Impressions, Values

Points of Reference: Public Servants

How I know what I know about social practice.

I’m collaborating on a participatory project and advising a social practice grad student right now. It’s made me think about how I know what I know, and why I approach and shape projects the way I do. I didn’t major in social practice—I majored in printmaking, working with Ted Purves as a thesis advisor. Though I sometimes wonder what I might’ve learned had I majored in social practice, it’s gratifying to come across references that are intellectually stimulating because they resonate which my existing practice.


Public Servants: Art and the Crisis of the Common Good, edited by Johanna Burton, Shannon Jackson and Dominic Willsdon. // Source:

The dialogue spurred by Ben Davis’ “A Critique of Social Practice Art: What Does It Mean to Be a Political Artist?” still poses fresh, relevant questions. Originally published in 2013 on an activist website, Davis’ critique generated a remarkably thoughtful debate on Facebook between Deborah Fisher (director of A Blade of Grass), Nato Thompson (then artistic director of Creative Time), Tom Finklepearl (NYC Commissioner, Department of Cultural Affairs), artist Rick Lowe of Project Row Houses, and many others who have dedicated their life’s work to socially-engaged art or social practice.

This debate was reprinted in Public Servants: Art and the Crisis of the Common Good, edited by Johanna Burton, Shannon Jackson and Dominic Willsdon (MIT Press, 2016). [That an MIT Press book would reprint a Facebook thread is sort of amazing.]

The debate spans:

  • Weighing the political efficacy of social practice projects versus their symbolic power. Davis provocatively asks if social practice projects are a distraction from activism. Many respond by defending the importance of the symbolic power of art, and the “need for a poetics of social change” (Fisher).
  • How socially-engaged projects relate to power, privilege, appropriation, and exploitation.
    • Projects should be guided by ethics, specifically, treating people with care and respect and not being co-opted by power it intends to reshape (Fisher).
    • Be wary of when the image of social consciousness is used to gain social capital (Thompson) [in other words, “performative wokeness“].
    • Does a project help or harm? Is it merely tolerated? (Fisher)
    • Socially-engaged art is not inherently good. Likewise, neither is creative place-making. Indeed, developers use artists to create “vibrancy,” rather than critically-engaged projects, and resources can be diverted away (Lowe).
  • Social practitioners shouldn’t get too “self-satisfied” (Davis) because social practice cannot replace activism and organizing. [I would argue that no one person or role builds a people’s movement. It wasn’t explicit but the solutions hinted at seemed Alinskyist.] Davis says that artists have an important role to play in political struggle, but they don’t have special access to political wisdom. [I think any artist who’s read any writing by Davis or Gregory Sholette knows that political education is a serious endeavor distinct from art practice.]
  • How to assess socially-engaged art, such as through ‘participatory action research’ and ‘collaborative action research’ and involving stakeholders (Elizabeth Grady). While you don’t want to rely only on artist’s first-person accounts, you can define efficacy first in terms of artists’ goals (Fisher).
  • The impossibility of not being co-opted by capitalism and the possibility of momentary acts of resistance. Davis cites Rosa Luxemburg on how many small victories and tiny inspiring acts are needed in the building of a movement.

Some thoughts expressed exceptionally eloquently:

“A great artwork embraces paradox and contains multiple, sometimes contradictory, truths. …this quality… gives a great socially-engaged art project the ability to reframe, reshape or, for a moment, redistribute power.”

—Deborah Fisher

Fisher also described the Rolling Jubilee as:

“a gesture that punches through that which oppresses us in a way that is infectious and influential because of its profound elegance.”

This “profound elegance” is my primary criteria for successful social practices: how they balance relations and forms, through process and ephemera. The projects I most admire are ethical and non-exploitative. They honor participants’ dignity, agency, intelligence, and time. And they are enticing and welcoming.

At the same time that I want to hold artists accountable to high standards, I also think it’s important to let artists be creative, experiment, and fail. The rules and forms of social practice aren’t codified. We don’t need any more predictable art or social relations.

The Public Servants editors wisely end the chapter with a passage from Louisa MacCall, co-director of Artists in Context, which connects artists and non-artists to collaborate on addressing issues. When I read MacCall’s words, it was like she was describing the goals in my practice (emphasis mine):

“What if we consider artists as researchers who can design, experiment, fail, innovate, and contribute to society’s knowledge production?

