Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Experts Rank the Top 5 in This Decade’s Art



Zanele Muholi, Ntozakhe II, Parktown (2016)

This year marks the end of the second decade of the 2000s. In honor of this, we thought we’d take a look back at our decade with an end-of-year series.

The internet loves lists, especially year-end ones, and we’ll feed that love a little bit this December. We’ll be hosting seven lists of expert Decade-Best picks. We’ve done movies, games, writing, TV, and music, and you can look forward to one more surprise list at the end. Our experts include philosophers and other academics whose work concerns these topics, and people working in the relevant media. Up today: art!

Okay so obviously movies and music are art, but what we mean by “art” today is arty art, that special kind of artworld art that’s in galleries and art fairs and museums, and attended to by art magazines and news outlets. We’re looking at photography, painting, video art, performance art, and more.

Let’s see what this decade’s highlights were in art!

Our contributors are:

    • Gemma Argüello Manresa, curator and lecturer at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
    • Margo Handwerker, curator and gallery director at Texas State Galleries
    • Sarah Hegenbart, lecturer in Art History at the Technical University of Munich
    • Alex King, assistant professor in Philosophy at SUNY Buffalo
    • Daniel Star, associate professor in Philosophy at Boston University

Gemma Argüello Manresa

Gemma Argüello Manresa is Lecturer in Philosophy at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma
de México (UNAM). She works on Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art, Political Philosophy
and Feminist Studies. She has also worked as an independent curator for
many contemporary art museums and exhibition venues.

I find difficult to sustain nowadays the idea that there is a category of visual arts as a pure artistic kind. So, my top non-sexy five artworks in the category in visual arts (broadly speaking) are:

  1. Mike Kelley, Mobile Homestead (2012)
    This public art installation is a of a full-scale replica of the artist’s home in Detroit adjacent to the MOCAD, designed to be used by the community.
  2. Forensic Architecture: Towards an Investigative Aesthetics (2017)
    This exhibition at the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art and the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Mexico City features the work of a group of researchers at University of London. These researchers use multimedia and data visualization forensic tools to investigate and make visible human rights violations.
  3. Critical Art Ensemble, “A Public Misery Message: A Temporary Monument to Global Economic Inequality (2012)
    This participatory art installation presented at documenta (13), a contemporary art exhibition that occurs once every five years in Kassel, Germany. It allowed a certain number of people to experience a spatial representation of the economic separation of the 1% of the population from the rest.
  4. Pussy Riot, “Punk Player” (2012)
    “Punk Player” was a performance at the Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior in which the artists protested against the government. Their subsequent trial and imprisonment is well known…
  5. Art Labor Collective, “Jrai Dew Project: Hammock Café (2016present)
    This installation by Vietnamese art group Art Labor Collective is part of the Jrai Dew Project. The project criticizes modern and capitalist narratives by creating an ambience that implicitly let us fight for free time: hammocks, a café, and TVs.

Margo Handwerker

Margo Handwerker is Chief Curator and Director of the Texas State Galleries at
Texas State University. She holds a PhD from Princeton’s School of Architecture
and an MA from the Art Institute of Chicago.


Answering for a top five in the arts in the last decade is a daunting task. It’s a little like settling on a gift for the young niece you see infrequently but for the occasional holiday. At first, the charge seems simple because it feels like very little time has passed. You buy her a Barbie because in your mind she’s no more than four—but ten years have passed and she’s really fourteen. Ten years in the life a young person is a long time, and the same is true for social practice art—an area of the arts that is similarly nascent. Taking stock of just how much can happen in ten years, the task now seems impossible.

For those unfamiliar with social practice, there are other terms used to describe this mode of art making. Indeed, the field’s growth is exemplified by bickering around this term. But, in general, the term is used to describe a mode of art making that is not restricted to any one medium and emphasizes public engagement, specifically for its potential to broaden the work’s social relevance. Social practice, like our niece, is growing up faster than we even imagine. So, what’s worth noting from the last ten years? More than I can acknowledge here. But, there are some projects and milestones, in no particular order, that would be irresponsible not to note, especially for an audience less versed in contemporary art and social practice in particular.

