PRINT September 2004

American Self-Consciousness in Politics and Art

WITH THE GLOBALIZATION OF THE ART world, national differences among artists have grown increasingly marginal. There is little to distinguish American art from the rest in the growing list of intercontinental art fairs and biennials. At the same time, “American art,” however defined, is widely assumed to reveal something of the inner life of America as it changes over time. So there is a value in an exhibition such as the Whitney Biennial, which is largely restricted to American artists, since it may, at two-year intervals, tell us something worth knowing about where we are as a culture. During just the past decade, the Biennial’s curators appear to have tried meeting this challenge by organizing shows that do not merely present American art but imply something about the objective spirit of the country through art. And viewers, whether American or not, have responded to what these shows seem to tell them about America. The 1993 Biennial was vehemently political, and even though the show was widely reviled, viewers were forced to measure the art against what they believed they knew about American realities.

The Biennial’s implicit invitation for audiences to measure the art against the culture makes all the more interesting the assertion by the curators of the 2004 installment that one defining attitude of younger artists in the show was a nostalgia for a certain activism that had vanished from the scene. It seemed strange to me, given the political reality of the Bush years, that young artists could do no better than envy artists of the ’60s for the forthrightness of their protests. And it was stranger still that they expressed their own immediate political concerns obliquely, even while the curators suggested that in terms of involvement with current issues, the show was really as political as that of 1993. It would today be unrealistic for young people to try to be ’68ers, whatever the content of current political nostalgia may be, since no one seriously interested in politics would wish the context of ’68 world reality to be reconstituted. How could one wish that and at the same time want to protest it all over again? If consciousness is like a stream, as William James believed, we really cannot step in it at the same place twice. Further, why would anyone, least of all an artist genuinely concerned with the issues of the war in Iraq or inequalities at home—or the conservatism of the religious Right—have recourse to Aesopian strategies, as if a Polish dissident in the cold-war era?

But even if there was not this encrypted criticism, it was impossible merely to think about the art as art, and not about what it told us about the political moment in America. In some way, art is always political, and American art is always somehow informative of American political reality. When I think back to the Whitney surveys of the 1950s, it seems to me that one could feel the moral pulse of America in the landscapes and still lifes, which they comprised. In his monograph on Milton Avery, Robert Hobbs writes that Avery’s political activism in the 1930s is important to his art, for “it indicates that his simple themes—his emphasis on family, his at times blank masks, his combinations of peoples of different races sitting contentedly on beaches—stem from his deep concern with social issues and his desire for a better, more harmonious life where humor, charm, intimacy, and human dignity all assume their rightful places.” If Avery’s ingratiating beach scenes had a political implication, it merely requires an exercise of hermeneutical will to identify the political subtext of work that had seemed to have different agendas. So it is difficult to resist reflecting on the self-consciousness of the American artist as an “American artist” today, given the current political landscape. What did this Biennial seem to tell us, perhaps in spite of itself?

Last year, I participated in a symposium at the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where the organizers framed our topic as follows: “What precisely is the relation between the fiction that nationality is a trait and the assorted uses to which it is nevertheless put in both practical and interpretive discourses of art?” Immediately after this, they asked how we are to come to terms with the political power of nationality as an idea “in the light of its philosophical poverty.” To think of nationality as a fiction is, I think, evidence of having taken postmodern theory much too literally. I regard nationality neither as a fictional construct nor as a philosophically impoverished one but, to the contrary, as a palpable reality in people’s lives, whatever its bearing on the practice of art. Nations have much the same structure that we do as conscious beings, according to the deep analysis of consciousness that we owe to Jean-Paul Sartre. Like individuals, nations have a being-for-others (pour autrui) and for themselves (pour soi), and the great political tensions often arise from the failure of congruence between them. Given American power, how other nations perceive us—how we are defined from without—for better or worse defines the political reality for everyone today. It is impossible, seeing America from within, to appreciate how we can be hated as much as we obviously are. If only “They” could see us as we see ourselves, from within! “They” would modulate their resentments and their anger. But given how little power we have to see “Them” as “They” see themselves, there is scant reason to suppose that “They” can do better with “Us.”

