How Can the Art World Respond to an Age of Perpetual Crisis?

The art world is not the world, but what the world needs, artists need, too

BP or Not BP?, Performance 22, 2015, performance documentation, British Museum, London. Courtesy: BP or Not BP?/Getty Images; photograph: Niklas Halle’n/AFP

Late in the summer of 1960, the science-fiction writer Samuel R. Delany found himself in a loft on New York’s Second Avenue, attending a performance of Allan Kaprow’s Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts (1959). The work is often cited as the birth of postmodernism, though Delany couldn’t have known that then. Polyethylene screens stretched on wooden frames divided the loft into six chambers of identical size. Delany, invited to sit in one of them, could make out only ‘ghosts’ of what was occurring in the adjacent rooms: the sound of a snare drum, a candle’s ‘buttery glow’. ‘It was precisely in this subversion of expectations about the “proper” aesthetic employment of time, space, presence, absence, wholeness and fragmentation,’ Delany writes in his 1988 memoir, The Motion of Light in Water, ‘that made Kaprow’s work signify: his happenings – clicking toys, burning candles, pounded drums or whatever – were organized in that initial work very much like historical events.’ He continues: ‘How were we to distinguish facilitation from content – that is, how were we to distinguish “information” from “noise”?’

History is a candle flickering behind a screen. In our profoundly fragmented age, the simultaneity of political crises, natural disasters and cultural shifts makes it nearly impossible to determine how we got here or where we’re going: in short, to sort the information from the noise. Demagogues drum up Twitter scandals to distract the public while they dismantle democratic institutions; corporations flood us with targeted ads while quietly eroding our privacy. Society has always depended on artists to look into both the future and the past – a task that has never seemed more difficult or more urgent.

‘We are already at a tipping point,’ artist Andrea Fraser tells curator Michelle Millar Fisher in a special section on museum patronage in this issue. Following a series of high-profile protests over the funding sources of art institutions – from New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art to London’s British Museum – Fraser and Millar Fisher ask what it would take for every museum worker to have a voice in administrative decisions. ‘Supposedly progressive cultural institutions have an opportunity to rebuild democracy,’ says Fraser, ‘starting with their own organizational structures.’ In her survey of the persistent donor relations between art institutions and Big Oil, climate activist Mel Evans argues that, while museums ‘may see themselves as outside of the messy politics of civil society, […] they are not. Cultural institutions are right at the heart of what makes up the status quo.’ Also in this issue, Dana Kopel examines the recent wave of unionization efforts by museum workers who aim to chip away at that status quo. ‘In a field purportedly concerned with investigating and reshaping systems of power,’ she asks, ‘why are the people at the top so desperate to hang on to it?’ Indeed, what kind of pressures are needed for that to change?

The term ‘tipping point’ was first applied to the climate in 2001 by atmospheric scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, who identified 15 key risks – melting sea ice and permafrost, frequent droughts in the Amazon – that would signal the earth’s ecosystems had gone into a tailspin. According to a 2019 article he co-authored in Nature, nine of those points have already been passed. In many parts of the world, political conditions are likewise so dire that tipping points are moments to be studied, rather than events for which we can still plan. In this issue, Silas Martí examines the effects of Jair Bolsonaro’s first year as president of Brazil and the ways artists are fighting back against his crypto-fascism. Jennifer Croft reflects on her experience translating Nobel Prize laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (2017) and the relationship between literature and politics in Poland, as the country’s right-wing Law and Justice Party tightens its grip on power. And, in a roundtable chaired by Hera Chan, Hong Kong-based artists Clara Cheung, Ky Wong and Susi Law consider their city’s growing protest movement and what happens when artists take to the streets and the ballot boxes.

The art world is not the world, but what the world needs, artists need, too. A government that censors artists denies expression to all its citizens. A system that offers tax breaks to billionaires reflects the incentives of late capitalism. Improving conditions across the industry requires us to see artists as workers and museums as workplaces, and to insist that prestige is never the same as pay. Such changes would grant artists the freedom to create without financial concerns, to make work without the pressure to be political and, hopefully, to subvert our expectations the way Kaprow subverted Delany’s. We may have only the vaguest sense of what that will look or sound like, but our fight to make it possible will change history.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 209 with the headline ‘The Information and the Noise’.

Evan Moffitt is associate editor of frieze, based in New York, USA. 

En Liang Khong is senior editor at frieze. His writing on politics and art has been published in Prospect, Financial Times, Times Literary Supplement, Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Statesman, The Daily Telegraph and The New Inquiry. Follow him on Twitter: @en_khong

Issue 209

First published in Issue 209

March 2020