Art Can’t Save Us

(and that’s ok)

It is February of 2020, and I am at a museum in Mexico City. I turn a corner down a hallway and am met with the dense forms of two large black curtains. I part them and enter a dark space. Its contours are illuminated only by projected light bouncing off of a massive screen. Before it, I can make out the silhouetted heads of a few friends, classmates and artists clutching cameras and clearing a path for me to enter. Their faces twinkle within the soft light, barely visible expressions of awe, curiosity, elation, suddenly vanishing into darkness as the slide projector flickers on to the next photograph.

This is the second iteration of Nan Goldin's “Ballad of Sexual Dependency” which I have had the good fortune of witnessing. As I look at her photographs I am dazzled and moved by the world they convey. As I look at my friends I am warmed by this odd little world which we have built together. It is just my second time outside of the United States, and I have accumulated an immense amount of debt to make it here. But I think to myself that it was worth it if only to be with my friends.


I don’t think that art can save the world. There is that old Breitbart-ian mantra that politics run downstream of culture, but if the last forty years of gridlock (and the next few years of disappointment) have shown us anything, it is that social progress within the realm of culture rarely translates into anything resembling material progress on its own. While there surely is some correlation between cultural norms as expressed through art and media and the material conditions of life, that correlation often feels as indirect as any efforts to stop climate change by eating vegan. It’s not that eating vegan won’t help, only that it alone won’t really make a difference.

You’d be forgiven too for believing that art can save us. Whether we’d like to admit to it or not, young artists are almost invariably tethered to the naive optimism that art can make a difference, that to pursue art is a noble profession, and that with luck and with praxis our efforts might work to shift leftward something we sometimes call [the Overton window]. If you don’t subscribe to this belief then you are likely already cynical. For those of us with optimism, a belief in the power of art and in the goodness of our campaign is often the necessary driving force underlying it all.

Artists often affirm the power of art, language, imagery, or narrative to change the way people think and thus, to potentially make a better world. I myself have subscribed to this line of thought imagining, in line with a main thesis of the Frankfurt School, that artists lead the way by laying the groundwork for revolutionary thought which might breed revolutionary action. The hope asserts art as propaganda and the masses as gullible little frogs. If we turn up the heat slowly nobody will notice that we’re radicalizing them at all.

Anecdotal evidence would certainly suggest that it is the case that art is powerful. I know I owe my own life to artists (Juliana Huxtable, T Fleischmann, Jennifer Joshua Espinoza, and others) who expressed through their work visions of a world which I so desperately needed to inhabit. Without their art, I would never have come to terms with my on Trans* identity. Without art, I would never have resolved that tension which was so violently engulfing me. I imagine the same is true for others, and that the intoxicating allure of our own salvation echoes outward as we move like Jesuits to spread the word.

But let us briefly consider the sheer magnitude of what we are facing:

Across the globe, there are a myriad of emergent fascisms. There are historically unprecedented levels of wealth inequality. There are deeply entrenched and violent systems of racial hierarchy. There are emboldened police states, policies of economic austerity, pandemics, wars, hardening borders, and the continuing influence of brutal imperial projects. There is misogyny and homophobia. A wave and anti-Trans* legislation. Rampant alienation and atomization as technology outpaces culture, lending to the production of a vast crisis of mental health. And, looming over, permeating, emerging from, and subsumed within all of this is the existential threat of climate change which robs us of forests today even while threatening our complete destruction tomorrow.

It is not always helpful to bullet-point all of the terrible things, so please forgive me for the transgression. These things are all, of course, interrelated. They are themselves the products of forces emerging from what we might call capitalism, or perhaps that sad point beyond capitalism which McKenzie Wark has termed “Vectoralism”.

In the face of all of these interconnected problems, it is natural to feel a sense of powerlessness. As artists, we sometimes respond to that powerlessness by glancing around desperately in the search of answers to these problems so that we might re-present those answers to the world. Through art, we hope to lay the groundwork for a radical project of equally interrelated solutions. Art anchors us within that hope as we think to ourselves if the world needs changing, perhaps art can catalyze that transformation?


It is the summer of 2020 and I am sheltering at home, struggling to pull together my graduate thesis. My father had passed away just a few months before; Across the country, massive protests against the extrajudicial murder of George Floyd have come and gone; Bernie Sanders has withdrawn his candidacy as the Democratic party resolved to put forward Joe Biden, their radical solution to the fascist threat of Donald Trump; And Andrew Cuomo is wracking up praise for his response to the Coronavirus pandemic, even as he moves to immunize nursing homes of any responsibility for the deaths of their patrons.

