Bad Conscience: A Roundtable on Anxious Art

What does anxious art mean? We want to focus less on art’s real, imagined, and hallucinated capabilities to help with anxiety and cope with past traumas, though these capabilities might come up throughout our conversation. What we want to talk about is an anxiety that has affected both art-making and its exhibiting: The anxiety is about art not mattering after all. The anxiety is that it is a mere ornament to the surplus of the super-rich, an elevated form of Park Avenue interior decoration. Or, even worse, the anxiety is that art even contributes to legitimize the very existence of a top and a bottom, a winner and a loser. In the following, we speak about the different ways in which artists and curators have been dealing with this anxiety, the many-headed hydra of coping mechanisms and attempts for compensation that have emerged from this anxiety. We also argue over whether it would make sense to get rid of that anxiety and what non-anxious art might look like.

C: When I read your short write-up on anxious art, my main takeaway was that the concept feels completely alien to my experience as an artist. I read it as more applicable to institutional forms than artistic ones, more a top-down condition than an artistic style (though I hope in this conversation we can describe some of anxious art’s common visual language). The term anxious art feels like it describes the anxiety of larger art institutions to deal with the problem of their broad cultural irrelevance after Trump. In other words, in this moment after crisis, a time of broad political despair without urgency, art gets anxious about the public’s lack of faith in its efficacy — but really it’s just a problem with audience-building. As far as anxious art does register as style, it feels like a framing device that institutions deploy to convince a broad public that art is, actually, (a) useful and (b) ethical. As an artist, I disagree with both of these premises.

B: It’s true, baby art was a much more non-institutional category.

C: You didn’t have to say anything more than “baby art” and I immediately knew exactly what you were referring to. This category feels much more difficult to image as an artistic style. My first thought was that this is actually not about art at all but about marketing, grant writing, and ticket sales.

B: I would push back. Do you remember seeing the Whitney ISP show? There were two ways of making art in that show that were slightly antagonistic but maybe also just two sides of the same coin, of dealing with that very same anxiety. On the one side you got a somewhat nostalgic New Left aesthetics, a celebration of critical austerity and non-commodification, of exhibiting IRS documents and videos about Stuart Hall. On the other side you got uncertainty, the gesture of not participating, of withdrawing in a dramatically cool way.

D: Isn’t the core of all anxiety “Am I bad?” Are we bad?

A: Yeah, I think this is where the thirst for a sense of legitimacy comes from. It’s because people do not have a sense of a canon and then seek out these outside signifiers of legitimacy.

C: I also think there is such immense pressure on young artists today to perform in this very legible way in their 15 minutes because there are so few support systems in place.

B: The Andrea Fraser legitimization of your work.

A: Fraser’s work is her own struggle, with her own feeling of art’s illegitimacy and the illegitimacy of being an artist and being a success. More recently, her art is legitimizing itself by making a very clear, explicit point about a political subject. And the naïvety of the point makes it fall apart. And I think that’s exactly this anxiety that we’re addressing? Legitimizing it is the opposite of being in the state of anxiety and grappling with one’s own anxiety as an integral element.

B: It reminds me of these quotes from Steinberg and Rosenberg who are both saying, “Oh, anxiety is the basic condition of art.” They write this at the peak of American modernism in the early ’60s, when grappling and sustaining anxiety is this thing and existentialism is really en vogue.

D: Yeah, this feels very far away, this anxiety around abstraction has totally evaporated. Now abstraction is the absolute safest possibility.

A: At the height of abstract expressionism, this anxiety was grounded in a sort of confrontational certitude in your own project: I may be anxious but I believe in what I’m doing and everyone fighting against me is actually spurring on my task. And to go back to Fraser, I think her work is on the cusp of this turning point, which I’ve seen in her lectures. She’s done stuff about when institutional critique became an edifice in the midpoint of her career. The problem of when your transgression is immediately negated, your audience collapses. And that’s how you end up with the Josh Klein show claiming the Teletubby SWAT guy is a transgressive act.

D: The Josh Klein show made me think of boredom, and how watching someone being good and virtuous is just boring me, and maybe there is something to be rescued in that boredom?

B: I don’t know if I would simply argue for a return to a “pure aesthetics” and against “political corruption,” that seems itself like a pretty reactionary move. Maybe we can complicate that? I think a recent version of anxious art would be the Lauren Halsey rooftop commission. And because no one involved in this project really cares about art, they have to bring in this extra narrative of feeding back into the community, of reinvesting a certain amount of the fee into the community one comes from, with each artist ultimately building their own NGO philanthropy business. This is basically saying, “I know art is bad because it is based on exploitation and people not paying taxes, but I try my best.” Maybe the saddest thing about anxious art is that it has totally ceded art to this cynicism?

