Book Title: How Art Can Be Thought

Duke University Press
Book Title: How Art Can Be Thought
Book Subtitle: A Handbook for Change
Book Author(s): Allan deSouza
Published by: Duke University Press. (2018)
Stable URL:
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How Art Can Be Thought
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I began writing a straightforward biography of where I had studied and had
taught, thinking it would help students to know about my personal experience of becoming an artist. My ambivalence was that, as an artist (of color), I am
often required to authenticate myself, with my work too often read primarily
or only in terms of autobiography, as though I can only speak from within
some anthropological containment field. Rather than a personal biography,
then, I hope to mark pathways through the maze of contradictory and often
routinely discriminatory practices within art institutions.1
I’m not offering
myself as a victim, nor do I warrant commendation for endurance. My intention is to situate my experience in broader historical and institutional
I have taught at numerous schools, but my full-time, long-term teaching has
been primarily at the San Francisco Art Institute, a small private art school, and
at uc Berkeley, a large public university. I have taught painting, photography,
performance, writing, “new genres,” theory, and critical studies. I have assumed
administrative positions (I use this phrasing to suggest self-punishment) of
chair and director of diferent programs. It’s fair to say that as a student, educator, and administrator, I have covered a fair amount of experiential, geographic, temporal, disciplinary, and conceptual ground. Let me trace some of
these routes.
Although I have offered a childhood story to begin
this preface, it is a fable irreducible to fact.
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2 Introduction
A possible beginning moment might have been in 1976, in high school in
London, when I announced to my art teacher that I had been accepted into
the Foundation Art course at Goldsmiths College. I remember his disbelief,
and his demand to see the proof. It was something that neither of us could have
put into words at the time, but I understood even then that there was no trajectory for someone like me to be an artist. “Someone like me,” meaning an
“East African Asian”—to use the nomenclature of the time—one of the first
generation to be primarily educated in an England that had yet to come to
terms with immigration from its former colonies. People like me did not become artists.
After the foundation year, I applied three years running to bachelor of fine
arts programs.2
Applicants were required to send a physical portfolio of work
to their first choice of three schools. If the school was interested in the work,
they called you in for an interview. If not, you were passed on to the next-choice
school, and so on, until you ended up in a pool of applicants waiting for any remaining places. For three years, I was interviewed at every school I had listed.
Each time I walked in the door, I registered the surprise on the faces of the
interviewing faculty. There was nothing in my name and, in the cases of telephone preinterviews, nothing in my accent to let them know that I was not
Each time, at the end of consistently awkward interviews, I would
be told that they liked my work, but that they “didn’t think I would fit in
to their school.” The decision, I knew, had been made the moment I walked
in the door.
After twelve interviews, and in my fourth year of applying, I was accepted
to Bath Academy of Art in the painting department, possibly because a number of their faculty—including the just-retired Howard Hodgkin—were Indophile painters. However, when I arrived for my first semester, I felt they were
disappointed that I wasn’t Indian enough, and unlike some of the faculty who
made regular trips to India, I had never been there. Despite encouragement
about the “wonderful opportunity,” I also declined to be Hodgkin’s gardener.
It wasn’t the last time I’d be told how ungrateful I was.
Not being Indian enough was probably getting under my skin, so to speak,
and so, during my first year, I went to India. With the brashness of youth, I
simply showed up at art schools, looking for artists. With unbounded generosity, I was welcomed and introduced to artists and critics such as Vivan Sundaram and Geeta Kapur in Delhi, Nalini Malani in Bombay (now Mumbai),
Bhupen Khakhar, Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, and Nasreen Mohamedi, and
then students Rekha Rodwittiya and Ajay Desai in Baroda. These artists were
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Introduction 3
establishing international careers, prompted in no small part by the incisive
writings of Geeta Kapur.
After my bfa, and back in London, the idea of a career for an “Indianish” artist, with now Indianish work, seemed too distant. I was repeatedly told
that I was too tainted by the West. This was an obvious catch-22, an effective
lockout. Whenever I would walk through any door, I was too westernized, but
not Western enough—“white, but not quite,” in Homi Bhabha’s inimitable
phrase—or I would be required to perform an orientalist Indianness. If I were
an actor, I would have gotten auditions only for roles with bad accents.
While at Bath, I had become involved with theater, and together with a
number of peers had formed a theater group. We had petitioned the school to
have our performance work reviewed as part of our degree but were refused
on the grounds that it wasn’t “art.” I had also studied the dancelike form of
expressive mime, and was influenced, or perhaps smitten, by having seen years
earlier a live performance of Flowers by the Lindsay Kemp company. Now back
in London, I wanted a similarly immediate interaction between performer
and audience. I also wanted something more collaborative, and more directly
political, than the isolated studio that art school had tried to prepare me for.
