An excerpt from
Contemporary Art and Complicity
Fine art criticism is currently poised between a state of activity that is passing out of step and the awakening of a newly insightful awareness. The crepuscular image of liminal transition suggested by Gregory Crewdson’s Twilight photographic series is an apt metaphor for our condition. Rarely have the critical terms of modernism hit so stagnant a spell as in their current slumbers. The siren call of vibrant new work needs to wake our critical impulses out of their somnambulism.
Pale as death, the young woman stretches across the foreground of a photograph that displays all the evident hallmarks of a staged image [offsite link: See an image of Crewdson's Untitled (Ophelia)]. The unnatural light flushes blue around her photogenic flesh. The fine features of her face turn toward us to advantage. The vintage cotton slip of handmade eyelet covers her slim form with a virginal modesty. Along her flank the cloth sticks with wet–tee-shirt suction to her flesh. Mixed messages are present from first glance. Small town motifs waft through the air, ephemeral as the night sounds we cannot hear but can well imagine as background to this macabre scene. An American Gothic Ophelia, she floats on still water, eyes open, hands at her side. Her body is reflected in its stillness, hair fanning out around her head. Her mouth is open, fresh and unspoiled, the teeth pearly in the parted lips. Her staring eyes are rimmed with slight red color that suggests she had been weeping. The signs are enough to pique our sympathy but not destroy her cosmetic appeal. Our eyes linger on the details. Following the profile of her chin, neck, shoulder, breastbone, we linger on that exposed throat, as open and inviting as vampire bait in a classic scenario of horror. Every trope of exploitative gendered relations is present, intensified in the Technicolor highlights of an eroticized image that could be a David Lynch film still, so perfected and resonant are its motifs. Here lies innocence. Maybe.
What is Crewdson doing in this work?
Try this: He employs the same high production values as the machines of the fantasy industry. He engages without flinching, taking the very apparatus of illusion and making use of it to “transgressive” ends. The disturbing dream is alluringly seductive. But Crewdson uses beauty against itself, to insist on the ideological bad faith of the culture industry’s exploitation of cheap thrills and our entrapment in insidious devices. The inherent perversities of the profit-making illusions of the Hollywood dream machine are intimately bound to the repressive strains of American culture. In denial, the citizenry pulls their shades against the reality of violence that runs through the very fiber of daily life, the warp and woof of contemporary existence in even the safest-seeming neighborhoods. The political import of this work is clear. The “twilight” theme is a liminal zone, late in the day of late capitalism, perhaps the harbinger of its demise. The absence of clear distinctions between good and evil, black and white, are characteristics of the hours between sunset and creeping darkness. Crewdson is perhaps our latter day Goya, whose work was associated with the twilight of the Enlightenment. Like the harsh Spanish critic whose unflinching eye and deft hand revealed the horrors of his contemporary life, Crewdson pulls back the bland surface of habit, using the beauty of his images to produce an edgy commentary on our addiction to illusion. Right?
Well, not really.
Better to say, a not very edgy and a very consumable engagement with illusion. Through every feature of production in this work (thematic and technical), Crewdson shows us that he knows the world in which he participates is corrupt. Exploitation and seduction are twin engines of voluptuousness charging his work with consumability. The special effects that drench this photograph are those of high-end advertising. Crewdson embraces the industrial light and magic of Hollywood’s best equipment. The finely cultivated technical sensibility is entirely formulaic. Crewdson is the very essence of complicity. His images are aligned with mass culture values—the exploitative voyeurism, the fakery, the sensationalism of a perhaps dead young female displayed for our prurient delectation. We can even imagine that Crewdson’s interior life has been fully colonized by the schlock-in-trade of the cultural mainstream, the stuff of daily dreams and marketed illusions packaged for consumption sources. His work indicates no qualms, no hesitation, no flickerings of guilt or sense that these are lesser sources than those of Leonardo, classical antiquity, or the great works reproduced in Janson’s History of Art. By the time the slides went up and the lights went out in his first art history class, Crewdson’s image banks had already been filled with the stuff of Fantasia, the Magic Kingdom and the Emerald City, the worlds of Pooh, and Never Never Land.
