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“Annus Horribilis”
Editors’ Roundtable
Column by James Yood


Protesters pulled down a statue of a Confederate soldier in front of the Durham County Courthouse in Durham, N.C., on August 14, 2017. The statue, which had stood since 1924, was protected by a special law

2017: Just a few more weeks and this annus horribilis ("a year of disaster or misfortune") will be done with. The overwhelming source of much of this angst for many (but it should be acknowledged, not all) is the Trump presidency; it has rocked our perceptions of what our nation is, as we witness daily this administration's descent into mindless mediocrity and vile vindictiveness. It has provided us with a disheartening and unrelieved fount of misery. Perhaps it is naïve and escapist to bother, at a moment as fraught with peril, to comment on how the art world fared — or better yet, mis-fared — in 2017. But if we don't, who will? And if this year of national dismay and contentiousness was reflected in our art community, well, then, we have only been paying our dues with everyone else; why should we be immune while Rome burns?

It's still too early to be sure about what effect the Trump presidency will have on the contemporary art scene, they have bigger fish to cremate — I'm both waiting for and dreading the administration's announcement as to who will be the artist or artists representing the U.S. at the 2019 Venice Biennale. I'm hoping that Trump — it's actually a committee of the U.S. State Department that selects the artist or artists for the Biennale, with more or less participation of the White House — cares so little about contemporary art and culture that he'll not participate at all.

Two stories from 2017, though, provide a little aperture into how Trump intersects with art: the first is the mass resignation of the entire 17-member President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in August, which was followed by Trump's decision not to renew the committee, which had existed since 1982. And for some pathetic comic relief, there's the case of the spurious Renoir. Trump owns a copy of Renoir's "Two Sisters" which he displays at his Trump Tower home and occasionally on his jet, telling all that it's an original Renoir. It's not, and though this has been pointed out to him repeatedly (the original is in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago) he continues to maintain otherwise, comfier in delusion than in reality.

An increasingly confrontational and divisive mood, justified or not, also marked both the national and art world discourse around culture in 2017. The embittered tone of much of the conversation generated at the Whitney Biennial in March exemplified this, where the presence of Dana Schutz's painting "Open Casket," representing the mutilated body of Emmett Till, was protested and decried by many. Somewhat connected, the new cottage industry of closely scrutinizing the not-so-covert agendas of public sculpture, particularly those concerning the Civil War period, also produced a contentious 2017 boomlet of national attention. It is not the contexts or the fundamental reasoning behind these actions that primarily interests me — though they do so in another way — it's their timing. Why now, why was there no groundswell of protests about statuary celebrating the Confederacy in 2005 or 1993, why in 2017? Has the current political atmosphere so coarsened our discourse, so insistently argued that everything has to be either destroyed or enshrined with no yielding to any sense of a middle ground, why is that the tenor of our time?

If there's been one area where the art world has participated in 2017 in a more salutary conversation with clear long term ramifications, it is with that of making sexual harassment and misconduct accountable. While miscreants in television, film, politics, sports, journalism and the like have recently been identified and, with key exceptions, subsequently resigned from their positions, similar situations have occurred and are being adjudicated in multiple instances in the art community recently, from Artforum to the Armory Show and beyond. One can expect more such instances in the months ahead.

The strained tenor of our time also invited a kind of male escapist fantasy urge in 2017. This was best exemplified by Damien Hirst's incredibly vulgar "Treasures of the Wreck of the Unbelievable," his multi-million dollar orgy of male adolescent rampage held at two locations in Venice. Like a Star Wars film gone to seed, it was special effects done to the max and then done again and again hundreds of times, filling two large buildings with this Pirates of the Caribbean meets Indiana Jones inventory, spectacle for the sake of spectacle, production values so luridly overblown as finally to disgust. Trump and Brexit and Putin have you down? Not to worry, Hirst will provide yet another few dozen rooms filled with vaguely fictive classical statuary hauled from a putative watery entombment, an exhibition as theme park, as thunderously empty as Trump telling you for the thousandth time about how great he is.

Oh yeah, a painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci also sold in 2017 for $450 million dollars. What, me worry?

Mark Bradford's 2017 American Pavilion at Venice, "Tomorrow is Another Day," served as a not-so subtle and welcome correction to Hirst, an acknowledgement that maybe this will just have to be a difficult time for art, that patience and opposition might be the order of the day, that sometimes there are periods that have to be endured. His treatment of the American Pavilion as a ruin, as an empty shell bereft of pretensions of glory or stature, was sobering, as was the suite of works he placed within it.

I recently read a biography of Vaclav Havel. In 1979, after several instances of arrest by the Czechoslovakian police and some short periods of confinement, he faced a long term in prison for his activist dissent against the government. His comment, "I will give them five years of my life, but not a day more," speaks to this sense that opposition has to be constant, active, and not without consequences. The individual is ultimately in control even in an imbalanced relationship with systems of power. As with Havel, who actually served about four years in prison before going on to serve as the first President of the Czech Republic, sometimes you struggle for, and sometimes you struggle against.


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