“To regain our sense of connection, agency, and empathy—which are vital to a just and sustainable society—we must consider the different kinds of questions and outcomes artists are proposing as indispensable to our systems of knowledge production.”

I’ll keep diving into Public Servants.

I’m also looking forward to the US Department of Arts and Culture’s “Citizen Artist Salon: Art & Well-Being” this Wednesday which connects social justice and wellbeing.

“how social justice is a chief indicator of individual and community health; how art can nurture well-being; and what you can do to build a culture of health.”


Julia Bryan-Wilson on artists’ privilege and power

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.

Art & Development

Thinking on the job

Labor’s on the brain lately, thanks to Ben Davis’ 9.5 Theses on Art and Class and Martha Rosler’s Culture Class.

Funny thing: Reading about labor makes you start thinking about labor—including while you’re at work, for better or worse. Here are a few paradoxes of labor as an art handler/art installer:

1. “Hurry up and wait.” Art laborers’ time is expensive yet expendable. Waste is part of the process of productivity.

2. Exhibition-making is a combination of office work and gallery work; the contrast between salaried/white-collar and hourly/blue-collar workers’ valuations of time, modes of employment, and precariousness is telling.

3. Help others help you with clear directions. Experience and decisiveness are not co-developed skills.

4. If the risk of confidence in excess is egocentrism, safeguard with humility and gratitude.

5. The more powerful you are, the more tardy you can be.

always in a rush but seldom on time

Ben McGrath, “New York Time,” New Yorker, Nov. 4, 2013 
Citizenship, Meta-Practice, Values

Points of reference: Income inequality, empathy, artists, and capital

There’s something in the air…. Articles have been popping up about the intersection of the tech sector and extreme wealth, and status and the empathy gap, just as my artist friends in the Bay Area are reeling about news of galleries closing and venerable artists being evicted. To consider income inequality, class, and how artists got into the position we’re in in relation to the high-powered wealth-corrupted “art world,” I’ve been thinking specifically about capitalism.

Here are some points of reference, of which I’m still trying to make sense:


In New York, Bill de Blasio‘s NYC mayoral campaign.

This past weekend’s Creative Time Summit. I didn’t go, but will watch some of the videos, esp Rebecca Solnit’s keynote on gentrification in SF, and My Brooklyn’s mapping- and data-driven anti-gentrification efforts.

“Will Work for Inspiration,” David Byrne’s op-ed for Creative Time Reports, includes this bit on preserving NYC for all:

I don’t believe that crime, danger and poverty make for good art. That’s bullshit. But I also don’t believe that the drop in crime means the city has to be more exclusively for those who have money. Increases in the quality of life should be for all, not just a few.


The title says it all: “Rich People Just Care Less” is an op-ed by psychologist Daniel Goleman posted in NY Times (October 6, 2013):

A growing body of recent research shows that people with the most social power pay scant attention to those with little such power. …

Income inequality is at its highest level in a century. This widening gulf between the haves and have-less troubles me, but not for the obvious reasons. Apart from the financial inequities, I fear the expansion of an entirely different gap, caused by the inability to see oneself in a less advantaged person’s shoes. Reducing the economic gap may be impossible without also addressing the gap in empathy.

Over at the Greater Good Science Center, Jason Marsh posted “Why Inequality Is Bad for the One Percent” last year (September 25, 2012), and though it opens with then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney, it’s furnishes more background to Goleman’s op-ed…

…in a 2010 study published in Psychological Science, researchers found that people of higher socioeconomic status (SES) were worse at reading other people’s emotions—a skill known as “empathic accuracy,” a basic part of empathy.

… inequality may be self-perpetuating: The lack of compassion the rich feel might make them less likely to out look for the less fortunate, thereby increasing the gap between rich and poor—and the worse this gap gets, the research suggests, the less inclined the rich may be to do anything about it.

… insularity is an enemy of empathy.