Opportunistic, trivial, significant, suggestive, profound—whatever one thinks of Crewdson’s work his imagery is popular and current. Criticality? The somnambulant landscapes of Crewdson’s constructed tableaux are meant to provide pleasure. Crewdson’s work makes a self-conscious exhibition of the value of aesthetics as art and artifice. Let’s entertain for a moment the idea that the most direct parallel for Crewdson’s work is not among his contemporaries, but with John Everett Millais. The late-nineteenth-century painter was renowned for his “meticulous” attention to craft. Technical accomplishment distinguished his canvases, including that of the drowned Ophelia so clearly quoted in Crewdson’s photograph. Replacing forest glen with a front parlor and an English maid with a woman of the American heartland, Crewdson exploits every technical possibility to achieve his effects. The exercise of skill in Millais also focused on virtuosity. Aesthetic effects serve as the material of art, not merely its means, in both instances. Crewdson’s expert manipulation of effects is a way of showing off, but it also is a way of incorporating the techniques of industry production into his work as subject matter.
Here lies innocence. The body of the young woman is laid out for our pleasure, without moral compunction. For this is the corpse of an old aesthetic sensibility. We can’t mourn its passing. Nor can we wake it from its cold slumber, only from our own. We’re so accustomed to the commodification of criticism that the idea of an image that functions as a commodity without embodying a critical position seems immoral. Why should it? Crewdson reinvests these images-from-images with the exquisite specialness of dreams. Painters of another generation might have yearned for an absolute of pure representation, self-sufficient and self-evident abstraction. Earlier yet, they may have struggled for true apperception of a person or thing, making it into a transparent image. Crewdson draws on images as the original object of inspiration—he isn’t representing life, love, religious passions, nature, spiritual belief, or any thing at all except images.
Such an attitude has its own critical pedigree. The legacy of postmodernism is conspicuous. When Douglas Crimp curated Pictures in 1977, the point of view expressed in his accompanying essay in the exhibition catalog became a rallying point for definition of a postmodern aesthetic, particularly as it came to circulate around the artists of the New York scene. Robert Longo’s Men in the Cities, Sherrie Levine’s rephotographed works, Jack Goldstein’s endlessly repetitive loops of fragments—these exemplify, each individually in their own way but also collectively, the condition of postmodern representation. Crimp’s argument was that all images already existed. Nothing new could be invented or expressed. The notions of original authorship and creativity were played out. Nor could an image hold its own against any other. Like Gerhard Richter speaking of his Atlas project, the artists of now canonical postmodernism saw ordering and selecting as the only meaningful task. Even that gesture was premised on futility of purpose and emphasis. No image could mean more than another or be better, more valuable, than its infinite brethren in the crowded fields of visual culture. Richter explains his exhaustive display of photographs thus: “In my picture atlas…I can only get a handle on the flood of pictures by creating order since there are no individual pictures at all anymore.”
Crewdson counters this attitude with his dramatic investment in the auratic value of individuated works. Crewdson’s image fascinates because its artfulness seduces. The theme—the “death of a beautiful woman”—has been politically incorrect for a century and a half of modern art, condemned by Edgar Allan Poe’s critics as inappropriate material when the nineteenth-century writer suggested otherwise. We can’t ignore the subject matter of Crewsdon’s photograph. We don’t see beauty in spite of the theme, but in it. Aesthetics has no independent moral order.
That, above all, is the terrifying, liberating message of this image and its effect. His images don’t have an “agenda” in the tendentious sense. They don’t create a “to do list” of actions meant to change any particular circumstance or condition. In interviews Crewdson claims to be doing nothing other than making photographs that bring his imagination forth in visual form. We can’t blame this impulse to create individual expression on the culture industry since it works so hard to eliminate the distinguishing features of personal expression that might trouble the seamless surface of consumable effects. No, Crewdson works from a very different starting point. His motivation arises squarely, firmly, from within the realm of art. Aesthetics has no transcendent moral existence—it is not outside the other ideologies.
