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Illustration by Sawsan Chalabi for the Ford Foundation (courtesy Ford Foundation)

Hyperallergic has partnered with the Ford Foundation to publish select pieces from the foundation’s ongoing series Creative Futures. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Movement for Black Lives, and other epicenters of social upheaval in 2020, the foundation has commissioned 40 provocations from creatives working in journalism, documentary, and arts and culture. This provocation is by Coco Fusco, on the theme of “Artmaking” — about the work and practice in art.

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The prompt given to writers for these Creative Futures provocations references “reexamining our shared myths of justice and equity.” For those of us who live with injustice on a daily basis, this feels like a ruse. I’m skeptical about the idea that artists should whip up new works for a liberal elite that appears to be open to “heart-wrenching” tales of injustice and an “uplifting” imagining of better futures. Artists have been asked to do that before, and, after a brief period of what Herbert Marcuse termed “repressive desublimation,” during which we’re supposed to supply quick and shallow responses to complex issues that essentially end discussions before they really begin, we’ve encountered backlashes of all kinds. We’ve been called too simplistic, too strident, unmarketable, not representative, and anti-art — and then we’ve been forcibly disappeared from the art world landscape when critics and curators “discover” new trends and funders roll out another pressing agenda.

Don’t think me cynical — I witnessed what happened during the 1990s backlash against “identity politics.” Most of the artists that were in the infamous 1993 Whitney Biennial were rendered invisible shortly afterward. I heard foundation directors speak of being tired of being asked for money by homeless people on the subway. I saw that once-concerned curators suddenly had to pay attention to “global artists” with private backers in China and the Middle East. I heard editors I had worked with tell me that they no longer needed to hire Latinos. If progress is desired, we need to look back and make sure not to repeat history, not try to invent something new. We know from histories of activism that when we draw out continuities between past and present — between slavery and segregation, between mass incarceration and Jim Crow, between colonial exploitation and structural adjustment programs — we unmask the structural dimension of the practices of injustice.

There is already a good deal of art that has been and continues to be made that engages with injustice, racism, classism, sexism, authoritarianism, cultural genocide, and environmental degradation. We can embrace that history and take strength from it. We know that during economic downturns, conceptually driven and socially engaged art gets more attention from the press and the public. But much of it falls outside of what traditional institutions and galleries can manage because it does not take the form of objects — it involves performance, pirate radio, public art, digital interventions, multiples, DIY publications, and social practice. Museums have a much easier time absorbing this kind of art long after the fact — when the artists are dead or nearly dead, the Bohemia they inhabited is gone, and the issues that troubled then are past. When arts professionals bring the troubles of the present into the holy spaces of high culture and finance, they are far less welcome, despite the recent parade of declarations from arts institutions in support of Black Lives Matter.

I don’t think we need “new” art. The arts professionals that have been protesting in the streets and sending out declarations on social media are calling for institutional changes, not new aesthetic movements. They want to cut through the pieties that circulate in academia and arts institutions about art as a calling because they are struggling for survival in a milieu that pays lip service to high-minded values but is perversely unequal in its distribution of resources. They want to stop allowing “awareness” of diversity or sensitivity to racism to substitute for the implementation of policies that chip away privileges of the one percent. Equity won’t be achieved by a new biennial, another emerging artist of color survey, or a record auction sale by a Black artist. And while justice and equity may be goals for a democratic political culture, they have never been the principles that drive the most powerful patrons and artists of the art world. We’d do well to consider who actually views the arts as an arena in which social justice should prevail. We can’t assume that it’s a shared value.

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Coco Fusco

Coco Fusco is an artist, writer and the Andrew Banks Endowed Chair in Art at the University of Florida.

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6 Comments

  1. Apropos of this essay about the need for institutional changes there is a new book that was reviewed in an article in the New Yorker in the September 14 issue: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/09/14/how-can-we-pay-for-creativity-in-the-digital-age It’s called “Starving Artists: How can we pay for creativity in the digital age?” and discusses a William Deresiewicz’s book “The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech.”

    It lays out the difficulty most artists have in making a living and getting paid not just for doing something they love, but that other people love, too. There’s a provocative discussion of how rich tech companies rely on artists to produce content but make it hard for the “middle tier” (which is where most artists who manage to persevere past the first few years out of art school spend their career, as opposed to the superstars on one end and the amateurs on the other) to get paid for it. And Deresiewicz concludes that anything our society does to rebuild the middle class in general — raise the minimum wage, empower workers, break up monopolies, make college affordable, etc. — will be good for art and artists.

  2. This is a really good bit if writing with a weird title. institutions are traditionally controlled by those with little interest in justice, so why would we want more of them? Rather we want more freedom!

  3. Historically, institutional changes throughout the art world that address racism, classism, sexism, authoritarianism, cultural genocide, and environmental issues have long been slow-moving. It is the unfortunate nature of bureaucracies. Instead, the essential agent of change in the arts is the powerful role of the viewer. The viewing public has come out in record numbers over the last decade to see the artwork of Kara Walker, Mark Bradford, Emily Jacir, Bandi Zhao, Kehinde Wiley, Sharon Hayes, Ai Weiwei, Theaster Gates, Tracy Emin,and countless others artists whose work is about seeing inequities and creating change. Viewers are no longer just the elite. Contemporary viewers are people of every race, ethnicity, gender, political persuasion, and environmental concern. Artists will continue to make courageous work. The viewer will continue to spread the word to create change.

  4. Coco Fusco premise fundamentally wrong. Artists are the true auteurs, not gallerists, galleries, pundits, dealers, curators, political commentators, journalists, critics, theorists, investors, intellectuals, educators, promoters; who are, essentially, all hangers on profiting from the fruit off of the artist’s tree. ie Artists whose work is about seeing inequities and creating change isn’t art but agitprop. So much ugliness has been sold by big money dealers it is down to naive artists who still have an inkling of truth and beauty to try to capture it in their work, and bottom line, that is what they are about, not working to be seen and sold. Their work will stand the test of time. Because it is Art.

    1. I haven’t read Coco’s article; honestly I’m over pontification about the ‘artworld’ but the title alone would have elicited a response like this out of me.

      1. Yes, it was the intrinsic idiocy of the title that got up my nose; genuine artists have a hard enough time in the crass world of self-promotion so blather like this hardly helpful.

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