Powerful Art and Power

June 1st, 2006
Jessica Stockholder

What follows is a meandering through some clouds of thought exploring how art can be understood as powerful, and how power can be the subject of art. I hope to open up some room for discussion and to be provocative.

Some of the more interesting contemporary art criticism has grown from Marxist thought where attempts to articulate art’s meaning tie it to a discussion of production, economy, and sociopolitical power structure. Though this line of thinking is compelling, and strikes to the core of something essential to art making, it was also a shadow that I grew up under. It assumes that art’s value lies in its challenge to the establishment, and that in this effort art is always co-opted by the reigning political and economic powers. This was, and is, a very glum vision of art’s function placing it in a position of constant failure.

Raised as a red diaper baby my eyes are wide open to the serious flaws inherent in our capitalist structure. Our health, personal, economic and political, depends on maintaining room for the expression of dissension and eccentricity. I value the role that art plays creating friction, agitating, questioning and challenging the systems we live with. But, while it is true that art is always in the end complicit with the various powers that support its infrastructure, and that this complicity is part and parcel of it’s meaning, I don’t believe that it therefore fails. Good art has power before and after it is co-opted – both as a current lived activity and as history to be looked back at.

As so much art criticism has been tightly wrapped up with this Marxist view, it has become taboo to express desire for, intense interest in, and pleasure in power and its complex social expression. Power understood as “bad.” is commonly assumed to be in the hands of the patrons and administrators of the art world, many of whom love and nurture what we as artists do. I am sure it is possible to find more complex ways to discuss the success and failure of art objects.

In addition to being ascribed to the different sides in an argument, or to opposing poles of political and economic controversy power is pervasive and essential to living. One has to execute power to stay alive and creative endeavors flow from that necessity.
All of the hustle and bustle, theater, posturing, reporting, frenzied buying, socializing, and general exuberance attending art is testament to its dynamic and ever changing functioning!

In addition to unseating the powers that be in order to make successful art, it has also often been described as necessary for each artist to unseat his or her historical precedents. The narrative of art history describes success in terms of opposition and rejection. This way of valuing success is ironically in line with capitalist economy that demands constant change and newness. If we were to more highly value today’s art, at this moment, as a vital part of the present, it might be possible to generate a richer dialogue around our relation to history.

I am speaking from a position of power. Teaching at Yale and having garnered some success, both I, and my work, are part and parcel of a power structure. It would not be difficult to dismiss my arguments for more space in the dialogue as a self-serving effort to make sense of my own place in the edifice. But my involvement in the convoluted, twisting and turning manifestations of the myriad different interests and powers that meet in and are represented here in the art world, in addition to raising questions and ire, is also fertile, invigorating, and constantly challenging.

In my own work I provide circumstances for powerful private experience and for spectacle. I am obsessed with how the self alone, and the self understood as part of a group bump up against each other; and how both experiences of self can be empowering. At different moments my work can impress one with the power of the maker, the power of the institution exhibiting the work, or the power of the collective of viewers that contribute meaning to the event of exhibition.

That visual art often engenders pleasure is significant. I am sure that understanding the sources of, and reasons for pleasure are linked to power, and I am happy to revel in exploring how this might be so. I have found Dave Hicky and Carol Gilligan very useful as points of reference here.

I work with many students who as a result of their wish to be critical of, or unaligned with, the various power structures that support the art world make work that is itself without visual, formal or affective power. This seems a little painful to me though I can empathize. And I watch others who having discovered buttons for creating spectacle make work that is lapped up so quickly by the powers that grease the machine that they seem to be swept off their feet. The present intensity of focus on graduate student work can make it challenging to hold onto rich and varied expressions of value and power.

Power, itself neither good nor bad, can be used to various ends. It is not necessarily distributed fairly and it is not always earned. Perhaps given our democratic ideals and mythology it is difficult for us to tolerate the inequities inherent in the distribution of power, and it is consequently taboo to meander through the thicket of desire meeting power.

Nevertheless, that art objects can engender deep experience and affect, and are perhaps even effective in the world must have something to do with how they tap into the complexity of power relations of all sorts.

