About a month ago, scholar and critic Julia Bryan-Wilson delivered a short, affirmative, and electrifying speech about artists’ professionalization, political capacities, and privilege. It is beautiful in its erudition and alacrity.
She presented the talk in a recent conference, “Institutions By Artists—Debate 2: Should Artists Professionalize?”on Vimeo (Bryan-Wilson’s talk starts at 38:40). A segment has found its way onto YouTube as “Julia Bryan-Wilson is totally badass.” I didn’t click on the cheap meme title until only recently, and I can’t help but mull over her points, especially in relation to other references. Here’s are some excerpts of her talk:
First, on ethical behavior and relations:
If there is a space for art outside of the state and market…, it is … the space of embodiment that is separate from the total administration of everyday life. It’s within this space that it makes sense to redefine professionalism so that it does not denote walking lockstep to the beat of the neoliberal, entrepreneurial drum, but rather, managing yourself, practicing an ethics of care when you engage with others. We might call this ‘minding your business,’ and I don’t mean ‘business’ in the white-collar sense, but the inter-relational ways in which we move through the world….
[I'm all for art world ethics.]
Then, meeting realism with artists’ wiliness:
[The question of ‘Should artists professionalize?’ is, rather,] “How do you want to acknowledge your own production within a highly compromised economy? Let’s be strategic about how we contribute to those structures and be tactical about how we might interrupt or stall its ruthless logic….
[Earlier today, our book club reading Martha Rosler's Culture Class discussed whether artists should make political art or take to the streets. Rosler concluded that artists don't have to choose. And even though works of art may be eventually rewritten (co-opted), the process takes time, an in that gap, critical art works can efficaciously speak to present conditions. I love that note of optimism, the quick-footed juking out of false dichotomies.]
Instead of, ‘Should artists professionalize?’ we should ask, ‘How should artists profess?’ Profess, of course, has many meanings. One of them is to declare oneself skilled or expert—to assert knowledge. But it also means to lay claim to something falsely, insincerely, or deceptively. I think artists should profess, by accepting their expertise as well as their wily ways. I call for the professing of professionalism, ironizing and making strange professionalization, turning it upside down to curdle it, to estrange it from itself….
She concludes with this powerful embrace of paradoxes inherent to discussions about artists’ political agency:
Let’s reframe the question:
Should artists and critics profess what they believe in? Be more transparent about the stakes of their making and how they support themselves? Yes.
Should artists and critics be self-aware of their own circulation within frameworks of power, of their own implication in larger systems of financialization and self-management? Yes.
Should artists advocate for themselves, and for social justice more broadly, with an understanding that their fights might have some surprising resonance with other questions of inequity? Yes.
Should artists also organize with an awareness that they have certain class privileges, due to cultural capital, even if that cultural capital does not always easily translate into actual political power or long-term financial security? Yes.
[Ben Davis' 9.5 Theses outlines that artists' autonomy means that we're more like middle class workers than the lower class we may feel like.]
Should artists fictionalize rather than financialize? Make shit up? Falsify? Infiltrate? Yes.
Should artists with art school educations realize that just because they are underpaid does not mean they are underclass? Yes.
[This is a huge point. On the one hand, I sympathize with art school grads with huge debts, who are struggling to make ends meet in expensive cities like San Francisco and NYC. On the other hand, I also know what it's like to come from a working class background, and can't help but feel that calls for, for example, art school debt forgiveness are myopic and entitled.]
Should art historians and critics acknowledge our profound privilege as tastemakers? Yes.
Should we all take more risks, but all the time acknowledge that the risks we take are not equivalent to many other people’s and the risks they live? Yes.
Bascially, JBW brings some perspective: that the art world is not the world, indeed, the world is much bigger than the art world, and yet artists can contribute positively, cannily, to both. Fantastic.