Skipping the Light Transgressive, Pratt Institute Edition

It’s a lot of fun being an artist these days. Only a tiny percentage makes any money, but there is a big consolation prize in the form of attitude. Back in the late 19th century, many aspiring French artists were out to “épater le bourgeois.” The great problem going forward was that almost all artists were themselves part of the much-maligned group, the bourgeoisie. How, then, to amaze and startle oneself?

Early in the last century, Marcel Duchamp pioneered the two main strategies: the boring and the bizarre. To the first category belongs such “ready-mades” as “In Advance of the Broken Arm,” a “work” that consists of an ordinary snow shovel which, because Duchamp had the wit (or was it only the effrontery?) to exhibit it in an art gallery, suddenly achieved the transfiguring nimbus of Art with a capital “A.”

Duchamp’s second innovation aimed not to anesthetize viewers but to shock them. “Fountain,” an ordinary urinal displaced from the bathroom to the exhibition hall, was the founding gesture of that large gift to perpetual adolescents.

We’re much more sophisticated -- at least, we’re much coarser -- nowadays, so we are no longer shocked by the exhibition of a plumbing fixture. But in its time “Fountain” was every bit as shocking as (e.g.) Andres Serrano’s photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine.

There were plenty of titters, and probably other, less agreeable, sounds when Duchamp pulled his pranks, but what a large opening he created for those coming after him!

So you want to be an artist without, you know, actually mastering any art? No problem. See that Buick? Crush it and call it a work of art (that’s John Chamberlain). You’ll be hailed as a genius. Or hide under a platform in an art gallery while masturbating and broadcasting filthy language to the gallery goers. That’s Vito Acconci, another genius. And on and on. And on. Those two examples go back to the prehistoric age of the 1970s. It would be a simple matter to continue the story up to the present moment with scores, indeed hundreds, of figures who traffic in the banal, the repellent, or some combination of the two.

One thing that unites these various artists -- besides, I  mean, from their universal lack of any genuinely artistic talent -- is  the utter uniformity of their political attitudes.

Some are left-wing feminists. Some are left-wing environmentalists. Some are left-wing pacifists. All are proponents of what Frederick Crews, writing about a kindred development in literary criticism, identified as “Left Eclecticism.” In the art world as well as the world of academia, left eclecticism is less the name of a definite position than an attitude and style of (if I may adopt the Heideggerian formula) “being in the world.”

In short, while one proclaims one’s admiration for everything “transgressive,” everything that claims to “challenge” the status quo, one in fact is scrupulously careful to direct one’s transgressive, challenging gestures only to those conventions which are not part of the artistic community’s self-understanding. In challenging conventions, you do not, of course, challenge your own conventions. In celebrating diversity, you do not, of course, celebrate anyone who dissents in any important way from The Narrative. You respect the diversity of all  those who agree with you. As for the rest, they are “offensive,” “divisive”; they contribute to “a climate of hate,” or whatever is this week’s favored term of opprobrium. In the name of diversity, they must be silenced.

The Pratt Institute in New York affords a splendid example of this species of political correctness in action. According to their web site, the Pratt Institute’s aim in life is “to educate artists and creative professionals to be responsible contributors to society.” If you are wondering where that talk about “responsible contributors to society” comes from -- Pratt is, after all, an art school, not an academy training social workers -- that just shows you are not really attuned to the requirements of The Narrative. This is something that a student called Steve DeQuattro learned to his dismay. James Panero, my colleague at The New Criterion, has the whole sorry story in "Conservative artist boxed out at Pratt," posted yesterday at The New Criterion’s weblog.

DeQuattro is a political artist. Nothing new about that. When was the last time you ran into a bona fide New York artworld artist who was not political?  The trouble is, DeQuattro has the wrong politics. Castigating George W. Bush (old, but still paying handsome dividends), skirling about “the environment,”  complaining about patriarchy, greedy corporations, Republicans, etc. -- all of that is just the air that artists breath these days. Steve DeQuattro had the temerity to challenge the challengers.

“As part of his recent work,” James writes,

Mr. DeQuattro has designed a cereal-box-like sculpture that he calls, ironically, “Sustainable Liberalism in a Box.” . . .  He has developed a piece that takes the ubiquitous Apple iPod ad campaign to address abortion. He has designed a sobering five-foot-wide mural that tracks the Democratic Party’s record on race, from Jefferson’s slave-holding days up through the racially charged speeches of Senator Robert Byrd and Vice President Joe Biden.

How dare he?! With ideas that like, you can be sure there will be tears before bedtime, and so there are:

As a senior in the school, Mr. DeQuattro has been working on this art in preparation for a group show for Pratt’s graduating students, which is scheduled to open on April 23. While his faculty advisor has been supporting him, his peers have not. Mr. DeQuattro says they recently wrote a letter to his professors, calling his work “offensive” and complaining about exhibiting alongside him. Last week, the chair of the fine arts department stepped in to prevent Mr. DeQuattro’s participation alongside the other students in the group show -- an unprecedented move in the history of the department, says Mr. DeQuattro, despite the fact that none of his work is pornographic, libelous, or in violation of the laws of free speech. Mr. DeQuattro's advisor did not return a request for comment.

As James notes, Pratt’s behavior is a good illustration of the double standard that the art world -- and not only the art world, I might add -- applies to exhibitions of political sentiments. There are demonstrations of political rectitude, and those are greeted not as political statements but as being “responsible contributors to society.”  And then there are statements that dissent from The Narrative, and their fate is, first, contempt, and then, censorship.

It is no secret that this is business as usual among the politically correct, that is, among the custodians of almost all of our cultural institutions. The the familiarity of the response should not inure us to its despicableness.  Pratt should be ashamed of itself. Let’s hope that there is some serious push back on this latest instance of academic broadmindedness.