Private vice, public benefit. That’s been the motto of privileged misanthropes for centuries—from Bernard Mandeville, the 17th-century coiner of the “invisible hand” of the market, to our own Medicare-slasher John Boehner. While the powerful have long argued for self-interest as a social good, the less strong have regularly suffered the effects of that maxim—with art often rendering misery’s portrait.
Yet artists have also historically been attuned to the opportunities that global depressions, recessions, and other disasters provide them to hatch alternate visions of the world. To take a page from the acid Sarah Silverman—”When God gives you AIDS, make lemonAIDS”—creative types have often proven adept at squeezing invention out of necessity.
Until now. Consider the last half-century in artistic strategies: The roiling 1960s begat anxious Pop and protest-minded Conceptualism; the recessionary 1970s ushered in appropriation and identity politics; Ronald Reagan’s NEA-bashing 1980s spawned the angry, harassed photos and performances that sparked the “culture wars.”
Then, though, came the age of Clinton/Bush: As money easily thumped civics, art once again squired the rush—but this time in Jimmy Choos. By the time Lehmann Brothers tanked in 2008, the art world—that cliquish gang of artists, dealers, curators, collectors, critics (guilty as charged), and hangers-on—had lost both politics and the plot. Seriously out of step with the real-life effects of a recession detonated by Wall Street, the visual arts today remain the one stubborn area of culture where wealth is still obnoxiously, breezily mistaken for virtue.
Tellingly, current visits to galleries in New York—both the established and the not-so-much—don’t provide many artistic alternatives to what British critic Martin Herbert pegged as today’s “gilded toxicity, the petty snobberies, the encouragement of stylistic conservatism.” So where to look, then, for art that is critical of privilege, power, and the artistic status quo? One place, bizarrely enough, is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s contemporary photography collection. Carefully picked through and marshaled into one of the smarter group shows in recent memory, its latest display trumps the complacency of New York’s let-them-eat-cake scene by taking, in the words of show’s curator, “the long view of the world’s current condition” with prescient works that date from the 1970s to the present.
An exhibition that takes as its scope what it terms the “tumult at home and abroad,” as well as the nation’s “sense that the promise of our founding ideals and the positive international sway we once exerted are in eclipse,” “After the Gold Rush: Contemporary Photographs From the Collection” makes serious claims about art’s ability to engage, reflect, and even shape—however incrementally and indirectly—a common discourse. Titled after a much-covered Neil Young dirge that laced social protest with a stoner’s vision, the show invokes the uncompromising nature of this patron saint of rockers—the Canadian iconoclast has already been referenced by artists like Sam Durant, Jeremy Deller, Melanie Schiff, and Tim Lee—while speaking to recent economic upheavals. The result is a smart group of 25 images by 15 artists that punches way above its weight.
Cannily organized and arrayed by associate curator Douglas Eklund, “After the Gold Rush” explores a host of artistic tactics adopted by shutterbugs in recent decades, at times choosing studied informality over more straightforward (read: canonical) presentations. Starting with Moyra Davey’s Copperhead Grid (2009), an array of pictures of scratched and worn pennies that conflate Abe Lincoln’s august profile with the abrasive duress of anonymous exchange, Eklund allows the delicacy of certain works to subtly dictate the terms of the exhibition. Set simply against the wall behind Plexiglas instead of inside heavy frames, Davey’s prints float easily where they might otherwise plonk like ingots.
A second modest-size work that packs a wallop is Hans Haacke’s Thank You, Paine Webber (1979). A photo-diptych that appropriates images and text from the advertising campaign of that once-legendary American investment firm, the piece chastisingly plays two sets of corporate images off each other: a Depression-era picture of an out-of-work laborer against a shot of jolly plutocrats smiling their way into a lifetime of clubhouse martinis. The fact that the juxtaposed images are both cribbed from the company’s own annual report brings a retributive Spanish adage to mind: Fish, even the big ones, are always snagged by the mouth.
Other works, like Jeff Wall’s lightbox The Storyteller (1986) and Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s staged documentary pictures, point toward important recombinations of realism and artifice. Like nonfiction that augments fact with poetic license (think Joan Didion, not Jayson Blair), images like these restore to careful observation and portraiture compelling visual and emotional rationales. The show’s diCorcia photographs are especially eloquent in this respect. Images of posing L.A. hustlers whom the artist paid with federal grant money (he disbursed fees of between $20 and $50 to his sitters as controversy raged over Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs), these dramatically lit shots speak volumes about dashed hopes, hard truths, and the welter of contrivances employed to both celebrate and bury abjection.
Artificially enhanced reality also figures in James Casebere’s Landscape With Houses (Dutchess County, NY) #1 (2009). An epic view of a suburban subdivision, this large-scale photograph of a tabletop Celebration USA admixes Frederic Edwin Church sublimity with Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” bilge—fakery has rarely looked so authentically eerie. “After the Gold Rush” also includes highly political combinations of word and image (by veteran polemicist Adrian Piper); an on-the-fly assemblage of snaps casually pinned to the museum’s wall (courtesy of German darter Wolfgang Tillmans); a tourist photo of the Golan Heights scarified into a fiery Rorschach test (Chicago-based photographer Curtis Mann); and a telephoto image of a U.S. reconnaissance satellite streaking past Yosemite’s Half Dome, a rock formation first captured by pioneering photographer Carleton Watkins in the 1860s (for amateur historians, that was before either the West or the Cold War was won).
These and other pictures in this excellent exhibition—which could have also used point-blank documentarians like Nina Berman and Chris Verene—prove that art can indeed comment directly on life (rather than, say, on other art) and vice versa. Visual missives from not so long ago when artists routinely took on politics, they remind us that photography, along with painting and all manner of other media, can harness complex, volatile, contentious ideas and feelings. Few times call out for a reprise as much as our own.