In recent weeks, I’ve been trying to think through how people at all levels of the art world can act in solidarity with one another. What does solidarity as a practice, not a gesture, look like? Is it even possible to incorporate reparations into art-selling, or is the system already too corrupt? There are so many intersections, historical and present, between art-making and social justice. How do we activate them, keep them alive?
One model that seems to be cropping up—in response both to coronavirus and the global Movement for Black Lives—is the benefit. I define the benefit broadly as an art sale which sees some if not all commission remunerated to a community or organisation in need. This excites me as a preexisting strategy for breaking the closed loop between artist, gallery, and collector, inviting community engagement in a real way, i.e. in the form of cash flow.
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I’ve seen the benefit come in many forms. Some artist-initiated, such as Githan Coopoo’s Instagram auction in support of SWEAT, Jayshal Gajjar’s for Triangle Project, Grace Cross and Nabeeha Mohamed for the Saartjie Baartman Centre, or Athi-Patra Ruga and Lesoko Seabe’s fundraiser to save Lovedale Press. Another that has caught my eye is the Print Sale Project, a collection of photography—ranging from landscapes and glossy fashion portraits to more intimate and conceptual pieces—which sees 100% of proceeds benefit LGBTIQ+ families in the Western Cape hit hardest by the virus and its effects, reminiscent of similar efforts like Pictures for Elmhurst, Between Bridges, or Keep Going for Color for Change.
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And what of the big galleries? They seem largely quiet on the subject of aid, with the exception of SMAC’s A Show of Solidarity, a typical mid-winter group show which has pledged to donate 50% of sales on each exhibited artwork to the Solidarity Fund. I commend the gallery on their initiative, but I remain skeptical that a government-run redistributing scheme will ensure money gets into the hands of those who need it most.
This also raises the issue of solidarity versus charity. Astra Taylor and Leah Hunt-Hendrix put it this way:
People of means have long preferred charity—and its institutionalized counterpart, philanthropy—to solidarity. Under the virtuous-sounding guise of charity, the rich and powerful can bestow kindness from on high, without feeling implicated in or responsible for the systems that produce poverty and oppression in the first place. As Anand Giridharadas reveals in his bracing 2018 book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, philanthropy is structured so as to leave the distinction between the giver and the receiver intact… Solidarity, in contrast to charity and philanthropy, isn’t one-sided. It is a form of reciprocity rooted in the acknowledgment that our lives are intertwined.
I’m not saying that the benefit is a bad thing. If moneyed spaces are willing to redistribute their wealth, by all means! But solidarity in the long term means rethinking and rehauling how power and capital function in the art world and beyond.
How will the art world respond to a pandemic, an insurrection, an economic collapse? In other words, how will arts institutions respond to a situation of mass death exacerbated by the very conditions from which they benefit? That is, capitalism and colonialism. The art industry doesn’t exist in a vacuum; museums and galleries as both money- and culture-making institutions have a responsibility to support and protect the people on whom they depend for capital, knowledge, labour, and land. Diversity statements are not enough.1Sara Ahmed says, “Having an institutional aim to make diversity a goal can even be a sign that diversity is not an institutional goal.” Confessions are not enough.2Ahmed again: “Recognition of institutional racism can easily be translated into a form of institutional therapy culture… The institution, ‘having confessed’ to racism might be understood as on the road to recovery. A recovery from racism can even be a way of ‘recovering’ racism, as if admitting to racism is a way of getting over it.” Reading lists are not enough.3“For such a list to do good,” writes Lauren Michele Jackson, “something keener than “anti-racism” must be sought. The word and its nominal equivalent, “anti-racist,” suggests something of a vanity project, where the goal is no longer to learn more about race, power, and capital, but to spring closer to the enlightened order of the antiracist. And yet, were one to actually read many of these books, one might reach the conclusion that there is no anti-racist stasis within reach of a lifetime. Thus there cannot be an anti-racist canon that does not crystallize the very sense of things it proposes to undermine.” Black squares on Instagram couldn’t be farther away from enough. The benefit is a good first step, but solidarity, as I imagine it, is a process, not an action, an ever-unfolding effort to relearn, restructure, and repair.
Sethembile Msezane has compiled a pretty comprehensive list of the racist practices—both overt and covert, scandalous and mundane—that arts institutions would do well to examine and amend. Not to clear up their image, nor to leave transgressions in the past, but to ensure the survival of creators, culture-makers, and creative ecosystems in a world that, from where I’m sitting, is bound to become less resourced and more polarised.
I’ll be honest, this is the point in my thinking at which I start to spiral. Where to begin? What can I offer that is concrete, instead of deferring to the unknown? Is there any value in thinking about the art in a time of desperation and insurgency? If the industry is tainted beyond repair, then my participation in it evidence that I’m not just a rookie but a sellout. There’s a devil on my shoulder that thinks the world’s so-called prestigious museums and galleries would be better off looted and reappropriated for public use. This spiral usually ends with something along the lines of, art is futile, there should be more important things on my mind.
Then, I stop, backtrack, and realise that, for better or worse, I couldn’t imagine living in a world without art, let alone would I want to. Still, this is what I know: art will be futile if it continues to exist as a profit-generator for the already-rich. Art will be futile if it continues to reward individuals over collaborative and collective efforts. Art will be futile if it continues to reproduce the hierarchies that distance us from each other rather than build a bridge between.
A new art world will follow. Not a reformed world, nor an alternative, but a world marked by expansions, experimentations, possibilities abound. Kimberly Rose Drew says:
Behind our keyboards and avatars, it’s easy to counterfeit conviction, but sometimes the most powerful thing we can do is remain curious. I abhor the overused phrase ‘now more than ever”, but it is apt here: now more than ever, we have to think about the radical possibilities of our own curiosities. It is these exact curiosities and eccentricities that will forge the record of our time.