September 24, 2006

Twenty-Four Hour Party People


Since the United States went to war with Iraq there’s been a kind of Renaissance in Los Angeles art. There are more artists showing, more galleries, more publications of every kind than ever before. More institutional outlets are available. On opening weekends, crowds regularly swarm the main drags of the local art malls. In fact, art oriented activity is just about manic in this town, and from the looks of it, the same is true for the other major art hubs like New York, London, and Berlin. Sculpture has seen a major revival, but so has just about every other medium. There is, in fact, so much going on, it’s hard, if not impossible, to keep up with it all. Were it not for the daily barrage of scary news at home and abroad, and the confused uncertainty of economic forecasters as to the future, there wouldn’t be any question about the fresh sense of optimism that pervades the art community. It is, however, hard to ignore the turmoil that has beset our leading institutions, political and economic. Since 9/11 these basic foundations of our way of life have been revealed, when put to such an unprecedented test, as incredibly fragile. Faced with a darkening horizon, we have already willingly rolled back many of our Constitutional ideals. Congress has now written legislation that only awaits the Presidential signature which could easily undermine the foundation of our legal system. Need I go on? It’s all headline news. And, law and order experts freely admit that all it would take is another disaster to really break our democratic system down. Not so clear is what all this optimism in art is founded on. The hope, of course, is that it is a counter-response to all the bad news — an alternative by way of a positive example to the runaway policies being marshaled by the leaders of our country. There is plenty of reason to believe that this is the case. And much of it definitely is. The counterculture art and music scene that flourished at the onset of the Reagan Era came out of a grass-roots politics. Today it seems like pure nostalgia to say there was a real sense that one could make a difference back then; that the message could get out by way of DIY writing, fashion, art and music; forget all the social niceties that kept everything running the way it was supposed to; make your own statement — it felt new, like a real movement. No doubt a kid can believe that the stick they are waving is a lightsaber and that the trash can behind the garage is actually a Stormtrooper. One of the major differences this time around, however, is the marked absence of anything but the idea of “counterculture”. Nostalgia has its pros and cons. Reagan’s nostalgia for an idealized America of white picket fences was definitely reactionary. Frank Gehry recently quipped about a pet peeve of his own. He was criticizing the start of the rise of neo-classical architecture back in the late ’80s. If architects were all going to start looking backward for their inspiration, he said, “Why did they stop with the Greeks? Why didn’t they go all the way back to the beginning?” Gehry’s response to the trend was to start making fish shapes. The problem transcends architecture alone. In looking backward for clues to start fresh, moments of cultural reawakening often take on precisely the same concern. How far back does one look to find a new beginning? The difference is between old beginnings and genuinely original starts. Nostalgia’s biggest problem is that it tends to depoliticize its historical inspiration. All the ugly, dark, bitter and painful parts are conveniently left out. Only the good parts are remembered. Ironically, a great deal of the nostalgia the present generation has is for the radical past: psychedelia, glitter, punk, etc. — cultural movements that emerged out of a strong sense of political opposition first and foremost. At the risk of oversimplification I would argue that what specifically defines moments of cultural renewal — what ultimately distinguishes old beginnings from fresh starts — is the political position from which it issues. What remains unclear about our present artistic Renaissance is exactly what its politics are. That alone distinguishes it from past countercultural resurgences. No one, least of all me, wants to believe that the explosion of activity we are currently enjoying is going on despite the reality on the ground.

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