Luis Camnitzer:
Retrospective Exhibition
1966-1990

Introduction by Jane Farver
Essay—Moral Imperatives: Politics as Art in Luis Camnitzer by
Mari Carmen Ramirez
Essay—Politics and Ethnicity in the Work of Luis Camnitzer by Gerardo Mosquera
Statement—Manifesto, 1982 by Luis Camnitzer
Essay—Access to the Mainstream by Luis Camnitzer

Essay—Wonderbread and Spanglish Art
by Luis Camnitzer
Chronology by Luis Camnitzer
Notes and Bibilography

 

The Idea of the Moral Imperative in
Contemporary Art

by Luis Camnitzer

 

I would like to start by quoting something I wrote some years ago. It applies to the subject under discussion, but my interest in it here goes beyond the content of the statement. The quote is "We live the alienating myth of primarily being artists. We are not. We are primarily ethical beings sifting right from wrong and just from unjust, not only in the realm of the individual, but in communal and regional contexts. In order to survive ethically we need a political awareness that helps us understand our environment and develop strategies for our actions. Art becomes the instrument of our choice to implement these strategies."

Though I believe it is a neat statement, I am not using it just to satisfy my own presumptuousness. I am interested in what happened to the statement. It appeared, at the time, on the cover of The New Art Examiner, with big white letters on a violently red background, looking like a piece by Barbara Kruger.

I was thrilled and flattered by the exposure, but it made me ponder the ethical implications of appearing within the aesthetics of the cover. A statement which I had written in the context of a larger article, and meant to be read as such, had been transformed into an appealing object. So very appealing, at least for me, that I framed it. But, the content of the statement had lost its original immediacy and surrounding atmosphere as designed by me. It became encapsuled and fetishized in the alien space of a magazine cover.

I am, of course, cynical and vain enough not to regret the event at all. However, it is clear that the manipulatory steps used to engage the consumer of a magazine cover are radically different from those manipulatory steps used by the writer of an article or by an artist in a piece to convey a message to the reader or to the viewer. While all these steps vaguely belong to the category of packaging, it is clear that each medium and product has its own code for how the manipulation shall proceed according to its destination. A thoughtless substitution can create the same havoc as when detergent is packaged as perfume.

The question is not if we manipulate the viewer, but what do we want to achieve by manipulating the viewer and what means do we employ to do so. I am using the word "manipulation" on purpose. In common usage it has negative connotations and we always avoid its use when we describe art processes. We prefer to use euphemisms like "composition" and "design," and to deal with decisions about media, colors and size as if they were imbued with divine purity. In both negative and positive interpretations we are acknowledging the presence of an ethical component which transcends the choice and values of the content. This is important, since usually morals are mostly attached to the story telling part of art and avoided in the rest. The word "manipulation" has an ethical (or unethical) aura. The word "composition" has only an aesthetic aura, which in artistic terms is positive.

The use of positive euphemisms for words with negative connotations is more often than not a sign of hypocrisy. In this case, the hypocrisy helps hide the fact that we are organizing and prioritizing information so that the consumer shares with us not what there is to share, but that which we want to be shared. The shift of the action from ethics into aesthetics, propitiates and confirms the delusion that it is only those decisions pertaining to content which have an ethical quality. Ethics thus become something literary, a quality frowned upon by visual aesthetics, which can be dismissed.

By speaking of manipulation we are forced to acknowledge the presence of a public. By speaking of composition, on the other hand, we can indulge in the belief that art primarily consists of an intimate dialogue with the materials. The public is supposed to relate to this dialogue only in an incidental way, through voyeurism. By speaking of composition we don't have to decide whom we want to address with our art, aside from wanting to make it in a big gallery. We thus neglect one of our first possible ethical decisions, the one that places us in the context of society. It is interesting to note that the vast majority of artists working on art projects for the light board on Times Square resort to written political messages, no matter what their "normal" art work is. Suddenly the public's voyeurism can't be ignored and the dangers of visual pollution, happily marketed by galleries, becomes unacceptable in a truly public arena.

