Thursday, October 9, 2008

The politics of empathy

In the art blogging world today, the politics of empathy seem to be getting a particular workover.

First up is Will Gompertz's full-throttle tell-all review of the Louise Bourgeois retrospective at the Tate Modern for The Guardian, which begins ominously: "I have been married for 15 years and I think things have gone pretty well." He didn't expect to be emotionally overwrought after a gentle hour tootling round the gallery, but after viewing works that were "so filled with rage, fear and frustration that, for the first time in my life, I began to understand what it must be like to be a woman," he was. Crikey. He's nailed it. That's me to a T: just filled with rage, fear and frustration.

Coming up in December, professional empathy has its own art history talkfest: art historians and other academics will congregate at the University of Exeter to discuss the iconology and iconography of one of the most stereotyped groups of modern society, whose members have been "depicted as dangerous criminals, lazy loafers, prey for political demagogues, completely apathetic, happy scroungers or demoralized and desperate individuals" - the unemployed. (Next year I understand they're doing stay-at-home mothers.)

Over at eyeCONTACT, John Hurrell visits te tuhi and weighs up the evidence of Polish video artist Artur ┼╗mijewski's work as to whether or not the artist is a complete asshole (although John spells it the English way). John poses some questions about the artist's seeming complete lack of empathy with his subjects:
What sort of guy would badger a frail 91 year old Auschwitz survivor into having a Nazi identification number that's tattooed on his arm ‘renovated’ with new ink – just to make some obscure point about victim mentality and Jewish passivity? What sort of prick would encourage different Polish communities of opposing ideologies to lovingly create symbolic banners promoting their respective viewpoints, then put them in one space and gradually encourage such mutual interference that civilities break down and they start smashing up each other’s handiwork?

He wonders how on earth ┼╗mijewski persuaded his subjects to participate: "He must be incredibly charming, with a steely but subtle mind that knows all about the intricacies of emotional blackmail and the strategies of maintaining power relationships." (Sounds more like an art curator than an artist, IMO.)

I have no problem at all stating this is the kind of art which I really hate (it's that female rage and frustration thing surfacing again). Manipulating or exploiting the vulnerable for one's own gratuitous ends is one of the kinds of behaviour I most dislike in real life: in the second life of the artworld, it's pathetically unforgiveable. I'm not suggesting that there are no-go areas for art, just areas into which I don't care to follow. (I also really, really hated the idea of Santiago Sierra tattooing a line across the backs of Brazilian junkies in exchange for the drug of their choice, as well as the sex video he made with street people for $20 a head, about which he had the temerity to say: "Nobody said no and for me that was very tough. When I made this piece I would go to bed crying.") Although I wouldn't normally think it at all relevant, I think John's initial question about the character of the artist is, in this instance -- given the relational nature of his work -- an entirely valid one; and one which is probably well answered by John's review.

And finally in today's roundup of empathetic art moments: I note the excoriating critique meted out to the City Gallery's Fiona Hall show by Pundit's new culture critic, Keith Ovenden, the beetle-browed biographer of Dan Davin, in which he considers that Hall "fritters her considerable talents on market-driven conceptual art" and suggests how curator Gregory O'Brien will "surely" feel. Emotionally overwrought? Sure reads that way.


Anonymous said...

Although "rage, fear and frustration" is me summed up as well, I really didn't like the tone of Gompertz's review at all.

Cheryl Bernstein said...

Foul, wasn't it! Though often I am a big fan of autobiography masquerading as art criticism.(Actually I was being sarky about the rage fear and frustration thing. I thought it was rather funny that he picked these as being quintessentially female qualities that suddenly he might empathise with in a blinding moment of revelation after seeng an art show. But then perhaps I am not a very empathetic person...)

Anonymous said...

Yeah got the scarcasm - but those feelings are totally me on some days. As a summary of a stay at home mother (and artist), it made me feel like hitting the guy over the head with one of the paintings he was looking at - although maybe that's the rage speaking :-)

John Hurrell said...

Ovenden is a funny banana.He makes a really dull, craft-obsessed artist like Fiona Hall sound quite exciting with his scintillating accounts of her 'vulgarity'. I normally loathe her work (though I do like her eighties collages) but Ovenden is making me have second thoughts.