Brian Holmes on Fri, 26 Oct 2012 12:41:41 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> open letter to art critics

An open letter to critics writing about political art
- Stephen Duncombe & Steve Lambert

Here's the kind of letter I like! And I guess most of nettime does too. Kudos to Stephen and Steve.

The problem is not necessarily
lazy criticism, but the fact that we don't have a developed vocabulary
with which to understand, and criteria with which to evaluate, political
art and activist artists.

This is absolutely correct. Both artists and critics need, not to abandon museums, but to get out of their control halo a little more often. Otherwise the considerations about political effectiveness have one audience only: fellow professionals. And the profession demands both abstruse concepts and an intractable style. My suggestion: write some tracts. Do it regularly. Some of the profession seriously frowns on you, then ignores you, which frees you up for the serious work requested here.

We don't train people to be good political artists in our art schools.
Most institutions are slow to adapt and are, at best, fighting the old myth
of the lone genius artist expressing their vision in spite of society,
rather than moving forward towards a world in which artists work
collectively in an embedded engagement with society.

Nor do we train people to be good political art critics (which means also helping to make and propagate political art). I am willing to take on board the seven questions, apply them to my own efforts and also present them to students when I have the chance (coming right up). There should also be a debate between critics about what political art is and can be.

The seven questions seem to refer primarily to campaigns, where art shades over into organizing and protest tactics. This is a tremendously important part of political art. These days I would additionally argue for a wider view, that does not deny the complexity of contemporary society or even contemporary art, but seeks to activate the different elements of that complexity for progressive ends. This view doesn't deny the importance of museums or universities either (as I often tended to do in the past). Instead it integrates the experience of aesthetic intensities -- an experience which can be and often is had outside of museums -- with other, quite different realms. The territorial solidarity of movements. The communicational and tactical aspects of campaigns. The analytic concepts of philosophy and social theory. Together these make up the four fields or "fourfold matrix" that is capable of producing ruptures in the social norm:

I presented these ideas in a lecture at the gaudy new financialized building of Cooper Union, precisely for Creative Time. It was at once a good lecture, and the usual virtuoso-narcissistic performance of an intellectual before a seated public in a building that's owned or at least commanded by some kind of investment bank. Later, when the book Living As Form came out with my text in it, I read my fellow critics' contributions. Although I understand the importance and necessity of publishing and speaking within official contexts - and respect Nato Thompson for organizing this sort of thing - still I felt embarassed that the discourse was so narrow, so ineffective. Eactly what Steve and Stephen describe. I distribute my work widely, to many different audiences and collaborators in different languages and countries, using the Internet and giving the texts away, so it's not like I accept this fate.

Later I spoke at Zuchotti Park using the human mic. After lots of dialogue someone came up to me.

-- "I was there at Cooper when you gave that talk. But isn't this what you were really talking about?"

-- "Of course!"

What we need is art criticism that reinforces movements like Occupy - and helps them grow stronger. I think the only way to do this is to learn from and collaborate with the movements. Only the power of movements can change sclerotic professions.

Call us optimists, but we assume anyone producing creative work to affect
power is doing it from a sincere and passionate place. If it's not working,
it's not because they don't care enough or aren't committed. It's because
we haven't developed a critical tradition that helps artistic activists
strengthen their work. Political art needs help.

This is why we need you.

Because we're all in this together.

OK, I hear the call. And it is a generous one. So how do we move forward?

Thanks, Brian Holmes

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