The Idea of the Moral Imperative in Contemporary Art
Friday, February 17, 1989
77th Annual Conference, College Art Association, Hilton San Francisco, Continental 7, 8, 9, San Francisco
Future generations researching the good old days at College Art [Association’s Annual Conference] may take this panel for a distillation of its moment, as it casually splices ideals, philosophy, jargon, celebrity, and non sequitur with talk of art-as-money. We see also the intense longings, the search for uplift, the demands for salvation that are increasingly deposited in art. (The most interesting discussion of the panel addressed whether they belong there.)
Nine years earlier, in what was for me one of the most poignant moments in this book, a student in the audience at a “postmodernism” panel told how artists were making art to oppose nuclear annihilation. A panelist then explained gently—very gently, given the ironic, even caustic, tone of the evening—that such real-world activism would in fact be the opposite of postmodernism in art. Now, at the “Moral Imperative” panel, a speaker tells us “a new link” has been established between postmodernism and ethics—but then fails to explain what that link might be, indeed, in some uncommonly elusive passages, seems to prove the opposite.
Well, clearly there’s room for argument.
Moderator: Mel Pekarsky
Panelists: Amy Baker Sandback, John Baldessari, Luis Camnitzer, Suzi Gablik, Jeff Koons, Robert Storr
The heartening part was that this high-sounding title, having nothing to do with how to get your work shown or reviewed, had possibly the biggest turnout of any session at this year’s College Art.
Moderator Mel Pekarsky noted that:
The words “art” and “morality” have been aimed at each other for a very long time, but never so much as now, and never with such broad multiple definitions of each. Both words are seen often in good and bad company in this postmodern, pluralist unsacred end of the twentieth century—or “McSacred,” as Peter Plagens has called it. And I wonder if either of these words had even the same meaning in, say, Rembrandt’s time; art’s meaning is now perhaps as multiple as its varieties, and the definitions of “moral” laid at art’s doorstep are equally myriad and provocative.
For example, Paul Goldberger discusses the “morality” of Michael Graves’s designs for the Whitney Museum addition in consideration of Marcel Breuer’s original (assumedly moral) structure.
Names themselves—like Richard Serra, and in different ways Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, and Jesse Helms, too—are touchstones for any number of serious and complicated considerations.
And the relationships between artist, critic, dealer, collector, patron—everyone in postmodern capitalism’s changed art world—have provoked shelves of articles and books on “art and money” and “art and business” [while] James Rosenquist says of art money: “it’s become like drug money.”
Then, too, it seems fashionable to call the personal as well as aesthetic morality of the artist into question.… Cellini never had it so tough from Vasari!
And the current relationships between the art community and the rest of humankind have frequently and rightfully been questioned…. Andrew Kagan writes of the “moral emptiness of [contemporary] art” and says, “But what is becoming increasingly disturbing is the tact that we have for so long lacked even the climate, the attitudes of high seriousness and commitment in art.”… Donald Kuspit considers the artist as activist, weighing “the human and political potential of activist art” to which many have indeed turned, while Alberto Moravia states categorically, “Art cannot politicize itself without committing suicide; in politics, terrorism is always anticultural, and in art, the avant-garde is always terrorist.”
And William H. Gass in his essay “Vicissitudes of the Avant-Garde,” subtitled “In Search of a Worthy No,” [says] “There is nothing that a group of this kind can do that such a group once honestly did…. To live is to defend a form.… It might be defended still, if painters refused to show, composers and poets to publish, every dance were danced in the dark. That would be a worthy no—but it will never be uttered.”
This panel will begin with the premise that the first decision an artist makes when starting to work in this postmodern, pluralist end of the twentieth century is a moral one; that is, if you can paint whatever you want—since nobody cares what you paint or if you paint at all until you’re a commodity—the first decision is what to paint. This is diametrically opposed to premodern art, which was preceded by “need” and “commission” with the style usually universal and content preordained….
