PRINT December 2019

Logical Revolts

View of “Planes of Color,” 2019, Museum of Modern Art, New York. From left: Mark Rothko, No. 5/No. 22, 1950; Louise Nevelson, Hanging Column (from Dawn’s Wedding Feast), 1959. Photo: Robert Gerhardt.

IN “GLOBALIZED” PARTS OF THE WORLD where neofascists have gained previously unimaginable levels of mainstream control, many people who hoped to discover effective modes of resistance are finding their cognitive abilities totally blasted out. Others have neoliberalized resistance, drawing fuel from a vision of protest and political struggle as fundraising, advertising, and career-building strategies. These social actors often unconsciously have more to gain from the continued presence of neofascists than from their removal—and only the willfully naive would deny that at least some of these individuals and groups are actually conscious of the fact that their own success is correlated with that of right-wing authoritarianism. For the more morose adherents of a left-inflected social consciousness who are involved in critical aesthetic practices, it has been difficult to find any coherent position from which to evaluate, well, basically anything. If you, like me, have already suffered through decades of “emerging” in a continuous stream of always surprising but never that interesting “gatekeeper” bullshit, then you also have learned to embody clichés in their most frustratingly bleak-like-Beckett forms. “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Unlike the Jenny Holzers of the world, I am not conditioned to see my victimization as a way to use being #notsurprised to my advantage. A beneficial result of my negative “advantage” has never been actualized. Whether this is specific to the hybridity of my “identity,” a unique quality of my weird combination of nihilism and optimism, or just a consequence of being a “good” Asian American who can jump through hoops on fire with a perfect SAT score and a winning personality while seeming to be eternally grateful to have my pain instrumentalized by white supremacists who want to end affirmative action—we may never know. But what we do know is that the world is awful, and it may have always been this awful, but now there are people in power positions everywhere who are manufacturing encouragement (and votes) to literally fry every living thing out of living existence.

I do have to say that it touches my heart to see a new generation that thinks the existing world is total bullshit.

Barnett Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950–51, oil on canvas. Installation view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2019. Photo: Robert Gerhardt.

In a year when behind-the-scenes processes (back-room deals, off-the-books transactions, classified quid pro quos, etc.) overtook the main stage in all aspects of cultural and political life, this phenomenon in art erupted in volatile debates about the set of conditions and actors and controlling interests that forms the possibilities of what is “shown,” what is “not shown,” and what is occluded and prevented from forming the conditions of viewing. (One could also see 2019 as a year that witnessed a nascent critique revolving around how “sacred” or not trustees should be in institutions—in and outside of the art world—that have been pressured to come up with millions of dollars a minute.) While naming names could get me blacklisted by the powers that be, and canceled by the powers that are struggling to be, faster than I can type this sentence, I do have to say that it touches my heart to see a new generation that thinks the existing world is total bullshit. The logical revolts (to borrow Rimbaud’s phrase via Jacques Rancière) that have been such an important part of politics in any society in which anyone who is not an asshole would ever want to be alive are the most fascinating trend of the past year. At the same time, it also touches my heart to see that the big bad dad of a museum I grew up learning to love to hate has actually managed, in its best rehung moments, to find a brilliantly multivocal set of curatorial tensions that make a strong argument against the tokenizing and/or bland expert-at-nothing pluralizing that some other cultural venues have deployed as a slapdash strategy for appearing relevant. (Highlights of the rehang include: the phenomenological rupture to gravity incited by the out-of-this-world placement of Louise Nevelson’s chalky white Hanging Column [from Dawn’s Wedding Feast], 1959, between Rothko’s veiled blobs and scratches of yellows, oranges, and reds [No. 5/No. 22, 1950, dated on reverse 1949] and the vertical echo chamber of Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950–51, which cycles in panoramic pandemonium as the Hanging Column’s edges ricochet with the flat zips and deep-orange oceans of color; the next-level sight lines into four other galleries when standing at Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s Taylorist Frankfurt Kitchen, 1926–27, where you are allowed to experience, in layers and jump cuts, violently antagonistic modernisms from a time in Europe when no path was a foregone conclusion and utopian visions could suddenly flip into dystopian realities; and the much discussed main event of the rehang, where Ringgold confronts Picasso, and the horrors of the New World future fly in the face of the brutal colonialist erotics of a fractured European imagination.) At the same time, the seemingly irresolvable disputes around questions like Where does money come from? and Who should be associated with things that we love? have also shown that the feel-good American perversion of dialectics may be over for good. The negation of the negation is supposed to produce something new—not a recoded defense of overvaluing the sublime in a Manifest Destiny, ignore-the-genocidal-processes-of-settler-colonialism kind of way. The best show of the year has been witnessing the real possibility of rescaling and rewiring what is valued—and what is not valued—in artistic production; the possibility of strengthening the faculty of being able to distinguish among aesthetic categories, deciding which ones we want in our sensoriums and even inventing new ones; and the possibility of renegotiating the social and financial relations that form desire and visibility. That those doing the negotiating on all sides made some spectacular blunders yet the conversation never stopped exploding forward is evidence of the transformation from a society that defends its worst aspects by strenuously pointing toward noxious silver linings to one that has a willingness to actualize the failures of change. 

Ken Okiishi is an artist based in New York