artist, educator, writer.

Art School in a Moment of Danger: Art, Pedagogy, and Otherness

Art School in a Moment of Danger: Art, Pedagogy, and Otherness

Billie Lee

These remarks were presented on a panel titled “Beyond Critique: Contemporary Art in Theory, Practice, and Instruction" at the College Art Association Conference in New York on Feb. 17th, 2017. The panel was a follow-up to the recently published anthology of the same name (Bloomsbury, 2017), which examines the current stakes of critique in contemporary art discourse.  


As we hold this conversation, a national general strike is taking hold[1] on the streets in defense of the U.S. constitution. Today we are in a renewed moment of participation in the public sphere that demands we pay attention to the issues that have impacted lives long before “#45.”[2] Historically, periods of social unrest have sharpened and expanded the field of artistic social critique, catalyzing new modes and meanings of art. Times of social and political mobilization like these are productive pedagogical hinges that challenge us to engage new forms and conceptions of artistic and cultural citizenship.

I wrote my essay for this anthology amidst a rapidly multiplying movement in the streets and across college campuses protesting the violence against black lives.[3] At that time, thousands of people came together to perform theatrical tableaus of die-ins and to shout “I Can’t Breathe” and “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!”—expressing the last words of individuals who were unjustly killed as collective utterances demanding justice. In these moments, as in various Occupy movements and others, the lines between art and life were blurred through creative direct actions and artist-led activist formations reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s. Against this backdrop, I was prompted to reflect on critique, not so much as a methodology, but as an ontology, or what Gerald Raunig calls “a search for alternative forms of living.” Critique as a process in which we find “alternative form of living” is about linking our individual concerns to collective ones. This process generates gravitational holds around shared concerns that reinvigorates and is reinvigorated by creative spaces of learning and teaching. As Grace Lee Boggs has said, “When people come together voluntarily to create their own vision, they begin wishing it to come into being with such passion that they begin creating an active path leading to it from the present.”[4]

Reflecting on my experiences learning, teaching, and being in spaces of art, this hold around shared concerns for one another has been surprisingly rare and ambivalent. My experiences in elite/U.S./European art spaces have been characterized by affects of disenchantment, alienation, and numbness, particularly because these spaces—and spaces that front as being critical—fail to acknowledge the uncritical limits of their own frameworks. In my essay "On Performing the Critical," I specifically discuss the ways that art schools are not equipped (academically and culturally) to adequately address vectors of race, class, and gender that circulate unevenly throughout these scenes, eliciting varying degrees of disidentification, accommodation, and refusal. The ubiquitous “crits” are especially prone to unregulated wildflower commentary that is either explicitly or implicitly racist, sexist, or Western-centric, precisely in the name of critique. In many instances, critique is given a “free pass,” where some epistemological or evaluative frameworks go unmarked, whereas, others are marked exhaustively. Considering how foundational “crits” are to art schools, they have been underconsidered as an important pedagogical tool for the reproduction of contemporary art discourse. In fact, the typical “crit” goes against all tenets of progressive education in privileging “expert voices” and disciplining obedient artists in a neutralized white-cube space that prefigures the commercial gallery context.

When I proposed “Art School in a Moment of Danger” as the title for my brief remarks today, like many of us, I did not know that you know who would become our 45th. I didn’t anticipate that on the first day of the new administration, 4 million people would take to the streets—the largest single-day demonstration in U.S. history—to reassert and reaffirm our right to collective action, radical imagination, and solidarity against white supremacy, sexism, and xenophobia. For the first time in my lifetime, I have seen a broad-based movement of folks across lines of difference, standing in solidarity with the lives of immigrants and refugees whose realities have been most immediately impacted in the last three weeks. Yet, throughout election season, a sense of political urgency was imminent. As I was preparing for this talk, I doubted, as I often do, the relevance of the art & design field in meaningfully contributing to social justice movements.  I glanced at my bookshelf and borrowed the title for my talk from a seminal book in the field of American Studies, American Studies in a Moment Danger, by George Lipsitz. Written shy of 9/11, Lipsitz’s book was at once a reflective and prescient call for the field of American Studies to be more self-aware and self-reflexive about the questions we ask and answer at pivotal moments.

This is a pivotal moment. How are we being more self-reflexive about the questions that we ask and answer? In many ways, I see us holding space here to take on a similar task for the field of contemporary art practice and theory, prompting us to step back from the field’s familiar bedside of and with critique and reassess what the current prevailing methods enable and foreclose, and for whom. Particularly, in this radically different moment in U.S. history, these kinds of forums and conversations are ways for us to engage thoughtfully, self-reflexively, and empathetically with one another, towards what appears to be a precarious and uncertain road ahead. Therefore, this ontology of critique that I referred to before is one that can mobilize not only thought, but bodies—walking towards justice to meet the calls of injustice. Critique as an “alternative form of living,” now more than ever, requires movement.


[1] My repeated use of the word “hold” is utterly inspired by Christina Sharpe’s brilliant use of the word (i.e.: the hold of captivity, the hold of a ship, the hold of attention, the hold of embrace). See Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).

[2] My reasoning behind not mentioning his name is in line with Obama’s: “He seems to do a good job mentioning his own name. So, I figure, you know, I will let him do his advertising for him[self].” See Elizabeth Limbach, “On Not Saying His Name,” The Atlantic, February 14, 2017.

[3] Billie Lee, “On Performing the Critical,” in Beyond Critique: Contemporary Art in Theory, Practice, and Instruction (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2017).

[4] Grace Lee Boggs, Living for Change: An Autobiography (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 255.