A: This reminds me of when Bernie ran for the first time and these people from my high school were arguing on Facebook whether people who go to art school should get free college tuition. And all the people who defended the idea had to say that, well, people who go to art school don’t necessarily become artists but might do something useful like paint signs.

The thing that is missing is the social infrastructure that simply allows people to paint for ten years in anonymity and get good. There’s such a commercial pressure for creating something new when you’re 22 years old. I don’t want to say mastery is the point, but I think this fostering of a depth of interest in your practice or art in general is simply something that requires time and dedication.

B: I think it’s a very romantic idea that art and money are necessarily antithetical and that art being exposed to money makes bad art. You know that the art that survived, the art that we still look at and that fills the Met, was based on the dirtiest money.

D: But just because that’s how it was made doesn’t mean that it’s right. Also doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Just means that was one set of conditions under which art was produced.

B: Sure, but this is the stuff all our ideas of art-making and quality are based on. And sure, you can go to Aztec art to escape from the evilness of the Western colonial infrastructures of the Renaissance only to find out that the incredible artifacts they made were also based on oppression and empire-building.

C: I think this particular anxiety feels very much of the moment. Maybe it stems from the political despair around the lost horizon for populist power that Biden or Eric Adams represent. Museums are doing what the Dems did, reducing social movements to content. We’re not seeing a rethinking of the social forms in which art communicates.

B: But isn’t Halsey or Rirkrit (whose show is opening this fall at PS1) exactly claiming a rethinking of form, promising to reorganize how people are coming together? Aren’t they exactly proponents of that type of socialist formalism? My problem is that this type of practice always leads you into an ethics of consumption and production. “The world is fucked, but I do what I can. I’m a good producer and consumer. I only buy organic.” And the ultimate horizon of possibility of this socialist formalism is “I am a good person.”

C: Still, I wish more was in place to support smaller, human-scaled contexts for making, showing, and sharing art.

D: Yeah, I am pro good.

B: What does that look like?

A: Think of the Farocki work In Comparison where he just shows people making bricks in different countries. It’s purely material, and yet, it’s also eloquently political without being moralizing.

B: Farocki is interesting because the politics of his practice changes so much throughout his career. If you think of his early film Inextinguishable Fire from 1969, which he made with Helke Sander, you could say that it is the best type of anxious art? I mean the hope and belief that by exposing the infrastructures that bind the viewer to the production of Napalm, the violence in Vietnam. And the idea that because you will understand, you will change your behavior. Basically the belief in art as a tool for political education.

A: Yeah, it’s really effective for documentary filmmaking. I wonder how this would work in painting. Like if you think of Goya’s Execution or Picasso’s Guernica.

D: So anxious is just a substitute for political? I don’t think early Farocki is anxious.

B: Good point, no, I would push back against that. To me, it’s very much a product of postmodernism, late 1970s and 1980s, and the aesthetic war between artists like Barbara Kruger on the one side and David Salle or Julian Schnabel on the other. So today, O’Flaherty’s and their celebration of this very narrow idea of transgression (like when Gelatin was painting with their butts) is our Salle/Schnabel. And the ISP exhibition follows in the footsteps of Kruger, giving us these short lessons in ideology critique and how you should never trust images.

D: What’s with David Wojnarowicz in this context? Do you remember his retrospective at the Whitney? Toward the end of his career, his paintings became really good. Like he has this interest in getting the message across, an impulse to teach and inform, but it wasn’t obsessed with approval. There was something very convincing about the genuineness of the urgency. And these snakes in those paintings ... and just so much anger, rage.

B: In this strange way, these paintings are not moralizing.

D: You mean in contrast to the Jonathan Lyndon Chase show that’s about to open at Artists Space? Like this kind of clear figuration that’s very playful, that’s not a threat to any type of order, it’s really just grounded in celebrating individualism.

B: But some of that is definitely drawing on representational practices that came about during the AIDS crisis. I’m thinking of the whole Mapplethorpe and Goldin legacy that was striving for capturing individual beauty amid horrendous suffering. And this practice usually shows you that people are beautiful and smart and they persevere, even if they are forced into a constant war against their conditions. It’s a romanticizing of agency. And I really think Wojnarowicz is offering an alternative to this type of romanticization of suffering.

