Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Expensive Art, Boring Gays: Credit in the Straight World

Last week I had an interesting conversation with a certain favorite gallerist of mine in which he bemoaned the loss of an interesting, radical queer culture in favor of the current assimilationist, overly-capitalized attitudes of the gay scene. Always one to carry on two conversations in my head, the other one concerning the 'Art and its Markets' issue of Artforum, I chirped at the parallel developments within the gay movement and the art world since the 70s or so. In both scenes, early optimistic attempts to create team-oriented utopian social alternatives fizzled fairly quickly and gave way to a highly market-driven, consumption-oriented practice. Or did it? After a tumultuous decade in which art and queers (and usually, queer art) had to continually defend itself against public and governmental exhortations to 'prove its validity in the real world', it turned around and did exactly that. The Market (or rather, success in the Market) is the sole autonomous zone of invulnerability in this country. So now, the art market has become an inflated parallel universe of hyper-capital, and there are more gays boringly getting married and going to church than ever before. The positive side of this being: a rising tide has the potential to lift all boats. As if!!

As Gregory Sholette notes in his article 'State of the Union' from the afore-mentioned issue of Artforum, this process of radicalization and then normalization seems to be cyclical. There was a period of collectivity, organizing and attempted unionization of artists following the Depression and the WPA projects, followed inevitably by a postwar clampdown in which 'radicals were purged from unions and artists began to abandon picket lines for their studios.' It wasn't until the 60s and 70s that artists "again took up militant self-organizing", obviously in parallel with the other social movements of the time, including the post-Stonewall politicization of the Gay Lib movement.
Sholette: "But as we well know, the conservative 'revolution' of Reagan and Thatcher soon followed. After experimenting with ideas, politics, unions, and other not-so-marketable practices, artists began to paint again." (And freaky expressions of sexuality in popular culture went back in the closet to a certain degree, or at least hid beneath a veneer of a coded normative heterosexuality, as in certain music videos of the period...) "East Village artists of the 80s surrendered themselves to the means-end rationality of the marketplace" while mimicking the subaltern culture they were helping to displace. Nevertheless, some artists continued to self-organize for greater equity at a time of rapid defunding of the public sphere through targeted cuts in nonmilitary state expenditures."

Conceptually speaking: "further complicating the status of artistic production is the 180-degree shift in the profile of the artist, from marginal outcast to a fetish figure for the creative networked economy...the new spirit of capitalism calls on all of us to think like an artist: outside the box." The image of the Gay, likewise, is of the ultra-efficient, socially networked glamazon, ready to decisively improvise a fabulous makeover, deliver sharp advice and generally help straights get their life together. When you have to work twice as hard for half the reward, after all, you get
good at it. The new spirit of reality-tv pop culture calls on all of us to think like a homo: outside the closet!

Of course that works great for those art stars & fagiolis who are at the top of the food chain; the social reality for the proletarian majority continues to be precarious. We all love the idea of being poor, underground, radical and sexy. Lots of great art and great sex has happened in that zone, but then we, like a society in general, has to grow up. The presence of an expanded market thanks to Hirst or Koons or Gagosian or Broad doesn't
prevent new collectivities and radical schools from forming. Twenty-year old republican gays getting married doesn't stop freaky punk-tranny-rock star hustlers from coming into being and converting your kids. Like I told my gallerist compadre at the end of our conversation: You sound like every other old guy who complains about things becoming too mainstream...the rad art, music and sex is still going on, but it's happening in the underground where it belongs, and its not for you (or me either for that matter) anymore. Sorry.

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