The Stenton Lecture 2011 ‘On the Limits of Democratic Art’

John Howard, Professor of American Studies, King’s College London, 17 November 2011

 The annual Stenton lecture explored what is meant by democratic art and examined how art has been used as a weapon by elites to maintain the prevailing social order of the day.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s culture wars, art photography began to overtake painting and sculpture in major museums and galleries. Following the victories of second-wave feminism, black freedom struggles, and queer movements for social change, easily-reproduced photographic images documented new participants in the world of art, who in turn chose to use the camera to make art. Inexpensive art processes, activist art collectives, and large print-runs of exhibition catalogues and photobooks insured that art was more widely disseminated, helping to demystify and diversify the works on display.

However, elites fought back, insisting on older ideas about the artist’s individual genius and the masterpiece’s profound, almost inexpressible transcendence. They resisted cultural outsiders, championing instead more conservative photographers, whose themes, they claimed, were universal. They pushed back against the sixties and seventies revolutions, relying on trickery and deceit, such that even the work of William Eggleston, the so-called father of colour art photography, could be labelled democratic.

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