Soliciting or diffusing engagement
Friday night I made the trek up to York University with the best of intentions, and as usual got to talking to my car companion, got distracted, missed my turn, got lost, and was sadly very late for this promising event…
Practice, Political Engagement, and Institutional Change was a panel organized by Deanna Bowen in conjunction with her work for the AGYU project The Centre for Incidental Activisms (CIA). Although I was regrettably late, I caught enough of the discussion to get my wheels turning… while not the focus of the panel, as usual, what sticks in my mind are questions about the role of institutions in the solicitation of critical engagement and critical inquiry. One of the panelists was Michelle Jacques, a curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario and someone I have huge respect for, and who I feel is underutilized in the public voice of the gallery. Jacques shared an interesting anecdote about a moment of critical potential when the AGO announced the Kara Walker commission for their 2009 reopening. The new work was to respond to representations of race in some of the AGO’s historical collection. Jacques shared that when the announcement was made the gallery received a joint complaint from a group of academics who took issue with the commission going to an African-American rather than an African-Canadian artist, arguing that the two cultural histories are not identical and why not privilege the Canadian perspective. At the panel, as I heard it, Jacques articulated that this was potentially a very interesting and important critical conversation to be had and one which she hoped would go public when the commission was complete and finally on display. Following this, Jacques expressed her disappointment that the issue never became public because the academics, the media, nor any other public pushed the issue.
My question is why didn’t the AGO take the opportunity to bring up the discussion to the public themselves? This is not solely an AGO issue, this is a common concern for institutions showing contemporary work from a variety of social and political contexts… Behind the scenes, plan for diffusion of critical attention rather than finding ways to make it a collective inquiry. Why don’t we become the leaders of critical conversation and the articulation of interesting questions rather than wait for the debate to be lobbed as a one sided critique. I truly believe that to engage each other critically does not mean that we are criticizing each other (ok, sometimes it does, but work with me here…). In this corporate-smile-age of “appreciative inquiry” (vs critical inquiry) are we washing over the difficult and tricky conversations, relegating the tough discussion to private moments in the coffee shop or the living room? Where else but our most important and visible cultural institutions will our public debates about the impacts and responsibilities of cultural practice occur? Who will take responsibility for leading us in discussion?