PRINT Summer 2006


Catherine de Zegher

IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, Charles Baudelaire said art criticism should be “passionate, partisan, and political.” For the poet and critic, these three words were synonymous—“political” meant “partisan” and “partisan” meant “passionate”—and without them there would be no point to modern, secular art. In this sphere, in other words, the safe space of neutrality, “objectivity” and dispassionate judgment has no place. Take a stand and get behind it: So should art do, and so shall this essay, concerning Catherine de Zegher’s recent departure from New York’s Drawing Center, where she had been director since 1999. Indeed, I am writing from a “partisan” point of view.

Under de Zegher’s directorship, the Drawing Center adhered to Baudelaire’s ethos. It was a space for art and programming with guts, vision, and imagination, a space to air contrary opinions and ideas, to present alternative structures of thought and feeling, and to embrace the differences that human beings, as cultural creatures, share. It was also a place for committed practice, not idle ivory-tower theory. And it was for these qualities that the Drawing Center was attacked by the reliably jingoistic New York Daily News last June. The center’s profile had risen in the wake of its selection for tenancy in the cultural complex at the World Trade Center site; scrutinizing the institution in an editorial, the paper described several politically charged, openly critical works that the Drawing Center had exhibited. After opining that the News had “nothing against . . . ‘political art’ . . . per se,” the editorial declaimed that such works “belong nowhere near the sobering pit where the twin towers stood” and that such proximity would be “sacrilege.” That same day, New York Governor George Pataki announced that any institution at the site would have to offer an “absolute guarantee” that it would never exhibit anything that could be construed as offensive. This was the beginning of the controversy that resulted in the Drawing Center’s withdrawal under pressure from the site. It is now planning to move from its original SoHo venue to the site of Manhattan’s erstwhile Fulton Fish Market.

When de Zegher’s resignation was announced in March, the published party line was that the center’s board and its president, George Negroponte, felt that she was more suited to curating than to the kind of fund-raising and glad-handing required of the director of an institution going through an expensive move. But published accounts and commonsense observation alike point to tensions over the Ground Zero fiasco. “The LMDC [Lower Manhattan Devel­opment Corporation] knows that we would never be able to accept censorship,” said de Zegher very reasonably in July 2005, when the Drawing Center was in the process of negotiating with the corporation, which controls Ground Zero’s recon­struction. Presumably it was felt that too many comments like that could have jeopardized city patronage. (Ultimately, the LMDC contributed ten million dollars toward the move to the Fulton Fish Market.) Such matters bring to mind the culture wars and questions of government funding one ordinarily associates with the late ’80s and early ’90s; perhaps it is high time, then, to revisit the meanings often attributed to the “political” as a term in both art and culture at large.

While there are to date many lamentable chapters to the depressing saga of Ground Zero’s reconstruction, it is particularly noteworthy here that the Drawing Center imbroglio ultimately turns on a contested definition of the political and its proper place in the cultural field—and so requires that we ask again, What does it mean to be political in art? The Daily News, contra Baudelaire, implied that art’s visibility should be inversely proportional to its political content—that the political is something to be sequestered or neutralized by context. But there are other conceptions of the political that are necessary to consider in this instance, especially at a cultural moment when the term partisan is widely considered a slur and partisan politics is understood as an epithet describing the impolitic impoliteness—the brawl factor—of public discourse. For many, the poli­ti­cal is a bad thing, designating nepotism and self-promotion, pork-barrel opportunism and Machiavellian power-playing. In the art world, that definition of the political describes, say, the alleged actions of the recently ousted Barry Munitz at the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles. For me, it also pretty well describes what has happened at the Drawing Center, which to all appearances has willingly curtailed its mission in order to meet unspoken standards for public funding.

There is also the avant-garde, or rather the neo- and post-avant-garde, definition of the political, which has persisted pretty much unchanged ever since the period between the two world wars, when it had some utopian charge and some real urgency and content. Rooted in the social revolutions of the nineteenth century, this is a concept of the political that involves the exposure, subversion, and negation of mainstream ideologies. Paradoxically, this understanding of the political as endless critique and permanent revolution has ossified in the academy and hardened into doctrine in much of the art world. It is a fossil and a relic, and yet it is worn like a badge of courage by institutions and individuals whose behavior is otherwise cowardly, self-censoring, and censorious of others—who present, produce, or support one refusenik artwork after another, and yet maintained a decorous silence throughout the Drawing Center’s travails. Moreover, this model of the political, no matter the sex of those invested in it, is predicated on an oedipal boys’ club dynamic that returns evermore to the phallic standard: the repressive superego and the eternal law of the father.

