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  • Rainey Knudson

Theaster Gates and the Aesthetics of Activism (503 words)

Last weekend during a talk at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the artist Theaster Gates wondered aloud whether social activism leads to “bad aesthetics.”


Gates went on to say that he works in three different ways, depending on the context. In museums he can experiment; in galleries he can be commercial; and in communities he can be an activist (as he has done extensively in Chicago through his Rebuild Foundation, and recently in Houston through his CAMH exhibition The Gift and The Renege, which was developed in partnership with Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy).


I was surprised and pleased to hear Gates openly, albeit somewhat obliquely, invoke the potential dissociation between art (or as he put it, “good art”) and community activism.

The glamorous high end of the art market—where a successful artist like Gates sells his work, enabling his social outreach—can feel meaningless and decadent. Gates and other artists understandably want to do more with their lives than just stylishly hustle the competitive shoppers and trophy hunters of this milieu, as fun as that can be.


And so artists conduct social outreach projects. Mel Chin and Rick Lowe, both celebrated artists from Houston, have worked for decades in this vein, doing community outreach as “social sculpture” alongside making traditional art objects like paintings and sculpture.

Making art is one of the most heroic, difficult, and usually thankless endeavors a person can undertake. The same is true of being a community activist. One person can do both, but that does not mean they are the same thing.

The Archive and Listening House, created by Dorchester Projects, a Theaster Gates initiative, in Chicago.

The lines between art and non-art were blurred to the point of obliteration in the 20th century, as artists challenged historical ideas of what kind of object or activity could be recognized as capital-a Art. As one artist once said to me, “The question is not whether or not it’s art. The question is whether it’s good art.”


But we have taken the art-is-anything approach down many once-fruitful paths that lead to exhausted dead ends (hello, color field painting and conceptual installation), and I think we do a disservice to art when we confuse it with social outreach. Feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, restoring neighborhoods ravaged by neglect and exploitation: these are all worthy and noble things to do. But they are not art.


The essential function of art is to draw attention. Art creates attentiveness. It doesn’t do anything else. When we muddy the waters by calling things that are not art by the name of art, it’s always art that suffers.

I think what Gates was referencing in his talk was the uneasy feeling in our particular society that producing attentiveness, in the way that art at its greatest capacity does, is not worthy. But art doesn't—it can't—go about the business of working and doing and living. That's why it's special, and that's why our species needs it, and has always needed it as long as we've been around.



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