That we like artworks to have power over us and that it feels good to be overcome might be related to religious experience or to twelve step programs that urge us to accept and take comfort in our relative powerlessness. Some art insists that there is a greater power. And some insists that we have power over our circumstances.

The question of gender relations is laced with questions of power. It is relatively uncomplicated to assert that men and women make art; and many of us can agree that there are power inequities between men and women. The relative difference in the success of men and women in the art world is both an unfortunate fact and the subject of much art. It is more complicated to try and understand any single individuals relationship to these facts, and how we are all party to this power inequity. It is also important to say that there are, and have been, many powerful women, and that there are many women who make great and powerful art.

I would like to put my foot in it and explore this question a little in terms of form – I pose two sets of formal qualities:
The first: stiff, upright, hard, industrial, geometric and big.
The second: soft, round, flexible, organic, earth bound, and small.

It is easy to tie the first set of qualities to men and the second to women. That said, it is patently absurd to fix the meaning of any form to either gender. Efforts in this direction quickly disintegrate. There are, however, undeniable strands of meaning that weave through these facts of our experience. Our shared forms of communication, physical, visual, and verbal, use metaphor and grow from the facts of our bodies. How these forms are assigned status and power socially, economically, and politically is something that is constantly reinvented alongside life’s givens. Art and design are party to this invention.

And there is the fact of war during which physical power is asserted over others and power is attained through force and subjugation. And economic power is achieved through increased means. Social power is informed by these physical realities but also by style, attitude, psychological maneuvering, knowledge, wisdom, and perhaps enlightenment. Art objects are situated within a power structure informed by all of this.

And power can arise from passivity (Ghandi) and the exposure of vulnerability. I’m thinking of Vito Acconci’s work where he is both vulnerable and aggressive, waving a stick at his audience blindfolded. Masturbating under a floor, exposing his desire and his shame. And Lynda Benglis’s work exposing its weakness in the face of gravity. And perhaps the work of Mary Heillman whose geometry has “expression” and “character “ having given up some of its hardness. And Hannah Wilkie, who presents her personal and mortal vulnerability up for our consideration.

Success accrues power to the successful. Most of us want our work and our persons to be successful. Money is power and most of us want and need money. How artworks are understood within the money economy intersects all these questions of power and presents an opportunity. As artists selling our works to people or institutions with money, we are at their service. We are in some respects in their power. On the other hand, we invent and decide what it is that we want to make and present the world with objects, ideas, and perhaps ideals to desire.

Information is power. How stories are told, how the facts of the world are represented with images support and help to uphold power structures. Map-making and history are often discussed from this point of view. Wallid Raad stirs this particular pot.

In order for our work to be part of the larger culture, for it to have an audience, it has to be inserted into existing power structures one way or another. The infrastructure of galleries, museums, and patrons, are powerful as is the work that we make.

I would like to end by asking: How do you understand and value power in art? What do you want from your work in terms of power? And, how do you negotiate the insertion of your work into existing structures of power?

Yale Panel—Powerful Art and Power


I want to begin by noting the obvious irony of being invited to partake in a discussion of power in relation to art. As a female American poet, I come to this subject with a lifelong commitment to a practice that accepts and even promulgates the positive value of powerlessness.

That this identification might be both self-deceptive and defensively prideful is certainly possible.

Who would be the opposite figure from me? Well, take, for example, the sculptor Richard Serra. It so happens that Richard Serra lives across the street from me; we have been neighbors for almost thirty years; we nod to each other. He owns his building; I rent my loft. This is all I want to say for the moment about the economic inequities of art and power. Serra’s most famous piece, The Tilted Arc, was reviled, contested and finally removed from its place in City Hall Park, because it was deemed too violently threatening for the pedestrians. This was not long before, and only a few blocks away from, what we now call Ground Zero. When Serra put his sculpture in a public place, the public did not want to feel threatened. Now the public always feels threatened. Would the public now feel more or less tolerant of the difficult vision of Serra’s Tilted Arc?

