In his wide-ranging talk at Temple Gallery Feb 23, Nato Thompson threw down the gauntlet: Make the arts relevant or they will be pathetic and irrelevant. He asked rhetorically, how can art be relevant when it has to compete daily with the 3000 advertising and other corporate images we are bombarded with. All those ads, logos, and stuff in our visual field, he said, — they have taken over. They own the cultural discussion.
“I love Karl Marx,” Thompson threw out there while pacing back and forth in front of his projected slides. While his talk, titled Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Age of Cultural Production (the name of his new book due out in May) was anti-corporate and pro-art, it was not pro-object-making.
The job of the artist is to produce space for art to be produced. Make spaces not objects, he said. Make your own magazines and museums. “It requires a posse. People have got to stick around…The most important thing artists can do is to produce each other outside the sphere of capitalism. Believe in yourself across space and time.”
Thompson, who lives in Philadelphia, acknowledged that the city had a lot of the kind of art activism he was talking about.
The curator is himself responsible for some activist projects at Creative Time, like Paul Chan’s staging of Waiting For Godot in post-Katrina New Orleans, which included free performances and community programming like theater workshops and seminars; and the 2009 Democracy in America expo in the 69th St. Armory, a showcase for activist art. (See video, and note Thompson’s infectious enthusiasm — his talk at Temple was equally high energy and ebullient).
Not everybody seemed won over. One young person asked why the curator was doing what he’s doing…what was he getting out of it? The implication of that question, at least it seemed to me, was basically, justify yourself. He said in reply, “I want people to get up off their asses and do something. I’m frustrated.”
Before the talk I asked Thompson if Creative Time would ever do a project in Philadelphia. He said he hoped so. He also mentioned that Creative Time will be doing a project with the amazing Pepon Osorio.