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Art Must Be Revolution

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The French philosopher Alain Badiou said the other day in a lecture at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, “Art must be revolution.”

The topic, in which Matthew Barney also headlined, was billed as Can Art and Politics Be Thought? I immediately misread the topic as Can Art and Politics Be Taught, which, to this writer, is an infinitely more interesting question. Helas, I agree with Badiou and feel any sort of revolution (if not activism) in art would be a welcome one. I would be happy to throw a few pavés in the general direction of change.

In a separate article, Sebastian Smee, art critic for the Boston Globe and this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism writing on the Venice Biennale, commented, “Contemporary art likes to pretend it has no past. Every year, artists shamelessly recycle conceits that established others’ reputations mere decades earlier. Aging geniuses are relegated to the history books well before their time is up. Amnesia reigns.” More importantly, though, he made a comment about how the “gesture” in art these days has replaced the idea. “The received wisdom is that contemporary art is mostly about ideas. In truth, however, it’s mostly about gestures. Sustained engagement and the kind of mental activity that generates actual ideas are rare. In today’s art world, one gesture is completed, and a new one must be dreamed up.”

I also agree with Smee. There’s a certain level of comfort knowing that gesture has to some extent replaced any real meaning or ideas in art; it helps one to accept the inadequacy and quality (the missing content) of a lot of work I see these days – especially in San Diego.

It might also be a convenient label I can slap on any work that doesn’t meet my approval. Who’s to say? But there is a fine line between “gesture” as a means to an end, a sort of justifiable irresponsibility in an artist’s intent or production (the artwork), and “gesture” in the form of, say, personal investigation, which might have more to do with ideas and a process (method, technique, material) fueled by a passion and the resulting fruitful labor of its outcome.

And so while we can pretend to effect change within our cultural ranks – for the good of the cause – there are those who gesture and leave us rotting in jail and those who point decisively. I much prefer the latter and artists who can do so with works that can lead the way.

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