Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Kelley Walker & A Manifesto for the Artworld Institution


Kelley Walker, "Black Star Press (rotated 90 degrees)" (2006) / image via Contemporary Art Daily

Kelley Walker, “Black Star Press (rotated 90 degrees)” (2006) / image via Contemporary Art Daily

Perhaps you heard about the recent controversy at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis:

Since opening in mid-September at CAM, a solo exhibition of white male artist Kelley Walker has been under fire over a series of works that appropriate images from the Civil Rights Movement and magazine covers of black women streaked with toothpaste and chocolate. After failing to offer adequate explanation for the works during an artist talk at the museum on September 17, both Walker and Uslip—who is said to have had a crucial role in realizing the exhibition—incited criticism from the local community, who found the works malicious in nature. A September 18th letter called for the removal of four offending works; among signees were three black members of the CAM staff. The museum refused to remove the works, and instead added barrier walls and signage to warn museum-goers that Walker’s works “may be difficult for some viewers.” Local artist Damon Davis explained that the works are particularly insensitive, pointing to “the current climate of race in St. Louis—knowing this is the epicenter of this new incarnation of the Civil Rights Movement,” he said. Last week, over 20 artists withdrew from a museum-sponsored open studios tour. Uslip is said to be moving on to a position at another museum. In a statement, CAM executive director Lisa Melandri said, “This is a pivotal time for the museum and for our community, as we examine museum and curatorial best practices and apply those to everything we do at CAM. We look forward to our future.


  Kelley Walker, “schema; Aquafresh plus Crest with Whitening Expressions (Kelis)” (2006), CD Rom with color poster, dimensions variable (image courtesy the artist, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; Thomas Dane Gallery, London; and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne)

Kelley Walker, photo via

Kelley Walker, photo via

This controversy has been all over the artworld web. For a thoughtful piece on this issue, please check out James McAnally’s A Call for a Collective Reexamination of Our Art Institutions for Hyperallergic. He is a writer, artist, and non-profit executive director living and working in St. Louis. In the piece he picks out this wonderful quote by Andrea Fraser:

Every time we speak of the ‘institution’ as other than ‘us’ we disavow our role in the creation and perpetuation of its conditions[…] It’s not a question of being against the institution: We are the institution. It’s a question of what kind of institution we are.

Given what has happened in St. Louis over the past week–not to mention what has happened there for the past several years outside the artworld–it seems like a good idea to revisit another article written by James McAnally earlier this year: The Work of the Institution in an Age of Professionalization. Given that we are all part of the institution, it pertains to us all:

I. To critique by building. We must build conscious alternatives to the world as we experience it: sustainable structures that support artists, support ourselves, and model a world we want to see embodied more broadly. An idea is not enough. The structure of our critique must also be a place to live.

II. To embody and enact structures that are sustainable, just, conceptual and diverse in idea, manifestation and act. Many things exist, exhaustingly, so we must propose new forms, as well as adopt and extend old forms that work. There must be an aesthetic and ethical, ideological and material justification to continue. The forms of organization must advance alongside artistic practice, manifesting in as many iterations as art itself as a collaborator and co-conspirator rather than a passive container of inherited ideas.

III. To support artists and organizers in their arc as individuals and practitioners and create a place for many people. Not all will be ‘in-common’ but will create common ground for those involved to flourish. Our organizations must be survivable for founders and organizers, seeing the institution as a collective of individuals with diverse needs and concerns. In an age of precarity, anxiety and over-labor, we must care well in the ways we can.

IV. To hold money as a tool to be used and a horizon to be overcome. The methods of accessing money should be ethical and the uses of money should be to grow the whole structure, to support the needs of artists and of the public, and to care for the individuals within it. As a nonprofit, this articulates a fundamental aspect of the form: for money to be a tool for public good, to take care of those individuals and ideas our society does not. To echo the attempts of for-profits through accumulation, competition, and over-professionalization is to empty the form of its force. It is to fail every level of what we mean when we say the public, who have enough businesses as-is, but too few forms of care.

V. To view art as a start, not the end. Forms of care, shapes of living and platforms of meaning are the end. Art emerges in this arc. Art has no other life than this: to course through communities as a charged object altering our attempts at communicating meaning, one to another, one to many, many to a multitude, a multitude to one.

VI. To understand our place in complex politics, ecologies and communities within and beyond art.The precarity within art does not exempt us from engagement and existence within un-abstracted communities, as neighbors, as citizens, as advocates. We are no longer naive about our role in processes of gentrification, capitalization, and spectacle. Artists may often be both perpetrator and victim, yet we must actively oppose these new social roles.

VII. To consider the intersectional implications of our actions in the Anthropocene, in America, in an evolving present. Injustice has no place within an institution. The new institution, as with the new artist, protests.

VIII. To age well, to sustain or end well. An organization is also a kind of organism and it must not simply last, but live. As it ages, it must either retain an essential vitality through evolution of concept or form or it must end appropriately, supporting others still in its fall.

IX. To create a continuity of history. We aren’t operating to sustain ourselves in a perpetual present: we inherit complex histories, we are a home for a time, and we propose alternate futures. We do not always need to live into the futures we propose: this is the after-life of the institution, embedded in its present.

Perhaps this manifesto can be altered in ways that meet the current situation in academic philosophy as well?


  1. What was the artist’s explanation and why (do you think) it was found inadequate? What (if anything) in this case would count as an adequate explanation?

    • Here is his response via the gallery that represents his work, Paula Cooper. Kelley Walker’s Response:

      To the CAM community:

      I deeply regret that a great deal of anger, frustration and resentment have developed in the St. Louis community as a result of my failure to engage certain questions from the audience during the public lecture at CAM last Saturday. The concerns were legitimate, so I regret that I did not answer them adequately at the time.

      The KING magazine covers and Black Star Press works––two series among a broader body of work that deals with the circulation and recycling of images––are at the center of this controversy as they explore the politics of race. Although the works date from the early 2000s, they have been exhibited many times since then and I have also spoken about them in depth in prior artist talks and interviews, I should have been much clearer and more articulate about them. Given the painful recent history of the city, as well as the much longer history of violence and injustice directed at its African-American community, I should have been better prepared to address the subject matter.

      I am a staunch advocate of social equality and civil rights in America. I am also an artist who seeks to create thoughtful, sometimes difficult dialogues about these issues. I have always hoped that these works, and the exhibition as a whole, would provide a forum for a conversation about the way American society gets represented in the media as images shift from context to context (newspapers, magazines, film, TV, etc.) and about how the representation of the body, particularly of the black body, is an exceedingly complex topic in American art and culture.

      I hope that the St. Louis community will give my exhibition a chance to generate this conversation. I also hope that the community, as well as the museum, its director and its staff, will understand how much I regret the misunderstanding and the ill feeling caused thus far.

      —Kelley Walker

      I think this response is reasonable and adequate. I think the real interesting issue at play here is how the institution was not prepared and not sensitive to the community it exists within. What do you think about his response and the issue generally?

      Thank your your comment!

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