  1. Tania Bruguera, Arte Útil
    Looking back on the nineties, most everyone would acknowledge the important contributions of Suzanne Lacy or Rick Lowe to the field of social practice. In twenty years, people will look back on this last decade and acknowledge the work of at least two important artists: Tania Bruguera and …
  2. Theaster Gates, the Rebuild Foundation
    Neither Bruguera nor Gates began their career in this time, but since 2010 have launched projects that propelled their careers. Broad in their vision as well as their manifestations, these projects should be on every social practice syllabus moving forward.
  3. M12 Studio
    Also deserving mention is M12 Studio, which produces projects in rural settings. Still relatively obscure, M12 has received more attention in the last decade for projects like those archived in the group’s Center Pivot Library because of their alignment with social and environmental changes that have also occurred in that time. At the turn of the last decade, in 2007, urban dwellers began to outnumber those living in non-metro areas. And, while most social practice evidences our ongoing preoccupation with the urban sphere, M12 makes work about a growing lament rooted in rural space: climate change, political divisiveness attributed to a rural and urban divide, ethnic injustice playing out on indigenous lands and in rural border towns, and so on. Full disclosure: I am part of this arts collective.
  4. The death of Ted Purves (1964–2017)
    Perhaps one of the most important things to have happened to social practice since 2010 has been the death of one of its founders: Ted Purves, chair of the first social practice graduate program. The number of programs has since grown thanks to the groundbreaking work of Purves. We may have lost Purves, but other seasoned practitioners are not only continuing to make work, but reflecting on decades of practice, moving the field forward …
  5. Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Suzanne Lacy Retrospectives
    In the last ten years, two were honored with retrospectives: Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Suzanne Lacy. Honoring these figures further validates a field that is no longer in its infancy, or even puberty. For my last milestone, I want to acknowledge how far the field has come from its early roots by acknowledging other instances of the practice’s institutionalization. Just as the number of social practice master’s programs has grown, so too have the number of available grants for social practice projects. Some granting organizations are revising their guidelines to grow with the field, while others are entering without much sense for how far the field has already come—a sign that social practice is hot right now. There are more support structures—Creative Time is no longer the only game in town—and conferences. Common Field, which had legs before, was firmly established in 2013. All to say that last in a top five for social practice since 2010: an increase in the entrenchment of social practice within the visual arts more broadly.

Sarah Hegenbart

Sarah Hegenbart is lecturer in art history at the Technical University in Munich, where she
combines her passions for philosophy, curating and the arts. She is currently working on a
book project,
Diagnosing post-truth politics: Dialogical art and black aesthetics.


Meleko Mokgosi, Democratic Intuition, Comrades VII (2016)

  1. Meleko Mokgosi, Democratic Intuition (2013-2019) [website]
    This long-term project consists of eight chapters spanning almost the whole previous decade. Drawing from his experience in Southern Africa, Mokgosi anticipated the crisis of democracy before its symptoms of post-truth, populist propaganda and demagogic leadership revealed themselves in the Global North. Mokgosi insinuates that the crisis of democracy can only be overcome if we restore democratic intuition from below. The challenge to make democracy experienceable again in everyday life might well confront us in the next decade, too, so Mokgosi is not only my favorite of the previous decade but possibly also for the coming one.
  2. Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Super Blue Omo (2016) [website]
    How does migration shape our internal and material worlds? The Enugu-born, Los Angeles-based painter
    Njideka Akunyili Crosby transposes images from her childhood in Nigeria to her contemporary environments in California. The melange of materials from acrylic paint, crayons, and a collage of prints mirror the diversity of impressions from different geographic regions imprinting on our inner selves.
  3. Christoph Schlingensief, Opera Village Africa (2010) [website]
    The participatory art experiment of the late Christoph Schlingensief will already celebrate its tenth anniversary in 2020. Throughout his life Schlingensief created aesthetic situations of ambivalence to question and to work through neo-colonial power structures and national mythologies. This resonates in his village in Burkina Faso combining a school, an infirmary and spaces for art engagement.
  4. Laure Provost, Deep See Blue Surrounding You (2019) [website]
    Provost denies the visitors of the Venice Biennial to enter through the front door of the French Pavilion into her immersive environment. The detour into the deep blue sea through the back makes escapism impossible. The surreal journey over artificially turquoise water, on which electronic garbage and dead fish are swimming, confronts us with the remnants of our capitalist lifestyle: sexual desires are converted into commodity attraction.
  5. Sethembile Msezane, Chapungu (2015) [website]
    The elegant movement of a bird spreading its wings accompanied the removal of the statue of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes from the university campus in Cape Town. Sethembile Msezane performed as the mythological bird
    Chapungu, the Shona name for a bataleur eagle whose symbolic force as token for independence was already captured in a 700-year-old stone sculpture. Msezane uses the female body to transcribe the symbolism of colonialism with the vitality of a future-oriented animal.

Alex King

Alex King is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University at Buffalo (SUNY).
She works on ethics and aesthetics.


