On Tuesday morning November 8, I told my two-year-old daughter we were going to have our first woman president. On Wednesday morning November 9, I woke up to the surreal announcement that Donald Trump was our president-elect. Like so many others, I was dazed with despair, grieving for our lost future and fearful of how Trump would undo our civil liberties.
Since then, I’ve had countless conversations about how we need to take action as US citizens. Less pressingly, but just as importantly, we may also ask ourselves what our roles now are as artists, writers, editors, and curators in this era of Trump? Art, as the saying goes, is a mirror of our society because it bears witness to our darkest periods. But perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the commercial art world has become a pocket mirror for elite collectors. Rather than being informed by history, the decisions of artists in this world have been informed by market prices. While Black Lives Matter protestors closed freeways in Miami, revelers drank champagne at Art Basel Miami Beach. To paraphrase Janet Malcolm, art has ceased being the conscience of culture in order to service its id.
If we are looking for models of resistance, I cannot think of a more relevant and necessary artist to honor than Julie Ault. She is a brilliant beacon of commitment, intellect, and heart. She is exemplary of an artist whose mission has been building relationships outside of institutions. Her collaborations, curatorial work, writings, and advocacy are a blueprint for the versatility needed from artists today. We are artists not just by the objects we make, but by the communities we build, the work we advocate for, and the activism in which we participate.
Along with eight other artists, Julie helped found Group Material, a political art collective that struggled against Reagan’s conservatism and the callow excesses of the ’80s art boom. Group Material’s emphasis on the series rather than the discrete object, on art-making as inquiry, documentation, and a model for political action, have influenced two decades of artists engaged in social practice. Group Material also arose out of the AIDS crisis, when gay artists had no choice but to be activists, because it was a matter of survival. One of the collective’s most famous works is the “AIDS Timeline,” exhibited at the Berkeley Museum in 1989. Julie, along with the then members of Group Material — the late Félix González-Torres, Doug Ashford, and Karen Ramspacher — used art objects, government documents, and news clippings to trace a chronology of how AIDS became a full-blown crisis because of public neglect and government malfeasance. Another Group Material collaboration that feels especially relevant today is The People’s Choice show (1981), in which they invited immigrant residents of their New York City block to exhibit mementos in their storefront gallery as an outcry against gentrification. In 1987, for Documenta 8, the group constructed a model of Kafka’s Castle with a collection of artworks inside as an offering. They wrote the following:
All artists seek an ideal audience. This audience used to be people—flesh and blood individuals. This is finished. Our art is now made for the Castle…the Castle is a general sweeping power we can no longer exactly locate…. To love the castle is to make oneself in its image. Artists take on attributes of the Castle. Artists are pawns of a higher rank…bestowed with the illusions of freedom…the castle weakens when the artist rejects the role of the rook…this requires artists who, not waiting their turn, ignore the laws of the grid and break the rules of the game.
If this frightening period won’t challenge artists to break out of the castle, I don’t know what will. Many museum curators, art dealers, and gallerists have appeased their collector base and their board members, maintaining the systemic inequity that has egregiously favored white male artists. If we were to look only at statistics of artists represented in solo shows and those who have risen to mega-stardom, we would be forgiven for thinking the New York art world doesn’t reflect this city’s diversity so much as it reflects the constituency of Trump’s America.
Many of us artists, writers, editors, and curators may not be the power players, but we are still the cultural elite, and we have a choice: We can continue making the same work that we know will sell, and selling the same work we know will sell, and buying the same work we know will sell for more later. Or we could choose not to. If art feels futile, start by saying no. Reject the role of the rook. Normalize this culture of refusal, so that when you say no, you know that the next artist will not say yes. In the next four years, we may not move forward, but we can obstruct those assholes from dragging us backwards. This will be done through activism, but it can also be done through culture. Artists have the power to agitate consciousness and change our perception of the world, but their visions must be supported by curators and gallerists who can represent them properly and collectors who invest with their conscience, rather than with their wallet.
Julie has been and remains an inspiration. Since Group Material, she has continued to commit herself as a writer, editor, and curator — in eloquent essays, in advocacy for artists like Martin Wong, Félix González-Torres, and Sister Mary Corita Kent, and in exhibitions like Macho Man, Tell It to My Heart, which prove that art need not be a luxury product but part of a gift economy among friends and marginalized communities. Her radically humane projects can be a guiding light for how we build our movements today.