On Honesty and the Aesthetic of Identity

Academic art — by which I mean art which is supported by the academy, regardless of the nature of its content — will always be required to project an aura of elite propriety. It must engage in competition in doing so, and academics flatter themselves unfairly when they think their biases will be withheld when they confront work itself.

This meant one thing in the days when it was established that academic craft meant proficiency at creation in accepted serious styles, with detachment and intellectual rigor. By this I do not mean the much overhyped “reign of total serialism,” but rather a period when the authority of ostensibly academic styles in general was unchallenged. Was it exclusionary? Absolutely. Was it hugely limiting? Of course. But you do yourself a disservice when you celebrate the replacement of academic rhetoric with an honest expression of a unique identity, not because honest expression is a bad thing but because the same structure cannot support it. Audre Lorde’s often-misunderstood attestation that “the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house” may prove a worthy mantra for someone who believes that the academic model of competitions, funding, and…dare I say…tenure?…is capable of reversing the damage that past generations did to the creative spirit.

My teacher used the term “deskilling” to describe the process by which institutions prolong their relevance by eliminating the agreed-upon standards of craft upon which their reputations were built. In my understanding, this operates by insisting to donors who might otherwise have moved on to more practical charitable causes that, contrary to one’s better instincts, arts institutions can accomplish social good through the specific personal representations they promote, rather than acknowledging that there is a canny craft subtly at work – one which is still learned in very expensive and rarified spaces – in successful contemporary art regardless of how clearly that craft is made visible. If the expressions an arts organization promotes can be made to seem to reflect as much of the range of human experience as possible (not in point of fact to reflect that range, but to seem to bourgeois audiences to do so, flattering their prejudices as to how the rest of the world lives), then an arts organization can be shown to be accomplishing social good simply by slotting different people into its preexisting model, treating them just as demeaningly as ever, and forcing these artists to reshape themselves for the sake of chasing clout for their patrons. I can assert from personal experience that it is not a self-actualizing dynamic, regardless of the intentions or theoretical background behind it.

When you promote an expression of your own identity in a competitive marketplace, you are competing to have your own identity. It breaks my heart to see the ways artists today have been collectively duped into participating in a process so demeaning. I have written elsewhere on the necessity of circumventing competitive paradigms, my argument being that imposing them upon expressions of human diversity serves to squash that diversity in the process. The competition leaves, in place of an idiosyncratic individual spirit, a caricature of the categories into which a person has already been violently forced by the dominant culture. It is offensive and demeaning and if I never confront it again it will already have gone on too long.


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