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BFA/MFA art ‘says’ too much

Letter to the Editor | Sunday, April 15, 2007

If you have not yet had a chance to visit this year’s BFA/MFA exhibit at the Snite Museum of Art, you’re missing out on a proper sermon from the artist’s pulpit. As you enter the gallery, you will be called upon to consider and assess, not so much the artistic merit of the work of art – line, color, composition and craftsmanship – but rather its socio-political message-worker’s rights, homosexuality, multiculturalism, greenhouse gases, etc. Now, it is all very well to make art that is “about” something – indeed, what is form without an attendant content? And certainly art has advanced beyond the stale objectivity of Kantian formalist aesthetics. But it appears that the artists of Riley hall are so eager to suffuse their artworks with a fist-pounding social critique clarity that the art itself becomes but dispensable medium, subordinate to the “issues” at hand. And judging by the overwhelming consistency of issue- oriented art in this year’s exhibit, it appears that the pressure to take a stance in one’s art is coming from the top down. Either way, the role of art is marginalized. Why not write a manifesto instead? Or picket up and down South Quad? My point in writing this, of course, is not to trivialize the issues addressed by these works art. I think such issues should be addressed, and in fact I rather agree with the progressive, socially-conscious tone in which these concerns are voiced. My point is rather that, by reducing a work of art to a single, self-contained “message,” these artists trivialize the role of art itself. What I find lacking in the artists’ mentality is an appreciation of the extent to which art is by its very nature political. The power of art lies in its elusiveness; it is the one thing we cannot put our conceptual finger on. Art is that wonderfully paradoxical thing which Kant describes as purposefully purposeless. For this very reason, it is the one thing in our society that cannot be commodified, instrumentalized or appropriated for political ends. Insofar as art escapes the clutches of ideology, its mere existence is a vehicle for social reform. That is why art should never become propagandistic, even if we agree with its objectives. An intelligent viewer wants to be provoked and challenged, not slapped in the face by the hand of moralistic evangelizing. The viewer wants a reason to linger, to ponder both form and content. But if the artwork is reducible to a single, univocal message, there is no longer any need for the viewer to confront the work on either an intellectual or aesthetic level. Far from provoking thought or engaging discourse, such heavy-handed sloganeering gives the viewer good reason not to linger and ponder; the explicit aboutness of the art leaves no room for appreciating it as a work of art. If the aim of art is to awaken a particular form of social or political consciousness in the minds of an audience, art must be made to speak more than politically correct platitudes.

Jay Miller

philosophy graduate student

South Bend, Ind.

April 12