There is a distinction between being in the world as an American and being an American citizen. One can renounce the latter, but renouncing the former is impossible, like renouncing one’s language. Yet they are not entirely external to one another, inasmuch as the consciousness of being American includes in some degree an awareness of what it means politically to be American. This is especially the case with being an American artist in America, whether one is a citizen or not. So one wants to ask in what way American political institutions penetrate the consciousness of being an American artist. Everyone must acknowledge that the American government has never had much interest in the arts—has never felt, for example, that America’s standing in the world has much, if any, connection with what American artists have done. Indeed, the practice of art in America has taken place in an atmosphere of near-total governmental indifference, except insofar as it falls under constitutional protections governing freedom of expression. The CIA’s covert involvement with the dissemination of Abstract Expressionism internationally after World War II was opportunistic but in any case had nothing to do with what made that art possible in the first place. In general, I think, the making of art has been considered in terms of the pursuit of happiness, as specified in the Declaration of Independence, and hence the exercise of a right, with no effort on the government’s part to say how it should be done.

There was not a national museum of art in America until the 1930s, and even then it was not a museum of American art—though the idea of a national museum of art had been intimately associated with the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century. Consider the Louvre, for example, which organized its collections into schools: the Italian, the Dutch, the Spanish, and the French—the latter to make plain to French men and women, to whom as citizens the museum belonged after the Revolution, that there was such a thing as a national school and that France could hold its head high among the nations because of Poussin, Claude, Clouet, Vouet, and others. The Louvre was far less a sanctuary for aesthetic contemplation and scholarly investigation than an instrument for forming a national consciousness. It was also a component of that consciousness, in that the art from the other schools had been expropriated by the French military. (Stealing the enemy’s treasure as trophies, like stealing its women, is immemorially the victor’s prerogative.) By contrast, our National Gallery of Art could not be a temple to the American spirit through American art, since the prevailing idea in 1937 (when it was founded) was that real art was something that happened somewhere else—a view American artists at the time shared. Duchamp addressed this point in an interview when he arrived in America in 1915, two years after the Armory show, and tried in effect to say that Americans should have no reason to feel inferior:

The capitals of the Old World have labored for hundreds of years to find that which constitutes good taste and one may say that they have found the zenith thereof. But why do people not understand what a bore this is? . . . If only America would realize that the art of Europe is finished—dead—and that America is the country of the art of the future. . . . Look at the skyscrapers! Has Europe anything to show more beautiful than these? New York itself is a work of art, a complete work of art. . . .

American artists today need no longer acquiesce in such compensatory consolations, for just the reason that American art is part of an international art scene, in which it is no longer expected that art should display the attributes of a national identity. I am not even sure that the consciousness of being an American artist is at all part of the consciousness of artists in America today. It hardly seems relevant, and I think this is reflected in the framing questions of the symposium I cited above: Being American seems to have so little to do with the “practical and interpretive discourses of art” that many individuals have made the inference that nationality itself is a fiction. I don’t think, as I have been saying, that it is. But it may well be true that by the time American art began to be taken seriously—after World War II, in the ’50s and ’60s especially—the idea of a national spirit being expressed through art had definitively lost its appeal, largely, I think, because the idea of a national spirit was perceived as a form of political pathology. The great political movements of the century constituted themselves as dictatorships of artistic rectitude, as we all know. Moscow and Berlin, Rome and Beijing made painting outside prescribed formats too dangerous to practice unless one were exceedingly courageous and prepared for an underground existence. While there were pressures on painters in America—Arshile Gorky, for example, felt pressures as an abstractionist, from the American regionalists on the one side and from socialist realists on the other—a true nationalistic coercion did not quite happen here. Gorky was never in political danger, not even when he worked for the WPA, which supported his murals for Newark Airport though they were entirely modernist.

