Nato Thompson: Be Careful What You Wish For

I would like to take this opportunity to perhaps provide a few warnings to the phenomenally growing field of socially engaged art/public practice/whatever you want to call it. As many of us have seen, the conversation around art and community has grown, and with that growth has come some foreseeable and some not so foreseeable tensions that are worth noting.

The first tension of course is the knee-jerk response that most artists have to things that become popular. The ongoing hunt for “the new” must come equipped with myriad caveats, as some of those urges might be well-founded and others, well, not so much. Certainly the hunt for the new is important when it comes to an individual style, particularly in a form of cultural capitalism that deeply encourages innovation and personal articulation. For the field of contemporary art, the new is its sine qua non. In the mid 19th century, the search for the new and the breaking of tradition became an important aesthetic maneuver that disrupted the chains of power bound up in cultural traditions, but since that period, we see an increasingly capitalist-friendly language bound up in discussions of innovation and rebels.

That said, as things grow, one finds an increasing capacity of power to use the language of an art form, particularly one that possess a revolutionary capacity, and defang it. This ability of institutions to, for lack of a better term, co-opt political art work is certainly real to some extent. One will find that the more famous of the political artists, the ones that actually make a killing in the art market, will probably have the least revolutionary language around what they do. That said, feeling that everything that is popular is simply co-opted is just not exactly thorough thinking.

Finally, we must be aware of the dangers that occur when those in power finally have a language of utility in the field of art. Certainly, there is much to be gained from having useful methods for working on communities toward the end-goals of social justice, but these methods can also fall rather neatly into overzealous funding circles eager for quick fixes and politically over-simplified language. There is value in not always making sense. We see a growing interest in this field and I would say, with that, comes a responsibility to articulate a vision of social justice that appreciates the values, and power, of working in methods that not only resist the logic of capital, but also privilege the power that happens when people come together in an open-ended space of poetic ambiguity.

Working out methods that account for cultural difference and imbalances of power across race, gender, class, and sexuality is critical for the field. On a positive note, these conversations are becoming more frequent, and though very complex, are what is critical to making the field all the more meaningful and able to side-step some of the problems I have just listed.


About the contributor: Nato Thompson is the Artistic Director of Creative Time. Previously, he worked as Curator at MASS MoCA, where he completed numerous large-scale exhibitions. His writings have appeared in numerous publications, BookForum, Frieze, Art Forum, Third Text, and Huffington Post among them. In 2005, he received the Art Journal Award for distinguished writing. His book Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the 21st Century was published in 2015.