On this day five years ago, I was awakened by an immense roar whose proximity to my bed could result only in annihilation. I crouched on the floor and covered my head; within moments, there was a sound for which I have not found the words, since it was simultaneously enormous and muted; I had no references, no likenesses with which to compare it. A great swallowing, perhaps. It was the announcement of Power at its most primal, erupting from exactly the pre-linguistic ground of our most profound imaginings. Within minutes, it was clear that an event was underway that would occupy the world stage for years to come, shifting the ground of history and of our, America’s, place in it. But one could not have anticipated the degree to which it would also elicit years of destructive abuses: of language, of persons, places, things, and that these abuses would place cultures, our own and others, at risk.

They would, in turn, put immense pressure on artists to find ways to be in conversation with this risk.

For some weeks, I have been rereading certain passages from some of my favorite thinkers, writers who have, however obliquely, addressed the issue or theme of power: Michel Foulcault, Gilles Deleuze, Edward Said, Giorgio Agamben, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hannah Arendt, Judith Butler. I read the Fragments of Heraclitus, the novelPlowing the Dark by Richard Powers, and an unpublished talk by my friend the poet Michael Palmer called “On the Sustaining of Culture in Dark Times.” Palmer calls this time, our moment, “fraught and contentious and corrupted.’

None of these thinkers focuses on art, although each writes in such a way that an artist might feel, one way or another, implicated.

I think I want to believe that powerful art is a critique of power.

From Said, I have the idea of the amateur, and of the necessity to find reconciliation between intractable opposition.

From Agamben, the notion of the gesture, that ideas and objects find meaning through mobile constellations that rupture boundaries.

From Emerson, the idea of the present as the practice of active thought.

From Heraclitus, the idea of mindfulness within change.

From Butler, the idea of precariousness in relation to violence and mourning.

From Foulcault, the denial of universality and the consciousness of structures.

From Arendt, the scruple of fearless skepticism.

From Deleuze: oppostion to vertical hierarchies.


Since mindfulness, of all things,
Is the ground of being,
To speak one’s true mind,
And to keep things known
In common, serves all being,
Just as laws made clear
Uphold the city,
Yet with greater strength.
Of all pronouncements of the law
The one source is the Word
Whereby we choose what helps
True mindfulness prevail.

I spent some time this June in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Like all great cities, Saint Petersburg has many disparate layers; unlike most cities I have been in, these layers seem to be rubbing against each other, causing an almost palpable friction. Nothing seems to be quite in alignment with the present, which courses through the streets like a reckless toxic current. In any case, I visited the Hermitage, the vast pale green museum that was once an Imperial Palace. It would take days, maybe weeks, to even begin to know what is there, in the immense rooms and corridors with their gilt trim and poor lighting. I knew that some of my favorite Matisse paintings were there, including The Conversation, and Music, and The Dance. I did not, however, know that there were several Rembrandts. Rembrandt has never particularly captured my attention. But I was, that day, arrested by his painting of the Deposition, of Jesus being lifted down from the Cross. It was poorly lit, and needs cleaning. The figure of Jesus is deeply, impossibly human; it has weight, dead weight; you can see the arms of those who are lifting the body down strain; you feel the lifeless burden. There are fleshy folds around the figure’s mid-section. I do not recall if there is blood, or any signs of the stigmata. But the painting registered inside me, and I have tried to think about its power. I am not a religious person. Was it powerful for me that day because I was in the difficult flux of a difficult city, whose complex relation to faith was everywhere apparent? Was it because there are so many images of the newly dead in my mind these days, and somehow this portrayal spoke from a space of such profound humanity that it seemed to redeem or remind me of the parts of Western culture that seem all but erased in our excruciating exercise of raw power. If I visited the painting again, would it again elicit such a strong response?

I have been trying to think of what to say without stating the obvious while wondering what the obvious might be; I have been wondering if the obvious is what needs in fact to be stated. I have been thinking for a while about the difference between knowledge in relation to power and knowledge in relation to art. I have been wondering about the necessary forms of knowing.

This wondering has taken the form of some questions:

Are knowledge and power inevitably reciprocal?

What kinds of knowledge do artists need, and is it more important to think of how we know than what we know? The American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead comments that, “in the real world, it is more important for a thing to be interesting than for it be true.” Duchamp is said to have commented that he never did anything unless it amused him.

