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The Art-Shaped Hole

Post #1919 • June 29, 2022, 5:08 PM

Dear AICA-USA and associated leadership:

Your solicitation of proposals for short presentations by members to the annual members meeting was commendable.

As part of our strategic plan, we would like to find more and better ways to serve our colleagues and represent our field. This year’s program will consist of five short presentations by AICA-USA members. We invite you to submit a proposal to share your observations on issues of concern for art criticism and/or curatorial practice. Presentations are limited to five minutes or under.

Alas, it arrived while we were at PorcFest, the great libertarian celebration in the foothills of the White Mountains. I consulted with my wife as to whether I should type something up with my index finger on my phone and submit it. Her reply was, in full, "Fuck 'em." She is attuned to the condition of my soul. I entered the culture wars in earnest in 2015 during the Appropriation Offensive. I fought valiantly until I was wounded in the Guston Putsch. Having earned a Purple Heart, I fled Boston for agricultural New Hampshire, where I salve my PTSD by puttering around on a Cub Cadet. The wars were metaphorical but the trauma is actual.

On thinking about it further, I concluded that I didn't have anything helpful to offer anyway. As I've already expressed to you privately, I'm not sure whether this organization is still viable. I'm not sure whether the profession that the organization purports to serve is still viable. I'm not sure whether the literary genre around which the profession was organized is still viable. Finally I'm not sure whether the art form that prompted the literary genre is in a state that justifies the genre's continuation. I may be congenitally contrarian, but I am not the kind of miserable twerp that would waste a five-minute slot of an organizational meeting to say that the organization should probably disband.

That said, the organization should probably disband. I struggle to imagine a route by which visual art returns to its former cultural importance. Without that, the high level of discussion about visual art that used to take place in the English-language press for a century leading up to 1990 is impossible except among the handful of remaining believers. As Michael Lewis wrote in 2015:

A basic familiarity with the ideas of the leading artists and architects is no longer part of the essential cultural equipment of an informed citizen. Fifty years ago, educated people could be expected to identify the likes of Saul Bellow, Buckminster Fuller, and Jackson Pollock. Today one is expected to know about the human genome and the debate over global warming, but nobody is thought ignorant for being unable to identify the architect of the Freedom Tower or name a single winner of the Tate Prize (let alone remember the name of the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature).

The last time that artists were part of the national conversation was a generation ago, in 1990. This was the year of the NEA Four, artists whose grants were withdrawn by the National Endowment for the Arts because of the obscene content of their work.... That controversy ended with a double defeat. In a case that was heard by the Supreme Court, the NEA Four failed to have their grants restored. But Senator Jesse Helms and Representative Newt Gingrich likewise failed in their determined effort to defund the NEA (total budget at the time: $165 million). And the American public—left with an impressionistic vision in which urine, bullwhips, and a naked but chocolate-streaked Karen Finley figured largely—drew the fatal conclusion that contemporary art had nothing to offer them. Fatal, because the moment the public disengages itself collectively from art, even to refrain from criticizing it, art becomes irrelevant.

This essay proposes that such a disengagement has already taken place, and that its consequences are dire. The fine arts and the performing arts have indeed ceased to matter in Western culture, other than in honorific or pecuniary terms, and they no longer shape in meaningful ways our image of ourselves or define our collective values. This collapse in the prestige and consequence of art is the central cultural phenomenon of our day.

What might AICA-USA do about this? I don't know, what might they do to alter the course of the sun? We're 32 years into a cultural decline, and as of this afternoon the AICA-USA website isn't even loading. Art needs to remain in a state of health for art criticism to do likewise.

You've heard, perhaps, of the God-shaped hole. Current Western culture has an art-shaped hole, even among the art-worlders. Into the gap vacated by public enthusiasm, it injects identity politics. The organizations find their purpose in mouthing the talking points of regime Democrats. AICA-USA produced statements on behalf of Black Lives Matter in 2020 and Ukraine in 2022.

We, AICA-USA, are deeply saddened by the violence committed against Ukraine and its people that has resulted in the destruction of lives, communities, and culture. We condemn this unprovoked and unjustified attack by the Russian government.

(I'd link to it, but again, the site is down.) "Unprovoked and unjustified" hails word-for-word from a statement by President Biden. Leave aside what would have happened if a missive from AICA-USA quoted Donald Trump verbatim. (Half of the membership would have died of aneurysms.) I would in any case dispute the characterization. Scott Horton, who spoke at PorcFest, described the attack like so: "It was unreasonable. But it was rational. A reaction. Understandable not in the sympathetic sense, but in the strictly literal one."

