Art, Activism, and Oppositionality: Essays from Afterimage

Art, Activism, and Oppositionality: Essays from Afterimage

by Grant H. Kester

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There is a common perception in the arts today that overtly activist artæoften seen to sacrifice an aesthetic pleasure for a subversive oneæis no longer in fashion. In bringing together sixteen of the most important essays on activist and community-based art from the pages of Afterimageæone of the most influential journals in the media and

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There is a common perception in the arts today that overtly activist artæoften seen to sacrifice an aesthetic pleasure for a subversive oneæis no longer in fashion. In bringing together sixteen of the most important essays on activist and community-based art from the pages of Afterimageæone of the most influential journals in the media and visual arts fields for more than twenty-five yearsæGrant H. Kester demonstrates that activist art, far from being antithetical to the true meaning of the aesthetic, can be its most legitimate expression.

Forging a style of criticism where aesthetic, critical, theoretical, and activist concerns converge, Afterimage has shaped American debates around the politics of visual production and arts education while offering a voice to politically involved artists and scholars. Art, Activism, and Oppositionality insists not only on the continuing relevance of an activist stance to contemporary art practice and criticism, but also on the significance of an engaged art practice that is aligned with social or political activism. With essays that span fifteen yearsæroughly from Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential win to the 1994 Republican victories in Congress, a period marked by waning public support for the arts and growing antagonism toward activist art æArt, Activism, and Oppositionality confronts issues ranging from arts patronage, pedagogy, and the very definitions of art and activism to struggles involving AIDS, reproductive rights, sexuality, and racial identity.

Art, Activism, and Oppositionality will interest students and scholars of contemporary art history, media studies, cultural studies, and the fine arts, as well as, arts activists, critics, and arts administrators.

Contributors. Maurice Berger, Richard Bolton, Ann Cvetkovich, Coco Fusco, Brian Goldfarb, Mable Haddock, Grant H. Kester, Ioannis Mookas, Chiquita Mullins Lee, Darrell Moore, Lorraine O’Grady, Michael Renov, Martha Rosler, Patricia Thomson, David Trend, Charles A. Wright Jr., Patricia R. Zimmerman

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“This collection is a real testimonial to the intelligence of the editing of Afterimage, a journal that has showcased throughtful critics and commentators for years.”—Patricia Aufderheide, American University

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Art, Activism, and Oppositionality

Essays from Afterimage

By Grant H. Kester

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-2095-1


Richard Bolton

Enlightened Self-Interest: The Avant-Garde in the '80s

The whole thing about fun–I like to have fun. I think everyone wants to have fun. I think that having fun is being happy. I know it's not all fun, but maybe fun helps with the bad. I mean, you definitely cannot have too much fun. OK, it's like I want to have fun when I'm painting. And I want people to have fun looking at the paintings. When I think, What should I do next?, I think: more, newer, better, nower, funner.–Kenny Scharf, quoted by Gerald Marzorati, ARTnews

Over a decade ago, it was said that we stood on the brink of a new avant-garde, a postmodernist avant-garde, critically posed against dominant culture. This avant-garde seemed to offer radical new ways to intervene in the system of art production and in the construction of meaning and power beyond the art world. Since these days of promise, postmodernism's relationship to dominant culture has changed. Postmodernism has been embraced by the very institutions it sought to criticize, and many of the artists of the movement have won fame and, in some cases, fortune.

Over the last decade, we also witnessed profound changes in our economic and social life. The rise of conservatism has been accompanied by the centralization of power and the reassertion of inequality between classes. An aggressive, unregulated capitalism has been unleashed. Corporations have expanded their control nationally and internationally, while personal freedom has been diminished. From this perspective, the space of opposition seems to have grown much smaller.

Fame for critical artists, accompanied by diminished opportunities for change–how can we explain this contradiction? This article will attempt to answer this question by examining the effect the economic and political environment of conservatism has had upon art production. The impact that the art market, corporate patronage, commodity strategy, and the media have had on the function and meaning of recent art will be explored. It is hoped that this analysis will provide the reader with a sense of the adaptability of capitalism as it confronts challenge–with a sense of the way that power works through the cultural sphere to control dissent.

