Visibility, Potency and Meaning: Making Sense of Art at the Crosshairs

Protest on the steps of the National Portrait Gallery, December 2010. Courtesy the Washington Post, photo: Bill O'Leary.

Since I made my first appearance on the Art21 blog about six weeks ago, commenting on the now-infamous censoring of David Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in My Belly at the National Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek exhibition, the incident has continued to make waves. Among many blogs, Hyperallergic and ArtInfo have followed the story closely, providing careful updates throughout its development. A few decisive twists and turns deserve to be highlighted here, as not many cases have echoed so strongly in the recent years. This run-through will serve as a brief introduction to my main theme of interest: the difficult relationship between art’s visibility, potency, and meaning, as they unravel in the context of presentation and interpretation.

The manifestation of support for Wojnarowicz’s video has been overwhelming, with multiple institutions and organizations taking it up as soon as the Smithsonian Institution decided to pull it from the show. Transformer Gallery in Washington D.C., the New Museum in NYC, as well as a slew of institutions throughout the country put on display what was meant to be erased, on the scale that – arguably – has never been seen before. Even Stephen Colbert weighed in on the issue.

In condemnation of his action, Secretary of the Smithsonian, G. Wayne Clough, who single-handedly made the decision to take down Wojnarowicz’s video, has been repeatedly called to resign.

Artist AA Bronson asked for his own contribution to the exhibition to be returned and is currently in legal deadlock with the institution, which refused to return the piece before the loan agreement’s stipulated date. According to the Art Newspaper, another request for the “solidarity” removal came in an unprecedented gesture from the owner of Untitled, Self-Portrait by Jack Pierson, a hedge-fund specialist, and collector Jim Hedges, who demanded that his work be taken down, at least until Wojnarowicz’s video is brought back on view.

Following this outpouring of various attempts to counteract the conservatives’ demands to severely limit what constitutes art, Robin Cembalest, the executive editor of ARTnews, wrote incisive commentary on what institutions can and should do to prevent the escalation of the next Culture Wars.

The culmination of the story might very well be MoMA’s recent announcement that it would acquire Wojnarowicz’s piece, both in its original 13-minute version and also another 7-minute one edited by the artist. As Kyle Chayka noticed, this decision confirmed the work’s “newfound significance,” revalidating it with the seal of institutional approval. At the same time, Chayka also perceptively asked a pertinent question: whether due to the involvement in political scandal, will the work’s meaning not, in the end, become painfully reduced?

Even though Wojnarowicz was the protagonist of a solo show at the New Museum in 1999, it is hard not to admit that until the recent controversy, he did not count among the headlining artists of the 1980s. Commenting on my post, Daniel Quiles observed a particular irony of the situation, in which the attempt to radically silence Wojnarowicz’s piece forcefully backfired, bringing the work into the spotlight and sparking much-needed dialogue. What will be the fruits of this heated conversation, though? In particular, how will the current debate contribute to the reassessment of Wojnarowicz’s legacy as, summarized by Dan Cameron, the curator of the 1999 exhibition, with one word: “extraordinary”? How will the sudden visivility of the piece impact its place in history? Will the work indeed be limited to a single, political reading or should we rather expect that its legitimization will contribute to softening of its possible meanings?

As I continue as a guest blogger for Art21, I would like to take this set of questions as a loose starting point for my posts. Culture Wars are not uniquely American phenomenon, and I have witnessed their various incarnations at many places I have worked. My formation as an artist occurred at the time of a profound socio-economic transformation of my native country, Poland, when many controversies unraveled as a local art scene was also being dramatically reshaped. Many of the “scandalists” of the 1990s, such as Katarzyna Kozyra and Artur Żmijewski, are now lthe eading and best internationally known Polish artists. Kozyra is currently being celebrated with a solo exhibition surveying her 20-year career at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw and Żmijewski has been invited to curate the 7th Berlin Biennale for contemporary art in 2012.

Artur Żmijewski, "KR WP," video still, from DVD, master Betacam, 7'30'', 2000. Courtesy the Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, Poland.

Given my foundations, it is perhaps not incidental that I have continued to be drawn to similar contexts, the localities experiencing rapid change and upheaval, in which art is one of the trump cards used in the refashioning of local identities, and its value and meaning are continuously at stake in cultural policy debates. In the last two years, I have started investigating little-known contemporary art in Peru, the country commonly equated with the splendor of Machu Picchu and its pre-Columbian archeological heritage. By extension, this research has drawn me into broader discussions on modern and contemporary Latin American art, which – in the words of my Peruvian colleague, Miguel López – in the last twenty years, “has become one of the most appetizing feats for the global art market.” While scores of the artists, including those featured on Art:21, Doris Salcedo (Season 5: Compassion) or Allora & Calzadilla (Season 4, Paradox), have achieved unprecedented visibility on the international scene, critics, scholars, and activists worry about the possible political disactivation of previously potent pieces, especially those created as responses to the violent dictatorships that mark the history of the continent. To prevent such dangerous defanging is, for example, the mandate of the research group Red Conceptualismos del Sur / Southern Conceptualisms Network, which I have been recently invited to join.

The seemingly irresolvable debacle, in which visibility, potency, and meaning clash in a dialectical tension, does not cease to intrigue me. Above all, it challenges individuals like myself, who attempt to both present and account for complex artworks at the crosshairs of historical, political, and social debates. As I navigate my own desire to settle (or, as a Polish saying goes, to have the cake and eat it too) the elusive irreconcilable two — visibility and potency — I will take up some recent works, exhibitions, and their near-and-far contexts, which continue to confront, outrage, and demand to have both.

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