I’m very fond of a line from Kenneth Clark’s testimony to the Longford Committee on pornography: “The moment art becomes an incentive to action it loses its true character.” Clark was testifying about the difference between how art and pornography treat sexual subjects, but he himself directed the distinction toward political “pornography” as well – art that took an explicitly Communist line, for example – which is the context in which I tend to apply it. When I am annoyed at feeling manipulated by a work of art, Clark’s line is my typical starting point for a response.
I’m fond of the line even though I’m not sure it works. In particular, I’ve been reassessing in my mind the dichotomy between action and contemplation that Clark sets up.
There are, after all, so many feelings one can be moved to by art, and that one might want to be moved to by art, that don’t properly fall under the rubric of “contemplation.” Catharsis, to pick an obvious example. Meanwhile, Brecht’s explicitly political theater abjures the simplicity of “moving” the audience to action by manipulating their emotions. Contemplation is perhaps the wrong word, but he certainly wanted his audience to think.
I’ve been turning all of this over in my mind as I recall two shows I saw at the Brooklyn Museum earlier this summer. One, a collection of works by the celebrated Chinese dissident and conceptual artist Ai Weiwei; the other, an installation by the wonderful young American artist known as Swoon. Both are plainly political artists, but they affected me very differently – and neither fit easily into Clark’s dichotomy.
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As conceptual art often does, a great many of Ai Weiwei’s pieces derive the large part of their impact from the backstory. For example, one entire room is given over to the material possessions of a fellow dissident artist and activist who was removed from her home by the police in the middle of the night, and left with her belongings on the side of the highway. Boxes and bags cluster in the center of the room, arranged as they were by the road where she was stranded, and images of the contents thereof, laid out like forensic evidence, covered the walls of the room.
I looked around at all of this material, and wondered what I was supposed to glean from it. The contents of her baggage were entirely banal. Was that the point – to say, look, the regime is afraid of someone with “Hello Kitty” underwear? But would Lenin’s, or Mohammed Atta’s, laundry look any less banal, I wonder?
Another piece puzzled me in a different way. In a small glass case was displayed an intricate Chinese box, carved in the traditional style. It was lovely, and a note explained that the box had belonged to Ai Weiwei’s father, who had been subjected to reeducation for rightist tendencies. The box had been a comfort to him in his trials, and was also, obviously, a potent symbol of all that was mad about the Cultural Revolution – in and of itself, the box had no politics, but once you’ve declared war on the past even a decorative box becomes a dangerous political statement.
Next to this was a work by Ai Weiwei: a huge wooden cube, carved with the same pattern as the little traditional box. And this was the piece I puzzled over, for a long time, because I found it, well, not exactly ugly, but certainly not beautiful. I found it banal, boring. Its surface looked lumpy rather than luscious. The scale of the carving just didn’t work with the scale of the piece. I began to wonder: was that the point? Was he making an argument that modern, minimalist gigantism can’t marry traditional techniques? But he had other pieces on view that were more aesthetically successful (to my eye) that used traditional techniques, so that can’t have been his point. So what was it?
Then there were the works that had a very clear point, like the memorials for the victims of a catastrophic earthquake. Ai Weiwei was plainly incensed by the complicity of the corrupt regime in the loss of life, but I couldn’t help wondering where that anger was located in the memorial itself:
The form on the floor is made of rebar from the collapsed buildings, painstakingly straightened, and organized into a form intended to recall fault lines. The victims names line the wall. I don’t mean to knock the image, but looking at it I could help feeling: I’ve seen this sort of thing before. This, the abstract visual representation of data, is how we do memorials these days. I wasn’t getting a feeling; I wasn’t getting a narrative. All I got was signification: enough people died to justify filling a room with rusted metal.
I began to wonder if it was just me – just a matter of taste, or of being too much of an outsider to a conversation that someone Chinese would have understood immediately. And then I saw the other exhibit, by Swoon.
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Submerged Motherlands delighted me the moment I stepped into the vaulted atrium that it fills. The work is an installation, an environment that you, the patron, are invited to explore. Installation art bears ready comparison to set design, so already it’s playing a song a theater buff like me will like. But this installation was particularly enthralling.
Though integrated into a whole, the piece may be divided into four major segments. At the center is a tree, made (it appeared) of discarded nylons. You’d think its towering verticality would make it appear phallic, but its delicate layering created exactly the opposite effect, an overtly and exuberantly feminine form gathering the other forms to it – more convincingly feminine, frankly, than Judy Chicago’s famous dinner party (on view elsewhere in the museum). The two most important of these other forms were two boats, rusty buckets hung with more junk than Mother Courage’s famous cart. The last form was a cabin or hut, a shelter under the hovering protection of a nursing mother. Connecting all these are ribbons and sheets of delicately cut paper forming an abstract, watery design that periodically disgorges a more distinct organic form.
The moment I stepped into the atrium, I thought to myself, “I get it – it’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” I was close: right idea, wrong hurricane (Submerged Motherlands was inspired by Sandy, not Katrina). And Swoon’s piece can be criticized from many of the same vantage points that Benh Zeitlin’s film was. But so what? It’s beautiful; I “got” it; it moved me.
But moved me to what?
That’s what brought me back to Clark’s dichotomy, the whole contemplation versus action thing. Ai Weiwei’s pieces felt like they were intended to spark outrage and opposition to the regime in China. But to me they felt so cold and so literal-minded, that I found myself thinking instead about the limitations of the artist’s version of conceptualism. (And, as well, about the limitations of the language of political protest in the era when Ai Weiwei was in America – the 1980s.) Swoon’s work is much more directly emotional, and I was carried along by that emotion – and would have been moved to action . . . if I only had any idea what that action might be.
At all events, you can still catch Swoon’s installation if you hurry. I encourage you to do so.