Is art, to invoke Wittgenstein’s great phrase, a form of life? If it is, what does this imply about the form of an artist’s life?

Is there still any meaning to be found in the etymological connection between experience and experiment?

Is powerful art necessarily art that embraces technology?

The word “power” comes from the Latin potere: to be able. What abilities does an artist need to make powerful art?

Is powerful art art that shifts our perceptions of reality or art that confirms them; art that causes consternation or consolation? Are these exclusive registers?

Here is Richard Powers writing about his heroine Adie’s response to being inside the machinery that will make a totally virtual world, which she has been hired to help realize through her capacity to make perfectly mimetic drawings:

“Shame and amazement did a two-step inside her. This room was this present’s widest accomplishment, its printing press, its carrack and caravel, its haywain, hanging gardens, and basilica. These demure, humming boxes contained the densest working out, the highest tide of everything that collective ingenuity had yet learned how to pull off. It housed the race’s deepest taboo dream, the thing humanity was trying to turn itself into. Yet for all that Adie had seen, art had fled headlong from it, in full retreat, toward some safe aesthetic den of denial, where it could suck its wounds in defeat.” Plowing the Dark p.30

A safe aesthetic den of denial, sucking its wounds in defeat. An image of abject animal powerlessness.

Art of course does not have volition, only artists do.

Powers implies here a post-human world, in which our investment in the humanity of the human, evidenced or symbolized in the act of art making, is about to be surpassed. He implies that art cannot compete, as it were, with the ravishing technologies of the post-Enlightenment, and can only retreat into, be absorbed by, the exhausted afflictions of bourgeoisie individuality.

If artists are not to slink off into an aesthetic den of denial, what are we to do instead?


What use are these people’s wits,
Who let themselves be led
By speechmakers, in crowds,
Without considering
How many fools and thieves
They are among, and how few
Choose the good?
The best choose progress
Toward one thing, a name
Forever honored by the gods,
While others eat their way
Toward sleep like nameless oxen.

Yale Panel—Powerful Art and Power

SEPT. 11, 2006

“The frontiers of contemporary art are endless…”It’s exciting.” said a collector who was sitting in Sotheby’s salesroom watching the bidding during last Spring’s China auctions.

I’ve never heard this kind of optimism from an artist. Ever. Amongst the many things Jessica proposes, one is that the different interests and participants that constitute the art world co-habitate in a fertile, convoluted and constantly challenging environment. I agree. And add that the art world is expanding with the speed and ingenuity equal to that of global capitalism. The growth of power -as manifested through art objects – has more force than I could have imagined even a decade ago.

I initially had planned to address Power – the good, the bad, the Ugly, until yesterday, But I’m now going to become the kind of artist who says I thought I would speak about this .but something happened and I’m changing horses so to speak.
Becoming a citizen/artist instead of a commentator about power. There seem to be infinite resources if you’re interested in commentary.

Last night, ABC aired a docudrama called 9.11.01. A disclaimer stated that what we were about to see had been dramatized for sake of the narrative, some events were fictionalized and some characters were composites. Alterations were made to this history, in other words, to make better entertainment. To improve, its FORM. It was unsettling because, throughout the afternoon, helicopters were suspended over my head as they observed Pres. Bush solemnizing @ Ground Zero,
And this morning, Air Force jets buzzed overhead since 7 am.

So my approach will be to take up something else Jessica addressed in her remarks…with sympathy, she mentions those students who address power structures in their work without visual, formal or affective power.

So I want to talk about Form…recently Roberta Smith reviewed – Uncertain States of America: American Art in the 3rd Millennium. It’s quite critical – and clear – she identifies a problem with much of the work as sharing a single strategy –which she diagnoses as “fear of form –, of “working with the hands in an overt way and of originality. Most of all originality”. I’m not overly fond of the word “originality” as it’s more symptom than a condition. but for lack of a better term, I know what she means. Perhaps a familiar evenhandedness of no-brow anti-materialism , or, a post-neo-pop-level of cool, Whatever it is, there’s not a lot waywardness or difference or “difference” in a great deal of work I see – Like Jessica, I’m not unsympathetic. Just curious.