My college and my MFA program administrators correctly recognize the real danger of the pandemic. They quickly move our in-person summer session to online classes. The transition comes more suddenly for my program than for others, in part because of the need to make decisions well before the beginning of our session in late-June. The professors, ever so enthusiastic, flexible, and determined to deliver to their students a high-quality education, reacted quickly, altering their syllabi to accommodate our new digital existence. Theirs was a herculean effort to ensure the program's success. It is one that the college, had it been paying any attention, should have recognized as exemplary.

I wish I knew that our short trip to Mexico City would be the last time I saw many of my classmates in person. I wish I was prepared to address the profound disappointment of digital existence. I wish I could be with other artists right now, could return to our laboratory of discourse and culture, could go back to feeling like we are not generating art so much as we are generating an alternative world.


As artists, we like to imagine art as a powerful and indeed necessary tool for the advancement of our leftward flank. We run into problems with our thesis when we consider first that it has not been particularly effective, and second, that the whole infrastructure around which art, culture, and media are constructed is itself the product of the very same systems of power and oppression that we seek to abolish. Mark Fisher was keenly aware of this dynamic as he wrote Capitalist Realism. Taking aim at it within an analysis of the Disney/Pixar film Wall-E, Fisher wrote:

“A film like Wall-E exemplifies what Robert Pfaller has called ‘interpassivity’: the film performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity.”

Here, the worlds of art, media, and culture are revealed not as a shifting battleground within a war of attrition, but as a constructed coliseum and spectacle. It is a fortress-like infrastructure of studios, universities, museums, unpaid internships, and pay-less platforms designed from the ground up to both repel radicals, and to manage them on the rare occasion that they do break through its walls. Though this design is not always intentional so much as it is subtly structural, the effect remains the same. Too often Pfaller’s‘interpassivity’ enables artists to perform our radicalism without internalizing its lessons. This is part of what has made neoliberal capitalism so insidious.

Perhaps I am late to the club in making this realization. My aim here is not so much to reinvent years of critical, post-modern, post-structural, post-internet, post-posting theory, as it is to synthesize a point I’ve been trying to articulate to myself for some time. This is all to say that I hope you’ll forgive me for my naive optimism. It is an optimism born within me through the optimism of other artists, people who likewise imagine themselves to be radical or, at the very least, progressive.

The thing is, I think that they’re right. I think that they are radicals, that they do wish to see a better world, and that they truly think that art is one way to get there. Art pulls radicals in, promising us non-hierarchical communities while tethering us to debt and to the very institutions which reproduce hierarchy, capitalism, and competition. It disarms us, turns us around, and tosses us back into the ring with others fighting within our proxy war of progress.

Perhaps I was biased in my hope that art could do good things, selfishly pursuing the life of an artist while convincing myself of the effort’s altruism? No, I don’t even think it’s that simple. What even is “the life of an artist” in 2022? How do we come to define ourselves as artists, in addition to whichever other identities we hold to? As I situate myself within the world as an artist and as a citizen of this earth, a few questions come to mind:

Does it even matter if art can change the world? If art, media, and culture have proven to be impotent tools for the changing of minds, is it possible that art could/can/should serve not as propaganda, but as a tool for the building of coalitions? Did Fox news create its viewers, or did it just draw them in like flies?

Does art change minds? Or might it simply bring like-minds together?

If that is the case then I believe that it will become necessary to turn art away from its lofty and pious expectations and back, counterintuitively, toward self-expression. Not so as to yield to neoliberal domination and its accompanying sense of atomization, but in order to signal our presence to other potential comrades. In articulating our perspectives and in supporting art that reinforces those perspectives, might we create a space for gathering? An agora around which to plan our next move. It is not so much that revolution is not a worthy goal for artists as it is that art might only sequester revolution to the limited realm of aesthetics, quarantined away from institutional, economic, or political reformation. Art may be no substitute for praxis, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make room for both.


When I learned my college was preparing to cut the MFA, I and other alumni of the still-young program thought naively that written letters might make some difference. We took to prose in an effort to explain to college administrators that what they had in the program was profoundly unique, that its program directors were driven, its enrollment was rising, its finances were sound, and its potential for growth in the era of COVID-19 was extraordinary. I thought that our arguments were compelling, thoroughly in line with the profit motive underlying every important decision we seem to make as a culture.  We were, of course, disappointed.

In October of 2020 college administrators announced the formation of a committee, composed primarily of private representatives hired from outside of the college to determine the university's future. They announced that approximately 130 faculty members and $30 million had to be cut from its budget due, in part, to declining enrollment. It was all very neoliberal, a textbook example of the kind of harsh corporate restructuring that is becoming increasingly familiar within cultural institutions and other public goods.

