Should art have a morality? This is a question that has plagued me the past few months, egged on by a resurgence in the use of “politically correct” or PC as a pejorative in American culture.
The term PC first came to political prominence in a speech given by George H.W. Bush during a commencement speech at the University of Michigan in 1991. In it, he was quick to align “political correctness” with intolerance, claiming it to be a force for the abuse of individuals based on their race (read “whiteness”) or class (“wealth”), rather than a defense of those weakened because of racism and sexism in society at large.
This transfer of antagonism from race, sex, etc. to “class” would become an essential rhetorical device used by conservative politicians. Bush Sr. brought it into the realm of class warfare and the American culture wars. PC became something to rail against as an unfair assigning of “bad motives to people who disagree with us.” In true doublespeak prowess, Bush Sr. went so far as linking PC to bigotry declaring, “as Americans we must use our persuasive powers to conquer bigotry once and for all.” PC remained in the American consciousness but didn’t float to the top again until just this past election year, when it became the rallying cry of a class of misinformed, economically-disadvantaged white folk who felt disparaged when asked to explore their own unintentional biases. This group coalesced behind a candidate who is able to stand on a cult of personality alone.
PC underwent an important change in the intervening years. In the 90s, the term was used “to describe what [detractors] see as a growing intolerance, a closing of debate, a pressure to conform to a radical program or risk being accused of a commonly reiterated trio of thought crimes: sexism, racism and homophobia.” Today, thanks to a renaissance of independent journalists steeped in identity politics, a generation of Americans no longer see an end to sexism, racism, and homophobia as a “radical program” but a necessary program. More and more, maintenance of the status quo is now known for what it always was: the protection of privilege through oppression and disenfranchisement.
PC flourished in the arts for the last 25 years unabated as art remained the vanguard of popular culture. Its alignment with identity politics (with Foucault, Muñoz, Haraway, and Butler as canon for art students, for example) was intuitive and necessary in building a discourse that centered on the marginalized and disenfranchised so that the power of self-representation could present a counterpoint to the privileged class.
Exclusivity vs. Inclusivity
Art, an endeavor couched in exclusivity, began sourcing its rhetoric from a politics of inclusion and expansion. Dissonances, however, emerged. The main inconsistency focused on by most critics is that of wealth disparity between the consumers of art and the practitioners of art. Wealth after all is an exercise in power and domination, and now a protected form of speech. Wealth, especially great wealth, is born of exploitation.
(left) Pablo Picasso, Harlequin Musician, 1924. Oil on canvas, 51 3/16 × 38 1/4 in. (130 × 97.2 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Given in loving memory of her husband, Taft Schreiber, by Rita Schreiber, 1989.31.2 © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
(right) Pablo Picasso, Pierrot, Paris, 1918. Oil on canvas, 36 1/2 × 28 3/4 in. (92.7 × 73 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Sam A. Lewisohn Bequest, Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Freedom to Express
The Barnes Foundation recently opened Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change, an exhibition that explores Picasso’s dual practice of “naturalistic representation” (Pierrot, above-right) and cubist experimentation (Harlequin Musician, above-left) during World War I. In it, Curator Simonetta Fraquelli, suggests that Picasso may have foregone working in a completely cubist vernacular under wartime xenophobic pressures while living in France. This is not an indictment or accusation that Picasso succumbed to generalized fear, but rather, that he was influenced, either explicitly or implicitly, by a cultural milieu that had associated his revolutionary style with the “barbarism” of the occupying German forces. Incidentally, the pairing above, two clowns—the pinnacle of metacritics—would probably fetch around $300 million were they to be auctioned.
Picasso, held as the artist who exploited the powers of freedom of expression through a freedom of style in the most remarkable ways, curtailed his own expression because of fear-based societal pressures. Fraquelli remarks that Picasso’s two styles were “not antithetical: on the contrary, each informs the other, to the degree that the metamorphosis from one style to the other is so natural for the artist that occasionally they occur in the same works of art.” A dialogue developed wherein balls-to-the-wall experimentation was mediated by societal pressures, in due course, bringing both styles to bear in his future work.
As Fraquelli notes of Picasso’s dual practice, freedom of expression and the expansion of possible identities are not diametrically opposed, but there is an ongoing negotiation between these two projects: they work in tandem. The imperative today is that we must not let freedom of expression and the expansion of possible identities become opposed through divisive rhetoric which uses hate speech to cast the ongoing project of human liberation as antithetical to a popular, imagined identity or a position of weakness. The popular identity must be one that embraces possible identities and rejects fear.
Established power is a truth and that should never be forgotten. The American identity, the project that set this nation in motion, is premised on inclusion but built on exploitation, enslavement, and theft. Those overlords were never overthrown. America had no revolution from itself and so it must continuously reinvent itself in an attempt to overcome its muddled history.
Charles Ray, Huck and Jim, 2015. Art Institute of Chicago/Charles Ray. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
The Sexuality Prohibition
Last May, it came out that with the opening of the new Whitney in the Meatpacking District, there should have been a glorious, 9-foot-tall sculpture by Charles Ray of Jim and Huck from the Mark Twain classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn crowning the public plaza. In 2010, a year after commissioning the work, the Whitney decided too much controversy would be created by having a work as audacious as a naked black man standing next to a naked white teenager without any other context. Admirably, Ray would not compromise on the placement of the work. Most were quick to deride the decision, but it stands as a lesson in what the arts believes its role to be.
According to Calvin Tomkins' Charles Ray profile in The New Yorker, which broke the story, the museum feared the work would "offend non-museumgoing visitors." The art world self-censoring and limiting its own impact on the public sphere is indicative of the arts' disorganized approach to freedom of speech. The “offense” of this speech act most likely lies in its innuendo of sexuality, which in the United States is gestured at through the mere presence of genitalia—make that genitalia black and you have yourself some free-speech kryptonite. Somehow, we’ve tacitly agreed to limiting our freedom of speech when it comes to sexuality but are happy to accept racism, bigotry, sexism, and obscene wealth as acceptable forms of speech that must be protected.
The case of Donelle Woolford, a black female artist identity created by a white male is an instance, too, where dissonances in the expressed morality of art becomes apparent. Joe Scanlan—the artist who created Donelle Woolford—has spoken little about the project, refusing to insert his reasoning behind a seeming swipe at affirmative action. (Maybe? I'm honestly not sure, and neither is he: “it was… important for me to feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.”) Or perhaps it's rather a swipe at the categorization of work by sex and race: Woolford’s “works” are banal wood abstractions, devoid of identity after all. In all senses, a misguided project, Donelle Woolford, meshed themes of exploitation, oppression, and racism producing a symptom of issues rather than a critical response to these very real issues that affect millions of people. Only in America...
What is the morality of art?
Freedom to push the boundaries of understanding. Freedom to create new identities. Freedom to critique that which exists. Freedom to prognosticate what should.
These tenants will overlap; they will work counter to one another at times. They do all share one thing though: the need to be unfettered. And at this moment in time, freedom is not yet granted to all, and so in the case of the more frivolous desires of expression—the desire to speak uncritically, the atavistic desire to uphold what has been because it is safe and comfortable—the ease of reproducing symptoms should be avoided. There is no freedom to oppress, let us not forget that.
Image at top: Pablo Picasso, Seated Woman, 1920. Oil on canvas, 36 1/4 × 25 9/16 in. (92 × 65 cm). Musée Picasso, Paris, MP67. Photo: J.G. Berizzi. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York