I can’t recall exactly when I first heard “precariat”—a portmanteau of “precarious” and “proletariat”—in conversation. It was probably late 2013, during a juiced-up bargument—a portmanteau of “bar” and “argument”—at Sidewalk Cafe or Josie’s in the East Village. The term refers to people who have no sustainable means of selling their labor. At the time I first heard it, some artists were speculating that networked culture and emergent technologies would not prove emancipatory. The digital platforms we’d been using to foster alternative economies and new audiences, they argued, would soon turn all of that free content we’d produced into data used to commodify and atomize us.
Within a year or two, things got worse. In cities around the United States, overeducated, underemployed, student-indebted artists realized that they’d been taken for a ride. Art schools that sold MFA teaching credentials in bulk had quietly pivoted away from investing in full-time faculty, opting for inexpensive patchworks of one-semester adjunct positions. Galleries and museums that once hired art handlers for reliable, decently compensated jobs were now using temporary contract labor. Institutions were acting like platforms.
Suddenly everyone was on the hustle. Everyone was a brand. But no one, it seemed, was an actual employee. Initially it was tempting to believe the gig economy offered potential. With that flexibility, you could do a residency! But nobody but the independently wealthy would have any money left at the residency’s end. The precariat got stuck with stagnant wages, escalating rents, relentless calls from student loan sharks. Job boards advertised full-time, unpaid internships requiring two years of experience.
The silver lining, I suppose, is that many artists pursued collective, community-oriented projects. And culture workers adopted class consciousness, recognizing shared interests with workers outside their sector. Just look at the New Museum, where this year employees unionized with United Auto Workers Local 2110, who also represent workers at the Bronx Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. —Sean J Patrick Carney
Either “naturally” inherited or ardently sought, privilege—such as the honor (with a price) of being a MoMA trustee—has recently been assailed as pretty much the root of all social evil. Activists and culture critics now invoke the term for virtually anything that some people can have or do, but all people can’t: from living in a Hudson Yards high-rise (“[apparently] wealth and status can be considered inclusive if some token non-elites are allowed to gawk at those who enjoy such privileges,” Rob Horning wrote in A.i.A., June/July 2019) to gaining political power on the basis of race or wealth, rather than merit or vision.
While “white privilege” is the most blatant, persistent, and oft-cited strain of this condition, it can take myriad forms—many of them marked by the offender’s real or purported lack of self-awareness. Thus the all-too familiar injunction, “Check your privilege!” In 2016, Korean émigré artist Nikki S. Lee, known for her blend-in-with-the-group photo series, was taken to task by Contemptorary blog writer Eunsong Kim for wearing blackface in her “Hip-Hop Project” (2001) and for failing to name or share profits with participants in her “Hispanic Project” (1998). Kim asserted that “as a body that can enter and exit out of communities, as one who gets to DECIDE where she belongs and for how long and with whom, Lee positions herself as fundamentally more privileged.”
What’s the alternative to perpetuating privilege? (A practice so common that “to privilege” became a ubiquitous verb in the 2010s.) Perhaps never, for a moment, to forget the message of David Hammon’s spring 2019 installation at Hauser & Wirth, Los Angeles. There his huddled, ramshackle, homeless-style tents were inscribed with the simple phrase “this could be u.” —Richard Vine
In the 1960s and ’70s, social practice art developed alongside the civil rights movement, feminism, and antiwar activism. Artists like Suzanne Lacy and Mierle Laderman Ukeles chose the street over the studio, creating collaborative works that tackled issues including rape, environmental degradation, and economic inequality and emphasized engagement with the public rather than object-making. In 1998, curator Nicolas Bourriaud’s book Relational Aesthetics presented a new generation of artists’ participatory tactics, ranging from Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Thai food feasts in galleries to Pierre Huyghe’s staged parades in small towns.
But the 2010s may be considered the decade in which social practice finally entered the institution. New York–based public art nonprofit Creative Time, thriving under the leadership of artistic director Anne Pasternak and curator Nato Thompson, commissioned works and organized summits that addressed problems such as gun violence and climate change. Art historian Claire Bishop leveled a sharp critique at socially oriented art in her tome Artificial Hells (2012), arguing that such work should be evaluated on aesthetic rather than ethical terms. In 2010, Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates started the ambitious Rebuild Foundation, which provides affordable housing, arts programming, and other means of community revitalization on the city’s South Side. In summer 2016, at the New Museum in New York, Simone Leigh presented The Waiting Room, a lauded installation that centered on healing the black community and offered services such as herbalist treatments and yoga classes. Activism has taken on new importance in art institutions during the Trump era. Both Ukeles and Lacy have recently received major museum retrospectives: the former at the Queens Museum in 2016, and the latter at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2019. —Wendy Vogel
The idea of identifying and managing exposure to trauma triggers originally comes from PTSD treatment protocols developed in the 1980s for combat veterans. Trigger warnings migrated into online feminist communities as early as the 1990s—primarily flagging mentions of sexual assault, eating disorders, and self-harm—but the term went mainstream in the 2010s. Slate declared 2013 the “Year of the Trigger Warning,” citing widespread debates over whether they belonged in university classrooms, museums, theaters, or the news. Trigger warnings have alternately been cast as a welcome attempt to mitigate harm and as a symptom of the coddling of millennials, who refuse exposure to any idea or image that might unsettle their view of the world.