By disguising and erasing ethical processes in and with aesthetic patinas, we ignore the fact that what we call aesthetics is no more than the formal packaging of our product. It is our personal form of packaging, a factor that defines our artistic individuality, something that therefore is sacred and worth money. We further compound the problem with an obscurantist mysticism still prevalent in art matters. This mysticism tries to make us rely on inspiration and taste to resolve artistic problems instead of using them as tools for adjustment to perfect whatever we really want to say. We thus are led to neglect both the clear formulation of communication problems and the emphasis on the visual feasibility of the package in relation to those problems.

Commercial marketing procedures of consumer products are much more straightforward and honest. Their mercenary quality is upfront. A market is defined and a product developed (or vice-versa) and the packaging is developed accordingly. What, why, and for whom, are the leading questions, and only then comes the appearance. We may not agree with the motivation, but there is an ethical consistency. Any mistake in the answers to those questions ensures economic failure, so they had better be correct The adoption of the same questions in art would help to place ourselves in our society and clarify when we are attempting to make a profit, affect society, or when we are limiting our work to act as self-therapy. It is a clarity we gingerly employ to dismiss (mostly the motivations of) schlock art and other marginalia, but we are more careful when we address other cohabitants in the space of our elite or—God forbid—ourselves.

Most of our art is socially muddled, even when it functions effectively in the market. The secret or explicit wish of most artists is to be able to live off their art pro-auction. At the same time, a profit motive in art is seen as unethical. We want it both ways, to be non- mercenary and pure and to he paid for our magic in a mercenary and non-magical society. In essence, we are dream of living in a monarchical court or in a Utopic socialist society, depending on what end of the political spectrum we belong to. But, few of us feel feel urge to help society to develop in a corresponding direction. It is in this dissociation of the art produced and our implicit or explicit dreams' that we tend to become amoral.

By placing the ethical commitment solely on content, we may feel better, but fail to address the issue. We merely confirm the dissociation and hope to solve two different problems with one and the same solution. By relying on taste and inspiration to define the aesthetics of packaging that content, we place the responsibility for whatever happens on an unconscious and unchallenged ideological platform. Because of our inattention, this ideological platform, more often than not, escapes our control. We thus let decisions be made for us instead of" by us

Lately a link has been established between ethics and post-modernism. I do not see this moralist surge in postmodernism, at least not as compared to a presumed lack of morals in modernism. Modernism had its own moral imperative, a Utopic belief that art could better society. While the building of a language was attempted to express that construct conservative tendencies were lurking in the background during all of its reign. Much of postmodernism uses these conservative tendencies as an illustrious and validating genealogy. With this genealogy, and because of it, postmodernism is not really an aesthetic developed as an answer lo modernism. It is rather a parallel aesthetic picked up by the market to occupy modernism's place upon its exhaustion. Simultaneously, the post-modern label also served to co-opt and unify some artistic expressions dealing with the consciousness and assertion of local identities. The potential challenge to the notion of an international style thus was defused. To a certain extent post modernism can be seen as the demoralization of older, anti formalist tendencies and their placement into a conservative context, while re-internationalizing and unifying what threatened to become a nationalist fragmentation in art.

This is not to say that ethics have no role in art today. But when issues connected with ethics appear, unlike what happened in the pas', they do so marked by the absence of an awareness of posterity. Speculation about art issues leaves out a previously existing aim at atemporality. Doomsday has abandoned the signs carried by the cartoon crackpots of The New Yorker and marked a potential and credible end of history. As a consequence much of the art being made has short term goals. Some art is produced to transform artists into commercial and self-profiting icons, rather than to create icons to serve cultural enrichment. Other art is produced to denounce the end of history, rather than to create an environment where that termination becomes an impossibility.

