BY Dan Fox in Opinion | 01 JAN 11
Featured in
Issue 136

13 Confusions

Revisiting Amos Vogel's essay about the ‘everyday misconceptions’ of the avant-garde film scene

BY Dan Fox in Opinion | 01 JAN 11

I recently picked up a copy of The New American Cinema, which was edited by Gregory Battcock and originally published in 1967. Featuring 29 essays about what people back then were calling ‘underground’ film, its contributors include the leading lights of US experimental cinema: Stan Brakhage, Gregory Markopoulos, Jonas Mekas, Annette Michelson, Brian O’Doherty, P. Adams Sitney, Susan Sontag, Parker Tyler and Stan VanDerBeek. Many of the works discussed were then a year or two old at most, and the scenes it was trying to make sense of, from East Coast to West Coast, were still young: I imagine it felt like an urgent book at time of publication.

Reading it, I was struck by a 1966 essay titled ‘Thirteen Confusions’. Written by Amos Vogel, who founded New York’s avant-garde ciné-club Cinema 16 and went on to write Film as a Subversive Art (1974), the essay was intended to ‘represent a criticism from within, fully cognizant of the movement’s many achievements’ (although Battcock’s introduction notes that ‘there will be those from “within” who may find Mr Vogel’s criticism comes from outside and to the right’). Vogel pulls few punches. One by one, he tackles what he observed as ‘confusions’: everyday misconceptions about the avant-garde film scene held by both its champions and detractors.1 Although opinionated and polemical, some of these ‘confusions’ are now long-finished turf battles or obsolete theoretical issues. I wondered what it would be like to re-tool Vogel’s list, expanding its remit from the underground film of the ’60s to what could be called the above-ground art world of 2010. This is my attempt. Some entries are new, some are revisions of Vogel’s originals. It is ‘a criticism from within’, packed with tendentious generalizations and untrustworthy opinions.

1     Confusing cost with value The boom years of the mid-2000s had a marked effect on the way that art is portrayed in the press: astronomical auction prices held journalists and editors transfixed; articles on contemporary art in the mainstream press began to look more like stock-market reports than art criticism; media profiles of a powerful collector class grew exponentially. Of course, for writers and journalists to ignore the ways in which economics was transforming the art world would have been to bury our heads in the sand. However, one effect of this has been to plant in the broader public consciousness the idea that the art world is only concerned with money and that the production of art and the discourse around it are just fig-leafs there to cover the vulgarities of business. Russian oligarchs’ conspicuous consumption of works by Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst makes great copy but it does not help arguments for public arts funding in times of fiscal crisis.

2     Confusing publicity with achievement Warhol would have argued that these are one and the same – visibility breeds success, which in turn breeds visibility. The contemporary art world, for all its savviness regarding the mechanics of media, is still, and always will be, a sucker for celebrity and publicity. To quote writer Dieter Roelstraete, this is partly a function of art’s ‘confusion concerning its relationship to a cultural system (one that used to be called “mass culture” or “popular culture”, but those terms have certainly lost their legitimacy) that it clearly desires to be immersed in, or just belong to: a confused desire for its own disappearance into something other, bigger, badder.’2

3     Confusing the typist with the writer Roelstraete goes on to point out that ‘we have long known that anything and everything can be art, but […] conversely, contemporary art can be anything and everything.’3 Artists write novels, design buildings, cook meals or stage plays. On the one hand, this is an exploratory and inclusive approach to the world – a good thing. On the other, the imprimatur of art can be self-serving. Other disciplines – literature or architecture, for instance – are annexed and treated as materials like clay or paint, there to be played with or to dress up in. Deny it as we might, many still cleave to an idea of the artist as genius. As such, there’s a tendency to assume that if an artist writes a book, the fact of that alone is proof of their talent, regardless of whether the book has any merit. (‘X has made a play! How clever! Because she’s an artist, her play must be much more profoundly self-aware than those of people who have been writing plays all their lives!’) The trick is in distinguishing surface from depth.

4     Confusing a moment with a movement In the October 2010 issue of frieze, we published a ‘hot or not’ analysis of current trends in art-making. Compiled from observations the editors had made of recurring topics or styles in art we had noticed on our travels, it was intended as a parody of the kind of lists of who’s in and who’s out found in gossip magazines. We later discovered that a disturbing number of people thought the list was serious, and that we were advocating that artists who make work using ‘piles of “cool” books’ were hotter than artists making work with antlers or W.G. Sebald in them. The fact is, micro-trends exist in art just as they do in music, fashion or design; one year we’re all talking Le Corbusier, the next Roberto Bolaño. Trends result from information being exchanged, from cross-pollination between artists. The greater frequency with which they change is the result of the deregulation of knowledge enabled by the Internet, of greater numbers of artists and curators travelling, and of capital looking for new forms to colonize. Style, as Jonathan Raban once said, is a ‘medium of consent’. The difference is between innovation and fashion.

5     Confusing politics with pictures of politics In 2010, two major biennial exhibitions – Berlin and São Paulo – took art and politics as a core theme. Both shows fell into an all-too familiar register; video and photography depicting political activism, marginalized communities or life in areas such as the Middle East or Central Africa, and archive material relating to activist art groups from the 1960s and ’70s. This form of engagement often serves only to fetishize the dispossessed and oppressed. The idea that such exhibitions have political traction outside art circles is largely the playing out of a fantasy of being a political intellectual active in the world. In trading intellectually or commercially with the rhetoric of boundary breaking, revolution and challenges to the status quo, artists, curators, critics and dealers have all been complicit in stripping the terminology of opposition of its force and repurposing it as PR; the consequence-free language of ‘criticality’ found on museum walls and in gallery press releases. Exhibiting a video in a museum of a demonstration is not the same as participating in a demonstration, and standing at an opening with a free beer in your hand, looking at photos of refugees, is not the same as joining Médicins Sans Frontières and going to Haiti. Who are such shows for? As Jeremy Deller once remarked, ‘the art world is a great place to meet retired arms dealers.’

