In anticipation of Art in General and the Museum for African Art’s upcoming public program What Now?: Spaces of Contradiction (more information here), we’ve excerpted an interview between NY-based art critic and curator Joshua Decter and Chelsea Haines of Guernica Magazine, regarding his new collection of essays Art is a Problem.
Guernica: How did you arrive at the book’s title?
Joshua Decter: It took some time. But upon arrival, it seemed the most effective means of embodying my longstanding ambivalence about art, criticality, and other matters in a humorous, plaintive, and hopefully serious manner. I think many people have, and continue to, harbor doubts about whether art is a useful vehicle to engage with, or engender change within, broader political, economic, social, and ideological conditions, even as we struggle to reconcile this doubt with commitment and optimism. Art engenders important problems, yet it is also a problem. So why not be a bit provocative, and deploy a title that might startle some readers.
Guernica: You started your career as a critic and curator around the same time as a massive rise in interest in the relationship between art and politics. How do you see this shift being indicated in your writing over time?
Joshua Decter: I grew up resolutely middle class in Manhattan and was taken to museums and galleries by my parents, so art was always a part of my life. After college, I participated in the curatorial/critical studies component of the Whitney Independent Study Program (ISP) from 1984 to 1985, where I met artists such as Andrea Fraser, Mark Dion, and Glenn Ligon. There I engaged in a year-long one-on-one theory tutorial with Benjamin Buchloh—experiences that drove home the point that one cannot think about art outside of its embedded relationship within larger systems. And the ’80s were actually a rather contradictory period in New York, [there was] a significant expansion of venues and markets for contemporary art, as well as the emergence of various forms of art and cultural activism and politically-engaged practices. There are some relevant parallels to today’s situation. When my art criticism first started being published in the mid-’80s, part of me wanted to tear down the idols of art history, while another part maintained faith in—the illusion?—that art could be oppositional in some way.
These illusions began to fade a bit while working in my first curatorial job at an institution, PS1, in the late ’80s. A few years later, in the early ’90s, I became increasingly uncomfortable with how the work of the aforementioned generation of Institutional Critique artists—my friends and peers—seemed to have become at home within the institutions under critique. The bogeyman became the sugar daddy. These contradictions bothered me. Still do to a certain extent. So in a way, my problem with art is just how smoothly critique has been assimilated within museums and other cultural institutions. And now, how institutions have evolved into contradictory platforms. I’m conflicted, since I still want art to put pressure on conditions of economic, social, and political injustice, yet unsure about what results from that pressure. And this is not merely a theoretical dilemma—it’s also an existential question about one’s work and position in relationship to the field.
For a link to the full interview, please click here
More information on Decter’s book, Art is a Problem, can be found on Artbook, Amazon, and Guernica Magazine.