I was squatting in South London at the time, part of an organized response
to homelessness and the government policies that excluded the young from already limited stocks of affordable housing. The network of squatters formed
my primary collaborators and audience. Our collective artistic outlets were at
weekly meetings, producing newsletters, stickers, and posters for diferent campaigns and political organizations. I was also part of a street theater group that
produced events during demonstrations and pickets, such as the Campaign
for Nuclear Disarmament, or Stop the City mass demonstrations that prefigured the Occupy movement. Larger buildings were mass squatted and turned
into public “peace centers” that included living spaces; cafés; and music, performance and art spaces, and provided legal and squatting advice. The centers
tended to be short lived, since they attracted the immediate attention of the
police and fascist gangs, and needed constant defending, often physically.4
first exhibitions were in such spaces, although I considered myself a “cultural
agent” intimately connected to my living surroundings, rather than an “artist,”
which is what I then thought of as someone aloof from the rigors of everyday life.
Financially buoyed by the “dole,” as were all art workers that I knew, I also
had a succession of part-time jobs, from messengering to kitchen worker to road
sweeper. These were invariably short-term, and mind-numbingly repetitive.
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4 Introduction
I alleviated the boredom with “art interventions,” thinking to stimulate my
mostly bemused fellow workers.5
As a messenger, for example, I added my own
mail for office workers, with instructions to make drawings and leave them
in the outgoing mail for pick up. I installed guerilla exhibitions of these in
office elevators. The drawings tended to be revealingly depressing, of coffins,
withering cacti, locked cubicles, and the like. By the end of the day, if any drawings remained in the elevators, they would invariably be covered with racist,
misogynist scrawls and anticommunist rants, as though any interruption of
normal routine could only have been conducted by infiltrating communists.
During those years, it was almost normal to be constantly confronted by racism, from the “polite” remarks of how well one spoke English to the violence
of street confrontations. I was drawn to the artistic and/or political organizations
set up in response, and which strove to represent “British Asian” experiences.
I joined theater companies: Tara Arts, and Hounslow Arts Collective (hac),
and its offshoot, the Hounslow Asian Visual Artists Collective (havac), a group
of South Asian artists in west London. Hardial Rai, the theater director of
hac, remembers that such groups grew out of a diy punk ethic that prioritized political commitment over formal training.6
In a havac group art
exhibition, one of my artworks about immigration and police brutality, and
depicting a Union Jack flag, was removed, as its “political nature might cause
offense to the indigenous community” (emphasis added).7
This was another
instance of being made to feel like an interloper who should have been grateful
for any opportunities but was instead biting the feeding hand.
During this time, I also joined a socialist, anarchist-leaning (though not
communist) artist collective called Community Copyart. In the years before
Kinko’s, Copyart provided cheap and creative photocopying for a broad clientele, including community and youth groups, individual artists, and activist
organizations. The collective had begun providing mobile workshops with a
single photocopier and a van. It eventually squatted in a large building in London’s Kings Cross, equipped with a number of diferent photocopiers. This
new space was the site for ongoing exhibitions, sometimes in partnership with
other groups, for example hosting the Festival of Plagiarism.8
After three years with Copyart, I cofounded Panchayat, an arts and education database and training facility whose emphasis was to provide documentation on “Third World, First Nation” artists.9
This was partly in response
to the then common refrain from grade school teachers that they couldn’t
teach a multicultural curriculum because they didn’t have the materials or
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Introduction 5
training. Panchayat ran teacher-training workshops in conjunction with local
councils and teacher centers, and trained artists to work in schools.
I was hired as an artist-in-residence at various schools around the country.
The most challenging was in 1986 at an East London all-boys high school. The
students were split into two rival factions of Bangladeshi and white youth, with
some of the latter being self-described fascist skinheads. All the students were
working class, but the two groups were disenfranchised in diferent ways. The
skinheads used preexisting, conveniently redirected racist discourses of immigration, employment, and eugenics to blame their disenfranchisement on the
Bangladeshi students. They had been conducting a regime of attacks against
the local Bangladeshi population, attacks violent enough to make national news.
The older Bangladeshi students formed self-defense groups to protect younger
students, but as the attacks diminished, the Bangladeshi students, unwilling to
give up their newfound street presence, were themselves beginning to reformulate into gangs. Although I was hired as an artist, it was quite clear that I (as a
brown-skinned role model) was expected to differently empower the Bangladeshi students and to help diffuse the situation by also working with the white
youths (by somehow transcending my brown skin). Critique methods, inadequately used by me at that time, would have been useful to address the overtly
racist imagery being produced by some of the white students in the same art
classes as the Bangladeshi students it was directed against (with teachers either
ignoring or condoning the imagery as “self-expression” and as “English culture”). Teachers in other departments were campaigning against racist attacks,
but there were no procedures or language in place in the art department for
examining the (displaced) anxieties of white, working-class students, nor any
artistic means to undo the intimidation and physical violence experienced by
the Bangladeshi students and to redirect their anger and fear.
This experience educated me profoundly in the broader workings of British
racial politics. I might have always been dealing with race, but not in such a protective role on behalf of others, nor in such volatile circumstances. Throughout my own formal education in England, I was invariably the only person of
color in a classroom, in a department, or at a school. During my four years as
an art student, I had not had a single faculty of color, and there had been one
black student, one semester.10 At Goldsmiths, I had compensated by socializing with the large international student body in other departments. While
at Bath, I had become aware of students “like” me in other schools, and had
begun to read about and attend their exhibitions on trips to London. Many
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6 Introduction
of these, such as Keith Piper, Chila Burman, Said Adrus, Eddie Chambers,
and Marlene Smith, would later become my professional peers. After graduating, the squatters and punks I was living and working with were again mostly
white. My diasporic experience, and the very labeling of being “East African
Asian,” meant that I had grown up with a fractured sense of location and the
necessity of performing multiple positions. I inhabited many worlds: queer,
trans, and straight; black, South Asian, and white; and all kinds of assimilating,
oppositional, alternative, and “marginalized” groups.11 This was “normal.” Less
understandable to me was how others remained within their one group, or
identified as only one subject position.
