“You might say that a people or a movement must be constituted musically before it can be constituted politically.” This was one argument among many declared by Michael Denning, a professor of American studies and English at Yale University, during a talk for his new Verso book, Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution. Denning, however, made it clear that the music culture during the brief period of time studied in his book—from the widespread use of electrical recording in 1925 to the early years of the Great Depression—was not revolutionary politically.
The artists Alex McQuilkin and Cindy Hinant and Kathy Battista, director of contemporary art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York and senior research fellow at the University of Southampton in England, met at the NEWD Art Show, a small art fair that coincided with Bushwick Open Studios, to discuss art that deals with “girly” aesthetics. The panel’s teaser offered this: “From makeup to celebrity culture, these artists mine “girly” motifs—often ignored or dismissed as flippant and unserious by the art world—to explore issues of gendered expectations and pressures women face through representations of women in the media and culture at large.”
A well-attended lecture by Isabelle Graw, a professor of art theory and a founding editor of the journal Texte zur Kunst, was titled “The Economy of Painting: Notes on the Vitality of a Success-Medium and the Value of Liveliness.” Jetlagged from a flight from Germany, Graw framed her talk as an eight-step analysis of the naturalization of painting in the contemporary moment. In the late 1990s, she said, painters “felt pressured to justify themselves,” but this anxiety fell away by the early 2000s, due to social, economic, and historical reasons. In particular, artists had absorbed the critique of painting and therefore renewed the medium.
“IKEA is huge,” stated Sara Kristofferson, professor of design history and theory at Konstfack in Stockholm, Sweden. Who could argue with her? Founded in 1943, the immensely popular seller of affordable furniture, utensils, and fabrics for the home has spread across the globe and brings in billions of dollars a year. A more intriguing proposition was this: “IKEA has made Swedishness a virtue in itself.” But scratch deep enough, Kristoffersson warned, and hierarchies begin to appear within a company that many people believe mitigates consumerism and capitalism with an egalitarian touch.
“People have lost faith in traditional democracy,” said the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe. “They have a vote but not a voice.” But rather than call for revolution during her talk at Columbia University, she emphasized the need for better, more inclusive representation within institutions of power, such as when which leaders “come to power through election in order to implement a set of radical reforms.”
Lately I’ve thought about the difference between a work of art that is about a particular subject and one that is a critique of that same subject. Many in the art world operate with the mindset that an artwork dealing with a political, social, or economic issue actually critiques that issue, usually from a leftist perspective, but rarely does the work transcend the kind of factual commentary that states “there’s this thing going on in the world that you should know about” or “my work is about this thing going on in the world.” While I don’t recall Mika Tajima specifically referring to her work as a critique during her artist’s lecture at Parsons the New School for Design, others have noted the approach.
The choruses to Billy Joel’s number-one single “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” released a couple months before the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, and Jesus Jones’ spring 1990 hit “Right Here, Right Now,” which reached #2 on the Billboard charts, repeated in my mind at “Periodizing Contemporary Art,” a lecture held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, on the eve of the College Art Association’s 2009 annual conference.