Thinking (and Reading) About Cultural Politics

When I was an intern at the Dallas Museum of Art, the museum attempted to buy at auction A Grand View of the Seashore, a large seascape painted around 1774 by the French artist Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-1789). This wasn’t any ordinary art purchase. A Grand View of the Seashore is actually the companion piece to another Vernet painting, Landscape with Approaching Storm, which is part of the DMA collection. The paintings meditate on the interactions between humanity and nature. A Grand View of the Seashore offers a peaceful scene conducive to human commerce and other activities, with its warm palette of peach, yellow, and pale blue underscoring its sense of calm. Landscape with Approaching Storm, by contrast, explores the more tempestuous side of nature, with craggy mountains, a darker palette of blues and grays, and diagonal rainclouds bringing a foreboding, energetic quality to the scene and sending its tiny humans running for shelter. Commissioned by Lord Lansdowne, the paintings had been separated since 1806 after being sold to separate private collections. The upcoming auction represented a rare opportunity to reunite the paintings for the first time in over two hundred years.

I was there when the bidding for A Grand View of the Seashore took place. I remember crowding into my supervisor’s office with my fellow interns in the European and American art departments to watch the auction online. We were excited because we thought the museum had a good chance of getting the painting, which would be a boon to scholars and art enthusiasts alike. To have these paintings reunited in a public collection; how art historically significant!

The DMA’s bidding limit was two million dollars. Think about that for a minute. Two million dollars for one painting. For comparison, that was double the entire annual budget of the Roswell Museum and Art Center when I was working there. Despite our optimism, the DMA never stood a chance. Within a minute of the opening bid, private collectors annihilated our prospects, and the painting ended up going for about 8 million dollars. While the painting was loaned for a temporary exhibition, that day was one of the most disheartening of my museum career up to that point, and it underscored the significance of money to the art world for me. While museums and other institutions often downplay the monetary value of their collections to the public, the truth is, money is key to their success as cultural institutions. Whoever controls the purse strings arguably controls the culture, or at least the ones considered mainstream or normative.

I’ve been thinking about that day a lot as I’ve been working through the final section of my art history reading list, which focuses on cultural politics. Several of these readings focus outright on the significance of money to the art world, and the influence that private and government donors alike exert over culture when they’re the ones funding it. Mark Rectanus’s Culture Incorporated looks at corporate sponsorship as a significant means of cultural production in globalization. He examines how corporate sponsorship influences culture through a variety of media, including museum exhibitions, advertising campaigns with artists, supporting cultural events, globalizing museums, or advocating for technology. In Artwash, artist and activist Mel Evans considers the connection between big oil and the art world as articulated through the various branches of the Tate Museum in the UK. In the wake of declining government support, big oil has stepped in to provide funding to museums and other institutions, an act that is ultimately self-serving on the part of the businesses doing philanthropy. Evans argues that BP uses art and museums as a way of legitimizing its business practices by distracting the public from their operations to focus on their art sponsorship, a process she calls artwashing. As a result, art institutions not only implicitly express their support for an ecologically and socially destructive business that reinscribes colonial inequality while destroying ecosystems, but also constrain their ability to speak out against social injustices because they allow such industries to influence their programming through the money they give.

While many of the texts I’ve looked at focus on private sponsorship, others consider government funding. In Federalizing the Muse, Donna M. Binkiewicz looks at the history of the National Endowment for the Arts and its antecedents. Her overarching argument is that the arts benefited from federal involvement, and that while much-maligned today, the NEA actually accomplished quite a bit given the constraints it experienced. She also complicates our understanding of both the NEA and the politicians who supported it. For example, she posits that the NEA was a more moderate institution than conventionally portrayed by neoconservatives. She notes that it often supported projects aligned with Abstract Expressionism, an art form that by the 1960s was no longer avant-garde in the way that say Pop Art, Feminist art, Black art, and other postmodern forms were. Instead, the NEA took an uplifting approach that aimed to educate viewers in the forms of high art rather than popular culture, while simultaneously espousing such supposedly American ideals as individual liberty and freedom, qualities that were believed to be best encapsulated by the individuality and seeming apolitical nature of Abstract Expressionism.

I’ve also been reading about the so-called culture wars, or the debates over arts funding that took place in the 1980s and 1990s in response to backlash over exhibitions of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography or Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. Art Matters offers an anthology of essays from artists, activists, as well as scholars. Each of the chapters explores the culture wars from a different vantage point, including the AIDS crisis, race, or the privatization of culture. While there is no singular argument underpinning this text other than the culture wars changed art funding in America, arguably for the worse, two themes recur throughout the text. First, the authors argue that the people defending artists during the culture wars oversimplified matters by focusing primarily on the First Amendment. In other words, by stating that artists were entitled to say whatever they wanted because of the First Amendment, a counter-argument stating that the arts should not be funded if they do not express the majority opinion could be mounted. In other words, you are free to say what you want, but not on my dollar. Instead, defenders should have explained the importance of the art, demonstrated to audiences how it conveyed the message it did, and how they address broader social issues such as systemic inequality. Second, the authors argued that the culture wars reflected an ongoing conflict between white supremacy and underrepresented voices. By focusing on the culture wars as a question of taxation, conservatives diverted attention away from the oppression that was taking place with regard to LBGTQ voices, and other perspectives. As a result, decreased funding made these underrepresented voices even less likely to be heard. These authors conclude that a democratic form of arts funding in the United States would be a model that enabled artists to create the work they need or want to do, regardless of content or potential offense to the government, conservatives, and other groups.

Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America, written about twenty years after Art Matters, takes a different perspective reflecting the passage of time. He offers an intellectual history underpinning the debates regarding religion, education, feminism, race, and other prominent subjects within the culture wars. He takes special care to explore the intellectual underpinnings of both sides of the debate, from the arguments of the New Left and the neoconservatives of the 1950s and 1960s, to the new social history,  to the growing presence of fundamentalist Christians on the political right. Through these different explorations, Hartman argues that the culture wars represented an ongoing debate between two different versions of America. The conservative version, or the normative one, espoused white, middle-class values regarding race, class, gender, and religion, while the liberal view supported pluralism. He concludes that while liberals and conservatives alike have largely recognized the new pluralistic vision of America that developed out of the 1960s, the pluralism we experience today was by no means guaranteed during the culture wars period. Published in 2015, Hartman originally concluded that the culture wars were finished, but he has since published a second edition in the wake of the 2016 election.

While the culture wars arguably represent one of the most dramatic national manifestations of the ongoing debates over art in America, cultural politics can also influence on the regional or local level. When I was in Roswell, local cultural politics definitely influenced the way I curated shows. As a municipal museum, we could and did exhibit controversial content, but we had to be mindful of where we placed exhibitions or individual pieces. Given Roswell’s overall conservative political culture, I usually had to make sure that the most visible galleries in the museum, particularly those that were located near classrooms, had so-called family-friendly content from a cisnormative perspective. Any works with violence, nudity, or critiques of religion and other institutions were exhibited in less prominent spaces, and with plenty of signage so that visitors could choose to avoid those galleries.

The most subtle instance of cultural politics within the museum happened when I curated Power: New Works by David Emitt Adams. Based in Phoenix, Adams is a photographer who uses historical methods like wet collodion printing and other techniques to take images of landscapes. His work channels the great landscape photographers of the 19th century, but whereas those pieces endeavored to present a seemingly pristine version of nature, Adams exposes that myth by examining the interconnectivity between culture and environment. One way he does this is by printing his images on cans, metal, and other detritus he finds in the landscapes he photographs, for example.

The exhibition I worked on, Power, featured a new body of work Adams had made focusing on oil refineries. Traveling around the American South and Southwest, Adams had photographed various refineries and printed them on used oil drum lids, with the streaks and other imperfections of the wet collodion process suggesting the liquid nature of oil itself. When I saw these images, I personally interpreted them as a commentary on the obsolescence of oil as an energy source. By using an antiquated printing method, in other words, Adams’ photographs seemed to meditate on our reliance on a fuel source that is itself finite and out of date.

Yet even as I read these photographs as a critique of the oil industry, I didn’t want to alienate local visitors by making this the official interpretation. After all, southeastern New Mexico’s economy has relied on the petroleum industry for decades, and a lot of Roswell’s prominent leaders and influencers are involved in oil in one form or another. The Roswell Museum also owes much of its existence to oil, with nearly all of its most prominent donors and philanthropists making their money through petroleum. So while I saw a critique when I viewed these photographs, I knew many of our local visitors would interpret these works through a more nostalgic or celebratory lens. When I wrote the exhibition text then, I focused primarily on the wet collodion process and the works’ dialogue with the history of photography, which Adams himself focused on when discussing his artistic practice. In essence, I deliberately left the actual interpretation of the works up to the viewers. An activist like Mel Evans would likely interpret my decision as enabling artwashing, but given Roswell’s cultural politics, encouraging viewers to produce their own interpretations provided the most leeway with regard to showing these pieces.

An example of one of Adams’ photographs. This depicts a refinery in Artesia, a town about 40 minutes south of Roswell.

Cultural politics will also play a substantial role in my dissertation research. Throughout its run, the Community Art Center Project and other endeavors from the FAP faced criticism for using federal money to support the arts, a seemingly frivolous expenditure compared to roads or infrastructure (the Leftist sympathies of many of these artists didn’t help). Local politics also shaped the programming of individual institutions. As I’ve noted in previous posts, the Roswell Museum and Art Center was a site for debate between the FAP and the local A&H Society, as they both had very different visions for the institution. Whereas the FAP wanted the museum to be an art appreciation space, with a focus on producing and consuming contemporary art from around the country, the A&H Society wanted the museum to be more site-specific by concentrating on the history and culture of Roswell itself. Undoubtedly other art centers experienced their own cultural politics, and getting to know these better will only enrich my understanding of this program.

Well, that’s a wrap on my posts about reading lists. I have to say, working through these different texts has been an enriching experience. I’ve learned a lot about a variety of subjects, and more importantly, have gotten a better sense of the major scholarly arguments within my fields of interest. While I’m looking forward to being finished with exams and getting started on the dissertation in earnest, the comps preparation process has been enjoyable in its own way. And hopefully, all of you readers have also gotten something out of following me on this journey.

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