In the wake of underwhelming critical response to Creative Time’s fourth summit on artistic activism, Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lambert released an open letter to critics writing about political art on their Center for Artistic Activism website. While I begrudge them neither the use of art to maximize the effect of their social activism or their appeal to political consciousness to aid them in finding an audience for their art, I think they oversimplify the intersection of art and activism, how art is seen, and how it is understood. The “art world” is too varied to define so broadly[i]; the interests at play from the various sites are too different. This variety extends to the interactions between criticism, activism, artists, and the body politic. The danger with rendering such simplistic generalizations is that if they ultimately undermine art as a tool to affect the change they seek.[ii]
Creative Time sees the artist as telling truth to power, and there is a long, laudable tradition of such statement within the arts, but such actions do not require inclusion within the bounds of artistic practice. After all many, many artists have participated in political actions[iii] or made work that engage with and challenge social issues[iv], and critics have not found any of this work impossible to address. One may certainly ask if they approached the issues with the same interest and understanding that originated with their aesthetic concern, and that in turn may make it more difficult to assess if the ideas raised have merit.[v] But that then begs the question as to why seek the attention of art critics, instead of more general media coverage that would go farther in promoting their agenda? If their goal (or the goal of any artist – activist) is to effect change, and the form of the work must be promiscuous in order to facilitate that goal, why is it necessary to be art? In laying out their premise it seems that despite Duncombe and Lambert’s claims to the contrary, efficacy becomes a central issue. How do the causes supported by activism benefit from the intervention of an artistic practice? If the “art” is not adding something to the message, it both demeans the art and artist[vi] and obfuscates and lessens the political point.[vii]
A fundamental issue is that if artists are going to entertain the notion that art can address any sort of discourse with the broader world, then the critics who write and think about art must be accorded a separate expression. Work by journalists, poets, philosophers, ethnographers, and even artists may be grouped under the rubric of ‘criticism.’ The term can be taken as any thinking about art and the understanding of its structure, but my reading of Duncombe and Lambert and their desire to make the critic (at least partly) responsible to the work’s social efficacy[viii] reduces such thinkers to mere cheerleaders. It would be a separate matter if they were calling for better or more thoughtful criticism.[ix] I think they would have a hard time finding anyone ready to defend the broad state of current art writing and its interaction with the market as the pinnacle of critical thought, but that does not excuse a call to press criticism into blind service to the goals of the artwork.[x]
The critic is only necessary if the work in question is to be treated as art, rather than activism; the latter finds its apotheosis by its ratification or rejection within the political system, but the former is a set of ideas and relations forever in flux. Whether working for short or long term social gain, activism has a specific and visible political end. On the other hand the point of art is a continual engagement and dialog about the work and the structures around it. Criticism is necessary to further a substantial dialog, but is much less useful within the political organization necessary for successful activism. The revision, doubt, constant examination at the heart of artistic discourse is at odds with political action.[xi]
The new critical tradition they call for would take the “art” out of the discussion of the work of “artist – activists” in favor of a pragmatism more amenable to politics. What is lost with the “art” is the disparate individual interest that drives people to become artists[xii], and for critics to interact with them and their work. Just as it is important to allow for art that embraces the political, space must also be defended for work that does not. Ultimately in asking for an “art that intends to change the very way we see, act and make sense of our world” Duncombe and Lambert have articulated the goal of (nearly) every artist, whether they work politically or not. Similarly, what is needed is not new standards, language, and traditions for critics and thinkers, but only a more careful application of the ones they already have; if the discussion is bigger than art, it’s probably not really a discussion about art.
[ii] Starting with their assertion that the audience for most art is critics, and through the discussion on tradition, medium, and mastery, the stereotypes and generalizations run thick without any corresponding real world examples. If critics are the audience, then doesn’t the blame ultimately lie with artists for making that work?
[iv] Think of the work of Goya, the Mexican muralists, Guston, Golloub, Spero, Chicago, Keinholz, Kruger, Holzer, Wojnarowicz, Weems, Hammons, Steinbach, Saul, the Gorilla Girls, the Art Guys, Gonzalez-Torres…
[v] Another implicit argument is that the political goals and beliefs they espouse are the ones to be championed. Especially in an election year, that seems obviously wrong.
[vi] As they are reduced to the attention grabbing schtick of good advertising.
