An open letter to critics writing about political art

by Stephen Duncombe & Steve Lambert

Last weekend Creative Time held their fourth annual summit on the current
state of artistic activism. Over two days, scores of political artists from
around the world gave short presentations and organized longer workshops.
Hundreds of people participated.

The critical response, so far, has been underwhelming: few critics
attended and those that did had little substantive to say. It would be easy
to account for the overall silence and dismiss the surface commentary with
some snarky criticism of our own about a bullshit art world with their
head up their ass who can't recognize that something important is
happening right in front of them. And while this may be self-righteously
satisfying, it is not very helpful. We want to help.

How this event was -- and wasn't -- covered is indicative of the state of
criticism when it comes to political art. The problem is not necessarily
lazy criticism, but the fact that we don't have a developed vocabulary
with which to understand, and criteria with which to evaluate, political
art and activist artists. In an effort to develop a language and criteria
with which artistic activism can be usefully criticized, we offer the
following seven questions for the critic to consider:

1. Does it work?

Art about politics is not necessarily political art. The function of
political art is to challenge and change the world. This should be obvious,
but there is plenty of "political art" which uses social injustice and
political struggle as mere subject matter: making these forces objects for
contemplation and, perversely, appreciation. The point of political art is
not to represent the world but to act within it.

Thus, the first question to ask of political art is: Does it Work? We
don't mean: does it work aesthetically? but does it work politically. This
entails asking more questions. Questions like: What does the artist want
to achieve with their work? What change do they see happening through
their work? How will this change happen? Who is affected, what affect will
the work have on them, and what actions will these people take?

We're not suggesting that there's one criterion of efficacy for political
art, nor is there one goal that all political arts should move towards.
What we are saying is that political artists, if they want to change the
world, need to think about what they want their work to do. And critics,
if they want to seriously interrogate and evaluate this work, have to both
examine those political aims and ask whether the artist has succeeded.

It is hard to truly succeed as a political artist. Many times, an artist
aims short and sets out to "intervene" and "raise awareness" about a social
problem or political issue. This is the low hanging fruit of political art.
Other work sets out to have a direct impact in a discernible way. Using
art to defeat a pending policy, or elect a politician. This is more
ambitious on the part of the artist, and easier -- if not boring -- for the
critic of political art to judge. Much harder, much more ambitious, and
therefor much more difficult to evaluate, is art that intends to change
the very way we see, act and make sense of our world -- including what we
understand to be politics itself. It is hard to measure the long term
total victory of a shift in the culture.

2. Who is the audience?

The art critic is the audience for most art, and therefor it's quite valid
for the critic to write from his or her own perspective. The audience for
political art is quite different. Political art, by it's very name, has the
"polis" as its audience and this constitutes a much broader demographic --
one in which the art critic is confronted with readings of art radically
different than their own. As diverse as we'd like to imagine the audience
for most art to be it draws from a very narrow population, one in which
the art critic is at home. But when the audience is a wider public, the
tried and true perspective of the veteran art critic comes up short. The
critic of political art needs to place themselves in the minds of very
different people. This takes humility. It may even require taking the
radical step of talking to the audience, asking them what they see, what
they think. These are basic techniques of journalism and ethnography that
an art critic may not be accustomed to.

3. What is the relevant tradition?

The tradition that serves conventional art criticism doesn't often work
when it comes to political art. Drawing together art's historical and
theoretical connections, while impressive to the writer's erudite
readership, and possibly entertaining, is largely irrelevant. There are
connections to be drawn, to be certain, but the valid ones here are more
likely to be found in histories of social movements and textbooks in the
fields of marketing, advertising, and public relations. Theories in human
cognition and decision making, for example, are far more applicable,
useful, and insightful into the work of the artistic activist than
discussion of its relation to the newest aesthetic or Albers' color
theory. The training most critics have is not sufficient for fully
understanding this work. Indeed, knowledge of sociology, community
organizing, or rhetoric lends crucial insight into what political artists
are doing, and whether they are doing it well. You are not alone in your
ignorance. We readily admit that many artists are in dire need of this
knowledge as well.

4. What medium and why?

For art critics, medium is important. It situates the work within an
historical canon, provides context and meaning, and a sense of continuity.
For the artistic activist medium is important too, but as a means: the
instrument through which one reaches the audience to effect change.
Therefor, discussions about means are dependent on political
considerations, such as who is the audience, how they are most effectively
reached, and so on.

To privilege one medium over another in the absence of a discussion of
efficacy is to miss the point. A good political artist's practice is
promiscuous when it comes to medium. Critical Art Ensemble said it best
with four words. The artistic activist works: "by any media necessary." A
good critic, therefor, judges the political artist on the mastery of the
medium they choose for the task at hand.

5. What kind of mastery is required?

Fine artists are often rewarded for the degree of control and mastery over
their medium. We valorize artists who can transform materials to fully
express their vision without compromise.

