In The Near Future (detail), 35mm projection installation, Sharon Hayes, 2009.
In his blurb for the volume, Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production, Holland Cotter remarks that the artists and critics collected in the book are “less interested in arguing for or against tactics than they are in advocating an art of political thinking.” Cotter, an art critic for the New York Times, has been an important mainstream voice in advocating the importance of politics for cultural criticism. Against a belle-lettrist mentality that judged the “aesthetic quality” of works of art, criticism that emphasizes cultural politics has ascended over the last few decades to the point of attaining mainstream status within the university and in publications ranging from the Times to Artforum and Hyperallergic. Over the course of cultural criticism’s rise, the very idea of “aesthetic quality” has been a point of interrogation, for by what politics and under what cultural regimes are certain artifacts deemed to be more beautiful or more aesthetically engaging?
Such questions are understood to be part of a left-leaning criticism that has dismantled the Western canon, showing its limitations, exclusions, and brutality. It has raised to the fore questions of the representation of otherness, as well as questions of access to critique itself. This is all part of a still-raging battle well-known as the “culture wars,” and the work done by a critic such as Cotter follows a tradition of critical-political activism—much of it undertaken by embattled minorities—that has widened access to critical platforms, challenged forms of oppression, and been part of the ongoing struggle for equal rights and access in arts criticism and its institutions.
And yet, at the same time that political cultural criticism has ascended in the academic and art worlds, these worlds themselves have become increasingly polarized on a spectrum of inequality. Critics compete fiercely for fewer and fewer jobs, academics struggle for a foothold in a dying tenure system, and mid-level galleries continue to close. Across these fields, a “cultural 1%” is emerging, even as the very idea of the “1%” grew out of art-academic-activist circles. How are we critics to understand the rise of a cultural hegemony for Left cultural criticism that overlaps with the decline of the institutional power of the Left, both in mainstream politics and in the worlds in which that very criticism has gained ascendancy?
Part of the answer may be found in Cotter’s blurb: that we are thinking so much about politics-as-thinking that we have lost touch with politics-as-tactic. In this move, art critics would not be alone. As Jonathan Smucker argues in his recent book, Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals (joining recent analyses by Alicia Garza, Jane McAlevey, Charles Payne, Jeffrey Stout, Astra Taylor and others), the half-century since the Civil Rights Movement has seen a rise of “activism” but a decline of organized politics. The result is a lot of people with a lot of “good” politics and some remarkably important gains in terms of awareness of oppression, but sadly little success in changing political structures or policy. After spending a decade doing activist labor, Smucker was forced to conclude: “The gap between what we said we were trying to do and the likelihood that our actions would produce such an outcome became glaringly apparent to me.”1
The gap between activism and organizing emerges from two different political contests outlined by Smucker: one symbolic (“culture, meaning, framing, and common sense”), and one institutional (“leadership, organizational capacity,” and consolidating “victories in the state”). The problem, he suggests, is that the activist Left, much like cultural criticism, has been much more successful in the symbolic (activist) contest than the institutional (organizational) one. Or, more to the point, critics have failed to combine the two. But perhaps this is obvious. How can cultural criticism be more meaningful than by debating questions of meaning, framing, or representation? Isn’t this tremendous success in changing the terrain of culture not already enough to ask of critics? What on earth would it mean for cultural criticism to engage with the question of institutional change or policy development beyond changing how people think about the culture in which changes take effect? If we start talking about institutions, state formation, and so forth, then it would seem that we have left cultural criticism and entered the terrain of political science.
Then again, the movement into activist politics is exactly what art and criticism have been doing anyway for the past few decades. Be it in the form of political criticism or “social practice art,” the art world is engaged in an ongoing political struggle. Building on the gains of these struggles, but acknowledging the general decline in the fortunes of the Left, it is worth asking whether the emerging critique of activism in the name of organizing might open a new option for a theoretical standpoint of criticism. In other words, without abandoning the ongoing work of political thinking and representational critique in cultural criticism, we could adapt an idiom for criticism from current theories of political organization.
