RAIL: From my own observations, I do feel that the multiculturalism that arose in the 80s, which as we all know was associated with political correctness and the rise of identity politics, had to do with both cultural and economic aspects of globalism. Hypothetically speaking, though culturally it addresses art as a manifestation of basic human interests, economically it seems tied in with corporate interest and political allegiances. In other words, artists tend to see the world at large, from the inside out, whereas corporate interests see the world as small, from the outside in. This, I would say, inevitably creates a huge conflict of communication, which means that artists are usually put in a position of having to satisfy corporate interests, which is so far removed from their intention. But at the same time we also are aware of the real issue of art being irrelevant, no longer as an isolated phenomenon, pursuing its imperatives or personal ideologies without reference to the outside world. How do you see the polarity?
HEARTNEY: I think globalism is very double-edged. It’s interesting because in the art world, when you say globalization, it tends to be a very positive thing because it suggests this new kind of inclusiveness, which admits different sorts of narratives from different places in the world. But it also of course has this other connotation, certainly on the economic front, which is invested in a variety of aggressive forms of corporatization and homogenization. Not only does it wipe out diversity, it seems to be devoted to making us all into the same sort of consumer. However, for artists, I think they find it both exciting and strange to skate between those two realities when they’re dealing with the global art world.
At the panel last week, which was about art critics and globalization, one of the things that was very clear to most of the panelists was that the explosion of International Biennials over the last three or four years has really been a vehicle for bringing artists from far-flung places and introducing them to the larger art world, which is all good, but each of them requires large amounts of money and has multiple agendas. In some cases there is a hidden political motivation that desires to wipe out some egregious kind of political event from the past. In other cases, it’s simply based on pure economic motivations. Either way, artists who participate in those Biennials are quite aware of the two different agendas, yet they’re also advancing their own agendas. So it becomes very complicated. In my case, I find it very important to figure out, “Why this Biennial, at this place, and at this time?” And then I can go on and look at the individual works.
RAIL: To go back to the late 70s and 80s, the name F.A. Hayek, the Viennese economist who wrote The Road To Serfdom (1944) and Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (1988), somehow loomed quite prominently in the light of Reagan/Thatcher’s political and economic policies. As we knew then, the multiculturalist view had its advantages and its disadvantages. On one hand, there were those who really advocated for and embraced the so-called redemptive “diffusion” from non-Western cultures, which they thought could perhaps replace the old image of the melting pot that allowed differences to be submerged in democracy. Yet on the other hand, you have those who opposed it, who thought it was an anti-Western ideology, and therefore downgraded or undermined U.S. national culture, while raising the status and power of other cultures. Since you have written extensively on the subject, particularly in Critical Condition: American Culture at a Crossroads (1997), which traced the rise of Neo-Expressionism, appropriation, Neo-Geo, and of course multiculturalism, how would you reassess that decade from today’s perspective?
HEARTNEY: You know, writing that book gave me a chance to think about a lot of those issues. The whole multicultural movement, for instance, laid out the groundwork that preceded globalization. On the one hand, it was very much about opening up the art world to these other voices from other cultures and other traditions that had been excluded. But on the other hand there was something about it that often became very militant and very exclusionary, to the point where people were only allowed to express a certain part of their identity. So the notion that we’re all kind of hybrid and made up of many different aspects kind of got lost there. In Art and Today, I have a chapter on art and identity, which I begin with that unitary notion of identity, and by the end I concluded that we’ve moved to a more hybrid notion of identity as something that is much more free-flowing and changing. In terms of the culture war, it had a lot to do with the rise of so-called “identity politics” and the notion that certain groups—non-white, non-male, non-European—were vying for power in the art world.
What was interesting about the whole culture war that rose really in the late 80s and early 90s was that it coincided with the end of the Cold War and the rise of the global market. In so many ways, I think it was a losing battle for the right, but nevertheless one in which they were deeply engaged; and of course looking back now, one that forms the perspective of a year in which we have elected a black president and the nomination of the first Hispanic woman, Sonia Sotomayor, as a Supreme Court justice. I think it’s kind of amazing when you look back to those wars and think that they really felt that they could hold back this tide.
RAIL: Did September 11th, and its aftermath have any bearing on your next book Defending Complexity: Art Politics and the New World Order?
HEARTNEY: September 11th was such an unimaginable event that changed so many things in our lives. One of the things in particular that I was concerned with in that book, which also overlapped with my other book Post-Modern Heretics: the Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art, finished right after September 11th, was the way in which religion suddenly was on the table in a very significant way, religion being a subject the art world had long ignored or seen it as a purely reactionary force. At any rate, when Serrano’s “Piss Christ” created controversy, the one thing that the right wing and the art world establishment agreed on was that it was an anti-religion work. Whereas, in fact, it wasn’t simply that; Serrano has a much more complicated relationship to religion.
Nevertheless, it became clear that there were certain things we had to pay attention to which we didn’t before, and part of it was the role of religion. Whether we see it for its positive and negative sides or not, religion wasn’t something that we’d put behind us, as some kind of relic of the past. In fact, it became an evermore important and growing force. And within these various religions, there is a great deal of controversy and dissention, and to see it as a monolith is a mistake. I think the political uses of religion, both on our side as well as on the side of those who perpetrated that disaster on September 11th, became more amplified. In both cases, it empowered the people who practiced the fundamentalist versions, which tend to see things as solely in terms of good and evil. And of course that kind of mentality had been guiding the Bush administration, pretty much up till Obama’s election.
Drawing: Phong Bui