To show that Abstract Expressionism had been a movement of moral strength and conviction, Pekarsky quoted Barnett Newman recalling the ’40s in the ’60s:
We felt the moral crisis of a world in shambles, a world devastated by a great depression and a fierce world war, and it was impossible at that time to paint the kind of painting that we were doing—flowers, reclining nudes, and people playing the cello. At the same time we could not move into the situation of a pure world of unorganized shapes and forms, or color relations, a world of sensation. And I would say that for some of us, this was our moral crisis in relation to what to paint.
Pekarsky then quoted John Baldessari as talking of “trying to get back to bedrock in his work, trying to strip away all the nonessential and thereby arrive at choice through this reductivist approach; choice, which seems such a fundamental issue of contemporary art. In his own work, Pekarsky said:
I have “risked,” I suppose, a large number of embarrassing paintings in trying to arrive at an iconography I could believe in—and believe worth painting. In the process, format as well as form became a concern for a while, in addition to subject or content, and led me into an involvement with public art: trying to make art that belonged to everyone but was nobody’s property … to not make tradable objects; to play with the idea of large landscapes on walls in the real, urban landscape…. These concerns immersed me in the questions we’re here to discuss today.
Then he quoted British sculptor William Turnbull on public sculpture commissions: “The problem with public sculpture is with the public, not with sculpture. The idea of designing a sculpture for a particular site, even if chosen oneself, seems to me a gross limitation on the sculptor’s freedom of action.”
Pekarsky ended his introduction with, “If you can paint whatever you want, what do you paint? Does it matter? … If you can paint whatever you want, isn’t there implicit in your decision great power? … And no small byway—what should the critic be doing these days? What’s the critic’s responsibility, moral or otherwise? I have yet to see a critical program equal to facing the millennium with honor.”
Amy Baker Sandback’s opening was not promising: “There’s no such thing as moral art, just moral artists. Words are only symbols for ideas, not fixtures of thought. Their powerful meanings are shaped by public and private perceptions and fine-tuned by considerations … more down-to-earth than the spiritual…. ‘Moral’ and ‘Art’ are both valid symbols of important contemporary concerns—the first has to do with the maker and the second with what is made.”
Sandback said that [when] preparing for the panel she had consulted her dictionary. In the ten-volume New Century she found six columns of tiny print for the word moral. The words aesthetic and art took up one column, and imperative a quarter of a column. Moral was followed by morass, a swamp. Sandback concluded that “moral is a noun related to ethics, pertaining to right and wrong, manners and custom; to the mind as opposed to the physical; part of a truly developed healthy intellect.”
She then said in a tone of great authority that she is “all for moral persons who happen to be artists, and for moral viewers,” which she and the audience seemed to feel was a valuable insight. However, she went on with a sharp, cogent, and honest (albeit unfashionable) commentary:
The role of the contemporary artist as new-wave guru, and the perception that art making provides an inside track to a special truth denied the rest of humankind, is a dangerous role for all concerned. Artists are as flawed and sometimes as brilliant as academics, doctors, or bricklayers. No style is necessarily moral, no subject matter is necessarily correct, no political message or religious symbol necessarily renders great art. Piggybacking an aesthetic to a cause may indicate an important aspect of a personality or maybe marketing or simply a stylish ideological trick. Bad artists can produce masterpieces as well as the obverse. If morality is an imperative of art, how do you approach an erotic Shunga image of strange sexual contortion or the photographs of artists such as Mapplethorpe, Witkin, or any other sometimes disagreeable talent [or how do you enjoy] a lyrical Matisse knowing it was done during the Occupation? … I believe in art and its ability to make magic even when it’s ugly or anguished or performed as an intellectual exercise and even when it’s dumb and lovely. Morality is a judgment that serves no aesthetic purpose.”
Sandback’s final comment was, “Being able to speak well of your work is good for business.”
John Baldessari told an anecdote about running into Jeff Koons in New York and mentioning a profile on Koons in a recent Los Angeles Times, in which a critic who ordinarily writes on rock and roll criticized Koons’s work, applying different standards of morality to it than would be applied to music. Koons’s comment was, “Gee, you’d think she thought I was Mark Kostabi or somebody.” (The audience found this retort hilarious; it brought the house down—perhaps something about the word “Kostabi.”) Baldessari took this as evidence that “art is the last bastion of morality.”
