Politics of Visual Arts Workshop

Tuesday, December 4, 2018 • 4:30-6PM

Columbia University, Low Library, Room 206 (Burden Room)

Closed door workshop

Politics of Visual Arts in a Changing World: New Actors, New Methods

by Vishakha N. Desai, Vice Chair, Committee on Global Thought

Arts have been periodically, but consistently, subjected to political pressures. Generally, the opposition comes from the conservative end of the political spectrum, as evidenced in the Culture Wars of the early 1990s in the United States. Now, in many parts of the world, new voices are clamoring to constrain artistic expressions. Restrictions are no longer the exclusive domains of the dominant or conquering powers, but are also used as tool of protest by those resisting domination. They range from animal rights activists successfully forcing institutions to remove works seen as being cruel to animals ( The Art in China after 1989 show at Guggenheim, a contemporary art exhibition in Lyon, France) to artists or particular ethnic communities insisting on removing works of art from public view or even destroying them for being offensive to their beliefs or histories ( African American artists demanding that a painting of a slain young black man by a white woman artist be destroyed, for example). Arguably, these cases are different in nature, but they deal with the issues of rights of representation vs. freedom of imagination, one group limiting the experience or practice of another.

Simultaneously, politically conservative leaders in many parts of the world are using new populist strategies and social media tactics to put new pressures on artists and art institutions. These days, artists are feeling the pressures at both ends: governmental forces using new tools for greater control over artistic practice and special interest groups arguing for their particular agendas,  constraining freedom of expression in the process.

Politics of Visual Arts in a Changing World aims to study new trends that are affecting the creation, presentation, reception, and preservation of works of art in diverse cultural contexts.  (Although all artists-visual, literary, or performing—feel the pressure, this project will be focused on the visual arts in all its manifestations, from paintings and installations to films and video.)  From preliminary discussions with colleagues inside and outside the university, and in India and Turkey, a number of potential areas of exploration have emerged:

  1. The role of social media and new technology in enabling and constraining artistic expression
  2. Processes by which some culturally specific issues become widely recognized transnational issues while others remain locally rooted
  3. The role of rising populism on the right and on the left in the development of new constraints on artistic expressions
  4. Relationship between socially and politically oriented art and “aesthetic” journalism
  5. Freedom of artistic expression vs. rights of specific groups to their own experiences
  6. Intersection of cultural heritage and creative expressions in the context of ownership of cultural experiences
  7. New legal frameworks to deal with new actors and new processes by which artistic expressions are being protected or thwarted
  8. Roles and responsibilities of cultural institutions in dealing with new pressures on presentation and collection of works of art

Embedded in these explorations are issues of cultural appropriation, freedom of artistic expression, authorship and ownership of works of art, and changing legal and public attitudes to creation, reception and consumption of art.  Following the newly established CGT methodology, Politics of Visual Arts in a Changing World will bring together scholars from diverse disciplines, artists, and museum professionals from around the world to develop the project. Working with interested Global Centers and other locations will be an integral part of the project. The collective research will include conceptual framing of the issues as well as analyses of specific case studies to illuminate deeper underlying issues. The regional and transnational research will result in a conference (funding permitting), as well as an edited volume and shorter on-line pieces.

Magnus Ag

Magnus Ag is a human rights advocate and a researcher. He is the founder & director of Bridge Figures - a human rights project that scales the potential of artists and activists to build bridges and break walls in a data-driven world. Currently based between Hong Kong and Berlin, he previously worked with the Copenhagen-based organization Freemuse — which defends the right to artistic freedom worldwide — and as the Assistant Advocacy Director for the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York City. He holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in political science from the University of Copenhagen. Follow Magnus on Twitter @AgMagnus.

