We are reprinting this updated essay, first published in Contemporary Magazine, London, October 2006, because it remains even more relevant today.
Cultural Production in a Time of War/Clayton Campbell
(The images are from Clayton Campbell’s project Words My Son Has Learned Since 9/11, begun in 2006, which was shown at the Maison Europennee de la Photographie, Paris, France in that same year. It was then was exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2006 when it evolved into the on-going project, Words We Have Learned Since 9/11. He was asked what new words or words he had known that had taken on a new meaning since 9/11. He typed them on a computer, printed them out, and then over the course of an hour after his Tai Kwon Do class, hence the costume he is in, I took these photos. It was the unintended but beginning of an immense project which can be seen at http://claytoncampbell.com/gallery/words-we-have-learned-since-9-11-3)
A core conceptual proposition that the Work begins and ends with the Idea (art and art criticism as a thought process) is ensconced in the cultural canon of contemporary art. It exists with an air of academic certainty. I expect that every serious artist’s tool- box contain some applications of conceptual practice; interventions, evidences, documentations, actions, appropriations, art and text strategies, infinity of choice. Conceptual production in 2006 is a decentralized vocation in an international landscape of extraordinary cultural and critical diversity. That is a perfectly fine place to have arrived at, and it means that creative persons are thinking ever more deeply about the world they inhabit, and their relationship to it.
The influence of formal conceptual-ism is profound and still in play, defining art making practice for the foreseeable future. What this future looks like is a core concern to many artists who are doing the deep thinking. There is a utilitarian side to recent conceptual practice, which I respond to more and more, and find relevant as a direction, which factors in the Unthinkable. In the following equation, the Intention is a sub set of the Idea and the objective Outcome is to be as Effective as possible. The Idea is always in the foreground, but is coupled with an authentic and ephemeral emotional Moment, the artist’s mystery if you like, and resembling a bit the philosopher’s stone. This crystallization of Intention is the Epiphany, when artist/audience simultaneously recognize that an intangible essence which matters, has occurred. It is more than de-materialization. For an artist it is about the need to get the real deal into their head, and then shoot it back out with a vengeance and connect so those who are part of the moment will never forget. This is made tangible and can be seen. Lastly there is the need for proof, the burden of proof for the absurdity of what the artist has been doing, a denouement which imparts meaning to life. While it may all sound too Christian, it is really a very old mythic progression updated to secular culture, tried and true.
I am interested in the arc of conceptual and cultural production from the late 1960’s when it was linked to the student protest movements in Europe and the United States anti war movement. We are again in war- time, this installment brought on in part by the United States and Great Britain. Regional conflicts are threatening to expand uncontrollably as super powers throw their technological might around, and the possibility of terrible social collapse and destruction causes great unease and uncertainty in all of us. The stakes are high. It is very difficult if not impossible to make art, much less think about it, in a country overrun by warfare. All actions become reactive. Cultural production has a humanistic purpose as one distinct aspect, and I am seeing philosophy return into the collective and increasingly thoughtful discussions among creative thinkers. Any kind of work and possibility can take place in this embrace, in this tolerance.
War creates new languages and belief systems. As an antidote to insanity there is Eric Erikson’s proposed concept of Generativity, how the individual gives back more to their community than they take out of it. This simple, proactive premise leads me to think that personal responsibility is the currency of authentic cultural production, and now is the time to respond with greater urgency to issues of social justice; to think them through, ask questions and attempt answers. Some cultural production must have a moral dimension. It is imperative and I have great faith in the questions and answers artists do provide. We are fighting for survival at ‘five minutes to midnight on the doomsday clock’. That does sound dramatic even to me, but not if you speak with young persons who are disgusted with what they are being handed. There are ways to regroup.
Implicit in our critical moment is the rejection of being ineffective as a viable strategy for artistic production, and it is worth looking at what that may be, because a lot of cultural production has hung its hat on this latter premise. Discussions about the market place are ineffective, causing corrosive competition instead of shared solutions; hovering in a rear guard action is an ineffective capitulation and an act of personal cowardice; work so internalized it cannot be shared is ineffective and a solitary confinement; creating languages that are a closed circuit shared by a few are not only ineffective but grossly elitist, fascistic and (the unkindest cut of all) unbecoming of a 21st century artist. If you cannot communicate well and fully, you should get out of the business and do something else.
When artists are less singular, insular, and self referential, the world is a better place. We stop talking about who is selling out, who or what has been co-mmodified. No one will remember whether Jeff Koons was cynically manipulating the market or not while claiming conceptual credibility. It has no importance, except that this conversation goes to the heart of personal responsibility and whether an artist can live with themselves or not. That is solely the artist’s decision. If they make the wrong one, their work inescapably declines overtime. We see this historically pattern over and over again. Yet this current level of professional critique is absurd when we are in a high stakes moment and half the world is at war, when billions are suffering. Whether cultural production should be purpose driven is ultimately debatable, but at all costs artists must stick right now to conceiving big ideas, asking big questions, providing big answers, and let the little ones slide. Collectively, conceptual work needs to not get lost in the woods and must stay in the daylight. Any strategy that succeeds at this is OK by me. If, in a contemporary ethos, the Idea is the artist’s salvation, lord knows artists are clinging to intellectual life by a thread. Appropriating the ‘lost in the woods metaphor’, from the opening stanza of the Inferno, I think Dante would understand what I am talking about. He did not give any energy to the small ideas populating the world around him then, and neither do the serious artist’s among us with ours.
This discussion is important because of the importance of social strategies to inform larger life strategies we live by. Looking at the stages of the Creative vocation as progressive, the names change. What began in the 1960’s as Conceptualist turned into the dedicated Art Workers of the 70’s and 80’s, and then morphed into the entrepreneurial Cultural Producers of the 90’s and beyond. They include in their work the simultaneous roles of practicing artist, designer, mediator, project facilitator, writer/cultural commentator, curator, arts administrator, and fundraiser, all part of the tool box, or maybe its a brief case? Underlying this role-playing evolution are the functions of cultural/institutional critique and action/implementation. A central critique would be, ‘what is needed now from cultural producers ?’ This asks them to take responsibility for more than themselves and make a strong artistic response with concrete ideas.
Cultural production reflects its time and cultural setting. Military conflict drowns out Beauty, the pure idea. The evolution of cultural production is a reflection of how much energy is needed from artists to be heard at all in a time of war. It is not just a function of being visible in the market place; it is about being effective. I am describing a motivated Idea Person, those thought leaders littering the Ted Talks, involved to a high degree with facilitation. The means of production are entirely in the hands of the artist and creative, if they want it. Through the functions of mediator and designer a viable context forms, and provides a basis for fresh ideas that can be put into practice with high degrees of personal authenticity and generosity. We have a plethora of multi-tasking creators who deliver us the equivalent of 17th century ‘follies’, self- interested spectacle for the frivolity of it destined for a wealthy class of patrons who are complicit in deflecting real critique and self awareness. Important cultural production, what is being practiced now by the most interesting artists, relies on the notion that conceptual practice creates its own alternative space characterized by a sense of commonality. I return to the ineffable Idea, in tandem with effective, coherent actions connecting in a substantive way. The precision of artist’s choices becomes more than crucial. The ability of cultural production to open up larger cultural conversations, which parlay into understanding, connection, and intelligence, is both appropriate and absolutely necessary. Faith, the most ephemeral of commodities, is about presence, paying witness, being committed, making Art that has meaning, character and generosity. As the wars outside and within us are not going to end anytime soon, the biggest Idea is to continue with the work, to not psychically give up, to leave something of worth as proof you really showed up after all.