In an already fully corrupted world, one in which consumerism holds sway, commercial images provide a standard for production. In an administered world such as our own the purpose of aesthetics—the awareness of artifice, the appeal to pleasure, beauty, and imagination—is a necessity in its own right. It cannot be harnessed to another purpose. The sites and sights of “resistance” are almost gone. But aesthetic effects still provide a momentary disruption in the cycle of sheer consumption through the very undirectedness of artistic work. The negative, critical charge has diminished. It depended on rhetorical and actual strategies of opposition, both of which have faded. That rhetoric has gone formulaic. The oppositional resistance has become aligned with entrenched interests, including its own. Artwork termed “political” often serves a stabilizing function, helping to maintain the cultural status quo. The twilight in these works announces a change, one that has been long in coming but now falls fast. Recognizing the character of this new art, how can we respond to its condition—and ours?
2. Reawakening and Imagining Otherwise, Again
T. J. Clark’s Farewell to an Idea is a melancholy book, and its appearance in 1999 marks a striking milestone in late twentieth-century art history. Sadly self-conscious of the end of the utopian dream of a particular modern agenda, it embodies for my generation the crash-landed trajectory of an important critical approach to modern art. For those of us formed intellectually in the shadow of Greenbergian modernism, Clark provided a way to think beyond the sterile formulations of formalism and arrive at a sense of the social purpose of even the most esoteric aesthetic practices. He offered scholarly evidence and principled justification for the belief that modernism was more than a game of forms, more than mere rhetoric of opposition, and more than a way to glamorize a rarified product for an elite consumer market. Clark countered description of style with analysis of substance, superficiality with argument, and cynicism with moral conviction. He also countered orthodoxy with subtlety. These are all nobly useful principles. But the funereal sadness that pervades Clark’s book suggests that though these contributions may have successfully (even monumentally) shifted the critical ground on which we have understood the past, they may no longer serve to assist us in the present.
Clark’s major theme is that modern artists tasked themselves to “imagine otherwise.” That cry echoes now with considerable poignancy. For Clark is the figure who took modern art and its autonomy and redirected it towards a historically grounded cultural activism. Clark demonstrated the extent to which those claims to autonomy within later twentieth-century art practice and its critical reception were themselves a part of cultural processes of compensation, recuperation, and ideological production. Clark re-examined the older terms of modern art and found in them new potentialities, demonstrating for us that it might be possible to take seriously the notion that to “imagine otherwise” was a potent act of cultural discourse. But at this historical moment, the beginning of another era clearly trumpeted in the millennial hype, do these premises still hold?
Underlying Clark’s characterization of modernism as a radical belief system was a faith in the socially transformative potential of art as an activist cultural practice. If artists could function within a political sphere through their intervention in symbolic cultural discourse, then one could believe that their energies might be joined to an effort in which the unchecked forces of rampant capitalism might be brought to account. For the utopian dream that underlies Clark’s work—and that of the artists’ of whom he writes—is that the social order wrought by capitalism might be transformed. If it could not be overthrown by radical revolutionary activity, then at least its policies might be modified—either by progressive measures or by acts of strategic intervention—and that art had a part to play in bringing about this change. Experimental, avant-garde “art” wasn’t necessarily supposed to do this single-handedly, yet this mission provided a compelling justification for fine art.
But the stance of aesthetics-as-politics was often two-sided. The appearance of radicalism cloaked the careerism of many artists. The rhetoric of opposition often allowed elite practices to pass themselves off as politically useful. Tendentious activism marked its distinction from normative, consumable discourses of mass media culture through deliberately adopting obscure and difficult visual and verbal means. In the process of secularization that came with cultural modernism, aesthetic and artistic activity came to substitute its own forms of salvation for that of religious redemption, moral improvement, and spiritual transformation—but according to the same model of faith-based energy. The efficacy of these two belief systems—“political” aesthetics and religious faith—is much the same. Each believes that intervention in and through symbolic formations can have instrumental cultural effect. The limits and qualification that have come to limit the belief are many, even as the project of redirecting the course of capitalism’s reach has proved difficult, if not impossible, however much we may still want to hope otherwise.
The impasse met by such belief didn’t originate in response to Clark, nor is the continuation of such belief systems to be attributed to him. But the bald fact is that the oppositional rhetoric of radicality in fine art and criticism has become formulaic and academic in the worst sense. Esoteric works, often highly illegible to any but a few insiders, are assumed to serve as the radical conscience of the culture. This model of current criticism pervades the art world with its galleries, museums, auction houses, alternative and mainstream exhibition spaces, publications, sales, and subventions. It dominates graduate schools in fine arts and programs in art history. And this discourse has been so blind to its own pernicious limitations that its mere survival is itself a marvel.
