Sunday, January 22, 2017


Today I remembered an incident that occurred during my first semester of graduate school. I had taken a ten-year break between undergraduate and graduate school, and in that time I had worked at Jane magazine and for the photographer Bruce Weber. It was during my time working for Weber that I picked up David Levi Strauss’s Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics. I sensed a magnetic pull toward a life course that I had avoided since graduating college. This life course had defined my undergraduate purview, where I studied literature and theory. As much as my ego liked a life of travel and glamour, my heart missed being in an intellectual environment. So despite my nice career, I decided to go back to school to study with Strauss, and continue a modality of thinking I had put on the back burner—one which felt like a truer expression of my core identity.

In my first semester, I took a writing class that was based on reviewing art shows. I did not go to an MFA program to learn how to review art shows, but it was a new form of writing for me, and going to art exhibitions was new for me, so I decided to give in to the experience and try my hand at it. A few classes in, we were workshopping one of my pieces, and I found the teacher and another student enjoying my work—a piece of writing that was negatively critical of a show. They hadn’t liked my work previously, and while I was skeptical of their standards for “good writing,” I felt pleased to be getting some praise. Their comments fell along the lines of, “Oooh, your writing really clarifies when you let your claws out,” and “I like seeing your fangs.”

At the time, I thought: hmmm, maybe they are right. Maybe I’m a better writer when I dislike something. I held this thought with me for a long time, and never questioned it.

Now I’m questioning it. We live in a world defined by rage, vengeance, anger and petty cruelty. This is the lingua franca of our times, and if you address people in this voice, you are guaranteed to find yourself with a rapt and generous audience. We constantly speak and act in vicious ways. We compete with, conspire against, and belittle people in our interpersonal relationships—our erstwhile "friends"—and are then surprised when our leadership mirrors our own spiteful acts of social violence. We live in a world that is asleep to the suffering it causes others—one that can only care about winning a fight.

Spiritual teachers like Teal Swan and Byron Katie have espoused the notion that “the only way to end the war in the world is to end the war within yourself.” Truer words have never been spoken. I have been the worst offender in putting people down and competing with people—being jealous and insecure and allowing my own psychic wounds to wreak havoc on my relationships. This is as common in New York as it is anywhere. I have done things and thought in ways that I am ashamed of now. But I won’t do it anymore. I won’t hate others and I won’t hate myself. I won’t say and I especially won’t write mean things just to garner the approval of others—it’s too easy, and it means nothing and fixes nothing. This world is overrun with negative “criticism” in the cloak of political dissent or social unity—we need to find points of both dissent and unity beyond this archaic realm. We also need to explore a unity with those who hold opposing views. When the people of this world learn that their judgments do not compose their true identity, we will be a step closer to understanding true unity. 

We also need to question the importance of our chosen community when it demands that one stop evolving, and prevents one from stepping outside the confines of prescribed identities and ideals. True leaders emerge when individuals are allowed and encouraged to break from their social roles and discover their own voice. False leaders emerge when bottom feeders pander to the lowest common denominator, and scrounge for the most “likes” by arousing society’s worst impulses. It’s far too easy to fire off a bitchy, political remark and get people to cheer for you. It is much more difficult to risk being ostracized for presenting a view that questions or confronts the dominant discourse of your community. Like personality and judgment, community can be a prison. And what we are desperately in need of at this moment in time are leaders who can rise above the social mores of their community to be actual leaders. What we don't need is more community, particularly when it serves to stunt the growth of its potential leaders through unspoken demands of social compliance. 

I believe in peace and social justice, and I believe this is something we could have right now, globally, if we truly wanted it. But we need to do the work of looking inside ourselves first. True unity isn’t supposed to happen one day out of every year. True unity can and should and WILL occur every day, when we make it our mission to treat EVERYONE with radical compassion—most especially our own selves. That is not Pollyanna thinking—this is the proven logic of changing a discourse to change a situation. And I won’t engage with the world in any other way.

