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Higgins Art and Public Life statement

On Subtlety

Hannah B Higgins

This spring, Creative Time produced Kara Walker’s “a Subtlety or, the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” a sugar covered (Styrofoam) sphinx, with Hottentot-Venus-styled, protruding tits, ass and vulva and a mammy’s head large enough to command the space of the soon-to-be demolished Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn. She was attended by life-size molasses-resin attendants. Audience participation was encouraged on the website, where thousands of visitor pictures were coordinated into a three-dimensional image of the sculpture over time. Like all Creative Time projects, there was no entrance fee, so the work was completely open to any member of the general public intending to see the work. “a Subtlety” drew roughly 130,000 visitors.  An online report and poetry project describes the brutal conditions of sugar labor in the past, present, and around the world, replete with missing hands, legs, collared workers and white overseers. Instead of merely illustrating the report content, each visitor was confronted with Walker’s now familiar use of the racial stereotypes that dehumanize people and therefore promote abuse and exploitation. In addition, each visitor smelled the cloying reek of sugar, felt the crystals collapse beneath her feet, saw its blinding whiteness, and could almost taste the slowly melting molasses of the life-size figures withering away in the looming cave of a room. To expand the avenues of communication, the best public work today engages across the sensorium. “a Subtlety” was no exception, as the brutal facts of sugar production bore into the viewer through every sense organ. Thirty years ago this coordinated effort would have been dismissed as kitsch. Today it is a masterpiece. 

Nato Thompson is the Chief Curator of Creative Time, as well as an activist, public speaker and author deeply committed to promoting social justice through the arts. In a Nation interview, he describes the critical shift from aesthetic quality to social relevance.

I think after the culture wars of the late ‘80s, the lesson for the Democrats was that arts funding is just too risky. It’s not worth it…At Creative Time we’ve shifted our focus from the idea of quality to the idea of importance. I think quality is rooted in the history of beauty and taste, both extraordinarily conservative lenses for viewing aesthetics. I think importance is viewed from the lens of history, site, legibility and efficacy.[i]

This description encapsulates the critical shift in the public art world’s conception of artistic relevance and audiences. Richard Serra’s “Titled Arc” (1981-1989) spurred the public art debate of the 1980s. By 1990, Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs and other art associated with the AIDS crisis were censored, as was Karen Finley’s chocolate-smeared body performance. To receive public funding henceforth, the public-oriented, socially motivated artist would collaborate with her audience from the outset, carefully calibrating work to meet the public mood or to gently nudge it along using the tools of history, site, efficacy and legibility. Institutions (the NEA stopped giving out individual grants to visual artists in 1993) took to gently prodding, cajoling, and educating a range of publics through more apparently democratic processes including planning and explanatory meetings with the public – even though really the communication is one way. In museums, galleries and the spaces of public art, this became the art of relationality, carefully offsetting affirmative values (uncomplicated fun, fashion, food, spectacle, beauty) with enough weirdness or critique to be taken as serious artwork by art insiders.

This branch of the art world and its publics together imagine a more just world modeled in the safe haven of the museum or through a discursive process that, by design, rarely offends deeply and sometimes persuades people to think and act differently. Art institutions and venues of many stripes are transformed into utopian microcosms, where people of disparate incomes, political viewpoints, races and preparedness come together briefly to hash out differences, imagine solutions, and visualize change. There’s enough creative fuel left over from the public encounter for the artist to make a living (which artists can and must do) selling relics (essentially assisted readymades) to collectors, museums and the archive. Beautifully crafted and saturated with information about the social context that produced them, these works are often intensely and gratifyingly auratic. These, along with the websites that preserve the work, serve a crucial function in inviting another pathway into the work, especially for those who did not see the original, which in the case of the Walker piece, I did not. The website and the object belong to that other art history, the one told through objects and publications.

Clearly, “a Subtlety” was a masterpiece of public art by any standard, unsubtle though it was. However, like much other public art of a socially transformative bent, it made me question the seamless nature of this work. Can there be general criticality beyond the very specific topic at hand when the message is so clear? No. The answer is probably no, meaning we’ve made our peace with the seamlessness of kitsch.

I was left wondering about the role of individual imaginations in our encounters with specific artworks viewed through the scalar lens of history, site, legibility and efficacy. Is this kind of work at risk of eschewing small scale things and experiences we should fight for, like individuality, intimacy, quiet and privacy? Yes. The answer is probably yes. What would it mean to lose these things?

Finally, if efficacy is a value here, then it matters that the audience seemed tinged with a self-deprecating irony that verged on the cynical. The web record is full of incredibly unselfconscious selfies with the out-scaled body parts. Have I lost my sense of humor? Do I want it back? What does that mean?

The alternative would be an audience told exactly how to respond to the historic content provided for them: kitsch, in its starkest, most dangerous form. We don’t want that. Well, we probably don’t want that. Or maybe we do, if we agree with the content.





[i] Christine Smallwood, “Back Talk:  Nato Thompson,” The Nation, Feb 16, 2009, 41.