Brian Dupont: Artist's Texts

An artist's writings on art.

More Questions: On Criticism and Political Art

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.

[i] See my essay Site Specificity: Art & the Mainstream Part 2 for a discussion of the intermingling of various sites within the art world.

[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?

[iii] For example, consider everyone who contributed to the Peace Tower, despite its genesis in a period where vanguard art rejected any outward reference beyond pure aesthetic experience.

[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.


Written by Brian Dupont

November 1, 2012 at 6:55 am

4 Responses

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  1. This statement, “The revision, doubt, constant examination at the heart of artistic discourse is at odds with political action,” is fascinating to me. Upon further reflection of what this means, it brings light to the fact that thought and beliefs (which today are most often polarized in politics) come into direct conflict with curiosity, exploration and discovery which are all part of the process of making art (to me). I for one would not have grouped doubt within that process, but it surely needs to be present if one is to venture into the thing that is being questioned. Perhaps it is politics that could draw a message from art, rather than art that takes cues from politics.


    November 1, 2012 at 9:27 am

  2. “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.”

    I don’t agree with you for two reasons. First of all, in the worlds of activism and politics, there are “critics.” We don’t call them that; we use words like “analyst” and “editorial writer” and “political blogger”, etc. But they are all questioning the efficacy of this or that action, and that is criticism. Does this program work? Is this strategy the one that will lead to the desired outcome? Etc. I read Duncombe and Lambert as suggesting that this should be the criteria for judging politcal artwork. (And as an aside, I think they were talking mainly about social practice-style work as opposed to more traditional artworks that exist to raise consciousness–they referred to the latter as low-hanging fruit.)

    I think you both make the mistake of separating the political from the easthetic. This Kantian separation was one of the things the performance art revolution of the 60s was meant to obliterate.

    My problem with Duncombe and Lambert’s admonition was that they seemed to sweep aside aesthetics. They were almost saying, “When you judge this or that piece of political artwork, it doesn’t matter if it sucks artistically, only if it worked on a political level.” That makes the “art” part of “political art” seem like an unnecessary appendage. And maybe from their point of view it is. I disagree, but that’s because I care a lot about art in a way that probably can’t be justified politically. I like art hedonistically–I like the pleasure of art.

    In any case, I think a critic of political art–particularly of social practice art–needs to be interested both in aesthetics and the political or social efficacy of the piece. And for such an artwork to succeed, it needs to succeed on both levels simultaneously. If it’s a good piece of art but a total failure as a piece of political or social action, then it has failed, and vice versa.


    November 1, 2012 at 10:14 am

    • Thanks for commenting Robert, I agree with much of what you write, both here and in your comment on TGGPID. How to address social critics was something that I wrestled with. They obviously do exist, and the best of them work with cultural issues just as the best art critics take art as their subject (Kimmelman is one of my favorites). I think (hope?) we can accommodate social thinkers under the heading of “criticism” as I’ve described it; for me the difference between art and politics is more a matter of process and how results are assessed than a strict categorical division.

      The big reason I didn’t make the digression to address the difference more clearly (although I should probably put it in the notes somewhere) is because Duncombe & Lambert themselves are speaking exclusively to and about art critics. Despite their interest in altering the social fabric, they only address how the history of art and the art world makes critics poorly equipped to deal with political art. I have to think that aiming for broader reporting would do more for activism than all the glossy spreads in art magazines put together. I suspect social critics are just as likely to skip over aesthetic form and craftmanship as art critics are to gloss over social relevance, but it seems strange to only call out the art critics.

      Brian Dupont

      November 1, 2012 at 10:39 pm

      • I can see that. I suspect they are calling out art critics because art critics are the ones most likely to write about social practice pieces. People who are writing about politics or activism–do they even know social practice exists? If they do, maybe they believe they have bigger fish to fry.


        November 7, 2012 at 11:27 am

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