In the waning days of winter, activists gathered in the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, home to the famous Temple of Dendur, to protest the Sackler family. Their fortune comes primarily from the manufacture and sale of pharmaceuticals, including the high-powered opioids that have flooded many communities across the United States in recent years. Recounting tragic statistics about addiction, the protesters, among them artist Nan Goldin, cast pill bottles into the reflecting pool that surrounds the ancient Egyptian monument.
The action demonstrated a renewed awareness in the art world about the ethics and politics of cultural patronage. In the late 1930s, Clement Greenberg described an “umbilical cord of gold” linking avant-garde artists with ruling class wealth. Through the 1960s and ’70s some vanguard artists like Hans Haacke created work that explicitly critiqued arts institutions for their complicity in corporate excess and state violence. What’s different today is not just the heightened economic inequality we see within the US, but also the widespread de rigueur expectation—reinforced by curators, academics, and, indeed, critics—that serious artists offer a kind of protest, working to subvert the very social and economic power structures their patrons uphold. When art that has been championed as subversive nonetheless ends up in exhibitions sponsored by pharma magnates or in the collections of arms dealers—well, it’s easy to become cynical.
Cynicism characterized initial reaction to the recent New Museum Triennial exhibition “Songs for Sabotage,” reviewed thoughtfully in this issue by Michael McCanne. The survey features young artists from around the world who, according to the curators, share a common concern for the socioeconomic precarity facing their generation. Many of the early responses to the show pointed out the obvious: a painting, sculpture, or creative video cannot literally sabotage the circuits of global capitalism. Is it hypocritical, then, for artists—who often inhabit elite circles themselves—to grapple with social issues in their work? If artists are essentially making baubles for the elite, why not shoot for maximum beauty and pleasure?
Nihilistic hedonism, for all its potential merits, is also a cop-out. It’s certainly hard to imagine a credible political platform emerging from inside the white cube, built by a coalition of privileged museumgoers. However, museum and gallery walls are permeable boundaries. And they’re not the only venues for artists to connect with people through their work. This is one lesson to be drawn from Nayland Blake, the subject of a profile in this issue by A.i.A. associate editor Brian Droitcour. An image of Blake dressed as Gnomen, the artist’s fursona, also appears on the magazine’s cover. Fursonas are the anthropomorphic animal identities at the heart of the furry subculture. Blake’s performance, which asserts a playful approach to identity, is legible as art within a gallery setting. At the same time, Gnomen is a credible furry, and Blake, a participant in a creative community that exists outside the art world. Blake shows how the very identity of “contemporary artist” can be fluid: part of a spectrum of roles that might include membership in a subculture—or an activist group.
Why, then, operate within the art world at all? Though much maligned, the white cube offers something singular: an environment for presenting and contemplating new forms and ideas. Choreographer Moriah Evans recently premiered Figuring in one such art space, and it was among the most challenging performances I’ve seen this year. Here, Sarah Resnick examines Evans’s work, arguing that Figuring demands that spectators essentially learn how to watch the dance. In making such a demand, Evans, like any artist working within the institutional art world, is taking an essential risk, trusting that the museum context, with all its flaws and caveats, can foster the audience’s sincere, uncynical engagement with her art.