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Charles Gaines: Moving from Subjective to Collective

 Charles Gaines with Otis College President Bruce W. Ferguson outside the Forum. 
Presented as Part of the Saas-Fee Summer Institute at Otis College
Halley Sutton

What roles does a work of art play in society today? Is the purpose of art to provide pleasure, access the subjectivity of the artist, change society, or to provide a new mode of proposing ideas? Rather than seeing art as a subjective practice—one unassailable by the demands of culture or society—Charles Gaines’s lecture at Otis College of Art and Design for the Saas-Fee Summer Institute of Art proposed that art needs to be reimagined as a cultural practice in order to be fully relevant for today’s political and social climate.

In a two-hour discussion, Gaines and Anuradha Vikram, writer, curator, and educator at Otis College, covered how the idea of subjective “taste” in artworks to eradicate and elide the experience of people of color and people of difference, and the role of the museum in creating an artistic community that provides true equity, rather than the performance of diversity.

Highly regarded as both a leading practitioner of conceptualism and an influential educator at the California Institute of the Arts, Los Angeles-based artist Charles Gaines is celebrated for his works on paper and acrylic glass, photographs, drawings, musical compositions, and installations that investigate how rule-based procedures influence representation and construct meaning. He has had over 80 one-person shows and several hundred group exhibitions in the US and abroad including the 2007 and 2015 Bienale de Venezia. He received a US Artist Award, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, the 2015 CAA Artist Award for Distinguished Body of Work and is the 2018 honored recipient of the REDCAT award. He has previously spoken at Otis College as part of the MFA Lecture Series.

Shifting the viewpoint of art from the subjective to the collective

The decision of what makes a creative piece “art” is not up to the artist, but to culture, Gaines said. “I can propose an object as a work of art—but the culture decides whether it is or not,” Gaines said. And along with this cultural bestowing of the title of art comes the idea that artistic taste is somehow formed in a subjective vacuum, and not as a by-product of years of privileging certain tastes and aesthetics over others.

Subjectivity eliminates the idea of difference, according to Gaines. Subjectivity as an idea about the universality of experience evolved from the Renaissance, when universality also presumed that the majority of artists were white men. Moving the experience of developing taste and an appreciation for aesthetics from a personal, subjective lens to a cultural lens can help make art more inclusive of more experiences and backgrounds. “I’m not advocating the elimination of painting and sculpture,” Gaines said, with a laugh. “I just think we need to rethink them as cultural practices.” 

Vikram proposed the idea that art museums helps to keep a certain barrier up to artists of color, or to at least propose the idea that “art” is strictly those Western-centric pieces that have been deemed art through the last centuries. Gaines disagreed, saying he had experienced a shift in his lifetime towards more exhibitions featuring artwork by artists of color, and that this shift was promising to him about the future of the museum and super galleries. “The problem isn’t with museums, or super galleries, but with representation,” Gaines said.

Vikram provided a different perspective, saying that she believed that too many museums still offer barriers of entry to people of color: as artists, as curators, and even as consumers of art. Too few people know how to enter an art museum and read a painting, she said, adding that she thought visual literacy should be added to curriculum as another form of literacy, in order to make art more truly accessible for all. “Art’s challenge is to reset the cultural conversation,” Vikram said.

Anuradha Vikram is a writer, curator, and educator. She is the author of Decolonizing Culture, a collection of seventeen essays that address questions of race and gender parity in contemporary art spaces (Art Practical/Sming Sming Books, 2017). Vikram has guest-curated exhibitions for the Craft and Folk Art Museum, Shulamit Nazarian Gallery, Mills College Art Museum, ProArts Gallery, and the DeYoung Museum Artist Studio, and held curatorial positions at UC Berkeley Department of Art Practice, Headlands Center for the Arts, Aicon Gallery, and Richmond Art Center, and in the studio of artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. Vikram holds an MA in Curatorial Practice from California College of the Arts and a BS in Studio Art from New York University. She is a Senior Lecturer in the MFA Fine Arts, Art + Social Practice Area of Emphasis at Otis College of Art and Design, and a member of the Board of Directors of the College Art Association, where she chairs the Museums Committee.

The Saas-Fee Summer Institute of Art (SFSIA) is a nomadic, intensive summer academy with shifting programs in contemporary critical theory academy that originated in Saas Fee, Switzerland in 2015 and moved to Berlin in 2016. SFSIA stresses an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the relationship between art and politics. This year, for the first time, the Saas-Fee Summer Institute of Art is hosted in Los Angeles by Otis College of Art and Design with participation of the MA Aesthetics and Politics in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts, in addition to the residency at the Berlin academy.

Join Otis College this summer for thought-provoking lectures and residencies

Summer Residencies and Programs at Otis College offer artists and designers the opportunity to explore and create work in the unique and culturally diverse arts community of Los Angeles. Our programs engage participants in challenging work alongside peers and colleagues who share the same creative goals and passion. Summer 2018 programs include traditional residencies in art, design and writing; youth and adult intensive classes and camps; theory and practice-based courses; curatorial tracks; and professional development retreats. For more information on upcoming retreats, and lectures open to the public, visit

Halley Sutton is a graduate of the Otis College of Art and Design MFA Writing program.

Image: Charles Gaines with Otis College President Bruce W. Ferguson.