My first gallery participation in what became known as the Black Arts Movement (bam), was through an invitation by Lubaina Himid to exhibit at her
new gallery space, The Elbow Room. Indebted to the groundwork of an older
generation of artists, such as David Medalla, as well as the pivotal Rasheed
Araeen, the founder of the journals Black Phoenix and Third Text, bam developed from the first generation of the “colonized within,” who saw Britain
as their rightful base, even if they hadn’t experienced it in any way as homely.
This was the first generation of students to enter British art schools, students
who were either born (like myself ) in the former colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia, and primarily raised in England, or the first generation
born in England to immigrant parents from those former colonies. Having
grown up within a virulent period of British racism and the beginnings of
Thatcherism, they, we, were aligned with activism around immigration and
antideportation, racial equality, housing, workers’ rights, and the cultural
movements around carnival, reggae, punk, and bhangra. bam was modeled
as an anticolonial cultural movement, extending those activisms to deterritorialize the otherwise exclusive and segregated art institutions. This extensive
network, including the likes of Stuart Hall, Sonia Boyce, Zarina Bhimji, Isaac
Julien, Yinke Shonibare, Mona Hatoum, and Kobena Mercer—to name only
a few of the more well known—is what enabled me to rethink the term “artist”
and feel that this designation had a role to play in the world. It also felt like a
world-making responsibility.
The Elbow Room exhibition received a lot of press coverage, what artists
think of as their “break.” It did lead to other exhibitions, but for the most
part, these were initiated and curated by other artists of color. Institutions might
organize a large group show, but then feel that they had fulfilled their “ethnic”
quota for the decade, leaving their other programing intact. Very few artists of
color had solo exhibitions in galleries that were not run by their peers.12
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Introduction 7
In 1989, I participated in the 3rd Havana Biennial, as part of a small delegation of “Black British” artists.13 Along with Carlos Villa, from San Francisco,
we were the first artists based in the global north to be included. This had been
my first professional visit outside Britain, and it opened my eyes to an internationalism beyond England’s island mentality, and outside my supposed ethnic
connection to Indian contemporary art.
In 1991, I was included in the exhibition Interrogating Identities, curated by
Kellie Jones and Thomas Sokolowski, opening at the Grey Art Gallery in New
York, and traveling to numerous other venues around the United States. The
exhibition examined the term black, as it was differently applied in the United
Kingdom, the United States, and Canada. America’s specific history of slavery
overwhelmed the then British use of Black to signify a political coalition along
anticolonial lines rather than as a description of race or skin color.
In the United States, it made no sense for me to claim the term black, or it
was understood only as that I was mixed-race. However, when I said that I was
Indian, I was once asked, in all seriousness, “What tribe?”
After moving to New York in 1992, I became involved with Asian American art, and in particular with the artists’ network Godzilla.14 Godzilla’s focus,
and the coalitional possibility that attracted me, was the space between Asia
and America as a space of multiplicity, connection, and possibility rather than
how the “hyphenated identities” are framed as sites of isolation, segregation, and
limitation. An instance of this “multiplicity, connection, and possibility” as artistic practice was a video I made with Yong Soon Min, my then partner, for
Shu Lea Chang’s multiartist, multichannel video installation Those Fluttering
Objects of Desire for the infamous Whitney Biennial in 1993.
I mention these groups and movements in passing—and with numerous
gaps and omissions—though they each require their own histories, alongside
the histories of their constituent individuals—all of whom are necessary to any
broader grasp of art histories.15 I would also point to them as precursors for
what would later become known as “social practice.”
In New York, I attended the critical studies component of the Whitney Independent Studies Program, while enrolled in the Bronx Museum’s Artist in the
Marketplace program. I taught art workshops at the Bronx, as well as in the aids
center and at the secure prisoners’ unit at Saint Vincent’s Midtown Hospital.
I also taught a contemporary art seminar at the College of New Rochelle, my
first college-level teaching job in the United States.16 In England, I had been
a visiting or guest lecturer at numerous colleges and art schools but had never
held a regular position.
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8 Introduction
The Whitney was my first structured introduction to theory. Like many art
students, I was initially resistant. In my case, I imagined my street knowledge
to have qualified me as better informed. However, theory and the rigorous
seminars provided me with language tools to better examine, think through,
and bring together the “diferent worlds” that had made up my life. The broad
range of visiting faculty also made it seem like we were engaged with the world,
rather than isolated from it. Theory for me became a means for inquiry. It also
provided me with ammunition against those who wielded it as authority.
