Issue #197
Clues By The Thousands September 28, 2012

Richard Casper

Long Read: #artworldproblems: Conscripted On The Body

by Patrick Bobilin

Generalizations around artists often characterize them as leaning toward the socio-political left, against militarization and the abuse of citizens and their civil rights. The examination of concepts ranging from ethical to trivial, with equal rigor, is one of art’s defining and paradoxical characteristics, one which gives contemporary art its profound emotional and intellectual appeal. As work (both in the sense of an artwork and of labor itself) has become more abstract, even conceptual artists require training in understanding what art does, rather than what it shows1. Through this institutionalization and the spreading of class divisions, voices have gone missing from the conversation around the intellectual territory denoted as “the political.” It is no coincidence that the privatization of healthcare and education took place concurrently with the transformation from technical to theoretical instruction in art schools, with both sides claiming the change as emancipatory—offering a freedom that resulted in a dispersal of oppression and eventually a reflexive impotence.2

Artists and academics struggle to uncover “the political” even as the United States is engaged in military combat on multiple fronts; domestically, with counterterrorism efforts limiting freedoms long assumed inalienable, and internationally as the country attempts to justify its role in global economic and ecological crises. One might argue that the political is all around us, when something as mundane as buying a cup of coffee is communicated as having socio-political ramifications and denoting a political and ethical affectation.3 Mark Fisher, has argued that stimulation, cycles of production and consumption, requires a maintenance that transforms stimulants into mere anhedonic distractions where citizens, artists and even politicians find their roles prescribed long in advance.4

What is clear is that contemporary artists hold only a precarious relationship to the political field. While there is a broadly perceived leftism in academic art institutions, it is traceable to little current protest activity from within them.5 The left of contemporary art is in most cases, an inert left, or one that is left in facade alone. Artists, like most citizens, are now profoundly disconnected from on-the-ground military politics and policies, the day-to-day horrors of war and issues pertinent to soldiers and veterans. In an effort to protect their field, artists, curators and theorists have barricaded themselves in a bunker filled with the cultural and financial intelligentsia, only to be relegated to an eternal ping-ponging of rhetorical leftovers from their professors who were instructed by members of a generation more attuned to political protest, or who actually participated in the last few gasps of it in the 1980s.

I write of a very specific post-millenial moment that looks for cues from the protest politics of ACT UP, the Guerrilla Art Action Group, the Guerrilla Girls and even the broad claims of Fluxus artists and modernists, which have faded from view and perhaps relevance. A powerful connection threading together Fluxus artists, modernists and ab-ex painters was their experience of military service. After serving in WWII and the Korean War, many artists and future teaching-artists studied for an MFA, a recently restructured degree no longer for teachers but now for professional artists.6

Momentum for the politics of modern and contemporary art in America began before the first World War, continued through World War II and entered academia through veterans returning to school on the GI Bill. Critical of the military politics they were forced to partake in, veterans entered universities as older students not looking for an extension of youthful abandon, as most of the student population was, but instead were highly inquisitive and serious about the consequences of economics, political theory and cultural practices.

Before the meteoric rise in enrollment following the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, colleges and universities were by and large male-dominated institutions populated by the children of the wealthy financial elite. Prior to the early 1930s, the primary function of the MFA was to train artists in technical instruction7, as a teaching degree, with three-quarters of recipients being women and over 50% of graduates going on to become teachers8. Following debates amongst members of the College Art Association, a shift was made, serving to align studio practice with scientific laboratory work and leading to the MFA’s consideration as a professional degree. These changes to the MFA led to a separation in admissions departments and in professional development, along gender lines, between the consideration of artist-teachers and historians as feminine and studio art as more appropriate for men.9

Universities were offered benefits for enrolling more student-veterans and with the increase in federal funding and tuition collected, most schools gladly accommodated the new students with adequate staff, faculty and facilities, with the increased federal funding10. Student-veterans, who were 90% male11 and whose average age hovered around 25 years old, were comparably older and more professionally driven than the average student population.12 This maturity had the effect of generating discourse between artist-teachers and student-artists and produced the foundation for conceptual art of the mid-20th century, as a natural extension of the exploration of art mediums by artists who privileged inquiry beyond technique.13 Veteran enrollment from 1946-1952 at a handful of California schools comprised between 40 and 69 percent.14 In a broader demographic view, GIs who took advantage of benefits offered by the bill earned an average of $10,000-$15,000 more annually than GIs who did not. This investment by the government in its veterans generated tax revenues 8-10 times greater than the cost of the program.15

GIs entering art programs found themselves in contact not only with a collection of early conceptualists and modernists but other students who were as eagerly laying the foundation of contemporary conceptual art. These student-artists were taught by faculty who had studied under the precursor to the GI Bill, The Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project. The WPA program assisted 5,000 artists, including canonical names like Arshile Gorky, Alice Neel, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, Diego Rivera and Mark Rothko—many of whom taught in some capacity between the 1930s and 1950s.

