When the Hollywood liberal elite began to publicly question the White House’s post 9-11 war mongering and warrantless wiretapping policies, conservative talking heads admonished them to, “Get out of politics and stick to what they knew best—acting.” Ironically, these were probably the same white men who voted for Ronald Regan and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In a similar way, those who controlled the velvet ropes that gave artists access to cultural cachet of museum and commercial gallery shows, magazine articles, catalog essays, and prestigious private collections exhibited what might be called curatorial (or critical) tokenism. One prime example would be the Hammer Museum, which we expect to present the important work of the present moment. But looking back at their artists and exhibits, it would be difficult to decipher that the United States and its allies have been the victim of terrorist attacks and engaged in a couple of really big wars. This is not to say the Hammer has buried its head in the sand. The Hammer’s Conversations and panel discussions have often focused on the diminishment of our constitutional rights, neo-liberal economic policy, and our wars of aggression. The problem is that the topics and subjects of artistic production are not allowed to participate in these adult conversations.Jennifer and Kevin McCoy's Vice Presidential Downtime Requirements
I expect that some of the recalcitrance on the part of public institutions stems from Jesse Helm’s napalm attack on the NEA, and the fear that exhibiting art that has a political opinion could threaten the severely depleted cash flow—and serve as a big steaming plate of wedge issue for some Republican running for reelection.Still From Sharif Waked's Video Chic Point
But there are signs of hope. Earlier this summer the Hammer presented Jeremy Deller’s It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq. And now, two concurrent shows offer a critique of the policies and procedures that have affected us since the attacks of September 11th, eight years ago today. Now three concurrent shows, Secrets in a Democracy at Scripps College Gallery through October 10, 2009, The New Normal on view at the Pomona College Museum of Art through October 18, 2009, and Welcome to Fake Iraq at Angels Gate in San Pedro through October 25, 2009 unfetters art that dares to have a political opinion.
The work in these three shows didn’t emerge fully formed from Zeus’ head, but was being made and discussed in the shadows of the lucrative art market that had been grabbing everyone’s attention. Now that the market for paintings has shriveled, and advocates of beauty have dried up and blown away, there seems to be more visibility for art that stakes a partisan political position.
My point is not to dis’ painting or things of beauty, but to point out that everything from the Winged Victory of Samothrace to Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece to Picasso's Guernica was championing some particular political agenda. The recent Art of Two Germanys at LACMA showed us that even the post-war abstract art coming out of West Germany was making a point about Fascism and political oppression in the East. The whole raison d'être for pre-Guttenberg visual art was propaganda of one sort or another. Unfortunately, when the word “art” was sutured to the word “market,” fine art was redacted of its potentially offensive content until the kind of stuff seen at art fairs became as innocuous (and as vapidly entertaining) as cable television.Jason Kunke's Model 1:3 Scale Nike
Many of the artists in The New Normal purloin their raw materials from the Interweb; Beacon, by Thompson and Craighead, projects a program that presents real-time search queries that conflate the ridiculous and pornographic, revealing the banality of our zeitgeist. Speaking of banal, Vice Presidential Downtime Requirements offers up a mock hotel room arranged to match the much-reported hotel room requirements of Vice President Dick Cheney. One would have to read the photocopied memo on the nightstand to pick out the particulars regaled in the blog-O-sphere; for the most part, it looks like any other mid-level hotel room. A great metaphor for the echo-chamber feedback-loop that is our current conglomeration of volunteer, for-profit, and publicly funded media can be found in Annetta Kapon's Untitled Cameras in the adjacent show of work from the museum's permanent collection. The more powerful work in the show comes from the artists who pushed away from their keyboards and glowing screens. Sharif Waked creates a faux haute couture runway show with bizarrely bared midriffs. Only at the end of the video do we see that the inspiration came from Israeli checkpoints along the Palestinian border, where travelers are forced under gunpoint to prove that their midsections are not wrapped with sticks of dynamite.Detail From Matthew Siegle's Hooah Installation
At the other end of LA County, Angels Gate presents a show organized by Nicholas Grider that came from his experience role playing an embedded reporter at Ft. Irwin's National Training Center. The 1000 square mile army base has a fake Iraqi village where soldiers train before shipping out to Iraq and Afganistan. Grider invited other artists to "embed" at Ft. Irwin, and the art that resulted from their experiences is now on display in San Pedro.From Maria Schriber's Series A Fake So Real
In the case of Jason Kunke and Matthew Siegle, complex work arises from the conflict between their political opposition to the war and their participation in a real slice of the military industrial complex that produced the invasion and occupation. Siegle's re-drawings of the exploded views from the assembly instructions for the model Hummer displayed on his work desk bring together the continuum of models, from those made for children, to model cities made for slightly older boys and girls as they prepare for an environment filled with IEDs--where exploded views become views of real life explosions.Chris Revelle's The Spread of Democracy
Unfortunately, some of the work feels phoned in. I thought that Chris Revelle's performance and installation of a military recruitment office did a much more powerful job of evoking the creepy enticements of recruiters, while playing it straight for his audience. In Welcome to Fake Iraq, we are only presented with the ephemera of the earlier event, and the irony of the work may be lost for the casual viewer. Much better were the pairings of newer and older work by photographers Grider and Maria Schriber. The short depth of field in Schriber's earlier photographs creates a toy-like quality, while her newer portraits of some of the Forward Operating Base's actors are quite beautiful while calling into question the veracity of photography itself. Grider, who has been the most embedded of the artists in the exhibition, also presents newer photographs taken at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana. Perhaps as a sign of things to come, the unfinished and unused city is shown deserted. Situated adjacent to a wilderness area, wild horses-evidenced by their droppings--roam the ghost town, which functions as both a folly and monument to one nation's nation building hubris.Nicholas Grider's Unfinished "Iraqi" Village, Joint Readiness Training Center, Fort Polk, Louisiana