By Gerry Smith
“WHY ART SUCKS: 57 CULTURES AND NOTHING ON”
Julie Caniglia, City Pages, April 24, 1996, pp. 13-16.
I prefer “Why Art Sucks”, the front page header for Julie Caniglia’s hit diatribe “57 Cultures and Nothing On” as a title for Jeff Koon’s vacuum cleaner vitrines and not as a expository remark on the Twin Cities art scene. With Caniglia”s 7 references to “great art”, “good art”, “best art”, and “bad art” , one finds that we are reading here a personal position paper on what art is and what art she likes. This is not balanced journalism and, in Caniglia’s truncated vocabulary, can be fairly labeled “Identity Criticism.” Frankly, I couldn’t be more supportive of her efforts. The art world needs more strong, assertive opinions.
On a substantive note, however, she has shot at and missed a few targets. Foremost, is her targeting of certain art as “Identity Art.” I applaud her perceptive encircling of a fuzzy category of narcissistic art that has resorted to solipsisms for justification of it’s raison d’etre. This art type however is, perhaps, at one end of a very broad spectrum of art that can be viewed with authorship (with caveats owed to Roland Barthes'”The Death of the Author”). By Caniglia’s own admission, one can choose to ignore the author’s personal history if you want to in order to read other referents (Picasso) — and it can be done even at the extremes. No viewer can be unwillingly force fed and I doubt the Caniglia thinks so too. But, in my view there is a place at the table for art that is direct and didactic. Even art that is more to Caniglia’s liking (eg. Bruce Tapola — the guy outside and smoking behind the bleachers) has instructive messages imbedded somewhere is his work. Too bad for those artists whose voice Caniglia dislikes. As she climbs higher on the ladder of influential opinions (recently reviewing for ArtForum ) the more her hate list of “Identity artists” will suffer.
Second, Caniglia re-asserts the nauseating idealization that “good art” is often the by-product of “risk and instability.” She asserts the equivalencies: funding = coddling , coddling = ” bad art.” Sure, struggles in whatever form they take, necessitate thoughtful problem solving and creativity that can lead to profound representation. But, no funding agency can mitigate the struggles that invest profound art or make a great artist produce art work that “sucks”. Giving money to artists is not coddling and, even if it were, it is not the problem here. Funding agencies certainly support artists that have little to say and artists whose art “sucks” for whatever reason. That’s poor judgement and speaks, as well, to the inept screening protocols such agencies are using. Besides, we are in an era of political fundamentalism that breeds gutless funders and, dare I say it, in a art community that is still 15 years in the rears with recognition of and respect for truly challenging contemporary art. Nevertheless, even (or especially) artists behind the bleachers need funding.
Lastly, Caniglia’s criticism in “Why Art Sucks” participates in the dialectic of marginalization that has historically defined and crucified the discourses she has included under the category of “Identity Art.” Even though she acknowledges, through James Baldwin, the efficacy of dialectically reinforced marginalization, her writing of “Why Art Sucks” constitutes a participation in the same dialectic game. By locating at the margin those artists that talk about their subjectivity she reiterates their minority status and confirms their assertions that they are not only “different” but viewed by the powerful majority (and Caniglia can be seen as in the majority) as both aesthetically and politically inferior. In such cases, aesthetic judgements and political judgements are contingent evaluations that both share a common belief in absolute “truths” (eg. ” good art/bad art”). Caniglia, as an art critic, is capable of making aesthetic judgements and political pronouncements simultaneously. In “Why Art Sucks” she not only denegrates the kind of art that celebrates identity or heightens division but help maintain the marginal status of such “Identity Art” in the canon of art history. I think that those at the margin have once again received another blow to the midrift. I think that there are some artists out there that would say “Thanks but no thanks” to Caniglia’s positions — some, at a recent M.C.A.D. fourm, said more.