How art criticism signaled the woke revolution 30 years ago

As an artist, I first became aware of postmodernism's canceling influence as I read art reviews in the leading arts magazines during the '90s.  The reviews suddenly were different.  Instead of analysis of an artist's concept, his style, and his work's success as a visual statement, the reviewers laded their reviews with references to current social issues.  In the reviewer's mind, artwork didn't belong to the artist.  The postmodernist's obsession with social constructs and narratives meant that the reviewer got to intellectually appropriate the artist's work and "write over" its original meaning.

Here is my explanatory "narrative" of how a reviewer accomplishes a visual "write-over."  Picture an artist living and painting in a transitional urban setting.  During the day, the artist captures, via quick sketches and a camera, locals getting on and off a city bus.  Back at the studio, the photos and sketch studies become a finished wall-sized canvas depicting an urban landscape, an immersive portrait of urban energy radiating from busy bus-riders with myriad errands and destinations. 

Eventually, the artist has a gallery exhibition.  An art magazine review comments on the urban bus painting and how the artist is "challenging" the viewer to confront his own haute bourgeois imbeddedness.  Huh?  The supercilious reviewer notes that the advertising depicted on the side of the bus is for things the bus riders can't probably afford.  That the artist painted passengers "of color" speaks to the historical propensity of whites to flee urban neighborhoods.  That some of the painting's background includes foothills punctuated with light pastel indications of upscale houses prompts the reviewer to note that the artist "explores" the capitalist chasm between the hillside haves and the lower inner-city have-nots.  The irony is that the reviewer lauds the artist's work not for what the artist intended — a slice of the environs where he lives and pursues his craft — but for what the reviewer can write about it.  The art critic morphs into a social activist, and the artwork becomes a borrowed protest banner.

As I look back, the '90s seems the cusp of cancel culture.  Artists' concepts and statements became insufficient on their own.  Art reviewers intellectually piggybacked to bolster their activist bona fides (their own version of cultural appropriation).  Artists, their art, and their concepts were not canceled, but intellectually "written over" by the progressive art media, which was the precursor to full-on cancelation. 

Sadly, artists joined the game and commenced force-referencing those "precious" social issues into their artist statements by mimicking the critical-arts vocabulary.  What with gender, diversity, CRT and the green agenda, both artists and reviewers some thirty years later are still tiredly "challenging," "confronting," and "exploring."  A synonym for progressive is "mired."

The vast and valued world collection of art attests to the resilience of visual art under most forms of oppressive governance.  Good to great visual art, like music, is metaphorical, less concrete; thus, it is easier to write over, which is its own protection.  Its deeper meaning is beyond words like a still, small voice speaking to soul or spirit.

Perhaps an utter Fahrenheit-451 for all the arts is in the future.  To nurture our souls and spirits with truth, not narrative, it is essential that art in all its forms continues to speak to our divine interior selves.

Spruce Fontaine is an artist and cohost of the live-stream Time to Burn.

Image: Pexels via Pixabay, Pixabay License.

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