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
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
Claire Bishop and Nato Thompson as two sides of the same art worshiping coin – Some notes on a review
It goes by several names and takes a range of forms, but as with so many protean phenomena, we know it when we see it. Participation-based art, social engagement, social practice: Art that takes relations between people as its medium is currently ascendant, with specialized MFA programs, new social-practice art prizes, and biennials all attesting to its rise. This past spring’s Berlin Biennale, which gave the city’s Occupy activists free rein over an exhibition hall in the Kunst-Werke, is only the latest prominent example. Works like Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave, 2001, a weekend-long event during which historical reenactors and Yorkshire locals rehashed a 1984 clash between police and striking miners; Phil Collins’s They Shoot Horses, 2004, in which a handful of Palestinian teenagers in Ramallah danced to Western pop hits for eight hours; and any number of arranged social interactions by Tino Sehgal have for some years been staples of museum exhibitions and art-magazine exegeses.
Yet if we’re now several decades and theoretical upheavals too late to still be asking whether or why these projects are art—embedded as they are in the networks, conversations, and institutions that make up the art universe—discussions about how they are art, and what this means, are arriving not a moment too soon. They have surfaced most recently in a pair of divergent yet overlapping books, a quasi exhibition catalogue and a scholarly volume, that illustrate some of the tensions and problems that this kind of work brings up.
[Asking *how* they are art is just another way of sneaking in the question of *whether* they are art. This, of course, is the least interesting question one could ask. The notion of these activities being art-embedded is odd, as the very notion that something is a “project” and not say, a mode of living (living as form), indicates immediately that they are merely art after all.]
The former book, Creative Time’s Living as Form, is a kitchen-sink survey of art and activism, profiling over a hundred social projects, from canonical artworks (Francis Alÿs’s When Faith Moves Mountains, 2002; Suzanne Lacy’s The Roof Is on Fire, 1994) to those whose status is more contested (Women on Waves, a group that sails a mobile abortion clinic around Europe) to, most provocative of all, projects that seem to have never made any bid to be included in such a context: WikiLeaks, Pirate Bay, the Tahrir Square demonstrations. The idea here is not so much to expand what can be considered art as it is to think beyond that category altogether: “If this work is not art,” Nato Thompson, who edited the volume and curated the fall 2011 exhibition of the same name, writes in the title essay, “then what are the methods we can use to understand its effects, affects, and impact?” He has described this project’s approach as a “cattle call” and quotes Donald Rumsfeld: “If you have a problem, make it bigger.” In other words, if artworks that look a lot like activism continue to give some people pause, then, Thompson proposes, we should bring we should bring projects that look even less like art into the mix, and see what happens., and see what happens.
[Thompson is given way too much credit here: “The idea here is not so much to expand what can be considered art as it is to think beyond that category altogether” Living as Form, barely pushes beyond art. When it does, it stretches ever so cautiously into art world comfort zones of activism. So Thompson makes an elitist form of culture making *slightly* more inclusive and for that he gets credit, but he falls far, far short of articulating a vision of cultural production that makes more than a cursory effort to include “projects that look even less like art into the mix, and see what happens.”]
The Living as Form project seems tailor-made, at first glance, to get art critic and scholar Claire Bishop’s eyes rolling. She is an integral participant in the conversations this book seeks to register and advance—in fact, she spoke in the program’s lecture series last year and contributed an essay to the present volume—but her approach differs dramatically from Thompson’s. For while Living as Form is largely celebratory and expansive, preferring to pose enormous questions rather than suggesting how to answer them, Bishop’s new book, Artificial Hells, takes the field to task for a certain critical and aesthetic sloppiness she sees arising from a reluctance to draw aesthetic distinctions, articulate a critical framework, or venture to discuss matters of quality. For the better part of a decade, Bishop has been arguing that a great deal of the art that travels under the label “social practice” (or other related designations) is neither politically efficacious nor aesthetically compelling, yet is given a sort of pass—exempted from critical rigor because its heart is in the right place. “It is . . . crucial,” she wrote in a much-debated Artforum article in 2006, “to discuss, analyze, and compare such work critically as art.” This is a 180-degree turn from Thompson’s gleeful aside in a Living as Form–connected talk he gave last year: “We’ll call them ‘artworks’ for now; we will destroy that as we go.”