While European Dadaists were forced into exile after WWII, the training provided by the GI Bill laid the foundation for American anti-modernism and the start of conceptual revolts against the teachers trained through WPA grants. Fluxus was perhaps the last movement that moved vehemently away from the luxury commodity in order to create a discursive platform for performance, free and DIY culture. Fluxus founder Al Hansen, is one of many examples, having studied at Brooklyn College and Pratt following his service as a paratrooper in the US Airforce.

As the current cost of academic programs rises to levels that require the artists formerly known as the middle class to apply for loans, schools struggle to meet the rising costs of maintaining facilities for bloated enrollments. A meritocratic system, where students are admitted under need-blind policies under the belief that the best and most-talented will be the most successful (without accounting for the cultural and actual capital provided by families before, during and following their studies)16 has created an unprecedented debt crisis of 1 Trillion dollars.17

Unfortunately, military service has become synonymous with blissfully ignorant nationalism. This has led a certain thread within academia to embrace the decentered cosmopolitanism of biennial curating, to remove the filth of patriotism unfairly marring the depiction of Americans throughout many of the democratic states of Western Europe. Unfortunately, what this cosmopolitanism denies is the fact that it moves concurrently with Neoliberal economics in the “freedom” one has to create luxury goods for a ruling elite whose socio-economic status keeps their politics typically to the center right.

There is no place amongst the cultural elite for the poor, let alone the poor and young who were convinced (by low self-esteem, low grades and the experiential reality of poverty) that they needed to participate in military service in order to attend college. Returning veterans are greeted by the young left with the same disdain exhibited by protestors of the Vietnam war. Uninvited and often alienated18, they often either hide in the back of classrooms, quietly performing better than their civilian counterparts19 or actively engaging an unfortunately ignorant student body in a discussion of military politics. While it is commonly said that the personal is political, when someone’s personal reflects global conflict, it can seem impossibly abstract and monolithic. How does one explain the horrors of war to someone walking around with shrapnel in their leg? One would think of social practice as a field ripe for the mediation of soldiers coping with the readjustment to the quietude of civilian life. Perhaps it is the reality offered by veterans in the classrooms where contemporary art is discussed that can offset the cloud of “left melancholy” pervading discourse at seemingly every art institution.

An inert political institution is corrosive—a homogenous and inert politic is dangerous. It can lead to an ignorance that slowly drives college campuses, the very same institutions responsible for spearheading and revolutionizing past anti-war and social justice movements, to the margins of insignificance, ignorance and irrelevance. A reinvigorated and politically heterogenous student population (whether through their experience, socio-economic background or political persuasion) can generate a discourse around contemporary art and politics that no longer abandons academia in favor of rote political action.

Among other possibilities, the participation of veterans in contemporary art could bring together the kind of mixed local modernity and specific cosmopolitan experience vital to the political discourse always already orbiting cultural production. The connection to one’s specific place and its socio-political relevance, in a tactile and palpable sense, to the international, combined with the regional art dialect of local art criticism would fortify the diversity of contemporary art, generating local modernisms all in relation to the larger institutional globalization of cosmopolitan biennial curating.20

A collective left unified by disgust, but without the hopeful patriotism necessary for a better life is one without a future. Politically aware artists seek to abandon this sinking ship, choosing not to vote, despite our better judgment, and are either looking toward or living in the cosmopolitanism of contemporary art, parachuting our work into international venues without assessing the dialect in our own home.

