Making Time at Human Resources: Jennifer Doyle

Coinciding with the annual meeting of the College Art Association in Los Angeles, The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is hosting the offsite working session “Making Time at Human Resources” on February 22, 2012. Participants have been invited to post some brief thoughts on the topic in advance of the event. This guest posting is by UCR Professor and critic, Jennifer Doyle.
1) My work was never organized by a commitment to a disciplinary framework. I can talk at length about disciplinary formations, however. Like – what cultural studies enables for literary scholars – the disinterest many literary scholars have in a reified notion of “the literary,” our sense of happiness in jettisoning the canon, our glee in the discovery that unloading that dead discursive weight didn’t require abandoning our fondness for the formal, the textual. We swapped literature for text somewhere in the mid 1980s. I tend to approach visual “stuff” with the same freedom – the same fondness for text.
A couple of years ago, I gave a paper about friendship and generosity in Warhol’s Blue Movie. “Where is aesthetic judgment in your work?” asked a member of the audience. This asked by a well-known art historian, an “A-list” figure whose work is quite sophisticated.
Nowhere, I answered. I might have even laughed at the question, which was somewhat tactless on my part. I did honestly think she must have been joking.
There is no room for aesthetic judgment in my work. It may be fine for others, but it is not a productive line of inquiry for me, and in fact my practice rejects aesthetic judgment: at no moment does my argument center on whether or not something is “art.” Or if something is good, or bad – as “art.”
I am very much interested in what happens when one doesn’t worry about that.
It’s a willful form of innocence – of course I’m aware that most of the official art world cares deeply about Art qua Art. But, as a critic, when something is presented to me as art, I take it as art. The declaration “this is art” is, for me, a rhetorical move – valuable for its context, for its aim, and its effectiveness. It is not a categorical observation of a stable truth or value. I don’t want the job of arbitrating that.
So, socially engaged and process-oriented performance doesn’t pose any trouble for me. If someone says its art, its art. Maybe it’s sloppy. Maybe it’s boring and doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Maybe it looks like something else, which it perhaps is. Resolving the question “is it art” won’t help me write about it. The question may, in fact, lure me into a critical dead end. Who wants to be stuck in that cul-de-sac writing about how the art is all about what art isn’t.  I mean, I get close to that – but the way out is usually by remembering how art helps me write about friendship, intimacy, being in a body, class violence, shame, love. 
Perhaps my a-disciplinarity is just a lower-middle-class reaction formation to art world snobbery and institutional elitism. Actually, screw the “perhaps” there – of course my work is that. I want people to enjoy reading my work, and for them to feel like a wider world of art is available to them. So, art is a category of expansion for me.
2) None of the performance artists I work with are good at having a career – they are survivalists. Many of the artists I know have other jobs. James Luna and Ron Athey, for example.
It’s not even a question of living wages. It’s a question of no invitation at all. My work has been centered on people in that zone for a while now. If I could contribute anything to performance artists besides money, it’d be spaces in which people could talk about how they survive and support their work under the most precarious of circumstances.
3) I’m not sure about that skill question: The forms of wisdom emerging from hard core performance, example, do suggest a skill set – just not one recognized by (for instance) traditional theater or dance. So, I don’t see a de-skilling so much as a shift and expansion in how we understand skill. But given all that I’ve written above, I would say that.            
I do want to say that if all we look at is art by people who are between 22-30, well – who has had the time to develop skill? Most of what we see there is talent.  I love spending time with older artists, because they have wisdom. I guess I prefer wisdom to skill as a term for describing expertise? But perhaps that’s a specific term naming performance’s skill set?
4) I recently hosted four seminars staging conversations about feminist politics and performance: This was inspired partly by the “catering wars,” as I like to call the controversy regarding Rainer’s (quite valid) critique of Marina Abramovic’s work for MOCA’s fund-raising gala.
I was motivated by the sense that there is a lot of performance art in Los Angeles, but not much by way of conversation about performance – especially conversation accessible to artists and supporters. So, I thought, why not have an open-ended conversation outside academic and institutional space, with an agenda set by whoever shows up and speaks? I know I want to hear what artists have to say. And I want to hear what other teachers and writers have to say. And it’s nice to be able to talk with rather than at each other. 
The thing about the MOCA affair is that it generated a lot of talk – and a lot of the people talking were younger artists – out of excellent art schools – and it seemed like they were struggling to understand Rainer’s critique. They seemed not used to public interventions like this – which is very unusual for an arts scene, no? Something about the overwhelming dominance of LA’s art scene by art schools seems to mean that people don’t argue with each other, really.  The participants in the show were furious that Rainer said they were (at best) suffering from a false consciousness – but it is her right to say so. It’s her right to call out the culture of the gala fundraiser for its parasitic relationship to performance culture. 
The frisson of shaming people with their own wealth is very museum-friendly. Rich people like to soak in that shame – it’s a spa treatment for their conscience.
These galas are always ridiculous: Why can’t rich people just write a check? Why does a museum have to raise the money to entertain them, so as to get more money in order to entertain them? 
Those who think that making rich people uncomfortable is itself a meaningful political intervention are missing the big picture: that discomfort has been the engine of High Art since Manet’s Olympia first stared out at a crowd of people who recognized her as Victorine Meurent. 
There is something truly obscene about making the shame of the rich into a consumable experience. At a moment when kids have no libraries, no arts education, when their schools are falling apart and they don’t have books or desks, when a public universities degree costs $60,000, when professors can’t afford to send their own kids to the colleges they work at, and when students ask for more they are being bludgeoned and arrested – at this moment, who cares about how rich people feel?
That gala event was a performance art version of that awful movie Crash.
About PST: It’s great art history. I’ve loved getting to spend this much time thinking about art from this region. But the Getty’s publicity material does the region a great disservice by suggesting that the region’s art history begins with the galleries on La Cienega. That’s just wrong – for example: it completely erases Mexican American art history. Jesse Lerner’s show at the Long Beach Museum of Art offered a very good critique of that line. I wouldn’t mention it, except that discourse about art and Los Angeles seems to always begin with a very powerful moment of remembering that which is forgotten, that itself “forgets” the region’s colonial histories.
I want to note: PST picked 1981 as its end-date because that was the year of Reagan’s innauguration.
His election is not nearly as periodizing a force vis a vis art history as is the AIDS crisis. The CDC recognized AIDS in 1982. The beginning of that decade did mark an “end” in American art history – and it’s shameful that the organizers of PST chose that year without noting what it really signaled.  But again, I would see it that way.

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