Roving Eye: Art is Everywhere and Nowhere


The New Museum’s “Museum as Hub” space, on its fifth floor, currently hosts a massive, vibrant overflow from “Ostalgia,” the current exhibition of Eastern European art. One finds, in particular, an overwhelming timeline of the fall of the Soviet Union produced by the St. Petersburg collective Chto Delat. It includes enough information for hours of education.

Chto Delat? / What is to Be Done? The Rise and Fall of Socialism, 1945–1991, 2011.Site specific installation. Research group: Thomas Campbell, Ilya Budraitskis, Dmitry Vilensky, Nikolay Oleynikov. Courtesy New Museum. Photo by Benoit Pailley

Reading this history of struggle and optimism, I was struck by a quote I had never paid much attention to before, by famed doom-and-gloom French theorist Guy Debord: “This striving of the spectacle toward modernization and unification, together with all the other tendencies toward the simplification of society, was what in 1989 led the Russian bureaucracy suddenly, and as one man, to convert to the current ideology of democracy—in other words, to the dictatorial freedom of the Market, as tempered by the recognition of the rights of Homo Spectator.”

I am obsessed with the notion of spectacle. In his last half-century of writings, Debord touched upon the collusion between capitalism and culture that continues to elude most of what passes for art theory today.

When the Berlin Wall fell the world rejoiced at the unification of Germany and the symbolic ushering in of a new era. Yet under the regime of democracy, capitalism has proliferated unabated and pervades all of our lives. In this country, I can’t help but feel like an idiot when people talk about democracy in terms of the two-party system. Even a gas station has more options.

This is my last “Roving Eye” submission and I felt it was important in the context of Art in America to say what art, in my opinion, is not—and that is content that solely exists in the traditional formats of paintings, drawings, video, sculpture, performance. As someone with a perhaps-romantic belief in the revolutionary potential of art, I have little patience for silly art world talk that treats art like some hobbyist’s prize. The arts are so entwined in contemporary culture that its infrastructure of museums, galleries, magazines, foundations and websites no longer recognize it as the mass spectacle that it is. Joseph Beuys’s belief that “everyone is an artist” has come to pass. Now the only question is what to do with the art we have around us.

The most obvious socially engaged artwork occurring right now is the hyped-up mediation of the debt ceiling. Today we watch as our elected officials cut social programs in the name of emergency compromise. But emergencies are the norm in an era where assaults of sensationalist news garner ratings. Have you noticed that all news today is “breaking news?” A sense of urgent panic is not only a necessary component of affective media but also the weapon wielded by power to aggregate wealth.

I was at a public pool this weekend, five blocks from my house. It is free. There isn’t too much chlorine. The pool was populated by people of various ages, races and classes. I sat there thinking about socially engaged art and loving that this pool was providing so many things that I wanted socially engaged art to do. It was civic. It was accessible. It was open to interpretation. The pool is paid for and maintained by the city of Philadelphia. It is a great artwork.