ART EXPERIENCE: NYC is starting a series of interviews devoted to today’s socially critical art. Art critics, curators, artists, scholars, and thinkers will be invited to discuss the role of art in contemporary societies. For this issue we are conducting an interview with art critic, curator, performance artist, painter, sculptor, poet, and novelist John Perreault.

Since the mid 60‘s Perreault has been actively involved in contemporary art. He was the chief art critic for theVillage Voice from 1966 to 1974 and has contributed to Art News, Art Forum, Sculpture, and Art International as well as other publications. His essays have been included in seminal anthologies such as Minimal Art, Idea Art, andTheories of Contemporary Art. Nowadays Perreault writes regularly for while working on installations and painting. He has also created the blog Artopia. For this interview we discuss socially critical art as well as mass media, including the entanglement between art and the Internet.

John Perreault as Vincent Van
Gogh in Les Levine’s Analyze
Lovers, The Story of Vincent,
for Dutch National Television.
Courtesy John Perreault

Ernesto Menéndez-Conde: In your words, how and to what extent can contemporary art be more socially critical and effective, especially in a time when social criticism seems to be appropriated by mass media and entertainment?
John Perreault: If you mean that when mass media and entertainment appropriates social criticism it automatically trivializes it, then we do indeed have a problem. I do not think this is necessarily the case. For instance, the assimilation of certain issues faced by gay people has actually helped create some resolution. When you have sitcoms with sympathetic gay men and women and even gay partners raising children you are aiding progress. To some extent blacks and Latinos also have gained some ground because of the normalization that mass media and entertainment confers.
We know that big business is a mixed blessing. We know that greed is the grease. We know that starvation is unacceptable. We know that racism is a sin. We know that drug companies, hospitals and doctors make huge profits from disease. We know that pollution is going to destroy the earth. What then is the role of contemporary art that wants to be socially critical? New tactics are needed. Preaching to the converted has had its day. Scolding is counter-productive. Contemporary art in the service of social criticism needs to be more subversive. The direct mode of social criticism – as pioneered by an artist like Hans Haacke – is all well and good and scores points with- in the art world and maybe eventually within art history. But, let’s face it; it has no impact on the larger world. One good joke, that goes viral, has more impact than all the agitprop we can produce – and, mind you, I do not dislike agitprop, per se.
To some extent, unless art steps out of the art world it cannot be socially critical. The art world, however, can be used as a stepping-stone to mass media expo- sure, where criticality will at least have a nanosecond of visibility – before it is converted into bits and fodder for the reaffirmation of the status quo. Criticality in art must be anti-art and anti-art world.
That said, what we really need is a bigger picture. First, we must affirm that mass media, entertainment and the art world come from the same source and partake of the same deep structures that are largely unexamined. It is those deep structures that must be changed if we are to have justice and progress. Mass media, entertainment and the art world are now built on materialism and egotism. Changing these changes everything.

Hannah Weiner: Weiner’s Wieners , 1969.
Street Works IV, The Architectural League,
N.Y. (recreation for the The Laboratory for
Art and Idea, Belmar, Colorado, 2008).
Free hot dogs for all.
Courtesy John Perreault

Ernesto Menéndez-Conde: It seems that you are suggesting the possibility that art could be more socially critical by gaining a wider mass media exposure. I believe in today’s world the boundaries between mass media and art are becoming more and more blurred. Do you think a closer integration of art and mass media could possibly result in the dismantling of the complexities and peculiarities of artistic languages, thus sacrificing these forms of social criticism?