Newport Beach

“CalArts: Skeptical Belief(s)”

Newport Harbor Art Museum

Founded by Walt Disney in the early 1960s from the merger of the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and Chouinard Art Institute, California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) has become one of the most influential centers of esthetic discourse in the United States. Through its close alignment with Conceptualism and Post-Structural inquiry—particularly under the aegis of faculty luminaries such as Michael Asher, Allan Kaprow, John Baldessari, and Doug Huebler—the school has produced a generation of artists to whom issues of textuality, appropriation, and institutional reification are less ideological stances to be rigorously dissected than self-evident truisms.

At least this is what the homogenized myopia of “CalArts: Skeptical Belief(s)” would have us believe. Initially organized by Susanne Ghez of the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, but significantly expanded by Newport Harbor curators Paul Schimmel and Anne Ayres, the exhibition brought together more than 150 works by 58 CalArts alumni in a variety of media, including painting, sculpture, photography, and video, most of them done during the last five years. With the exception of work by biomorphic/abstract painters such as Lari Pittman and Marc Pally and retardataire art stars David Salle and Eric Fischl, the show was largely engaged with the chief theoretical issue of the ’80s: the impossibility of originality in a society of simulacra. In this context, “Skeptical Belief(s)” not only embraced the inevitability of appropriation but seemed to question the ideological viability of making art in the first place.

This is a far cry from the practical, revolutionary dimension of language that we have come to associate with Conceptualism or the dialectics of Marcel Broodthaers and Hans Haacke. With Jean Baudrillard’s simulationist critique as its chief subtext, the exhibition was rife with free-floating signifiers, where meaning is at once arbitrary and preordained (Larry Johnson’s phototexts; Mitchell Syrop’s mix-and-match advertising slogans), and mechanically reproduced images no longer have objective equivalents (James Casebere’s evocative light boxes).

Now that the notion of language as communicative action and political critique has been relegated to the status of myth, we are left with work that is by necessity passively accepting of the status quo. Created inside the hermetic environment of the institution, it is made for, and functions solely within, the broader establishment of the commercial art world itself. As a result, CalArts has in many ways become synonymous with slickly designed, luxurious paeans to the demise of Art—in short, careerist strategies riding on the reactionary back of commodity fetishism.

Conveniently ignored in the exhibition were the graduates of CalArts’ (in)famous Feminist Art Program, guided by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro in the early ’70s. Whatever the artistic shortcomings of the former faculty, here was a chance for the curators to inject a substantial dose of ideological and sexual différance into what has become a smugly elitist temple of closure. However, instead of political engagement, the show offered little more than a cultural hegemony of style, where a conceptual “look” represents the outward manifestation of theoretical authority.

It is one thing to question dubious notions of transcendence, bourgeois individuality, and historical authenticity, and quite another to envelop discourse in a sheath of negative stasis. As Theodor Adorno put it in “Cultural Criticism and Society” (1967): “Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter.” On the evidence of this exhibition, CalArts’ “Skeptical Belief(s)” have become the reified equivalent of self-indulgent prattle.

Colin Gardner