Inevitably, those with power in a society will strive to create a culture that reflects their interests and aims. It is also inevitable that there will be challenges to this power; the sustenance of power depends on the ruling classes' ability to anticipate and circumvent these challenges. In our society, challenges are not controlled through outright repression; instead, the ruling class works to establish hegemony–that is, it works to "frame alternatives and contain opportunities, to win and shape consent, so that the granting of legitimacy to the dominant classes appears not only 'spontaneous' but natural and normal." A crucial part of this legitimacy is gained in the cultural sphere, for culture cloaks power with invisibility. Culture provides the ruling class with subtle opportunities to enter the public imagination, with ways to legitimate the agendas of the ruling class by associating them with the "universal" human spirit.

But culture is not so simple, and this consent is not easy to obtain. Our system is not monolithic–its many contradictions provide endless opportunities for critique. For these contradictions to go unnoticed, those in power must construct as seamless a reality as possible. To do this, power must be established in many different sectors of society; the successful engineering of consent depends upon coordination between these sectors. If we are to understand the role that art plays in the construction of consent, we must examine the range of institutional forces that act upon culture and discover the ways they work together.

The Art Market in an Age of Speculation

She is now 42 years old and supremely comfortable with success and money and luxury.... The artist is an ... arresting figure.... Her attire can range from a tartan muumuu over bare feet to an Yves Saint Laurent suit and expensive spectator pumps. Her dinner parties are meticulously planned and catered. She is well read, well spoken, well educated at Mills College and Yale. Her work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Dallas Museum of Art.–Jennifer Bartlett, described by Nan Robertson, ARTnews

The art market has been transformed by American and transnational capitalism. The age of junk bonds has also been an age of fame and fortune for artists living and dead. Wall Street has not been the only site of wild profiteering–the art capitals of the world also have witnessed unprecedented speculation. This traffic in art mirrors the fervent trading of the stock exchange; investment indexes for art continue to climb; contemporary works of art are discussed like real estate investments; gallery owners trade artists and make deals in the style of corporate raiders.

As proof of the voraciousness of the art market, one need only examine the changes that have occurred in the "Million Dollar Club" over the last decade. During the 1979-80 auction season, only 14 paintings and drawings sold for prices of $1 million or more, but in 1987-88, an astonishing 121 paintings and drawings broke the $1 million figure. Ceiling prices have also skyrocketed. In 1980, Turner's Juliet and Her Nurse (ca. 1836) was sold for $6.4 million–the highest price of that season. In 1988, Irises (1889) by Van Gogh was honored with a price tag of $53.9 million. In 198788, Sotheby's and Christie's–the two major auction houses–together recorded over $3 billion in sales. As Newsweek put it, "Sales by either house alone equal the gross national product of such countries as Fiji, Malta, and Burkina Faso."

In such a time, it is not surprising that paintings by old masters and impressionists sell well or that new buyers, suddenly flush with cash, are attracted to these works. These works, after all, are the very embodiment of quality and are thus the most conspicuous and trustworthy kinds of investments. London art dealer Sir Hugh Leggatt has noted, with a trace of hauteur, that the new collectors "tend to treat art as a status symbol. With the nouveau riche who want to put dollar bills in a frame, the French impressionists appeal. They mean something." However, more recent works have also done well in the marketplace. In the fall of 1988, Picasso's Acrobat and Young Harlequin (1905) was sold for $38.45 million, the highest price ever paid for a twentieth-century work. Weeks before this Picasso sale, False Start (1959) by Jasper Johns (a work that sold for $3,150 in 1960) was bought at auction for $17.1 million, a record for a living artist.

