Mutiny, Mutualism and Complicity in a “Bare” Art World

Affiliation:Queens College, City University of New York

Abstract: The business-as-usual, elite art world is now facing not one, but two mutinous tendencies. The first involves demands that the global high culture industry be regulated or even fundamentally transformed in order to assure a more ethical and equitable allocation of resources and power relations for all its participants, rather than merely the 1% of global art superstars. The second, equally powerful desire pivots on escaping the art system altogether by merging with everyday social and political struggles for social justice. Nevertheless, this dual insurrection is itself constrained by two additional phenomena including the growing international wave of Right wing authoritarianism whose rhetoric instrumentalizes the language of radical subversiveness once associated with the artistic avant-garde, and secondarily, the rise of what I call a “bare art world.” With apologies to Giorgio Agamben “bare art” is a new cultural condition that unconceals art’s economic and political contradictions while sloughing off traditional notions of aesthetic autonomy.

Examples of the first revolt include the recent unionization of New Museum staff members in New York City, boycotts by artists of high profile exhibitions, an open letter of protest submitted by Whitney Museum staff demanding the resignation of a museum board member linked to weapons manufacturing, as well as the formation of such post-2008 and post-Occupy artists’ organizations as Working Artists for the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.), BFAMFAPHD, ArtLeaks, Gulf Labor Coalition, Debtfair and Decolonize This Place. These inter-art world actions and micro-institutions collectively assert moral and sometimes also legal pressure on the art industry in order to demand that it become an all around better cultural citizen.

The second response by artists to the global political and economic crisis involves exiting the art world altogether, or at least attempting to put its hierarchical pecking order and cynical winner-takes-all tournament culture at a critical distance. The primary means of achieving this objective is to withdraw, or partially withdraw, from the art industry, followed by developing what John Robert’s calls a “secondary” cultural economy, or what I call a “dark matter” mock institutionalization that operates with an open source, P2P exchange of ideas, resources and labor. In theory, not only is it difficult to monetize such acts of artistic gift giving, commoning and dialogical conversation, but by establishing practical links to non-art participants in the “real” world, these mockinstitutional practices generate a sense of cultural mutualism that is far richer than anything possible within the hopelessly compromised relations of contemporary bare art.

Bio: Dr. Gregory Sholette is a New York-based artist, writer and activist. He is a founding member of Political Art Documentation/Distribution, REPOhistory collective, and Gulf Labor Coalition, an artists’ group advocating for migrant workers’ rights constructing Western branded art museums in Abu Dhabi. His individual art explores issues of artistic labor, historical representation and political resistance, and his critical writing documents and reflects upon several decades of activist art, most recently by guest editing a special double issue of FIELD Journal of Socially Engaged Art with over thirty global reports focusing on “Art, Anti-Globalism, and the Neo-Authoritarian Turn” [ ]. Author of the books Delirium & Resistance: Art Activism & the Crisis of Capitalism (2017); Dark Matter: Art and Politics in an Age of Enterprise Culture (2011) both Pluto Press, and co-editor with Chloë Bass of Art as Social Action (Skyhorse Publishers, 2018), Sholettte is a graduate of The Cooper Union (BFA), the University of San Diego (MFA), the University of Amsterdam (PhD), and the Whitney Independent Studies Program, as well as affiliated faculty of the Art, Design and the Public Domain program of Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, and Full Professor at Queens College, City University of New York where he co-directs the project Social Practice Queens (SPQ)