Flamers: Political Art and The Critics

by Corinna Kirsch and Whitney Kimball on October 22, 2012 · 4 comments The Firing Line

Photo courtesy of blog.wepay.com

1. Martha Schwendener, “The State of Political Art After a Year of Protest Movements,” The Village Voice

“Is contemporary art politically useless?,” Martha Schwendener asks, as political art resumes its usual place in the white cube. She looks to the quiet reading list offered by “Occupy Your BFF” at Momenta Art; Hito Steyerl’s historicizing view of radicalism; and Apexart’s group show of artistically-appropriated protest materials. After spending a year in the streets fighting with OWS, she wonders how “Claire Fontaine‘s protest-style cardboard signs with text imprinted by smoke, or Tomas Rafa‘s video of European and American protest marches around racism, add to the experience or revolt—or how they might prefigure or inspire actual activism. Mostly, they retool it for art.”

2. Stephen Duncombe & Steve Lambert,”An Open Letter to Critics Writing About Political Art,” Center for Artistic Activism

On the flipside of Schwendener’s conclusion, activist Stephen Duncombe and artist Steve Lambert (who co-founded the Center For Artistic Activism together) criticize critics for inadequately addressing political art. Without offering any specific examples of critical failing, they complain in broad terms about all critics and outline a list of questions to consider (“What Medium and Why?” and “What Am I Missing?”)

“The critical response [to the Creative Time Summit] has “so far…been underwhelming: few critics attended and those that did had little substantive to say,” write Duncombe and Lambert, a presenter at said conference. But Mira Schor had a lot to say, and unlike many of the Creative Time presentations and its social media team, Schor addressed specific issues that weakened the overall efficacy of the event.

None of those criticisms had to do with aesthetics, so it’s strange that Lambert and Duncombe would decide that  the problem is that critics evaluates formalism within political art, rather than examining the political action that the art motivates. “You are not alone in your ignorance,” they assure us. Pot, meet kettle. We recommend the two do a little additional reading, and take a look at Martha Schwendener’s review above.

3. Sarah Thornton, “Top 10 Reasons NOT to Write About the Art Market,” TAR Magazine

Seven Days in the Art World author Sarah Thornton won’t be writing about the art market any more. She published her beef in TAR magazine, citing ineptitude within the field as a major issue: for instance, you can’t “expose a vainglorious conman—one who has taken his clients for an unscrupulous ride in full view of 500 well-dressed auction goers—[when] the authorities can’t get their act together to investigate”.

Corruption aside, it sounds like she’s a little too smart to get stuck in a field full of “unbelievably stupid press releases”, “painfully repetitive” reporting, and of course, the idea that “money is the most important thing about art.” We get it, but boy, is this ever a loss for the fine art world. 

4. Leah Ollman, “Review: Diego Singh,” Los Angeles Times

Leah Ollman has very few choice words for Diego Singh‘s first solo show. She calls out his abstract paintings scribbled over with CAPTCHAs a “kind of concrete poetry…that resonates on only the most superficial level.” She then goes on to makes fun of the gallery press release’s typical art jargon:

There’s more to chew on in the press release, which describes these paintings as “teas(ing) out the absurdity of the anti-subjective assertion of the text in Conceptual Art.

By the end of her short review, Ollman has a few nice words to say about Singh’s other works, but given its placement, her comment seems tacked-on:

Abstract passages of color and line share the surface with the trompe l’oeil illusionism, the two painterly languages not clashing with any real force but at least generating some mild friction.

Earlier this year, Singh was part of a group show at Regina Rex. We seriously doubt Singh’s work deserves a nail in the coffin, but he might have, in Ollman’s words, “a mixed bag of mixed messages” to deal with.