D: Yeah, it’s a thinking on the canvas

A: It’s a type of thinking with art that is really different from when someone is doing a reading room in these huge institutional group shows. Who has ever seen someone reading in these reading rooms? No, the reading has to occur somewhere else, you have to devote yourself to it, it’s an actual day-to-day thing.

C: You mean the ISP curatorial show which was a kind of pure reading room? It was insane, like the most oppressive atmosphere for a human body, with 50 videos all at once streaming and 2,000 pages of reading for a one-week-long show in the basement.

D: And the main message in this type of show seems to be: “I did my reading. Have you done yours?” You should get a stipend in these reading rooms. That’s a side note and I don’t mean that literally, but it would be great if conditions could be created in which people actually could read all this if they wanted. But of course that is a societal problem, not the responsibility of the individual reading room.

B: It was really unexpected, but I somehow didn’t have a problem with being confronted with way too much screen time in the Josh Kline show. It was one of the best portraits of the liberal psyche I have encountered in art in a long time, even if it might have been partially unintended. Like, you could really get a good view of the militant New York Times reader. The video when they bury the flag, this Obama-era dream that at one point in the near-distant future Republicans will become obsolete because white people will be a minority. Josh Kline is just incredible because he is such a pure symptom.

A: This is exactly how I saw it, except I was just like, “God, he is such a lib.” But yeah, if you look at it like that it is this perfect document.

D: As a foreigner, I was just walking into this show and felt almost like a voyeur, peeping through the keyhole onto America.

C: And then the part of his early show at 47 Canal with these hands and the cheaply Photoshopped heads of celebrities, like Kurt Cobain and Ariel Pink being superimposed. It just felt like a perfect expression of how New York was then and what being an artist meant back in 2010.

B: I also liked the poems on the tents on the upper floor. Did you read those?

D: I loved those. It was an unexpected thing to realize that he can actually write or that he is down to do something so intimate and analog and finicky in a good way, as in do art in a way I can relate to as “art” instead of as communication.

A: He is a prime example of an artist working so on the cutting edge of the present and reacting so directly to current events that it becomes terribly dated within a year. It speaks to the logic of this need for novelty, doing something new and not seen before, something urgent, which is something that applies to a lot of anxious art.

B: I’m not sure. With Kline’s Flag video, it really beams you into this moment of 2016 when the center was still holding. Obama was president and Trump seemed impossible. Watching the video, it took me on this journey into the past in a way that didn’t make me nostalgic at all. So maybe a thing with non-anxious art is that it doesn’t care about you as a moral being. It is not trying to make you better, not trying to pathologize your art. Like, Josh Kline really leaves me and my moral well-being alone?

D: Think about the virus work or the packaged unemployed people: There is really such a lack of artistic complexity which is compensated for by real sincerity.

B: Honestly, I was impressed by how good he is at translating wall text into objects. Rarely have I seen art that fits so perfectly into its category. I would read the text and then look at the sculptures and think, Wow, it’s really all true, the words say everything that the objects are doing. I think that’s actually a complicated thing to do: In your conception you say A and then in your execution you just do A.

D: It’s shocking.

B: I like that his work is not trying to be smarter than everybody else. You didn’t need to mobilize an army of jargon to understand it. And you didn’t need to be part of the cool-kids clique or of some kind of initiated connoisseur club.

C: I guess the opposite of that would be an artist like Trisha Donnelly, then, who presents her work almost militantly without language. To me, this has always felt like a radically open trust in the viewer’s power to receive the work. Though, on the other hand, I can see how the refusal could backfire and generate a more classed reception, but at least that silence is not moralizing. Still, I want to see that refusal to contextualize as more empowering to an audience than Josh Kline’s didactics — in form, not content.

B: Yeah, except her most recent show at Matthew Marks was quite different, quite didactic actually. Just like these moments of the natural sublime, of a romantic experience, of just doing Barnett Newman all over again. It was so much simpler than her previous exercises in withdrawal. I really loved it.

A: What really excited me about the Donnelly show was that she finally allowed herself this basic yearning for beauty.

B: In some way Donnelly is a good example of how anxious art can become non-anxious art. She finally allowed herself to be a modernist in a way that her previous Noguchi-marble sculptures were doing in a guilty way.

D: So, our examples of non-anxious art are Wojnarowicz, Donnelly, and Kline?