All posts by Mike Bowers

Welcome to the Community

Great artists were once thought to be a part of a movement filled with dynamism and excitement, at the forefront of human creativity and global change. Today artists reside in communities – static, insular, and cut off from the world around them. These communities offer a glimpse into an ahistorical, often narcissistic, paranoid vision, that is all too real for its participants.

The whole community-artist mindset starts with an outlandishly ahistorical critique of modern economics. All buying and selling becomes inauthentic and devoid of emotion, coldhearted in fact. In the community, authenticity and passion are the sine qua non. The community does not permit those who feign emotion to enter. Walls are erected. An embargo on villainous trade is hastily pronounced.

With an eye towards some mythic past, one community artist writes, “Bartering was an economic system that filled material needs by exchange of goods, but also fostered human relationships and interdependence.” Bartering, so it turns out, is diametrically opposed to modern society, “because of its emphasis on competition, our American brand of capitalism obscures that which people really need, other people. Community.” Here, in a practice much like secret santa and company potlucks, typical in white collar America, the community artist proclaims that the true self can be revealed through sharing. These ethical platitudes, no different in corporate culture, have a powerful grip expressed by the ease in which anthropological spoofs can be mass produced in contemporary society.

Jules Adolphe Breton


Yet, latent within this character type is a profound insecurity about the ephemeral quality of human interaction, the waning of friendship, and long-term love relationships. The philosophy mirrors Facebook; a world in which all friendships become acquaintances and no acquaintances can be given up.

Without being self-aware, community art spaces boiled down to the essence the commonly held complaint that openings at commercial galleries are only spaces for hobnobbing. In the community art space hobnobbing becomes an elaborate mirror of itself. Indeed it becomes the art. To give hobnobbing authenticity the community artist often justifies the practice with a folksy, romantic, view of impoverished localities in far away lands. Others’ abject plight becomes a battering ram for exposing the artists’ narcissistic feelings, anxiety over insignificance, and obscurity, within a de-centered and vast art world, whose extravagance the community artist loathes.

Though it is often presented as commonsensical that artists are by nature leftists, a more apt term might be “progressive.” Progressivism was defined by an obsessive concern over fantastic enjoyments, a sense that the world was moving towards an immense apocalypse, a compulsive fixation on the greed of bankers, and an attachment to native simplicity. Harking back to classic populist themes the community artist, sometimes called an activist-artist, imbues introspective cliches and self loathing into this old american tradition.

As one community artist expresses, “I feel like my demographic/neighbors/friends/generation have failed me and remain content to gamely tap on their iPhones while massive pillaging and injustice continue to be perpetrated on a global scale.” And, the community artists acute sense of injustice leads to a telling speculation, “Weren’t there supposed to be more bankers committing suicide?” With this most peculiar nostalgia for economic meltdown, the crux of matter is then revealed, “Now I’m the one who is depressed; I’m tired of waiting, what should I do?” Alas, without the prestige of being a banker, an important man of finance with a sense of self-mastery, everyday helplessness lacks drama and a place in history books. Typical of this character, a great deal of anxiety is placed on the insignificance of the self in history, paired with psychological parody, and an introspective self-mockery.

Behind the gift economy and food democracy, lurks a powerful contempt for ones peers. With a classic sense of wounded narcissism, one artist divulges, “there are people who ARE PAID relatively well to do similar kinds of labor but they do it with a bad attitude, poor follow-through with lame ideas, and treating people as sucky as possible all along the way.” And what is most troubling to the author is that this repugnance continues even though he or she has a “genuine commitment to producing interesting, provocative and challenging culture.”

