“You can’t be Neutral on a moving train”
- Howard Zinn
I am standing in front of an assemblage of found objects, culled from a midwestern city ravaged by capitalism and racism. The pile has been helpfully located here by an artist with support of the local billionaire’s philanthropic foundation, and a private art school in the suburbs. The artist’s statement informs me that the work is about the possible importance of these objects in the past, before they were abandoned, he wants me to consider how the objects were theoretically important to someone once. I’m confused because these are not trinkets from ancient Rome, many of the people who abandoned them are likely still alive, and the reason they were abandoned seems inextricably connected to the billionaire who paid for the show. I move along to a second piece, a display of books about the apocalypse. The artist's statement again offers insight, saying that they find the books interesting because the apocalypse has never come. I turn and look back at the shards of shattered lives that the artists had piled up with the help of the billionaire. It seems that the apocalypse came for those people. Their worlds ended and broke. Perhaps it doesn’t count if the apocalypse didn’t affect the rich people. Perhaps the next apocalypse will. The artist's statement assures me that the meaning is in the uncertainty, the billionaire’s logo bids me farewell as I leave.
Ambiguity is a key tool of the artist. The use of unresolved imagery and open metaphors allows for artwork to incorporate collaboratively constructed meaning, built by both the artist and the viewer. This allows the artists to deepen and expand their craft- developing a broad range of approaches to connect with an audience beyond direct literal representation. However when we look around at the post modern context, something seems to have gone wrong with this tool. What was once uncertain meaning has become in many cases intentionally oblique artworks, at best requiring an advanced degree to appreciate, and at worst offering little more than their own lack of clarity as a thesis. Today, the art world seems to have fetishized ambiguity: celebrating inscrutability for its own sake, regardless of the effect on the piece- and seem almost to value a failure to communicate with a mass audience as the highest form of work. It seems worth at least briefly investigating the effects of this trend, try to understand why it may be playing such a role at this moment in history, and offering a lens to understand and critique not ambiguity as such, but this trend of fetishized inarticulate artistic production.
In the modern art world, so completely dominated by capital: from foundations, to galleries, auction houses, collectors, tax loopholes, and media; excessive ambiguity seems to abdicate the construction of meaning not to the individual viewer, but to these very capitalist institutions. The artist allows capital to construct and guide the meaning of a piece far beyond any mythologized individual interaction between viewer and artwork. Taken from this perspective ambiguity risks creating art that simply allows the meaning of culture to be even more shaped by the rich and stamped with their world view.
I am personally invested in the role of artwork in helping shape and transform the world, how it can support working class emancipatory politics, and inspire communities engaged in this struggle. This is obviously not the only goal of art, however, judging by present discourse in the art world, it appears to be a deeply undervalued one. Empowered by this broad indifference, I hope to offer not a complete conclusion, but to at least reassert a key avenue of critique.
To begin we must generally define what we mean by “Ambiguity.” For the purposes of this critique I identify ambiguity as the quality of uncertain meaning or subject in a piece of artwork, and the endorsement of this uncertainty by the creator. As stated above, at its best ambiguity allows an artwork to elevate beyond pure depiction, or a single viewpoint, and create a space where the perception of the viewer helps create the piece. Sometimes this creates a specific interpretation but just as likely it can make the uncertainty and quest for meaning a living part of the work. All of this is perfectly reasonable and indeed critical as a tool of the artist. A career of artwork that speaks in one voice and offers no space for engagement is less that of an artist and more of an advertiser. The quarrel then is not with ambiguity as such, but the more specific role it plays in the socio-economic context of the modern art world.
It is difficult to define a clear line between the use of ambiguity by any one artist, and the more general trend of fetshized ambiguity. This is in part because the difference occurs not just at the level of the individual creator, but at the structural level- what works are purchased, funded, rewarded, and discussed by the broader art world. The break arises when ambiguity becomes not a tool for engaging an audience member, but to distance them from the artwork, to enforce a division between an elite who “gets” the piece, and the masses who are increasingly deflected from engagement. Rather than creating space for the audience to collaboratively craft meaning, fetishized ambiguity seems intent upon alienating or distancing a significant portion of the audience, in order to make what can often boil down to fairly shallow points about the uncertainty of modern life. Some of this is visionary complex work to be sure, but it seems worth questioning the inherent elitism of this approach, its widespread popularity among the institutions of the art world- and its intention in an art world already so deeply imbued with divisions class and power.
