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‘Not Just Shaming Filthy Rich Bastards’: Panel Talk in New York Tackles Power and Politics in Art

“How Soon Is Now: Art, Activism, and Accountability” at the Vera List Center at The New School in New York.

JORDAN RATHKOPF

Against a backdrop of protest and activism surrounding art museums of late—most notably the high-profile case of Safariland figurehead Warren B. Kanders’s presence on the the Whitney Museum’s board and resulting agitation organized by the group Decolonize This Place—a panel of artists, activists, and arts professionals convened at the New School in New York to discuss their work and address pressing questions regarding money, politics, and power in the cultural sector. Moderated by Artforum editor-in-chief David Velasco, the well-attended and at times tense talk at the Vera List Center included artists Nan Goldin and Tania Bruguera as well as art historian Claire Bishop, writer Tobi Haslett, and Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak.

The talk began with a question posed to Bruguera about a term she coined a decade ago: “political-timing-specific art,” which she characterized as “something happening simultaneously with the development of the political” rather than mere commentary on past events. “Artists have some role in what is happening,” Bruguera said, noting interventions she organized at the Tate Modern in London last fall with a focus on global migration and local communities around the museum. Velasco asked, “Do you consider this activism?” To which the artist responded, “Yes.” 

On the question of whether there might be a difference between Bruguera’s “political-timing-specific art” and protests against the Sackler family led by Goldin’s activist group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), Bishop said she sees a distinction. “I think of activism as being targeted towards a specific outcome or goal or demand, and the type of interventions that you characterize as ‘political-timing-specific’ are more about posing a challenge or question, exposing contradictions of the historical moment [and] producing a situation where people feel unsure about what side they’re on,” Bishop said. “Whereas I think, often with activist art or activist gestures, it’s really clear that we know which is the right side of history and where we should be standing in relationship to it.”

As the conversation shifted to other instances of organizing, Pasternak spoke of a protest and performance presented by Creative Time in 2015—when Pasternak was director of the nonprofit art enterprise (before moving to the Brooklyn Museum later that year) and Bruguera had been detained in Cuba. “There was no way I could sit back,” Pasternak recalled. “I don’t care what’s ‘art’ and ‘activism’—I care about its impact.”

Pasternak then posed a question to Goldin: “Do you consider what you’re doing with P.A.I.N. art or activism? Do you care?”

“No,” Goldin flatly replied. “We’ve made beautiful, sexy demonstrations, and that’s the art. We shamed some people, and we got museums to stop taking money. But, ultimately, P.A.I.N. is not just about shaming filthy rich bastards—it’s also about trying to address the crisis in a real way.” Goldin said that she and P.A.I.N. want to start collaborating with community organizers “on the ground,” like Vocal New York, a group that works with low-income populations affected by opioid addiction, homelessness, mass incarceration, and HIV/AIDS.

David Velasco, Nan Goldin, and Tania Bruguera.

JORDAN RATHKOPF

During discussion of critics’ lamentations over a perceived lack of radicality in the recently opened Whitney Biennial, Haslett noted that the wealth of reviews, mostly by white men, function as a sort of case-study within conditions that have transformed “radical” into “a byword for a certain amount of prestige.”

Haslett asked, rhetorically, “What does it mean to actually demand these little seasonings of political protest? What does it mean to be recognized as appropriately radical?”

When talk turned to “the Kanders question,” Pasternak spoke to reasons why prospective board members might join a museum—chief among them “because they care, fundamentally, about the mission of the institution.” 

Goldin asked, “Do you think people should actually be forced to step down, like Kanders or Rebekah Mercer [at the American Museum of Natural History] or Larry Fink [at the Museum of Modern Art]?”

“I think they’re all different issues,” Pasternak said, adding that the situation with Kanders is “complicated.” “I don’t even want to talk about it, really, because I’m going to get killed in the press after this,” she said. “We have to look at the larger issues of how our institutions have supported or played a role in systemic injustices and that our institutions lean into this present moment and do better. We must do better, and that’s the conversation I’m most interested in.”

Chiming in with the first direct mention of Decolonize This Place, Bishop asked how Pasternak—whose museum has been the subject of protests surrounding matters of gentrification—reconciles her institution’s mission with critics’ charges.

“First of all, the criticisms were completely wrong,” Pasternak said of particular dissent surrounding a real-estate developer’s ties to the institution. The Brooklyn Museum’s board members are “people who care deeply about art, who care about community good, who care about social progress, who care about Brooklyn.”

Goldin was skeptical. “I’m very naive about money,” she said, “but are there billionaires who have made money in an ethical way?” (Velasco’s facetious response to the question posed: “J.K. Rowling?”)

The talk wound down on a contemplative note after Pasternak asked, “What is the change that we’re trying to make?”

Answering her own question—in mind of the general lack of governmental funding or other means of support for museums beyond donations and contributions by members of their boards—Pasternak continued. 

“I think this is an important moment for many, many reasons, because it forces cultural institutions to change and that change is long overdue,” she said. “It’s welcomed and it’s important. But I also hope that some of these young activists who are really frustrated with institutions like mine will create new ones, and we’ll support them. I look forward to see how other people might figure this out and support them in the process. It’s time to model the change we want to see by actually doing the work.”

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