To do so, one has to start simply by reading this literature. Outlining a proposal for a workshop a decade ago, Dont Rhine of the organizing-focused art group Ultra-Red noted that in spite of the rise of interest in participation and social practice, “in much of the art world’s discussions of participatory art, names like Saul Alinsky, Paulo Freire as well as traditions around participatory-action research, popular education and participatory-democracy remain largely absent.” The theorists Rhine mentions were major thinkers and practitioners of grassroots organizing. Alinsky was a force behind the development of community organizing, helping to consolidate and theorize the relation between unions, communities, and political action. Freire was a philosopher of education who not only theorized a relation between pedagogy and politics, but spent most of his life organizing schools to put his ideas into practice.
To this day, however, more abstract theorists of politics, such as Giorgio Agamben, Theodor Adorno, and Alain Badiou remain the mainstays of art criticism, even when discussing social practice. Thus Claire Bishop never mentions Alinsky in her widely-read critique of social practice, Artificial Hells (2012), and her treatment of Freire, while appreciative, is quick and devoid of engagement with the breadth of his work or its actual history beyond a few quotes from his most famous text, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Portuguese1968; English 1970). The same is true of Yates McKee’s Strike Art (2016). Even as his book moves beyond Bishop’s art-world focus to the merging of art and activism over the last half century, he never mentions Freire or Alinsky, though frequently references Agamben, Badiou, and Jacques Rancière. And neither art historian engages major theoretical texts or debates on organized politics or social movements—such as those by Douglas McAdam, Charles M. Payne, Theda Skocpol, or Jeffrey Stout. (I am not at all saying we should abandon the standard texts of theory—Smucker, for example, draws resources from Chantal Mouffe, Antonio Gramsci, and others; I am simply suggesting that we should link these theorists’ general conceptions of politics to the specific difficulties outlined in the literature on organization.)
I do not mean to single out Bishop and Mckee, from whom I have learned a great deal, and whose cogent analyses of art and politics remain vital. More to the point, this absence of organizational theory is not an individual trend, but a general situation. Consider, for example, the likelihood of encountering a reference to Theodor Adorno or Saul Alinsky in a major art journal. According to my database searches, October has never referenced Alinsky, though 236 articles have cited Adorno. Since 2002 (the available search through my university), Artforum has 180 to Adorno, 0 to Alinsky. Hyperallergic is 35 to 0. E-flux has about 50 Adorno, and is the only one to have referenced Alinsky (in a two-part essay by Nato Thompson in part about how the US military was more proactive in reading Alinsky than artists!). Although one might respond that this is because Adorno wrote about the visual arts, consider the respective tallies for Giorgio Agamben, who has written about literature, but rarely about visual art: 52 (October), 47 (Artforum), 5 (Hyperallergic), and 39 (e-flux).
Now undoubtedly Adorno and Agamben have important things to teach us about political life and aesthetics, but they both had very little or nothing to say about organization (Agamben appears hostile at best, and Adorno cynical at the very least). And while there are important critiques of focusing too much on organized politics (such as James C. Scott’s significant work, Weapons of the Weak, 1985), there is no doubt in the scholarship that it remains among the most effective means of advancing political change from below. Thus the absence of even discussing such debates from most art criticism should be a topic of concern. As Rhine notes, even as cultural critics write ever more forceful political analyses of works of art, their references remain confined to a set of theoretical coordinates often at a remove from the rich literature on organization.
What might a cultural criticism that is in dialogue with this literature look like? That of course will vary. The organizing tradition, like any, has its fair share of disagreements. Nevertheless, at least one key point shared by contemporary theorists of organization is that the source of its power is, in McAlevey’s phrasing, “a continually expanding base of ordinary people, a mass of people never previously involved.”2 Unlike activism or mobilization, which rely on pre-constituted constituencies who are ready to protest, organizing is about the difficult work of forming powerful blocs out of disconnected and insecure individuals. It is about continually expanding those blocs, continually listening to their stories, desires, and demands, and continually developing meaningful tactics to put pressure on power-holders to change systems and structures. Out of this emerges a number of themes that bear on aesthetics, including the problem of boredom and endurance in long campaigns (Alinsky), the question of how to negotiate shifting relationships between allies and enemies (Stout), the need for a precise concept of leadership (McAlevey), the “paradox of political identity”—that getting involved in politics requires a community feeling which can, in turn, be off-putting to the very people you need to persuade (Smucker), or the relation of visible, legal success to the invisible acts of organizing by ordinary “apolitical” people (Payne).