The term for what happened might be (at the risk of sounding hyperbolic) what Naomi Klein has coined ‘disaster capitalism.’ It is that tendency of capitalists to respond to sudden upheavals (hurricanes, wars, pandemics) by effectively looting as much as they can before the dust settles. They use the chaos to cut costs, to secure corrupt contracts, and to gut anything and everything which might operate within ideological opposition to their projects. It is all very cynical.

Though profit was sighted as the main concern for the university, obfuscated as it was within language insisting upon the need to ensure the college's future, one can’t help but feel as though there was indeed ideology underlying the decision. Often art programs suffer the first major cuts in education, gutted for their frivolity and because of the relative precarity of their alumni. Cutting the arts is a quick way to come off as mature and serious about your financial restructuring. It is the sacrificial lamb of austerity. “No bullshitting here” and all that. This trend seems to have chased me since elementary school, from arts and crafts to theatre programs, clubs, and literary magazines. What is seen as unproductive, or counterproductive, however good for the soul, is stripped away whenever possible.

Still, I can’t really blame the college. I think I was always aware of our program's relatively unstable footing. The truth is, students got away with a whole lot of shit if only because we were situated outside of the watchful eyes of administrators. That was part of what made it special. Within my own mental framework, I had imagined us as what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney have called ‘an undercommon’. We were an alternative world latched, like a leech, to the university's ass, consuming, as leeches often do, less blood than the body would ever notice.

“This is the only possible relationship to the American university today. This may be true of universities everywhere. It may have to be true of the university in general. But certainly, this much is true in the United States: it cannot be denied that the university is a place of refuge, and it cannot be accepted that the university is a place of enlightenment. In the face of these conditions one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can. To abuse its hospitality, to spite its mission, to join its refugee colony, its gypsy encampment, to be in but not of –this is the path of the subversive intellectual in the modern university.” 

- Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The University and the Undercommons.


I long for art and community. There is something profound about the way it brings us together. The dynamic that I am imagining, indeed longing for, might best reveal itself within Trans* discourse, as I’ve found that Trans* people are often drawn toward Trans* thinkers and makers long before we arrive at Transness for ourselves. I’m thinking about how, in undergrad art school, all of my close friends steadily came out as all sorts of queer. There is the possibility on one hand that the culture we consumed, the language we embedded ourselves within, the art we produced, produced within us a “social contagion”  (that vitriolic term often employed within those most fascistic corners of anti-trans discourse), that spread throughout our community like a virus. But there is, on the other hand, the more likely explanation that we were all already queer, and that we were drawn together, to begin with, because of this subconscious association.

In the latter case, an argument is to be made that art, culture, and media did not produce our Trans* or queer identities in the sense in which propaganda produces an opinion, but that art, media, and culture created space for us to gather as we articulated them properly for the first time. It is impossible to come out when you do not have the words to describe what you are. When art finally teaches those words to a community of closeted fags, or allows them the oxygen to breathe those words into existence for themselves, then it should be no surprise when, like mono passing from one to another, each of us comes out one by one. Perhaps artists were never the avante-garde leading a charge and were always just artists, stitching together the colors around which we rally.

Too often artists think of ourselves as propagandists. We imagine that with enough effort, with the right words, the correct photographs, the perfect painting, we might begin to resituate the thinking of more conservatively minded non-artists. We seek to “normalize” shit as if “normal” was not something to rage against. We separate ourselves out from the politics we probe, situating ourselves as though we constitute something beyond, or above, “the masses”.

It is becoming necessary for artists to shed themselves of this hubristic framework. To humble ourselves about our roles within the world. So few of us are movers or shakers, and those of us who are have usually been sponsored by a system set into motion by our enemies. What would it look like if artists embraced the mass we seek to motivate? What would happen if artists began to recognize ourselves as constituting a shared, though certainly heterogeneous, class? What effect might we have upon the world if we let our egos take a backseat to solidarity? And no, not sloganized solidarity but actual, real fucking solidarity.

I think, for example, of Nan Goldin. She is one of the few artists one might point to as a true revolutionary. Within her work are layers of queer and feminine sexuality, set against a brutal space of patriarchal oppression. Her images stunned the world with their rawness and intimacy. They cut straight through the heart of modernism to reveal ripe new genres underneath, catapulting culture, art, and photography beyond what it had yet considered.

Her images are, of course, an inspiration. Her slideshows, an arousing and intimidating look into the life she and others lived. A vision of gathered spaces presented and represented as they were through the eyes of the kind of person which culture had previously worked to ignore. But would it necessarily be fair to say that her images changed the world? They might have changed me, and you, but really how much do they alone do? If her images cannot change policy, if they remain contained as they do within cultural discourse and media studies, then what are they even worth? The answer might still be: a whole fucking lot.