[vii] As the confused viewer is more concerned about figuring out what they just saw, rather than why it was important.
[viii] One cannot state that questions are good, but then qualify as to the purpose, or speak to the need to aid political art without implicitly drafting critics into their own political ranks.
[ix] After all, who ever really wants to defend critics?
[x] It would be just as unthinkable as forbidding comment or criticism on certain work, and ultimately no different than a state dictating the terms of discussion. In calling for “a world in which artists work collectively in an embedded engagement with society.” Duncombe and Lambert are effectively asking art and criticism to support societal engineering on the scale appropriate to Gandhi or Goebbels.
[xi] Which may be why the Occupy movement had trouble gaining traction with a political procedures based on artistic process.
[xii] Instead of teachers, community activists, or social workers. Just because the interests or job titles overlap is not a reason to collapse them all together into a single pile.
My essay on Wendy White’s exhibition Pix Vää at Leo Koenig is up now at Idiom. Click here to read it.
The artist’s studios participating in the Brooklyn Muesum’s GO are now closed. If things go according to plan the voters, energized by their role as curators, will carefully think over what they saw and what they learned in talking to the artists about their work and make considered nominations of who they think should be part of a museum show. How effective using voter participation as a mechanism to get the community into artists’ studios is debatable. The few participating artists I talked to did not see a torrent of visitors. I would guess that the artists who have participated in neighborhood-wide open studio projects saw fewer visitors, likely stemming from the entire borough being in play at the same time; instead of seeing people head out to a single destination, they may have stayed in their own back yard.[i] Artists also mentioned that many of their visitors were not voting (or were somehow unaware that there was voting), they were just there for the art. If GO is really seen as an experiment[ii] then we should look forward to seeing if it is implemented again what tweaks or changes to the system might work, and we can judge what art winds up on the museum wall. But I think the real determination lies not in what comes into the museum for GO, but in pointing to what should be coming out of the Brooklyn museum next.
Right now voting is on, and nominations are piling up, but what is notable is that the process is very opaque. The ten artists with the most nominations are probably not going to be made public[iii], and so they next time we hear much about this it will probably be when the museum starts promoting the exhibition. In the meantime, once nominations are decided on the curators will head out to meet the artists, and essentially have to pick completed work out of studios for the exhibition.[iv] The scope of the exhibition is still undisclosed and probably open to change depending on what they find. These works could be added to a show already being worked on, or stuck into a side corridor as part of the museum’s Raw/ Cooked[v] series. This opacity seems designed to protect the museum from charges that GO is nothing more than a popularity contest, and giving the curators the final word would also keep them from winding up with an Artprize-like fiasco. But the question is then why bother to have voting at all? After considering rules the voting comes off as a more of a publicity stunt; popular vote and elitist selection are mutually exclusive. Votes by the community “curators” are merely suggestions to the real curators and they are not really accountable within this process.[vi] If the community was interested enough in the art being made around them to eschew the nominations process then it stands to reason that they don’t need official enticements to get out to see it. In my previous essay Don’t Vote, I pointed out that registering as an artist or to vote offers the Brooklyn Museum a treasure trove of personal data they can use to try and boost attendance and membership. I should be clear that while I have no knowledge that this will happen, it seems likely. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing depending on how it’s handled[vii], but the funny thing about asking for community participation is that the community, and perhaps especially the community of art lovers in Brooklyn, will know when they’re only being paid in lip service and the double talk. If you’re going to ask for community involvement you better be prepared for the community to be really involved and to meet them with your best effort. If you just wind up trying to sell them stuff you’re going to alienate them and find it harder to get them in your doors. If you ask their opinion, you can’t turn around and ignore it.
And that’s my big problem with GO; the Brooklyn Museum only barely took the first step. Everyone wants the Brooklyn Museum to thrive, and the museum itself deserves a ton of credit for putting the weekend together, building the digital infrastructure, and taking the risk to extend a hand to the community in a way that just doesn’t happen with MoMA, The Guggenheim, the Whitney, or the Met. And the Brooklyn Museum can’t really compete with those institutions, but it is the home museum for the borough with the largest concentration of artists on the planet. The community they are reaching out to is the one that is going to help shape the future of contemporary art more than any other and that points the way forward, but it is not necessarily an easy or well worn path.
