Holland Cotter, an art critic at The New York Times, recently wrote an article called “The Boom is Over. Long Live Art!” I read the article with interest and several of us on the activist art education listserv exchanged reactions. I felt a little silly coming to Cotter’s defense because he hardly needs my defense and I don’t usually defend the New York Times. Still, I think Cotter is an ally, so here’s what I said:
“I don’t think Holland Cotter was addressing those of us on this list as much as those who never knew or chose to ignore all the other threads in the art world beyond the gallery/star system. While his comments–‘It’s day-job time again in America’ (when has it ever been otherwise for most of us?) and ‘I’m not talking about creating ’60s-style utopias; all those notions are dead and gone and weren’t so great to begin with’ (so general as to be meaningless)–are certainly open to challenge, I was heartened by the breadth of the artists he did name, and the sketch of (not-so-new) approaches that he articulates and appreciates: ‘Why not make studio training an interdisciplinary experiences, crossing over into sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, poetry and theology? Why not build into your graduate program a work-study semester that takes students out of the art world entirely and places them in hospitals, schools and prisons, sometimes in-extremis environments, i.e. real life?’ Why not, indeed? Easier said than done even for those of us in the academy.
He then remarks that ‘Such changes would require new ways of thinking and writing about art…. I’m talking about carving out a place in the larger culture where a condition of abnormality [or resistance, methinks] can be sustained, where imagining the unknown and the unknowable…is the primary enterprise.’
While folks have been doing this for years, it’s good to have Cotter shout it out from the NY art world. I wonder, though, how to sustain these conditions of abnormality and resistance across social divisions, within global capitalism, with justice. Going forward is unknowable, so recentering art to support different people means that we are always experimenting, never getting it quite right. But I think our own work-places can be places of hope and art now; if we have to have ‘day jobs,’ let’s appoint ourselves arts-based workers in those jobs, as many have already done, and infuse the normal with the ‘abnormal.’ Cotter has consistently written about ‘marginalized’ art groups for years: Heart of the Beast Puppet Theatre, the various feminist exhibitions, Asian art, and street artists. I don’t know him, but I have appreciated his rather singular voice in the NY Times, probably not an easy thing in his context. Of course we want activist art and its concerns to be front and center, whether in the NY Times or the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, Institute for Community Understanding Between Art and The Everyday, Cabinet, n.paradoxa, etc.
And here’s what Richard Kamler of the University of San Francisco said:
I do think Cotter’s article was fine, simply dated. Worn down by the weight of the NY market and not really open to what has been bubbling up and emerging and transforming culture these past 20 or more years. He does mention, in passing, work with communities such as prisons, hospitals, etc where many of us have been working, or worked, 30 years or so ago. The idea of an engaged art, of community-based art, (social practice, hate that phrase) is just not something that Cotter, or the NY market really knows what to do with….I subscribe to Vaclav Havel’s model of “bringing the artist to the model!”