Why We Are Not Abolishing the Art World
by Reg Zehner
I’m suggesting that we need a new age—with a new agenda—that directly addresses the structural racism that determines who goes to prison and who does not, who attends university and who does not, who has health insurance and who does not. – Angela Y. Davis, Abolition Democracy, pg 22-23.
It is to the breath that I want to turn now. To the necessity of breath, to breathing space, to the breathtaking spaces in the wake in which we live; and to the ways we respond, “with wonder and admiration, you are still alive, like hydrogen, like oxygen” (Brand, 2015). -In The Wake, Dr. Christina Sharpe, pg 109.
It’s true; the art world has failed once again. Although with that, I am getting ahead of myself. Before we can get to the repercussions of the first sentence, we must start with the first steps of an accountability process, which starts with naming. We must name the person, or institutions who have failed and then we must name the harm, the violence enacted. Naming is powerful; it can form alternative systems of liberation, justice and accountability. Naming is inherent in our world-making; so it must be implicated in the way we hold ourselves and others as we construct a new world.
So, my first question of naming is: What is the art world?
Then my second question of naming is: What is the art world’s harm, especially in relation to these times of anti-Blackness, imperialism and colonialism and racial capitalism.
The art world, or rather the definition of the art world that exists, is one built upon generations of white, Western and capitalists notions and systems of aesthetics that drive production by creatives into hierarchies of value. This can be historically drawn to the Enlightenment and the colonial, imperial project of the West that not only changed the socialization, but also destroyed and re-categorized the imaginative and creative practice of the people that are seen “less” than, or othered.
This definition of the art world has stretched its ideological presences across the world. This “art world” can be seen physically in museums praised within Western countries that sit upon objects stolen from Indigenous, Black and other communities of color. These objects then are “archived” and are rewritten into degradation by the overt white staffing and administration within cultural institutions. It is the same staff and administration that often exhibit artists of color under the guise of identity politics and provide little-to-no systems of support for such artists. Additionally these fetishizing exhibitions are only curated because of white “researchers” who have specialized PhD research and resumes in these “genres” of art. Even with these “genres”, artists of color’s aesthetics are not taken seriously by white critics or art historians until another white artist appropriates and exhibits the same work. Historically, these museums and cultural institutions sit upon stolen land and slave labor. Currently, these cultural institutions sit, without acknowledgement to the past, with board members whose wealth is built from companies to expand technologies of white supremacy, policing and racial capitalism. The art on the walls in these spaces are then replicated in blue-chip galleries and biennials that continue the project of displacing communities of color and settler-colonialism without reparations.
I can go on and in more depth about this definition of this art world, but I want you to know this is the dominant definition that exists. However, I want to leave here that it isn’t the only definition that exists.
In continuation, all of us are part of the dominant definition that is the art world, whether we are conscious about it or not. Now as the streets are mobilizing to fight off anti-Blackness and state policing, the art world’s response seems forced; in a sense that any and all accountability escapes while only leaving a disingenuous, hollow attempt at “apologizing.” In Columbus, Ohio, the recent protests have shown solidarity with victims of state violence and possibilities of liberation. Conversely, the Columbus art world has disappointingly done the bare minimum in terms of actively helping protests, acknowledging their complicity with white supremacy, or any public platform for the community to talk about the systematic problems within the institutions.
Though, there are art projects and projects that have lended helping Black artists prior to this “call to” or crisis of Black artists, or diversification. These spaces and projects are: Maroon Arts Group, Zora’s House, The King Arts Complex, The Black Infinity, Black Queer Intersectional Columbus and the recent mural project for Black Artists by Columbus Greater Arts Council. Outside of The Greater Columbus Arts Council, these are Black-led and have been doing the work for years. Outside of the arts projects I named, there have been little to no support from white institutions or white spaces in centering, or holding accountability to white proximity or supremacy.
Naming is inherent in our world-making; so it must be implicated in the way we hold ourselves and others as we construct a new world.
With the idea of accountability in and of itself, Nathan Shara writes in Beyond Survival: Essays on Transformation Justice, “Transformative accountability means that when we apologize, there is congruence between our words, emotions, and actions. We’re not just saying the words, but we can also name what it is that we’re sorry for—recognizing the harm we’ve caused and being able to acknowledge its impacts. Feeling remorse. Taking action toward repair and restitution and demonstrating a commitment to stopping the harm and to changing.”
Now I am returning to my second question of naming: What is the art world’s (in this case, the art world of Columbus, Ohio) harm, especially in relation to these times of anti-Blackness, imperialism, colonialism and racial capitalism?
