Dawoud Bey writes: Published here are the remarks I gave during my opening Keynote Address at the College Art Association Conference Convocation here in Chicago on Wednesday evening. My remarks were preceded by an awards ceremony in which a number of individuals were given awards of recognition and distinction for their work. Most notable for me were the awards given to Emory Douglas, Barkley Hendricks and Suzanne Lacy, since each has figured in the formation of my own history as an artist in some way. Gratifying too was the award given to Holland Cotter, often the only art critic at the New York Times to consistently note the presence of artists of color in his ongoing criticism and reviews. You can see the full list of awardees here:
My remarks, "The Art World and the Real World: Bridging the Great Divide" follow:
I would like to dedicate my remarks this evening to several people whose lives and work made a strong impact on me at different points in my life. From each of them I think there is much we can learn about how to conduct ourselves meaningfully in the world. To John Coltrane, who became my first artist role model. John Coltrane, through his brief life and enduring music exemplified how a sense of commitment and vision could be brought spectacularly into the world through ones art form with both power, creative and intellectual rigor, grace and a never ending adherence to mastering the challenge of craft. Coltrane once said, "I want my music to be a force for good." To my late friend, the poet and performance artist Sekou Sundiata. Sekou lifted his well crafted words off of the printed page and found a new voice and power by bringing those words together with music and then continuing to find ways to insightfully enlarge the scope of his craft and bring his presence and concerns to ever larger audiences through the stage and recordings. Sekou reflected through his work a place for personal experience, cultural specificity and the power of the word to transform lives. Finally, to Alma Nomsa John. If you're not from New York, and spent time in the Harlem community in the 1960s and 70s you have probably never heard of Alma John. A registered nurse and community activist, she worked in the Harlem, NY community for many years. Wherever she spoke Alma John always ended her remarks with these words: "If you know teach, if you don't know learn. Each one teach one. Each one reach one." These three individuals to me suggest the ways in which each one of us has the power and ability to transform the world around us.
There are a lot of professional activities that take place at this conference as you very well know. And since I've been asked to give these remarks this evening, I'd like to ask you to join me in asking yourselves why you are here, what do you hope to accomplish and why these events and indeed an organization like the College Art Association matters; why the annual gathering of this community matters. What this gathering could mean for you beyond what you know you came for.
There are a number of definitions of community. Among them "community" is defined as:
• a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals
• a similarity or identity : those who share a community of interests.
• joint ownership or liability
I happen to be one of those who came of age in the late 1960s. And if you are my age, you probably heard a phrase in the 60s that was something of a call to arms, a defining statement. For me, when I first heard it I knew I had been given my marching orders for life. That statement was, "You're either part of the solution or you're part of the problem." I believed it then and I still believe it now. Of course, you don't get to my age and still see things in absolute terms, but this statement is one that I think can be used as a meaningful compass for all of us, as it suggests that all of us indeed have the ability and the power--the responsibility--to continually reshape the world that we live in. Everyone in this room tonight has the ability to make a difference, to change the world one person at a time.
Too often we think that the ability to make a difference is work best left to people like my Hyde Park neighbor and our president Barack Obama. Or maybe you think it's the responsibility of college or university presidents, provosts, deans, museum directors, department heads, or other people who are "in charge." Maybe you think the heavy lifting of "making a difference" is something we assign those folks to do. It's a very convenient way of letting ourselves off the hook, a very convenient way to avoid considering how we are going to make a difference while we browbeat the chosen few about the slow pace of progress. Or maybe you've grown cynical and feel that nothing can really change for the better, so why bother to do anything beyond the bare minimum required of you.
I've been teaching for some thirty-four years now, starting at a number of community based institutions in New York and continuing to various colleges and universities. The past eleven of those years I've taught at Columbia College Chicago. And at Columbia we have a credo that I think speaks to what I have been talking about. That credo is that we teach our students to "author the culture of our times." That is something that I believe in deeply and it's something that I encourage each of you to buy into; to consider how through your own work, through your teaching, your writing, your research, the exhibitions you curate, the students you mentor you are indeed authoring the culture of the times that we are living in and teaching others to do the same.
And in spite of the ambivalence and depression that I know some of you are starting to feel as the political season has moved from one of campaigning to the much harder task of governing , I believe we are still in a moment of profound change as a society, one that is forcing each of us to acknowledge that our fates are in some real ways a common one. But fiscal crisis or no, I believe we are always in a moment where each of us can choose to change the world one person at a time.
