Lebenskünstler

Social practice must be broad, or not at all – Some stuff I said on facebook with the really challenging, thoughtful, responses removed

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 05/10/2013

Hasn’t much of “radical politics” been co-opted by a similar set of strategies? Isn’t there a similar profession of activism? Institutionalized “radicality” has had a pretty good run – around 50 years of theory and critique. But where is the payoff? Aside from all of those theses gathering dust in universities across the US? Obviously, I am implying that I don’t see radical politics (as imagined and practiced in the academy) as being any less susceptible to charges of elitist (or specialist) irrelevance than art. It’s all well and good to be conversant with Negri, Ranciere, Zizek, or Badiou, but construction workers in Arkansas or farm laborers in the San Joaquin Valley aren’t really helped by any of this are they? (I’m not trying to be a hater here!)

I would argue that any politics not engaged with aesthetics is doomed (and really it is always engaged – it is a matter of how attentively). Art [frieze/e-flux/triple canopy type art], on the other hand is just a highly specialized and pointless parlor game played with, and within, aesthetic experience. The hope I hold for social practice (fading though it may be), is that it will keep staking a claim beyond art, after art, without art. If it returns to the historical roots you claim for it, I fear it ensures its futility. To become wed to a critique of art plays art’s game. Or am I doing the same thing by writing this?!? Ugh.

My immediate objection here is that you make a claim for ” a political movement broadly defined” which is itself completely false (the idea of it being “broad”). The academic/activist class has an incredibly narrow idea of what “politics” is – especially Bishop for example. The “sweetness” of many social practice projects has invited much scorn from the cool kid ex-punker crowd that wants a days of rage approach to social change. Being a good mom, being a good dad, being a good neighbor – these things are every bit as urgent and political as self-consciously being “radical” no? Picking up trash along your street or bringing cookies to the school teacher are every bit as “socially engaged” as AIDS activist billboards, fossil fuel divestment die ins, or WTO protests. To me, politician, artist, activist are all professional designations (or always on the verge of being used in that manner) that certain activities are best left to those who identify as such. And that masks the political and aesthetic value people create (or destroy) in their everyday lives…so I totally agree that there are grandiose claims made for social practice, but this is no different than those made for radical political activism which also could be said “to ignore its increasingly professionalizing aspects while simultaneously insisting on its relevancy” All power to the people, even the dopey, unradical ones, even the cheese ball hug circle social practice do gooders, or the Wal-mart greeter that despite all the farcical theater of the smiley face low prices , is truly enthused and upbeat while greeting you.

To me it is the politics of avant gardism and heroic gestures that reeks of liberalism. “Service” as you put it, or “neighborliness” as I was advocating for, needn’t be liberal, and certainly not about “personal” responsibility. I come at it from a conservative (old school), communitarian, decentralist place. I dare not call it anarchist – especially if I want to avoid academic discussions or want to have some modicum of engagement with people like my mythical Wal-Mart greeter. And I have to say, your critique of social practice is striking in its normativity (not that I am not also making normative claims)! It seems social practice must be “radical” or not at all. I at least stake my normative claim for an expansive social practice one that isn’t owned (exclusively) by art, academia, or activists. Something like – Social practice must be broad, or not at all.

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