In trying to get a foothold in NYC as an artist, it’s nice to hear David Byrne acknowledge the difficulty:

As one gets a little older, those hardships [of surviving in NY in the 1970s] aren’t so romantic – they’re just hard. The trade-off begins to look like a real pain in the ass if one has been here for years and years and is barely eking out a living. The idea of making an ongoing creative life – whether as a writer, an artist, a filmmaker or a musician – is difficult unless one gets a foothold on the ladder, as I was lucky enough to do. I say “lucky” because I have no illusions that talent is enough; there are plenty of talented folks out there who never get the break they deserve.


Maria Popova recently posted “Happy Birthday, Brain Pickings: 7 Things I Learned in 7 Years of Reading, Writing, and Living” on Brain Pickings:

Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. As Paul Graham observed, “prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract from the things that do offer those deeper rewards.

Jerry Saltz, who seems perpetually in a pickle about being an art world insider while trying to critique the art world’s narrow halls of power, did have this worthwhile critique to share, in “Saltz on the Trouble With Mega-Galleries” in NY Mag:

The artist is a brand, and the brand supersedes the art. The scale and pace of these places often turn artists into happy little factories with herds of busy assistants turning out reams of weak work. It’s the new Capitalist Realism.

Andrea Fraser’s “1% Art” came out last year in Adbusters, but only recently crossed my path. It’s really good, so I’ve quoted it at length:

A broad-based shift in art discourse may help precipitate a long overdue splitting off of the market-dominated subfield of galleries, auction houses, and art fairs. If a turn away from the art market means that public museums contract and ultra-wealthy collectors create their own privately controlled institutions, so be it. … It is time we began evaluating whether artworks fulfill, or fail to fulfill, political or critical claims at the level of their social and economic conditions. We must insist that what art works are economically determines what they mean socially and also artistically.

If we, as curators, critics, art historians and artists, withdraw our cultural capital from these markets, we have the potential to create a new art field where radical forms of autonomy can develop: not as secessionist “alternatives’ that exist only in the grandiose enactments and magical thinking of artists and theorists, but as fully institutionalized structures, which, with the “properly social magic of institutions,’ will be able to produce, reproduce and reward noncommercial values.”

Fraser’s post made me ask myself, “What am I doing?” If I resent how much Saltz bags on others for writing too much about the 1% art world and mega-galleries, when they and he should write about the 99%, shouldn’t I focus my efforts in the 99% as well? What does that mean for me as an artist, in relation to other artists and institutions? What does that mean for me as an art worker—an installer and assistant?

Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (Haymarket Books).

Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (Haymarket Books).

Finally, I read Ben Davis’ 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (Haymarket Books) in an informal book club. The book was provocative, but I’ve really enjoyed exchanging ideas with bright artists, curators and art historians in our little self-organized book club. (You can participate in a virtual book club hosted on Temporary Art Review, thus far here and here.)

Our final meeting yesterday, ended with a fascinating discussion about how our future selves might look back on this contemporary moment in art history from a post-capitalist perspective. How will we historicize this Capitalist art? What will it be like to be distanced from such narrow conditions of production?

What if artists are at the center, not the power players that Davis spends so many chapters discussing? What if I went on a 1% Art World diet, ignoring the art stars, yacht parties, the market, celebrity gossip, and auction records, how much time would I have for thinking about materials and processes?

What might a post-capitalist art world look like? What kinds of structures and institutions will artists work within? How do I turn my attention towards those alternative futures now?


New research on equality in the arts

Yesterday, the Strategic National Arts Alliance Projeect (SNAAP), a consortium of educational institutions, released its latest report, “An Uneven Canvas: Inequalities in Artistic Training and Careers” (PDF). Long-standing issues of racial and gender parity are elucidated in this survey compiling data from over 65,000 arts graduates. I noted some interesting points:

Female alumni are less likely than male alumni to ever work as artists and to do so currently.

(page 15)

(As JW put it, female artists continuing to work as artists is sometimes a matter of a war of attrition.)

Across all racial/ethnic groups, Black graduates and Hispanic graduates are the least likely to ever work as artists—with 76% of both groups ever working in this capacity.

(page 15)

Black and Hispanic alumni are much more likely to cite both lack of access to networks and debt (including student loan debt) as barriers to artistic careers, compared to White respondents.