I have been somewhat perplexed recently by the fact that while all of this major social, political and economic upheaval is taking place all around us, the art world--from all outward signs- still appears to be the same place it always was; quietly tightening its belt perhaps, but still predicating its existence on a set of exchanges that often seem completely out of synch with what is dramatically and traumatically taking place in the larger world. The seeming disengagement of the art world at this moment of seismic change does not bode well for our survival as a community, with the exception, perhaps, of those fortunate enough to find a rare place at the already crowded and increasingly shrinking table of excess and privilege. The art world is often presumed to be a rather liberal place. But--to be sure--it contains more than its fair share of those who are invested in re-inscribing art and culture itself as an arena of privilege and exclusion. Too often these acts of exclusion have left us as a community ever more isolated from the larger social community. It is that larger community that has the potential to embrace our work and make it imperative, giving it a much deeper and sustained presence in the fabric of society.
To see what happens when we isolate ourselves from that larger social community, we have to look no further than the "The Culture Wars" of the 1980s. The so-called "Culture Wars" were, to my mind, a toxic combination of two things: it was the culmination of increasing social, cultural and fiscal conservatism on the one hand, and the increasing sense of insularity with which certain segments of the art community and institutions began (or continued) to function on the other. The two combined created a kind of social "perfect storm," which Jesse Helms and others on the conservative right expertly and successfully exploited. And sadly a whole lot more people than those on the right's immediate radar paid the price by the wedge that was further driven between the art world and the larger community. This struggle between civic discourse and engagement versus a kind of absolute aestheticism and social elitism was embodied by public art projects like Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc," a 120 foot long and 12 feet high length of Corten steel that effectively bissected the Federal Plaza in downtown Manhattan, blocking immediate access to the building for those who worked there and impeding access to those in the vicinity.
Complaints arose almost immediately from those who worked in the building and now had to take a long detour around the piece to get both in and out of the building. Serra remarked at the time that, "The viewer becomes aware of himself and of his movement through the plaza. As he moves, the sculpture changes. Contraction and expansion of the sculpture result from the viewer's movement. Step by step the perception not only of the sculpture but of the entire environment changes." To those who questioned whether this was an appropriate public work Serra responded, "Art is not democratic. It is not for the people." (Less anyone interpret these remarks as "Bey bashes Serra," I want to be clear that as much as I do find Serra's work to be very significant--I went to New York to see his exhibition at MoMA twice--I am talking about this particularly piece at that particular site at that particular moment in history.) Throughout the long and heated controversy surrounding the piece advocates from the arts community framed the issue as strictly a first amendment one, dismissing those who objected to its placement as no more than a group of philistines, uniformly and foolishly unappreciative of the hulking steel object gracing their midst. At the final public hearing before the piece was dismantled 122 artists, curators, art administrators, critics and museum people testified passionately on behalf of keeping the piece where it was while 58 people who worked in the building spoke against it and were vilified by their overly aestheticized neighbors.
This is, of course, only one example of a moment in recent history when the art world was enlarged caught in the crossfire of cultural and social outrage on the one hand, without looking at any of the broader social implications and nuances. Is that art world any different today than it was twenty years ago? What world do we believe we are teaching our students to enter into? In the twenty odd years since the Serra, Mapplethorpe, Serrano and NEA controversies we have experienced--via burgeoning technology--an even more extraordinary proliferation of visual culture in our collective midst. What is the place of visual art and intellectual criticality in this kind of culture? How do we talk to our students about the differences between visual culture and art making? How do we teach our students to be both critical producers as well as critical consumers of visual culture? How can we teach our students to make work that cuts through the overwhelming detritus of consumer driven visual culture and make work that has the ability to touch and by extension change lives. How do we teach our students that--like John Coltrane--their work too can be a force for good?
Are we as artists and institutions engaging in the work of forging meaningful dialogues with our communities and various constituencies in ways that they previously hadn't? Are we ready to rethink the notion of institutional prerogative, privilege, and exclusivity, or is the current institutional climate as insular as ever? I have a strong feeling that how museums and cultural institutions answer these questions will determine whether they remain viable or end up in a state of crisis, or worse yet, shuttered as has happened to more than one institution recently.