In contrast, one might argue for a different, more productive sense of the political: namely, a principle of open-ended interrogation such as that expressed in the Jewish Passover seder ritual, perhaps the most ancient celebration of freedom from tyranny, in which the youngest and least knowing child, who must still be taught to ask a question, is given pride of place. That principle of questioning, in which the act of asking is more important than the answer, in which dialogue trumps doctrine and censorship is fiercely fought wherever it is found, is the principle at the heart of my own preferred definition of the political. And that is the definition that was espoused by the Drawing Center for seven years. In exhibition after exhibition, de Zegher put herself on the line to make artists and viewers question, think, and enter into dialogue, rather than accept all the old givens.

I didn’t like all of those exhibitions equally. But whether I liked them or not, they always made me think and rethink. It was the utterly original signature de Zegher gave the Drawing Center that got it noticed by the city in the first place, that helped it win its space at Ground Zero, and then, yes, lost it that space, too. Given recent developments, one cannot help but feel that the center is destined to become a minor art space, if on a large scale. It will not be what de Zegher made it.

To best grasp her curatorial practice and notion of the “political,” it is important to note de Zegher’s background. Before she came to the Drawing Center, she cofounded and directed the Kanaal Art Foundation in Belgium, but was perhaps best known in the United States for “Inside the Visible,” shown in 1996 at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Devoted to the principle of the “feminine” in art, it was certainly a feminist exhibition, but in an offbeat, polyvocal, and intensely fertile way, neither bemoaning the victimhood of women nor crudely literalizing its subject. Those same qualities—opening up dialogue, promoting creative thought, and running against the mainstream in a subtle, nuanced way—informed shows at the Drawing Center. Continuing on the course set by “Inside the Visible,” de Zegher’s program at the Drawing Center may be understood as proceeding along the lines of a “feminine” principle of polymorphous productivity and praxis: positive, not negative; generative, not proscriptive or prescriptive; geared toward negotiation and relation rather than rupture and revolution; embracing rather than disdaining the materiality of artistic thought; and embodied in a decentered, plural here and now instead of gesturing toward a utopian (or dystopian) elsewhere. The yin to the yang of power politics, in short.

As such, de Zegher’s directorial and curatorial practice constituted a clear case of “thinking outside the box,” but it was hardly rabble-rousing. Her exhibitions did not privilege the large, the heroic, or the aggressively challenging, nor did they seek to throw aesthetic bombs. They were not incendiary or scandalous or sensationalist. They did not shake the fist or raise the middle finger. They focused on themes or subjects as diverse as nineteenth-century British photograms and natural-history drawings (“Ocean Flowers” [2004], an exhibition that de Zegher and I curated together); drawings by the insane; the tantric imagery of Rajasthan; the resonances between three women abstractionists, one (Agnes Martin) canonical and the others (Hilma af Klint and Emma Kunz) not; and, most recently, drawings reflecting on the American-Vietnam war by artists from both countries. There was also a huge variety of one-person exhibitions, showcasing the work of Sergei Eisenstein, James Ensor, Ana Maria Maiolino, Giuseppe Penone, Ellen Gallagher, Mark Lombardi, Richard Tuttle, Nasreen Mohamedi, Ellsworth Kelly, Norval Morriseau (Copper Thunderbird), and, in the exhibition currently on view, Eva Hesse, to name just a few. Such shows did not, for the most part, illustrate politics. Rather, they were idiosyncratic and exploratory; they were often playful and pleasurable and maybe a little bit naughty. They did not observe any of the ruling categories, either—they amounted to a melting pot of Americans and Europeans, Westerners and non-Westerners, men and women, the mainstream and the marginalized, the young and the long dead. They honored the globalism of New York, not its parochialism.

That list of exhibitions represents the best meaning of the political in the aesthetic sphere: a passionately committed, aesthetically partisan, on-the-ground practice of making many different voices heard in the same space, of bringing the less-than-powerful forward, of championing and learning from the overlooked and undervalued. These are the qualities that should epitomize the cultural sphere of a healthy and vital democratic society. Indeed, they are what made the Drawing Center a perfect choice for Ground Zero—but also a perfect target for the forces of censorship.

The word aesthetic once meant knowledge gained from feeling, rather than empty taste or style. Over the past seven years, the Drawing Center has shown what that knowledge could be in a pluralist world. It is unconscionable that its director should not be recognized for what she accomplished and that, in fact, a prominent artistic institution has in effect decreed her Baudelairean approach a thing of the past. And it is sad for the New York art world—more than that, it’s a damn shame—that the worst of “partisan politics” got the better of the best once again, and with so little protest from those who might have been expected to show solidarity. It is to be hoped that this is not the beginning of a self-censoring trend, but rather a wake-up call to those in American cultural institutions with a “passionate, partisan, and political” investment in a future for contemporary art.

Carol Armstrong is professor of art and archaeology and Doris Stevens Professor of the Study of Women and Gender at Princeton University.