6     Confusing having your cake with eating it Perhaps one reason why we might see someone flirting with political criticality but never constructively pursuing it, or proclaiming their distaste for the art market whilst selling work to collectors, is because human beings are remarkably good at holding two opposing ideas in their heads and acting on both of them. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously thought this was a good thing: ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’

7     Confusing the footnote with the essay Sociologists use the term ‘prostheses’ to describe how people use the symbolic value of the clothes they wear or items they own in order to demonstrate their cultural competence or literacy. In contemporary art, we can identify this in the referential turn – ‘X work references Robert Smithson, Martin Heidegger’s theory of dasein and the music of Donna Summer in order to …’ etc. As a strategy that has permeated the way much work is made and is signposted for interpretation, it has now entered its mannerist phase. Critical value gets transferred from the formal or conceptual functions of objects and images to the collection and arrangement of impeccably chosen cultural products, events and historical allusions. In many cases (though not all), the auratic value of a well-appointed suite of references creates a smokescreen of illusory scholarship and can falsely imply an historical lineage between the artist doing the referencing and the thing being referenced. It masks the fact that creatively little is being done such sources in the first place. It’s just pointing at things or, in Vogel’s words, ‘sterile eclecticism as artistic philosophy’.4

8     Confusing literary with visual critics Vogel argued that film criticism was suffering because too many critics were from a literary rather than visual arts background ‘with the visual serving as illustration of an underlying literary thesis’5. Today, it’s tangentially related to the referencing problem; criticism – in part, taking its lead from curating – that privileges artistic intent, back-story or the assessment of referential sources over describing what the thing itself did or looked or sounded like. If we don’t need to know what an exhibition actually looked like, do we need exhibitions at all? Don’t let the press release become the show.

9     Confusing tourism with international relations Your jet-set itinerary of art destinations starts in Sydney, then Berlin, followed by São Paulo and finally Yokohama. You see the same artists’ work in four different exhibitions on four different continents. What does that mean?

10     Confusing buildings with culture Over the past decade, the architecture of museums and galleries has become as talked about as the art it houses. The iconic starchitect-designed museum has become the must-have edifice for any aspirational city, following the lessons of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. Yet, as critic Owen Hatherley notes, the success of Bilbao ‘in bringing well-heeled tourism to the Basque port has become a boosterist cliché’, whereby a dowdy city is transformed into ‘a cultural capital, replacing unionized factory work or unemployment with insecure service-industry jobs’ in the name of ‘regeneration’.6 Will the number of vast halls for contemporary art ever outstrip the supply of work? Or is there an inexhaustible stock of Richard Serras and Antony Gormleys with which to fill the space? No matter how much money cities and developers throw at them, gallery expansions cannot alone create or sustain an artistic community at its most important, grass-roots level. Affordable housing, art schools, cheaply available studio space; these are the kinds of things that nurture.

11     Confusing expertise with shop talk To what extent does insularity shape exhibitions and their audiences? Is there a difference between ‘specialist’ languages (be they the formal visual languages of art, for instance, or the languages of interpretation – wall signage, catalogue essays, reviews etc.) and ‘insular’ languages? Much art requires specialist knowledge in order to engage with it. This might be knowledge of historical precedents, or how to spot the signposts in a work that allow you to read it, but such sophistication doesn’t necessarily equate with elitism or exclusivity. Some things in the world are just difficult to understand, others we can get in an instant. But do the pressures of professionalization in the art world indirectly breed insularity and an anxiety on the part of artists, curators and critics to ‘demonstrate’ expertise and literacy in exhibition making to their peers, or do they encourage a greater awareness of broader audiences? 

12     Confusing the art world with the world7 Art professionals should remind themselves from time-to-time that contemporary art does not play a significant part in most people’s lives.

13     Confusing telephones with conversations The ‘art world’ is many things to many people: it’s a big business or a scholarly discipline, it’s a safe place, an excuse to be with like-minds, a way of helping others or being on your own. Some of us want games, apps and email on our phones; others of us just need it for calling home. Art is a medium through which we can talk to each other and engage with the world. Its problems – confusions such as these, and the myriad of others you may or may not have – can be useful, since they might indicate where I stop and you begin.

1 Vogel’s original list was: Confusing Times Square with Manhattan; Confusing a Producers’ Co-operative with a School; Confusing Historical Continuity with Immaculate Conception; Confusing Freedom with Formlessness; Confusing Content with Quality; Confusing Non-Selectivity with Art; Confusing Good with Bad; Confusing Propagandists with Critics; Confusing Publicity with Achievement; Confusing One Swallow with a Summer; Confusing One Generation with Another; Confusing Literary with Visual Critics; Confusing Popes with Free Men
2 Dieter Roelstraete, ‘What is Not Contemporary Art?: The View from Jena’, published in What is Contemporary Art?, e-flux journal/Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2010, p.192
3 Ibid, p.193
4 Amos Vogel, ‘Thirteen Confusions’, 1966, published in The New American Cinema, ed. Gregory Battcock, E.P. Dutton & Co, New York, 1967, p.137
5 Ibid. p.137
6 Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, Verso, London, 2010, p.xxii
7 Paraphrased from the title of Nina Power’s 2008 essay ‘The Art World is Not the World’, published in Gest: Laboratory of Synthesis #1, ed. Robert Garnett and Andrew Hunt, Book Works, London, 2008, pp.106–7

Dan Fox is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016) and Limbo (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018). He co-directed the film Other, Like Me (2021).