5. Ben Meyer, “Fine Arts Gimmick Lowers La Boheme at the Opera Company of Philadelphia,” theartblog 

This one’s ten days old, but already timeless. Writing for theartblog, Ben Meyer describes what sounds like the fine art equivalent of Springtime for Hitler: the opera La Boheme, performed in front of an enormous moving slideshow of Impressionist paintings from the Barnes and Philadelphia Museum of Art. The production included additions like Puccini’s painter character “Marcello” signed to Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, and an animated version of Starry Night. “[A]fter 20 minutes…sea sickness sets in,” writes Meyer. Here’s a sample of the suckage:

The first act has a slideshow of projected Impressionist masterpieces as its background, which slowly pans from side to side or zooms in. At first, it seems like Marcello is painting Renoir’s “La Prairie” and “Woman with Fan” from the Barnes Foundation collection, since the pieces are projected onto a canvas prop as well as the wall behind him. But the unbearable slideshow continues as Marcello moves away from his canvas, severing any logical connection between the opera and the set projections. Furthermore, brightly colored depictions of spring seemed out of place when the characters were singing about freezing to death in the Parisian winter.

And there’s about 900 words more. Unlike SpringtimeLa Boheme closed after a five-day run. At least it made for a good read.


Steve Lambert October 23, 2012 at 9:41 am

I talked with Martha Schwendener personally for about 45 minutes the other night. Before writing this piece we read all the criticism and reviews you mention and more.

When you take out the few words on the passing comments of intellectual superstar, Slavoj Zizek; some sensationalistic coverage of a controversy involving the summit’s association with an Israeli cultural center; disdain for the format of TED style talks; and a belittling of the tweeted jokes made about summit organizer Nato Thompson’s pants what are you left with? Not much. Definitely not enough given a two day event where every reviewer we read only attended only a portion of the first day.

We want more. We want a higher quality and more developed discourse, and we were pretty specific with those ideas.

WhitneyKimball October 23, 2012 at 11:14 am

Thanks for your response to my post on the Creative Time Summit:
You make it clear in your letter (linked in the post above) that political impact should be the sole criteria for evaluating a political artwork. I completely agree, and it was the basis for my review. Without any sensationalism, here’s what I said:

Creative Time’s recapping of Nato’s pants tweets hindered the dialogue.
Zizek was a refreshing break from the game show tone of the event.
More local initiatives might have fostered more action following the event.
Mike Daisey introduced the idea of implementing social change through storytelling.
Social change demands that people get uncomfortable and address unsavory topics, as Josh MacPhee did.

I’m a writer. I have to be economical with my reader’s time if I want to communicate anything at all, and these are the things that stood out to me as being notable.

Steve Lambert October 23, 2012 at 2:01 pm


Thank you for your response as well.

To be clear, we say don’t say there is a “sole criteria for evaluating work”. When you read closely, you see we actually came closer to the opposite, “We’re not suggesting that there’s one criterion of efficacy for political art, nor is there one goal that all political arts should move towards.”

We could disagree all day long about your points on what an appropriate tone would be, the way ideas are best communicated, or what was notable in the portion of the event you saw. Instead, I will now concede all of them: you did a super job and made profound observations! To focus further on the particulars of what you (or others) wrote will distract from the bigger, more important point we make in the essay.

The field of creative activism is massive and growing. We see it innovating rapidly and outgrowing the discussion that surrounds it. On the whole there is not enough criticism and the vocabulary and concepts around this practice are muddled and underdeveloped. Useful, quality criticism is needed as badly is it is currently written. We want critics along for the adventures to come.

Again, we need more and it needs to be better. In the essay we’re offering seven questions that can help criticism move forward.

You think you don’t need what we have to offer. Fair enough. We still see a need for it.

JD Siazon October 23, 2012 at 4:23 pm

Supposed aggressive political activism has always been by far the most disreputable and gossamer ruse utilized by fake wannabe artists who attempt to redirect attention away from the dearth of their artistic powers to some kind of objective and very much pitiful world crisis situation which of course then–by sleight of hand–becomes the desired fountainhead of pathos. In your weak diatribe of a letter you virtually get down on your knees and beg all art critics to pander to and thereby facilitate the success of your future projects which shows an extreme lack of confidence in your creative abilities as well as supercilious and bombastic naivete that your letter could actually touch deeply any critic equipped with a razor-sharp intellect. Moreover any person or group with a vested sympathetic interest in the empowerment and subsequent progress of humane world cultures would not be so bloated and outright selfish as to seek the spotlight or even scant recognition from art critics and the so-called art world for their kleptocratic public acts and/or opining.

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