Political Art as Spectacle: In Conversation With Taylor Aldridge

Taylor Renee Aldridge is a Detroit based writer and independent curator. In 2015 she co-founded ARTS.BLACK, a journal of art criticism from Black perspectives. Taylor has worked for Detroit Institute of Arts, the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, and The National Museum of American History (Smithsonian Institutions) as a Goldman Sachs Junior Fellow. 

In your essay “Black Bodies, White Cubes: the Problem With Contemporary Art’s Appropriation of Race” you write that “artists have made systemic racism look sexy; galleries have made it desirable for collectors. It has, in other words, gone mainstream. Political art is in danger of becoming mere spectacle.” In our contemporary era where counter-culture imagery is absorbed, neutralized, and co-opted by the very forces it was created in opposition to, do you believe it is possible for artists to effectively step outside the structures of capitalism and systemic racism and effectively critique them? How can artists still assert agency over their work when visual culture is constantly being recuperated by systems of oppression?

I wonder what you mean by effectively, because this could be relative. But I think that it is possible. it will take time and some organizing to get there, though. this work begins by acknowledging the systems of moral paradoxes that exist today within the “art world.” Art Critic Ben Davis has argued that to be an artist you do not need the art world. Making art is a “primary passion” that has and can persist(ed) without the environment of the art world : institution, market, fairs, patrons, etc. I agree with this notion, i think this sort of space will require a new imagining of what a new (art) world can look be; one that is perhaps not bound or dictated by the people with the most money. I imagine that first, a rupture has to come. We see small fissures with the work of Andrea Fraser who has done research on the ways art institutions perpetuate plutocracy, the recent controversy at Whitney, where staff have called out its Vice Chairman who has ties to the tear gassing of asylum seekers at the Mexico/U.S border, and a bit further back at Art Prize where Steve Lambert made clear the heavy handed (at times unethical) role that philanthropy plays in the art world. Capitalism is truly seductive and we all are seduced by its power, sometimes to get ahead, but also just to survive. It will take some some constant questioning and creative reimagining to get to a space where artists can step outside the structures of capitalism.

In that same essay you also critique artists who opportunistically profit off work dealing with the black body and black tragedy as subject matter. On one level it seems to be an issue of whether or not these artists are genuinely concerned with these issues or are simply making careerist decisions to grab attention, but on another level it also seems to remind us of the deeper, material and structural imbalances in the contemporary art world, which, as Aurella Yussuf pointed out, “still thinks it is a radical and political statement to exhibit work by a non-Black artist about Black suffering from a so-called objective point of view than to offer opportunities to Black artists to speak on their own experiences.” Is it possible for artists who benefit from white privilege to perform a critique of racial injustice that is not only genuine, but is also not complicit in continuing the inequity of voices in the art world?

I’m not exactly sure what white folks can do to perform a critique of racial injustice in the art world except listening to Black folks.  Effective change in inequitable systems, to move toward systems of equity begins with listening to people who are the most marginalized in that system and determining how you can be an ally.

Much of your work seems to be focused on a post-colonial critique of gallery and museum spaces, which have historically been utilized as tools of knowledge/power to preserve Eurocentric ideologies. I wanted to ask you what you believe are some effective strategies that museums can take in attempting to decolonize knowledge? What are strategies that museums can take in an effort to diversify their audience? What do you believe are currently the biggest hurdles to making art institutions accessible to all of the public?

I think it begins with first acknowledging that there are racial and economic inequalities that are inherit already within most American museums, and that this inequality persists because of its foundations. After working in a major institution, I was able to see first hand how racism, xenophobia and other discriminatory acts are implicitly ingrained in the psyche of these spaces and its workers. And that these systems are maintained through bureaucracy. Someway, I’m not sure how, forms of cultural competency training, historical lessons on racism and prejudice need to be incentivized for leaders in these spaces. In my experience, I found that people with the most power in museums are the most ignorant to these cultural and racial histories, and thus have no awareness when they themselves perpetuate such practices. It is not enough to hire non–white, cis heterosexual men at entry and junior level positions. Decolonizing and making an institution fully accessible means hiring staff of color, yes. But also being honest and transparent about how stolen artifacts were acquired and carrying out methods of repatriation; it means that leaders of these institutions must equip themselves with rigorous knowledge on racism and colonialism in this country so that they can identify how it persists within their own museums, ultimately so that they implement a real decolonizing strategy; most importantly, it means decolonizing the stakeholders. Real decolonizing cannot happen until funding and patronage is decolonized. If a museum intends to diversify and become progressive, it must align its progressive mission with progressive donor and board base. In my view, It is unethical and impossible for a museum to champion equality and accessibility in a mission statement and praxis, then court a funder who has active ties to harming asylum seekers at the border, or patrons who are also supporting a president who supports fascist rhetoric and is an alleged assaulter.

Following the last question, do you believe that work that takes place outside the traditional gallery space (such as social practice work) is inherently more accessible to a more diverse audience? Looking back at the last couple of decades, do you think social practice work has been an effective critique of the white cube?

I don’t think because a social work takes place outside of a traditional gallery space that it is inherently more accessible and vice versa. I think what matters most is execution from intention. We have both seen “social works” that take place outside the confines of a gallery that still prove non-generative or least impactful. What matters is the socialization and contextualization around a work to be successful in this way. In what spaces can an object or work reach its full potential? What audiences do I want this work to encounter? And how? How can we anticipate a successful impact? If these questions are approached by an artist or curator arbitrarily, no matter where it is, it could be a failure.

To answer the second part of your question, I think social practice work has become a parody of itself in contemporary art. Generally speaking, the term social practice has become a rhetorical device for artists who are taking on subject matter that is considered relevant in the political sphere. All art is political in my view, even apolitical art, but I believe the copious use of this phrase to describe a work has sometimes muted its meaning.

Instead of thinking of the form or notion of “social practice” as a means of critiquing the cube, I think it is better to consider the methods of approach to this work more so than the final product itself. I’m constantly revisiting Claire Bishop’s essay The Social Turn: Collaboration and it’s Discontents. Bishop lays out for us a series of questions for artists and social practice makers to ask themselves when they take up “social work” as this work can also be exploitative and hierarchical.  I have known of several highly lauded “social practice” works that have been made through structures of abuse. We must constantly question as artists, curators and writers how to take up social practice through structures of equality.

Lastly, I also wanted to get your opinions on some issues specific to urban development in Detroit, and the role culture plays within it. Victor Luckerson did a great write-up about the mural economy in Detroit, and how murals and street art have been co-opted by private developers as signifiers of “up and coming neighborhoods”. With culture being so commonly utilized by developers as a means of marketing the “vibrancy” of a neighborhood, what are the responsibilities of artists who make their living through commissions in not being complicit with the forces of gentrification?

I think the responsibilities of artists may vary in moral complexity when opportunity meets exploitative labor. At the least, artist should be aware of any situation they’re in, and how their participation in a project could perhaps enable or disable an unjust outcome. Since the Graffiti Task Force was implemented by Mayor Duggan in Detroit a couple of years ago we have watched them criminalize community artists while city government has enabled and praised mural renderings as a means of leveraging these attractions into areas for (corporate) development. In either scenario however, I think we should be focusing less on the responsibility of the artist and more on the responsibilities of city government and corporate developers (those with the most power and capital).