Or, let’s find a completely new art criticism
Seul Bi and the "troop soup" (pude chige)
For most of the twentieth century, art was judged with respect to the previously existing state of the medium. What mattered was the kind of rupture it made, the unexpected formal or semiotic elements that it brought into play, the way it displaced the conventions of the genre or the tradition. The prize at the end of the evaluative process was a different sense of what art could be, a new realm of possibility for the aesthetic. Let’s take it as axiomatic that all that has changed, definitively.
The backdrop against which art stands out now is a particular state of society. What an installation, a performance, a concept or a mediated representation can do with its formal, affective and semiotic means is to mark out a possible or effective shift with respect to the laws, the customs, the measures, the mores, the technical and organizational devices that define how we must behave and how we can relate to each other at a given time and in a given place. What you look for in art is a different way to live, a fresh chance at coexistence. Anything less is just the seduction of novelty – the hedonism of insignificance.
If that’s the case (if the axiom really holds), then a number of fascinating questions arise – for the artist, of course, but also for the critic. Where the critic is concerned, one good question is this: How do you address yourself to artists or publics or potential peers across the dividing lines that separate entire societies? How do you evaluate what counts as a positive or at least a promising change in the existing balance of a foreign culture?
I’m sure you immediately see how difficult this is. Already in the past, it was hard enough to say that a particular aesthetic tradition and a particular state of the medium defined the leading edge, the point at which a rupture became interesting. Yet still there were times when all the painters seemed to flock to Rome, then later to Paris, then later to New York City; and so through the sheer aggregation of techniques and styles, the fiction of a leading edge could be maintained, at least by some. But in the face of a simultaneous splintering and decline of what used to be called “the West,” and a correlative rise of some of “the Rest,” who could seriously say that a certain set of local, national or regional laws, customs, measures, mores and technical or organizational devices are really the most interesting ones to transgress or even break into pieces, in hopes of a better way of being? Or to be even cruder about it, and closer to the actual state of things: Who can seriously claim that the Euro-American forms of society are the benchmark against which change must be measured – even if those societies are still the most opulent and most developed and most heavily armed with all the nastiest of technological weapons?
Let’s face it, the task of a transnational critique for the new arts of living within, against and beyond the existing states of the world’s societies is daunting to say the least. However, I think all is not lost in this domain, for three connected reasons. The first is that over the last, say, fifty years, and particularly over the last fifteen, we have seen the still very superficial but nonetheless real emergence of something like a world society. To put it another way, there is now some kind of connective tissue (call it the transnational economy, the transportation system and global English) that does bind our possibilities of life together, though without in any way reducing them to being identical. The second is that the vast proliferation of readily accessible archives (libraries, web pages, video banks, record collections, museums) offers at least some chance to rapidly sample all sorts of information and impressions about what kind of shape a particular society is in, and even what kinds of steps are being made to try and change it. And third, given the above and maybe a good translator too, what you can do is actually try to stage a dialogue with the people you are meeting, and hope that some of them respond, give you pointers, correct your mistakes, calm down your unconscious arrogance and add their own reflections and aesthetic productions into the mix – not only to obtain a better and more useful critique of their society, but also of yours. Which last, I might add, is something essential and desperately needed, particularly if you are a European or an American.
The above is a theoretical program, but also just a reflection on some experiences as a critic and activist out in the wide world. The most recent of these experiences was particularly interesting: I was invited to participate in and to evaluate a project of artistic remembrance and envisioning, focused on the American military bases that are now (maybe) in the process of closing and moving out of the South Korean city of Dongducheon, and indeed of a range of sites around the DMZ, even as a new megabase is prepared further to the south in a place called Pyeongtaek. This was an incredible chance to get a first-hand look at what I think is the scourge of American and Western democracy, namely what Chalmers Johnson calls the “empire of bases.” (And I happen to think that the first-hand look, however fleeting and superficial, is of tremendous importance whenever you really want to learn anything). As it turned out though, this was also an incredible chance to start getting to know a unique spot on the earth, South Korea, which for the worst of reasons has been particularly close to the U.S. over the last six decades, despite the fact that many many Koreans would really rather close that never-ending chapter called the Cold War on the Korean Peninsula.
The trip was too short, but still amazing, and it got me to do some new things in criticism (maybe dubious ones), like using a pop song for starters rather than a quote from Foucault, and approaching street demonstrations via Korean feminists rather than Toni Negri. In the end I had to conclude that the old French saying, “Celui qui aime a toujours raison” (those who love something are always right), is in fact wrong, since we humans are capable of awful loves, and not only in aesthetics. That said, we’re also uniquely capable of starting all over again, as y’all probably know in your intimate experience. And so let’s ask the question: What would tomorrow look like without 750+ American military bases scattered across the planet? With a little help from my new friends, I tried to go further with that line of inquiry, as you can see right here:
And now the dialogue is open for whoever has inspiration.