From the Archives

From the Archives – Help Desk: Burning Bridges

Today, we bring you a Help Desk column from our archives about doing more harm than good. Bean Gilsdorf’s critique still rings true: “If your activism turns you into a celebrity but does nothing to change the brutality you supposedly decry, your innocent intentions become worse than worldly cynicism.” Submit your arts-related questions anonymously here. This article was originally published on April 30, 2012.

If an artist is attempting to call attention to a particular issue that in some way either oppresses a group of people or includes imagery of unethical actions, is their artwork also unethical if they intentionally include or use oppressive tactics or graphic images to do so?

Eva Lake. Judd Montage No. 13, 2007; photomontage; 5 ¾ x 8 in.

There is no permanent, fixed equation that we can apply to art—especially art that intends to become activism—and I’m not amenable to making an ultimate pronouncement on work that exists as a hypothetical. It’s better to be aware of the concerns surrounding art and activism in general and proffer judgments on a case-by-case basis. An artist who wishes to take an activist stance in regard to an issue must think very carefully through the problem at hand.

I contacted a few artists that are currently making work that intends to be activist, but for the first time in the brief history of this column, not one of them responded. Perhaps they were afraid to go on record regarding the conflicts and contradictions their work presents? In any case, Anuradha Vikram, Curator of the Worth Ryder Art Gallery at UC Berkeley, kindly shed some light on this matter. She asks would-be activist-artists to ponder some art-world assumptions: “When seeking to call attention to any troubling issue, one key maxim to consider is that of the physician: ‘First, do no harm.’ Too often, artists seem to mistake demonstrating a set of conditions for critiquing them. If the work is replicating unethical behaviors, what is the artist doing besides perpetuating those behaviors? Perhaps, if one assumes that the context for art is a neutral one (the proverbial ‘white cube’), then it could be argued that by isolating and framing such actions, the artist makes the critique implicitly. However, if the last forty years of art-world controversy have taught us anything, it is that ‘neutrality’ is often interchangeable with ‘privilege.’ Re-creating oppression within a space of privilege is simply oppressive. A critique needs to go farther than that, and a sophisticated critique does not need to replicate such dynamics in order to unpack them.”

I agree, and can’t emphasize that last sentence enough: A sophisticated critique is what any artist-activist should be working toward. I also think the issue of commodification is important here. Can art truly make a change if it doesn’t materially aid the victims whose cause it purports to advance? If it only “raises awareness” of an issue by replicating abuse, it’s possible that its main consequence is simply to turn the expression of subjugation into an exchangeable commodity (for money, status, notoriety, etc.), which primarily benefits the artist or the art establishment. And on a personal level, if your activism turns you into a celebrity but does nothing to change the brutality you supposedly decry, your innocent intentions become worse than worldly cynicism. Emancipation cannot be achieved by oppressive means.

Related reading: and the books Art & Agenda and Wild Fire: Art as Activism.