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300 pages; 16 color illustrations
Defending Complexity: Art, Politics and the New World Order presents a compilation of thirty-four essays by critic Eleanor Heartney, spanning ten years of art criticism from 1995-2005. Written primarily for the art magazine Art in America, Heartney's essays, mostly exhibition reviews, are grouped thematically to illustrate a variety of social and political issues as exemplified by contemporary art in the latter decades of the 20th century. Though not all of these essays merit reprinting, the best are thoughtful and vigorous, drawing in the broader topics embodied in the art and its exhibition in piquant essays covering such topics as controversy over religious themes in art, images of war and their effects on how they shape our perceptions of the events, museum politics in reaction to the increasing pressures of corporate sponsorship and sensationalism, and the troubling paradox surrounding images of death in art versus those in popular culture.
In her introduction the author notes that her intent in gathering these essays into a single volume is to "present a plea for complexity in contemporary art and in our understanding of that art", contrasting "complexity" with the "stark oppositions" of black-and-white thinking she sees as represented in current social and political attitudes. She also describes the art critic's role in her opening essay, "What are Critics For?" (American Art, Spring 2002) as "to look at art and the art world in context and to ask hard questions that boosters may not want to hear." The extent to which Defending Complexity fulfills these premises is directly related to the degree to which Heartney expresses that complexity in her own writings. The ground to be covered is delineated in six provocative questions on the back cover, which correspond generally to the chapter groupings or to particular essays. "Why does our popular culture glorify gore and death, while photo-journalists and artists draw censure when they depict real dead bodies?" "Why are artists who deal with religious themes in any but the most conventional manner branded as blasphemers, apostates and nihilists, even when they are expressing a personal belief in spirituality?" and "What is the critic's role in a world which has been radically remade by war, sectarian strife, fear, paranoia, and bitter divisions within the polity?" are examples of the questions that raise expectations of a detailed meat-and-bones exploration of some of art's more difficult issues. The topics dealt with are nominally political, though in a much broader sense than the governmental politics which the front cover, a work by artist Mark Lombardi, leads one to expect. (Mark Lombardi is discussed in the fourteenth essay, "The Sinister Beauty of Global Conspiracies" (New York Times, October 26, 2003).) Various reviews touch on art dealing with social and cultural issues, race, feminism, and ecology -- "identity politics", if one follows the blurb on the back cover -- while other chapters discuss museum policies and power structures; international artists are discussed under "Global Politics and Art" but the writings are really more about global art than about politics.
Heartney purports to see a sharp divide between pre- and post-9/11 issues as reflected in her reviews, and certainly there are variances. Post-9/11, there is an exhibition inspired by the growing presence of surveillance ("Big Brother is Also Being Watched with Alarm", New York Times, January 26, 2003), an excellent essay on the shaping of our perceptions with regard to photo-feeds from the war both sanctioned and informal ("A War and Its Images", Art in America, October 2004), and inclusion of an Iranian artists whose work touches on female sexuality in both Western and Islamic worlds ("Ghada Amer: Embroidering on Pleasure", Artpress, March 2005, and the most recent essay in the book). But in most of the chapters, the before and after of 9/11 each have articles touching on similar issues written on either side of that watershed point, and though the articles themselves are fascinating, the shift in viewpoint is more subtle than the author suggests. A difficulty in examining the writings as related to pre- or post-9/11 is that full credits are given only in the table of contents, frustrating the reader's efforts to place the writings in time and space without constantly flipping back and forth to cross-reference. Am I reading something from 1996, or 2004? Only breaking my reading flow and thumbing back to the table of contents lets me know for sure. (This is also true of the sixteen color plates, which are appended in a section at the back of the book.)
But the best of these essays are worth the effort. The seven critical essays in the chapter "Controversy and Censorship" find fertile material in art and two heavy-duty subjects, religion, and death. "Blood, Sex and Blasphemy" (New Art Examiner, March 1999) opens with a bang: "Does God hate art?" Heartney posits, and shortly thereafter, "Do artists hate God?" Her exploration incorporates the variance between Catholic and Protestant experiences of the world -- Catholics are more visual and sensual, Protestants, she finds, are more literary and word-based -- and the ways in which this is expressed in artistic imagery as well as in attitudes toward art. In an analysis of the argumentation surrounding Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary (1999), "A Catholic Controversy" (Art in America, December 1999) makes the observation that:
"What happens," she adds, "When art works designed to operate on multiple levels get flattened out in a linguistic ringer [sic]?", noting of a related exhibition that "a verbal description... became the touchstone for outrage from literal minded critics who were unable to see in the work a complex meditation on the realms of spirit, matter, life, death and grace." Other thought-provoking essays include "Is the Body More Beautiful When It's Dead?" (New York Times, June 1, 2003) and "Sally Mann: The Forensic Eye" (Art in America, January 2005), in both of which Heartney brings up the troubling contradictions applied to images of death in America: while artists such as Thomas Condon and Sally Mann receive censure on moral and ethical grounds for art which attempts to deal with issues of mortality, "graphically and often spectacularly dead bodies... are a staple of mass entertainment." Further essays discussing museum politics and the disturbing trend toward sensationalism and sponsorship in exhibitions; the real and imagined identities of America as a nation; and other select essays are all stimulating reading.
These are the meat-and-bones essays, the ones one expects to find throughout the book; but contrasting these, about half the material in Defending Complexity is curiously inert. Many simply chronicle the contents of a particular exhibition, with little analysis of the art itself or its surrounding context. The eight essays of "The Political Artist", which detail exhibitions touching on various topics from race to ecology to urban architecture, may have served as good reportage at the time of the review, but in reprint they simply lay there. They neither defend, provoke, nor posit; they merely catalogue, and although they do show what topics these artists chose to explore, the writing stops just short (often tantalizingly so) of offering a depthful 'how and why' interpretation of the art or its issues.
But why is this so, when other essays are so articulate? One possibility for the variance leaps out in a quick tabulation of the writings and their sources. Nearly all the venues other than Art in America, premiere magazine though it is, seem to have given the author more leeway in being expressive. Midway through the book Heartney's 'voice' unfolds into a free play of ideas that revels in articulate thought, and in exploration of the many issues that surround, infuse, and affect the art being made and shown in these modern times. That's right about where material from publications such as the New York Times, New Art Examiner, and Washington Post makes its appearance. Art in America has its own share of the compelling writings; but nearly all the 'reportage' essays in Defending Complexity, those which are mere chronicles of what was there, were selections written for Art in America. The restraint, leading to dryness, in some of these essays may be due more to Art in America's style requirements and preferences, rather than to the author specifically.
Founded in 1992, the publisher, Hard Press Editions, is a small press dedicated to "alternative publishing" including books promoting art criticism, a laudable endeavor. But Hard Press deserves some censure for the sloppy proofreading in this volume, which had enough typos, misspellings, transposed words and errant punctuation to undermine the professionalism of the presentation.
Promising much, Defending Complexity delivers on only some of its premises. All in all, it is a mixed bag. The best of these stimulating reviews, as well as the author's intention of supporting politically- or socially-related art works involving depth and multiple interpretation, are fulfilled (or at least a good discussion gotten underway) by those of the author's writings that themselves seek to employ a good measure of complexity and depth. About half the essays meet these expectations. Those that do are worth reading. They are provocative, engaging writings, with resonance that inspires thought long after one has put down the book.
--Katherine R. Lieber
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