I was recently involved in a heated debated with another art critic on the role and purpose of art and theory. The debate was basically on the role, purpose and audience of art / theory: who, by whom, and for whom, it should be made....
She suggested I consult the work of Susan Buck-Morss, an American philosopher and intellectual historian, whose diverse academic output includes texts on cosmology, Walter Benjamin, and Stalinist Art, but who I classified as elitist because it was tailor made for an audience of intellectuals, rather than the street or the working class itself.
To be fair, I read through Buck-Morss' work and enjoyed it thoroughly, and one text seemed to crystallize our debate on who, by whom, and for whom art and theory should be made.
In a keynote lecture delivered to the first Congress of the International Walter Benjamin Association in 1997, Buck-Morss comments on the irony of writing a keynote for an institution that rejected Benjamin during his own lifetime:
But one has to wonder. Is not an International Walter Benjamin Conference, of, by, and for the academy that rejected him, in order to celebrate a Great Thinker who relentlessly disparaged the whole idea of the cult of genius, facilitated by the global forces of not so much late as perpetually lingering capitalism — forces that he held responsible for holding back the human potential of technology — is not all of this an exceedingly contradictory phenomenon?
The litmus test for intellectual production is how it affects the outside world, not what happens inside an academic enclave such as this one. Benjamin himself held up as the criterion for his work that it would be 'totally useless for the purposes of Fascism.' Could any of us say of our work that it is totally useless for the purposes of the new global order, in which class exploitation is blatant, but the language to describe it is in ruins? Of course, we would be horrified if decisions on academic hiring and promotion were made on the basis of what our work contributed to the class struggle. The disturbing truth, however, is that these decisions are already being made on the basis of ensuring that our work has nothing to do with the class struggle. And that, my friends, is a problem.
In a sociopolitical context where financial interest, gender, and racial inequality dominate the private and public sphere, how can art / theory intervene or imagine new social horizons? In short, who, by whom and for whom should art and theory view as its audience?