M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online #1
I am the Star Trek fan who came up with the title of this panel. When we did the M/E/A/N/I/N/G forums of artists' views on issues of contemporary interest, we always tried to avoid asking overdetermined questions. Yet, at first glance, this question, "Is Resistance Futile?" would seem to be one. Yes, it is futile. In fact it said so in the New York Times last year: an article about technology had a subtitle: "resistance is futile." But using the word "resistance" implies some historically determined assumptions: just bringing up the notion of resistance marks a person as believing in it or being interested in it.
I'm using the term "resistance" in a fluid way, starting with the possibility of resistance to assimilation and loss of individual subjectivity and agency to the pervasive global society of spectacular appearance described by Guy Debord in his 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle, in particular how that applies within the art world. I'm also using the word "resistance" in terms of an always compromised effort to critique a culture I am part of, that has created me, and that tries at every moment to keep me integrated into its laws through incentive and punishment. And I mean resistance as activism, both within cultural, aesthetic utterance and actual political activism within my own small part of the world, which for me includes questions of female representation, painting, and history.
At least three aspects of my biography have constructed me for resistance. First of all World War II and the Holocaust are part of my family's background. My parents told me stories about the war--I am talking not about armed resistance but about examples of individual courage that posed questions to me as bald as, "Would I have the courage to save a life or to sacrifice my life for another?" I knew that the answer was, no. Just as in Debord's or Adorno's analysis of cultural resistance, failure was a given but the moral challenge was certainly placed squarely in front of me.
I was also a child during
the McCarthy era. My parents had friends who had been investigated
by the FBI and they knew people who had been blacklisted. Last year,
I taught a course whose goal was to denaturalize the Spectacle in
some small fashion: to this end I worked my way from The Society
of the Spectacle, which, for the sake of a class held in New
York City, I symbolized by Times Square, backwards to the Holocaust
and to representations of the Holocaust in art. A week after screening
portions of Shoah, I showed my students the "Springtime
for Hitler" section of The Producers, to demonstrate
in part how outrageous hilarity could be the ultimate resistance
and revenge. I also pointed out to them that several people involved
in the film had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era. In fact
Zero Mostel was a family friend and when we first met him, in 1959,
he had been unable to work for nearly a decade. What this meant
was made clear to me in a way that was understandable even to a
child. This amazingly brilliant man was spending the summer with
his family in a decrepit back-alley shack in Provincetown with a
floor, of which to say that it was sloping would be a charitable
Finally, I had specific political training, which I chose: I was in the Feminist Art Program at CalArts in 1971, an experience I've sometimes amused myself by referring to as " boot camp for feminists" but that also functioned for me as a kind of leadership training program similar to that run by civil-rights organizations, for example. But at the time resistance was in some sense easy because the behaviors and beliefs I was drawn to were actually part of the culture at large: in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in addition to the anti-war movement and other movements of social liberation, feminism or "Women's Lib" in the parlance of the day, was fashionable enough for Hollywood sitcoms such as Maude.
But here I would like to draw an important distinction between resistance and rebelliousness. In our culture rebelliousness isn't the same as resistance. Taking your clothes off for your art when you are a beautiful young woman, or taking drugs, or playing the role of the clown are sanctioned activities meant to defuse the potential of real resistance. Rebelliousness easily becomes just another commodity. Debord notes this pattern when he writes, "A smug acceptance of what exists is likewise quite compatible with a purely spectacular rebelliousness, for the simple reason that dissatisfaction itself becomes a commodity as soon as the economics of affluence finds a way of applying its production methods to this particular raw material."
I've described my own political formation not only to explain to you why I might be drawn to the concept of resistance, but to try to explain to myself why other people might not be. For example, the MFA program at Parsons, where I teach, has created an interactive website called Nomad for discussion of ideas about art and culture. I posted the questions that we asked our panelists to consider and promised that responses would be printed out and made available at the desk of A.I.R. Gallery the night of the panel. In other words, I offered a possibility of speech and I even offered to assure anonymity if so desired. Some of the faculty even made these questions an assignment even though making consideration of resistance mandatory is obviously very problematic. It didn't matter because no one responded. I say this not to criticize or to put anyone on the spot but, rather, because I consider the silence as a symptom. Apathy or social paralysis is as historically constructed as resistance; activism may seem very strange in the face of it.
Resistance is what you begin to embody when the culture changes and you find that you stand for values that are no longer fashionable. Values that had seemed natural become identifiable as ideological positions that may impose sacrifices that you might not have originally considered or chosen. Resistance is saying things that you believe even when doing so is against your material self-interest. I am the most risk-averse person you'll ever meet. I don't get up the morning and decide to resist. But I have an impulse towards critical speech and then the culture resists me. That is the counterintuitive truth about how resistance works: just as lightning appears to strike from the sky downwards but actually rises from the earth, resistance runs not only from the individual towards the culture but, more profoundly, from the culture against the individual. American culture is extremely sensitive to the slightest deviation from conformity. It knows resistance when it sees it and it sees it in the smallest things--even where there was no resistance intended.
Therefore small interventions at the margins of invisibility and anonymity may be the only kind of actions even remotely possible, but they are also notable.
