[P]eople want to have it both ways. They want to say “This is my form of intervention in the world. This is how I’m going to change the world — but don’t ask me how because I’m an artist.” It has all of these little noble effects, [which] they call the “message in the bottle” theory, which is the de facto theory that most people have when you try to figure out what circuit connects what you’re doing to how you change the world. Why not put a message in a bottle and eventually it’s going to wash up on the shore and someone will find my message? I think we can do better, basically.
Ben Davis is a New York-based radical art critic. He is the author of 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (2013) and the current National Art Critic at artnet News. With a special interest in political art, Davis focuses on art’s role in political and social movements, the breadth of art’s impact, and how art activists think about and execute their work. His work has been featured in venues such as Adbusters, The Brooklyn Rail, e-Flux Journal, Frieze, New York, The New York Times, Slate, The Village Voice, and many more.
Steve Duncombe: How did you get into the business of doing art criticism, and particularly art criticism with an emphasis on class and politics?
Ben Davis: Well, that’s pretty organic. I moved to New York in 2004. It’s a long story but by a series of random encounters, I ended up writing for a paper in Queens about community art and then ended up working for a fine art magazine. At the same time, during this period of the mobilization against the Iraq war and a lot of other things, I became involved in various forms of activism. In the end, I was particularly focused on criminal justice activism against the death penalty. Most of the time these things were just parallel tracks in my life.
I do think there’s a way that this background helps: so much of the intellectual production around fine art traces back to various kinds of political claims that are being made covertly or overtly for art shows and the art object. This can be overinflated, [but] can also be really genuine and easy to overlook or underestimate. We should try to put a little bit of perspective on some of the claims that are made for art.
SD: What do you mean by that?
BD: Well, it becomes clear when you’re actually involved in politics that the term “politics” contains a multitude. In art, the question is treated as if it’s a self-evident thing. It’s like: What is the connection between art and politics? And I realize that my question is: “What politics?” All these ideas that are really vital, and are actually the subject of really acrimonious debates in the activist organizing space, are almost never the subject of discussions in the arts. There is this whole huge universe that ranges from progressive electoral politics, to nonprofit politics, to community organizing, to socialist movement building, to anarchist communal space building, that just collapses into one thing. The conversation about art and politics is sometimes all these things, one of these things, none of these things.
SD: Why is that? Why is it that politics become this abstraction in art? Where, for an activist, “politics” tends to be the politics of getting this person elected or not, the politics of mobilizing these people or not, get this policy passed, or, even the politics of world building and self-expression. But it’s defined. We know what it is.
So, why in the art world is it this abstraction: “art and politics”?
BD: I don’t know if there’s exactly one answer. I think in some sense though, I’ve come to think of it like an original sin, [as if] it’s sort of baked into the idea of art. “Art” is a fairly modern concept. I always like to say if you look at the people that we consider to be the first real critics of modern art, Charles Baudelaire and John Ruskin, they would have all been in the same high school class with Marx and Engels. I mean, they’re all born within one year of each other. So, the development of capitalism and the various kinds of attempts to theorize and think against it, and the modern idea of the artist, they’re simultaneous tendencies.
These are all pretty specific counterpoints to the birth of consumer capitalism. The world’s more and more alienated. People don’t know where their commodities come from, or they don’t have control of their labor. And so, society invents this alternate route to salvation. On one hand, people are theorizing political resistance. On the other hand, people imagine these fantastical forms of resisting through artistic expression, where we’re going to be redeemed by people who feel harder or who offer this imaginary escape route where your children can love what they do and be these visionaries who show us an alternative route out of alienation.
That strand continues through our history. In the 60s, they talked about the opposition between the hippies and the politicos. That’s a displaced version of the opld opposition: people who believe in transformation through living passionately and creatively vs. the people who are, like: How do we actually shut down the Pentagon?
I wouldn’t be dismissive of the artistic route. I think it actually poses an interesting problem for the organizer route — how you coordinate or integrate those kinds of energies. But it is a problem. On one hand, art contains within itself these strands or strains where you think about [it] as an alternative to the [everyday] world of exploitation and alienation. That can be an entry into alternative modes of thinking or it can be a deflection form alternative modes of thinking. It can be both at once or neither. That’s kind of the eternal conversation that’s latent within these debates.
9.5 Theses on Art and Class by Ben Davis
SD: In your 9.5 Theses on Art and Class you talk about how part of the problem of art itself, but by extension political art, is that it has a middle class analysis of the world — that the individual is the agent of history as opposed to the class or the collective being the agent of history. Is that part and parcel of this alternative model of social change?
BD: Yeah, I think there is a kind of constant deflection in that direction, towards solutions that are based around the individual visionary. Art tends to go in that direction. It’s not fated to be so but I think it’s useful to start from the point of view that art politics, the kind of politics that tends to manifest within these spheres, has a natural bias towards that. Just because of the entire conception of art and that function.
