Without the Master’s Tools: Imagining Another Future for the Arts

The following essay by Anni Pullagura is part of “Beyond Survival: Public Support for the Arts and Humanities,” a call for reflections on and provocation about the precarious state of arts funding after decades of neoliberal economics and the long culture wars.

Institutions are by nature exclusive, built around a shared mission for an unshared authority. That we often think and speak of museums as “cultural institutions” should make us pause at the ideological assumptions such a term invokes. Indeed, from Aruna D’Souza to Nicholas Mirzoeff, recent scholarship on the art museum cautions us to pay critical attention to its deep roots in histories of imperialism, colonialism, and systemic oppression. Museums and other cultural programs, in other words, have long stood as sites of power framed and reframed—and the art museum as yet one more venue for such power to unfold. What does it mean, then, within the current “crisis” of public funding for the arts, for the art museum to still be heralded as not only caretaker of culture, but its gatekeeper? For whom, and towards what ends? What futures of the arts does such a perspective limit?

A climate in which threats to resources and support for art programming abound must invite a serious reconsideration of how art institutions reinforce structural oppression. It is not merely that our art institutions have always been incomplete and imperfect; it is to understand how the rhetoric of inclusion and resistance continues to be taken up as justification for what amounts, more often than not, to the increased expansion of institutional power through cultural capital. It is necessary to question what it means to rely on existing platforms of power to speak for more of us, to interrogate the institutional habits by which these exclusionary practices redirect energy away from meaningful critique, to be wary of what stifles our ability to imagine an actually radical new. To borrow from Audre Lorde’s incisive critique of academia’s institutions, we are still so occupied by the master’s concerns, most of us have not even yet begun to imagine dismantling the master’s house.1

What is the value in creating more institutional spaces, if this also means being entered into institutional narratives predicated on disarming ourselves of imagining other forms of freedom? What does it mean that these conversations about the need for public and private funding for art institutions seem so intimately bound up in the belief that art programming enhances empathetic sight for the dispossessed, but seldom action, access, or institutional accountability? What else can we demand from ourselves?

In Liberalism and Human Suffering, Asma Abbas posits what is so seductive about the promise that institutions continue to exert on our civic imagination: “Idealist closure,” she warns, “makes us oblivious to the ways our theories and their politics declare dead upon arrival what is actually alive.”2 Supporting the arts cannot be only about resuscitation. We would do better to acknowledge how appeals constructed only through the altruistic potential of arts programming treat merely the symptoms, not the structures, of our exclusionary present. There is more yet to be undone.

Anni Pullagura is a PhD candidate in American Studies and a MA candidate in the History of Art and Architecture at Brown University. Her dissertation, “Seeing Feeling: The Work of Empathy in Exhibitionary Spaces,” examines economies of empathy in visual culture to negotiate new strategies of moral seeing. Currently, she is the Curatorial Fellow at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston.

The next response in the In whose interest? chapter is “Support artists and art that support communities” by Regan Shrumm.

  1. Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” from Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 1984, reprinted edition (New York: Ten Speed Press, 2007), 110–113.
  2. Asma Abbas, Liberalism and Human Suffering: Materialist Reflections on Politics, Ethics, and Aesthetics (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 8.