or a series of articles, I try to incorporate as a matter of course a diversity of race, gender, age, and geography as well as style and form.

The recent history of Third World and indigenous cultures, especially in Central and Latin America, became important to me at a point when it seemed that European/North American vanguard art had come up against a wall that "postmodernism" has failed to crack. I've learned a lot from the concept of cultural democracy, in which the clamor of multicultural voices is not drowned out by a homogenized art-market version of Radio Martí. And I have been extraordinarily moved and shaken by the book I, Rigoberta Menchú, the story of a Guatemalan Indian woman who gained the strength to rise from the most abject poverty and powerlessness and become a political leader because of the richness and power of her thousand-year-old Mayan culture (This book is edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray and distributed by Schocken.)

It seems crucial to open the windows of our own insulated and arrogant culture to these very different voices. And if the Voice is still a radical paper, isn't it the place where such viewers should be heard? (Or is it falling into the pattern set by The Nation, where the cultural section is far more conservative than the political coverage?) The fact that I have a political position should not be a disadvantage, although it is certainly not a prerequisite to being an art critic these days. Of all the epithets tossed at me, "predictable" is the most thought-provoking. Does it mean consistent? While I've always emphasized the role of change in my work, I hope I've also let you know what to expect -- where I stand, and what I fall for. If it's "predictable" to cover art by East Village cartoonists, Australian aboriginals, feminist pornographers, Russian émigrés, rural graffitists, postmodernist photographers, needleworkers, Canadian propaganda analysts, demonstration artists, Nicaraguan and Irish muralists, photojournalists and SoHo abstractionists; if it's "predictable" to discuss art in regard to genocide, sexism, ethnocentrism, and imperialism . . . then damn right I'm predictable. Would I be less so if I astounded you monthly with one entertaining fragment of art after another, ignoring the connections to anything but other fragments of art, bestowing on lucky artists my good housebroken seal of approval?

But predictable could mean "too consistent" or it could mean "too clear." Its use in this context suggests the liberal assumption that significant questions and analyses can only be made from a so-called "neutral" and "objective" middle ground, that anything to the left of that particular position is unsophisticated (read uneducated, with class implications) or "rhetorical" (read a little too clear, and potentially dangerous). If that's the case, should I get paranoid and see my dismissal as a form of censorship of the cultural movement with which I'm happily identified?

It's not so bad getting all fired up. Unlike many in the class of '85, I have somewhere to go. I'll be writing monthly for In These Times, the socialist weekly published in Chicago, where I will predictably keep on doing more or less what I did here. Graduation, after all, is a hopeful occasion, a beginning rather than an end. Maybe that's why I can't think of a way to end this piece. I'll give the last word to Eduardo Galeano, an often-exiled Uruguayan writer who can blame some of his own troubles on the fact that he knows that culture includes "all the collective symbols of identity and memory: the testimonies of what we are, the prophesies of the imagination, the denunciation of what prevents us from being . . . Culture is communication, or it is nothing. In order for it not be mute, a new culture has to begin by not being deaf."