Embracing the Unseenby Aimee Walleston
I came to the art world because many people here are invested, as I am, in innovative political discourse. As I ventured further in, I found artists, writers, and thinkers who cared deeply about issues of social justice, and who were able to broaden and reframe the ideologies affiliated with these subjects by passing them through the lenses of art and aesthetics. The art world is, equally, a realm where believing goes beyond seeing: pure, untamed thought is rendered on blank pages and empty gallery walls. That is what makes it brave and exciting. Unfortunately, I have also found that the most potentially world-changing ideas born here tend to grow up and die here, without ever venturing outside the art world’s provincial little thought bubble.
I am someone who used her education to transcend the world she was born into. My parents were working class, and before and after I left my town as a teenager, I experienced many of the attendant difficulties of that life. Possessing this identity, I often feel like I inhabit two disparate worlds at one time. I am seen, predominantly, as the well-educated woman I have constructed myself to be, who has been afforded many opportunities to write, teach, and travel. And I am unseen, as a Massachusetts mill town girl who feels like her core identity is overlooked in favor of a more straightforward visual representation.
Our recent U.S. election describes a country unknown even to itself, blindly searching for a way out of a system that has infected its members with an unnamed suffering. I know exactly what this suffering tastes like. While I condemn their hatred-embracing choice, I can feel in my blood and bones why so many people voted as they did. They feel invisible, and are filled with a poisonous, misdirected rage. I also know, firsthand, that the more politically-oriented side of the art world has not, as of late, deigned to fully adjust its own clannish tendencies and obscurant homily in favor of constructing a broader public discourse. This dooms the conceptual thinking that transpires within it to be useless, if not altogether hostile, to a wider public.
This needs to change—before our new leadership threatens to change us—and will not do so if the art world continues to value thinking purely for the thought of it. Art writers need to move away from producing “insider baseball” prose, and begin to formulate and distill the political ideas brewed in our galleries, museums, classrooms, and art spaces to service a politicized readership beyond the (by now notional) creative class. And more artists, in a model brought forth by Theaster Gates, Suzanne Lacy, and others, need to use their political acumen to create an actionable community realpolitik (and perhaps—now that the floodgates are opened—even real politicians). If we want this world to mirror our most thoughtful, meaningful, and humanistic social objectives, it is time for us to stop looking only to, and at, ourselves.
AIMEE WALLESTON is a writer and editor who has worked for magazines including W, Interview, Jane and The Last Magazine. She has contributed essays and reviews to Art in America, T Magazine, Flash Art and The Brooklyn Rail, among many other publications. She currently writes cultural criticism for CR Fashion Book and teaches at the International Center of Photography. She received her MFA in Art Criticism and Writing from SVA in 2009.