Lebenskünstler

Addendum to: Who counts, or should count, as a “meaning maker?” – The problem with “cultural production.”

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/14/2012

Socially engaged art at UCSD provides food for thought in La Jolla – Will Bowen

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.

Ricardo Dominguez:

“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 conventionswe 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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6 Responses

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  1. […] Slow Democracy – The Scale of Time and the Scale of Size Addendum to: Who counts, or should count, as a “meaning maker?” – The problem with “cultural… […]

  2. richardkooyman said, on 11/14/2012 at 10:17

    What is meant by “ordinary people”? This new rhetoric exists on the need of negation and yet maintains the luxury of refusing to define who is ‘the public’ or ‘the masses’ or the ordinary. I question whether this ordinary public is even aware of the concerns their advocates have for them?

  3. Randall Szott said, on 11/14/2012 at 13:21

    I provided a definition in the original post – an ordinary person is the sort of person that doesn’t ask what an ordinary person is. I have no idea what “the need of negation” even is, so I can’t address that. Your final question is certainly legitimate…I would argue though that it is irrelevant whether they are aware or not – just as it is irrelevant whether women in Saudi Arabia are aware of US feminist concerns (I am not making a moral equivalency here mind you). One distinction might be helpful – I am speaking for ordinary people (in the sense of advocacy). I am not speaking for ordinary people (in the sense of replacing their own voice).

  4. richardkooyman said, on 11/14/2012 at 17:00

    I used the word negation because much of your writing involves what you see is wrong with the art world or the idea of an art world. I think you use the phrase ‘art is boring’ or the phrase “the problem with” etc.
    But from what you propose I don’t think my questions is irrelevant. You are speaking for someone or some group to be included in something that they might not even see themselves in or care to. It seems you want to have them included into something you are not even willing to name. If we are talking about art, a thing that you and I agree on as a thing ( we can disagree on what is all included in that category) and you say you want “ordinary people’ included in that thing you no longer want to use the term art. It’s now “cultural production”. An artists is no longer a artist but “meaning maker”.
    So the question I’m confused about is to you want to broaden the concept of what is included in art to include what ordinary people “make” or do you want to get rid of the term art? Both of which seems an impossibility.

  5. Randall Szott said, on 11/15/2012 at 07:32

    I’m starting to get the distinct sense you’re not reading my posts all that carefully (or I’m doing a TERRIBLE job in writing them). This will likely be my final attempt to clarify things for you…

    “You are speaking for someone or some group to be included in something that they might not even see themselves in or care to.”

    I have already addressed this. The point is not that I think curators should include “ordinary” people in exhibitions. It is that if curators decide to put together a show on the everyday, then it would be helpful to either put in a caveat like “this show deals with the everyday only as understood by intellectuals/artists” or to actually include the everyday beyond an art/intellectual frame. Some argue that the caveat is unnecessary because it is already understood by the public – a point that might be true, but I view it like labeling GMOs. Just be clear about what is in your product.

    “…and you say you want “ordinary people’ included in that thing you no longer want to use the term art. It’s now “cultural production”. An artists is no longer a artist but “meaning maker”.
    So the question I’m confused about is to you want to broaden the concept of what is included in art to include what ordinary people “make” or do you want to get rid of the term art?”

    About six years ago, I had a glimmer of hope that the term “cultural producer” might be useful. It became clear however, that the term had been usurped by the academic set to ever so slightly broaden the category of artist which is absolutely not what I was interested in. You should’ve noticed that the title of my post was the problem with cultural production.

    You see, I don’t find the title of artist as an honorific, but I understand that others do. So it is not that I want ordinary people considered to be artists, but I do want to call attention to the myriad ways in which everyone makes meaning, produces culture – being a good mom or dad is every bit as constructive for culture as some art project. You seem to keep confusing the fact that I am calling out people using the terms “meaning maker” and “cultural producer” for being too narrow or hypocritical in the way they employ it, and not because I am championing the terms. I don’t think any art person has some obligation to embrace those concepts, but if they do say they embrace them, then I want to be vigilant in criticizing them when they use it to re-establish the hierarchies meant to be undermined by them.

    And I don’t want to get rid of the term “art” for others, but I want to move beyond it for myself. Art is a nerdy subculture, like being a Trekkie and I LOVE nerdy subcultures. My main issue with art (and really it is only with a certain strata of the art world) is that it sometimes forgets how few people care how James T. Kirk became captain of the Enterprise (translation: what Hal Foster thinks about painting). There’s a sense of self-importance that should be checked, not because art doesn’t matter, but because it doesn’t matter more than all the stuff non-art people do to make our world meaningful to themselves and others.

  6. richardkooymanr said, on 11/15/2012 at 07:46

    I must have missed the announcement that we are just suppose to read your stuff and not comment. Sorry.


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