Thought Experiments in Agency

Eleanor Heartney on Precarity and Creativity

[Full disclosure: This is from the catalog for a show I’m in (along with 71 other artists).]

“…the arts and humanities help ensure that you are more than just vir economicus (man of economics). In fact, the study of humanities, like the decision to pursue an art career, may work against a neat fit into corporate culture. People with a broader knowledge of history, literature, philosophy, and art may not be so willing to accept the current state of things as inevitable. …given how poorly the status quo is serving the vast majority of people to today, maybe critical thinking is exactly what is needed now.

Can artists transcend their role as cogs in the capitalist system? …the challenge is to find a way to live between the demands of two very different marketplaces [the art market and the marketplace of ideas]…

…each era evolves its own reaction to an oppressive structure…

If artists are to be more than small manufacturers for the luxury trade, we have to acknowledge a need for new thinking, new institutions, new methods of distribution, and new publications interested in the discussion of ideas as opposed to the dissemination of market news. The current situation is not inevitable or even rational…. artists must use their creative imaginations… to rethink how they interact with each other and with the larger world. They may need to assume multiple roles, reach out to different kinds of audiences, and reimagine what it means to be an artist… Out of adversity comes possibility.”

—Eleanor Heartney, “The State of the Arts: Precarity and Creativity,” from the catalog, Bronx Calling: The Third AIM Biennial, Bronx Museum, 2015.
Art & Development, Research

Pop teeth

Artists are consumers themselves. They have their own elaborately constructed systems of valuation as subsets within larger realms of consumer value. No art is absolutely pure, or created in a vacuum outside those larger realms. (Gibson Cuyler on Libby Black’s Be Here Now, Art Practical 13, April 22, 2010)

Strange that this must be re-stated, but it’s often the case that criticism and radical opposition are considered equivocal. (Johanna Drucker argues that critics and academics best accept our complicity and move on to responding to the actual art in Sweet Dreams.)

To broach capitialism or material culture in one’s artwork is to risk easy, politically loaded readings. The work might be interpreted sympathetically as anti-capitalist commentaries, leftist/Marxist/politically correct indictments of globalization/consumerism/mass media/environmental destruction. On the opposite extreme lie allegations of consumerist gluttony, environmental sinfulness, aesthetic hedonism, artistic slumming, or naked ambition. Tsk-tsk! should art, which could signify genius and the sublime, muddy itself in base, money-grubbing popular culture.

I’m interested in work that doesn’t deny the facts of the world: capitalism, labor, production, material culture, popular culture. I think artists have the right to beg/borrow/steal from these themes without having being pigeonholed into positions of critical subversion or immoral kowtowing. It’s possible I’m a waffler. That I’m exploiting ambiguity by not taking a stand. If you were really cynical, you could argue that the only crime worse than politically incorrectness in contemporary art is being boring and didactic.

I’m looking at the catalog for Pop Life, the recent survey of Pop Art after 1970 at the Tate Modern. As I’m developing Irrational Exuberance (Asst. Colors), a shop-like exhibition of work on paper, sculpture and installation coming up at Sight School (opens May 14), it’s neat to think about Keith Haring’s Pop Shop and Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin’s The Shop. I also listened to the Tate’s podcast of Emin talking about The Shop, wherein Emin clicked for me: her personality, class, background, enmeshed in the world, results in work that is likewise enmeshed in the world and her life.


The Revolution Will Not Be Funded

I’m curious about “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex,” a new book by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (Boston: South End Press). Though I happily work with non-profits, I’m skeptical that this structure can result in widespread social change.

The good thing about non-profits is that everyone should have the satisfaction of fighting the good fight in their work. Dedicated, brilliant people work in non-profits, and young people get opportunities for leadership. But it’s unsustainable, driven by grant cycles and funding trends. Non-profit work doesn’t always provide adequate training, and certainly doesn’t offer competitive compensation!

I realize how non-profits can be manipulated to ultimately reinforce the capitalist status quo, but still, the book title makes me cringe a little. It seems to minimize the much more sinister military- and prison- industrial complexes, whose human costs are very real.

One chapter, “Non-Profits and the Autonomous Grassroots,” is written by Eric Tang, one of the smartest revolutionaries I’ve met. I met him when I lead a mural project at CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities in the Bronx years ago. It’s probably worth the cost of the book just for Tang’s practical, informed analysis.