The most acrimonious debates over trigger warnings took place in academia, but the concept posed particular problems within the realm of art and culture, where generally progressive attitudes hit up against a reluctance to cede the power of transgression and shock. Triggering, in the sense of prompting an immediate and visceral reaction in the viewer is generally assumed to be the hallmark of good art, but the connotations of the term in the 2010s tended to tilt negative. In 2016, a number of black staff members at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis protested the institution’s exhibition of works by Kelley Walker that included appropriated images of police brutality smeared with chocolate or toothpaste, arguing in an open letter that the show “trigger[ed] a retraumatization of racial and regional pain.” The museum responded by putting warning signs outside of the show acknowledging its potentially disturbing content. Such signs are now commonplace at museums, even in the case of shows that seem, in the scheme of things, pretty tame.
In the catalogue essay for the exhibition “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and as a Weapon,” held at the New Museum in 2017, curator Johanna Burton describes the show’s title as “the true elephant in the room,” albeit one that she doesn’t explicitly take up in the text. Despite the connotations of the title, the show foregrounded intergenerational dialogues about gender identity rather than provocation or offensiveness. Instead, its use suggested a reclamation of the word “trigger,” which, by the end of the decade, had become politically toxic. Indeed, the phrase “content warning/notice” has largely replaced “trigger warning”—in part because the association of “trigger” with gun violence might be, well, triggering. —Rachel Wetzler
A seventeenth-century nobody coined the word influencer, but the term didn’t obtain cultural capital with swayable tweens, anxious shoppers, or aspirational copycats until the 2010 launch of Instagram. Enterprising influencers typically build-up personal brands through direct marketing campaigns and product endorsements, while more socially conscious trend setters use their public platform to address our garbage dumpster on fire world. Kim Kardashian and Greta Thurnberg are two influencing exemplars whose posts stoke feelings and inspire actions on a massive scale. The former flaunts her curvaceous, heavily retouched image to sell sunless tanning lotion and advocate for prison reform, while the latter sparks vital conversations on climate change and straight up tells adults they suck for making the world shitty.
In the context of the art world, “influencer” has a far more insular meaning. Whereas movie stars often use social media to underscore their everyday relatability, many A-list art influencers regularly employ the same platforms to showcase their virtue signaling clout and cringe connections. Carefully staged sunset selfies with Marina Abramović in Abu Dubai and snapshots of hard hat wearing curators casually posing while art installers do strenuous work behind them reinforce the industry’s enduring elitism, stratification, and nepotism.
Real art world influencers—deep-state patrons, dealers, and socialites—wouldn’t be caught dead posting pics of themselves at Gstaad hot tub raclette parties or rolling around in California King beds made out of money. They understand that invisibility is power and true influence is brandished behind closed doors at MoMA board meetings, not amassed from “likes” dealt out by MFA grads on cracked phone screens. Knowing that no one but the GOP actually like them, the power elite are more than happy to silently control society from inside the actual tax shelters that their architects, art advisors and accountants build for them.
Almost everyone uses social media to project a fiction of their reality, but photographer Nan Goldin used her feeds to seek justice for a societal ill with deep art world roots. In 2017, she began a blistering campaign to call out the Sackler family, whose inconceivable wealth comes from manufacturing the opioid prescription drugs currently ravaging our society. Goldin successfully triggered activists to confront these powerful patrons whose limitless coffers have been bankrolling institutions for more than fifty years. Instead of posting pictures of lowlife friends and art pals, Goldin has established a real model for influencing change in and outside of the art world. —Chen & Lampert
Activist Tarana Burke founded the original Me Too movement in 2006, with a MySpace page where survivors of sexual abuse could share their stories. In October 2017, in response to articles outing film producer Harvey Weinstein as a serial predator, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted a suggestion that women who have experienced sexual harassment or assault post the phrase “me too”—prompting the viral #MeToo campaign. In a matter of weeks, the reverberations hit the art world. Powerful men including former Artforum publisher Knight Landesman, Armory Show director Benjamin Genocchio, curator Jens Hoffmann, and artist Chuck Close were revealed to be harassers, and a group named We Are Not Surprised—after a “Truism” by Jenny Holzer, “Abuse of power comes as no surprise”—posted an open letter online denouncing sexism in the art world. The letter was ultimately signed by more than 2,000 women and gender-nonconforming individuals.
