By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
Since the beginning of modern times, artists have embraced art as a vehicle for social change. Modern art often has been used as an instrument of critique against the injustices of the status quo. Yet it also can be a valuable commodity to the same establishment art seeks to fight. With the increasing appropriation of radicalism by market forces -- particularly since the 1980s -- the avant-garde and its political program for emancipation has been caught in a dead end. Today the idea of art's power to change things has lost most of its credibility. And the narrower the gap between art and stock value becomes, the greater the level of spectacle.
By spectacle I mean the increasing level of our voyeuristic appetite, exponentially increased by the media. The Truman Show, EDtv, and more recently, television's Big Brother, are examples of the blurring of fact and fabrication. What only a decade ago was considered radical in terms of language and content is today big business for hip-hop and hardcore, for shock radio and cable TV. The art market played right into the end-of-the-century demand for theatricality. Throughout the 1990s more museums and gallery spaces were created to accommodate a new form of virtual-art tourism. It was only a matter of time before so-called installation art became de rigueur, its boundaries those of the in-today's-art-anything-goes ethos of the late Twentieth Century, its themes focusing on the personal biography and the politics of race and gender.
Installation art began as a viable new form of expression, political and otherwise, during the 1960s, when artists involved in movements such as Earth Art, Arte Povera, and Fluxus (which had as “members” Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, and video artist Nam June Paik) produced subversive site-specific works to protest social inequality and the predictability and excess of the earlier avant-garde. The form has ended as spectacle in the comfortable climate-controlled confines of the gallery and the museum. It's here that the avant-garde lost its political struggle altogether (if it ever could have won it is another discussion).
It may be that the installation experience is difficult to exceed. Its goal is to surround the observer in a “total” phenomenon. Since it moves our attention from singular objects to relationships structured within a space, installation art can explore a broad range of options, from conceptual art to minimalism to narration. And while there is a lot to say in favor of good installation art, lately much of it has become faddish, simply dragging the bewildered observer into a dream world of self-indulgent surface. Michael Fried, the 1960s Formalist critic, once said art degenerates as it approaches the condition of theater.
"Born Innocent" by artist Kyle Trowbridge, now showing at Box, explores, if somewhat ambiguously, this notion. Trowbridge, a professor at the University of Miami, presents a crisp and concise conceptual installation with the right amount of material necessary to convey the main idea. At the end of the gallery in a corner, a four-shelf rack is filled with children's smiling faces, “printed” on transparent glass sheets. At each side of the rack sits a glass-covered box. One is filled with stones, the other with neatly cut branches. Trowbridge seems to play with the saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”
By the gallery door a black-and-white image of a typical all-American grammar school, with the flag flying at half-mast, greets the visitor. Is this a portrait of mourning? It raises the issue of innocence but an innocence that is already tainted. This is Trowbridge's conceptual strategy. He presents a somewhat clean, fragile, black-and-white environment that implies purity, but underneath lies an ominous prospect of violence. Things are not what they seem.
Yet “Born Innocent” does not probe enough -- perhaps deliberately -- into the cause of this dichotomy. Trowbridge isn't dealing solely with abstractions. Instead this conceptual delivery reflects a dramatic reality. Though something obviously is wrong, we remain only at the brink of reportage. Trowbridge uniformly delivers certain facts about our condition and props them in conceptual clothing (after all, this is art, not sociology). It's true that the causes of our endemic violence may be many and complex but something should be revealed. Even at the level of concept, there's a gap in Trowbridge's art that subverts itself: The presumed objectivity of his report is as fragile as the demeanor of his puerile subjects. The smiling faces Trowbridge shows are those nice kids from suburban Denver, the ones who created and also documented an apocalyptic shooting spree for TV. They also resemble the two main character in the film Natural Born Killerswho carve a path of carnage through the Southwest as our “objective” media ferociously dog their trail.
We all are the image of these kids. This propensity for violence could be, in part, the result of late twentieth-century narcissism. Our self-importance is so grossly inflated that we hurt when anything thwarts our most insignificant demands. We indulge and consume more violence than ever before. We simply delight in its shock value. Narcissism and spectacle are closely related and feed each other endlessly. And so we'll keep doing what we see others doing and what we want ourselves to be seen doing by others. Welcome to the virtual age!