Kehinde Wiley, President Barack Obama and Amy Sherald, First Lady Michelle Obama

  1. Obama portraits by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald (2018)
    Ushering in a new age of presidential portraiture, the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were both bewildering and refreshing. Against the background of this consummately conservative genre, the portraits were artistically informed and even hip, bringing needed public attention to Black artists and to contemporary American art itself, and reminded us of the power of portraiture.
  2. James Turrell, Roden Crater (unfinished)
    Turrell’s ongoing obsession with creating immersive light experiences is taken to its logical conclusion in his magnum opus, Roden Crater. His light projections, light rooms, and skyspaces all aim to harness the artistic power of the fundamental condition for human vision itself. In his epic work-in-progress that has garnered a lot of attention (and received high-profile fundraising) this decade, Turrell focuses squarely on our primary natural source of light: the stars.
  3. Christian Marclay, The Clock (2010)
    The Clock is a 24-hour video installation work that takes clips from movies featuring clocks, and compiles them into a time-synced, one-day video. It includes moments both grandiose and mundane. At noon, the bells from High Noon toll; at midnight, Orson Welles dies spectacularly. But in other moments, people smoke cigarettes, have sex, prepare food, sleep, dream. It is another work with epic scope and feel, one that infuses even the blandly quotidian with deep, uniting significance.
  4. MAD’s “Slash: Paper Under the Knife” show (2009-2010)
    The most innovative show I saw this decade appeared at New York City’s MAD, Museum of Arts and Design. An exploration at the intersection of art and design, this show featured all manner of paper-based artworks, including Thomas Demand paper structures and their corresponding photographs, architectural cut-outs by Olafur Eliasson, book objets d’art with all of the words cut out, paper-based stop-motion videos, Post-Its that sweep grandly across the wall, and more.
  5. Banksy, Love is in the Bin (2018)
    Banksy’s infamy grew this decade, culminating in the attention-getting Girl with a Balloon, which partially shredded itself at a Sotheby’s auction immediately following its million-dollar sale, and was afterward renamed Love is in the Bin. His commentary on the contemporary art market is not subtle, and the irony that the artwork has only increased in value cannot be ignored. But the conversation that then ensued, and the additional wrinkle caused by its incomplete self-destruction, make this the most interesting and successful failed work of the decade.

Daniel Star

Daniel Star is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Boston University. He is
the editor of
The Oxford Handbook of Reasons and Normativity (2018), and is teaching Contemporary Aesthetics and Philosophy of Photography in the Spring.


Viviane Sassen, Axiom R02, from Umbra (2014)

Let me limit myself to photography. l will put to one side exhibitions and publications from this decade that focused on photographers whose careers were already well established or over. Some photographers with books that fit that description and that I enthusiastically recommend are Alex Webb, Sally Mann, Aberlado Morell, William Eggleston, and Garry Winogrand.

  1. Zanele Muholi
    A photographer and activist who focused on documenting the lives of queer women living in South Africa in her earlier work, Muholi recently produced a one of a kind series of self-portraits. The viewer is prompted to consider the history of the materials repurposed in the photographs, as well as Muholi’s often confrontational gaze.
  2. Viviane Sassen
    Sassen’s photographs feature people in disorientating poses, and generally embrace abstraction (the “UMBRA” and “Parasomnia” galleries on her website are especially worth viewing). Her use of colors, dark skin tones and shadows is highly distinctive. Sassen lives in Amsterdam, but claims to be strongly influenced by memories of a few years of her childhood that she spent in Kenya, and she works in various locations in Africa.
  3. Petra Collins
    Starting out on Instagram, Collins became well known for speaking up against the removal of one her photographs. Commentators have described her work as pursuing “the female gaze”. Collins has also directed music videos (the best of these being for Selena Gomez’s “Fetish). She continues to pursue independent photographic projects at breakneck speed. Her work is often described as dreamy and surreal, although she distances herself from such descriptions in a recent interview.
  4. Vivian Maier
    If you don’t happen to know who Vivian Maier is, a good place to start is by watching the riveting documentary about her life and the recent discovery of her large body of work. Her photographic materials were purchased on the cheap by a few people in 2007, and she quickly became famous after one of these collectors posted some of her photos on a Flickr site in 2009 (the same year she died). When it comes to women street photographers of her generation, the under-appreciated Helen Levitt might be thought to deserve more attention than Maier. Still, the gradual revealing of Maier’s photographs in this decade constituted a significant cultural phenomenon.
  5. Edward Burtynsky
    At the center of the timely Anthropocene (2018) exhibition is a series of very large and highly detailed landscape photographs capturing, in peculiarly eerie beauty, the immense destruction human beings are presently wreaking on the world through agricultural and industrial activities.
Edited by Alex King


  1. I appreciate that this list spans many different geographical locations and features incredible artists like Zanele Muholi, Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Suzanne Lacy. Nice to read this review of the 2010’s.

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