That Kanders stepped down is good, but the critique has to keep going beyond the obsequious board that loved his money. How should we respond when artists want the fame and money of the big institutions wrapped up in inequality? Certainly, it depends on whether we are talking about recognition and empowerment or just vanity and inflamed love of oneself. The background of the artists matter. Still, we have to look at the conditions supporting such fundamentally inegalitarian institutions. What people like Kanders do is to sell weapons to contain the spillover disorder of the inequality. Kanders is inseparable from the inequality that remains when he is gone (1).
The problematic issue is really the current institutionalization of high art. But to challenge this institutionalization is to challenge an entire social system and ultimately to change the contemporary practice of art.
Imagine that, for an artist, the issue is just as much a fair and good economy as it is a question of art. Unlike some social practice artists who seem to draw the same conclusion but remain invested in the high art world of inequality, artists could create an alternative, socially good, economy and resolutely change their art to craft. One might even say that they were then doing social design.
Or imagine artists making art for their friends and neighborhood. They do not seek fame or representation and are unknown for most of their lives outside their circles of friends. Once again, they redefine the economy of art, this time more personally than socially.
These sketches may romanticize the realities. Perhaps we could think more, then, of truly challenging the institutions of art by changing the context and practice of art entirely. What would be an art that is entirely grounded in the common good throughout its entire process? What new institutions would have to be made? What existing ones would suddenly appear? What neighborhoods and networks of friends, families, and community members would be engaged? And how would the engagement and the craft shape everyday life, rather than capitalist and imperial spectacles, even those of minor arts organizations mirroring the imperial desires of major ones? If, finally, we were to “decolonize” U.S. museums, how would we honor treatises with Native Americans, rather than remaining in the orbit of fundamentally imperial institutions? “Decolonization is not a metaphor.”
What I see in the Whitney Biennial discussion is mostly not decisive enough about rejecting high art institutionalization. To focus on Kanders can deflect from this issue and protect the vanity of artists who flourish on inequality, even as they speak about social justice. The real question is, do they seek an alternative practice? And do we continue to seek the public funding of art?
~ Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, Cleveland, Ohio
(1) The issue isn’t simply the state’s violence, especially against people of color. It’s about what the state violence aims to do. It manages inequality. To critique the Whitney for its complicity in empire is to ignore its role as an exemplary institution in a system of inequality that is wider than the state.