The New Provincialism

Ian Morrison

The democratization of Art production is at the root of a growing provincialism. Artists and writers have for decades sustained a critique focused on the distinction between high, low, and middle brow culture – a critique that is now second nature. To speak of Great Artworks today is to expose oneself as a ‘serious’ observer of Art, an aesthetic, and therefore a charlatan.

This assault has gone on for decades. “The project of interpretation,” Susan Sontag went so far as to claim, “is largely reactionary. Like the fumes of the automobile and the heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere the effusion of interpretation poisons our sensibilities.” The 1960’s generation, of which Sontag is an exemplar, brought the radical democratization of Art to its apex. What her allusion implies is that post-Industrial society somehow added grist to the mill. As traditional hierarchies were breaking down, Artistic production went along with the trend. Ironically, even as artists rejected avant-garde notions they continued to prefigure a future reality in a semblance of avant-gardism.

Sontag’s generation witnessed the partial eclipse of Taylorist and Fordist notions of authority. What emerged was a new ‘other-directed’ character type, as the sociologist David Riesman described in The Lonely Crowd, a person who gained authority not by coercion but rather through the subtle manipulation of peer structures. Work began to rarely demand recognizable skills in the traditional sense, and more often than not the notion of ‘work experience’ became valued above all else. This has now become a familiar story and we often read nowadays about the effects of the new service economy, its increased flexibility, and intensified spatial reach. But in order to grasp the new provincialism, it also needs to be stressed just why the ‘other-directed’ person had a greater need for ideology and how ‘peer manipulation’ became regularly manifest within art production.

Stressing persuasions over any rigid hierarchy inevitably added value to ‘critical discourse.’ In fact, critical discourse has become the culture of the ‘other-directed’ person who has more use of ideology then previous generations. The problem of ‘idea art’ captures this well. “Before, meaning ten years ago,” Seth Siegelaub wrote in 1969, “you could have said art was about information. Except information before had to do with color, line, composition, and all the bullshits, in which case art and the presentation of the art were identical. But here you have a situation where the presentation of the art and the art are not the same thing.”  Siegelab’s insistence on the separation between the physical artwork and its presentation captures a mood that goes far beyond the select group of artists he represented as a shrewd entrepreneur. Siegelab understood that he need to plug into a vast network of peer structures who could never attend a single exhibition. Ironically, this new audience helped to weaken the coterie which Siegelab sought to promote. Lucy Lippard, at least, recognized the problem as such. “One of the important things about the new dematerialized art is that it provides a way of getting the power structure out of New York and spreading it around to wherever an artist feels like being at the time […] New York is the center because of the stimulus here, the bar and studio dialogue. Even if we get the art works out of New York, even if the objects do travel, they alone don’t often provide the stimulus that they do combined with the milieu.”

What the 1960s mood did not fully anticipate in its attack against hierarchical authority was that the democratization of the arts, with its vast network of cultural producers, would produce a greater need for power amongst artists. Already in the mid-60s Robert Smithson spoke about ‘warden-curators,’ as he liked to call them, a term that is all the more befitting to figures like Hans-Ulrich Obrist, whose ‘curating’ always seeks to out-do the work exhibited. Artist statements, artists talks, artist’s writings and interviews, have replaced the role slides once played. A student of Art in today’s universities has become more familiar with the ‘critical discourse’ than the artwork. Art students colloquially refer to ‘formal’ readings of art not as a specific interpretive doctrine but rather as an interpretation simply based on looking at the physical object at all. Of course, the new curatorial style has little use for such a ‘method’ because most ‘curating’ is based on observing conceptual patterns, like art about maps, art about the economy, art about comics, and so on.

The ability to arrange and manage the contemporary field has become a ‘practice’ parallel to the production of artworks themselves to such a degree that any separation seems unidentifiable. Curatorial programs have tried to match the growing MFAs while ‘group shows’ arranged by theme have become the norm both in museums and in the tiniest apartment galleries. Under new pressures to conform to the democratized cultural field artists find that they need to justify their ‘practice’ to such an extent that the artist who is not also a ‘theorist’ and a ‘curator’ often raises eyebrows amongst his or her peers. ‘Critical theory,’ as it is suspiciously and ambiguously called, has become an indispensable tool for artists in an environment where the artwork and its ‘theory’ often collapses into one. The unity of thought and action has done tremendous damage to the technical development of each, causing all aesthetic choices to become pigeonholed into a niche audience ruled under curatorial dogmas. There is little an artist can do to remedy the situation. He or she is a formal painter, a political artist, a conceptual artist, a video artist, a book artist, a fiber artist, etc., ect.

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Robert Smithson experienced the pressure to collapse thought and action as an intolerable feedback loop of which he came to identify along with exhibition spaces the physical studio itself. “The modern artist in his ‘studio,’ working out an abstract grammar within the limits of his ‘craft,’ is trapped in but another snare. When the fissures between mind and matter multiply into an infinity of gaps, the studio begins to crumble and fall like The House of Usher, so that mind and matter get endlessly confounded. Deliverance from the confines of the studio frees the artist to a degree from the snares of craft and the bondage of creativity.” Seeking escape from warden-curators, Smithson rocketed himself into a cosmological framework by evoking his celebrated notion of entropy. Smithson’s artwork would soon develop into the paradigm Siegelab later worked out – artworks like the Spiral Jetty were produced as much for the cover of Artforum as the night sky.

What is interesting, however, about Simithson is not merely his attack against the ‘institution’ but instead the way he captured and dramatized the diminishing power of Art. He became fascinated by the Natural History Museum almost as a replacement for MoMA, banishing art into a prehistoric realm. He compared every Park and Museum to a graveyard. Like Nietzsche’s Madman, he seemed to exclaim:

“How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? […] Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing?”

The new provincialism stands before Smithson the Madman “in astonishment” unable to cope with the catastrophe invoked. Has the radical democratization of art diminished the limited grounds on which Art once stood to such an extent that we should now limit ourselves to reforming the Art Schools, as the New York Times columnist suggests, or retreat into a formalism that treats past historical disputes as much to do about nothing?

As a by-product of the democratization of Art the new provincialism, unfortunately, is a mechanical reaction to the modern catastrophe. Unable to grasp that radicalism has been absorbed into culture as an adaptation to all the half-backed reforms, defeated revolutions and spiritual setbacks that have accumulated to form our present moment, the new provincialism fails to recognize that simply claiming that Art even matters has become a profound political gesture today. Caught within a dialectic of anachronism and change, young artists must still seek to grip the timeless quality of Art even while uprooting the status-quo, because, more and more, what that status quo amounts to is a wounded dismissal of Art’s universalism in favor of a new provincialism.


About Bret Schneider,

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