[T]he administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden ruined our great peace and victory at the end of the last Cold War. Instead, they got us into this mess. This was primarily due to the policies of NATO expansion, tearing up important nuclear treaties, the installation of missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, overthrowing multiple governments friendly to Russia, including Ukraine twice in 10 years, spending the last 5 years sending sophisticated arms to Ukraine and increasing harassment by American Navy ships and Air Force planes in the Black, Baltic and Okhotsk seas.

AICA-USA does not have an express commitment to racial justice or Ukrainian sovereignty. But it does have one to "promote the physical and moral defense of works of art." Yet about the wave of iconoclasm that swept the country after the George Floyd killing, resulting in the vandalism of hundreds of monuments, it said nothing. Of the Guston cancellation it issued not a peep. Hence the remark from my wife above. I've muttered worse.

Given this vacuum of principle, I can predict what will happen at the members meeting. Someone will proclaim that AICA-USA should declare itself an anti-racist organization. They will exhort the leadership to adopt a new anti-racist mandate (not literally opposed to racism, of course, but consistent with progressive postliberalism and its attendant hostility to whites and Jews), oblige members to swear fealty to it, and prioritize the distribution of recognition and opportunities to women and people of color. The leadership will agree, pointing out meekly that they are already working on the last item, which is true. Meanwhile, NeimanLab just reported that the U.S. is losing an average of two weekly newspapers a week. The WaPo elaborates:

Already, some 2,500 dailies and weeklies have shuttered since 2005; there are fewer than 6,500 left. Every week, two more disappear. And although many digital-only news sites have cropped up around the nation, most communities that lost a local newspaper will not get a print or digital replacement.

Opportunities for anyone to publish art criticism are likewise circling the drain. But by all means, keep hammering on those diversity initiatives! This is all fine, none of it matters. But you can't ask me and my worsening ADHD to sit through a meeting in which we analyze the patient's poor complexion while she dies of brain cancer right in front of us.

Save the complaints
For a party conversation
The world is loaded
It's lit to pop and nobody is gonna stop

Survival looks unlikely. However, the organization could perform a dramatic death rattle. I have some suggestions:

Appoint Jed Perl to deliver the 2022 Distinguished Critic Lecture. I was accepted into AICA-USA in 2010. In 2011, Peter Schjeldahl delivered the Distinguished Critic Lecture. That honor was never again given to a white man. Meanwhile, Perl, our last truly literary art critic, has just published an important, impassioned book which I reviewed at Quillette. He is as distinguished as they come. If allowing a straight white guy this accolade once every eleven years is too great an affront to the diversity ideologues to suffer, then maybe don't bother putting the site back online.

Start a Discord channel for the membership and allow disagreement on it. When AICA-USA terminated the member listserve in 2020, they cited "hate speech." Very likely that characterization applied to an incident in which a critic of color demanded that the one professed Trump supporter be "torn out root and branch" (presumably from the organization, but maybe he meant that she should be killed like a weed), and I replied that if he intended to do that, whatever it meant, to anyone, he was welcome to begin with me. Weeks later I suggested that any Black Lives Matter statement from the organization ought to pertain somehow to AICA-USA's mission, which was ignored. In any case, someone found the mere existence of non-progressive viewpoints intolerable and shut down the platform. Now there is no communication among members. This could be remedied in twenty minutes if spirits were willing.

Partner with the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism. FAIR in the Arts describes itself as...

...a nonpartisan professional network dedicated to advancing a common culture in arts, entertainment, & media that champions freedom of expression, open-mindedness, and the ability to strive for excellence in all creative endeavors. We affirm the power of art to unite by bridging perceived divisions and highlighting our common humanity.

I'm already a member. There I find fellowship of the kind that I wish I found at AICA-USA.

Conduct diversity initiatives in light of its actual majority demographic, which is progressive white women. Its efforts around race should continue. They should be supplemented with efforts to advance men, who are outnumbered in the membership two to one, and attract critics who are not some form of progressive, left-liberal, green, or socialist, who are so vanishingly few that the organization slants even harder than a typical blue-state metropolis.

None of this would do much good but it's interesting to think about. The art-shaped hole remains. But not for us believers, who will continue to do our thing out in the hinterlands, either metaphorical or actual. The most exciting development going on at the moment in visual art is the possibility, not yet realized, of disintermediating all parties between artist and audience, and the disintermediation enabling genuinely good art to establish itself. What role will criticism play in that scenario? Perhaps none at all. Have a good meeting.

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