Anti-Individualism

In the art world (outside the market) there is a kind of lingering embarrassment attached to the idea of the individual. Creativity is a word never used, neither is expression, and I think that’s an uncritical holdover from seventies theory—the likes of Foucault, Derrida etc. Perhaps equally strong is the influence of feminism, which identified certain kinds of self-assertion as typically masculine. But today we also have to face up to the rule of bureaucracy and the particular way that it enforces a collective mind. A good example is a recent and controversial article by John Yau, a good critic evidently having an off day. At the conclusion of the piece he says:

“…after the death of the author, how does an individual reinstate the mantle of authorship and take responsibility for what he or she makes? Mimicking casualness or employing a machine or fabricators to make one’s work—as many critical darlings are busy doing—might be this generation’s way of shucking responsibility.”

In this call for responsibility I hear an instinctive repression of individuality, in the name of the individual of course. Individuality is realized and expressed through objective work on the material, it isn’t present when an artist “takes responsibility” for what they’ve done. Done what? The purpose of Yau’s article is to critique Raphael Rubinstein’s now famous article on “Provisional Painting,” and he does a good job of that, but its burden is that Clement Greenberg imposed his reductive views on the art world, like a kind of art dictator. Unfortunately for Yau this is nonsense, and, as it happens, well refuted by Franklin Einspruch in another recent article. The power an artist has is the power to make, in variable degrees of effectiveness. The only power a critic has is his or her rhetoric. I don’t see how the critic’s rhetoric can inhibit the artist’s power in any way. To claim that it does is a sure sign of conformism, whether the supposedly authoritative critic is Greenberg or Derrida. Authority is first assumed by the thinker, then granted by others, and the grant can always be rescinded, but to complain about the critic’s power is pathetic in my view. Meanwhile, the real authorities make their presence felt, even in the studio of the solitary artist. Today all corporate, governmental, educational, scientific and cultural work is based on “teams” and collaboration, so art world suspicion of the individual is just surrender to the status quo, as is the trend for collaborative teams of artists. Collectivism is the governing principle, and art should reject that, for reasons which I will develop in another post, while Yau’s finger-wagging call for “responsibility” is the disciplinary voice of the bureaucrat, in technology and business today called the “product manager.” His rhetoric is weak, but he lets you know that it’s up to you to internalize your instructions, and follow them enthusiastically—with “passion.” Maybe we should talk for a bit about Paul McCarthy and Ryan Trecartin, who have some lessons for abstraction. I think they are both untamed, irresponsible individuals, who make a point of undercutting the ego. The self is sublimated into the work—the right way to break from the collective.

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Paul McCarthy, Dreaming 2005

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Ryan Trecartin, Composite 1

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