After the Whitney, I moved to Los Angeles, and nineteen years after entering Goldsmiths, I began an mfa in photography at ucla. It was difficult
being a student again, given my experience and what by now could be termed a
“career.” However, I wanted to teach, and needed an mfa. While I was highly
attracted to a university environment, and the opportunity to take classes in
other disciplines, the ucla art department had gained a reputation of laying a glittering pathway to commercial galleries for its students. Once again
I entered a school with no faculty of color, and with a largely market-driven
focus on what it meant to be an artist—though the prevailing rhetoric was of
individual, “posteverything” freedoms. In my first year, the only female faculty were married to male faculty (this had also been the case at Bath Academy
of Art). This is not to question the female faculty’s capabilities but to criticize
the department’s limited hiring practices. At the end of my first year, when
the school hired Mary Kelly as incoming chair, the mood was that it marked the
end of the department’s heyday. For some, it was the end of the party.17 With
continuing new hires, the department continues to remain highly ranked, and
has lost its previous “bad (white) boys’ club” mentality.
I was never an exemplary student, and seemed to consistently generate low
or no expectations from faculty. At worst, faculty’s sweeping pronouncements
about art and society were rarely sweeping enough to encompass my experience. Not only did it make them seem limited, it placed me outside of their
knowledge, as though there was no place and no language for my own. Even as
I was molded through these institutions and their behaviors, I reacted against
much of what they thought they were imparting to me. However, I am entirely
in their debt, and in the case of the US institutions, I mean this literally.
My teaching experiences have been mostly rewarding, and occasionally inspiring, but have also included the idiotic, the antagonistic, and the shameful
(and shaming). I have personally encountered numerous incidents of ignorant
and overt discrimination by which students and faculty are ostracized. While
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Introduction 9
ous, pervasive, difficult-to-identify patterns of discouragement and exclusion
whose deliberate and practiced invisibility is what allows them to continue
(while it is connected, I am not referring to the chronic sexual harassment and
violence on campuses that is only now being exposed). I knew that if I were to
teach, I would want to work against institutional, procedural, and curricular
limitations. Those were the more important questions, yet the everyday, casual
dismissals that I had faced or saw around me are the ones that remain most immediately in memory: being told that I was in the West now, I didn’t need to
make work that looked Indian (though white students around me were incorporating Hindu gods and henna into their work); after “getting emotional”
because of something offensive that was said to me, being told by my faculty
advisor that I should be in a “secure” institution, not an art institution; female
students being “encouraged” that getting naked would lead to artistic liberation; overhearing faculty discussing how it was hardly worth teaching female
students since, upon leaving school, they were more likely to make babies than
art; a black student being told that no one wants to see paintings of black
people; an Iranian student being told that her country was bigoted and repressive and that the faculty member didn’t see any reason why he should look at
her work; faculty ridiculing transgender students behind their backs; a review
committee telling a student that they’re not interested in work about motherhood (I would now advise that student to respond that, psychoanalytically,
all artwork is about motherhood; what makes her work necessary to an adult
conversation is that it’s from the experience and perspective of a mother); students being told that work about identity is so “over”; students of color having
their work talked about only in terms of and being dismissed as restricted to
their identity even when they never use the term and describe their work only
in formal terms. There were also (only slightly) more coded dismissals of work
being “too pretty,” “not muscular enough,” “too Third World,” “not universal,” “for the wrong audience,” or “not having an audience.” I’ve had a student
snap, “I don’t know where you’re from, but that’s not how we do things in this
country.” A white faculty member welcomed me to a new school, saying that
we are the same because she has a Native American grandmother, with the
insinuation that this ancestral legacy made her, and hence the department,
already “diverse.” In faculty meetings, a faculty member made cracks about
Africans and coconuts, and after waiting for white faculty to respond, I eventually stopped the proceedings to be told that “it’s only jokes” and that “not
everything’s racist.” Basically, I’m told to “lighten up.” The still ongoing, six
years later, trolling emails and Facebook posts from that former disgruntled,
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10 Introduction
entrumpled, colleague after I was a witness at arbitration proceedings about his
supposed jokes. The time when a senior faculty of another school said he would
“blacklist” me from ever teaching in Southern California because I asked why
I was the only writer of color in a book he was editing on contemporary art
and black humor, and if I could include his racist emails to me in my essay (I
was “withdrawn” from the publication, and told that it was now my fault that
there were no writers of color included). The constant presumptions that I am
a student, since I don’t (nor do I “imagine ever wanting to”) fit the template of
an art professor, let alone of a chair or director—a presumption faced particularly by female faculty of color.
These individual encounters reflect the ignorance and prejudices of the aggressors but, more importantly, they act in concert to bring unruly subjects to
heel. To make them conform, or to isolate, ostracize, and silence them. Their
intent is to cause female faculty and faculty of color to fail, then drive them out,
thus reinforcing the intimidators’ own “success.” A demographically homogenous faculty group can easily function under the delusion that they have attained
their positions because they are the best ones for and in those positions, rather
than considering that they have attained those positions because others have
been systemically eliminated before they could be contenders. When better to
start? As early as possible, when they are still students.