Some of you, of course, have been working and teaching out of a framework of inclusiveness for some time, leading our students by example towards a more holistic art practice, one that makes the world your studio and acknowledges that everyone has a potential place in the conversation. Others have been involved in this work for a long time from the institutional vantage point. I invite those of you who are still laboring under the belief that we can each survive in exquisite isolation to reconsider.
Failure to acknowledge the profoundly changing social landscape and to devise a new paradigm with which to engage and to instead ignore it is an act of profound arrogance and willful ignorance that we cannot afford. For too long young artists have defined the art world as a kind of place where one attempts to do the most elaborate or provocative tap dance for the highest bidder. The art world that students are hoping to enter often appears to be little more than a place for the production of endlessly proliferating expensive and provocative objects, supported by a shrinking marketplace of commerce that attempts to keep its game face on lest anyone know that the game has pretty much changed in deep and intractable ways.
How do we then define the work that we do in our respective fields, in all of the arenas that are represented here tonight? As educators how do we teach our students (and ourselves) to think about what makes their work meaningful? How do we go about making what we do matter not just inside of the institutional space of the college, university, museum or gallery, but outside of it as well. How do we take charge of making sure that our work and ideas have meaning and purpose beyond the institutional walls? How do we make our work meaningful and imperative in a changing and destabilized social landscape? How do we teach our students that their work can be meaningful in ways that are not simply about trying to feed the market economy and that there are other economies and contexts where their work finds a place to be deeply meaningful and transformative? How do we teach our students to envision their practice as something that is deeply embedded in society, not separate from it? How do we teach our students that their work can and should have a much broader audience than simply the art world proper? How can we teach our students (and ourselves) to be participants in a broader social conversation, a conversation that concerns the many and not just the self-preoccupied few? This I believe is the challenge for those of us who teach and those of us who hope to continue to find a meaningful place in the world as members of this art community in the broadest sense.
Those of us who teach should always seek to remind our young artists in training of their connectedness to the world and to encourage them to devise ways of engaging in forward looking practices that both demonstrate a deeply held set of personal beliefs, individual attention to the rigor of their discipline but also a clear sense of how those concerns might deeply impact the world they are living in. We should also encourage our students--in the strongest possible way--to form communities of support and to be actively engaged as both citizens and artists in the communities in which they live. We should also be encouraging them to form communities amongst themselves, since contrary to historical myth no individual ever made significant strides on their own. The myth of the lone genius is really the erasure of that person's community in order to create a mythic isolated "genuis." Certainly there is no honor in teaching students that their only job is to make their work and to then wait for someone to shower rewards upon them.
Those of us who are practicing artists should ourselves be ever mindful of the need to continue shaping our own practices in less insular ways, believing that art's transformative capacities are available to anyone who we can put our work in front of and no one is less deserving of the experience of that work than anyone else.
Those of us who are writing, teaching and otherwise shaping and presenting past and present history need to be mindful that history traditionally has always been a place of selective exclusion as much as it has been a place for selective inclusion masquerading as historical fact. I was reminded of this not too long when I found myself at dinner with a couple of young curators and their patrons. None of them knew the work or name of a single black artists that I asked them about, all of whom I confess had emerged before the 1990s. None of these rang a bell for these young art historians and museum workers who are charged with mounting exhibitions and writing publications that document the expressive work of our time. And these were not obscure or marginal names...to me anyway. If one is going to do this work, one has to be willing and able to do the serious job of excavating history, not merely recognizing the already recognized and hitching your wagon to them. There are still histories waiting to be told and written, and the subjects are indeed hiding in plain sight. One has to believe that the work of bringing others into the center of the discourse truly matters.
If we can encourage our students to live an inclusive and mindful life through their work we leave them better prepared to function broadly in the world. Over the many years I have been teaching I have seen my students go on to receive all sorts of honors, from the Rome Prize to the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Pulitzer Prize to name a few. But my greatest joy lies in knowing that I was part of a process of helping them each to find their voice and to realize that their voices mattered and could reshape the world in which they live in meaningful ways.
This is what we as a community should commit to: The empowerment and transformation of each individual who comes in touch with our work in whatever form it takes. If we do this, we will be able to say--as I think we would all like to be able to say--that we are truly functioning as a community, one that seeks to be as inclusive and reflective of our many histories as possible, and one that seeks to replace privilege and elitism with the realization that everyone is capable of what Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to as "painstaking excellence." That, quite simply, is the responsibility that I believe all of us in this community called the College Art Association share."
Dawoud's blog is here, from where I took his remarks: