Lebenskünstler

against art historical noodling or why social poiesis is more interesting than social practice especially if by social practice we really mean social practice art – Even more stuff I said in blog comments with the really challenging, thoughtful, responses removed

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 06/02/2015

I often quote IC-98 on this matter:

“…as a reaction to the restrictions of academic writing…In practice, the world of contemporary art has proved to be the most flexible environment for diverse projects, being a free zone of experimentation within the society at large…[it] offers possibilities to put forward ideas without the preconditions of academic work …the market…or activism…the projects are labeled art only for strategic reasons – the strategy works as long as the concepts of art do not come to dominate the discourse. The same applies to the individuals working in the group: you call yourself artist, just because it is institutionally convenient, [emphasis mine] because the very concept of ARTIST is obscure.”

These “strategic reasons” are part of what ***’s investigation of “practical consequences” would help illuminate. I am extremely sympathetic to this pragmatic (rather than ontological) engagement with categories. But I remain interested in social practice to the degree that it remains social practice, rather than social practice *art*. So when we inquire into the aesthetics of participation for instance we don’t get bogged down in all the art historical noodling that paralyzes so many critics from the old school. It is important to emphasize that all kinds of “problems” are solved by recognizing that art [frieze/e-flux/triple canopy type art], is just a highly specialized and mostly pointless parlor game played with, and within, aesthetic experience. If we remain attuned to aesthetics and aesthetic experience (especially from an embodied, phenomenological point of view) or to “the arts” or “the art of” or “the artful” rather than to Art, we increase the chances of having the “dynamic, complex and difficult dialogues” *** seeks rather than the insular professional tiffs of the Art world. Melvin Haggerty (1935) said it much better:

“Art is a way of life” is a simple statement of short and familiar words. It expresses a way of looking at life that is very old in the history of thought. If it now seems strange it is because we have permitted art to become divorced from the ordinary activities in which men [sic] engage and its cultivation to drift into the hand of specialists from whom the mass of mankind is separated as by a chasm. In recent times this chasm has become very broad and very deep. To men [sic] absorbed in the work of the world artists appear to be a cult and their work and conversation seem esoteric and almost mystical. To artists ordinary folks appear ignorant and unappreciative, and very often their thinly veiled contempt for plebeian tastes has led them to caustic expression. This dissociation is artificial; it is injurious to art and impoverishes life.

[art as a way of life] sees that as the experiences of life multiply, new and varied purposes arise that call for the invention of new objects and new forms of expression and that these, in turn, vastly increase the possibilities of enriching life…This elemental reality that binds into a single pattern all the varied arts is more important for the philosophy of education than is the stress so often laid upon the differences that superficially separate one kind of creative work from other kinds.

We have assumed a way of looking at art that permits no gulf between the simple arts of life and the so-called fine arts. It sees all as man’s [sic] more or less successful efforts to create things that increase the comforts, the efficiencies, and the pleasures of living…This view cherishes not even the ethically tinged distinction between good art and bad art.

The distinction between creation and appreciation is not one between activity and passivity but rather one among different kinds of activity. The realization of this fact should emphasize the essential unity of art experiences.

*** – Long time no talk. I have to call you out though about what a mess you’re making! You keep conflating art and aesthetics. To call something “not art” in no way reduces its aesthetic dimension. And your understanding of what treating something aesthetically does – “increases distance” – is but one (dominant) idea of aesthetic experience. Berleant’s “Art And Engagement” makes all this talk of participatory aesthetics a moot point (not to mention Dewey and the pragmatists among others). All aesthetic experience is participatory, engaged.

*** – although I quoted IC-98 for one reason (the tactical employment of art as a descriptor), I actually agree more with David Robbins in this quote:

“All the time, though, my sensibility pointed toward and yearned for an imaginative Elsewhere. I became increasingly dissatisfied with the narrowness of art as a formulation of the imagination. This will sound preposterous to many people, I’m aware, given that art offers and represents extraordinary behavioral freedoms, but in “making art” I found an ultimately enslaving formulation. How so? In art, you can do, yes, anything you want so long as you’re willing to have it end up as art. That isn’t real imaginative freedom, in my view. Inquisitiveness of mind will carry you past art, and apparently I love inquisitiveness of mind more than I love art.”

So again I hope social practice delivers us to this imaginative Elsewhere, but art has an insidious ability to capture its escapees…

*** – since I’m in such a quotey mood, I think these snippets from Carl Wilson might get at some of the spirit of criticism I am after (but I am totally down with your criticism as aesthetic experience bit). It’s just that I’m not as fired up about judgment and evaluation as you seem to be:

“What would criticism be like if it were not foremost trying to persuade people to find the same things great…It might…offer something more like a tour of an aesthetic experience, a travelogue, a memoir.”

“…a more pluralistic criticism might put less stock in defending its choices and more in depicting its enjoyment, with all the messiness and private soul tremors – to show what it is like for me to like it, and invite you to compare.”

Re: Meta-experience – I find the discussion around this a bit condescending…it implies that people outside art somehow live their lives unconsciously, that they are unable to think about how to sharpen experience or how to craft an endeavor.

Re: Critique – I recently chaired a panel called “Critiquing Criticality” (which will hopefully end up as a book) and we discussed at length how art had sold its soul to be taken seriously in the academy. That is, it was so ashamed of all those “fuzzy” romantic qualities that it ended up jettisoning all the things that distinguished it from “real” academic disciplines. I would argue much to its detriment.

*** –  I would ask you carry your pragmatic reasoning further. Let us accept that it is indeed now “meaningful” for Rirkrit to call pad thai his art. What does that designation actually *do?* The consensus so far in these threads is that it might invite a kind of meta-reflection which I addressed above to some degree. But to put it even more bluntly, let’s stipulate that this is art’s province alone, what social value is there in that? Aside from appealing to the sorts of people who enjoy thinking about thinking about thinking? Wouldn’t this territory staked out by art be rather sad? When eating pad thai, asking whether it is art or not or whether it follows from Fluxus more than it follows from conceptualism seems like a hollow inquiry. Does it taste good? Does it taste like my mom’s version? Does it remind me of the time I visited that city? Was this dish my friend’s favorite? Those questions tie the food to life, to concrete experience, to ordinary people and therefore are more pragmatically vibrant. And, all of those questions need art as much as pad thai needs alfredo sauce!

For me, calling pad thai art accomplishes exactly nothing other than connect it to a pedantic, insular conversation (art history/criticism). The question of calling social practice projects art amounts to a pragmatic (of the simple, not philosophic type) question (I asked elsewhere) – Do I show them in an art context, however imperfectly it addresses my concerns and burdens me with a history I’m not particularly interested in? Or do I explore them elsewhere and suffer from the lack of critical, promotional, and organizational infrastructure that the art context provides?

*** – “Does an artist need to call what they do social practice? do they need to call themselves artists?”

To these questions I have posited time and again that social practice is *already* happening all the time, with or without art and artists. I think that art has some very modest things to offer, but I prefer a more bottom up, less homogenous, and certainly more diverse approach to understanding, and engaging social practice. Urban ecology seems like an ideal strand to add to the web, so to speak. Here is my initial stab at articulating a vision for social practice (preceded by a contextualizing rant) that may be of interest to you:https://randallszott.org/2013/01/18/all-we-have-to-do-is-look-around-toward-a-local-social-practice-syllabus-or-an-idiosyncratic-arty-party-field-guide-to-vermont/
*** –

Maybe I could grab your attention for a moment and ask what you think of Larry Shiner’s “The Invention of Art” or Mary Anne Staniszewski’s “Believing Is Seeing” as two examples of the argument that it doesn’t make sense to talk about Greek or Roman “art” or at the minimum, capital A “Art.” You seem to be somewhat sympathetic in your commentary above. And do we sidestep this (in a productive way) by continuing the discussion in terms of aesthetic activity rather than art? And by aesthetics, I do not mean exclusively the philosophic subdiscipline itself…

*** – I like that you bring up phronesis, but it’s funny because I am an advocate of not limiting social practice to the visual and performing arts (and there is discussion of it in a very different way in other fields) and was going to suggest here before your post that “social poiesis” (despite its even more obscure quality) might be a better term. If we don’t limit ourselves to art, social poiesis (nee practice) could be more dynamic and encompass not only art actions and art environments, but also – urban planning, sports leagues, communes, be-ins, residencies, raves, state fairs, theme parks, cults, encounter groups, chautauquas, even nations…and would also apply to a much broader demographic of participants rather than artists and their audiences…

But ***, much like the recent article in the Onion (http://www.theonion.com/articles/artists-announce-theyve-found-all-the-beauty-they,20973/) the *last* thing I want to do is to provide a framework for expanding what artists consider their “media.” Rather I am hoping to show that what artists and their supporters wish to claim as an exclusive territory, or what they reserve some claim of special ability at, is already done, by all sorts of folks from all walks of life. And, yes I believe that Dewey (and many contemporary scholars developing his work – but NOT Rorty) can be read (in fact *should* be read) as seeing aesthetics as an integral feature of everyday life – “through and through” as you say.

Gregory Pappas (Dewey scholar):

“The intelligent and aesthetic characters of democracies are mutually dependent. The community most capable of learning from experience is also the one that has all the features that define aesthetic activity, which for Dewey is the most inherently meaningful type of activity in experience. The democratic way of life is able to maintain the kind of balance and rhythm in its everyday doings and undergoings that, for Dewey, characterize aesthetic experience: a balance of tensions with rhythmic variety. Ideal activity is a merging of playfulness with seriousness that allows richness and flexibility without sacrificing stability. Democracy signifies for Dewey this possibility at the social level. The democratic community is also the aesthetic community because it is constituted by relationships that are neither fixed, routine, or mechanical, nor anarchical, capricious, or arbitrary.”