This is one of the reasons, frankly, that rich people are comfortable funding artistic causes: because cultural politics is much more friendly ground than “straight” politics. There’s some paper I was reading on the Ford Foundation’s investment in black activism in the early 1970s where they talk about [how they] funded black cultural causes because it was friendlier terrain to them than some of the more revolutionary or community organizing activity that was going in the African American community at the time.
SD: And I imagine more legible to themselves. Which is why we can understand this idea of the individual artist who’s seeing the future because we, ourselves, are individuals who can imagine ourselves as agents of history.
SD: Bringing it back to this idea about socially engaged arts, social practice, or whatever you want to call it — one of the reasons why I really wanted to talk to you is that you’re one of the few people, I think, who’s writing today that is at one and the same time genuinely sympathetic to the aims of things like social practice arts, socially engaged arts, but also doesn’t give it a free pass.
Can you tell me a little bit why you don’t give it a pass? Why don’t you just accept the work based on its artist’s intentions?
BD: Because anything that is unquestioned is the tool, the instrument, that power turn on you. When you define anything in such a way as to make it off limits to criticism — I’m just saying that once you do that, you’re just giving people this huge stick to beat you with.
Kara Walker’s Sugar Baby at the Domino Sugar Factory is a great example. The project is actually a landmark project [that is] totally fascinating. It has attracted a really interesting audience, and I know activists who went there as soon they could [to] talk about racism and criminal justice issues because it attracted such a diverse audience. It definitely opened up a kind of space.
But it was all funded by Two Trees Real Estate Development, and it was all an attempt to get people excited about the waterfront in advance to this very controversial redevelopment. So I think you have to come up with a complex way to look at it. Otherwise, you’re not taking the politics part of art-in-politics seriously enough.
SD: Okay, so let’s play this out a little bit because the counter argument would be something like “You can’t hold art to the standards that you’re holding say a housing organizer, an anti-racist organizer. That art is this thing which has myriad sort of impacts and influences and so on and so forth. To be critical of it is missing it’s possibilities.”
BD: Sure, except people make claims for it all the time as if it’s equivalent to housing activism or it’s like your form of intervening in the world. That’s the thing. It’s that people want to have it both ways. They want to say, “This is my form of intervention in the world. This is how I’m going to change the world — but don’t ask me how because I’m an artist.”
I call this the “message in the bottle” theory, which is the de facto theory that most artists have when it comes to the circuit that connects what they’re doing to how it changes the world. You are just putting a message out there and hoping it does something, like putting a message in a bottle and eventually hoping it’s going to wash up on the shore and someone will find the message. I think we can do better, basically.
And particularly now, I try to be critical of the new forms of art and politics — but supportively critical. Constructively critical.
Because there is also a dangerous tendency that I see, particularly in young critics who are progressive or radical, and it partly comes as a reaction to the kind of inflation of claims around art and politics. There’s a kind of criticism that starts out of a left wing tendency to criticize some of the vagueness and opportunism of the art-and-politics conversation and really ends up in a right wing place, dismissing all politics in art. I think of it as a course of antibiotics that you haven’t taken through all the way to the end. Then you build up more and more resistant strains of bacteria.
I think you need to head that off. And a way to do that produce a critical way of looking at things where you define some of the criteria by which you say a project would be successful so that it doesn’t all disintegrate into this obviously massive hypocrisy. Or you moderate the claims you are making.
SD: As a constructive critique, what would your advice be to an activist artist? Imagine I’m like: “Ben, I really want to stop racism and I’m going to do this installation. It’s going to stop racism and it’s based on my experiences as a white guy and about how white supremacy was part of my family. Yeah.”
What would you say to something like that?
BD: First of all, the problem with that is not the second part, I don’t think, where you want to make an installation exploring the complicity of my history with racism, or any other issue. That’s a fine thing, though [you] want to be sensitive to how you do that. [The] problem is the first part:The claim that it be evaluated as your intervention to change the world. It’s just like, to a certain extent, you should unburden [some] art from having to change the world. That’s not the only thing it’s for.
That’s something I say in my book: art is a Swiss Army Knife not a hammer. Some art is just [about] an artist working through things. It doesn’t [have an] instrumental effect? That’s fine. It’s when the claim is made that [the art] is something else that it can become a way to deflect from other conversations, to redefine social change in a less threatening, more individualistic, more artistic way. So that’s the first thing I would say: Be sensitive about the claims that you’re making, the space you’re using and so on.
The second thing I’d say is define the politics of it. I think the pernicious thing is that, by its nature, the art sphere really wants to aestheticize politics. By the nature of the space you’re in, it really wants to take politics and turn it into a motif or a theme and so on. It wants heart-warming stories. It wants tales of transcendence. It wants the most symbolic form of politics possible. You just have to push against that as hard of possible. You want to be able to know really specifically what you believe, politics-wise.
