Is Culture in the Americas in Big Trouble? Arts Leaders Say Yes

Molly Gottschalk
Dec 8, 2017 10:22PM

Anne Pasternak, Bill Arning, Jordan Casteel, Teju Cole. © Art Basel.

On Thursday evening, a diverse group of leaders came together to discuss the current threats to culture in the Americas. Organized as part of Art Basel in Miami Beach, the panel, titled “Is Culture in the Americas in Big Trouble?”, included artist Jordan Casteel, Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston director Bill Arning, and writer and photographer Teju Cole. While there weren’t many concrete solutions drawn, the conversation offered a clear diagnosis of the key issues facing art and culture and, at the very least, a starting point for how we can understand and address them going forward.

“You could talk about seven different things that have happened this week, all of which are unbearable, and here we are, we’re bearing it somehow,” said Cole, who led the conversation.

Likely among them is the GOP tax bill, which has divided communities across the United States; the wave of allegations about sexual harassment that are roiling industries across America; and President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which has caused further unrest in the Middle East. The panelists shared their perspectives on wider political and social shifts that are taking place within this turbulent climate, out of which several themes emerged.

Culture Is Inseparable from Politics

Throughout the course of the conversation, it became clear that the notion of culture is expanding: It can no longer exist in a vacuum. “Coming to this lecture I was expecting that we would be talking about the future of culture,” an older gentleman said after raising his hand. “The word ‘culture’ has been degraded; we talk about gun culture or culture of violence, political culture, food culture,” he said. “But culture the way I understand [it] and was brought up with was something that gives us another layer in our lives.”

“I think we should recognize the kind of complexity that’s inevitable when you have a word like culture,” Cole responded to the audience member. (According to a recent study, more people think that eating at a food truck is considered culture than going to a museum.) And referencing this week’s news that the buyer of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi painting, which sold at Christie’s last month for nearly half a billion dollars at auction, is Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, Cole asked, “Is that culture? Is that great news?” He continued: “They’re busy waging a war that’s causing the largest humanitarian catastrophe that’s going on right now in Yemen.” (Christie’s has since confirmed that the piece was acquired by Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism.)

The idea that culture can no longer be viewed as a discrete realm of human experience, separate from social and political realities, surfaced at other times during the discussion. “When I say culture you’re thinking art world and institutions; I’m not,” Pasternak said earlier in the panel. “I’m thinking of what’s happening. There’s a war on culture. Let’s focus on the United States: There is a war on people of color, there is a war on immigrants, there’s a war on women. I am very concerned about culture in this country.”

Polarization and Politicization

Since the 2016 presidential election, many Americans have acknowledged the silos that social media sites create, leading to dangerous bubbles of news information, a theme that materialized in the conversation. “If you spend all your time seeing movies, reading books, listening to music, and seeing exhibitions that already reinforce what you think you know about the culture,” Arning cautioned of these echo chambers, “the risk is that we don’t see anything that we don’t already agree with; and that is where the trouble is.”

The path forward requires meaningful discourse, the speakers agreed. “In the visual arts there has been a lot of understandable, perhaps appropriate, anger towards our institutions; towards one another,” said Pasternak later in the discussion. “People are saying, ‘I’m not having it anymore; you’ve fucked up this world; you’ve been a part of these exclusionary mechanisms.” She expressed concern, however, that the “social media mob mentality” we are seeing makes it “hard to have thoughtful conversations to support one another at a time when we need to come together and we need to be a part of a change we want to see.”

Casteel cautioned that the privilege of the art world still needs to be part of the discussion. “The idea of culture, I just come to whose cultures are we talking about and who’s in trouble,” she said. Invoking the history and persecution of her ancestors, she said, “that pain is so deep within me; to think unity is the right answer for everyone…I would love to have the conversation but it doesn’t necessarily mean I agree.”

New or Ongoing Crisis?

Though recent events have brought many of these issues, including systemic racism against people of color and sexual harassment against women, to the fore, the speakers acknowledged that this public awareness doesn’t mean that the issues are any more or less urgent than they have been historically.

“Things are particularly bad but in my opinion, shit’s been bad for a while,” said Casteel. “Things are coming to awareness for a lot of people for the first time,” she added, or people are “starting to go into depths of their thinking; they’re understanding that being liberal isn’t enough, that there’s work to be done.” It starts with our communities, she said, and the people we engage with every day.

“I have an understanding that things have always been bad; it’s just much clearer how bad they are,” said Pasternak. “I think that this is so monumental what’s about to happen to middle class and poor people in this country. It’s holding up a mirror of our darkest side of who we are as a nation.” In regards to the new policy changes that the GOP is pushing through, she expressed hope that taking to the streets will be enough. “We must use all of our creativity to fight injustice,” she said.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Arning shared that a number of his artist friends whose work is not political or socially oriented have wondered about the path forward: Should they be making work that speaks to these issues? In his own day-to-day, Arning tries not to “let the outside world in until I’ve done some intention-setting,” he said. “Everyone makes that negotiation for themselves of how to keep going in the face of all the natural disasters and social disasters going on.”

Similarly, Casteel said later, you need to “do substantive work every day when you wake up and you look in the mirror and you say ‘I’m going to go into the world and offer it something, whatever it is, today.’”

“There’s not one way to participate,” said Pasternak. “There’s not one way that’s more meaningful than another. Protest is one thing, building bridges is another, individual personal everyday actions matter.”

Molly Gottschalk