I went to Jeremy Deller's "It is What It Is: Conversations about Iraq" at the New Museum today. Physically it consisted of a livingroom style area where Deller had invited "experts" to come in and talk informally with visitors about Iraq. There was one large physical object in the space, a burnt out shell of a car that was car-bombed in a market in Iraq, literally a shock and awe art object.
Carne Ross was the resident expert during my visit, sitting in one of the chairs and talking at a fast clip. He is a compelling and impressive speaker, with a very real story to tell. He is a diplomat who worked in the British Foreign Office, and helped negotiate several UN council resolutions on Iraq before the war. He resigned in 2004 in protest over the handling of the Iraq war, after submitting a testimony to the Butler Review. This interview with Carne Ross is representative of his position. My own not very eloquent summary (I took no notes so this is from memory) is that (1) the UK government lied to its people to justify an illegal war, a lie he was caught up in, (2) modern diplomacy has become so complex that ministers no longer grasp the ground situation and there is a systemic breakdown, and (3) when a Western democracy lies to its people and fails so systemically, it signals a time when people must stop trusting government to take care of everything, and start taking much more individual responsibility.
I asked Carne Ross how he had come to be part of a show at the New Museum. Carne responded that he knew Deller from school, and had agreed to do the New Museum talk partly because they are friends. He commented that he was uncomfortable being labeled an "expert," that on the whole we rely too much on experts. Many of the people in the government who are called experts have no clue what they are doing, he said. For example, how could he be called an expert on Iraq, even as he helped the UN make decisions regarding Iraq, since he had never actually been there, spoke no Arabic, and had little deep knowledge of the culture.
I next asked Carne how it felt talking about these issues in an art museum. Carne admitted he had reservations talking about Iraq as part of an art project in the New Museum. One of the possible risks of Deller's project, he noted, was that talking about Iraq in popular entertainment, in plays or in art serves as a release valve. It produces discourse but without any actual political consequences. It reduced pressure, allowing people to go "that was a good play, lets go have a beer" etc., whereas what we need is political action. For example he felt there needed to be a public inquiry, much like the 9/11 commission, into the Iraq war. The ministers who made mistakes should be held accountable. He was concerned that talking about Iraq in an art museum would reduce the public demand for an inquiry.
At that moment, another visitor (who identified herself as "I am creative time," I believe it may have been Anne Pasternak) remarked that, in her experience, the opposite occurs. Art can raise awareness of political issues, and through that, increase the demand for political change. Creative Time is a co-sponsor of the Deller show.
This was the most intriguing moment of the event for me, it highlighted some of the complexities that are at play. On the one hand, an experienced career diplomat expressed concerns that mixing art and politics might actually be counterproductive, emptying a drive for real political action. On the other, a seasoned art director expressed enthusiasm for arts ability to raise social awareness and cause real politics to occur.
What I experienced personally at that moment was a sense of conflict. As an artist, I was reluctant to openly disagree with the artistic director of Creative Time, a powerful arts organization. But I agreed with Carne Ross's point. It was actually refreshing to hear someone openly question whether art makes the world a better place.
When I hear people argue that art can produce political betterment, I often think of Eyal Weizman's research on Deleuze, Guattari, Debord and the Israeli Defense Force. Eyal observes that the IDF for a period of time were using critical theory as a way of re-conceptualizing urban war. What Eyal's research illustrates, in my opinion, is that the link between critique (or art) and its object can be very counterintuitive and surprising. Debord's goal when writing the Society of the Spectacle was almost certainly not to supply the IDF with a war manual, yet this is one of the things he achieved. My conclusion is that when artists and intellectuals make claims about any real-world effects of their work, these claims are at most conjecture. The opposite effects may also occur. History has a way of surprising us, we just have to wait fifty years to see...
The sense of conflict that I experienced at Deller's exhibition made me think of an essay I read recently, "The Social Turn" by Claire Bishop (in the book "Rediscovering Aesthetics"). Claire Bishop cites Jeremy Deller as an example of an artist whose works provoke complex reactions. She writes of one of his works that "it harnessed the experiential potency of collective action towards conflicting ends." She continues:
Some important terms that emerge here are "disruption," "ambiguity," and "pleasure," and the way these converge in psychoanalytic accounts of making art. Rather than obeying a superegoist injunction to make an improving or ameliorative art, Deller [and Phil Collins] act upon their desire without the incapacitating restrictions of guilt. This fidelity to their desire - rather than to the judgmental eyes of the big "Other" - enabled their work to join a tradition of highly authored situations that fuse social reality with carefully calculated artifice ... in which intersubjective relations are not an end in themselves but serve to unfold a more complex knot of concerns about pleasure, disruption, engagement, and the conventions of social interaction. Instead of extracting art from the "useless" domain of the aesthetic and fusing it with social praxis, the most interesting art of today exists between two vanishing points: "Art becoming mere life or art becoming mere art."
Bishop's essay is an important call to end the polarizing divide that has existed since the 1990's in the art world between artists engaged in social practices (or relational aesthetics) on the one hand, and artists committed to aesthetic objects on the other. This divide was manifested most recently at the Guggenheim, where the main ramp was given over to theanyspacewhatever, a show on socially engaged art practices, while the Annex exhibited Catherine Opie, a photographer in the more classical sense. Bishop makes a plea for recognizing a middle ground, artwork that does not aim to be purely social or purely aesthetic.
In today's event, I think Deller achieved this. What is crucial in Deller's work is that he involves actual witnesses to history - how often can we sit down and chat with a career diplomat who worked at the UN during the start of the Iraq conflict? It is Dellers intentional crossing of expert and non-expert, art and non-art, history and staging - a car shell that is also a war artifact - which produces a moment that defies classification. In some ways he constructs the very systemic breakdown that Carne Ross identifies at the heart of diplomacy. I don't really know if this is art. That, in all likelihood, may be what ensures that it is.