Friday, January 20, 2017


Then–this is all what you say–new economic relations will be established, all ready-made and worked out with mathematical exactitude, so that every possible question will vanish in the twinkling of an eye, simply because every possible answer to it will be provided. Then the "Palace of Crystal" will be built. Then ... In fact, those will be halcyon days. Of course there is no guaranteeing (this is my comment) that it will not be, for instance, frightfully dull then (for what will one have to do when everything will be calculated and tabulated), but on the other hand everything will be extraordinarily rational. Of course boredom may lead you to anything. It is boredom sets one sticking golden pins into people, but all that would not matter. What is bad (this is my comment again) is that I dare say people will be thankful for the gold pins then. Man is stupid, you know, phenomenally stupid; or rather he is not at all stupid, but he is so ungrateful that you could not find another like him in all creation. I, for instance, would not be in the least surprised if all of a sudden, a propos of nothing, in the midst of general prosperity a gentleman with an ignoble, or rather with a reactionary and ironical, countenance were to arise and, putting his arms akimbo, say to us all: "I say, gentleman, hadn't we better kick over the whole show and scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!" That again would not matter, but what is annoying is that he would be sure to find followers–such is the nature of man. And all that for the most foolish reason, which, one would think, was hardly worth mentioning: that is, that man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated. And one may choose what is contrary to one's own interests, and sometimes one positively ought (that is my idea). One's own free unfettered choice, one's own caprice, however wild it may be, one's own fancy worked up at times to frenzy–is that very "most advantageous advantage" which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms. And how do these wiseacres know that man wants a normal, a virtuous choice? What has made them conceive that man must want a rationally advantageous choice? What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. And choice, of course, the devil only knows what choice.

Monday, January 16, 2017


I'll be reading from Chapter 3 in Ways of Seeing at this event:


John Berger Tribute

Thursday, January 19, 6:30 p.m.
132 W 21st Street, 6th Floor, NYC
“What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together.” —John Berger. 
Join us in commemorating the life and work of John Berger (November 5, 1926 – January 2, 2017). An evening of readings by faculty, students and alumni of the MFA in Art Writing program, in addition to personal testimonies by those who knew him. 
We will celebrate what he meant to us: a great storyteller and peerless critic, whose lifework took the shape of a pocket of resistance.

Thursday, January 12, 2017


I first encountered Kristina Buch in 2012, when she was "the youngest artist exhibited at dOCUMENTA (13)" and I wrote about her contribution for Art in America. In the years since, I've followed her work, and we've continued a conversation we began at our first intersect. In my darkest moments, it is the work of an artist like Kristina that allows me—and perhaps even commands me—to believe in a future for art. Or in a future, period.  

Her lecture, held on December 6, 2016 at ISCP, was, for me, one of the more edifying experiences of 2016. And I am pleased to share a link to the recording of it below.

This is what an artist with a soul looks like:

Tuesday, December 20, 2016


“Obviously, the problem of the shadow plays a great role in all political conflicts. If the man who had this dream had not been sensible about his shadow problem, he could easily have identified the desperate Frenchman with the 'dangerous Communists' of outer life, or the official plus the prosperous man with the  'grasping capitalists.' In this way he would have avoided seeing that he had within him such warring elements. If people observe their own unconscious tendencies in other people, this is called a 'projection.' Political agitation in all countries is full of such projections, just as much as the backyard gossip of little groups and individuals. Projections of all kinds obscure our view of our fellow men, spoiling its objectivity, and thus spoiling all possibility of genuine human relationships.” 
― C.G. JungMan and His Symbols


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Brooklyn Rail print essay: Embracing the Unseen (commission from David Levi Strauss, who asked 15 alumni from his MFA program to write on criticism)

Embracing the Unseen

I came to the art world because many people here are invested, as I am, in innovative political discourse. As I ventured further in, I found artists, writers, and thinkers who cared deeply about issues of social justice, and who were able to broaden and reframe the ideologies affiliated with these subjects by passing them through the lenses of art and aesthetics. The art world is, equally, a realm where believing goes beyond seeing: pure, untamed thought is rendered on blank pages and empty gallery walls. That is what makes it brave and exciting. Unfortunately, I have also found that the most potentially world-changing ideas born here tend to grow up and die here, without ever venturing outside the art world’s provincial little thought bubble.