My advice to the Brooklyn Museum and its curators is to reach out to artists and engage with them directly. It doesn’t mean some sort of public approval by proxy of an uncountable vote; every neighborhood that has an open studio weekend should see an involvement with their contemporary curators[viii] and that involvement should be publicized on social media. Instead of just having the community direct the curators with a clumsy map drawn by nomination, get them out to work in the ebb and flow of those studio weekends and have them start drawing their own map. Perhaps they’ll find some good art that wouldn’t be popular enough to draw a nomination. The process should lead to more contemporary exhibitions drawn from the community, rather than just the rosters of Chelsea galleries. Combine the concepts behind Open House with Raw/Cooked and stake out the messy territory of championing the artists within your community.[ix] This is a much tougher business than canonization, but one that I would argue the Brooklyn Museum is uniquely suited to position itself for. Going further, get these artists into the museum. If you are going to try flogging membership packages, perhaps try offering a disappearing animal, the artist’s rate membership.[x] Build up a lecture series based on local issues and invite the artists you’ve met and engaged with to be part of the conversation on the stage, not just from the audience. This poses another problem that offers another opportunity: if there are too many artists to keep track of and engage with (and there probably are; there are more artists than you can shake a stick at in Brooklyn) then also reach out to under-employed[xi] curators and writers are living here as well, and they can be recruited to bring artists in and help organize these programs.
Establishing the Sackler Center for Feminist Art points in the right direction. The exhibition and curatorial program should look to mine areas of art history that are otherwise neglected and subject them to serious, rigorous scholarship. When you find an exhibition that truly does reach out to a part of the public who you don’t think would otherwise set foot in your museum, don’t cancel the exhibition because the corporate oligarch who’s one of your biggest sponsors thinks it would be inconvenient and messy. Throw the party and just figure out how to clean it up afterwards. The point is to get that part of your community into the museum so you can show them some other interesting things that may draw them back, and maybe they start to think about art as a possible means to expanding their horizons. The key to doing that, on the other hand, is not dumbing down the rest of the program. Popularity and populism work to the detriment of a museum when they are all that is on offer.
Previously I complained about the pitfalls of letting the general public dictate the shape of art to artists. The special thing about Brooklyn, is that with so many artists, many in the community pay attention to art and culture as part of their daily lives. They are already invested. The Brooklyn Museum should look at GO as the first step to bringing artists and the community together to find a new model for constructing the museum’s program and establishing art as a central plank within the community. This is a long-term plan for growth that must be willing to take risks and show the community something new, even if that turns out to be different, unexpected, or upsetting. And these are almost certain to be the results of helping a community (of artists) organize up from the bottom rather than being organized from the top down.
[i] Which is part of the stated point of GO, afterall.
[iii] Which is fair; shortlists are prestigious for literary prizes, but not making the cut for a group show would become a public failure. To say nothing to opening the curators up the criticism and second guessing.
[iv] Two and a half months is not a lot of time to organize even a small museum show, so the logistics are a limitation.
[v] A name that I’ve always disliked for it feeling a bit condescending.
[vi] As in a, ahem, “truly democratic” process.
[vii] It not being exactly a secret that the Brooklyn Museum is struggling when compared to some of its more well endowed relations across the river. Just another example of the destiny of real estate I suppose…
[viii] And I would argue that they should already have been doing this from the get go.
[ix] Of course most of us moved to New York from somewhere else, and we’re all familiar with the community arts center that shows local artists without any real judgment. That is a trap to avoid, but it shouldn’t be that hard as you’re pulling from one of the deepest pools of talent available.
[x] This would also encourage participation going forward, and could be extended to voters as well.
[xi] I hesitate to say this, because current funding being what it is, it probably means adopting a soul-crushing model of employing many low-paid, benefitless adjuncts that colleges have been using for years. A model that keeps the core work force impoverished is not the way to go, but there are also undoubtedly some young curators who would welcome the chance to work on large project at a major venue and show off what they can do. Perhaps there’s a way to integrate a young curator’s program just as the Whitney used to have its own studio program. The point is to think outside the corporate box here.
The new art season is upon us, bringing with it packed openings, ridiculous gossip, and the latest scandal d’jour. For artists it also marks new cycle of applications for grants and residencies. Everyone is back from vacation and programs and exhibitions can begin in earnest, just like the transition to serious movies and the end to summer popcorn fun at the movies, most artists will turn (or at least divide) their attention towards offers of space, funding, or some sort of patronage that they won’t find within the market place. This weekend the flood gates are officially open, and the Brooklyn Museum launches GO with the stated mission to having the community interact with and discover the art being made around them within the one territory that is more densely populated with artists than any other.