Whoever criticizes these behaviors risks ostracism and loss of opportunities,
not only from the institution—with its disciplinary consequences of failure to
be rehired, denial of tenure, and so on—but also social ostracism by colleagues
for not being “able to take a joke,” for being “noncollegial” and disruptive. The
shrill woman, the dragon lady, the newly minted nasty woman, the uppity person
of color, the angry black man, the troublemaker, the chip-on-the-shoulder,
the narcissist, the egotist, the nut job, the whiner, the victim, and the holierthan-thou are stereotypes commonly deployed against those who dissent.
The self-perpetuating cultures of discrimination, the sad but vicious behaviors
of those holding on to meager power, are often normalized to the extent that
there is no language to address them. They retreat to an imagined past of when
art schools were “great” (with only white art students and white male faculty,
and white European art history). Their demands for assimilation (“lighten up”)
over other models of coexistence amount to playground bullying conducted
on institutional, systemic levels.
There might be little or nothing within the curricula or other forms of speech
that offer any counter or that inform and empower students (and faculty) to
speak back against the provincialism that determines what success would be
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Introduction 11
and who would achieve it. While these attitudes and circumstances are unfortunately not as rare as one might hope, my interest is to examine their effect on
what and how art histories are discussed, what (low) expectations are placed
upon artworks and students, and what terms are used to discuss and reinforce
them. This provincialism and its operative methodologies necessarily (should)
become subject to historical, aesthetic, political, and conceptual inquiry within
art pedagogy.
Despite the repertoire of exclusion described above, I have also found
enormous support, and any success or longevity (or endurance) I have gained
as an artist or as an educator is wholly attributable to these many peers and colleagues. While my critique is of the various forms of white suprematism (I am
deliberately conflating terms to suggest a racialized art movement), many of my
closest allies (and best friends!) are white.
Needless to say, my pedagogy is focused against discriminatory practices.
Speaking back not just to those experiences so as not to give them more
substance than they deserve, but also speaking back to their enabling cultures remains central for me—whether as a teacher, administrator, or artist.
This then leads to other questions of the most effective means, forms, and
language—including this book—through which to speak back. And to speak
forward, as it were.
● ●
Questions of who succeeds, on whose terms, and what constitutes success form
the macro and daily politics of academia, and also of art. These mirror artistic
questions about art’s function in and with the world (I am using Paulo Freire’s
phrasing of “in” and “with” to emphasize being as relational).18 What does art
do? Should art respond to the present? Is art’s purpose—as one is often taught
in art schools—to take the longer view; to not be swayed by ever-changing current circumstances, petty politics, and crises; to not be caught in the short term
of only ever reacting? Should art have a conscience, or is it meant to be above
that? When does being “above” conscience mean avoiding one? Perhaps we now
expect art to respond, and various forms of social practice and “artivism” do just
that, prioritizing the response above other criteria.
At various schools where I teach and visit, these are not isolated questions:
students are frustrated with the lack of political engagement; they demand increased diversity of faculty and presumably of opinion. They want their work
to mean something in/with the world. Balancing this, they are painfully aware
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12 Introduction
of the long-term financial burden of art education, and want reassurance that
they’ve made the right decision to pursue art.
There are no reassurances, and art does not supply easy answers, ways forward, or a viable career—paid or otherwise. Nor does education. Both can be
fully coopted to become means of containment and pacification, while supplying promise, entertainment, and escape. And yet I pursue both art and teaching, believing that they play crucial roles in how we are and act in/with the
If it were possible to produce a full account of how art is taught it might
be a boring, irrelevant, pernicious document, something that should be
locked away.
—James Elkins, Why Art Cannot Be Taught
The fictive narratives and accepted truths of the languages through which art
is discussed, defined, controlled, circulated, and valued; the diferent desires
of artists; and the ways in which art is learned and taught—what constitutes “art speech” and the discursive mechanisms of the “art world”—are this
book’s broader playing field. Within that, my primal scene of scrutiny is the
preparatory training that artists undergo in the art school critique.
The book, aspiring to be pernicious, is divided into seven main sections. This
introduction, “A Foot in the Door,” lays out some broad pedagogical groundwork, including the role of the pedagogue within decolonizing processes. In the
first section, “How Art Can Be Thought,” the primary questions I pursue, as per
the book title, are how we think and speak about art, and what the material,
aesthetic, and political consequences might be. The second section, “Entry
Points,” returns to fundamental questions of art and pedagogy, particularly
around quality, equality, and diversity. The third and fourth sections, “How
Art Can Be Taught” and “Critique as Radical Prototype,” focus on how these
questions are put into practice within the art school, particularly in mfa programs, and their primary pedagogical form of the critique.
A clear model for the fifth section, “How Art Can Be Spoken: A Glossary
of Contested Terms,” is Raymond Williams’s Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society.
19 Williams’s methodology, as elucidated in his introduction,
is what I aspire to. This is not to claim any parallel insight or equivalent research
on my part but to acknowledge Williams’s influence on the field of critical studies and its intersections with art practices.
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Introduction 13
In the last section, “Afterwords: How, Now, Rothko?” I return to some of
the book’s arguments through looking at Mark Rothko’s paintings. I reconsider
learned viewing habits and propose ways to move forward, as artist, educator,
and art viewer.
