Can the art world embrace straight talk, or is it doomed to sound
liked poorly translated French?
David Shrigley, Untitled, 2008. Ink on paper, 11 3/4 x 16 1/2 inches. Courtesy the artist and Anton Kern Gallery, New York.
Sometimes I feel I no longer understand what’s meant when we talk about art today. Key words—“urgency,” “innovation,” “impact,” “change”—flavor current discussions with an implicit but imprecise belief in art’s tangible ability to comment on and even effect timely cultural, social, and political issues. The political as meta-theme has come to dominate the art world’s core, from MoMA’s atrium all the way up to the private collections of its board of trustees. It is in fact difficult to find an artist or curator working today who doesn’t call upon some notion of the political as a form of currency in their work. Yet even as practitioners make increasingly expansive claims for art’s role in the world at large, the language used to describe and analyze art is perhaps more specialized and nontransparent today than ever before.
Lacking the critical bite of the Frankfurt School or the destabilizing force of post-structuralism, “International Art English,” undertheorized and overwrought, often operates as a smokescreen for half-baked ideas.
It is this struggle to overcome a confusing (and often confused) rhetoric that may be the cornerstone of art’s most recent identity crisis. This language—called “International Art English” by Alix Rule and David Levine—is characterized by flowery post-structuralist-infused prose that “sounds like inexpertly translated French” commingled with almost manically utopian assertions about an artist or project. Anyone who has felt completely confused after reading an adverb-laden gallery press release or artist statement knows International Art English. Lacking the critical bite of the Frankfurt School or the destabilizing force of post-structuralism, International Art English, undertheorized and overwrought, often operates as a smokescreen for half-baked ideas. The recent growth of publications, conferences, and professional educational programs for artists and other cultural practitioners, such as curators, has often exacerbated this situation. Specialist languages have been crystallized while, for the most part, the basic assumptions that define the field have remained uncriticized and unquestioned.
Since 2009, the Creative Time Summit has been a beacon for a large and unwieldy, yet crucial, range of debates at the intersection of art and politics. The Summit’s importance derives not from its overarching annual themes, which provide only the loosest of curatorial frameworks, but rather from the fiery maelstrom of artists, activists, critics, and scholars who occasionally break the rules of its constraining presentation format. They plead with the audience, press the stakes of their projects, or otherwise operate outside the bounds of their precisely allocated timeslots. This conference rulebreaking has become an almost anticipated annual tradition, turning the Summit, now in its fifth year, into a theater.
On the first day of this year’s Creative Time Summit, a conversation between artist Rick Lowe and Creative Time curator Nato Thompson sparked an exchange so self-aware and completely bereft of platitudes that it laid bare both the essence of the dilemma outlined above and, at least partially, a way out of this doom-and-gloom scenario.
Rick Lowe is an African-American artist who, over the last twenty years, has worked as the founder and director of Project Row Houses, a non-profit community housing project and art education and residency program in Houston’s northern Third Ward neighborhood. Lowe has been heralded by the art world and community organizers as a visionary who has succeeded in both raising the aesthetic and critical standards for public art practice and creating a more sustainable and empowered community in the neighborhood where he works. While Lowe’s practice deals with a myriad of conceptual and practical issues, for this conversation one specific topic was on the artist’s mind: race.
For better or worse, and sometimes despite our best intentions, we often cloud art with critical dialogue.
After twenty minutes of a respectable but somewhat unimaginative conversation between Lowe and Thompson about the increasing professionalization of socially engaged art through MFA programs, Thompson decided to cut the discussion short. Lowe, realizing that they had barely touched on the subject he wanted to address, good-naturedly demanded that the two of them remain onstage. From that moment, Lowe effectively took control of the conversation by posing Thompson a question for which he was clearly less than prepared.
“Tell me about your moment of race.”
Thompson—white and American-born, not unlike much of the audience at the Summit—was made distinctly uncomfortable by the question. The directness and simplicity of it was in stark contrast to the first half of their dialogue, which, in the usual prose, danced around the relationship between art and race and class without facing the issue in basic and essential terms.
To his credit, he answered as honestly and succinctly as he could. Thompson relayed an entertaining story about being an adolescent break-dancer who joined a Mexican crew in Los Angeles. As Thompson and his friends grew up, he saw the divergent paths they took in life that were largely assigned to them by social, economic, and racial factors. That Thompson’s “moment of race” would be ancillary and indirect was almost evident from the moment Lowe posed the question. What Lowe achieved through this exchange was not necessarily a reveal of the often invisible subject position of whiteness—although that certainly did happen—but he pointed to the fact that minorities and those who are “different” cannot be left alone to grapple with questions of race.
When it comes to talking about art and its interactions in the world, perhaps we should take Lowe’s lead and begin to ask questions grounded in specificity and experience rather than preexisting rhetoric and catch-all phrases. For better or worse, and sometimes despite our best intentions, we often cloud art with critical dialogue. Sometimes the reasons for this concealment are more justified than others and sometimes they are not justified at all. As notions of the political in art become subsumed under the ever-growing and insatiable framework of the art world, risking all types of strange permutations antithetical to the work itself, practitioners can feel an almost natural tendency to congregate, commiserate, and discuss issues specific to their work. We must take care, however, not to turn increased dialogue into opportunities for siphoning off our ideas or highlighting our own self-importance while forgetting the larger picture of why and for whom art is made and shown. Only once we’re able stop the clock, so to speak, and begin to take a really frank look at ourselves—our motivations, desires, and subject positions—can we again start speaking of the broader social and political import of our work.
Chelsea Haines is the Art Editor of Guernica and a PhD student in art history at The Graduate Center, CUNY.