The Citadel of Art

In traveling around to various panels and symposia where contemporary issues in art—or in visual representation, as the case might be—are given a forum, I am struck by the manner in which citadels are verbally constructed over and over again in order to fend off the notion of ambiguity in art. Even before the publication of The End of the Art World in late 1998, I was amazed to discover how little ambiguity would be tolerated at these conferences. For years I have been saying that academic theory has become the gasoline for driving the engine of the marketplace. My assumption had been that most market-oriented, media-driven trends, whether they originate in the art world or in art academia, eventually mutate into something else. Yet, the role of academic theory does not seem to have released its grip on artists. It has become all the more rigid. The kind of language that one is allowed to use has become increasingly limited, and the selection of issues on the table has become overtly constrained.

Many artists feel obliged to accept the rhetoric of the academic institutions at face value, not realizing that the kind of language being used is less about art than about the application of theory to the marketing of art. For example, how many dinner party conversations begin with the mention of a exhibition. Before any issues related to the exhibition can be discussed, the conversation is suddenly aborted, only to become a group diatribe on which galleries are considered "good" and which are not. Aesthetics has virtually no place in the discussion, let alone ideas that might have been incited by the work.

A friend of mine, whose opinion I respect, recently stated that art today is striving too hard to appear serious. Compared to Miro, Chagall, Matisse, and Picasso, there is no joy in art anymore. Sound näive? Maybe, but I don’t think her observation is incorrect. What happens in an art environment where most artists are intent on trying to prove art? (The fact is that you can never prove art.) But the environment remains Serious (with a capital S). What does this say about the condition of art today?

Recently at a College Art Association conference in New York, I attended a panel in which each of the five participants had a laptop, equipped with a power point program. What impressed me was the view of the panel from the perspective of the audience in which the five laptops on the table up front functioned as condoms or protective shields. It was difficult to understand where one statement differed from another. In essence, it did not matter. The pressure was to conform to the same language, to keep time with one’s REMs while reading from the raster, anxiously hoping that the power point software would not disengage.

In fact, this was not so different from a conference I attended in Krakow, Poland last fall where I was invited to give the keynote address for a conference entitled "Polyphony of Voices." Most of the participants were either from Eastern Europe, Germany, or the UK with a smattering of "voices" from the United States. While I have considerable respect for the organizer of the symposium, there were a few obvious problems. As things progressed it was evident that the conformist instinct was not merely a New York phenomenon but an international one. While different languages were represented (with simultaneous translations into English) the participants were generally unwilling to articulate differing positions. Instead, each participant held on to the kind of cynicism that is expected from such proceedings, each with his or her own special resentment and lack of interest in life, insisting only on the right to complain about what others were doing. The issues of curatorial practice— presumably the topic of the conference— turned into a series of calculated strategies of attack on the most predictable level. It became clear that the ideas of individuals were of less concern than the hierarchy of institutions they represented. Any real concerns about the future of art and of artists were virtually exempt from the discussion.

The institutions of art have become like citadels. Few of the representatives have anything to say, and those that want to say something are discouraged from doing so. There is a supreme difficulty in sustaining any level of passion or feeling in what wants to be communicated. Without forums that are dedicated to issues that determine a better future for art, we are all left in the lurch— without a vision and without a real point of view, much like the rest of American politics today. My concern is that we leave the citadel behind— pack-up the laptops— and learn to speak from the heart in a way that transmits a sense of order, a structural unconscious, amid the unending chaos to which we have (unfortunately) become resigned. The future of art must replace the citadel and it is up to artists to discover ways to make it happen.


Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.