An expanded version of Bishop’s Artforum piece serves as the first chapter of Artificial Hells, her bid to introduce precision and skepticism into a conversation that frequently tends toward the impressionistic and the utopian. It’s a capacious book, organized around a general argument that will be familiar to anybody who has read her major critical writings: Discussions about social practice tend to reject individual authorship too reflexively, while overvaluing collectivity and consensus; art that is antagonistic, that provokes difficult feelings (“unease, discomfort or frustration”), often yields a richer experience for viewer-participants than works that solicit cooperation; the failure of much social practice to attend seriously to the aesthetic experience of secondary audiences, who are not present as the work initially unfolds, is a grave liability.
[Bishop though, is especially useless and conservative. She is one of the last great dinosaurs of criticality. You have to respect her, for she is absolutely shameless in seeking to cling to the last vestiges of the academic aristocracy. One of the delicious ironies of her position on social practice, her fetish for antagonism, is that the work that seems to *actually* make her uncomfortable is work that is too nice, friendly, or uncritical. So while she allegedly favors work that provokes “unease, discomfort or frustration,” what she really means is work that provokes those feelings in a comfortable (intellectual) way. She too, it seems, wants to stay within her comfort zone.]
Although Bishop’s and Thompson’s books are plainly in conversation, they also talk past each other, the authors attempting to cast the discussion in their own preferred terms. Living as Form is interested in social and political intent, while Bishop focuses on “participation”—a term that overlaps significantly, but not entirely, with the purview of Living. Bishop wants to talk about durable artistic “results” over ephemeral “process,” while Thompson is invested in how to change the world—the less said about art qua art, the better.
In Artificial Hells—the title comes from Andre Breton and refers to the difficult works Bishop favors—she develops her argument against an “ethical turn” in art criticism, in which artworks are judged based on how much they involve and empower non-artist “participants.” Empowering participants sounds far less stirring than changing the world, and her choice of the former wording highlights what she identifies as a constrained, NGO-ish cast to discussions about social practice. Such discussions, she argues, too often reflect the positivism of impact statements and grant proposals, social sciences and community development—angles that are not necessarily compatible with memorable art or radical social change. Bishop’s approach draws on the work of philosopher Jacques Rancière, particularly The Politics of Aesthetics, in arguing that since the realm of the aesthetic is inherently political, it’s misguided to think art must be directly topical or model inclusive democratic activity in order to be engaged in politics. Throughout Artificial Hells, she offers a welcome dose of theoretical seriousness to the field. But her rhetoric occasionally distracts from her argument. At times, she frames issues in a way that nobody could agree with without sounding naive—she suggests, for instance, that certain (unnamed) politically minded artists are “upholding an unproblematised equation between artistic and political inclusion.”
Would the guilty artists please stand up? Those readers who already find social practice wishy-washy or tedious will likely nod in assent, but anybody who needs convincing—which will no doubt include much of this book’s audience—may be as skeptical as Grant Kester was of Bishop’s 2006 article on social practice, to which he retorted, “One would be hard pressed to find many contemporary artists or critics involved with politically engaged practice who would espouse such a simplistic position.” Yet in the best-case scenario, this approach will goad people who believe in social practice and its transformative possibilities into clarifying their own views, if only to free themselves from the positions Bishop sets out for them.
[This reading of Bishop takes us deep into the theoretical funhouse. Here we have Bishop using Rancière to argue about the inherent political nature of the aesthetic – fair enough. But most of the force of Bishop’s position rests on the inverse – failure to recognize the inherent aesthetic properties of the political. She also fails to see that meeting her demands with regard to aesthetic properties therefore forecloses certain types of political possibilities. That is certainly “an unproblematised equation!”]
In Artificial Hells, she pieces together a history of twentieth-century artworks that have employed participation for a variety of purposes: support of state socialism in the public pageants of the Soviet Union, proto-Fascist bellicosity in Italian Futurism, the promotion of individual experiences of privatized consumption in later Communist bloc settings, dramatizations of autocracy in Argentina under military dictatorship. She aims to show that participation and democracy are not eternally linked, and furthermore that feel-good social art is not the only option. But to claim that participation is a valuable way to make progressive art, as many advocates do, is hardly to deny that it could find a place in other projects across the political spectrum. Still, such a prying apart and opening up of concepts and conventions is undeniably helpful, and the history Hells traces is an interesting, if only seldom galvanizing, patchwork of projects. Proposing that participation-based art has periodic heydays at times of political crisis and transformation, Bishop focuses on three such moments: 1917, the lead-up to 1968, and the aftermath of 1989. Her examples range from the well known (Dada, Happenings) to the more specialized (confrontational art events in Argentina, whimsical street art in Paris) and extend to recent formations such as the Artist Placement Group and the community arts movement in the UK.