As we continue to grapple with the fallout from #MeToo, artists and art historians remind us of visual art’s long engagement with the topic of sexual assault. In Nancy Princenthal’s important new book, Unspeakable Acts: Women, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s (Thames & Hudson, 2019), the author discusses the history of depictions of rape and sexual harassment, including recent responses to the subject, such as Emma Sulkowicz’s durational protest-artwork Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), 2014–15. Last year, the exhibition “The Un-Heroic Act: Representations of Rape in Contemporary Women’s Art in the US,” curated by Monika Fabijanska, was held at the Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery at John Jay College in New York. Veteran feminist artists have contributed new work in response to the #MeToo movement. In the “Apologia” series (2018–), Betty Tompkins hand-letters the apology statements of sexual harassers onto reproductions of artworks depicting women. —Wendy Vogel
In the abstract: a refusal to ascribe to a theory because an opposite one lurks. An ambiguity of diffuse effect. A restructuring of power relations by rejecting hierarchies. In the physical sense: thriving in the middle of the gender spectrum. See also “gender-nonconforming,” the arguably more archaic “genderqueer,” or “they/them pronouns.” All these words describe those who identify as neither “woman” nor “man,” those who may have been assigned to either side of the gender binary at birth and now live somewhere else.
Over the past decade, at least ten states and the District of Columbia have made it legal to mark one’s gender not as M or F but X on birth certificates and other identification documents. The use of nonbinary pronouns offers a general resistance to the order of gender most literally represented in dress and divisions of public bathrooms.
In the 2010s, an artist or critic who identifies as nonbinary and uses “they/them” pronouns has found their use of these pronouns documented in Instagram posts, magazine articles, and press releases. They have seen the language around their art and body shift from grammatically incorrect to newly grammatical.
And therefore odd on the tongue. In my own writing, I have inserted parenthetical clauses—“Artist X, who uses they/them pronouns”—to educate those unfamiliar with this mode of singular plurality. Once, people whose existence challenges style rules could not be referred to succinctly in publications like the New York Times. They had to be named again and again, or misgendered. How full of fumbles is our use or refusal of “they/them”! How hopeful is this hard work toward larger societal restructuring at such incremental levels!
Even as nonbinary is normalized, misgendering still occurs. “They/them” boasts a bibliography of news stories of material lives becoming real to those outside queer communities. Queer communities—and their manifold parts of individuals—are now burdened with recognition. What was once thought to be not one or the other can now be celebrated as an explicitly messy multitude. —Ariel Goldberg
OBJECT ORIENTED ONTOLOGY
Object Oriented Ontology is the study of objects, premised on the belief that they exist independent of human perception and even, for many proponents, have agency. Commonly referred to as “OOO,” it should not to be confused with “out of office.”
Born from philosophy, the field has proven useful to art history, which studies the role art objects play in society. While art history has largely focused on individual artists and the cultural sensibilities that produce artworks, OOO sparked a shift toward examining the roles those objects play after they are made: the movements artworks spark, the wars fought over them, and the ways in which they circulate.
The term was coined in 2009 by Levi Bryan, who drew from Graham Harman’s Tool-Being: Heiddegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (2002). Similar movements include Actor-Network Theory, New Materialisms, Speculative Realism, Thing Theory, Material Culture, and Quirk Histories: the last details the often surprisingly politicized origin stories behind mundane objects, as in Alison J. Clark’s Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America (1999).
A number of artists this past decade highlighted various things that objects can teach us. For the video The Maid (2018), Carissa Rodriguez filmed versions of Sherrie Levine’s “Newborn” sculptures from the 1990s—themselves modeled after Brancusi works—in the private and institutional collections where they’re now housed. The Maid traces the iteration and dissemination of the sculptures. Ilana Harris-Babou’s video Human Design, on view in the 2019 Whitney Biennial, “probes connections between forced migration and material culture,” Wendy Vogel wrote in our June/July 2019 issue. “In it, the artist portrays an urban explorer who traces the history of objects for sale in a high-end design store.” Pamela Rosenkranz made a series of water bottles filled with flesh-colored fluids (2009–ongoing), exploring how the packaged products embody—and work to perpetuate—myths and sensibilities surrounding health, purity, and cleanliness.