I’m as compelled by Form (whatever and wherever that Form is), as I am in the social and cultural contexts that fashion our understanding of it. I’m interested in Authority as a corollary of Power. Authority surfaces within studio practices and outside of them. Or not. It is it’s own form of Power.

Jessica asks “How do you understand and value power in art?” I understand it as a constantly changing. Inconsistent. Without fidelity while exerting a great deal of discretion. The phrase ‘I MADE A TERRIBLE MISTAKE’, used by Michael Jackson, Clinton, Britney, etc…offers no apology, only admission. after which all is forgiven. This is also the working title for a collection of works I’ve made over the last 2 years.

In my own practice I work in an unprogrammatic fashion, exploring fallibility, knowledge of the limits of freedom, transience, sensuality, nostalgia and grace.

I’ll show you some images…..some not art, some art, most deal with authority, power, form, absence of form and the real world.

Powerful Art and Power


Thank you Jessica. Your invitation to be on this panel provided me with a challenge to re-examine my assumptions about power and provoked me into seeing and speaking differently about my own work. Looking where power resides among the various elements of my artistic project I found it within myself as the cultural producer, in the process as the means of production as well in the conditions and economy of the sites where I work. Power is embedded, one way or another, in everything I am and do.

The 10 minute time constraint of the panel provides another challenge; to choose specific details from no more than 6 of my site specific public artworks and one work from and another area of making whose work inspires me to reach beyond my own conditions, inclinations and intentions in regard to power and art-making.

The essential notion I have about power and its relationship to art and artist is that there is no separation; power is an integral part of the maker and the forms made. Integrally constructed in much the same way Nick Rock’s poster for this panel embeds the declarative in the interrogative and how Pedro Almodovar constructs Agrado in his film, Todo Sobre mi Mama, not incidentally dedicated to all women and all those who want to be women. I simply will not accept or be undone by the traditional abusive power and gender games and delight in Amodovar’s power lighting up thescreen.Superseding the ongoing inequality and abuse in conventional gender stereotypes and power relations, Almodovar displays an apparent ease and acceptance of a much wider variety and combination of gendered relationships and bodies in blazing color and pattern – and laughter.

Laughter occurs every time Agrado appears on the screen. The audience laughs as she explains that she is called agreeable because she tries to make everyone’s life more pleasant. Agrado’s responsive and generous qualities are evident as she happily accepts the difficult job of telling the audience that the show is cancelled, and asks those who are interested to stay to hear her life story but if they want to leave that too is fine with her. She proceeds to describe her surgeries, how much each part of her body cost as she made female physical attributes an integral part of her body.

My own cultural products are generally located in those parts of urban environments which have been ignored and left to deteriorate until the established powers – city redevelopment and transportation agencies, educational institutions, commercial and corporate companies – decide to improve a degraded place most often to make it more profitable to those same powers. I go in and while seeming to comply with their prevailing middle class ideas and values about people should live, cities grow and property is to be made profitable integrate powers complicity in the disrespect, destruction and physical improvements.

The most confrontational of my installations covering the largest territory is currently being constructed as part of Boston’s Big Dig. Fifteen of the s city block of the former West End neighborhood of working poor were made into a wasteland by Harvard University’s department ideas of urban planning, the complicity of the local Catholic archdiocese, the expansion of Mass General Hospital and the greed of a developer. Ironically this quote from a former resident of the razed West End is a sentiment shared by the current residents – including the developer who lives in the penthouse of one of the towers that replaced the tenements, THE GREATEST NEIGHBORHOOD THIS SIDE OF HEAVEN

The handrails carry 16 more quotes from former West End residents their lifestyle and enjoyment of what they had in these buildings dismissed and destroyed, The privileged greed is represented by dollar sign scrolls integrated into the new light fixtures, the “takings” clause of the US constitution at the top of the missile barrier into which thehandrails embedded carrying with Camilla Kaputchnik’s quote about the smells of cooking. The new Big Dig highway crashes through the tenements q ghosted into the abutments and the smell is now that of automobile fumes. Occasionally pedestrians will come across tan ineffable name. These are the places where the city grid would have crossed the current curving sidewalks.

