Speakeasy – Too Much is Unsaid
A few months ago, the news watchdog organization Project Censored published its annual report of the top news stories that were under-reported by the mainstream news media — or, as they describe it, “the corporate news media”. Founded at Sonoma State University by journalist Carl Jensen in 1976, Project Censored’s mission is to “educate students and the public about the importance of a truly free press for democratic self-government.”
Contrary to what the organization’s name appears to imply, Project Censored does not necessarily dig out news that was literally censored by news organizations or governments, but highlights stories that were minimized by the press or barely reported with little to no follow-up. Among the 2020-21 stories was the report that due to the European Union’s biomass energy demands (in order to maintain their green energy quotas), European countries import wood pellets from the United States, causing massive deforestation and carbon pollution. Another story in the top 25 list is about the “extensive and disproportionate deployment of police dogs against people of color”.
Many of these stories are concerning and disturbing. Whether one considers these urgent or not, the research that Project Censored offers its readers shows the extent to which many important news items are buried in the pile of mainstream news reporting — a result of what Jensen used to describe as “news abuse” (the minimization of important news) and “junk food news” (news that is trivial or superficial but presented as sensational).
For anyone in the art world, looking at the work of Project Censored can make one reflect that the larger issues and phenomena that are impacting our field are barely or insufficiently touched on by the art press. We have a huge and continuous stream of art news, nurtured by a rich environment of art publications that include general trade magazines (which mainly report on auction sales, museum exhibitions, and some gossipy items about art world figures), magazines focusing on criticism, reviews, interviews and other features, and academic publications that engage contemporary art and theory. However, these publications, regardless of their format and various vehicles (print/digital, social media, etc.) still do not cover several important topics that require investigative reporting or a lens that would go beyond collecting or art criticism. In the past I have tried to illustrate, for example, how discussions around art education are practically absent from these publications as they are seen as marginal and un-sexy. But the absences are much bigger than that.
There are a wide range of taboo subjects that are seldom if ever addressed for many reasons: mainly, at an individual level, speaking out can negatively affect one’s career, curtail professional opportunities and damage relationships. As a friend of mine once said: “the art world asks you to speak your mind. Be honest, be yourself. They admire your bravery in speaking out. But when you do, you begin to lose professional opportunities.”
I approached a few artists, curators, writers, and others whose opinions I respect to honestly share – anonymously, if they so preferred – the topics that in their view are seldom, if ever, discussed, or touched upon superficially. These were their responses.
Irmgard Emmelhainz, Mexican writer, and theorist, presents a few examples:
“In Mexico race is taboo, except if one is celebrating ethnic origin or if an artist who becomes famous is coming from a lower-class background. In the performing arts world, there was a space created to debate this topic, Poder Prieto (Brown Power) organized by the actor Tenoch Huerta. Unfortunately, the debates that seek to denounce the normalization of racism in film, theater, and television, tend to be Manichaean, polarizing and from the onset start by instigating resentment. Nonetheless, it is a necessary debate and has brought to the surface important problems (such as brown actors always playing stereotypical roles and almost never playing the lead— whenever a lower-class character is the leading role, this role is always played by a white actor).
“Another topic is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, around which there is an entrenchment in cultural institutions and particularly academia. Today, the kind of solidarity that Palestinians request is through BDS, but for European and American institutions to adhere to BDS brings consequences that very few people are willing to accept, like losing their job. Last year, with the attack in Gaza in May of 2021 and the commemoration of the 73 years of Nakba or the Palestinian catastrophe, there was an alliance between Black Lives Matter and Strike MoMA with the Palestinian struggle – and this alliance is perceived as radical and threatening beyond words. Of course, the spaces to converse around the Palestinian struggle are being curtailed more and more (in 2020, Zoom censored a presentation by Leila Khaled through that platform). My own involvement with the Palestinian cause has negatively affected my professional life: it almost cost me my doctorate and academic jobs in the U.S.”
Artist Dread Scott shared the following:
“There is more awareness of some problems that are entrenched in the art world (racism and patriarchy are endemic to all facets of the art world, what sells is too often equated with what is good, radical work is often ghettoized) and recently there have been some changes in the arts that is very welcome (black artists are flourishing and receiving acknowledgment and support, it’s harder to do a major show/biennial which only has one woman, etc.). But in some ways I feel we’re rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. America and large parts of the world are being increasingly governed and shaped by fascists. Black people are being murdered by cops and white supremacists are emboldened. Imperialist powers are sabre rattling and there is not a substantive movement against this. No country, large corporation, or activist group is doing what is needed to stop climate change.