But, whatever the an historical interpretation of our present may be, our art tradition has always been far from being drenched in ethics, even in the cases where the concern is at present prone to catastrophe. As artists we are easily enchanted by effects which may appear during work and we do not have any scruples about pursuing them no matter how much the subsequent results may contradict our original intentions. We rarely challenge in depth the parameters which define art or the technical constraints offered by art history. Though there are occasional ruptures, for the majority of artists art has been an evolutionary process with much taken for granted. But in the specific case of ethics even Walt Disney had surpassed the notion of them being constrained to content. He forced symbolic values onto form. In his work, things drawn with curves are cute and good. Things angular are dangerous and evil.

It is the taking for granted of this superficial and frivolous approach to ethics which, understandably, helped disseminate the widespread National Rifle Association philosophy of art: Art is not ethical, only artists are. It is also what generated the commerce of art which attacks commerce, or the making of murals which present anti-fascist issues in a fascist manner.

It is undeniable that much of art escapes and even contradicts the personal ethics of the artist. Nolde was a good and early Nazi and never understood why his regime didn't allow him to be an official artist with the an he was making. Fortunately, and who knows for how long, it is accepted that his an was better than his politics. While it is conceivable that with a greater historical perspective his art end politics may be fit into a coherent continuum, any possible consistency still eludes us today. It would seem that he either didn't draw political conclusions from his art or that he was unable to express himself fully. No matter how interesting his "better" half may be for us, he had a problem. Had he been able to solve it (in the direction of our own values, of course) he might have been an even better artist and a less despicable person. By accepting the separation of art and ethics as an unmovable fact, we would in fact condone split personality, intellectual laziness and inarticulateness as acceptable positive values. The resolution of the inconsistency should at least be taken up as a challenge, even if any neat solutions may appear to be unattainable.

If we really want to deal with ethics in art we will have to anchor all the questions pertaining to the art-making process—what, why and for whom, with a later how? —on a solid ethical foundation. In certain environments—for instance those urged by a political crisis—it is conceivable that the act of taking a brush into one's hand, to restrict production to accepted artistic techniques, may condemn all the decisions following to be spurious and invalid. Only with a total ethical inquiry covering every step of the art-making process, an inquiry not yet seriously addressed by artists or art educators, may we have a chance of developing a truly valid aesthetic for our time and environment.

We do have clear opinions about the code of ethics of the members of all the other professions while we are not clear about our own. It is interesting to see how we can complain about artists not yet being accepted as full partners in society, without even attempting to sift through the complex mesh of painful ignorance, defensiveness and justified resentment which, together with selective elitarian success, produce our alienation. It is interesting too that as university art educators, in fact forming more future university art educators than future artists, we were never trained in teaching nor do we prepare our students for it. Not only do we seem to believe in shamanism, but it is one based on self-appointment, osmosis and self-service.

Maybe we should start by recognizing that a successful work of art is the meeting ground of two radically opposed dynamics. With the created object or situation the artist is trying to work his or her way out of a known ground and push the audience into the unknown. The manipulation by the artist is orchestrated to achieve the crossing of the border. The audience, on the other hand, tries desperately to push the disconcerting feeling of the unknown back into the context of everyday cultural commonplaces. The tension produced is not always a friendly one and leads to a despising condescension on the side of the artist, and to total rejection on the side of the audience. The split is tainted by ethical judgment. It resolves itself by name calling: crazies and elitists vs. philistines and ignorants. The creation of a strong common ethical ground seems to be more urgent than the development of new fashionable packaging codes. Once this ground is established, the more speculative, research oriented and—in terms of communication—more rarified art, will then also be freed of its own demagogy. Our work with the unknown makes us researchers, not magicians. The mystification may sell well, but it is unbecoming.

"The Idea of the Moral Imperative in Contemporary Art" was delivered at a panel at the 1989 College Art Association Meeting held in San Francisco. Other panelists were Mel Perkarsky, Amy Baker Sandback, John Baldessari, Suzi Gablik, Jeff Koons and Robert Storr.

 

 

Captain Riley, 1970
(from the San Particio Series)

The Threat of the Mirror, 1978