By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
It’s been a weird couple of weeks for me in terms of the Philosophy of Art. Following the energetic but unadventurous fall openings weekend, I flew off to Chicago to participate in the Stone Summer Theory Institute’s seminar, “What Do Artists Know?” No definitive conclusions were forthcoming. Although the other participants — career academics for the most part — were intelligent, creative and funny, there was an enormous gap between our respective assumptions underlying this question: What is art? Who is and who is not an artist? What constitutes knowledge? There seemed to be a prepackaged consensus on these issues, most of which coincidentally conspired to ratify academia as the exclusive locus of artistic innovation and integrity.
A week later I was at the grand re-opening of Blum & Poe — L.A.’s preeminent high-end contemporary art dealership — in the gallery’s museum-quality 21,000-square-foot converted warehouse on La Cienega. Again, I found myself in the midst of bright and charming company, experiencing a state of profound cognitive dissonance over what we were supposed to have in common. Market protocol obliges you to maintain a positive prognosis no matter what the numbers say, but the scale of the denial in this case brought to mind the image of Tim and Jeff’s Art Ark, stocked (in this inaugural show at least) with two of each variety, ready to ride out the coming deluge. Or maybe they’re rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s a hell of a boat in either case.
One of the major points of disjuncture in both of these self-contained art-world bubbles is a missing sense of social and political urgency — an urgency that has been rattling through the lives and work of most of the artists I know, at least since 9/11, and longer for many. Integrating this sense of urgency in a way that isn’t numbingly literal is a hard enough challenge for most political artists, but the hierarchical structures of the various art worlds that can lend authority and visibility to the work tend to dilute its potency to a crippling degree: As individual panic about the imminent apocalypse trickles upward into the realms of discourse and commodity, it becomes defanged — a dialogue on issues of sustainability perhaps, or a colloquium on relational aesthetics.
In the early 1980s — an era when the current schisms between art theory, art practice and the marketplace first became pronounced — I came across an artifact that remains one of the most successful simultaneous expressions of art and politics I’ve ever encountered: an LP cover with a photo of a melted radio, and the title “Voice of America.” On the two side-long performances, emerging from an improvised mélange of Fred Frith’s inimitable string-plunking, Phil Minton’s avant-warbling, and his own primitive burbling-synth drones, audio collagist Bob Ostertag’s lo-fi tape loops of news reports about the death of Salvador Allende and Ronald Reagan’s Inauguration jostled with field recordings of folk songs and political rallies in Nicaragua. The sampled politics were just there, no more or less challenging than the other “difficult” components of the piece, yet equally essential and essentially undeniable.
As his friends and collaborators became stars of the New York avant-garde, Ostertag seemed to vanish from the scene. It turns out that immediately after “VoA” he dropped out of music entirely and spent most of the following decade as an activist in the gnarly, heartbreaking world of Central American politics. His newly released patchwork memoir Creative Life (University of Illinois Press) recounts his struggle to bring his artistic skills to bear in the political arena during a disillusioning long haul with the Sandanistas, his subsequent return to music, queer activism and a painfully funny tour diary from Serbia.
Ostertag details his unfashionable but well-articulated idea of an “art of insurgent politics,” which owes much to the aesthetics of improvisation and collage — a constant “testing, examining, expanding, breaking and restructuring” of the “limits of the social and physical world.” He explains the groundbreaking anticorporate gesture of making all of his recordings available for free download (atbobostertag.com) as “one manifestation of a much bigger struggle” but curiously doesn’t mention (apart from a couple of footnotes) his involvement with a considerably more high-profile manifestation — as collaborator with the Yes Men in their “corporate-identity correction” pranksterism and anonymous co-author of the 2004 Disinformation book bearing their name.
Even if you’ve heard of the Yes Men, “high profile” might seem a stretch for a pair of media hackers with a healthy Internet following and a moderately successful documentary to their names (or their pseudonyms). But just moments into their new film, The Yes Men Fix the World (previewing at the Hammer on October 21), you are jolted into a different perspective — as Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum nervously prepares to go live on BBC television in front of 300 million viewers, posing as a representative of Dow Chemicals, to announce long-overdue reparations to the victims of the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India, in 1984. Within a couple hours, Dow’s stock value had plunged $2 billion.