I can think of numerous novels, films, performances, and social practice works that engage these themes, but almost no criticism that engages this literature. Even Mckee, who frequently speaks of “organizing,” confines his analyses to those concepts of organizing generated by artists. While Mckee is right that artist’s thoughts on organization can shift standard political analyses, there is a risk that we lose what Payne calls the “organizing tradition” when the links between these conceptual shifts and institutional change are not explicitly worked through in the criticism. Art critics and historians need not make these specific citations to address these issues, as we see in McKee as well as works like Susan Cahan’s Mounting Frustration (2016) and Kellie Jones’s South of Pico (2017), for example, which look in detail at the historical struggles of black artists to change the racist conditions of art exhibitions, criticism, and institutions through their organizing efforts. The point is simply to further develop these types of concerns into broader theoretical standpoints in touch with the literature on social and political movements. What I am suggesting, then, is not only writing about a link between art and social movements, but further about using the organizational resources of social movements as theoretical lenses for understanding art. (There do exist examples of what this might begin to look like. A recent iteration can be found, for example, in the project and book, Organize Your Own.)
Of course, making this link does not necessarily mean success is around the corner. The point is that political achievements are hard to win. As Smucker puts it, “Organizing is a mess not a refuge.”3 Cultural criticism can help that mess. It can, as McKee suggests, help us think more clearly about the sensible and affective qualities of politics. Moreover, and this is the hope of my writing here, cultural criticism can begin to use its ability to shape cultural common sense to push us towards the activity of organizing that McAlevey, Payne, Rhine, Smucker, and others are calling for. Criticism itself retains a role here: just as cultural criticism has been part of changing how the majoritarian culture thinks about gender, race, sexuality, and other topics, it can play a role in reversing the decline of organizing. Taking organizing as its standpoint, it could effectively join the theorists and activists trying to bring the organizing tradition out of its decline. As Stout argues: “the delicate task of the social critic is to adopt a perspective” that acknowledges the terror of the present “without simultaneously disabling the hope of reforming it.”4 The problem is that much criticism—rightly—tells us where we have gone wrong, but rarely do we finish an essay on the current state of culture with a sense of what to do next. Reading the organizational literature and, more importantly, beginning to organize, one regains that power.
Cultural criticism has rightfully devoted many of its important resources to questions of representation, ethics, and abstract politics. But, in so doing, it has insufficiently considered the organization necessary to bring its insights to bear on re-making the future. Strides toward greater equality and representation in the arts and its institutions have been made, nevertheless, but one wonders what critics might accomplish by taking a deliberate turn toward organization. In Walden, Henry David Thoreau relates an anecdote of a man who asks a boy standing by a body of water if it has a solid bottom. The boy replies yes. The man plunges into the water and does not make it very far before he is up to his neck. He harangues the boy, who replies that the water does have a bottom; it’s simply that the man is only about half way to it. We, too, are looking for a bottom, a solid grounding for our positions, a point from which to build our institutions. And we, too, risk sinking if we continue on the path we are on. To turn to organizational theory is not to arrive at obvious answers about next steps. It is to realize that while we are looking for a next step, what we may need is a raft.
Thanks to Anthea Behm, Mashinka Firunts, Gregory Sholette and the editors of ASAP/J for very helpful comments on drafts of this essay.
- Jonathan Matthew Smucker, Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017), 29.
- Jane F. McAlevey, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 10.
- Smucker, Hegemony How-To, 161.
- Jeffrey Stout, Blessed Are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010), 259.