|Charles Kraftt's Nazi art is under fire|
It has occurred to me that critical review of art with such power to polarize can become a proverbial can of worms for art critics, newspapers and the op-ed society that makes up the art world as we know it. I don't think this stems from cowardice per sé, since many critics revel in the idea of controversy, but there is a definite fear of winding up on the wrong side of history. Most critics wait to applaud challenging work until after the artist's sales attain a level of generally undisputed success, and by that point a healthy dose of critical backlash will only help build a provocateur's reputation.
|From Dave Dexter's exhibit Round Eye and the Switch|
In the grand scheme of things, what does this say about context or irony? In other words, how does an inanimate object offend? What gives a work of art the power to offend if not the singular viewer's own perception? James E. Young, the director of the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, addressed such matters in an essay that accompanied a similarly controversial exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York back in 2002:
"We have every right to ask whether such obsession with these media-generated images of the past is aesthetically appropriate. Or whether by including such images in their work, the artists somehow affirm and extend them, even as they intend mainly to critique them and our connection to them. Yet this ambiguity between affirmation and criticism seems to be part of the artists’ aim here. As offensive as such work may seem on the surface, the artists might ask, is it the... imagery itself that offends, or the artists’ aesthetic manipulations of such imagery? Does such art become a victim of the imagery it depicts? Or does it actually tap into and thereby exploit the repugnant power of... imagery as a way merely to shock and move its viewers? Or is it both, and if so, can these artists have it both ways?”The bottom line is that no painting or sculpture is by itself offensive. A specific mindset is required, and that mindset is itself a bi-product of intentional indoctrination. Perhaps what disturbs us is the realization that as sophisticated as we might think we are, we are easily manipulated by symbols. Anger doesn't stem from the affront of the imagery or even the reaction it originally solicited; it's the power of all pre-programmed imagery against ambivalence that incites us.
If you haven't stopped into the gallery to check out this show, I really can't recommend highly enough that you do. This is the last week, and I don't know how long it will be before you get the chance to view something this stimulating in a gallery again. This is an exhibition that confronts you not only with the artist's point of view, but demands that you confront yourself about your own. It's one thing to manipulate a reaction, and quite another thing to stimulate the national discourse. History will be kind to Dave Dexter, hopefully without diluting the courage of his message, which is this:
We've come a long way, baby. Or have we?