He continued, free-associating:
When I think of morality I think of money. [T]here was a period when poster sizes got smaller until you just had little cards being mailed out with discreet type and you’d go into a gallery or museum and it would be hard to see the work, and, as Lucy Lippard has said, “It’s hard to read things on the wall when you’ve got a screaming baby under your arm.” Now they’re getting bigger again; people like to have stuff [posters]—stuff sells. Sculpture went from ephemeral materials in the ’60s and ’70s to where now everything is in bronze—it’s durable and can be handed down. Your investment is protected; it won’t disintegrate in twenty years.
Art is now equated with money, and they all want to have all the news on art. You can’t even get into a panel anymore. Art is reaching a point where it may be interchangeable with money—art as a medium of exchange. [But] if art didn’t sell we wouldn’t worry about it so much. If Schnabel’s paintings didn’t sell, they might be more interesting. They are less serious because they sell for so much money. Anselm Kiefer seems to be very moral and serious, but with his prices going up, we start to question his seriousness. When money comes in, it starts to cast doubt. I had an argument in a New York bar with a friend who said, “Koons’s art caters to the lowest common denominator,” but [Koons] seems to perfectly reflect our culture. I’m very suspicious of anyone who tells anybody what kind of art they should do. An old dealer friend in Germany said art should have no message. I feel I should do what the culture needs, but I’m bored with the idea. I’m paralyzed in front of the question of what is the right art to do…. Do what one does best—like athletes. Find out what your weaknesses and strengths are and work on the strengths.
Baldessari said with students he works on strengths and tells them to forget their weaknesses. He believes moral purpose is “using all the strengths you have.”
Luis Camnitzer, an artist originally from Germany who has lived in Uruguay, said a friend, after reading the paper he was about to present, warned that it was very pious, but it was too late to change it:
We live believing we are artists, but we are actually ethical beings sifting right from wrong. To survive ethically we need a political awareness to understand our environment…. Packaging is all. Thoughtless substitution can create the same havoc as when detergent is packaged as perfume. “Manipulation” of the viewer has negative connotations [so] we always avoid it when describing art processes, using euphemisms like “composition” and “design.” The shift of the action from ethics into aesthetics allows for the delusion that only those decisions pertaining to content have an ethical quality. [But] most of our art is socially muddled, even when it functions in the market. The explicit wish of most artists is to live off their art production, but they have mixed feelings regarding the question of money as unethical.
Lately a new link has been established between ethics and postmodernism. The postmodern label serves to co-opt and unify some artistic expressions. Postmodernism can be seen as a demoralization of some antiformalist tendencies, [a] replacement of some conservative contexts, and a reinternationalization of what threatens to become a nationalist fragmentation in art. Art is still far from being an ethical affair. We rarely challenge in depth the parameters which define art or the technical constraints offered by art history.
Surely the “parameters which define art” are challenged six times a day by every MFA student in America. But this paper seems less “pious” than murky, or let’s say overly succinct, leaving us to wonder what “reinternationalization” does, what “the technical constraints of art history” are, how one would “challenge” them, in depth or not, how such technical constraints become moral issues, etc., etc., etc.
Suzi Gablik said that as a critic in the late ’80s she is concerned with understanding our cultural myths and how they evolve, what it means to be a “successful” artist working in the world today, and whether the image that comes to mind is one we can support and believe in:
Dominance and mastery are crucial to our notion of success…. The art industry is inseparable from the giant web of our cultural addictions to work, money, possessions, prestige, materialism, and technology. Unless efforts are made to reassess our relationship to the present framework and its practices, new patterns won’t take hold. Vested interests will ensure that they are maintained as before. If we want change, we need to evolve new ground rules for the future. The moral task before us is to identify which approaches to art make sense in today’s world, Aesthetics views art as something autonomous and separate, as socially nonfunctional, existing for its own sake, The best art is made for no good reason and is valuable for its own sake. Ortega y Gasset said, “A work of art is nothing but a work of art, a thing of no transcendency or consequence.” Once fully conscious of how we’ve been conditioned to follow a certain program, we can begin to surrender some of these cultural images and role models as personal ideals and the possibility then opens for actually modifying the framework and not just being immersed in it.