Throughout the book, I will persist with questions of decolonization, of why
it arises as a necessary project within art and pedagogy, how it can be pursued,
and what outcomes might be expected. A major aspect of this project is that
thinking and speaking about art are proposed as active processes that lay the
discursive foundations from which art is generated.
Like an exhibition, a book does not mark the end of a project but its entry
into public dialogue. The impetus is always to what comes next. In this, I draw
support from the current resurgence of discourses and activism that seek to dismantle discriminatory practices, particularly around race, sex, and trans/gender.
While education and pedagogy are certainly implicated, art may be seen to
be less so in its material effects and consequences on which lives and how
lives matter. For educators, the lives of each student have to matter equally,
but to arrive at that equality requires institutional and societal overhaul—with
policies of inclusion as only a first step. To maintain, in the present moment,
that all lives matter equally, ignores the sometimes blatant effects of how policies
and policing treat diferent people differently. Pedagogy can be utopian in its
ambition but is a necessary practice toward the possibility that all lives might
matter equally (notice to what extent this claim is qualified).
While my interest here is to develop decolonizing languages within what
might otherwise be the colonizing language of art industries, this can lead me
toward the polemical. I am conflicted about this, partly because I feel called
upon to write for a fictional general reader, and partly because I feel that I am
not being polemical enough to address the high stakes of what roles culture can
play in what feels like a time of constant crisis.
In contrast to my wish to be polemical as response to the present is an equal
pull as an educator to stand back and to measure my words. I am constantly
called upon to engage only on artistic terms. Is my teaching role to remain above
both conscience and the fray? To keep my political (what detractors might call
my “race-based”) views to myself, and address only the artistic issues of students’
work—if such separations can indeed be made?20 These are delicate plays, and
extend to how one engages with artwork, allowing for its affect without rushing to judgment. This is tactical, patient, and deferring, rather than neutral.
A central role of pedagogy is to expand students’ critical facilities, whereas to
be neutral is to align with keeping things as they are, as a holding operation
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14 Introduction
against student development. This book is intended as a handbook for change,
which means that there will be no neutral reader.
My apologies, then, for being too polemical and for not being polemical
Pedagogy and Embodied Subjects
Pedagogy, broadly speaking, is the theory and practice of education. In ancient
Greece, a pedagogue was not a teacher but a slave who accompanied children
to school—where a teacher would take over. The teacher would provide a more
formal education (didactics), whereas the pedagogue would assist in social
education and the general welfare of the child. In both cases, the meaning of
pedagogy remains—to lead a child—though the pedagogue’s role of accompanying and “being with” is more nuanced, not least because of the pedagogue’s
ambiguous status of being entrusted while being enslaved. Pedagogues are compelled to assist in producing the next generation of masters, which is to assist in
perpetuating their own subjugation. What do they teach the young masters? To
be more human, and therefore to elevate the humanity of others? To challenge
the hierarchy that empowers them to subjugate others?
Closer to the present, in the American South, and in South Africa, generations of white boys have been raised and taught by black women (other countries and cultures practice similar class- and caste-based servitude). These boys
might have “loved” the individual black women who were forced to abandon
their own children to raise them. They might have had their first sexual desires
for these women. But as a political, privileged class, they grew up—too easily—
to overlook the humanity of these women, and continued—too easily—to treat
them as less than human.
The pedagogue’s only hope was to humanize those in their care. Their
own lives were too perilous to act otherwise. And yet, theirs is a profound generosity and forgiveness, refraining from enacting revenge upon the child for
the actions of their parents, their class, their privilege, their wielded power,
their violence, and their political system. Or perhaps, generosity, forgiveness,
and humanity were the only viable, enduring revenge. In the overthrow
of South African apartheid, one can witness this profound generosity in the
Truth and Reconciliation Commission (trc) of 1994—however one may see
it as weighted toward the perpetrators and a political mistake for not bringing
those responsible to account.21
In present-day art schools, teachers may feel their roles are wrenched between
leading, accompanying, and serving, and buffeted by national curricula, conThis content downloaded from on Thu, 24 Sep 2020 20:26:23 UTC
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Introduction 15
strained academic freedoms, administrative expectations/exploitations, and
student demands. The status and economic viability of teachers has been continually plummeting as they are made into scapegoats for high costs and lowered resources. Teaching status can range from the precarity of adjunct teaching
to “art star” professors (though these elevated positions remain subject to administrations). Teachers might see the prime purpose of pedagogy as ranging
from having students assist them in their own quest for mastery status to assisting students toward becoming independent, critical thinkers and artists—
in whatever form that takes, and through whatever form of art that takes.
This expansiveness of “whatever form” is art pedagogy’s limitation and its
greatest potential. The “form” can prioritize a single medium or technique (the
primacy of realist painting, for example, in some art “academies”). It can entail
rote copying of the instructor’s technique, sometimes using the language of acquiring mastery. It can be “poststudio,” where the student is inculcated into a
conceptual vocabulary but appears to learn no practical skills. It can be something in between, where skills are taught as necessary to make ideas manifest. It
can lead to artists as object manufacturers, or emphasize art as intervention,
with the artist as “aesthetic activist” intervening into or interrupting existing
social relations. These few possibilities (and all are being taught now, somewhere, in art schools) are political and economic decisions, and responsive to
the perceived needs and pressures of the times.