The "investment" is a site of excess, a collecting point for expanding income, and by all indicators art now serves this function more effectively than precious metals or even the stock market itself. According to the Sotheby's Art Index, the most trusted measure of worth, there has been a steady and unprecedented rise in the value of all forms of art and collectibles. Salomon Brothers' annual report on compound annual rates of return shows that from June 1, 1983, to June 1, 1988, investment in old master paintings outperformed investments in coins, foreign exchange, treasury bills, diamonds, housing, gold, U.S. farmland, oil, and silver. The art market's strongest showing in fact came after the stock market crash of October 1987, when it outperformed all of the aforementioned assets as well as stocks and bonds. In times of economic difficulty, art is considered to be a wise shelter.

The Economist has said this about the art market: "The source of the cash that makes current prices possible is plain to see. These are stirring times for capitalism." The art boom is tied closely to new fortunes made in the stock markets in the United States and elsewhere. Exchange rates, and particularly the weak dollar, have also helped foreign investors, particularly the Japanese, who have been a major force in the art market of the '80s. As one collector puts it, "The government killed real estate with the tax law, so collectibles are where it's at. Painting becomes stock. It becomes a global currency." Or, to quote another rather frank collector: "There is so much liquidity sloshing around. After the really wealthy get their five houses, there's only one thing to do: collect art." Art is considered such a mainstream form of investment that Sotheby's Holdings now makes loans secured by art, as does Citibank, which also provides "sophisticated financial services" and advisory assistance for its art-collecting clients.

Thus much of the boom is being driven by the ultrarich, who buy the most expensive paintings as speculative investments and as a way to create publicity. Leo Castelli has pointed out that "the meaning of these current prices is very clear. There are five to 20 collectors willing to pay $10 million or more for the masterpieces of this century.... They will not just buy anything." And, in fact, auctions throughout the '80s were marked by a high percentage of lesser-quality works that remained unsold. But this is only part of the picture. For in the highly speculative art market of the '80s, the nature of collecting changed. Traditionally, collectors had behaved, well, like collectors, keeping a work for a generation or more. Today's collector often places the work back on the market as soon as a profit is glimpsed. Paintings at times never leave the warehouse. According to art adviser and Citicorp vice president Jeffrey Deitch, "[I]mportant paintings are being bought by investors who drop $5 million to $15 million at an auction, and sometimes they don't even bother to pick up the pictures." In this atmosphere, twentieth-century art–even the work of emerging artists–has become a target for speculative acquisition. One can get into the contemporary market cheaply and, with rising prices, profit from the boom with little risk. The art market, it seems, is one successful case of trickledown economics; a rising tide has lifted all boats.

A surprising number of the "hot" artists of the last decade have seen their work appear at auction far sooner than anyone expected. The first work by Julian Schnabel at auction was sold for $93,500 during the 1982-83 season. Works by David Salle appeared at auction in 1982-83 as well, and by 1986-87 a work by Salle commanded $60,500 at auction. Jennifer Bartlett's work appeared at auction in the early 1980s, and in 1985-86 a work of Bartlett's sold for $88,000. By the mid-1980s, even works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf were garnering respectable auction prices. In 1988, a painting by Ross Bleckner, painted and sold for $30,000 in 1986, brought $187,000 at auction. These auctions help establish the going rate for new work by these artists; high auction prices mean higher prices at the gallery as well. For postmodern artists who have not seen the value of their work established at auction, the expanding market has still meant increased gallery prices for their work. Recent works by Barbara Kruger can be purchased from Mary Boone for around $30,000; Sherrie Levine's latest paintings can be obtained from the same dealer for $25,000 each. Levine's rephotographed "versions" of works by Alexander Rodchenko–early pieces praised for their challenge to beliefs about commodification and authorship–now sell for $2,000 each. Cindy Sherman's latest works are priced at $8,500 each and $15,000 for diptychs. Her early works, the "Untitled Film Stills," sell for $1,000 to $4,000, although some have been appraised for insurance purposes at $10,000. (When first shown, these works could be purchased for $50.) David Salle's most recent paintings range from $90,000 to $150,000. Julian Schnabel's gallery, Pace, will not provide prices of his recent work, but it has been reported that the artist earns $750,000 a year.