The Death of Maryanne Amacher

Until recently one could take a unique solace, that alone on a hill in upstate New York a mad thinker was hard at work manufacturing sounds never heard before, and wild futuristic theories previously unthunk. One didn’t need to know what exactly the sonic research was, how the madness manifested specifically, or the current state of the musical art; all one needed to know was that the visceral imagination would go on plodding sans distraction, and that some sort of abstract formulation of auditory utopia was in the making. Maryanne Amacher’s eccentric, modernist sound art slipped under the radar of a music society moving in a much different trajectory. Up on the hill, the forging of a new ideology towards music took shape literally within the music itself.

Symbolically speaking, the recent death of Maryanne Amacher is the rapid decline of an era of avant-garde futurism in music. As one of the early pioneers of modern electronic music, Maryanne Amacher represented a certain school of thought arising out of post-war America, which was blatantly fascinated with technological advances as a method out of historical compositional problems. This type of mid-century avant-garde music had numerous expressions, most prominently music concrete, which spread from France to Japan and as far as ‘Persia’, to minimalism. Composers previously trained on acoustic instruments rapidly eschewed their backgrounds on the basis of its orthodoxy, and identified early computers, modular synthesis, impulse generators, tape, and other state of the art technologies as the blatant inversion of stagnation in musical imagination. Karlheinz Stockausen was arguably the first to explicitly identify electronics as an answer to a problem in music history, and the first to create an ideology rooted in an electronic music that could potentially answer these problems. For Stockhausen electronics were the first clean slate for music, as sounds could be ‘built’ and constructed from nothing other than the composer’s pure imagination, and with such blank slate the previous world would disintegrate. Electronic material always manifests out of ideas not-so-freely floating around technological innovation and clever constructions within technique. Stockhausen’s was an ideological paradigm and a utopic program – one which Amacher studied.

Much of Stockhausen’s experiments were idiosyncratic of his vision – he more or less invented the impulse generator as a way to manipulate tone from the most basic of constituents – short clicks (fractions of a second) arranged in endless permutations to give the impression of variably continuous tone. But these experiments were always the by-product of a mind visualizing something far greater. Compared to Stockhausen’s vivid imagination of musical potential, the actual manifestations of that music were paltry. It’s no wonder that what lingered from these experiments would bifurcate into wild, purely rhetorical futuristic ideology on the one hand, and the confluence of physical materials like impulse generators, software, and endless streams of effects units, on the other. The difference between such an imagination and the material manifestations was too great to breach. Music today as a whole unquestionably gravitates towards the pure material side of this split, and perhaps the mobilization of a contemporary avant-garde music (or lack thereof) suffers from the degradation of an idealism bound up in its material.

Maryanne Amacher’s life work can be understood as an imperfect synthesis of these two unbreachable sides. Compositionally speaking, Amacher clearly identified with Stockhausen’s, Cage’s, and LaMonte Young’s observation that the history of western music was obsessively dominated by the theme of Time. Though all dealt with the issue in their own way, Amacher clearly intended to use technological advances as a way out of time-based music. LaMonte Young likewise used technological innovations to build a more complete experience of time through the listening body. But whereas LaMonte Young’s music was vehicular for a countercultural spiritual mysticism, Amacher’s project lay in the fundamental experience of body and sonority itself. She simply could not develop a cohesive metaphysic, no matter how hard she tried. Her naively obscure writing provoked images of a society running on nothing other than auditory impressions. Simply put, she believed in a sound art for the everyday. Maryanne Amacher’s sound art was a potent modernist expression, where nothing but material sensation is recorded, if only to show the illusion and process of that same sensation.