Few artists live their work as radically as Nan Goldin. Few artists have constructed through their practice a more diverse community of friends (those she photographed) and fans (those who look at those she photographed). Few artists can be said to have generated a more robust coalition and, as a result of her hard and inspiring work, few artists have wielded more political power.

This power is manifest within her campaign against the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma which, through the production and deceitful distribution of Oxycontin, profited directly from the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Through protests, letters, testimony, and targeted criticism, Goldin has worked hard to disarm the Sackler family, shaming them within the public forums they have spent so much money rallying to defend their reputation. Hers is a campaign that has seen genuine institutional change, shifting alliances within the art world, and one of the very rare breaches outside of the art world and into the halls of congress where last year she testified against Purdue.

But even here it is important to look beyond Goldin, that is, beyond the radical oeuvre of a single person. I take her story as inspiration. It is an example of what just one artist might accomplish in interfacing with other radicals, movements, and coalitions. Behind Goldin are the artists and activists which came before, before her are those of us who might try to follow. Beyond her are still better examples of coalitional politics operating within the framework of the arts.

Take for example historical movements like ACT UP, which included within it ranks many artists fighting desperately to advocate for people living with HIV/AIDS. Through protests and direct action, incorporating an eye for the theatrical and performative, the artists/activists of ACT UP provided a much-needed counterweight to the general apathy or outright disdain of mainstream culture around the epidemic.

Or today we might consider the Strike MoMA campaign which has, in the last few years, catalyzed a profound conversation around money, corruption, and the important role that institutions like MoMA play within the neoliberal economy, laundering the reputations of billionaires and millionaires who exploit workers, perpetuate empire, and reinforce racist systems.

On the topic of art, the activists of strike MoMA declare:

“Art is not a luxury, and it is a vital part of our communities and movements. Art is one of the few means of production available to oppressed peoples for the creation and sustaining of worlds in the face of death and destruction. The aesthetic forms and imaginative powers of art require material support: economies of solidarity, platforms of cooperation, infrastructures of care, and mutual aid. But the political economy of the art system is antithetical to these life-affirming practices. It is predicated on property, scarcity, competition, and assimilation.”

The goal, as always, is to work against these forces. It is necessary, however, to humble ourselves within the recognition of the fact that we will not always succeed. That we may often succumb to our competitive mindsets, our desires for assimilation into the high-art world, the sense in which we might hoard property and resources from each other, and the acceptance of artificial scarcity (think NFTs) as a force of nature. These internalized mindsets are difficult to untangle which is why this work is, by necessity, the work of villages, coalitions, and not of individuals.


As I write this in April of 2021, my little village is working hard to press for some concession on the part of the private institution that is our college. Within our humble Discord, a list of demands is coalescing, and options are being weighed as to what might be done to properly threaten retribution. Can the threat of press coverage or a tuition strike save the program? At the very least, can it save the last two classes from accruing even more debt for a program that will soon no longer exist?

I admit that ours is an insular campaign, but it is one with similar vectors throughout graduate programs across the United States, and one with potentially important implications. As primary gatekeepers of the art world, graduate programs serve as important pressure points within the campaign to change a culture. Although its demise brings up questions relating to the efficacy of even collaborating with private institutions, our program had, to its credit, provided a short-lived model for a genuinely radical rethinking of arts education.

Despite our efforts, the world remains relatively unchanged. It is, however, filled with ever so slightly more comrades than it was before.  Artists, more aware now than ever of what actually has to be done in order to change the order of things. We’ll gather around Nan Goldin's work, drawn toward the message it conveys, but we’ll also follow her to her work's logical conclusion. We’ll become comrades gathered around a dark room, longingly gazing at an illuminated screen. When we talk about Nan Goldin we’ll catch ourselves dreaming about her protest in the Guggenheim. What a wonderful breach of etiquette.

Such breaches are necessary if we are to make our claim to anything resembling a better world. Though the art we produce has failed to improve this world, it has at least helped us to find each other. Part of the trouble with this pandemic is that it has made it all the more difficult for us to gather around in meaningful ways. It has worked to further disintegrate our already helplessly atomized community, amplifying our worst tendencies.

But there is also promise within this amplification if only in that it has made it clearer to us that what we crave is not success, but comradeship and community. On the other side of our preoccupation with craft, our infighting, our self-aggrandizement, our competition, and unspoken hierarchies, is a better world. It is not enough to imagine, however. We must move there together.