As with all aspects of cultural production, ambiguity functions in a matrix of several variables, and its meaning must be evaluated in this context. Key factors include: the relative visibility of the artist in society, the socio political system of artistic production and validation, and the overall reproductive system of the society at large. Thus, as the visibility of the artist in the society escalates, or the system artistic production is more captured by a specific class interest, or the political moment becomes more tenuous, the issue of ambiguity must be critiqued with more precision. In this context, the tool of ambiguity can overtake the overall mission of artwork- becoming fetishized into an end in it’s own right in order to serve specific class interests. This tendency is similarly conditioned by the very same social/political factors such as methods of display, popularization, materials costs, scale etc. that condition production as a whole. The question is not one why artists are creating ambiguous work, nor why their work is increasingly fetishizing ambiguity, this but why this tendency is being rewarded by the capitalists in control of the artistic sphere.
In our present moment then, we must engage with how the art world functions and the role that fetishized ambiguity might play in this system. The art world in capitalist society is controlled not by the public, artists, critics, or even curators- but by capital. This is a point made by many fabulous scholars, though I am most influenced by Mike Davis essays, and Chin Tao Wu’s book “Privatizing Culture.” Through this scholarship, we can understand the art world less as a site of artistic production than of capital accumulation, appreciation, and tax avoidance. As a site of capitalist production, it has faced the same escalating investment as any industry, with capital propping up key galleries, expensive artistic experiences or traveling shows, and private foundations as key value and taste making institutions. A huge amount of artistic labor is done on speculation, never rewarded by collectors/foundations uninterested in its output, or by communities too under resourced to support it.
Under capitalism the “art market” is concerned with the production of commodities that meet the needs of it’s consumers — who, be it through the foundation, gallery, or direct patronage, are the rich. Art becomes less about expression and more about developing either speculative value on the art itself OR a variety of side benefits be it to increase the value of a real estate holding, improving the patrons’ image, or helping avoid taxes. There remains a portion of this that is artistic production, attempting to explore human experience, emotions, history etc. but this role is increasingly eclipsed by the role of accumulation and commodification that has developed to serve the broad goals and needs of the rich. While the rich may also patronize specific works of a radical, or particular voice, these exceptions prove the broader structural rule of the modern art world- creating imagery in the service of capital. It is in this context that the fetishization of ambiguity must be evaluated for it’s purpose and role in the art world- which is to say in the goals of the rich.
So why does artwork that fetishizes ambiguity serve the goals of the rich? In the context of capitalist production, art is valued as a site of surplus value production, cultural capital, and to obscure value from the state. None of these goals is invested in the content of the work- and in fact many of them may be harmed by work with a specific viewpoint that makes it unappealing to other wealthy buyers, particularly when coming from new artistic voices without pedigree that can be banked upon. A Jackson Pollock painting thus is more easily sold and resold by various investors (the word collector here seems to give them too much credit) than is a piece with a more clear, enunciated, or challenging content. Particularly once key taste making foundations and funders have funded and popularized his work. Thus ambiguity serves to increase the transferability of an artwork- no just allowing the rich to control it’s messaging, but to complete the transformation of artwork into a transferable token of wealth- a goal potentially undermined by political stance and clarity of purpose of the artists.
This fetishization of ambiguity is even more particularly interested, not just in the ambiguity of message- but in an ambiguity of solutions. Political artwork has long proved perfectly capable of being incorporated as yet another commodity to be incorporated into the value circuits outlined above. While it may suffer some limitations as a commodity that more formalistic or abstract work does not (narrower market, negative reception etc.) it can still be metabolized to this system and its goals. Where the line of demarcation is more starkly apparent however, is on the ambiguity of solutions about the political problems we face. The reason for this is not overly complex- living as we do within a capitalist society characterized by the exploitation and oppression of the vast majority in order to benefit the wealthy- many solutions that fundamentally address the problems we face are tied up with doing away with this system, and by extension the rich as a class. Artwork that clearly asserts this fact and communicates with a working class audience not only doesn’t serve the goals of the rich, but actively inverts the distancing of modern art, alienating the primary force creating and shaping the art world: wealth, and reaching out instead to a mass audience. Criticism is acceptable, collectible, and profitable, so long as the artist does not begin to reach for solutions, and/or so long as those solutions remain unconnected from the working class.