As with many investments, art's worth is in part imaginary. Art has no natural value; this value must be constructed by the marketplace. As a result, this value is subject to change and collapse. "The price of art rests largely on your belief in it," claims art historian Souren Melikian, "so any kind of panic will inevitably affect art more than other kinds of investments." Or as one gallery owner put it, "Is there any intrinsic value? No. It's all fantasy. Prices can go to $40 million [this spoken before Van Gogh sale in 1988], and so what? Why not higher? Any amount of money can be justified." Or as Christie's Christopher Burge bluntly stated, prices are "driven by greed, desire, phobias, and, finally, whim." Given this, an art market crash is a real possibility, and many investors feel that such a downturn is inevitable. Consequently, business magazines constantly warn their readers to exercise extreme caution when buying current art, lest they be caught with monstrous, unsalable works of art. A recent issue of Barron's offered this advice: "Collectors ... need to be especially wary of buying at the top of a trend. Fashions in this field [art] are frequently short-lived.... Neo-expressionism, for example, was in vogue for roughly six years; now some say it's being replaced by a school they call 'Neo-geo.' ... Second-tier neoexpressionists no longer sell."

Establishing a value for a work of art helps to create control over the work, influencing how the work will function and who will see and own it. From this position of control, the market can be manipulated deliberately. Important collectors can change the status of the work of artists merely by shuffling their collections. Consider the habits of Charles Saatchi, certainly the best-known collector of the 1980s. Along with his brother Maurice, Charles has created the first "global" advertising firm, the largest in the world. Half of the world's five hundred largest corporations are clients, and in fiscal 1987 the firm's revenues equaled $1.36 billion. Saatchi is said to spend more than $2 million a year on his collection. He has amassed over 500 contemporary artworks, collecting the work of single artists in depth–20 Salles, 32 Schnabels, 23 Kiefers, 21 LeWitts; he recently opened his own museum in north London to show these acquisitions (a museum, by the way, one-third the size of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City). His style of collecting allows him to have enormous impact on the art market, and many collectors follow Saatchi's purchases closely, buying up other works of a given artist once Saatchi has demonstrated interest. There is concern about the damage Saatchi might wreak from this position of influence. In 1984 he sold off his Sandra Chia holdings, and this act appears to have significantly affected both Chia's reputation and the worldwide market for his work. Sperone Westwater, the artist's gallery, intervened, effecting a friendly buyout by repurchasing the paintings dumped by Saatchi, and so resuscitating the value of Chia's work. In a public letter to ARTnews, Chia complained about the possibility of "any one person accumulating my works in such number, thereby establishing a control and quasi-monopoly." Given Saatchi's vast collection, there remains fear among galleries that other buyouts may be necessary in the future, that Saatchi may someday dump the work of other contemporary artists, encouraging other collectors to do the same, depressing the market and the artists involved.

Corporate Support: "It Takes Art to Make a Company Great"

Business art is the step that comes after art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a commercial artist. After I did the thing called "art" ... I went into business art.... Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.–Andy Warhol, quoted by Jeffrey Deitch, Art in America

During the Reagan era, American business willingly provided the support to culture and human services that our government has refused to supply. In fact, corporate support for the arts has skyrocketed. In 1985, the last year for which detailed figures are available, U.S. business provided $698 million to the arts. During the same year, the government handed out about $163 million–just one-fourth the amount. The Business Committee for the Arts (BCA), an organization established to encourage such corporate support, estimates that corporations have contributed $5.4 billion to the arts over the last twenty years. Some have jokingly referred to the creation of an "artistic-industrial complex"; however, corporations donate even larger amounts to education and other social needs. Total corporate investment in all types of philanthropy has averaged $4.6 billion annually in recent years.

Why should we worry about this? The reasons offered by corporations for their support are diverse, but all add up to the same result–a public realm brought under corporate control. Conservatism has extensively restructured cultural production. The corporation that performs as a good citizen doesn't really donate its capital, it invests it, developing a corporate culture and extending business's reach into all walks of life. The role of the corporation as a shadow government is strengthened. Citizens become accustomed to official art.


Excerpted from Art, Activism, and Oppositionality by Grant H. Kester. Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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