But the institutionalized domains of power replicate such discourses as part of their daily activity. The publication of every bit of wall text and catalog copy, the hiring of every new eager recruit, the anointing of yet another young aspiring artist—every act is part of the replication of the social relations of production. The departments of art and art history (and of museums, galleries, and publications) that operate at the perceived center of power continue to self-select toward the conservative versions of old models of thought—the academic party line—even as these are self-characterized as radical. The many regions of this empire are peopled by artists who simultaneously desire to dismantle and to be taken up by these institutions. The phrase “my work is a critique of” figures regularly in artists’ statements, as do the equally meaningless bromides in critical writings about the “transgressive” or “subversive” character of an improbable array of visual works.
If we take seriously the task of “imagining otherwise” in a contemporary context, then it means being willing to make some rather unwelcome observations. So be it. The end seems to merit the means. So much is at stake. If genuine alternative culture is to have any chance for vitality, then the terms on which it operates have to be rethought. This includes the task of serious reflection on the assumptions on which criticism operates. Academic culture has become as much the enemy of independent alternatives as the culture industry. The former continues its outmoded case for opposition, negative criticality, and esoteric resistance. But artists in large part are working in recognition of their relations of compromise and contradiction, their more self-consciously positive—or nuanced and complex—engagements with the culture industry. A certain risk attaches to flirting with the potent instruments of capital. Artistic practice is always charged with a treacherous task when cultivating a dynamic relationship to mainstream power. But the dialectics of that relation suggest a mutual necessity that persists, even now. The assumed values of administered culture and the insidious technologies through which they function have become invisible to us. We don’t even perceive the constructedness of the world we inhabit.
Throughout the period of modernism, art was construed as “other.” We could substitute the phrases “other than the state,” “other than religion,” “other than commerce,” “other than the culture industry” among other practices and institutions. What the exuberantly engaged and reoriented work of the 1990s has begun to make clear in new ways is that modern aesthetics always benefited from that supposed “otherness” and returned a benefit as well by affirming certain key tenets that undergird the status quo. At any given historical moment such relations have a specific form, and aesthetic manifestations use their formal and thematic means to signal this specificity. Fine art was always dependent on and in some ways beholden to mainstream culture—Greenberg’s “umbilical cord of gold.” Complicity suggests mutual gain. This relationship is not direct or unmediated, and not obtained through a simple sellout but via a complicated set of interconnections. The “other” was never outside of culture but was an integrated component of its values, systems, and operations. This insight doesn’t spoil the game. It renders explicit some of the terms on which it has been operating. Political rhetoric and the stance of resistance became, like other attitudes, material for artistic expression—and as able to be sustained in their claims as the tenets of any other faith. But they must cease to be the trump cards of a marked deck. Artifice, the very essence of artistic activity, is the potent instrument of insight into the machinations of the real and to the constructedness of the “real” within the shared imaginary of any culture. Making that experience into formal, material expression creates the cultural legacy and memory that is art.
Some of my critics (the first versions of this manuscript elicited extreme responses on both sides) will accuse me of cynicism. I don’t see this. I can’t imagine how pointing out the hypocritical inadequacy of current thinking and the need to move beyond the impasse into which the academicization of old modern avant-garde has placed us can be construed as cynical. Pointing out that this impasse exists can hardly be news to anyone even if it’s been convenient for many people to ignore it. Nothing stands to be changed. Except the way we talk about what we do. And think about it. And conceive of its efficacy in the world.
So we arrive at a moment when the most crucial thing to “imagine otherwise” may be the critical foundation on which that imagination itself is premised. Nowhere am I suggesting that the culture industry, once deemed the devil incarnate, is now our new best friend. Nor am I pretending that the politics of independent or alternative thought should be abandoned. Quite the contrary. My reason for writing this book is that it seems glaringly, even terrifyingly, apparent to me that the terms on which avant-garde orthodoxy and its intellectual descendants have kept a rhetorical flame alive have blinded us. A flagrant, and even hypocritical, connection exists between supposedly oppositional discourse and repressive power structures in academic and cultural institutions. The rhetoric of radicality serves to replicate those very structures that reproduce the social relations of production as a status quo. The intertwining of the mythic values of a fine art and supposed criticism with the culture of late capitalism is a reality to which we need to wake up. And about which we need to begin to think differently, if we are to preserve any power of imagination—whether for spiritual, personal, aesthetic, or political ends.
