Art as oppression

by Rob Horning

20 March 2006


I went to see some performance art in Brooklyn (where else?) last night at a bar beneath the Manhattan Bridge. The performances I saw were really good—creative, ingenious, insightful, etc.—but the rubric under which they were performed left me feeling annoyed. The aegis of the show was this concept that art is the noble truth of life and commerce/business/work inhibits us from that which is truly important, this selfless, communal pursuit of art. The organizers sought to wave the magic wand of art and make the economy go away, if only for a few hours—a small thing, but still a great luxury.

The most important thing in life is not to make art; it is to eat. Art becomes important only under several conditions: you are not at a subsistence level of survival, you have been brought up in a manner to sensitize you to aesthetic concerns, you have been coddled and nurtured and encourage to pursue inndividual grandeur, you have received the educational training that allows you to read a cultural moment and understand how to position yourself within it to convey the idea of creativity (which is not some absolute given thing but is determined by context; when you seek to flaunt your creativity, it ceases to be a manner of doing something, a praxis. It becomes instrumental. You commodify it and make it into something you signal with prepackaged gestures). In short a great deal of cultural and social capital must be amassed before one has the luxury to make or consume art; it takes a keen sense of entitlement. So it’s especially grating when those so entitled commence to criticize the workaday chumps who are out there “conforming,” living their “lives of quiet desperation,” who in fact likely gave these people the social capital they needed to be creative in the first place.

Art becomes a negative cultural force when it conceals and naturalizes social inequalities by masking them in an absolute, inherent transcendent aesthetics—the pretense that art is immediately and readily available to all, and that its appeal is always essentially universal. Such a viewpoint inevitably slides into elitism, implying that those philistines who fail to appreciate art are thus blinding themselves to it, by working or getting hung up on material things. It confuses the turht that one of art’s main functions is to delineate class boundaries, to oppress by that rearticulation, to make those Mister Joneses who know something’s happening here but don’t know what it is feel just how much they don’t understand, feel the intensity of their exclusion. This is a painful fact of a hierarchical society, and artists who seek to wish it into the cornfield are only aggrevating the situation, unwittingly shunting the blame onto the excluded. Art is a tool of oppression at least as often as it is a tool of liberation. Pretending art should be a mandatory priority for everyone certainly makes it the former.

Obviously people shouldn’t stop making art; but these artists shouldn’t pretend that art made from the bosoms of bourgeois comfort and ersatz bohemianism is going to help the underprivileged either.

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