Nato Thompson, chief curator of Creative Time and genuinely innovative thinker, gave a talk Wednesday night (March 20th) at the Hammer Museum to a crowd of artists, students, and art world friends. Like other talks of Nato’s I’ve heard in the past, it was highly performative, peppered with humor, and distinctly lacking in jargon or coded touchstones of an art historical theoretical canon (except, perhaps, as the butt of jokes). Wearing a hoodie in solidarity to honor the memory of shooting victim Trayvon Martin in central Florida last week, Nato set the current political stage for a discussion of activism and art (“a false duality” as he called it) and proceeded to systematically break down the artificial divisions that the so-called “art world” places between itself and everything else – especially broader cultural production (in advertising) that drives consumerism and impacts our very subjectivities, affecting how we make meaning in the world. What was so refreshing about this talk was that Nato was calling us out, collectively, for pretending that art is separate from this broader cultural context. By way of example, by refusing to take into account the effect that advertising guru Leo Burnett (inventor of the Pillsbury doughboy, the Jolly Green Giant, and others) has had on contemporary artists makes us (the art world) seem insane. Burnett said of advertising: “We absorb it through our pores without knowing it. Through osmosis.” Of course we do, and of course that changes how we think. How powerful, and how insidious.

Starting with the industrial revolution, Nato painted a broad-reaching picture of the ability of capital to consume people and radically change our very understanding of ourselves, tracing generations bombarded by the mechanisms of cultural production and the increasingly rapid co-optation of identity by forces of power. He made a very apt observation about the odd phenomenon of the hipster – the paranoid product of generations accustomed to forming identity through the consumption of music, fashion, and image that then sees that identity co-opted and sold back to them in an ever-diminishing time frame. Hipsters are “the shadow” of all of us, afraid to “hitch our wagons” to anything at all. Hipsters are everywhere, yet no one will admit to being one. And though Nato used such heavyweights as Adorno & Horkheimer, Guy DeBord, Walter Benjamin, and of course, Marx to underscore his argument, he did so in such a fluid, cogent, and narrative way that their dense theories became accessible and powerful as a result. This cultural history portion was very resonant, but once he began to draw a line between the production of space, meaning as created by bodies in space, and the rising tide of social aesthetics (basically, art’s reaction to this cultural context by seeking new access to meaning via relationships of bodies to space) the connections didn’t feel quite so strong. Perhaps this was because he cut himself a bit short towards the end, but the points raised did make sense in the larger context he had set up. My review of his presentation is short and inadequate, but the full video podcast version will soon be available on the Hammer’s website. This talk also anticipates his new book, Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Age of Cultural Production which is due out in May.

seeing power image

I always admire Nato in how his form and style of presentation follows his content. Nato does this very deliberately, and is sometimes criticized as an “anti-intellectual,” which I think is crazy – he posted a great little essay about this recently on his blog. He fights the good fight against the false sequestering of art, and does so in a way that enhances accessibility rather than obfuscates it in a haze of self-referential jargon. Breaking down these dichotomies moves both ways – forcing the art world to engage with everything else does not necessarily make the world engage with art, but it certainly allows us to better grapple with our eyes wide open.

As I was reflecting on this talk and its implications for my own little world, I recently received this in my inbox:

Here is an interesting petition for a good cause: a notoriously criminal art gallery is working with the Democratic party under the banner of the 99%. Please share! Maybe we can hold these groups accountable:

Here is a blog about it with some interesting discussion:

(Thanks to Jennifer Gradecki for sending this along).

This petition against ACE Museum in conjunction with the Democratic Party co-opting the language of Occupy and the 99% is a case in point of the insipid nature of the political/cultural/advertising complex. But we cultural producers and consumers are a bit more saavy now – we can peer through the visual and emotional onslaught, and we’re getting better at it all the time.