● ●
My focus is on what might be seen as conventional, even traditional media, such
as painting, photography, and sculpture, rather than digital media and social
practice. Not because I have less interest in these “new” forms but because I
want to attend to what are popularly held to be the core conventions of art.
Similarly, many of my references are to the artistic canon of popularly known,
established artists. As an educator, I am acutely invested in the directions
taken by art schools. I want to maintain the diferent disciplines on offer, seeing them—much as I would written or spoken languages—as worldviews that
provide singular, though relational, engagements with the world, and whose
loss we could not begin to fathom. I want students to learn any and all of the
available histories and languages (disciplines), and adapt them to their present
lives, remaking those disciplines in the process.
My emphasis will be less on the formal instruction of didactics, of dispensing skills and information, and more on “being with” students as fully embodied
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16 Introduction
subjects in their quests as critical thinkers and makers. In service to this, I am
proposing pedagogies gleaned from decolonial models, from those artists,
theorists, and activists who have worked against the myriad forms that enslavement takes, and toward fuller, humane potentials.
While the terms “colonialism,” “decolonizing,” “decolonial” might cause some
readers to feel that I am addressing a “minority,” I am using those terms to refer
to all subjected peoples, that is, to everyone. We are each subjected in diferent ways and to diferent extents—no matter to what degree we might benefit from our participation in subjection. For example, those who—however
unknowingly—benefit from hierarchies that are identified by terms such as
“white privilege” or “patriarchy” might nevertheless feel their hierarchical
position not as a privilege but as an economic, social, and bodily constraint,
alongside with feeling their own bodies threatened, producing both an envy of
othered bodies, and an anxiety and competitive resentment of “them.” To live
with this anxiety, just one of the effects of the constant jockeying to maintain
or raise one’s hierarchical position, is a form of constraint, no matter to what
extent it is displaced onto others, no matter the extent to which one benefits
from it, and no matter how self-manufactured it is to appease one’s conscience
and mask one’s elevated position within the hierarchy.
I am not drawing any equivalence between forms of subjection, nor implying that colonizers, colonized, and their descendants are subjected to equal
forms of violence and constraint. We each participate in multiple ways and
from multiple positions within hierarchies of power, even to the extent that
those in positions of power might see themselves as being victimized by the
powerless or the less powerful. The bottom line that informs my arguments
is that there can be no liberation for only a few, nor for only specific groups.
Having said this, I have to admit that I am less motivated by the “suffering” of the
While these are implicit and explicit questions of how we function as societies, I will concentrate my arguments on how they play out within art and
pedagogical practices.22 The practices I am most focused on here appear neither discriminatory nor overtly violent. They are so normalized and everyday
that they form the fabric of our most intimate and social selves, but whose
very normalization is cumulatively discriminatory and enacts a slow violence.
In the particular scenario of the art critique, I mean “decolonizing” in a broad
sense, as a weaning from, a counter to, a reconception and implementation of
strategies by subjected, hierarchized individuals against that subjection and
hierarchization by disciplining power. This power is identified in the various
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Introduction 17
means through which it multiply manifests and acts to limit bodily experience, whether these manifestations are articulated and organized through
racial, gender, class, and/or sexual constraints—the “isms” that delimit what
experience can be, who/what can have them, and how those experiences can
be felt, shared, and understood. Privileges, whatever they might be, are maintained at the expense of siding against—and, if required, acting against—those
without the same privileges.
Two aspects of colonization that I will continually reference are its control
over history (time and memory) and its exertions upon the body (affect and
mobility). Colonization aspires to determine history, controlling how time and
the past are narrated in order to produce future narratives. It does so in part by
creating a rupture from the past as well as within the present, a cut from any
sense of historical continuity. Its capacity to wield these cuts is not only as an
outside force but also one that is fully embodied, psychically and physically
acting upon and from within the body, forming how each one of us is organized,
how and what we know, how we feel, think, and act in/with the world; that is,
intimately producing any sense of “who we are” in relation to “our” history
and to the bodies and histories of others.
