Peter Rose: Witness

Art Now

I admit to being the only artist to have been in the three shows at the Phila. Museum, the Pennsylvania Academy, and at the I.C.A . It is either a sign of my own neurosis, a symptom of a particularly local social pathology, or an index of one's generally post-modern skepticism about the meaning of any achievement that I feel somewhat apologetic about admitting this. I must also note that video installations, the which I presented at these shows, are not a hot-ticket item. You don't sell copies, produce limited editions, link up with galleries, etc. The economic benefits are very limited, and therefore one comes to depend upon other rewards- a thoughtful critical response, another show, a stipend. (Parenthetically and rhetorically- is it crass, base, and venal for artists to want to get something for their work, beyond the fact of making it and beyond, even, the fact of exhibition? Or are we supposed to be above it all?) My comments may therefore not be terribly applicable to artists working in other media.

My observations will not deal with the process used to select for these shows. My general sense is that good faith efforts were made to plan for and implement this project with the largest possible constituency in mind, and that a creative range of strategies was adopted for selecting the artists involved. My observations will have more to do with the experience of being in the shows, with the rewards reaped, and with, perhaps, the larger questions of who art is for.

When huge sums of money are directed towards art, claims will have to be made about the democratic function served; audiences will have to be generated; a public profile will be sought. These claims are insupportable and inconsistent with the ethos which gives rise to much (although not all) of the work. (I might paraphrase Salman Rushdie here, who talks about one's superogatory need to be clear at all costs while at the same time being hopelessly ignorant of who it is that actually reads, sees, or hears the work. From this contradiction, an inwardness is spawned.) To my way of thinking, art is not necessarily about community activation; it is not necessarily immediately accessible; it doesn't necessarily serve any useful public function. But when our images are put up on bus shelters; when our cheerful profiles appear on PBS (and these were marvelous), and when we find ourselves participants in what seems even to be tasteful promotion, and when yet not a word of intelligent criticism is written about any of the work, and when yet the politics of these shows become the only subject for discussion, and when yet the naked singularities of our intention are invisible, inaudible, and unpronounced, one is drawn, forgivably I hope, to feel conflicted, bitter, and betrayed. One finds oneself performing in a new kind of circus. This is not anyone's fault. It is just the nature of the momentum that has to get generated when such projects get under way.

We got paid for the Academy show. This was a very sweet move. We all appreciated this a great deal even if the initial premise of the show was deeply flawed. (You can't put twelve artists into a room and expect a collaborative work to result. It just doesn't happen that way.) But the topical nature of the "Matter of Time" show, however arbitrary, provided a rubric that seemed to me to be more helpful than the merely regional premise of the other two shows. We all sometimes resent the arbitrary and capricious authority of curators. They often seek solace in the single-lens perspective of the latest theoretical discourse, and much good work does not always come from France, much as I love France. But the alternative, as we have seen, is not without its own pitfalls. By refusing to foreground anything in the interests of a democratic embrace, such regional shows risk creating confusion, consternation, and overload.

I have spent the last four years doing work for one or another of the Art Now venues. I am very proud of this work and grateful, without qualification, for the opportunity to have made it and to have had it shown. But I can't honestly point to any derived benefits beyond the work having been made. I think the situation is particulary poignant in the case of installation artists who cannot, even putatively, sell any of their work after the show. This came home to me while working on my installation at the Museum. I looked around one day at the union carpenters drawing scale for building the enclosure for the piece; made note of the salaries drawn by the administrators; remembered how much the post-production house charged for mastering the video tape, and realized that I was the only one who did not stand to gain anything tangible except the new line on my resume. Man does not live by information alone, I observed. Aren't I creating something here of value? If this does serve some kind of strange social function, as seemed to be implied by publicity operations I outlined above, why aren't we paid for it? Is this not labor? Are these not hands, eyes, minds that move the micturing earth to felicitous lament?

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