Bishop’s overall schema opposes “a realm of useful, ameliorative and ultimately modest gestures,” preferring “singular acts that leave behind them a troubling wake.” (Who, after all, would opt for art that could be described the same way as flossing one’s teeth?) Confrontational art, Bishop argues—such as Christoph Schlingensief’s 2000 Please Love Austria, in which detained asylum seekers were boxed up in a shipping container, broadcast via webcam, and voted out of the country in pairs—does valuable work by making abstract oppressive social and political forces immediate. Moreover, she asserts convincingly, the tooth-flossing stuff is easily folded into the Western status quo, since art that aspires toward social problem-solving risks simply “mopping up the shortfalls of a dwindling welfare infrastructure”; and the network-based, volunteer-dependent character of this art reflects, rather than challenges, contemporary capitalism, which feeds us precarity dressed up as freedom.
[“Who, after all, would opt for art that could be described the same way as flossing one’s teeth?” – Well, I would. And so would Allan Kaprow. See: Art Which Can’t Be Art.
And maybe I’m reading a different Bishop, but it seems like she once again smuggles in a position to support her point of view that, if applied to her own position, actually undermines it. She faults social practice for reflecting rather than challenging capitalism, but surely in all the time she spends in the library she must have stumbled across at least one article/book detailing the relationship between ideas of the avant garde and capitalism. Isn’t guerrilla marketing’s raison d’être in capitalist society to create “singular acts that leave behind them a troubling wake?” Or, shock and awe anyone?]
Self-styled progressive art is an inadvertent running dog of the neoliberal state? These are fighting words, and one might have hoped Living as Form would come out swinging. But that’s not what the Creative Time book is up to. Primarily it’s a sourcebook, a starting point for further research, and a snapshot of critical conversation about the field. Its optimism can be infectious—look at how many different ways there are to do this stuff!—yet it’s a compromised vehicle. Many of the project descriptions that constitute the bulk of the book speak in vague grant-proposal language about mission (“doual’art invites contemporary artists to engage with the city of Douala in order to mold its identity and to bridge the gap between the community and contemporary art production”); often we must read between the lines to get a sense of what relations, or forms of living, come out of this work.
Meanwhile, the book’s images—which occupy nearly half the real estate in the “Projects” section—run the gamut. Some canonical works, such as Deller’s Battle of Orgreave and Alÿs’s When Faith Moves Mountains, are represented with expertly shot photographs of striking acts; at the other extreme, photos of Tania Bruguera’s Immigrant Movement International, 2011–, merely show a sign hanging by some elevated subway tracks, dim placards on an indoor clothesline, a clutch of people standing near a table. Allora and Calzadilla’s Tiza (Lima), 1998–2006, falls somewhere in the middle: In the photographs of the massive sticks of chalk placed by the artist duo outside the Peruvian Municipal Palace of Lima, of the political messages people marked on the plaza, and of the impromptu protest that arose, we can see something of the openness and expressivity of the action. Yet the photos carry little aesthetic charge.
They’re not meant to, of course. Much social practice is geared toward resisting a hypertrophied art market that commodifies everything it touches, and these artists rarely seem to prioritize the visual impact of the documentary traces their activities leave behind. Still, when Bishop laments that the open-endedness of innovative participatory exhibitions “is frequently experienced by the viewing public as a loss, since the process that forms the central meaning of this work is rarely made visible and explicit,” one can’t help but see her point. Living as Form supports her proposition that as social practice enters the world of exhibitions, books, and documentary websites, the question of how to communicate its essence to secondary audiences needs to be more seriously considered.
[As mentioned above with regard to embeddedness, social practice (art) does not enter “the world of exhibitions, books, and documentary websites.” It arises *with* them. It seems clear that Marcus is only talking about social practice (art), not social practice more generally (or what I might call social poiesis). In this sense then, social practice is no different than any other art genre. What Living as Form *could* have “seriously considered,” but failed to, was what would a truly expansive idea of social practice look like? What would it mean to *actually* “destroy” social practice as an art genre?]