Here in New Haven is another strategy of integration where traditional celebrity power is inverted and extended to residents and workers who made a contribution to this area and its people during the past 300 years. Although the 24 stars made with $ 25,000, are distributed equally among men and women, shop owners and employees, and the various trades practiced here over time, are the result of research and meetings with people in each of the communities here in New Haven, and there is a proposal for new stars to be chosen by those who came to live in ninth square, Ultimately the power to choose these initial stars like the 16 quotes of the West End project I just showed you is essentially mine. The limits of my power can be seen expressed by my choice to place four sets of the 24 rose medallions chronologically ordered sets at four entrances into the “ninth square’ was foiled by the Chapel street Businessmen owners who were afraid if of liability issues. I simply moved two sets inside at the center of the square moving out, and the others move into ninth square from Church and State Streets. Similarly, while I tried to do this project as a citizen of New Haven and an artist rather than be defined by my role as a professor at Yale, nonetheless this picture appeared in the Yale Alumni magazine. The notion that power lies within each of these stars is particularly embedded here. I am standing near Joseph McAlpine, the janitor at the Gas Company, who accrued the power through respect by his community and his ability to get the attention of the head of the company not to shut off the gas but to help people learn how to pay off the bill.

In this, the most brightly colored of my pedestrian sidewalk interventions, a six decade time line runs along the edge along the storefront the oldest set of buildings on First street in downtown Los Angeles. Here too the area had been left to deteriorate so badly that the structure beneath the sidewalk had to be replaced before we could pour the new sidewalk. In the five honey colored decades brass lists of the some of the uses of the buildings during theheyday of this Japanese American neighborhood. In the 40’s the culture of fear was spread by the FBI. And when WWII expanded the powers of the Presidency, President Franklin D. Roosevelt interned more than a hundred thousand innocent Japanese-Americans.Currently the Roosevelt precedent has become the model for extending the power of this presidency.

Among the nine images of wrapped things embedded in sidewalk that alternates betweenterra-cotta and white along the property lines is this Issei chest on Central Avenue, know to the initiated as what was used by the first generation that came here in the 1880’s and like the bundle on the San Pedro street portion of the sidewalk, the way the residents belongings were carried to the camps.

At the northernmost tip of Manhattan, the Inwood stop on the A train had been left to deteriorate, the population felt ignored by city hall, the newest immigrant population, the Dominicans were blamed for the drugs and violence in the neighborhood. The has a low ceiling and was indeed a dark and dismal place. Having lived for my first 20-years at the end of another NY Subway line I knew that this ‘end of the line” as announced on the train, was the first stop for those who live there. I was determined to take power through the reflecting the neighborhood’s populations with all their ambiguities, contradiction intact, making a place for lost of meaning
Here power is taken and offered through seductive glittering materials – broken mirror and silver tessere and the use of the ellipse. At the exit/entrances and on the walls the ellipse makes a place for the viewers interiority to take over. At the start… and At long last… invites the pedestrian viewer to complete the phrase in whatever way or not at all. The ellipse is powerful because it provides aconcrete location for lost meanings and lapsed connections … makes lack tangible without falsifying it, makes a place for absence.

This past June, I went to Siberia for 5 days, invited to do a project in concrete with a company whose owner saw this public art project as a way to gain some publicity. Working here in Siberia the power was evoked by the lack of sufficient time: to do the kind ofin-depth research I usually deem necessary, cut out all the letters of the words created,for the concrete to fully set, While working to extend my power to include others as the source of reflection and meaning, it became clear to me in the middle of the night that there was not enough time to cut all the letters of the contemporaryChatushki we had written together with a Translator and 7 students. In the morning I suggested we just use the first letter of each work and the punctuation.The lost letters imply a timeworn façade selectively effaced by history; a seemingly incidental breakdown of type whose meaning is nevertheless clear to the initiated. Most powerful of all, this new step provides an invitation to anyone who comes here to enter the process of of signification at the threshold of meaning and the threshold of the tower.

Thank you for listening . I am as eager to hear from you in the audience as I am the other speakers.