Art writing needs to be activist

I find myself writing more frequently about photographs and writing about photographic exhibitions and the archive. Thinking about the photograph’s historical, theoretical, architectural, and urban contexts and attendant social issues became more insightful and rewarding in light of extended isolation from any art world experience. Time away from galleries and museums was good but I’m not sure if I am as adept at understanding the world in other ways as I do mainly through art works and art writings. I reflect on the prospect of big art projects such as the upcoming Documenta in 2022; what forms of presentation and criticism will they generate? 

Storming of The BastileJean-Pierre Houël

Assuming that traditional gallery and museum exhibitions are limited by the built environments in which they take place, the physical spaces and the necessity of social distancing present opportunities for mounting shows that reflect on how exhibitions and its components are perceived and understood. Art writing needs to mark the moment when artistic projects fluidly move between installation and exhibition, between artwork and political statement. The context of art expands with the socio-political crisis and only a socially-aware art writing practice can reconstruct and present a succinct analysis of the situation. In some respects, the art writer must also admit to actively producing or inventing the context with which his writings are concerned. Another important point is creative subjectivity, which has nothing to do with ingenious creativity or with conventional ideas of individual authorship. I find the best pieces of writings do not play affective sensuality against rationality, or intuition against reflection. On the contrary: there are no absolute polarities of responses. Effective criticism is only formed in a dynamic that permanently interrogates the status and interests of different subject positions.

A long overdue realization is the need to rediscover minimalist forms of art writing which might be understood less as an elite pastime than a sustained accumulation of low-register responses; from tweets to protest signs. In contrast to the bombast of political rhetoric, I think of the rigor and directness of art, how carefully crafted mediations intersect with functional and reflexive stubbornness. Criticism can be a dynamic visual dialogue between writers adopting design techniques to communicate ideas and social beliefs in visual compositions, including memes, screen prints, montages, and full-blown exhibitions. We need not be constrained by Art-Forum style 500 word reviews. I really don’t like to write for the usual suspects, the cultural agents of social reproduction. That said, I am thinking of the relationship of writing to printing techniques as a conceptual flashpoint. But do I have, for example, the fortitude to produce controversial performances, attention-grabbing installation art, or large print runs that carry messages about our tumultuous times? Is it even activist enough to use open-source platforms to address conflicts between radical and conservative attitudes around the globe, advertising and consumer culture, US imperialism and racism?

The pressing matter is the possibility of working together, in collectives or as interdependent collaborators with the aim of communicating the seriousness of our crisis and urgency of implementing solutions. Say for example a series of disarmingly simple photo-text montages that capture the zeitgeist as a column in an online publication. Temporary works, ATM writings, which nevertheless, comment metaphorically and sometimes in pointed visual handwriting, can complement works in various media—on topics such as public morality and how it is interpreted and regulated by conservative religious and political institutions.

Writing was never just a framework for presenting works of art or artifacts, but are content in themselves, from the rough structure to every display detail. There needs to be a more serious consideration of formal characteristics and aesthetic strategies not divorced from politically-charged messaging that aims to deepen the interplay between art, design and social relevance. I refuse to see art writing as a passive receptacle of hegemonic culture and I don’t aspire to focus solely on accounting for significant events in art and culture. Rather, I intend to examine how the history of artistic language and political vocabulary are inextricably related. I aim, without apologies, to catechize how the infrastructure of critical language expressed a people’s aspirations, and how such expressions were denied or suppressed.  Art writing needs to grow a bigger conscience, become more activist and revolutionary, otherwise it’s garbage.

Geronimo Cristobal
October 9, 2020
New York

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Create a website or blog at