The One Thing That Can Save America (2016)


I live in the Midwest but this is not an essay about experience or the self. It’s an essay about the other. In arts discourse the Midwest is an other, a margin between coastal centers.

It’s a simple idea: write an essay discussing the Midwest’s marginal place in American arts discourse and align our otherness with a failure of the democratic system or a betrayal of the art world’s responsibility to engage with otherness, wherever found.

But the Midwest is neither bridge, nor crossroads. If we call it the heartland or flyover country, we do so with an inflated sense of self or a note of self-hate and this essay is not about the self. But what if our middling marks a banality so radical that it upsets the limits of radicality. What if the Midwest is radical in its banality? It is un-extreme in every other sense and thereby both unmarketable and without a market. It may court its avant-gardes, but the Midwest is too full of the demos to be centered into its own avant-something.

While it’s tempting to mount a defense of the Midwest’s otherness in opposition to the extraordinary wealth of the art market at this moment and how that art world constitutes its own 1% and every year widens the cultural income gap; and while it’s tempting to lament the vanishing artistic middle class, even as almost everyone imagines themselves as some degree of middle-class, and to draw a parallel with the disenfranchised working poor: what’s happening here isn’t about economics, it’s about a vanishing voice. A middling voice. A quieter voice. It's about the absence of discursive outlets to a wide swath of the country where art-makers are falling silent as the result of repeatedly being silenced. To be a part of a discourse is to be part of a community, but to believe that the market elects our representatives would mean countenancing the fallacious link between democratic progress and free-market economics.

Gertrude Stein said in a 1926 lecture: “For a long time everybody refuses and then almost without a pause almost everyone accepts.… In the history of the refused in the arts and literature the rapidity of the change is always startling.” And so Four Saints in Three Acts became a smash success on Broadway and Ulysses was published by Random House. Perhaps postmodernism had its beginning here, in the popular institution of the avant-garde.

At its most base, mine is an irritable us-versus-them idea about the Midwest’s marginality, as dictated by the Art World cartographers of New York and Los Angeles. The subject is not new, and if it’s the privilege of the Coasts to not think too much about us, having been a Midwesterner by birth and currently based in the Midwest, I’ve been privy to a raging chorus of home-grown complaints about metropolitan prejudices and lack of local representation. These complaints, for better or worse, issue from assumptions about fair representation, the expectation that the arts are a place where those without voices can otherwise find one. This assumption undoubtedly contributes to Midwest artists’ out-of-place-ness in the cosmopolitanism of the art world and their tendency to confine themselves to regionalisms on one hand and on the other to find themselves as members of swing-states and red-states, cast in the position of political privilege and scorn. In other words, the Midwestern artist’s voice, a gnat in the ear of the culturally elite, is transformed into the booming voice that sways elections. So quiet banality becomes the coercive norm to be resisted in the name of intellectual and aesthetic refinement.

Any attempt to reverse these assumptions and uncouple, or even recuperate, the middleness of the Midwest from its marginality seems bound to founder in scholarship. Reviewing the body of literature devoted to the role of the Midwest in the art world is depressing. Much of it emerged in the 70s. New York was rising to its current towering status, consolidating its critical capital in what remain the art journals of record. Here, the Chicago-based New Art Examiner took on the project of consolidating an art critical voice in the Midwest and devoted many substantive essays to the topic – if, even, the whole publication effort itself could be construed as a collective case in point. Current New Yorker art critic, Peter Schjeldahl published an essay optimistically titled “Chicagoization” in the NAE in 1985 where he confesses his turnaround and retreats to the coast:

I got excited by the possibility that at last, after some muddled attempts in the past, I would find something useful to say on a bedeviled subject: the center and the margin, centrality and provincialism, mainstream and periphery, the whole psychology of geography in contemporary art.