Then the third thing is to attach yourself to something. I think this is the best way that you can actually better define the stakes or outcomes of things. There are all these people doing this kind of work. Sometimes it seems like we start from the point of view that the artist is going to figure problems out for society, which, again I think is an inheritance of our romantic conception of the artist and all these kinds of attempts to redefine art as a form of wisdom or social knowledge. I don’t think artists are particularly smarter about politics than anybody else. Some of them are but the majority are just — it’s not any more likely that an artist has something visionary to say about politics than a scientist or a plumber or anyone else. I just cannot believe that. And the best way you can check yourself is to be associated with people who actually know their shit, who you can check your work with.
All the time people make claims about various forms of struggles they’re representing and you just have to be following the news around the struggles to be like, “That was the debate about five years ago.The thing that you’re advocating is the conservative wing of this particular movement,” and so on.
A few years ago I was part of a talk about activism in Chinatown, and someone from CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, a tenants rights group, talked about what a burden artists were on [them]. CAAAV was constantly getting inquiries about artists who wanted to do a project about gentrification. And their organizers were like, “You realize that we have to train you, every single one of you? Every time we get one of these requests. It’ll be better if you just volunteered as a person and then see what comes of it.” To start from the position [where] you’re assuming that you’re a special visionary person and that you’re going to bring your solution to something is already starting behind. I think you should start from the point view of a citizen, activist, organizer. Then from there, artists definitely have skills that are needed—but work backwards from the material involvement.
SD: What do we have to learn from artists? I can organize a bunch of tenants to throw out a landlord. But why do I need some artist that’s always talking about: “you can’t tell me what to do. I need my artistic freedom. I’m a creative, blah blah, blah”
BD: Well, you definitely don’t need that kind of artist.
SD: All right. Okay.
BD: Politics, I believe, is movement-building organization. So it is true, in my experience, that a lot of the work of movements and organizations becomes really instrumental. It’s always focused on the next thing and always focused on the hard problem of just trying to figure out how we’re going to get 25 people to this vigil so that this politician [or] local official is shaken a little. I think that’s probably the most important piece of organizing. It’s the piece that art always leaves out. The problem with most art stuff is that it’s attached to nothing besides the art world. What it produces is more a conversation about itself and it never produces the output linked into the second space. It usually never [raises the suggestion] of: “Should you be so inspired by this poster show, there’s the next meeting where you can go and plan…”
But sometimes what the most urgent organizing leaves out is the time space to think about where you’re recruiting people and bringing new blood in, in between actions. A lot of times, that new blood comes in through the less instrumental parts of this work. My conclusion from that is that the question is not so much that everything has to have clear output or a clear propagandistic function. It’s really more the question ultimately of what it’s attached to. Artists can play a key role in opening up the spaces where people enter movements.
Pictured: 9.5 Theses on Art and Class Poster by N+1 Mag.
BD: My friend, [who] is a lawyer who does housing rights, he’s like, “What you do is stupid.” I have to agree with him a little bit. I have to agree with him. But that sort of sits over me like a challenge. How do you prove that this is not stupid?
You have to think both thoughts at once. I don’t think that you should try and reduce everything to the instrumental “How are we going to shut down x” level. But, on the other hand, that stuff is important too. I think we’re in a really interesting moment, a really interesting historical, political, communicational moment where I think there’s all of these questions about these things that haven’t been worked out yet that I’m trying to work my way through because I feel like they’re unfolding around me all the time.
It’s almost like the rise of the internet and social media and a variety of other phenomena have made it so that every single movement gets translated immediately to the thing that’s most purely expressive. It’s like everything immediately becomes an open letter, an online petition, various forms of shaming and attack. It’s almost like people have doubled down on expression as activism. We’re going to hold the line on the —
SD: On the cultural infrastructure.
BD: — on the cultural infrastructure. In some ways, that’s important but in some ways I think it’s also that was the problem we were in in the first place. People have just doubled down on politics within the cultural space. If you look at the serious history of cultural politics, that’s often a danger is that people over-estimate the good that they’re doing in the cultural sphere and don’t see what’s going on outside of it.
I think of the example of Brazil in the 60s. The coup happens in 1964 and there’s four years of incredible culture in Brazil where you get the Theatre of the Oppressed, the Tropicalia Movement comes out of that. Incredible developments in worker education, art, and art hybrids. There’s a great essay by Roberto Schwarz about this where he says, “If you were in one of these theaters at this time, you would have think that we had won. No one was asking the question: If we were so brave, how come we’d lost?” Then [by] 1968, they polished off the peasants. They polished off the workers’ movement. They’re finally like, “We’re sick of the intellectuals and the artists and we’re coming for you.” They passed the 5th Institutional Directive. And all of the artists go into exile or go silent and it becomes clear that that was all this weird interregnum.
I just really worry about that [in the Trump era]. And it’s another reason why you need to be constructively critical of all of this stuff and ask what it’s building towards. What are the larger things it plays into? Because it’s very possible that these are just spaces that are loaned to us.