Some thoughts regarding Mira Schor’s generational critique

June 23, 2011

To briefly recap the context of this conversation, Jerry Saltz wrote an article criticizing many of the young artists at the recent biennial, arguing that much of the work suffered from an puerile academicism:

Yet many times over—too many times for comfort—I saw the same thing, a highly recognizable generic ­institutional style whose manifestations are by now extremely familiar. Neo-Structuralist film with overlapping geometric colors, photographs about photographs, projectors screening loops of grainy black-and-white archival footage, abstraction that’s supposed to be referencing other abstraction—it was all there, all straight out of the seventies, all dead in the ­water. It’s work stuck in a cul-de-sac of aesthetic regress, where everyone is deconstructing the same elements.

While it is hard to not look around and to see exactly this problem (a concern that I wholeheartedly agree with) where so much art looks like so much other art without attempting to confront anything other than its own historical conditions, market conditions, and/or engaged in hermetic naval-gazing, Saltz’s take, while evident, does not attempt a very deep examination of the causes of this condition other than to blame art schools, which was why Schor’s follow-up to this problem was interesting, precisely because it attempts to diagnose what is causing the neo-conservatism of so many young artists.

For her, it is a problem of politics, or a lack of political will; this social condition is, of course, a symptom of contemporary capitalism. She compares current social attitudes towards divorce to the conservatism of todays MFAs:

The conservatism emanating from the opprobrium and shame experienced by these affluent young divorcees is also apparent in the MFA generation of artists who have learned all the rules of the art market, are incredibly professional and well-behaved, and would never dream of questioning the status quo of the art market beyond a certain point of academic correctness. And why would they when most of the contemporary critics who these artists follow inevitably preempt any tentative attempts at critique of the obscenities of market by prescriptively concluding that it is naive to imagine one could avoid it. Resistance, one is told every which way, is not just futile, it’s unrealistic, stupid even.

Whence then, does resistance rise? It is hard, at this point in time, growing up as a part of the generation that, as she says, “was formed during the Reagan Bush era when anything resembling true critiques of authority and power have been methodically ridiculed, demonized, or erased, creating a cohort that is surprisingly obedient and conformist, when not imbued with a sense of hopelessness.” It is also true that it is difficult to see the value of the traditional forms of resistance (Marxism, unionization), while you watch the collapsing welfare state crumble before your eyes. After the ascent of globalized capital, the question of whether or not there is an outside anymore appears to be relatively settled, and as such, we must engage the conditions as they exist, not how we wish them to be.

Schor advocates pacifism itself as meaningful form of resistance, in opposition to the Oedipal struggles of war proposed by the modernists whose utopic/dystopic forms still continue to shed their last vestiges of life into ossified remains that we call contemporary art. To speak to her approach, she writes in another article:

As I scan some pages from Mark Kurlansky’s Non-Violence: The History of A Dangerous Idea, so dangerous there is no proactive word for it, only a word defined by the primacy of its opposite, violence, I listen to the music that Dr. King listened to on the car radio as he drove alone to Montgomery, Alabama for his first job interview: Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor: Regnava del silencio,” which, he later wrote, transformed the monotous drive into a radiant experience. On one of the pages I scan for my students, Gandhi is quoted as writing: “Given a just cause, capacity for endless suffering, and avoidance of violence, victory is certain.” “Capacity for endless suffering” is key in my thoughts here, not to focus on the meditative as it sometimes appears in contemporary culture, as a panacea, but on the power of grief when it is expressed as does Mahalia Jackson, heard in this program singing at King’s funeral, “Precious Lord, take my hand,” his favorite song, which he had once requested be sung at his funeral. Every word, every syllable, every sound has meaning, deep meaning. Here is voice, both literal and metaphorical. It was listening to such voices and such “voice” when I grew up that made me believe in the power of art, in the power of language (for the good not only the bad or the stupid), in criticism too and even outrage, but never cynicism.

Not having yet read her recent book of essays, A Decade of Negative Thinking, I don’t wish to over-characterize her approach, but the title alone should clue one into the idea that she is arriving from the perspective of negative dialectic advocated by Adorno and the Frankfurt school, a form of critical Marxism whose learned helplessness to the totalizing force of capital is taught in art schools all across the country. Now, while I do have great respect for these thinkers and their analysis of the conditions of capital, the program that they advocate, of a merely oppositional criticality, akin to that described by Schor in her terms of passive resistance , is a recipe for inaction that pragmatically boils down to what she calls “[not] questioning the status quo of the art market beyond a certain point of academic correctness.” Her desire for the “Capacity towards endless suffering” resonates strongly with what Nick Land describes as “Transcendental Miserablism”:

For the Transcendental Miserablist, ‘Capitalism’ is the suffering of desire turned to ruin, the name for everything that might be wasted in time, an intolerable tantalization whose ultimate nature is unmasked by the Gnostic visionary as loss, decrepitude and death, and in truth, it is not unreasonable that capitalism should become the object of this resentful denigration. Without attachment to anything beyond its own abysmal exuberance, capitalism identifies itself with desire to a degree that cannot imaginably be exceeded, shamelessly soliciting any impulse that might contribute to an increment of economizable drive to its continuously multiplying productive initiatives. Whatever you want, capitalism is the most reliable way to get it, and by absorbing every source of social dynamism, capitalism makes growth, change and even time itself into integral components of its endlessly gathering tide. 1

I, personally, am sick of anxious hand wringing over the invasion of capital into art. It was always the case, only now, art as a commodity par excellence is unmasked. The market is now synonymous with nature for my generation, and to my mind it is not capital that is producing the conditions of anemic art, but rather the dogged insistence upon the negative theology of critique that is restraining the true productive capacity ready to be unleashed. If we must always hold the line for the deferred hope of a Marxist utopia, whose strategy has long since played out, then we are dis-enganging ourselves from the tactical advantages offered by embracing the productive forces of capital. As Land argues, “Foucault delineates the contours of power as strategy without a subject: ROM locking learning in a box. Its enemy is tactics without a strategy, replacing the politico-territorial imagery of conquest and resistance with nomad-micromilitary sabotage and evasion, reinforcing intelligence.” 2

Thoroughly tactical incursions into capitalism, through the market, may be the best hope we have for any kind of real productive change now. Schor is afraid of this generations “Darwinian positivism”, but active change and not being afraid of the possible destructive capacities inherent in capital, rather than a continual reiteration of a negativity that dare not move for fear of incriminating itself, may signal a new politics of engagement. We have tried peace, and seen it box us into an ever more recursive and humiliating hermeticism. Let us now try war.

1 Land, Nick, “Critique of Transcendental Miserablism”, Fanged Noumena
2 Land, Nick, “Meltdown”, Fanged Noumena