My sentiments about this book can really be summed up best by one of the author quotes on the back of the book:
If you want to think about what’s happening to the arts across the world today, you need to read this book. It brings the reader face to face with a lot of new situations. An unavoidable book. After that, you can start arguing like hell with it. (John Berger, back cover)
The Subversive Imagination is a collection of essays by artists of various forms gathered under the auspices of discussing the role of art in society. Considering my interest in sociology and social responsibility and the subtitle of the book (“Artists, Society, and Social Responsibility”), it seemed like an interesting book that would be well worth reading. I suppose in a way it IS worth reading, and certainly has some good ideas and comments in some of the essays… that is, if you can put up with the intellectual arrogance of the essays. I’m sorry, but it really just ends up irritating me when I read page after page (essay after essay) of over-intellectualized ego-stroking. The essays themselves varied in topic and style, but they all carry an underlying theme: to sell art is to sell out, and the only art that is worthwhile is never appreciated by the masses.
Really, my particular stance on this sort of dreck boils down to two basic sentiments. First: art, in particular visual art, is the communication tool of the masses, and as such is made impotent by the intellectuals and academics that try to wring every last iota of value or meaning from it. Artists that choose to target that group simply serve to perpetuate the elitist myth surrounding art. Second: I disagree with the “intellectual movement” in general. By this, I am not talking about the discussion, study, critique, or appreciation of art or any other subject, so much as when the accessibility of that subject is intentionally stratified. In all my reading, I’ve yet to see one of these “academic” “intellectual” books say anything that could not have been said more simply, eloquently, concisely, and accessibly. Further, I’ve known too many “intellectuals” to not believe that at least some of the time, this stratification is done intentionally.
Moving right along to another gripe: Carol Becker, the editor and anthologist behind the book, is the Associate Dean at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This professional attachment has colored her work as editor. She makes a point of stating that there are a variety of opposing stances found within the essays, yet the majority (not all) of the essays not only come to the same conclusions, but get there along the same routes. It just makes the whole book come off as a self-fulfillment, a way of proving her own opinions as valid and important.
Of course, for all my complaints, there is still a lot of merit to what is said in the book, regardless of whether you agree with it (or, as in my case, their method of delivery). There was an interesting essay by Kathy Acker called Dead Doll Prophecy, discussing her experiences dealing with irate publishers after she released a book comprised of a montage of other works (which in essence is no different than creating photomontage with other people’s photographs). It pointed out the absurdity of the current gallery/publisher philosophy in a not uncommon but still unfortunate scenario. One particular publisher was informed that Acker had used a few snippets of an author they publish, and contacted her publisher to shut down publication of the book, and to demand a public apology from Acker. Neither publisher bothered to check to see how much had actually been used (an amount well within fair use), nor what the author (the actual copyright holder) felt about it. They continued to threaten and harass Kathy for many months, during which she received counsel from several lawyers to just ignore it, including the lawyer of the other author, but finally simply gave up and signed the apology, because she wanted a moment’s peace. I realize and acknowledge the need to protect one’s intellectual property, but so many corporate entities take it too far, knowing full well that they can bully whoever they want, so long as they’re small enough to not be able to bully back.
Another interesting (though heavy handed) essay was written by Elizam Escobar, a Puerto Rican freedom fighter, poet, and artist, who is currently serving an extended sentence for conspiracy to rebel. He is, at times, eloquent, though at other times his choice of words get in the way of his message. Nothing he says is greatly revelatory, in my opinion, but it is interesting to read, regardless. His discussion of the searching process of finding a balance between personal art and art for a cause (whether that cause is money or politics is relatively unimportant) was particularly familiar and relevant. Without the opportunity to do art that satisfies the self, it becomes increasingly difficult to find value in the art done for others. That said, it is hard to justify doing art just for yourself if it means neglecting work that puts food on the table.
Overall, I’m glad I read this book, and I would recommend it to anyone studying art and sociology, but I would not recommend it to the general artist or art appreciator. It’s got a LOT of flaws, but it does have some worthwhile discussion on the topic of art in society. As far as I’m concerned, it has more merit as something to argue against than as a seminal body of thought on the topic.
Becker, Carol. The Subversive Imagination. New York: Routledge, 1994.