I am someone who used her education to transcend the world she was born into. My parents were working class, and before and after I left my town as a teenager, I experienced many of the attendant difficulties of that life. Possessing this identity, I often feel like I inhabit two disparate worlds at one time. I am seen, predominantly, as the well-educated woman I have constructed myself to be, who has been afforded many opportunities to write, teach, and travel. And I am unseen, as a Massachusetts mill town girl who feels like her core identity is overlooked in favor of a more straightforward visual representation.

Our recent U.S. election describes a country unknown even to itself, blindly searching for a way out of a system that has infected its members with an unnamed suffering. I know exactly what this suffering tastes like. While I condemn their hatred-embracing choice, I can feel in my blood and bones why so many people voted as they did. They feel invisible, and are filled with a poisonous, misdirected rage. I also know, firsthand, that the more politically-oriented side of the art world has not, as of late, deigned to fully adjust its own clannish tendencies and obscurant homily in favor of constructing a broader public discourse. This dooms the conceptual thinking that transpires within it to be useless, if not altogether hostile, to a wider public.

This needs to change—before our new leadership threatens to change us—and will not do so if the art world continues to value thinking purely for the thought of it. Art writers need to move away from producing “insider baseball” prose, and begin to formulate and distill the political ideas brewed in our galleries, museums, classrooms, and art spaces to service a politicized readership beyond the (by now notional) creative class. And more artists, in a model brought forth by Theaster Gates, Suzanne Lacy, and others, need to use their political acumen to create an actionable community realpolitik (and perhaps—now that the floodgates are opened—even real politicians). If we want this world to mirror our most thoughtful, meaningful, and humanistic social objectives, it is time for us to stop looking only to, and at, ourselves.

AIMEE WALLESTON is a writer and editor who has worked for magazines including W, Interview, Jane and The Last Magazine. She has contributed essays and reviews to Art in America, T Magazine, Flash Art and The Brooklyn Rail, among many other publications. She currently writes cultural criticism for CR Fashion Book and teaches at the International Center of Photography. She received her MFA in Art Criticism and Writing from SVA in 2009.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016



So how do you think we go about stitching the country back together?Well, the most important thing that I'm focused on is how we create a common set of facts. That sounds kind of abstract. Another way of saying it is, how do we create a common story about where we are. The biggest challenge that I think we have right now in terms of this divide is that the country receives information from completely different sources. And it's getting worse. The whole movement away from curated journalism to Facebook pages, in which an article on climate change by a Nobel Prize-winning scientist looks pretty much as credible as an article written by a guy in his underwear in a basement, or worse. Or something written by the Koch brothers. People are no longer talking to each other; they're just occupying their different spheres. And in an Internet era where we still value a free press and we don’t want censorship of the Internet, that's a hard problem to solve. I think it's one that requires those who are controlling these media to think carefully about their responsibilities, and [whether there] are ways to create a better conversation. It requires better civics education among our kids so that we can sort through what's true and what's not. It's gonna require those of us who are interested in progressive causes figuring out how do we attract more eyeballs and make it more interesting and more entertaining and more persuasive.
Maybe the news business and the newspaper industry, which is being destroyed by Facebook, needs a subsidy so we can maintain a free press?The challenge is, the technology is moving so fast that it's less an issue of traditional media losing money. The New York Times is still making money. NPR is doing well. Yeah, it's a nonprofit, but it has a growing audience. The problem is segmentation. We were talking about the issue of a divided country. Good journalism continues to this day. There's great work done in Rolling Stone. The challenge is people are getting a hundred different visions of the world from a hundred different outlets or a thousand different outlets, and that is ramping up divisions. It's making people exaggerate or say what's most controversial or peddling in the most vicious of insults or lies, because that attracts eyeballs. And if we are gonna solve that, it's not going to be simply an issue of subsidizing or propping up traditional media; it's going to be figuring out how do we organize in a virtual world the same way we organize in the physical world. We have to come up with new models.