I realize that all of the artists I cited are women. It was not intentional, but perhaps fitting: feminism has long pushed back against the objectification of women, under the assumption that objectification is synonymous with desubjectification. Feminist OOO—much like what Jack Halberstam has called “radical passivity”—insists that agency need not look like outspoken, authoritative beings, but that people and things who seem passive and quiet are pulling the strings, too. —Emily Watlington
For a few months in autumn 2011, under an enormous red sculpture, a privately owned public park filled with thousands of people who would not leave. Occupy Wall Street wasn’t only a syncopated response to what many considered a corporate coup in 2008. Inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and the 15M anti-austerity movement in Spain, Occupy was anarchist in spirit, rejecting institutional alliances in favor of horizontal decision-making. One occupied physical space with one’s body, but to occupy encompassed the struggle for the cultural, political, digital, and environmental commons. Utilizing an optimistic early stage of social media, the Occupy Movement quickly spread across the United States and to nearly 1,000 cities in eighty-two countries around the world.
Physical occupation helped creatively channel the anger of debtors and precarious workers. Parks tended to fill with artists; they become training grounds, perhaps even artistic experiments, for life beyond the imaginary of transactional corporate culture. Then, on November 20, 2011, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s personal army—as he later called the taxpayer-funded NYPD—violently evicted the encampment at Liberty Park as part of a nationally coordinated action. But Occupy Wall Street continued in the mass response to Hurricane Sandy (Occupy Sandy), and internationally in Occupy Gezi (2013) and Occupy Central Hong Kong (2014). It awakened the American Left, feeding into successful grassroots movements and political campaigns. Yet despite its influence, Occupy represents a hard-to-recall optimism in the struggle for common space and democratic process, an improbable vision of a unified 99 percent.
Occupy resurrected class language for an age of extremes, naming the profiteers of 2008 “the 1 percent.” The diverging fortunes of the 1 percent and 99 percent were perhaps most evident in the art world. In 2012, Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1895) sold to hostile takeover specialist and MoMA chairman Leon Black for a record $119.9 million at Sotheby’s, which was, at the time, busy breaking their art handlers’ union. Occupy Museums, one of many groups formed in Liberty Park, organized direct actions with the Teamsters at Sotheby’s, MoMA, the Met, the Whitney, Frieze, and Lincoln Center in solidarity with people and issues targeted by the philanthropic class. Arts and Labor, another Occupy offshoot, focused on workplace organizing in museums and higher education. Occupy re-politicized the art world, reclaiming museums as political stages and helping spark the unionization of the cultural sector later in the 2010s.
Artie Vierkant, from the series “Image Objects,” 2011-ongoing, altered documentary photo.
Oh boy. Where to begin? This word has been defined ad nauseam. Nearly everyone who writes about post-internet art feels obliged to define it, and nearly every text about it begins with an obligatory litany of other people’s definitions. I think it’s because the term is so brazenly mystifying—in the way it suggests a condition that comes after a phenomenon that remains omnipresent and all-pervasive—that it triggers the Sisyphean work of shoring up gaps in its meaning.
Anyway. I suppose you could say that definitions of post-internet fall into two broad groups: those that center on the artist’s position and intent, and those that focus on the work’s effects and contexts. Karen Archey and Robin Peckham, who organized “Art Post-Internet” at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing in 2014, took the former approach, describing post-internet art as “consciously created in a milieu where the centrality of the network is assumed.” This resonates with artist Guthrie Lonergan’s 2008 coinage “internet aware art,” i.e., work made with consideration of how it will be seen online. Terms like these seem to have little utility at the end of this decade, when it’s hard to imagine an artist who isn’t aware of the internet, or would contest the network’s centrality.
Critic Gene McHugh, who kept a blog called Post Internet in 2009–10, gave a nicely succinct yet open-ended definition: “Post Internet art leaves the Internet world. It goes to the art world and mutates itself to correspond to the conventions of the art world . . . as the work mutates from the conventions of the Internet to the conventions of art, the work catalyzes the conventions of art to mutate to those of the Internet.” I took a similar direction when I wrote about post-internet art for A.i.A., but narrowed the scope in my critique of the obsession with the installation shot. In its circulation of images of flat assemblages and branded readymades, post-internet art “preserves the white cube to leech off its prestige.” Post-internet designates art about the mechanisms of digital marketing and itself became a marketing term for art.
As annoying as the perpetual definition and redefinition of “post-internet” may have been, the debates signaled a concentration of intellectual energy in the scene around it. Artists and writers felt like they were exploring new and important ideas, with an urgency that was rare in the art of the last decade. It’s a chapter that deserves to be seriously historicized. Maybe in the ’20s we’ll be post- enough to do so. —Brian Droitcour