Schjeldahl on “Global Feminisms” Show

Ingrid Mwangi (Kenya), Static Drift, 2001

While some may not be as enamored and delighted by Peter Schjeldahl’s art reportage as I usually am, here’s a passage full of ideas from his latest review of the “Global Feminisms” show at the Brooklyn Museum from the New Yorker. Of particular interest to me is his handling of what I see as an ongoing cleavage within my range of artists friends: The academics/purists on one side and the makers/pragmatists/”street walkers” (if I may be so bold) on the other. He also touches on some of the ever-with-us chestnuts like art and political intent, higher purpose, commercialism and other perpetually nagging issues. A lot of complexity is packed into this paragraph:

Arts of imagination, chiefly painting, come off badly, which might be deemed surprising at a time when many, if not most, of the freshest younger painters on the gallery scene happen to be women. The show includes only one big-name painter, the Briton Jenny Saville, who brings flashy painterly virtuosity to bear on grotesquely obese and tortured female nudes. (To my mind, Saville’s technique and subject matter fight each other to an ultimately tedious draw.) The lack of painting, and of sculpture that isn’t heavy-handedly themed, may reasonably reflect the curators’ choice of feminist over merely female sensibility. But the major factor is a natural antagonism between school-rooted institutions and the commercial art world, in which an individual’s success distances her from the ranks of collective purpose. The market selects art that people like to look at, whatever it may be about. This is bound to exasperate partisans of any particular aboutness, whose goal is not case-by-case approbation but blanketing justice. The conflict cannot be resolved, because the terms on the two sides—politics versus taste, virtue versus pleasure, aggrieved conviction versus disposable wealth—sail past each other. The agon’s usual form is an assault, by the party of politics, on the complacency of art lovers. It draws force from the unexceptionable truth that justice is more important than artistic quality. Activists enjoin a suspension of fun-as-usual until urgently needed reforms are in place. In consequence, social movements are always aesthetically conservative (as the great Russian avant-garde of the revolutionary era learned, to its sorrow). They siphon off creative energies to pragmatic ends. Of course, no movement will admit the inferiority of its art. It will redefine the field to make pleasure appear to be at one with virtue. Many art lovers, for their part, like to imagine a socially salubrious tendency in their takings of joy. Both are wrong.

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