If we return for a moment to Crewdson in light of this rallying cry, then what can we extrapolate from observation of his work? What features of his attitude are fundamental to a new criticism of aesthetic objects?
First, although the concepts of purity in regard to a medium, once central to modernism, have been jettisoned in favor of an approach to facture as a complex, multivalent core of artistic production, formal approaches got thrown out with them. Artifice and constructedness are the catchwords of recast notion of complicit formalism. The photograph, in Crewdson’s case, is hardly a document of the real. Nor is it a formal play of light and dark arranged on a surface. It doesn’t even index an actual event, but rather, plays with the inconceivable unreality of a staged image, daring us to believe in the fantasy it projects. Often contradictory, always indexical and complex, the formal properties of such new works are dynamically, markedly impure.
Just as we can trace a shift between modern purity and contemporary complexity, so we can also see how the notion of autonomy, which was central to modernism, was displaced by contingency, and now by complicity. Postmodern critique, marked by strategies of appropriation and contingency, inscribed an arch ironic distance to both making and representing. But in the place of this diffidence and disdain, a distinct mood of engaged, expressive affectivity has come into play. Crewdson loves his sources, and he clearly aspires to have his own work approach their condition of production in every way. We may imagine, or want to project, some edgy distance into this relationship, but the evident admiration will not dispel no matter how rigorous a censure we introduce. Critical opposition and resistant aesthetics, so intimately bound to the principle of autonomy, have been replaced by a reflective, self-conscious artifice.
Instead of imagining that works of art either resist or (in another image of hardness and boundedness) reflect contemporary culture, we can imagine instead that fine art embodies our perception to shift it out of phase. No work of fine art is ever finished, never in a condition of static completion. We intersect with works of art in a specific historical moment, our own, even as a work’s capacity to elicit response changes as it moves through a historical continuum. We respond to Crewdson’s images because they seem familiar and unfamiliar. They remind us of B-movies or gothic tales we might have seen, but not ones we can recover in their entirety. They never existed intact. These are provocative reminders of a shared, vague field of references. The seamless image, made according to production values that Crewdson appropriates from of image-culture, shatters along the fault lines of an out-of-phase and not-quite-in-synch representation. The image we see doesn’t function autonomously. We don’t respond only to the thing “in itself” as if it simply offered meaning unequivocally. Instead, these images are a means of mediating our relation to other images, past and present, in zones from fine art to vernacular and popular culture. When such works have as high an aesthetic valence as those of Crewdson, are as consumable in their repulsive-but-appealing tension, then they resonate profoundly through our shared cultural knowledge base.
Crewdson also shows dramatically how aware he is of his own compromised condition. He knows he is an artificer, and thus he also calls attention to the discrepancy between “art” and “real” (the constructed-ness of the latter being only evident through the machinations of the former). Clearly seduced by the artfulness of his own art, Crewdson doesn’t flinch from acknowledging his allegiance to major systems of cultural production on which the specific character of his work relies. His exposure of this particular “bad faith” is what allows the critic to be honest, for a change. This admission of complicity, in which self-interest plays a part, rather than a claim to “resistance,” or “aloof separation,” or “distance,” is the starting point of critical awareness. We are all within the ideologies that artistic means bring into focus and form.
Works of fine art provide a point of purchase on individual experience within cultural and historical circumstances. They take the ineffable, ephemeral, and transitory nature of subjective experience and make it over into representation. They preserve and communicate cultural values as memory within a continual process of historical change. The artistic act is fundamentally constitutive—not of things, objects, images as self-identical or fixed forms—but of formal expressions that provoke interpretive response. Fine art is thus always transformative. And the role of contemporary criticism is to read the specific character by which these transformations appear to us in the form of new aesthetic objects and practices.