Responding to Theaster Gates

6:12 PM

Thoughts on reform versus political agendas, and the role of art in society.

Working at the Museum of Contemporary Art has caused me to muse a lot about the structure of whiteness in relation to the workplace, and this essay is no different. I adore the kind of work I do, but there is something very off-putting about going to a mecca of culture and intellect Downtown, then taking a Metro bus afterwards back to my ghetto town and school.

That, and the type of conversations we would have at MOCA had me thinking a lot about political agendas and their adequacy. To give some background, I used to be a socialist-type liberal freshman year of high school, when I had this very simple idea of the way things work. Recently, I used to advocate some degree of capitalism, because of how it has propelled human innovation. Now, I advocate it more because I endorse the system's status quo...for now. I do so because that is the way things are, and the chances of a system overthrow are extremely unlikely. That is also why I have been staunchly opposed to the idea of political agendas, and the idea of how contemporary art is consumed. There is a privilege involved with both these concepts. The mere fact that I participate in both already shows my nuanced state as a person of color; every person of color falls somewhere on the privilege ladder, be it looking more European or growing up in a wealthy suburb. Me having conversations about art at MOCA, me criticizing liberalism in debates already elevates me above many of my ethnic counterparts, who live not to seek self-fulfillment, but survival. Discourse in itself is a privilege.

Talking about these obscure concepts as a form activism does nothing to help. What the impoverished and oppressed need and want is not your third party votes, or your essay about how capitalism sucks. They need adequate housing, education, jobs, and basic rights. To me, the idea of political agendas is so indulgent into the idea of a utopian society. The system is not going down anytime soon, and the things done in "protest" of the system hurts the very people you're trying to save.  Your third part votes made Trump win. Your rioting in protest of "the Man" chains, like Walmart, made POC lose their jobs. Such activism reeks of a level of privilege so high that realism is forgotten, and POC merely are pieces of a game. Contemporary art, I have found, parallels this. How many times have you heard the word "opens a discourse" about a piece of art? Art pieces concerning hot topics like race, poverty, or gender do spark conversation-- and that is important! But we have to think, who does this open up conversations to? Art circles respond to audiences that are privileged, and the demographic groups they speak about often do not have access to such circles. Our oppressors giving us charity conversations, giving us petty reform only succumbs us more into their dominance. How do they know what we want? How did Europe know what Africa wanted when they tore her apart at the Berlin Conference? How do white male congressmen know what women want in their reproductive lives? They do not, and in not knowing they egg each other on in a culture of talk, with a false pretense that this induces change, into this manifestation of pure ego that declares "I love the Hispanics!" This art capitalizes off these hot topics, and their only activism is a "discourse". As someone who participates in such art circles at MOCA, in such political circles in debate, going back home, watching the news about my community, and continuing with my daily life, knowing nothing has changed, is one of the strangest feelings I've ever felt. I still cannot describe the internal struggle that occurs when experiencing such polar scenes. But, I know that I am so tired of talk. All the oppressors do is talk, and talk, and talk. They retweet and don't vote and talk about us with their white friends. They post scholarly articles about us we don't understand and they carry a poster Downtown and they drag a celebrity. And my community stays not seeing these waves of activism. We seem to prioritize white ideas over colored lives.

I did not forget about Theaster Gates. He is an artist and urban developer I discovered through MOCA, and he blew my mind. I spent an afternoon researching his work (he has a Ted talk), and what he does is truly amazing. It tapped into my concerns in such a tangible way, in such a beautiful way. Watching his Ted Talk about his work, and listening to the slightest note of vulnerability in his voice when he said "I believe beauty is a basic necessity"-- I cried. Besides his endeavors as a regular artist, the chunk of Gates' work lies in doing something substantial about the housing market in Chicago. Many houses have been built and abandoned in dire urban areas like Chicago, and what Gates does is buy these empty, useless buildings and turn them into something beneficial for the low-income, minority communities that surround them. They become gorgeous hubs of culture, hosting black movie screenings, artists, workshops, libraries, and more. Gates' philosophy lies in the importance of beauty, and he puts a lot of effort into ensuring these projects turn into an accessible house of aesthetic excellence. If you are reluctant about such values being implemented into these communities instead of more institutional help, like school funding, give Ted Radio Hour's "What is Beauty?" episode a listen. Studies show that beauty can have a positive effect on these communities' level of education and career success! Besides that point, Gates additionally puts the money from the hubs back into the community for more realistic needs. I believe what he does is an excellent example of art for change, for reform. The art he helps produce goes back to communities he is inspired by, and he protects the communities from gentrification by making sure these hubs always promote and give back to black art, black businesses, black films...the list goes on. He channels resources so that discourse and change can coexist, so that the oppressed can participate in these conversations. It is an outward movement free of the vanity of the artists' name, it is a movement whose pulse lies in the poor, black communities of Chicago, not the museum downtown.

What I feel is that concepts like art for change, and reform must be thoroughly embedded into our society before we can talk about the system fairly. I am not saying art itself is bad, or political ideologies are bad. Art is a big part of my life, and talking is the way these thoughts were fleshed out in the first place. Not all art is inherently activist, but that's not the type of work I speak of. What I think is that it is wrong for people to take them as their only form of activism and change. If we give oppressed communities higher education, well-paying jobs, positions at universities...the conversation that will follow will become more inclusive-- therefore, fairer and more realistic. The process is circular: giving the undermined education gives them means to participate in conversation (which, in the context of POC participation in it, I think is very important), which in turn leads again to more reform.

What do you guys think?

HEY! I enjoy my job very much! MOCA don't fire me! 

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