The dangerous pretension of knowing what’s best

Sarah Vowell shares a look at the roots of American Exceptionalism, tying…

Gov. Sarah Palin
Pres. Ronald Reagan
Puritan leader John Winthrop (1588-1649), who wrote “A Model of Christian Charity”
Jesus and his “Sermon on the Mount”

…in this week’s episode of Studio 360 from PRI.

I suspected that American Exceptionalism stems from the same principles that justified Manifest Destiny — that Americans are ‘chosen’ people, and that non-Americans are rightfully subject to Americans’ will.

So the fact that its roots go back to 15th century — the Age of Discovery, when Christian missionaries were covering the earth — affirms my suspicions. Furthermore, John Winthrop may have been interested in helping the poor, but he was also anti-democratic: he believed that aristocrats had a responsibility to help poor people, but the poor shouldn’t be allowed to have a voice. How paternalistic.

As Stuff White People Like #62: Knowing What’s Best for Poor People goes, “It is a poorly guarded secret that, deep down, white people believe if given money and education that all poor people would be EXACTLY like them.” If American Exceptionalists believe we Americans are similarly privileged — we know what’s best for the rest of the world — and we embody the universal ideal — that the greatest potential of the world is to become more like us: more democratic, more free-market Capitalist, more Wal-Marts and Whole Foods — it’s an awfully pretentious vision.

I realized that my objection to American Exceptionalism is similar to my position on Activist Art; that the underlying assumption that one is responsible for fixing the world is based on distinguishing oneself from the world. But as Johanna Drucker reminds us, “we are not better than the world we inhabit.” We are part of the world. And that we ought to accept our interdependence and complicity in the state of the world. The responsibility to fix it isn’t ours alone, but should be approached with mutual investment and collaboration.

Community, Research

White stuff I like, more or less

I have always liked Lindsey White‘s photos. Her new photos and videos make up a nice show at Partisan Gallery, somebody’s house on Guerrero. Endearingly earnest, like her previous portraits, but less quirky-cute, and more chance-magic (in the end, it’s just about personal taste: arty vs. Art). The new works are about light, and veer between optimism and the pathetic/mundane.

A bad pic of a great photo by Lindsey White, of a spear of light on a pillow. She shoots digital and 120mm, if you wanted to know.

A multi-channel video installation; each video is a single shot of a single thing. It functions like a sequence of photos in a book, only with slight movement and minimal audio. Great!

Also liked Richard T. Walker‘s two-channel video installation at Iceberger. More instruments, letters to nature, human projection onto the romantic ideals of nature. His English accent adds something; for no good reason, I assume that it suggests more of an awareness of the Romantic period than if he were American. Maybe my visit to Cumbria, the land of all those English Lake writers, has something to do with it.

It was a nice summer evening, and I enjoyed chatting with artists and meeting some guys showing with Little Tree Gallery, but I couldn’t shake my self-awareness of the New Mission, as youthful gallery-goers drank Pabst on the sidewalk for hours on end, just like during First Fridays in Oakland. What’s at stake is so different for different people, isn’t it? Earlier in the day, I found a kindred iconoclast willing to challenge hipsters’ endorsement of dingy ethnic restaurants in rough neighborhoods like Tu Lan and Shalimar. WTF? Thanks to the digital age, there is a source to explain this behavior: Stuff White People Like. See #91: San Francisco and #71: Being the only white person around.

Another thing White People like is critical theory (see #81: Graduate School). I must be White, because the podcast of Johanna Drucker‘s lecture at SVA blew my mind. The artist and author challenges Adorno’s 20th c. aesthetic theory and explains her notion called aesthesis, a specialized form of knowing (through art), characterized by knowing grounded in central experience, emergent experiences and co-dependent relationships. In contrast to Adorno’s assertion that art is autonomous, Drucker suggests that art is complicit and co-dependent; that it is in fact a form of commodity production, even if we don’t like to think of it so.

A tasty morsel:
She classifies low-brow pop paintings and drawings that reference comics or media as:

combinatoric mass culture kitsch production

And on the meat of the matter, for me:

To dispute Adorno’s assertion that because art is removed from the world of utilitarian objects, they are inherently resistant, Drucker says:

The notion of resistance [inherent to art] will die hard because it is the last link to the kind of utopian belief that … has a long history with modernism, and certainly gets reformulated again in mid-19th century with the coming of political philosophy…. The shift to political philosophy from ‘regular’ philosophy is that rather than understanding or describing the condition of knowledge or sensation or the mind, the political philosophy said the point is to change it. So the task of change — which again, the world is broken, we do need to fix it — … comes to be identified with the avant garde and … the role of art assumes a moral hierarchy and a moral high ground for the artist and the work of art. And that seems to me to be highly suspect. And that’s where I come back to complicity. We are not better than the world we inhabit….

The notion that difficulty, in and of itself, is a form of resistance that performs some sort of political efficacy—it’s just not true. It’s what I call magical politics. It’s like, where exactly does the transformation of power relations and political agency actually occur in those difficult works? It doesn’t….

I make difficult work. I write really obscure things. But I don’t imagine that they are making a transformation of the political structure. I do imagine, and I do believe that they transform the meme world. That’s what we do. We are meme makers. We transform. We reimagine. We remodel. We offer new models of cognition and new models of experience. And we produce that as an effect. We don’t produce that inherently in objects. It is an effect of what we do.

I had similar feelings of caution around the sense of artists having a moral high ground in the process of developing new work for Activist Imagination. So it’s great to hear Drucker put a historical framework around the conditions of art-viewing that we are subject to, and available for displacement if we choose.