Pardon this Brief Commercial Interruption: Intro

Hans Haacke, "MetroMobiltan," 1985. Fiberglass construction, three banners, and photomural, 11' 8" x 20' x 5'. Collection Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.

The United States has always fostered a strange and ambiguous relationship to the arts.  In 1825, John Quincy Adams recommended that the country establish a national university, observatory, and other cultural programs and institutions.  Martin Van Buren and John C. Calhoun repudiated Adams’s proposal, calling it an imposition on states’ rights.  In doing so, they set the tone for subsequent rejections of a national cultural mandate. In the 1960s, at a UNESCO roundtable, the United States firmly maintained that it had no official cultural position, reasoning that its pluralist tradition prevented the articulation of a viable cultural policy through funding or doctrine.

With the exception of the nineteenth-century support of public architecture and the promotion of art as part of Cold War propaganda, the national government has taken no official stance on culture.  This does not mean that there have not been deliberate and instrumental uses of culture undertaken to foster particular outcomes. In the 1920s, the Commerce Department began supporting the film industry in the name of creating a new export for the international market. This initiative funded the Walt Disney Company’s production of propaganda films in the WWII era, aimed at building strategic international support for the Allied forces.  The New Deal’s Civil Works Administration and Works Progress Administration were inaugurated as a means for economic relief but ended as when the Federal Theatre Project was called before The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).


Walt Disney Co., Education for Death — The Making of the Nazi, 1943. Directed by Clyde Geronimi.

This ambiguity over the place of culture in society has, for all practical purposes, become the de facto cultural policy of the United States, where ambivalence is deployed as a useful strategy for avoiding controversy and navigating disparate ideologies.  The moments when strategic safeguards do fail, such as in the culture wars of the 1990’s, become flashpoints that reflect the unofficial policy.  In the 90s, in response to vexed public reactions to shows like the Brooklyn Museum’s Sensation exhibition and works by Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe and the “NEA four,” the federal government restructured the NEA and redirected funding from the support of individual artists to far less controversial programming of cultural heritage programs and events. Even though the NEA has seen some its funding restored in the past decade, wealthy individuals, private foundations and corporate partnerships now provide the lion’s share of funding for experimentation within the visual arts.

Andres Serrano, "Piss Christ," 1987. Cibachrome photograph.

In the wake of the current economic meltdown, art institutions have found their coffers dramatically reduced. Local and state governments have slashed arts funding and corporate support has waned. Ironically, culture is the United States’ biggest export, and as the world begins to tire of formulaic American cultural products, reinvigorating culture on the ground may be an economic necessity as well as an aesthetic one. In 2002, Richard Florida introduced the controversial ideas of the creative class into popular discourse, claiming that the United States’ only hope for continued economic growth rested on the move away from heavy industry and agriculture.  Researchers began developing metrics to measure the benefit of artists to urban economies and corporations began to portray the ideal 21st-century consumers as artists, able to distinguish themselves through the acquisition of customizable commercial products.

Urban revitalization proponents have also embraced the idea of the creative class. Over the past decade, museums have undergone costly expansions as cities try to drive economic growth through art tourism. Now, with reduced staff and strained budgets, museums struggle to fill these new giant spaces, often taking shows wholesale from private and corporate collections.  New York’s New Museum was recently embroiled in controversy when it announced that its current show Skin Fruit, curated by artist Jeff Koons, would be drawn exclusively from the collection of Dakis Joannou, a Greek Cypriot industrialist, New Museum Trustee, and Koons’s patron. Critics claimed that the museum had crossed an ethical line meant to separate curatorial selections from commercial interests.  Artist William Powhida parodied the brouhaha in one of his now infamous art world lampoons.

William Powhida, "How The New Museum Committed Suicide with Banality," Brooklyn Rail Cover, Nov. 2009.

In addition to the supersizing of museums, cities the world over have wooed biennials and art fairs as a way to bolster revenue, but critical questions remain as to whether or not international art festivals might actually harm the local economies they are intended to bolster.  In the Autumn/Winter 2009 issue of Afterall, critic, curator, and art historian Joshua Decter examines the social impact of the New Orleans biennial Prospect.1 and how artists who undertake prolonged engagements with a place, such as Mierle Ukeles or Art:21 Season 1 artist Mel Chin, might be in a better position to build healthy communities than artists who parachute in for an event such as a biennial.

After Minimalism had run its course, artists deployed institutional critique to question the economic ties between art institutions to large corporations.  Today, however, artists like Ukeles and Chin tend to have a more complex understanding of the intersection between the economy and culture. In her recent Art:21 blog post, curator Laura Fried explored some recent alternatives to institutional critique. As fraught as the relationship between art and capital expansion may be, artists have begun to see it an urgent site of inquiry.

Over the next two weeks, I will explore a variety of projects that make use of corporate models and memes as they experiment with different velocities of artistic and social engagement in the current economic downturn. Employing curiosity and humor, today’s artists are more likely to explore than to criticize, following Foucault’s mandate to open up all spaces, including corporate institutions and entities, as potentials spaces for grassroots political action and interaction. Beyond ideas of culture jamming, they employ tactics such as those outlined by Christine Harold in her book Ourspace, that “in the brand economy, successful resistant rhetorics are not those that avoid being co-opted but those that deploy tactics for getting co-opted in productive ways.”

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