Negative Relations; A Compromised Art For The People

The pressure of reified bourgeois culture incites flight into the phantasm of nature, which then proves to be the herald of absolute oppression. The aesthetic nerves quiver to return to the stone age.
– Theodore Adorno

One catalyst for this essay is a recent lecture by Claire Pentecost, hosted by INCUBATE (Institute for Community Understanding Between Art and The Everyday ), an isolated lecture within their larger impetus to foster discourse in the local community about the feverish increase in public art projects. Over the past century, there has been a recurring drift from object-centric art practices which recedes into a collective fog of immaterial. Pure ‘material’, or formal art, such as painting, was targeted as vehicular for the homogenizing, false industry of culture. As a linear result artists blatantly transitioned into more performative, discursive, open-ended, and relational praxis. Relational aesthetics was a reimagining and furthering of the destabilized art practices of the 1960’s, and recent social art accelerates this destabilization. But the stress to redistribute aesthetics and encompass the masses began in early modernism, and is not merely the new anti-historical, anarchic character it sometimes fashions itself to be. T.J. Clark pinpoints what he believes to be the first instance of such dematerialization in Jacques Louis David’s painting, Death of Marat (5). For Clark, the projection of a politics for the people onto painting happened in a completely unnatural way; David’s painting had no inherently visual politics. Rather, there was a new pressure to force larger social issues into something which did not obviously contain them, in this case the French Revolution projected somewhat arbitrarily onto painting, as a means to instrumentalize it. Since 1793 (an arguable date amongst art historians) there has been a ‘contingent’ element to all art, where the visual is no longer self-subsistent, but vehicular for politics, the tether of social life in our era. Since then we have been grappling with a fundamental wrenching apart of wildly immaterial ideology, and its dissenting material counterpart.

A more obvious connection might be made between Clark’s contingency example in impressionism’s politics, and recent social art in the everyday. In his essay We Field-Women, T.J. Clark analyses Camille Pissaro’s impressionist painting depicting two women laborers in a field. Observing how a sympathy for peasant laborers imperfectly invades the painting, Clark proposes that the “peasant life was a screen, then, on which modernism projected its technical and expressive wishes”(6). The romance of the pastoral life thrives in contemporary, locally motivated art like Claire Pentecost’s, who retains a romanticized hope in an everyday laborer of Detroit, for example. Though the words we use for ‘peasant’ are now very different, the attitude remains the same: an idealization and abstraction of an everyday mass erased and retained as an artificial blank slate.

New contingent subtext to these dematerialized practices are notions that artists should not submit to their own commodification, but rather engender dialogue about the social forms residing behind them, hopefully transfiguring the type of insular art driven by the market to a more immanent and true form of exchange. Recent social art practices are not merely influenced by the 1960’s political art-project of dematerialization and discursive politics, but is rather an extension of that itself – the aftermath and the expressive dregs of that destabilization, in all its questionable forms. Social art should be understood as the living proof of proposed ideas from the 1960’s, and not entirely isolated as a movement. It is not surprising then that recent projects re-animate similar themes of ecology and abstracted theoretical dialogue within localized communities (a sharp distinction from early modernists’ program of global revolution) — idealized domains which further obscure the confused, destabilized presence of an acceptably unoriginal avant-garde, content with nostalgic aesthetic politics and homework help.

This overtly micropolitical activism deserves to be questioned instead of celebrated, as it merely alludes to larger systemic issues of capitalism. Social artists often venture into other divisions of labor, walking the fine line between complete liquidation into other labor divisions, and artistic autonomy. (such as Pentecost, who works directly with farmers but identifies as an artist) One gets the impression that these artists are increasingly content quashing the role of the artist, to such an extent that the ‘altruism’ of their art projects seem like pure symptoms of discontent with their historical defined position. Though the part serves the whole, it does not contain every other part of the whole in it. That micropolitical artists construe the divided parts as identical and individually complete is a fallacy. Each division of labor is not identical with the others, and thinking that there is mutual translatability between them is a naivete most refined in social artists, who begrudgingly transmute this Marxist legacy. Something so childish as to go against this dehumanizing mechanism – even if its method is a fundamental misunderstanding of systemics – disrupts and reveals its function moreso than when it runs smoothly. But it is mere disruption, and should not be confused as anything more. The whole sytem of production is complicated and requires specialized parts which are refined to the point of exclusivity, severed from any communication which questions its function. Though we all comprise the same mechanism, we are far from speaking the same language.