(page 16)

SNAAP reveals sharp disparities in earnings by gender. Among alumni currently spending the majority of their work time in an arts-related job, men out-earn women. For example, among undergraduate-level respondents who currently work primarily within the arts, 56% of men earned more than $50,000 in the past year—compared to 36% of women.

(page 17)

The Question of Who Qualifies as “Artists” in the SNAAP Study

SNAAP uses the labels “art” and “artist” to refer to a broad spectrum of practicioners, including performers and creative writers. They also include workers in fields that often hire salaried employees, such as in architecture, design, film, illustration and animation—which I would consider creative industries (see also Ben Davis’ recently published 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, 2013).

I strongly believe that the inclusion of workers in creative industries skew the data—a criticism I’ve voiced about past reports. “An Uneven Canvas” seems to make a more conscious effort to acknowledge this:

Differences in the artistic fields … partially account for some disparities between groups.

(page 19)

Gender Disparity

SNAAP does a great job investigating general trends of gender-based income disparity:

the income gap between male and female arts alumni persists regardless of how long ago they graduated from their institutions

(page 21)
SNAAP's "An Uneven Canvas," Figure 7: Percentage Earning More than $50,000 in the Previous Year by Gender and Year of Graduation (Only Alumni Currently Working Primarily in the Arts). Those who graduated in the 80s and 90s (who are likely older), clearly make more than recent grads with less post-graduate work experience. However, the key point of this bar chart is that income disparity by gender in the arts is an ongoing trend over the past 30 years. The pay difference is highest among those who earn more; for recent grads, the 10% more of men who earned $50k is also 100% more of women who earned $50k.

It’s easy to misinterpret this bar chart as showing the reduction of income, and gender-based pay disparity, over time. What it actually shows is gender-based pay disparity in 2011 according to graduation year ranges. Those who graduated in the 80s and 90s (who are likely older and further along towards maximizing their earning potential) see the highest gender-based pay disparity. For the most recent grads, the there is relatively less pay disparity in percentage points, but, in this cohort, you could also say that the number of men who earned $50k is 100% more than women. 

One salient feature of this graph is that male artistic workers out-earn females within every cohort group. …income differences are not simply the result of men’s and women’s different work commitments, but rather reflect persistent patterns of discrimination. Furthermore, these data provide compelling evidence that gender inequalities continue to exist for the newest graduates and are not simply a relic of an older time.

(page 24)

The Data We Get vs. the Data I Want to See:
Free the Fine Artist Subset

SNAAP’s wide definition of “artist” may be useful for including the majors offered at its member institutions, but its analysis can only be applied to fine artists with remote and questionable extrapolations.

The fine arts is worthwhile of analysis as its own data subset. The fine arts are exceptional. In other words, the economics of fine arts operates does not follow any logic found in other fields (see Hans Abbing’s Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts, 2004).

Most pressingly, the fine arts are well-known for its huge disparities. The vast majority of artists work non-art day jobs to support their art practices, while only a tiny fraction of artists garner dramatically higher income levels from their art sales. Thanks to the media’s obsession with auction sales, gender-based income disparity is well-documented for the highest earners, but this data ignores most working artists.

SNAAP’s subset of data relating specifically to contemporary fine artists is robust, according to the interactive SNAAP Shot 2012, with about 21,000 respondents who majored in Studio/Fine Arts. This is no small data set. SNAAP should make this data set freely available, like many contemporary federal- and city-level governments, or the UK Guardian, for statisticians and information graphic designers to interpret and share.

I would love to see this data set analyzed to address questions such as:

  • What can be learned about the lives and working conditions of contemporary fine artists?
  • What percentage of fine artists’ primary means of income is from their art?
  • For fine artists whose primary means of income is not based on their art, how much of their income is?
  • How much gender-based income disparity do fine artists experience?
  • How does this change over the graduation-year-separated cohorts?
  • What are the breakdowns of racial inequality in the fine arts—how many artists of different races persist into the field of fine arts, over what period of time, and to what degree are they able to transition their art-making into a viable profession?
  • In addition to comparing people of color and women to the responses of White men, I’d like to see intersectionality integrated into this report—what can we learn about the experiences of women of color?