This is a disreputable subject for a number of reasons, among them that it tends to spark a discourse remarkably gross. In this discourse, if it can be called that, raw feelings confront insulated ones – defensiveness confronts snobbery – and everybody gets either mad or maddening. It is a subject that, as a lover of art, I would like to see simply go away. What could be more vulgar than the confusion of geographical rooting interests with art production?

Then Schjeldahl reveals the universalism in the blindspot of cosmopolitan’s self-regard, falling back on the complimentary notions of transcendent artistic greatness through the sweetness and light of an Arnoldian disinterestedness as opposed to the mewling virtue of regionalism. 

Conscious, sophisticated art of all times has a profound independence from places, and the places that host it show the peculiar dissociation, the gregarious impersonality that we call “cosmopolitan.” When we look at the sites of great artistic movements, at least within the Western tradition, I think we see that they have a certain negative virtue, not a team spirit but a disinterested though passionate curiosity. I get tired of talk about the possibility of art in this or that place, feeling that the only question that matters, as Harold Rosenberg suggested, is of whether art is possible at all.

He goes on to say that “place-patriotism” is more alive and well than ever, and that he himself is even charmed by the “primitive attraction to the mystique of place.” As such, his own argument, he says, is ultimately “ambushed from within.” He knows he should be bound to a higher-order aesthetic, but he finds himself enthralled by some quaint but treacherous local attraction.

The essay is as vexing as it is arresting, and as such may serve as a good metaphor for this perhaps lamentable attempt to re-address this embattled subject, including the reference to inner ambush. We could consider the way in which American art culture ambushes its own center and how, in assorted inventive ways, the center (the Midwest) ambushes itself. I also feel, personally, a self-ambushing, aligning myself to a cosmopolitan center-that-is-not-the-center over and above some or another depthless regionalism. Rather than listen for the vanishing voices who take it for granted that they are making art just like everyone else, I sense that pull toward that “negative virtue” and the terribly cynical idea of America as art’s apocalypse.

Indeed, cosmopolitanism is a mindset unrooted to place. To cultivate it anywhere is perhaps the critic’s most important job – rather than fleeing to those places where it’s flourishing. Past arguments aside, my point is to bring this debate to the current moment and relate how we approach arts in the Midwest to how we assess what counts as democratic.

We’re seeing a moment where the art world is mirroring American culture in the most problematic of ways: like the imminent presidential election, populated by astronomical campaign budgets and presidential hopefuls whose financial profiles eliminate anyone without deep pockets. We have an art market dominated by bloated sales, whose market prices validate the qualitative worth of the art works. As is, these systems of privilege require the maintenance of margins. Yes, the avant-garde was always necessarily attached to its “umbilical chord of gold” – as Clement Greenberg memorably quipped – but it is all the more so in this late state of capitalism, where art is not only a marker of sophistication (as it’s always been) but an investment opportunity. Today’s art market is more akin to the world of finance than patronage which, we should remember, rested on pride of place.

So would a democratic avant-garde mean reinvesting in marginalized communities and reorienting art-making to the broadening of discourse and access and away from sales, fame, and power?

Maybe any avant-garde needs to believe in a failed democracy in order to seed, or maybe the fact that democracy entails a commitment to equality – not just liberty – means that democracy will necessarily fail to provide a model for the arts where not all art is equal. Like the market needs competition, art needs antagonism to flourish. But whether or not the broad-appeal to Midwest banality can radicalize a common populace left out of the art-world mainstream, or whether it’s in the nature of the popular mainstream to reject even its own otherness, it’s our duty to dwell in that impossible decision. To act as though one might win back a wayward populace, without allowing each new failure to call us dishearteningly into another’s elitism.

This was the exhibition essay for the group show The One Thing That Can Save America at Paragraph Gallery & Project Space, Kansas City, MO, March 24 - April 30, 2016. The exhibition included work by Charlotte Street Foundation's Studio Residency Program artists from that year. Both the essay and exhibition's title is borrowed from John Ashbery's eponymous poem, which  was originally published by Viking Press in 1975 in his bellwether collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.