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Back to Basics


A lot of stuff in the air about aesthetic responses to the politics of fear. A lot about how art needs to "hit back." All these folks out there seem pretty convinced that political art is good art, and that good political art will necessarily emerge during a time when the politics are exclusionary, reactionary, unsettled, discriminatory, and expeditiously populist.

Maybe they're right. Maybe in the next few years, there will be a new birth of art that takes as its occasion for existing the overt expression of political messages -- and our tastes will gravitate toward such work because of its immediate urgency (because it gives voice to positions of resistance to bigotry, intolerance, and bad hair or whatever).

But in the last few months, I have only found enjoyment in art that, as it were, either blows the roof off the joint with its over-the-topness (so fattened with ornamentation and frills and flowers), so noisy and gaudy that it couldn't be anything but enjoyment; or alternatively in the calmest and most methodical examinations of what constitutes any kind of artistic claim. The maximal or the minimal -- anything in between, and certainly anything saturated by political content, seems depressingly transient (just like everything else we transact in, at least at the moment), or just not up to the task of meaningful critique.

Minimalism becomes surprisingly useful in this context, and even in a way more effectively political. When everything else seems like it might be false; when even empirically true things become grounds for questioning -- it's time for us to reassert the basics of what we can agree on: shapes, the canvas, earth, sand, glass, color, metal form, our fear of the absence in the middle of things, and so on. Shape, line, color. Any expressed claim has those ingredients. And if we could possibly agree on this kind of claim, then we could string together shapes, lines, and colors to make words or sentences or propositions or paintings.

The point of having the basics should not be to erect the same kinds of ideological structures. I get that. The point is not to re-hash the past. But I don't think that revisiting the claims of minimalism in the present moment should necessarily produce similar outcomes. Rather, it's like we have to get back down to standby mode. We have to reboot. And we have to reboot to something simple enough that even camps arguing with each other so vehemently and so violently have to agree.

This line of string is a line of string. Agreed? Great. Let's move on. It extends at a 45 degree angle from the x,y origin for seven feet. Fantastic. Let's move on -- a bigger jump this time -- equality before the law is something that should not depend upon race. Agreed? Really? Great! Let's keep going. Isn't this fun so far?

This stack of plywood is three feet tall. Agreed? Great. Let's move on. It originates from a stand of trees 90 miles from here, on a farm owned by a guy named Eric Jones. Same page? Stupendous. Okay -- more of a leap here -- it is better when more individuals in a society have good health outcomes than when fewer people have good health outcomes. You think that too? Amazing! Let's keep going.

The back breaking labor of rebuilding consensus has to start at stripped down principles.

From there we can move on to questions about how principles can be strung together to make claims that have outcomes, effects, consequences.

So Flavin's neons in the corner of the room stand as objects in themselves -- pure, simple materials making a simple claim, "this is a stack of lightbulbs with x and y wattage." But that stack also illuminates the maple floors, the walls, the viewer. They have an aura that changes the spaces that they fill. From the simplest of materials comes the claim that art objects change things: that they bathe their surroundings and viewers in a kind of aura. Things are affected by other things. Claims have consequences.

I dunno. We went to DIA:Beacon. The train ran next to the museum and separated us from the river. It used to be a Nabisco factory. Even here, not like I needed reminding, the industrial past and its blue collar white laborers has been steamrolled into something made for the liberal elite's consumption. No more cookies made here. Only spaces for events and gawking tourists, and paintings, of course.