What was remarkable about the WPA was that it was supported by the government at all, since the question in the United States had always been—and remains—whether the taxpayer’s dollar should be spent on art. Otherwise the government took scant interest in what artists did or did not do. As recently as the Giuliani administration, with its perhaps cynical obsession with decency, it remained acceptable for people in the private sector to look at photographs like Yo Mama’s Last Supper, 1996, by Renée Cox, or at paintings of the Holy Virgin at which some artist (Chris Ofili) had “flung dung”—the mayor’s language—since that was protected by the First Amendment. “Decent” people might care to picket and protest, but as long as tax moneys were not called on to support it, the art world was ideally a scene of freedom. In America, the separation of art and the state is almost as strong as that of church and state. I think this is an unqualified blessing, but I won’t try to argue that here.

The issue of taxes is whether the people’s money should be used to support art that conflicts with their moral values, and that, of course, is a political matter, since the argument can be made that people of differing values have a right to live by them so long as they do not break the law, and we all have an obligation to support the free interchange of ideas. That, however coarsely stated, is the purview of the First Amendment. We all pay taxes to support the exercise of free expression, and pay taxes, moreover, so that the government enforces that right and remains indifferent to the content of conflicting expressions. Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibition “The Perfect Moment” (1988–90) was funded by the NEA, which he felt entirely appropriate, since the art was too difficult in subject matter and treatment to expect commercial support. The question was whether the art had “redeeming social value,” though the mere fact that it conveyed certain views of sexual conduct through images should have been social value enough, given the grounds of the First Amendment. Artists dealing with pornography can always say that they, too, are mainly interested in promoting discussion. This is more or less conceded by the government, in that efforts to legislate the monitoring of pornographic images on the Internet have consistently been voted down on First Amendment grounds.

There is, however, another dimension to pornography, which the recent Abu Ghraib photographs make salient to our discussion. I have not seen it mentioned that many of them could as easily have appeared on pornographic websites as with the news headlines on our browsers. I have little doubt that dominatrices will sooner or later adopt the standard camouflage fatigues issued by the army, and this returns me to the structure of consciousness with which I began, between what we are for ourselves and what we are for others. The reflex of the Bush administration has been to disclaim these images as not really Us—to maintain that torture and humiliation of this sort are not in the American grain, when everyone who sees the photographs knows that they are. The images show the degree to which American consciousness has been penetrated by the imagery of pornography. But so has world consciousness, given the ubiquity of videotapes that deal with images of sexual bondage and humiliation. Whether these images existed as fantasies before they were put on tape—or online—is difficult to say, but the archives of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Representation at the University of Indiana have photographs that show males in a posture of humiliation before women. And I have seen Renaissance engravings that deal with such subjects, which suggests that these thoughts have been part of the sexual imagination for a very long time. Plato once described the despot as performing the actions that the rest of us merely dream of, and what the Abu Ghraib images testify to is the democratization of despotic fantasy. For the time being, however, the behavior depicted has entered world consciousness as integral to the pour autrui of America. There is little doubt that America is going to have to take measures to ensure that the impulse to submit its captives to sexual torture remains unenacted and confined within the boundaries of fantasy. And that will certainly be at least a step in the direction of changing our image in the world’s conception of what we are, though such images are fairly indelible.

The 1993 Whitney Biennial showed the Rodney King tape, the appropriateness of which was contested on the grounds that it was not art, even though it was widely felt that the footage had already become part of American self-consciousness. And if one of the aims of the exhibition was to make this self-consciousness accessible, what image could do it better? I wonder whether the same is not true for the Abu Ghraib photographs, which might well be among the exhibits of the 2006 Biennial. My sense is that, hideous as the conduct they depict is, the Abu Ghraib photographs are powerful examples of how images can change what we are, and from that perspective they must from now on act as standards against which we can judge the political efficacy of art. That measure, when applied to American art today, seems to me to imply that American artists are on balance satisfied with the existing political structure. There was nothing in the 2004 Biennial that, were we to see it from the outside, would cause us to want to change the way we are for others. That may finally be the way that, for better or worse, the art in it was political.

Arthur C. Danto is Johnsonian Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University.