Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  


out of the 
ivory tower

social responsibility and the art critic by Eleanor Heartney

Discussions of the critic's social 

responsibility always seem to get bogged 

down in hand-wringing over the fate of the 

National Endowment for the Arts. Questions 

are posed in accusatory tones: Are critics 

doing enough to defend the endowment? Have 

the art magazines shirked their duty by not 

permitting more coverage of this important 

issue? Have we made it clear enough to the 

public and to our public servants how vital 

arts funding has become for our national 


In fact, plenty of ink has been spilled, to 

very little practical effect, over this 

issue. Instead, I would argue that the 

right's attack on the NEA has been a 

brilliant diversionary tactic to keep 

people in the cultural field from turning 

their attention to a far larger problem. 

This is the cultural conservatives' efforts 

to reshape society into a form that greatly 

weakens the open exchange of ideas and the 

freedom of opportunity essential to a vital 

culture. The symptoms of this change are 

myriad: they include the flow of money and 

resources upward, away from the working and 

middle classes; the growing inequality of 

wealth and opportunity; the steady 

withdrawal of money from education, 

libraries, public radio and television; the 

privatization of the realms of public 

discourse and the reinvention of America as 

a place where all speech is an extension of 


In this climate, one of the critic's social 

responsibilities should certainly be to 

investigate the ways in which art and the 

art world are implicated in these 

developments. Here we might recall Deep 

Throat's directive to the Watergate 

investigators--"follow the money." Critics 

should be asking more questions about where 

the support for art is coming from and what 

the implications of various forms of 

patronage might be.

We should also be looking more closely at 

the changing constitution of the art 

world--to what degree has it become a 

mirror of the larger social world? Can 

anything to be done to rectify the growing 

disparity between the rich and the poor in 

the art world, and the growing lack of 

"upward mobility" for artists, curators, 

and critics who cannot rely upon a 

comfortable independent income in an 

increasingly "pay your own way" art world? 

Should artists who are  themselves 

struggling be the backbone of support--

by means of benefit auctions which serve 

to undercut the market for their work--

for money-starved alternative spaces?

Can something practical be done about the 

class divides and unequal distribution of 

wealth within the art world itself? What if 

the artists who have benefitted most in 

economic terms from the art world be 

expected to put something back in? Just as 

there are calls now for highly successful 

Hollywood directors and actors to 

contribute to the kind of not-for-profit 

theaters where new talent gets its start, 

shouldn't Blue Chip artists be asked to 

help provide for the future vitality of the 

world which has been so good to them?

By raising such issues, critics might 

manifest their social responsibility 

through their writing. But sometimes a 

serious engagement with the social world 

requires one to put down one's pen, close 

up the computer and become active in other 


I want to turn now to a personal anecdote 

to suggest what I mean. After the dismal 

returns of the 1995 gubernatorial and 

Congressional elections came in, my partner 

Larry Litt and I undertook an informal 

survey of artists about their voting 

practices. "Did you vote?" we asked them. 

"And if you didn't, why not?" The answers 

were both illuminating and dispiriting. 

"Well, I meant to, but I couldn't get out 

of the studio," we were told. "It really 

doesn't make any difference anyway." Or, 

more militantly, "I don't vote because it 

just contributes to the corruption."

This experiment led us to the creation of 

the Artist Voter Project, which began 

simply as an effort to recruit friends and 

acquaintances to help us man voter-

registration tables at art schools and the 

openings of alternative spaces. Throughout 

the fall of 1995, we ran drives at perhaps 

20 spaces and gave out about 1,500 voter 

registration drives. It was fun and we were 

happy to be doing something useful.

As long as we kept to this simple 

manageable goal, things went well. But 

then, as happens in such situations, we 

began to get more grandiose ideas. We 

thought that it was not enough to register 

voters. We began to think of motivation 

projects that would encourage artists and 

art students to vote. These were 

projects--like a "register to vote" 

poster competition for schools, for 

instance--that required exhibition 

spaces, the cooperation of institutions, 

and money for mailings, openings and 

coordination. In order to implement 

these ideas, we decided that we needed 

to fund-raise. And this brought us for 

the first time into the bizarre and 

contradictory world of art funding.

Although we never got any funding, we got 

quite an education from this experience 

about why things don't happen and why art 

world activism is so often ineffective. 

Strange things started to happen. When word 

got out that the Artist Voter Project was 

planning some projects, other related arts 

organizations began to contact us, 

suggesting that we work together. "Working 

together" turned out to mean giving them a 

rather sizable contribution so we could get 

their literature. We tried to explain that 

we were not a funded organization, but 

just a group of individuals trying to do 

something, and that we had no funds to 

contribute. It became clear that for many 

of these "activist" organizations, their 

social mission consisted of raising funds 

to pay for mailings that would be used to 

raise more money.

We ran into some other strange situations. 

For instance, there was the organization 

that got a sizable grant to look into the 

need to encourage artist voting, and spent 

most of it on a conference where everyone 

congratulated themselves on their concern. 

There was the New York-based organization 

which was raising money to rent a bus and 

take a group of concerned New Yorkers on a 

bus registration drive throughout the 

South. (I guess SoHo or even Harlem were 

not exotic enough.) And we found 

institutions who liked our ideas, and would 

be happy to do them if we put up all the 

money, or who felt that they could just as 

easily take our ideas and do them 


Ultimately, we discovered that the 

institutional structure of the art world 

really doesn't contain a place for the 

individual who just wants to do something. 

There is a bureaucracy, there are channels 

of action, there are complicated politics 

that keep things from actually happening. 

The art world is very good at examining 

problems, but not very good at doing 

anything about them.

In the end, we concluded that the social 

responsibility of the art critic is the 

same as that of the ordinary citizen. It 

is a matter of personal commitment and a 

willingness to spend some time and energy 

on something that seems important. The only 

way out of the paralysis in which we seem 

to find ourselves at the moment is personal 

effort. So yes, come fall, we will be out 

there again, running voter registration 

drives at SoHo art spaces.

ELEANOR HEARTNEY is a New York critic. Her 

collection of essays, Critical Condition, 

is forthcoming from Cambridge University 

Press in 1997.