I feel that M/E/A/N/I/N/G was such a small intervention: it created a space where it was possible to publish writings that were more reflective and speculative, that were not calibrated to serve art market needs or specifically sanctioned academic agendas. Susan Bee and I started M/E/A/N/I/N/G back in 1986 partly around the fact that I couldn't get an essay critical of David Salle's depiction of women published in any of the major art publications. Why would any of the glossies want to publish something that went against the market they were so complicit with, so busy constructing?
More disturbing was the behavior of publications that thought of themselves as bastions of cultural resistance. A thoughtful rejection from October taught me one of the principal methods the society deploys to deal with resistance: they tell you are doing something wrong. Their letter basically said that they didn't like Salle anymore than I did but the enterprise of critiquing him must be approached with "great caution." Apparently my error was in focusing on his representations of women because that was based on an essentialist premise that such a thing as "women" could still be considered a viable category (as opposed to the theoretical point of view that "women" was a social construct), whereas from their point of view the real problem was that he was painting.
Journals such as October have posed a special problem within what might have been considered a broader community of resistance. The recent "Roundtable: The Present Conditions of Art Criticism" in the 100th Issue of October is indicative of the problem posed by high-level institutions that position themselves as resistant--it should be noted that the issue is dedicated to the theme of obsolescence and, in addition to the roundtable, includes an interesting forum of artists, responses to questions about obsolescence as "a site of resistance." First and foremost the participants are actually engaged in a serious and lengthy discussion of what is art criticism and therefore also what is art today. The level of discussion and scholarship is rigorous. However the insularity of the core editorial group is almost comic as they betray contempt for much art practice including most painting, sculpture, for feminism, and popular culture, and engage in flagrant nepotism and self-congratulation. All that brilliance and yet a Monty Pythonesque rendition of "We are the world" might well be in order! Just where (and when) one would want to find critical recognition of the many resistant practices that do exist all around them and just under their noses, one finds another hierarchical organization, but one all the more insidious because it sees itself as most correctly resistant.
My essay on David Salle, "Appropriated Sexuality," was published--because Susan and I started our own magazine instead of accepting the status quo and getting depressed! Although overall I can't complain about getting my writing published, nevertheless my ideas have encountered a subtle form of resistance. Thinking about the "blacklist," I realize that what I am up against is something that doesn't have a name. I'll call it the white list. The white list not only makes it difficult to get alternative points of view published or exhibited, but even if you can get the work out, you still don't get referenced or credited. After "Appropriated Sexuality" was published, people who I knew had read it wrote articles about Salle in which they would say, "some feminists say" or in some other vague way suggest that there were dissenters to the party line, but they would never actually provide a factual reference. The first favorable mention of this essay appeared in a 2002 Art in America book review by Raphael Rubinstein of M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists' Writings, Theory, and Criticism--a full 16 years after the original publication of the Salle essay! Thus, the nonconforming point of view can be taken out of history. Even if you speak, you are denied voice. You are not acknowledged at the level you are critiquing. Just as in the schoolyard or in the ABCs of romantic engagement, ignoring someone is an easy way to deploy power and an effective one if you were interested in power to begin with, have arrogated it to yourself, and convinced others you have it.
I'm currently working on new writings that in a variety of ways provide alternative views of contemporary art and these writings are encountering very similar lines of resistance. For example, an essay in which I put forward the notion of "modest painting" was published but the editor chose only a short version that emphasized the personal background of my interest in such a notion rather than the full essay in which I was able to elaborate and play with art historical works in a more informative and more objectively based manner. This is but one small example of how the white list is likely to overlook and suppress writing that is complex or subtle or not dumbed down or too intellectual and also of the sad fact that the white list is a factor even in alternative institutions that are themselves (and see themselves as) engaged in resistance.
Another recent essay of mine is again about a very successful artist whose work is problematic in similar ways to Salle's. I am quite certain that although I may eventually be able to publish it in a book or possibly online, it would be hard to have it published intact in a major art publication, for the same reasons I couldn't get the Salle piece into the very same publications. Once again I critique an artist whose career has been created by the major glossies and whose market value must be maintained and enhanced. Again the artist is a painter and my criticism is of one painter's questionable arrogation of painting histories, not a blanket dismissal of painting itself as a defunct aesthetic category, and, again, some of my critique is at the level of representation of women, so October would surely still want to be "cautious."
There is one final modality of resistance I am interested in: JOY, the liberating power of hilarity and laughter. I find this more often in popular culture rather than in high art. The laughter that "Springtime for Hitler" elicited from my students was wonderful to behold: it was explosive and also profound because the mechanism of humor in this instance is both obvious and mysterious. It is the utterly lavish and exuberant elan of risk involved in throwing dancing and singing Nazis at an audience that is so subversive. I would give anything to be able to provoke such laughter through an artwork or to write a really good cartoon or sit-com. Frankly, I doubt if I will be able to do anything like that. But somehow or other, I hope to work my way through the responsibility I feel at this moment to write about what happens in the shadows of contemporary culture and about the dark history that created my world view, toward work on joy.
Meanwhile, resistance is futile but and therefore absolutely necessary.
Mira Schor is a painter and writer living in New York City and Provincetown, MA. She is currently completing the manuscripts for two new books, The Extreme of the Middle: Writings of Jack Tworkov, edited by Mira Schor, and a collection of her new writings. She teaches in the MFA Program of the Fine Arts Department of Parsons The New School for Design.