And:

“Dewey’s work…affirms the potential of ordinary experience (concrete life) to be the source of amelioration, admiration, and inspiration. His metaphysics reminds philosophers that the tangled, complex, gross, macroscopic, and crude things we find in everyday life are real, for example, vagueness, ugliness, fantasies, headaches, illusions, spark plugs, a conversation with a friend, parties, diseases, stones, food, tragedy, a conflict with a roommate, a joke, playing backgammon with friends, measles, and marbles. His aesthetics is a philosophical reintegration of the aesthetic with everyday life that is, in effect, a celebration of lived experience…his ethics is an affirmation of morality as experience.”

Dewey:

“When the thought of the end becomes so adequate that it compels translation into the means that embody it, or when attention to the means is inspired by recognition of the end they serve, we have the attitude typical of the artist, an attitude that may be displayed in all activities, even though they are not conventionally designated ‘arts.’ “

Sorry I’m back to being quotey, but this nugget from Dewey in 1891!!! cuts to the heart of the matter:

“If the necessary part played in conduct by artistic cultivation is not so plain, it is largely because ‘Art’ has been made such an unreal Fetich [sic] – a sort of superfine and extraneous polish to be acquired only by specially cultivated people. In reality, living is itself the supreme art…”

Living is itself the supreme art – social poiesis?

re: politics and aesthetics – I included a quote (from Gregory Pappas) on the other thread that addresses this exact point. The more expansive notion of aesthetics that I think we share (and Dewey et. al. have developed extensively) is inextricably linked with politics. In fact, that is why I am mystified by Claire Bishop getting as much attention as she does as her theoretical house of cards is so flimsy – relying as it does on such a misguided interpretation of the relationship between ethics and aesthetics.

re: pleasure – Richard Shusterman is my go to here (although I go to him for many other insights as well!) There is a link to his piece before the quotes I’ve culled: https://randallszott.org/2012/12/30/adorno-the-grumpy-puritan-richard-shusterman-on-art-and-pleasure/
“With these authors you get all modes of social practice: antagonism, pedagogy, community, the dialogic, ethics, morality, the relational, and the political.”

This statement is barely true even with this correction:

“With these authors you get all modes of social practice [art]: antagonism, pedagogy, community, the dialogic, ethics, morality, the relational, and the political.”

If social practice aspires to be anything more than another entry in the art historical ledger rather than say the historical ledger, *** reading list is the *last* place to look. Sadly it is all too reflective of the inbred nature of art discourse (embodying Kaprow’s “artlike art”). I think *** is dead on, but I would add another cautionary note (as I linked to in another comment) – developing a reading list should be an extremely low priority. A looking/experiencing list might be better. My mom ain’t gonna read Claire Bishop and she sure as hell isn’t gonna read Ranciere. But my mom engages in social practice (but has no need to call it that or study it as such) via her gardening club, and her volunteer activities. I love Fritz Haeg, but Crockett’s Victory Garden is more her speed and I would hope we’re not trying to build a field reserved for grad school types or urban hipsters (of which I am or was).

*** – I misunderstood you. I took you too literally when you said “all modes of social practice.” Believe me, I’m all about cutting slack (just ask google).

*** – where is the damn “like” button on this page? Your response itself was “smartly dark!” There is no denying of course (in fact my wife made the same comment) that reading is an experience. So yes, I should have said something more like “a (nonreading) looking/experiencing list.” It is also true that for many people (particularly of an academic persuasion – and I know, not exclusively) reading and looking are deeply symbiotic, but for many other folks they are not, or are dependent on entirely different sets of “texts.” I do disagree that I am over estimating/underestimating anyone – I was not clear in communicating this though. Because it is very much the latter of your propositions that I support. I do not oppose Crockett to Haeg (as I said I love Haeg!!!), but was pointing out that there are people doing social practice beyond art world/academe/activist circles. And trying to suggest that I think developing a robust idea of social practice needs to be inclusive of those folks. So when you ask “is anyone actually saying that?” I think you mean is anyone privileging the art/activist crowd over the PBS gardening crowd…to which I answer emphatically yes! I’ve been to panel after panel, read book after book, essay after essay, seen show after show, attended conference after conference, read syllabus after syllabus, and there is a clear canon established that charts an all too familiar course. Very rarely is anyone included that isn’t part of the dominant or emerging activist/artist circuit and even then they are usually included as material for, or in “collaboration” with an artist/activist. How do we get out of this? I’m not exactly sure – maybe get more ethnographic (with all its ensuing baggage)? I think *** is suggesting something similar (but in a much less grating tone than mine). As far as understanding/thinking about/experiencing social practice I’ve said before “all we have to do is look around.”

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  1. […] This image is an expansive understanding of social practice, more expansive even than “social poiesis” which I have previously argued for: […]

  2. […] against art historical noodling or why social poiesis is more interesting than social practice espec… […]


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