IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, Charles Baudelaire said art criticism should be "passionate, partisan, and political." For the poet and critic, these three words were synonymous--"political" meant "partisan" and "partisan" meant "passionate"--and without them there would be no point to modern, secular art. In this sphere, in other words, the safe space of neutrality, "objectivity" and dispassionate judgment has no place. Take a stand and get behind it: So should art do, and so shall this essay, concerning Catherine de Zegher's recent departure from New York's Drawing Center, where she had been director since 1999. Indeed, I am writing from a "partisan" point of view.
Under de Zegher's directorship, the Drawing Center adhered to Baudelaire's ethos. It was a space for art and programming with guts, vision, and imagination, a space to air contrary opinions and ideas, to present alternative structures of thought and feeling, and to embrace the differences that human beings, as cultural creatures, share. It was also a place for committed practice, not idle ivory-tower theory. And it was for these qualities that the Drawing Center was attacked by the reliably jingoistic New York Daily News last June. The center's profile had risen in the wake of its selection for tenancy in the cultural complex at the World Trade Center site; scrutinizing the institution in an editorial, the paper described several politically charged, openly critical works that the Drawing Center had exhibited. After opining that the News had "nothing against ... 'political art' ... per se," the editorial declaimed that such works "belong nowhere near the sobering pit where the twin towers stood" and that such proximity would be "sacrilege." That same day, New York Governor George Pataki announced that any institution at the site would have to offer an "absolute guarantee" that it would never exhibit anything that could be construed as offensive. This was the beginning of the controversy that resulted in the Drawing Center's withdrawal under pressure from the site. It is now planning to move from its original SoHo venue to the site of Manhattan's erstwhile Fulton Fish Market.
When de Zegher's resignation was announced in March, the published party line was that the center's board and its president, George Negroponte, felt that she was more suited to curating than to the kind of fund-raising and glad-handing required of the director of an institution going through an expensive move. But published accounts and commonsense observation alike point to tensions over the Ground Zero fiasco. "The LMDC [Lower Manhattan Development Corporation] knows that we would never be able to accept censorship," said de Zegher very reasonably in July 2005, when the Drawing Center was in the process of negotiating with the corporation, which controls Ground Zero's reconstruction. Presumably it was felt that too many comments like that could have jeopardized city patronage. (Ultimately, the LMDC contributed ten million dollars toward the move to the Fulton Fish Market.) Such matters bring to mind the culture wars and questions of government funding one ordinarily associates with the late '80s and early '90s; perhaps it is high time, then, to revisit the meanings often attributed to the "political" as a term in both art and culture at large.
While there are to date many lamentable chapters to the depressing saga of Ground Zero's reconstruction, it is particularly noteworthy here that the Drawing Center imbroglio ultimately turns on a contested definition of the political and its proper place in the cultural field--and so requires that we ask again, What does it mean to be political in art? The Daily News, contra Baudelaire, implied that art's visibility should be inversely proportional to its political content--that the political is something to be sequestered or neutralized by context. But there are other conceptions of the political that are necessary to consider in this instance, especially at a cultural moment when the term partisan is widely considered a slur and partisan politics is understood as an epithet describing the impolitic impoliteness--the brawl factor--of public discourse. …