Intrinsic to “who we are” are practices of both remembering and forgetting. Writing about the closed Plantation system of the Americas, Édouard
Glissant outlines how two cultures develop that are integral to modernism:
one is a culture of actively forgetting, the other is one of remembering actively—
I am deliberately linking this to activism.23 This remembering is undertaken
at great risk, against the strictures, impediments, and punishments imposed
on remembering one’s languages, one’s histories, one’s humanity, and the violence that has been perpetrated against those. Forgetting is also not a simple or
lightly undertaken erasure, since it too is activist in its demands for returns to
imagined pasts. Not only brutal in its eradications, forgetting can entertain, or
rather, infotain, eventually producing, for example, the plantation as heritage
tourist destination through the industry jargon of “authentic recreations” of
willing participation, of happy, cared-for slaves singing in the fields.24
Glissant reminds us that landscape, a supposedly neutral genre of nature observation, is highly implicated in this practice of forgetting, emphasizing the
“conventional splendor” of the Caribbean landscape over the lives and death
grounds of slaves—an eviscerated landscaping that is integral to how contemporary tourists imagine themselves in that landscape (and how the imagining is enacted for them). In this resort equivalent of terra nullius, the only
natives are there to provide “luxe, calme, et volupté.”25
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18 Introduction
The will to forget and the will to remember. How and what does one remember, if a (pre)dominant modernism produces a culture of forgetting? How
does art function as island of forgetting within seas of turmoil, as “comfortable armchair”—to keep Henri Matisse in mind—in the rooms of the living
and the caverns of the dying?26 While Matisse himself was almost obsessively
driven, and hardly the epitome of an “armchair painter,” I dredge him up since
his work has come to stand for not quite an escape, but a point of view, and
an experience that “rises above” the troubles of the world, a rising that marks
a central aspiration for Western modernism. The critic Peter Schjeldahl epitomizes this aspiration at exactly the moment of crisis, as a salve to the mowing
down of revelers along the Nice waterfront in July 2016: “To share in the delicate truth [that rigorous art can be at one with routinely melting pleasures],
you look at, show, or send a picture by Matisse. People have been doing that
often, these awful recent days.”27
Similarly, in a review of a Matisse exhibition in 1992 Hilton Kramer writes,
“It has the effect of making one feel a lot better about the century in which we
live—a terrible century in so many ways, yet one in which we can nonetheless
feel an immense sense of pride if, beside its unremitting record of suffering,
bloodshed, and tragedy, it can also boast of an achievement as sublime as
Fig. I.1 • Sofie Ramos, decorate/defecate, 2015. Multimedia installation, variable dimensions.
Courtesy of the artist.
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Introduction 19
Matisse’s.” Curiously, this rebalancing of the scales of beauty leaves Kramer
mourning Matisse, though his mourning is symptomatic of a more generalized melancholia for a world that never was. He concludes, “When we exit this
exhibition and return to the sordid cultural landscape of this last decade of the
century, it is hard to believe that we shall ever again witness anything like it,
now or in the foreseeable future.”28
In these examples, forgetting—closeting melancholy—is purposeful and elevating, with beauty as the engine whisking us away from the tragedies of the
world. The will to forget and escape are understandable, but we might also
measure privilege by the degree to which we can forget, ignore, or be whisked
away from the tragedies of others (including the privilege of being able to think
of them as other).
Artists such as Glenn Ligon, Carrie Mae Weems, Betye Saar, and Kara Walker
(to name only a few of the more well known) might be considered as doing
the work of remembering (of slavery and the plantation system).29 A diferent
tactic of remembering is pursued by the artist Simone Leigh. As well as creating
counterrepresentations, Leigh works directly with and upon the body of the
viewer, transforming galleries and museums into healing spaces for the traumatic memories that have been generationally inscribed onto black and brown
bodies, and that are reexperienced in the onslaught of ongoing racism and sexism. Leigh turns the gallery into a site of (self and communal) actualization, to
activate viewers to new forms of representation.
A more demanding, destabilizing way to think of these artists is that they
play resounding roles in repurposing (post)modernist forms and languages
against the (modernist) project of forgetting. Rather than framing such artists
as addenda to a central narrative, how might we rethink that central narrative of modernism when we replace what has been purposefully removed
and forgotten? And rather than policing the political effectiveness of black
artists in / accepted by white institutions, we might—to use the vernacular
of the plantation—consider that the work of remembering and replacement
needs to be done as much in the big house as in the slaves’ quarters, at least
until the institutional architectures and locations of memory work have been
The other main considerations I will consider through colonization will be
on control over mobility and access, of how emotions, languages, and ideas
circulate, of which bodies have mobility and institutional access, including to
ideas, and through which artistic practices and vocabularies these are extended
and simultaneously withheld.
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20 Introduction
Throughout the book I will return to these questions, of memory and forgetting, of language, mobility, and access, and what implications they have for
looking at and understanding art, for pedagogy, and for social relations (and
disconnections) developed around art.
In doing this, I am not prescribing what a decolonizing culture and its forms
can or will be, since any such prescriptions should be suspect as returns to and
applications of colonizing authority. My aim, then, is not to prescribe what art
can be but to work toward language to describe what it does and does not do,
how it does that, and what it can do—language being the prime means to articulate what those possibilities might be.
Decolonizing culture, and the modes of art-political inquiry that I am proposing, cannot exist in isolation or with any claim to autonomy. They are entwined
with and can only be experienced, understood, and enacted as decolonizing
through art’s institutions, practices, discourses, and participants. Like any other
object or event, art/political work becomes politicized through the culture,
agents, institutions, and systems that (re)produce it, through which it operates, and which it in turn produces.
By turning to the political (and I concede that what the “political” means
and how it functions are always contested and temporal), and in pulling from
diferent sources, my interest is in placing a spectrum of ideas and practices
in service of the idealism that many art students have and continue to have (in
more subdued form) as artists. It’s an idealism that desires more from art than
being a commodity, that grounds art politically and socially while repurposing aesthetic and formal invention, that pursues art as complex intersections
between individual and collective interests. It is an idealism that continues to
inspire (me), yet it is an idealism that currently lacks an adequate language to
articulate, investigate, and interrogate its interests, desires, demands, methods,
and outcomes.
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