Cruel Optimism: William J. Simmons on his curated project at Felix

In advance of his curated project at Los Angeles' Felix Art Fair, Simmons spoke to Wallace Ludel about the forthcoming exhibition, the powers of art making and why we should celebrate our friends

Wallace Ludel

William J. Simmons

Art historian Lauren Berlant wrote that “cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” Curator and writer William J. Simmons has organized a special project for Los Angeles’s forthcoming Felix—an art fair that takes place in Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel the same week as Frieze LA—and the exhibition, dubbed “Cruel Optimism,” takes its name from this quote. “In many ways, contemporary art exists in a state of cruel optimism,” says Simmons in his curatorial statement. “We expect so much of art, of representation, and yet it cannot ever fully articulate the dreams we have for ourselves and society, creating thereby a state of endless oscillation between hope and despair.” 

For the show, Simmons put together a venerable list of multi-generational heavy hitters; “Cruel Optimism” will host work by Carolee Schneemann, Betty Tompkins, Hayden Dunham, Martha Wilson, Ellen Berkenblit, Anne Collier and a selection by Judy Chicago (curated by Jill Soloway), among others. Wallace Ludel spoke to Simmons for Cultured about “Cruel Optimism,” his outlooks on the art world and how this project came to be.


Tell me about the title of your project? The scholar Lauren Berlant came up with the term “Cruel Optimism”—it refers to a space of wanting something that is a hinderance to your flourishing. I’ve been thinking through what art can actually do for us in times like these, and whether or not our continuing to engage with art as if it could save us or speak to the truth of our lives is a state of “cruel optimism.” We keep putting our hopes, dreams, fears and love into this medium of expression that may or may not be able to actually handle those emotions.

Another reason I was thinking through that term is that a lot of Berlant’s work hovers around melodrama. I’ve been thinking a lot about the melodramatic as a parallel space to this cruel optimism—as a space where we are testing out emotions against things that we see on screen or read on the page. The artist that started this in my mind is Anne Collier, whose work is always discussed as a critical function. “She’s critiquing images of women” or “she’s critiquing the melodramatic,” but I wonder what it would be like to think through her attachment to, or love for, some of the objects or images that she appropriates. Everybody who I’ve brought together for this show truly loves art and culture—even if it’s cruelly optimistic to do so—even as they are engaging in processes of deconstruction or critique. I wanted it to be a capacious term to collect underneath all these questions of what we hope for art to be, its limitations and the degree to which we can love things that we also want to deconstruct.

That reminds me of a line in Sheila Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be?, when the narrator is wrestling with the question of why make art. Eventually she settles on the idea that making art is what humans do. I loved that book. A lot of people dragged it in the same way they dragged Girls, which was part of the conversation around the same time. I loved Girls too and have so much respect for Lena Dunham. What How Should a Person Be? and Girls both represented is very much a part of this conversation; some people felt, “this is something narrating my life” while, on the others felt, “this is so far removed from my experience and so far removed from what I want to be seeing on the page or on the screen.” That has everything to do with the idea of testing who we are relative to cultural objects. We can interrogate exactly why we do or do not feel moved by objects of culture.

As to why create art, I think that some people in the world can only make art, especially for minoritarian subjects for whom—because of the weight of racism, homophobia, sexism, etc.—living artfully is the only way that they can live.  Eve Fowler sparked this idea in a conversation we had not long after I moved to LA. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with someone like Jeff Koons, I just mean that art offers a way of living for people who the world has disallowed from living otherwise.

I can’t speak for anybody else’s experience, but in the queer community—which of course is an intersectional community—there are a lot of people who the world has really beaten down in various structural ways, and being an artist is the only way they can exist in the world. I wouldn’t say it’s inherently a radical act to be queer or to be an artist, but I would say that it has the potential to be radical if one chooses, or it can just be a way to make it through this fucked up world that we live in. Choice is key. I think it’s a problem that anything done by queer people, feminists or people of color, must be subsumed under this umbrella of radicality. That places further burdens onto bodies and people that are already minoritarian subjects.

It sounds impossibly exhausting to have that pressure put on your body and your artwork. That’s a big question in the wake of Black Lives Matter. A lot of black folks were having conversations about exhaustion and that burden of theorizing difference. We can empower everybody to engage in the world and to deconstruct its problems however and whenever they choose to.

How did Jill Soloway curating Judy Chicago in your exhibition come about? I’ve always known of Jill’s presence in the queer community. I came to Transparent kind of late though. I watched it all and thought it was spectacular, but I thought what was equally interesting in this context was that Jill curated a series of performance nights around their book launch. Wwhen I saw Jill’s revue in LA, they talked about their book for a brief moment, and the rest of the night was all these amazing queer/trans/POC artists, performers and activists. I was so impressed and thrilled by Jill’s decision to set aside their work and use their platform to amplify other people. I knew that Jill was an admirer of Judy’s work, so it seemed like a natural connection to make.

Finally, there’s a big age gap between artists in the show, from Carolee Schneeman who passed away last year in her 80s, to an artist like Hayden Dunham who’s in her early 30s. For the most part these are people who I know and who have had a big impact on me. Being in the art world, hopefully you are dealing with people from across generations. I came to Hayden’s work more forcefully when I moved to LA, and just being around and seeing how she looks at the world, it expanded the work for me. I’ve known Judy, Betty, Paula, David, and Deborah for years now. Eve and Math made living in LA bearable when I first arrived. So, a lot of these people are my friends and colleagues in the art world. There’s a weird impulse as a curator to talk about objectivity, but I don’t feel constrained by that, I think we need to be in a space where we support our friends.

The more sophisticated answer would be to say that we can’t talk about queerness and feminism in 2019 without talking about someone like Judy Chicago, for instance. We, as an art community, need to do a better job of integrating the advancements of prior generations into our scholarship and our art. I was hoping to gesture towards the necessity of looking backwards, not in a fetishistic, nostalgic way, but to say that art dealing with identity always builds upon itself and doesn’t replace what came before.