Prompt: Data-Driven Dynamics of Artistic Expression
With social media and data-driven technologies, the borders between being an artist, an activist and a citizen – and the conditions for the right to artistic freedom – are changing. Based on research and early work by Bridge Figures, the paper asks: How can we scale the potential of artists and artistic expressions to reach citizens across geographical, digital and cultural borders? What role can data-driven tools, such as a ‘Diversity Meter,’ an ‘Influencer Crawler,’ micro-targeting, and a ‘Hate Speech Tracker,’ play? And how do we avoid a situation where artistic expressions become limited by a ‘populist aesthetics’ of streamlined sharable messages?

Erin Thompson

Erin Thompson is associate professor of art crime at John Jay College (CUNY). She holds a Ph.D. in Art History and a J.D., both from Columbia, and studies the looting, theft, and deliberate destruction of art. Her book Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors was published by Yale University Press in 2016. She is also interested in the ethics of digital reproductions of cultural heritage, as well as art made by detainees at Guantánamo Bay; she curated an exhibit of this artwork and was recently awarded an Arts Writers grant from Creative Capital/The Andy Warhol Foundation to pursue the topic. www.artcrimeprof.com

Prompt: Social media rewards both the production and the destruction of art. Social media provides platforms for artists critical of political regimes and for political regimes critical of artists. Social media allows unknown artists to be heard and unknown critics to shout them down. Social media is accessible to all, except when it’s not. Social media is transforming our relationship to art, even though we use it as a set of tools for doing the same things we’ve always done with art. I will introduce these larger tensions between cultures of art creation, preservation, and reception in preparation for our discussion of the role of social media as it affects political dimensions of individual art-making and presentation.

Recommended Background Reading

Politics of Visual Arts Recommended Reading: Nyst, C. and Monaco, N.: State-Sponsored Trolling: How Governments Are Deploying Disinformation as Part of Broader Digital Harassment Campaigns (2018), Institute for the Future (good up-to-date analysis of states’ approach to prominent opposing individuals (journalists, activists, human rights defenders, leading opposition figures - artists NOT mentioned)

Complete List of Materials

The project's complete working bibliography is available here (scroll to bottom of the page).

List of Workshop Participants

Amy Adler | Emily Kempin Professor of Law, NYU School of Law

Magnus Ag | Founder & Director, Bridge Figures

Manan Ahmed | Associate Professor of History, Columbia University; Member, Committee on Global Thought

Akeel Bilgrami | Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University; Member, Committee on Global Thought

Zeynep Çelik Alexander | Associate Professor, Columbia University

Paolo Cirio | Conceptual Artist; Cultural Critic; Internet Activist

Jonathan Crary | Meyer Schapiro Professor of Modern Art and Theory, Columbia University

Vishakha N. Desai | Vice Chair, Committee on Global Thought; Senior Advisor for Global Affairs to the President; Senior Research Scholar, School of International and Public Affairs

Noam Elcott | Associate Professor and Chair of Art Humanities, Columbia University

João Enxuto | Conceptual Artist; Writer

Mark Hansen | David and Helen Gurley Brown Professor of Journalism and Innovation, Columbia University; Director, David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute of Media Innovation; Member, Committee on Global Thought

Erica Love | Conceptual Artist; Writer

Kim Mitchell | Partner, BRUNSWICK ARTS CONSULTING LLP; Former Chief Communications Officer, MoMA

Laura Neitzel | Academic Director and Lecturer in History, Committee on Global Thought

Christiane Paul | Director/Chief Curator, Sheila C. Johnson Design Center (New School); Adjunct Curator of New Media Arts, Whitney Museum

Kathryn Poots | Visiting Associate Professor, Columbia University

Erin Thompson | Associate Professor of Art Crime, John Jay College (CUNY)

Kian Tajbakhsh | Professor of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Columbia University; Fellow, Committee on Global Thought

Eugenie Tsai | John and Barbara Vogelstein Senior Curator, Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum

Andreas Wimmer | Lieber Professor of Sociology and Political Philosophy, Columbia University; Member, Committee on Global Thought


The workshop will take place from 4:30-6PM in Room 206 (Burden Room) of Low Memorial Library.