Theaster Gates

Theaster Gates recently gave a talk in Toronto, which sadly I missed, but the other day I came across two articles about him, one in the New Yorker, the other in the New York Times Magazine. As usual, certain small details caught my attention. For one, he comes from an academic background, has worked for the city of Chicago, and proudly claims competence in working with bureaucracies. But as an example of the artist as manager, who orchestrates many employees, I think he’s outstanding. He is much more interesting than Xu Zhen, for one. He has attracted a lot of support because his project is urban redevelopment, though he does it with an arts and culture slant. But the South Side of Chicago is culture in a way – I’m thinking of Chicago blues and jazz – so his distant local precursors might include the Sun Ra Arkestra and the AACM. My aversion to bureaucracy and bureaucratic art is pretty strong, but what seems to me different about Gates is precisely his improvised musical performances, which by accounts seem pretty strong. The art that he sells to support his development activities seems like middle of the road conceptualism, but that’s not the real art. At the end of the New Yorker piece, Hamza Walker, of the Renaissance Society, wonders if the value of what Gates does is merely symbolic, but if so it’s no different from any other art. Every painting and sculpture is one small piece of the world transformed, one new thing. Gates’ work is in the vein of “social sculpture,” in which the materials are buildings. I guess I can see why that might be more exciting to some people than another painting, but it’s hardly a revolution in art, as I have been saying for a long time now. Jeffrey Deitch says that the art world has responded to Gates because he offers a “vision,” something rare today. It’s a vision of social change and improvement, a community working with its hands and heads and hearts to clean up the inner city mess and rebuild some kind of normal life. But I have the perspective of my own context, where all that has been done long ago and yet goes on today, so much so that I want to run screaming when I hear the word “community.” Again, what makes Gates’ rebuild different and special is that it’s an emerging city of art and music, whereas in my town, building the city and organizing community has no place for what I call art – for real art,  free from communal responsibilities. It’s also a model of the artist’s life – not only the artist as leader and entrepreneur, but as less narcissistic and selfish.

Theaster Gates and The Black Monks of Mississippi in performance

Theaster Gates and The Black Monks of Mississippi in performance

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