The question becomes, why is everyone so eager to mash art and community together? In this day and age of diminished arts education and funding, a seemingly ubiquitous requirement of grants these days is that the art and applicant to also provide some sort of service to the community.[i] This is usually left rather vague and up to the artist, but the fact that the requirement is there at all either privileges work that where the conceptual underpinnings are rooted in activism or requires the artist to contort their practice into some sharable event of dubious utility. While there is nothing wrong with the former (after all such work is much less likely to find a base of private collectors that will support it), that kind of practice is much less common among the general population of artists. The effect in demanding community service from artists is that it ultimately distorts the perception and demand of what sort of art is being made, the same way people claim that the art market does.[ii] It also effectively states that the art itself is not of sufficient utility to the community, something that I think is baldly wrong.
My suspicion is that as public education has been cut back more and more, and as the arts have been the first programs on the block, political and arts non-profit leaders have tried to help replace or otherwise shore up the decline. But the final commitment becomes only a less effective vestige of what we should see in our schools every day. The responsibility falls on community leaders, and ultimately on to the community themselves[iii] but is passed on to artists[iv] to lead the community back to art. Interest in art appears on the rise[v], and art has always been a part of the community[vi] that communities are reaching out to their artists is a good thing. The problem arises when the art becomes subservient to the whims of that community. Michigan’s Artprize turns art into a political campaign, which in the end leaves it as a mere popularity contest and there can be no mistaking that a popular vote is not a friend of serious aesthetic investigation. Consider the careers of Leroy Neimann or Thomas Kinkade, or the attendance numbers of Paul Schimmel’s fantastically scholarly MOCA exhibitons in the face of Jeffery Deitch’s Art in the Street. What is good for art (and is good art) and what is popular with the community are not usually the same thing.
GO seeks to combine the voting structure of Artprize with the grass roots, get-out-and-meet-your-neighbor spirit of any good old fashioned open studio event. If there is something worse than the populist demand of Artprize, it is the equivocation and lack of effort that is put forth by the Brooklyn Museum. A quick glance at the rules shows that the community is only nominating artists for studio visits. Those that receive the most nominations will have a studio visit with the curators of the Brooklyn Museum, who will curate a show from what they see, including those artists into a group show. A lot of work is being put into GO on organizational and technical levels, and both artists and voters have to jump through quite a few hoops in order to participate in what is an outsourcing of the curator’s job by the curator themselves, who could (and should) just as easily be out looking in artist’s studios.[vii] GO relieves them of a great deal of legwork and responsibility, and will simultaneously provide a huge trove of contact information that the Museum can use for future membership drives.[viii]
Art has long had function to serve the information and propaganda needs of those in power. Perhaps the greatest achievement of art history is the slow unyoking of art from the whims of the elite, a project that is nowhere near complete. GO is ultimately an attempt to co-opt grass roots methods for institutional advantage, but it also asks the community to do something good: go look at more art and think about it. That in itself is enough benefit and doing anything more isn’t really being done for artist or art.
[ii] … and to be clear the market causes the same distortion. Money around art is like a large gravitational mass around light; it bends and distorts its path. The money available in grants is far less than the art market proper, but the effects will still be there.
[iii] Who have ultimately voted for this structure in one way or another
[iv] Who are only too happy to take it on; some funding is still better than none.
[v] Witness museum attendance rates, the volume of the art market, and even reality TV getting in on the act.
[vi] What did you think those cave paintings in Lascaux were for, anyway?
[vii] And seriously, does anyone think it would be so hard for the curator of any museum to get an invitation to the studio of an emerging artist?
[viii] This likely the real reason for the museum to put so many rescources into what is otherwise a minor publicity stunt. If you are registered to vote, you are sure to get a great deal of email from the Brooklyn Museum. Some of it will certainly pertain to the exciting results of GO and invite you out to the museum to see the work you helped curate, but even more of it is probably going to be asking you for money.
My essay on the retrospective of Richard Serra’s drawings that has hung at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Menil Collection is up now at Idiom: http://idiommag.com/2012/06/on-site-serra-at-the-met-and-the-menil/