Last Saturday, a vibrant mix of adults and students—evenly split between the University of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—gathered at the Logan Center Penthouse to listen to artist, author, and curator Nato Thompson speak about his latest book, Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Twenty-first Century.
The event was hosted by UChicago Careers in Journalism, Arts & Media (UCIJAM) in conjunction with the Department of Visual Arts (DoVA). Every seat in the expansive event space was occupied. Zachary Cahill, the DoVA Open Practice Committee Coordinator, gave Thompson a warm introduction as an artist who “encourages us to take courage” in the infrastructural world we cohabit.
Thompson primarily focuses on socially and politically motivated art. In 2007, after working as a curator at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, he became the chief curator of Creative Time, a New York City–based nonprofit arts group. There, he organized some of the most famous contemporary public arts projects in the United States.
Thompson brought to the podium a youthful energy and blithe buoyancy atypical of more traditional arts presenters. His blend of lightheartedness and bluntness on social activism and the institutions governing art paralleled his advice on how to penetrate the elitism in the art world—“be cynical but also happy.”
Thompson opened with a 2001 Fox News interview with him and other demonstrators protesting MTV’s “active gentrification” of Chicago during its filming of The Real World: Chicago (look up “Real World Protest Chicago News Clip” on YouTube if you’re curious). There were plenty of laughs from the audience (and from Thompson too) as he blasted MTV with an idealism and shamelessness that made the news clip feel almost like a scene from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. While a clip like this could have spooked some unfamiliar with Thompson’s work, he successfully connected with his audience members—both those interested in politically-motivated art and those involved in what he humorously referred to as “weird poetry.”
Thompson began his talk by establishing the challenges and lack of praise that political artists like himself face. “The world of political art is one where you will never win,” he admitted. Regarding It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq, a mobile project he worked on in 2009 with Jeremy Deller, he observed that critical outlets, such as The New York Times, often labelled the project “too didactic,” while his leftist friends panned it as “too artsy and poetic.”
Thompson went on to decry the overwhelming elitism that plagues political art. He mentioned his involvement in artist Tania Bruguera’s project Immigrant Movement International. Between its lines of approval, a review from The New York Times passively accused the project of being that of a “fancy artist” doing something just for “social capital” and not of real political import. Thompson believes these accusations of duplicity are not just an issue for socially engaged art, but for social justice as a whole.
He brought up his studies of arts administration in school. He challenged the perception that arts administration is a weaker major for an arts student, arguing that it facilitates communication within infrastructures and promotes accountability for large, legitimizing institutions. Their legitimacy makes the nature of producing art more difficult, especially with political art.
Thompson gave a piece of advice to the artists in the audience: don’t strive (often fruitlessly) for institutional legitimacy. “Create your own spaces!” he said, advocating for “alternative” infrastructures.
In order to support both socially-charged art and “beautiful, dreamy, ambiguous” art he said, we must hold our institutions (both artistic and political) accountable and create alt-infrastructures that subvert the status quo of producing meaning.
Thompson’s book, Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Twenty-first Century, is on sale at the Seminary Co-Op.