A politically homogenous student body, even one built around a socially responsible utopic left, becomes polemically atrophied. It forms a left that cannot generate a mobile, flexible ideological opposition to an ever-changing right, whether intellectually or creatively. It will be doomed to rely on instruction from past forms of protest, action and dissent, which one can easily conjecture as being insufficient or even inappropriate for serving contemporary issues and the cracking of political orientations. As with biological evolution, a heterogeneous mutation of student bodies in art institutions can strengthen the political discourse for several creative generations to come. A concerted effort by admissions committees, students and faculty to court and encourage this generation of nearly 3 million returning veterans to again study the arts will allow our future cultural movements to employ ethics rather than offer hollow representations of purported but inert morals.

Such a renewed administrative and political focus on courting veteran students would do more than increase the diversity and strength of art, music, social justice and law programs, as evidenced by the success of the GI Bill; it would also help to secure the financial future of those programs. By taking advantage of support similar to the post-9/11 Yellow Ribbon amendment to the GI Bill, liberal arts colleges can claim a more visible role in the national political discourse rather than being generalized as part of the disconnected leftist intelligentsia. Additionally, the discourse within contemporary art departments would inevitably change–broadening beyond the myopic melancholy of an incapacitated left.

It could generate the type of institutional criticism sought after in contemporary art, a broad institutional criticism discussing market politics, educational policy and sources of funding. The ouroboros of institutional critique would be saved from eating its own tail, refocusing criticism not against individual artists or artworks, but at the legislative structure surrounding, supporting and disrupting the creation of contemporary art. A more powerful criticism of government and military policies could be lodged from voices now currently missing from the art critical conversation.

Patrick Bobilin is a Chicago-based artist, educator and director of Noble & Superior Projects.



2. Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism. Pg 17. O Books. 2009.

3. Zizek, Slavoj. Catastrophic But Not Serious.

4. Fisher, Capitalist Realism. Pg 21-22 (Anhedonism, “an inability to do anything except pursue pleasure” creates an informed but impotent citizenship, as the same tools and skills that lead to enlightenment also create a void of stimulation that changes from extraneous to necessity)

5. Despite a brief recent flirtation with Occupy/Arts and Labor and the odd spike in discourse propelled recently by issues raised by the work of David Wojnarowicz and Pussy Riot

6. Singerman, Howard. Art Subjects. Pg 19. University of California Press. 1999.

7. Smith, Peter K. The History of American Art Education. Pg 89. Greenwood Press. 1996.

8. Singerman, Art Subjects, 55

9. Singerman, Art Subjects, 58

10. This change occurred while segregation was still a formal and administrative practice in university admissions. As the 15 million WWII veteran population was 10% black, returning black veterans crowded admissions in the few HBCUs available for them to study in. This overcrowding is documented in Hilary Herbold’s Never a Level Playing Field: Blacks and the GI Bill

11. Following service, many woman veterans returned home to fulfill a traditional role as men studied and/or were not made aware of their eligibility for benefits. For an engaging history of the relationship of women to the GI Bill (and its masculizing effect on the modernist narrative) see Peter K. Smith’s The History of American Art Education. Pgs 123-139 and John Warren Oakes’ How The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 Impacted Women Artists’ Career Opportunities. Visual Cuture & Gender. Vol 1. 1996.

12. Singerman, 210

13. Singerman, 129

14. Solnit and Schwartzenberger, Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism. Pg 96. Verso. 2002.

15. Herbold, Hilary. Never a Level Playing Field: Blacks and the GI Bill. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. No 6. Winter, 1994-1995.

16. Malik, Suhail. Lecture: “The Ruling Elite Have Feelings Too” Bard College Center for Curatorial Studies. February 2012.

17. Higher Education: The College-Cost Calamity. The Economist. August 4, 2012.

18. Elliott, Et al. U.S. Military Veterans Transition to College: Combat, PTSD, and Alienation on Campus. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice. Vol 48, Issue 3. 2011.

19. Murphy, Elizabeth. Operation Graduation. Inside Higher Ed. 2011.

20. “Local modernities can be used by humans placed in specific geographic situations to their own ends – and these singularities can then speak and exchange with each other about their own understandings of modernity. Those exchanges are probably agonistic and approach something we could start to imagine as a planetary public sphere that does not seek consensus but non-destructive recognition. So I would suggest that we need to see ourselves as all fundamentally provincial that could be interesting as a resistant mode to current form of globalization.” –Charles Esche, Bard College Center for Curatorial Studies, November 2011.


Add Your Comment:

      Send comments to the editors:

        Email this article to a friend: