Linda Weintraub & The Artificial Self

PLEASE, NO MORE COMPLAINTS. Several readers have complained that the previous post, The Artificial Artistic Self, was unkind to Jane Culp. No, I do not think so. There is no reason to talk about art and artists with any greater delicacy than we use in talking about politics and politicians. Our only obligation is to try to say the right thing.

Straightaway, I do not know Ms. Culp. She does not know me. She sent me her catalogue because my name in on the Bowery Gallery’s press list. Presumably, the same cover letter accompanied mailings to every name on the list.  Again, I have no argument with her work, which I quite like. I simply do not like her use of a rather precious, crafted biography to market her painting. It was the cover letter and its contents that caused dismay.

And so they should. They are part and parcel of the contemporary tendency to conflate the work with the life. And not the actual life—with all its contradictions, confusions, ambiguities, depth and dark corners—but a synthetic one. If not fictionalized, one certainly filtered for public consumption to lend luster to the art work. It is a kind of costume that can be changed with the stage the artist stands on.

Sorry, but the work of our contemporaries should be able to sustain itself without a bio attached. We come to art for the work, not for the artist. If, in the long by-and-by, the work is embraced by history, that will be time enough—and reason enough—to be concerned with the life of the artist.

The kind of cover letter sent by Ms. Culp is not unique to her. It has become standard, even obligatory. That is why it is worth talking about. Linda Weintraub has a good working summary of this phenomenon in Making Contemporary Art: How Today’s Artists Think and Work. While she offers no overt endorsement of it, she is suspiciously upbeat about all our “new prospects for identity construction.” She lauds the fact that “free imaginative invention of a self” has, by cultural consensus, become a right.

That is a distinctly frightening right. Apply it to politics and see what you get. And what we have gotten. But I digress.

Ed Ruscha, I Think I'll . . . (1983)

As Weintraub describes it, artists pick one “all-abiding trait by which they wish to be known.” To use Ms. Culp as an example here, she wishes to be known by her rejection of the use of natural resources for personal comfort. Unworthy as she might be as an individual—that lower-case “i”—in the great scheme of things, she asserts her superior consciousness by living without electricity. And, it is fair to imagine, indoor plumbing. This is supposed to enhance appreciation of her painting. (Sorry to admit, it very likely does, in some quarters.)

Weintraub moves past the merely descriptive to a kind of cheerleading for self-invention: “Because style, theme, process and medium are all affected by the artist’s “self,” the importance of identity in art’s creation is obvious.” No, not quite, Linda. Style, theme and the rest derive from the artist’s own soul. From the irreducible mystery of the whole person. So does the willingness, or not, to construct a synthetic “self.” Those scare quotes around the word self tells us everything we need to know about contemporary art’s descent into image-mongering.

But Weintraub continues:

Knowledge of the artist’s “self” is also vital to experiencing art . . . . Looking at a work of art by an artist whose “self” is not identified can be as unsettling as receiving an anonymous letter or telephone call. Biography is key to unraveling artistic meaning.

It gets worse. This shifty, manufactured identity works both sides of the street, according to Weintraub: “A viewer’s “self” influences responses to work of art as much as an artist’s “self” affects their creation.” By that logic, I should bring a different “self” to a Whitney Biennial than to the Fuentidueña Chapel in the Cloisters. Perhaps, one of these days I will hit on the right “self” so that I can actually enjoy the Biennial. Or find something of interest in Richard Tuttle’s nonentities. Or any of the scores of things my own unreconstructed self avoids.

Weintraub ends her discussion of fabricated identity with this:

In sum, each person is granted the liberty to determine who is the “I” [or “i”]
who pledges allegiance; who announces “I do” at a wedding ceremony; who hereby promises to honor, or protect, or protest; and who creates and observes works of art.

Professor Weintraub’s anarchic reasoning cannot be written off as simply silly. It hurtles us further down the rabbit hole that we are already in. I can be held to nothing because I am multiple, mutable, moody. I celebrate and sing myself one way today, another way tomorrow. Who are you to hold me to one tune? What I pledged yesterday evaporated with the “self” who pledged it. I have moved on from that.

This is nihilism in fancy dress. Brought to you by the first Henry R. Luce Professor of Emerging Arts at Oberlin, the position Ms. Weintraub held from 2000 to 2003.

© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey