Friday, September 06, 2013

The Paradox of the Artist Activist

Ben Davis had a discussion and book-signing last night for his immensely enjoyable (as well as remarkably both debatable and undeniable for just about everyone who reads it apparently) collection of essays titled 9.5 Theses on Art and Class. In addition to sharing how he came to activism in general and through that how he came to his oft-cited definition of "class" as it applies to art making, Ben shared the stage with four other people who are involved in similar explorations: artists Jennifer Dalton and William Powhida (organizers of the original "#class" show that helped inspire the book), artist Naeem Mohaiemen, and activist and organizer Blithe Riley. 

Their discussion, which was a bit tamer than I would have expected given the individual conversations I've had with 3/5ths of the panel (but then the expectations and protocols of panels these days have a way of taming folks on even the most passionate of topics, as I discovered in Basel over the summer), eventually gave way to a Q&A with the audience. Two of the questions from the audience and their corresponding responses from the panelists resonated with me. 

First was a gentleman who drew a comparison between Lenin and Trotsky and activists today, with the question implying today's activists aren't living up to the example set by the Russians. My immediate thought upon hearing this was the gentleman was conflating activists with revolutionaries, the critical distinction between the two being that revolutionaries are trying to overturn an existing system, whereas activists are trying to work within an existing system. In a democracy, activism is protected by freedom of speech and as such viewed as a right that comes, like most rights, with responsibilities as well. Activism is expected to be conscious of stopping short of throwing the baby out with the bath water. For revolutionaries, tossing the baby is the point. 

Second was a gentleman who asked why struggling artists didn't build security the way immigrant populations do? Artists tend to cluster in inexpensive neighborhoods, the way immigrants do, but they don't pool their resources to buy up the neighborhood and establish community services for themselves the way immigrants do. William Powhida's response to this question (in which he shared that he and several other art world folks are working to purchase a space and open an inexpensive studio program in it) sparked an epiphany (or sorts) for me, though, about a central paradox within the role of "artist activist."

Essentially, it seems to me there are three types of activists: 1) the grassroots community organizer activist who works in relative obscurity fighting for something near and dear to their hearts; 2) the celebrity activist who leverages their name recognition, secured entirely through their particular industry (i.e., something entirely unrelated to their activism), to shine light on causes célèbres like saving the rain forest or rebuilding Haiti; and 3) the artist activist, who is attempting to accomplish both at the same time, that is, to incorporate some cause into their daily practice, which begins in relative obscurity, while working toward fame in their industry via that same daily practice. 

The challenge of that duality was apparent in Powhida's discussion of how the studio program is progressing. Bill's description of the effort included perhaps a half dozen apologies for what the program wasn't going to be able to do (i.e., with regards to helping the local immigrant community) or how it was potentially going to be viewed as exasperating other problems (contributing to the area's gentrification). I said to Bill afterward he can't expect the studio program to be all things to all people...not if he expects it to achieve its central goal, that is. 

Indeed, most celebrity activists didn't hamper their acting, singing, or sports careers with similar concerns. In general, their day jobs are their day jobs and their activism is outside that. You don't see Leo DiCaprio insisting they drop a line about rebuilding Haiti into the script of The Great Gatsby. The two efforts are separate. 

And yet, awareness of the abuse of power and money is a central theme in Powhida's art, so I understand why he struggles with how to not do the same things he criticizes others for in his work. My sense of it, though, is that artists can do more good for the world if they're well known first. Therefore, it's OK to be just a bit selfish about setting up a studio program or simply doing what's needed to ensure your focus on your work is free from the weight of everyone's concerns in the world. I know this may come as a news flash to several people, but no one expects an artist to be perfect...except their dealer, perhaps :-).


Blogger AvivaRahmani said...

Wish I'd been in town to attend this. I like the way you framed the practice of those of us who conflate our activism and our studio work. A bit difficult that and thank you for making a platform to address the implications. My own opinion is that we are living in the most radically shifting times on shifting sands of values. It's hard for me to understand those who seem happy to stick their heads int hose sands. But, hey. What do I know? I just work here.

9/06/2013 10:28:00 AM  
Anonymous cjagers said...

I always wonder why these debates find it so hard to find examples of artists who successfully address cultural issues, not as activists, but as artists? For example, look at the Irish Poet Seamus Heaney. Without ever resorting to polemic, he provided a response, an answer to the violence of Northern Ireland, by working within the jurisdiction of form. He offers a picture of reality and then offers something more, because his poems contain a self-justifying aesthetic satisfaction as an imagined thing in its own right. That is so much richer than propaganda. He defined and situated the present into a meaningful relationship with the past. The traditional soft power of the arts is underrated. Propaganda is overrated and never lasts long.

More about the example of Seamus Heaney here:

9/06/2013 11:57:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Love Mr. Heaney, but believe he was somewhat reluctantly dragged into writing on The Troubles...he had established his gift for poetry and then was expected to contribute to the least that's what I've read.

9/06/2013 12:01:00 PM  
Blogger John Powers said...

I thought the Revolutionary vs Activist comment was wrongheaded. A better comparison for today's Activists would be to Reformers, which would also add a fourth type of activist to your list: The Professional Activist. According to the historian David Blight, the three great periods of US political reform (Abolition, New Deal, Civil Rights) have been characterized by activists working full time (speaking tours, writing, lobbyists, aid workers, etc.) to push for their cause.

I also found the ethnic neighborhood vs art neighborhood comment a bit myopic. The kid from London overlooked two important facts. First, that before it was a Polish/Puerto Rican neighborhood Williamsburg was an Italian neighborhood and before that it was Jewish.

Second, in the fifties the New York art world could be measured in the hundreds, of possibly the low thousands, but today it numbers in the tens of thousands or possibly low hundreds of thousands. That change in scale is big enough that it should be treated as a change in kind not quantity. While artists may not have the cohesiveness of an ethnic group, "artist" is not a historically static tag, which is why Ben's recasting of artists as "middle class" is so arresting.

9/06/2013 12:04:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Yeah, I should have been more careful in that categorization of "activist" was designed more as a device in the service of how artists often come at it from paradoxical points of view, rather than an exhaustive system.

9/06/2013 12:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting body language in that photo.

-----ondine nyc

9/08/2013 09:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Kate said...

as to the audience comment "Second was a gentleman who asked why struggling artists didn't build security the way immigrant populations do? " one might consider the difference between commonality of nationality to create a shared living community and the idea of artists comingling finances to create a parallel working community. The latter does work on a relatively small basis, such as a
building, but the shared interest of group of artists beyond working space would likely include life considerations not amenable to merging into an all-artists community. Shared ethnic background daily LIVING doesn't translate to shared WORKING futures on the same scale, at all, given there are so many variants among artists. And remember, the choice (deliberate) to be working artists is quite different from birth (accidental) into a nationality.

9/14/2013 01:37:00 PM  

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