Political art, however, is engaged in the world. The world is messy. It
has a lot of moving parts. This material is impossible to fully control or
master -- and shouldn't be (unless you have fascist ambitions). Whereas
compromise for the traditional artist means diluting their vision,
compromise for the political artist is the very essence of democratic

The venue for the traditional artist is galleries and museums -- controlled
spaces where the art itself does not need to speak very loudly because all
attention is focused on it. Political art has a dauntingly large venue: the
street, the marketplace, the mass media. This is an out-of-control space
where one competes with the cacophony rather than retreating into silence
and solitude. Political art, responding to this space, is often brash and
loud. Subtlety is sometimes not its strong point. But we shouldn't fault a
creative activist practice for what's inherently required of it. Indeed,
it should be judged on how well it opens up a space, is read, and
understood within this arena.

Some art lovers may be turned off by this focus on the practical and
tactical, but for creative activists these concerns are essential. We are
not, however, arguing that the informed art critic should simply be
judging political art on how effective it is in communicating a message.
Aesthetics matter -- but they needn't be seen in opposition to efficacy. If
one's goal is to affect change, form serves function. Art that succeeds
aesthetically also has a better chance of succeeding politically.
Beautiful art is art that people are drawn towards. The power of art lies
in its ability to open up a space to ask questions rather than deliver
answers. We think this makes for good politics too.

6. What am I missing?

The "art world" is truly a world all its own, with separate cultural
spaces, communities, and languages. The detachment of fine arts from
popular culture is the norm.

Alternatively, for creative activists, popular culture is their briar
patch. Whereas in fine art, engaging in this terrain is read as pandering,
ironic, "critical," and at all times, exceptional, for political artists
it is the rule. In order to reach everyday people one must speak in a
language they understand. This can be interpreted as dumbing things down.
It is not. In order to convey complex radical ideas in a vernacular
largely developed for and oriented toward consumer sales and crass
manipulation requires a great deal of intelligence and skill. And the
better you do it, the more likely it is to be overlooked.

Within the fine art world to stand out and be noticed is a clear sign of
success. In the practice of artistic activism you are more successful the
more your art weaves into the fabric of popular culture -- lost to the art
world. The entire effort is shrouded in camouflage.

Critics are forgiven for passing over the best of this work in the past,
but let's all begin to look more carefully, ok?

7. What's my role as a critic?

The relationship between artists and critics is often a fraught one.
Critics can be lauded for how well they skillfully and cleverly demolish
and denigrate artists' work. This aligns with the dominate competitive
logic of the commercial art world. This is the paradigm, in part, that
political art is trying to change. Despite this cannibalistic tendency,
we all know that makers and critics live in symbiosis. This is especially
true when the art operates in the broader society and the function of the
work is not to be a unique and valuable object but to effect the world.

In this realm, the art critic is part of the team, with everyone working
towards the big win of a better world. Being a good team member for artists
means making powerful work. Being a good team member for the critic means
offering insightful, relevant, and instructive criticism.

Art critics raise questions. Questions are good. But questions for what
purpose? If you're a political artist, and you're primarily showing people
how smart and clever you are, you're not producing good political work.
The energy is misdirected. The same goes for critics. If you're writing
primarily as a demonstration of how smart and clever you are, you have lost
the soul of being a critic.

The critic might want to ask themselves, why am I writing this? Am I
clarifying and illuminating the work? Am I instructing the artist and the
audience so that better work is produced. Or am I "problematizing" as a
demonstration of my prowess as a thinker. ("Problematizing" is too often
used as a cheap substitute for understanding, analyzing and aiding.)

Being a critic, like being an artist, involves some degree of
selflessness. There is a larger purpose. The critic, through their
attention and analysis of the work, provides a helpful service.

Of course we all know this, but it's easy to get off track.

It's bigger than you and it's bigger than the art.

Modern art is rooted in the belief that the artists' individual expression
is important. In turn, the individual critic's opinions about said artists
and art are important. Think Pollock and Greenberg.

With political art a bigger game is being played. There are still
individual artists and individual critics, but the stakes are not about the
reputations of artists and critics. What's at stake is the transformation
of the entire society. If this sounds grandiose, you may be in the wrong

We don't train people to be good political artists in our art schools.
Most institutions are slow to adapt and are, at best, fighting the old myth
of the lone genius artist expressing their vision in spite of society,
rather than moving forward towards a world in which artists work
collectively in an embedded engagement with society.

Call us optimists, but we assume anyone producing creative work to affect
power is doing it from a sincere and passionate place. If it's not working,
it's not because they don't care enough or aren't committed. It's because
we haven't developed a critical tradition that helps artistic activists
strengthen their work. Political art needs help.

This is why we need you.

Because we're all in this together.