For art movements or ideas that could do with more exploration and investigation I’d say: “America is the fucking problem, not a solution. People (including progressives and liberals in the arts) who wish to make America more inclusive or democratic or wish it to live up to its ideals, should take an honest look at the history of this country and its economy. It’s a country that was founded on slavery and genocide and is based on exploitation and oppression. If people would end their romantic belief that there is something good at America’s core or ideals, we’d all be much freer to dream of a world we’d actually flourish in and work towards it.”
One of the comments I received from a collective of contributors that requested anonymity, points at the hiring of white European curators to lead art organizations across the country and especially in New York. According to these contributors, these are institutions that purport to primarily serve communities of color but continue to operate from a white supremacist, white savior colonial model:
“This is troubling given the current climate and conditions we have due to the continuous uprisings and calls for museum and cultural shifts to end white supremacy. How do you end white supremacy, except to actually end it!
What does this say about who is listening to the demands of all manner of artists and those who work in museums and galleries; why do we keep replicating the colonial model? There is no white savior who can do what black and brown leaders should be trained well to do now at this juncture. We suppose this observation would apply to the head of the Highline and the head curator at the New Museum; it would apply to the head of MoMA PS.1, Socrates Sculpture Park and The Queens Museum and used to apply to the chief curator [i.e. previously senior deputy director of curatorial affairs, now associate director] at MoMA. Why do museums and their boards continually and blatantly hire white Europeans (many of whom move to the United States for these exact job offerings) to lead cultural spaces, especially in heavily diverse and culturally non-white neighborhoods? And why isn’t this consistently written about, critiqued and discoursed in art newspapers and online blogs ? A more just model would be to have these directors share their knowledge in such a way that they give up their collective white supremacy. These institutions and their directors want it both ways; they want to work in under-served communities and make a difference in their names while continuing the colonial, white supremacist model. For shame! And it appears that the art press follows along to the beat of white supremacy so nothing, absolutely nothing shifts except the addition of more white saviors.”
Artist Coco Fusco wrote:
“A buried art world story – investigation of blue-chip gallery payments to museums to finance solo shows for their artists. What began years back as the practice of galleries paying for museum catalogues and dinners after openings has mushroomed into full-on financing of solo exhibitions. Some attention has been paid to private collectors engaging in a similar practice by putting their collections on display in museums. But we are now talking about how top tier galleries exercise control over museums and compel curators to focus their attention on those artists in their stables in order to obtain needed backing for exhibitions.”
Another anonymous contributor pointed out the oversize influence that individual collectors have on the art world both in the United States and in Latin America, particularly through the creation of single-funder museums. “No one speaks of institutional violence, which is the product of the privatization of culture and the art system. It is a taboo subject, there is fear of reprisals, and I was one of its victims.”
And artist Caroline Woolard:
“The stories of the communities and friends and networks that lifted up so many artists. In other words: a community story / non-individual arts story as the norm; decolonial aesthesis; when art and livelihood and being are one in so many cultural traditions that are carried today by culture bearers; the connection between cooperative economic innovation and the arts – for example the first native worker-owned business, the first democratic loan fund in the US, Black Lives Matter, and the first non-extractive VC fund were all started by artists; DAOs / web3 and no extractive cooperative art futures; artists’ day jobs; the strategic ways that networks of elite people conspire the make some artists famous; histories of freedom art schools / social movement art schools.”
It is perhaps unsurprising that, particularly in the United States, the issues that pertain to matters of race and ethnic origin remain overlooked or poorly addressed, and institutional attempts to engage with them usually gloss over deeper and more entangled questions about representation. The difficulty of addressing these issues partially lies in the fact that doing so requires a level of vulnerability and self-introspection that can feel risky to any platform, whether it is an arts organization or an arts publication. As a result, we often undertake proxy culture battles, such as specific controversies generated by an exhibition, the dealings of a museum’s board member, institutional hires, etc., but what is needed is better research and analysis, accessible to the public and not to a small academic audience, of the root causes of these problems.
Similarly, whenever some of these conflicts surface in artist-led protests, the focus is often on a list of demands for change but not on a deeper investigation about the endemic and systemic context that produce these problems, all of which can help find solutions.
All of these require long-term investigative reporting, a practice that I don’t believe to be practiced enough in the art press. For starters, a useful avenue for activist organizations in the arts would be to develop more art-focused journalism projects that would help surface the issues that have remained unspoken or unaddressed, helping in defining and articulating problems and influencing change through awareness, individual and collective ethical behavior in the art world. Can art history and criticism and curatorial programs in universities help us expand the possibilities of art writing to go beyond the theoretical text and the art review, and support the integration of investigative journalism into our field that we so much need?
Volume 36 no 4 March April 2022