Gablik described the project of Dominique Mazeaud, an artist friend living in Santa Fe [called] The Great Cleansing of the Rio Grande River. Once a month she and other friends meet to clean pollution out of the river. Gablik showed slides of the work and read excerpts from a diary of the ongoing project. One entry records picking up as much as 103 pounds of broken glass in a single day; others ponder how the strange miscellany of objects finds its way into the river. The artist calls her journal entries her “riveries.”
Gablik quoted Caroline Casey: “Nothing which is not socially and ecologically responsible will make it out of this decade alive.” [Gablik] concluded, “Moving away from the competitive modes of institutionalized aesthetics is one way of not perpetrating the dominator system. Forgoing its rites of production and consumption, its mythology of professionalism, and its power archetype of success, only then can we begin to evolve a different set of ground rules for the future. But the willingness to make this systems shift is the beginning of recovery.”
Jeff Koons, who showed a history of his work from 1978 to the present, said there is a great shuffling and shifting of power now in the art world, but that he’s an optimist and believes things beneficial to humankind will be “absorbed into evolution” and “things that are negative will be destroyed.” Koons said he has always been “at the service of his art,” explaining that his work on Wall Street was to finance his art. White middle-class kids use art for social mobility as some ethnic groups use basketball for social mobility, he said, and, “just as basketball players become front men, so do artists.” Koons was very funny and appealing, despite intermittently feigning modesty and becoming sanctimonious over his slides.
Robert Storr, a contributing editor to Art in America, started to paint because he needed a hobby, and found it was fun. He quoted Picasso that “the best art is always fiction,” adding that “the religion of art is not religion, the spirituality of art is not spirituality, the humanism of art is not humanism, and between those terms, in that negation, is the reasonable place to start.” As for morality:
The consciousness of artifice is the one thing for which the artist is morally responsible, not to be a sucker for his/her own ideas and sincerity and not to ask anyone else to be one either…. Rather than commandments, I would put forth two propositions for the audience: never trust anybody who say he’s telling it straight from the shoulder [and] never trust a kidder.
For the question period, Pekarsky gave the usual warning (“No manifestos, only questions”) but, beginning by recognizing his friends in the audience or those whose names he knew, he was rewarded mostly with manifestos. Then came questions like, “Can you maintain your morality in New York’s glitzy art world?” Gablik responded, “Transformation of one’s own consciousness and the place where that transformation is most important is New York, and anyone undergoing such a change should get to New York fast.”
Another statement-question was, “Careerism is related to morality and Koons said on Wall Street he faced a daily handling of moral issues, and that he felt free when he left the business world for the art world, because it was free of those issues, and yet here we are discussing it.” The response to that was, “Careerism is meaningless until given meaning by the speaker,” which seemed to satisfy the questioner. Someone asked why the person “cleansing” the Rio Grande didn’t work with local governing agencies, such as environmental protection; another started with, “An artist is one who produces masterpieces.” That question and several others were rejected outright by the panelists, who said they couldn’t deal with them.
Perhaps I’m the only one who found much of these talks (transcribed practically verbatim above) or their relation to the issues baffling. The standing-room-only audience was rapt throughout, and at conclusion couldn’t stop applauding.
In Terms Of count: unknown.
 Sandback could be referring to either the painter Jerome Witken or his twin brother, the photographer Joel Peter Witken.
 As of 1990, [Robert Storr was] curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA.
Written by Cynthia Navaretta, “Value Added” was originally published in Women Artists News 14, no. 1–2 (Spring/Summer 1989); and reprinted in Judy Seigel, ed., Mutiny and the Mainstream: Talk That Changed Art, 1975–1990 (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1992), 287–90. In Terms Of thanks Midmarch Arts Press for permission to republish this review.