REFLECTIONS ON A FUTURE THAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN / Christopher K. Ho

“American art lovers come with a built-in obsolescence”
—Leo Steinberg, 1972

It is easier to criticize a show than to defend it, a truism from which Jamaica Flux is no less exempt for my own involvement in it. So I will start by anticipating two criticisms that might subsequently be leveled against the exhibition: first, that Jamaica Flux inadvertently facilitates the gentrification of the neighborhood, and that this gentrification supercedes its stated critical task, to examine the intersection of the aesthetic and the economic; second, and not unrelated, that the effectiveness of this exhibition format—site-specific public artworks developed for a swathe of sometimes underdeveloped real estate designated by a team of curators—has long been sapped. By deploying it again, Jamaica Flux only affirms its institutionalization. The criticisms echo each other. One contends that Jamaica Flux not so much critiques the rapacity of capitalist expansion than it is an instrument for it. The other, recalling the old conundrum of the neo-avant-garde, argues that repetition tempers, indeed forecloses, radicality. At the core of both is the rhythmic beat of assimilation, of the radical become normal and of the marginal become mainstream, that not only characterizes the attitude of American art lovers, as Leo Steinberg intimates in the epigraph above, but is the salient characteristic of American capitalism.

Valid as both of these criticisms are, the following proposes that if Jamaica Flux and other independent curatorial projects like it exemplify the logic of capitalism, it is only to comment on it critically, that what initially resembles concession might in fact upon closer inspection be reflection. Curating mediates art’s passage from (bohemian) studio to (bourgeois) museum. As such, might it precisely and strategically occupy the axis of assimilation, a privileged position from which to transform it in a reflexive manner into the very subject matter of its practice along the lines of the very best modernist work?

Modernism’s keenest critics have long noted a link between the aesthetic and the economic. In 1939, Clement Greenberg added this famous codicil to his presentation of modernism as a defensive measure against nineteenth-century industrialization: “No culture can develop without a social basis, without a source of stable income. And in the case of the avant-garde, this was provided by an elite among the ruling class of that society from which it assumed itself to be cut off, but to which it has always remained attached by an umbilical cord of gold.”[1] In 1996, Thomas Crow offered an even fuller picture of how advanced art allays the voracity of capitalism by foraging “areas of social practice that retain some vivid life in an increasingly administered and rationalized society.” Art functions as a “research and development arm” of the culture industry, from which the “ruling class” directly and fiscally benefits.[2] Here, the coupling of art and capitalism is presented as an elemental convention of art, a basic condition for art’s possibility (Greenberg’s reference to the umbilical cord all but declares as much). It is this convention—the inevitability of assimilation—that the best independent curatorial projects make explicit, akin to the way that modernist painting reflexively made manifest the flatness of the canvas and shape of the support, or that site-specific art lay bare the institutional parameters of the exhibition venue.
Consider Jamaica Flux’s on-site and off-site components. More important than the spatial distinction between the two (in the gallery at JCAL versus spread over 20 blocks along Jamaica Avenue) is a temporal difference: the on-site works are historical precedents to the more contemporary works outside. In exhibiting them together, Jamaica Flux implies that the newer works too will one day be enfolded into the main, that they too will one day become a part of canonical Art History. Jamaica Flux takes the prospective (off-site, emerging) as well as retrospective (on-site, established) views, and knots them into a single show; its tense for the outside work is the future anterior, the “this will have been new.” In this way, the exhibition’s structure asserts rather than registers the obsolescence that shadows creative production.

My second response to the anticipated criticisms of Jamaica Flux turns on the modifier “independent” in “independent curator.” As Miwon Kwon notes elsewhere in this catalogue, the figure of the curator as creative individual and of the artist as curator is now well-rehearsed. And, as she also notes, that independent curating as a practice might emerge from reflexive site-specific and institutional-critical work of the 1970s in no way guarantees its progressiveness. Indeed, for many, the blurring of art-making and curating signals an assimilation of the vanguard by dominant culture, which the museum incarnates and of which the curator is an envoy, an extreme example of radical art become institutional which is exacerbated by the fact that site-specificity, from the very start, endeavored to resist just such assimilation. But here I want to add my own codicil: The independent curator, unlike his or her institutional counterpart, lacks the authority to unequivocally designate an object a work of art in the present tense. In place of the declarative statement “this is art” is the proposition “this might become a work of art.” In this sense, independent curating concerns the subjunctive mode as well as the future anterior tense.

The combination of the subjunctive and the future anterior—the “this might have been new”—is perhaps most evident in Jamaica Flux’s inclusion of preparatory sketches of the off-site works at the gallery. These preparatory sketches represent projects that at the time of their drawing were not yet complete, not yet fulfilled. And yet at the same time, they were from the very start assigned a place in the institution. The on-site placement of these drawings of off-site projects simultaneously contour art as pure possibility and utter exhaustion: on the one hand, every drawing might at any moment become a yet unformed work of art in the future; on the other, the institution, which figures even before their realization as their final destination, declares them already assimilated, already established.

The conundrum confronting many artists and curators today, including those involved in Jamaica Flux, is what to do when faced with these limited choices: practices that remain dedicated to the critical project of site-specificity, that attempt if not to undermine the museum than at least to unveil its false neutrality; and installation art, which acquiesces without resistance to the logic of capitalism. The first, as the assimilation of site-specificity makes clear—its entrance into collections as re-created projects or in documentation—underestimates the rapacity of the institution, while the second abdicates critical responsibility entirely and capitulates too quickly. Independent curating, by contracting the radical (“independent”) and the established (“curating”), eases this conundrum. The very structure of Jamaica Flux holds in balance the process by which an artwork is projected into the future (proposed) and written into history (manifested in the institution).

Finally, JCAL itself is not impervious to the processes of capitalist inscription. In 1972, just as Leo Steinberg penned this essay’s epigraph, a group of artists founded JCAL far outside Manhattan in Queens as an alternative, artists-run space. Today, MetLife underwrites Jamaica Flux and other exhibitions, and one of JCAL’s goals is to raise its profile in the New York art world. What might distinguish JCAL is that, while caught between margin and center, paused between anti-establishment and art historical, it might—as do the best independent curatorial projects—take the opportunity to examine the transition from the former to the latter reflexively.

[1] Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939), Collected Essays vol. 1, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago), 10 –11.

[2] See Thomas Crow, “Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts,” Modern Art in the Common Culture (New Haven: Yale, 1996), 34 – 35.

 

Christopher K. Ho