When a piece of artwork is created, it is not released into an abstract individualized world, but rather into a web of social relationships constructed by capital and history. To release an ambiguous piece, in a context where the audience, spaces, language, and reward structures are all inextricably linked to and shaped by capital, is to risk handing over the task of interpretation to the rich. What institutions frame the work, what “public” views it, and what interpretations are crafted and elevated all become conditioned by a specific capitalist class, race, and gender analysis. In this context, is a gallery that relies upon the Gilbert foundations likely to show work that points out the exploitative/feudal relationship he has built with the city and its people; and If it does, will the gallery prioritize this critical interpretation if given the space to avoid doing so by the ambiguity of the piece and the artist’s stance?
The point is not that ambiguity is a bad tool- it is that constructing an art world around the fetishization of ambiguity does not put the artists into dialogue with an independent audience, but rather into a dialogue with a disproportionately rich, white audience in an art world shaped by the rich. Ambiguity then becomes a tool for the rich to shape meaning in such a way as to continue their primary goals of profit expansion, and shaping our understanding of reality so as to limit the alternatives to the status quo. What’s more, we should perhaps be more sketical of an ambiguity that repeatedly asks questions with researchable answers, or invite us to once more contemplate the complexity of life.
So if the problem is not with ambiguity as such, but with the broader structures of wealth, where does that leave us? I would hesitate to fully prescribe a solution to such a vast and structural issue- however the very scale of the forces involved does suggest a first step: enter into a community practice. Socially conscious art can not be made in isolation, and an individuals distanced observations will all too frequently retain a voyeuristic shallow quality. Join a party, an organization, a reading group, a union, your block club- the point is to enter into the life of the masses, not attempt to interpret your community in isolation.
Beyond this, it would be foolish to try and prescribe some sort of universal formula for how to approach ambiguity as an artist. It seems better to hold a few questions in tension as we produce work- a lens to critique how and why we are choosing to use ambiguity in our work. Why are you choosing to use ambiguity in your work? Are you uncertain about the question you are asking? Have you done enough research to make a meaningful statement? Does your work stop at asking “what is happening?” Or does it invite the viewer into a process of imagining and building the future? Who will see this work, and in what context? What readings of the work will be most empowered by that audience and venue?
Finally, there is the issue of the artist who stands behind the work. While it is no substitute for creating work that is able to communicate, artists must use as much of their platform as possible to explicitly combat a softening or limiting of their work by the art world. This does not mean self martyrdom by refusing to ever make money, or ever have your work engaged with by the art world, but it does mean being explicit about your values when in these spaces- and not deriving our value as artists from these spaces. Again this approach becomes meaningful and possible only as the artist roots themselves in their community and the actual work of understanding the world. The struggle to produce impactful work does not end when the artist sends their work out into the world- it continues as long as capital dominates the institutions and structures that interpret culture.
Despite all of this ambiguity remains a critical tool. The future is full of uncertainty, and art has a huge role to play in helping us as we struggle toward a future that we do not yet know. Ambiguity, framed as a collaboration with a working class audience to develop new meanings for our work and our world- this is a key place for this type of artistic ambiguity and exploration in our world. What we must abandon, or at least interrogate far more critically, is the ambiguity of analysis, of alternatives, of struggle. Neither artists nor the working class more generally needs yet another discussion of “what does it mean to pay rent and live in a world of ruthless exploitation, imperialism, and ecological collapse,” rather we need artwork that is helping us all engage with what me must do about these facts: a decisive shift from endlessly reflecting “what is happening” and toward the new horizons of “what is to be done?”
Ian Matchett is an organizer and artist working in Detroit. His art can be found on his website.
Republished from Hampton Institute.