Addendum to: Who counts, or should count, as a “meaning maker?” – The problem with “cultural production.”
The article above is quite timely given my recent post – Who counts, or should count, as a “meaning maker?” – The problem with “cultural production.” It illustrates some of the issues I raised in that post (and many others) and might be interesting to break down. I will acknowledge at the outset that this article no doubt presents a caricature of surely more nuanced and complicated thinking by the people cited. The quotes presented though are in no way outliers – there is an academic orthodoxy around social practice (and art in general) and this material is emblematic.
First we have Michelle Hyun offering her definition of socially engaged art:
“Art that is made from the social mediation of social relations. It’s closer to real-life experience than regular art and often has a protest or politic aspect to it.”
The first part of the definition is puzzling in that all art involves the mediation of social relations. So it must be that it is social mediation of those relations that is essential, but I’m not particularly clear on what that even means. In the second part, she makes a claim that it is also “closer” to real life than “regular” art and this begs the questions – does painting or sculpture exist in real life? closer in content? closer in form? and what is “regular” art?
Next we have the author of the article providing a definition:
“…socially engaged art is work that has a social meaning, purpose, or motivation, and is meant to call attention to some facts about society or encourage a change in perspective or behavior. Socially engaged art can be anything from text, poetics, image, performance, theater, film, activity or demonstration, etc.”
This really doesn’t clear much up – As we still can’t seem to eliminate painting, or at least, didactic painting given that socially engaged art can be “image” and given that painting certainly has “social meaning” and “purpose, or motivation.” If we leave it here, socially engaged art is starting to sound like a new name for activist, or political art.
Next up is Mariana Wardwell:
“Socially-engaged art is inbred by a political-economic condition and it acts to intervene in, displace, and dislocate the political environment where it is produced.”
I love this definition as it embodies many of the clichés of contemporary art education. As I mentioned in the above linked post, in many corners of academe we find an incessant call to do things like “intervene in, displace, and dislocate.” The hegemonic noose is tightening around the definition of socially engaged art (or social practice) with every new paragraph in the article.
“To be effective, socially-engaged art must have a bit of ‘toxicity’ about it, meaning that it cannot be easily digested, assimilated, or appropriated by the dominant political structures. It must make them a little sick!”
Now that its aims have been sufficiently circumscribed, we move on to having its methods penned in as well. The only way to be “effective” is apparently to re-employ the strategies of the avant garde, something which was supposed to be out of fashion and or/critiqued into oblivion. Few artists and critics today openly advocate a return to that model of art making, yet it permeates much of what they say and do – their rhetoric betrays them. Notice here though that we find the ambition scaled back and maybe this is the thing that distinguishes the contemporary sensibility from the old avant garde. No longer is the aim to shock but merely “make them a little sick.”
In using the ideas offered so far, it appears that art projects cannot be “socially engaged” if they: are convivial, lack overt political content, disdain critique, embrace “the political environment where it is produced,” or otherwise fail to be properly radical in ambition.
Here, the author is quoting Nato Thompson:
“Living as Form (The Nomadic Version) is an opportunity to cast a wide net and ask: How do we make sense of this work? and in turn, How do we make sense of the world we find ourselves in? ‘Living as Form (The Nomadic Version)’ will provide a broad look at a vast array of practices that appear with increasing regularity in fields ranging from theater to activism, and urban planning to visual art.
Again as I point out in Who counts, or should count, as a “meaning maker?” – The problem with “cultural production.”, there are indeed a “vast array of practices” out in the world, but they are not to be found exclusively in art or its academic cousins. The fields cited here fall pretty neatly within the confines of the education industrial complex and leave out diverse practices and constituencies. It would be instructive to find out who the “we” is mentioned in the two questions above – especially this question – “How do we make sense of the world we find ourselves in?” It appears the “we” speaks of activists/intellectuals/artists of a particular stripe which is fine, but for a field with such grandiose ambition, it seems important to make sure to acknowledge that this is a very small, and rarefied “we.”
I’ll return to yet another post for another angle on this – Common Culture – Paul Willis Some key quotes in case you don’t care to follow the link:
“In general the arts establishment connives to keep alive the myth of the special, creative individual artist holding out against passive mass consumerism, so helping to maintain a self-interested view of elite creativity…Against this we insist that there is a vibrant symbolic life and symbolic creativity in everyday life, everyday activity and expression – even if it is sometimes invisible, looked down on or spurned.”
“There can be a final unwillingness and limit even in subversive or alternative movements towards an arts democracy. They may have escaped the physical institutions and academies, but not always their conventions…we don’t want to start where ‘art’ thinks is ‘here’, from within its perspectives, definitions and institutions.[emphasis mine]“
“Ordinary people have not needed an avant-gardism to remind them of rupture. What they have needed but never received is better and freer materials for building security and coherence in their lives.”
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