This is where I would ask for the Columbus institutions and artist spaces that proclaim their “support” in Black Lives Matter to state the ways they have failed and how they plan on holding their failures to ensure accountability. Below I have listed the following questions that should be answered at the bare minimum, if such spaces or projects deem they are not anti-Black. Without transparency, without the naming, the accountability process cannot happen, and any steps of “change” may only align with white supremacy and come off as disingenuous. I as well distinctly bold the word “local” to inquire how invested institutions and spaces run by white people are to communities of color in Columbus, Ohio.
- How many (I will emphasize this especially) local Black artists have you represented, have shown in your gallery or art space? How many of these artists were Black women? How many of these artists were trans, LGBT Black people?
- How are you interacting with the current local Black organizations, community centers, critics and art spaces? How many of these organizations or art spaces have you collaborated with, or put them on the same platforms as white artists spaces in the city, or projects from New York or Los Angeles?
- How many Black people are currently employed at your cultural institution or gallery? How many Black people were hired prior and how long did they stay? How many Black people exist in your art space? How many Black people have been a part of your arts space prior and how long did they stay?
- What is your political stance on your board members, juried shows and other authoritarian decisions? How do they lend towards a diversified lens?
- How are you divesting and critiquing the systems that benefit white supremacy and privilege (such as police departments) and reinvesting and uplifting communities of color locally (whether that is through donations or uplifting artists) in performances, exhibitions and programming?
If your answers are, across the board, bad, you cannot say this is because you didn’t know it was a problem, or there aren’t any “Black” arts/artists in Columbus. I have pointed out Black spaces that currently exist. As someone who is Black and wants to promote Black art; other than Bettye Stull, a curator who worked with the King Arts Complex for 25 years, I only know of one other Black curator, Lisa Dent, who held a permanent position in a Columbus arts institution. Any other examples of Black curators and artists often times were one-offs or temporary. The hypocrisy of having temporary programming that is inclusive is imperative to note especially due to the fact white people have more access to these disappearing events. Needless to say, the institutions need to do more. An institution’s complicity with whiteness isn’t forgotten or forgiven just because a black square is posted with a hollow solidarity statement.
None of these violences are new. And also, none of our responses are new. Black artists have critiqued the white art world, seen in the Black Emergency Cultural Collective, who wrote open letters and staged protests at major cultural institutions. This too can be seen in recent protests and open letters that tied to Taylor Alridge’s Black Bodies, White Cube: The Art World’s Appropriation of Race. Alridge’s essay is on post-Ferguson’s actions of open letters and protests in the Black Lives Matter movements. And with these periods of unrest, regression into complicity and silence arrives again and again. Imperatively it is this time we cannot regress or revert to silence. We must name, we must hold, and we must act towards abolition.
Abolition is the naming that lives outside the systems and spaces of what Dr. Christina Sharpe refers to as the “wake.” The wake that controls the geographies of where we live; the climate that rains down on us, and the time that we spend daily. The wake formulates environments built to be breathtaking, and so it destroys any and all breath / breathing everywhere if it so chooses. It is abolition that pushes for spaces of breath and breathing. In an abolitionist world, breathing is granted to everyone to live. In an abolitionist world, everyone lives.
So we must push to abolish the systems and spaces that have built this definition of the art world. We cannot decolonize the art world or any cultural museums; it is impossible. The current path that we must demand for abolition is an accountability process from all cultural institutions and art spaces who are run by white people and those who haven’t made efforts in ensuring solidarity with the livelihoods and safety of Black, First Nation and other racialized communities. Solidarity cannot be a trend; breathing is dependent on the goal of abolition. To clarify: we are not abolishing the art world. Even stating such will further abstract or metaphorize abolition from its origins and impact.
To name specifically: we are abolishing the violence of the state, the prison-industrial complex, the medical-pharmaceutical complex, the military industrial complex, white supremacy, white privilege, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, colorism, racism, anti-Blackness and any and all systems produced and influenced by racial capitalism. By which, the art world has already; because it is simply a mirror.
A mirror which is cracking.
1Nathan Shara, Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement, (Chico, California: AK Press, 2020), pg 177.
2Sharpe, Christina, In the Wake. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017, pg 108.
Reg Zehner (b.1997 and residing in Columbus, OH) is a curator, writer, DJ and sculptor whose work explores the abstraction of Black American histories, sonic intimacies and digital images. They co-founded Friend, an artist platform promoting creatives of color, and they participate in Lava Reign, a Black DJ collection. Reg has presented research on digital intimacy and the spectral hauntings of land and Blackness. This past spring, Reg graduated with a BFA in the History of Art and Visual Culture from Columbus College of Art and Design. Currently they are working on building educational models on abolition, organizing and world building.