Commenting on this year’s politically minded Berlin Biennale, its curator, Artur Żmijewski, wrote of his hope “for a situation in which artists’ actions would become not only art, but could also reveal a political truth—something with the potential to change selected aspects of our shared reality, so that art would possess the power of politics but not its fear, opportunism, and cynicism.” This characterization of politics as a besmirched domain recalls Bishop’s astute observation in Artificial Hells that the rise of political art bespeaks “a lack of faith both in the intrinsic value of art as a de-alienating human endeavour (since art today is so intertwined with market systems globally) and in democratic political processes (in whose name so many injustices and barbarities are conducted).” Politics and art are two realms that largely need their constituents to believe in them, and Bishop rightly allows for the importance of continuing to revise these categories in light of such crises of faith. Her call for reconstituting the boundary between them may raise eyebrows among certain radical stakeholders, such as Thompson, who aims to eliminate that boundary entirely. Bishop argues that such an obliteration would leave us barren of evaluative standards, but it could also be argued that her approach limits the possibilities of what the relation between politics and art can be. What we need is a conversation about art and politics that is both rigorous and expansive. Bishop and Thompson each take us only part of the way.
[I would again note that Bishop wants to eliminate the border between aesthetics and politics when it suits her, but indeed wishes to police it vociferously when it sullies her position. A boundary that actually needs clarification though is the one between art and aesthetics. They are often used interchangeably, but dislodging art’s stranglehold on aesthetics dissolves much of the force of many of these “debates.” Thompson is not nearly the “radical” Marcus imagines, or maybe we mean something entirely different when using that word. A more radical exhibition would not have even been one. At the very least, the full title might have been changed from Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011 to something likeLiving as Form: Strategies for Meaning Making in Everyday Lives. In the latter, art is not Art, not merely a profession, but a widely available and employed endeavor of collective human activity. Social practice then is not just more grist for the art historical and curatorial mill, but a vital, imaginative field. One practiced not just by activists, academics, and artists, but by bankers, moms, and mechanics. So yes, Bishop and Thompson take us part of the way, but one wonders if it is the right direction?]
[I would obviously state some things differently and use some modified examples, but this post is still mostly on the mark and relevant to many ongoing conversations I’m currently having]
Baudrillard – “as art” relational art – Kaprow [September 2006]
In The Mirror of Production, Jean Baudrillard writes about the colonial intellectual impulses of the West. Concerning the criticality of Western culture he notes:
“…it [Western culture] reflected on itself in the universal, and thus all other cultures were entered in its museum as vestiges of its own image. It ‘estheticized’ them, reinterpreted them on its own model, and thus precluded the radical interrogation these ‘different’ cultures implied for it.”
“Without bias, they have attempted to ‘relocate’ these ‘works’ [so called primitive art] into their magical and religious ‘context.’ In the kindest yet most radical way the world has ever seen, they have placed these objects in a museum by implanting them in an esthetic category. But these objects are not art at all [Emphasis ours]. And, precisely their non-esthetic character could at last have been the starting point for a radical perspective on (and not an internal critical perspective leading to a broadened reproduction of) Western culture. ”
This critique can easily be applied to the critical appropriation of any number of new “art” practices, most notably relational art. We see quite clearly how a variety of activities and modes of research that began to stray from the flock were quickly recuperated under the banner of “relational aesthetics.” This needn’t apply necessarily to the stars of the movement (Liam Gillick and Rirkrit Tiravanija are obvious) as their work was never really intended to offer a radical perspective on anything, but Oda Projesi (who are not nearly as gallery friendly, and don’t engage in the same sort of faux art institutional critique) has certainly become a bit of a flashpoint. The debate surrounding them provides an interesting model as Claire Bishop begs to read their activities “as art,” making sure they are safely inscribed within the known parameters of self-criticality that the museum Baudrillard describes above tolerates. Maria Lind, however, prefers to read their actions without preemptively applying critical classifications.
Allan Kaprow in his essay “The Real Experiment”describes the “as art” impulse as well:
“‘Look,’ I remember a critic exclaiming once as we walked by a vacant lot full of scattered rags and boxes, ‘how that extends the gestural painting of the fifties!’ He wanted to cart the whole mess to a museum. But life bracketed by the physical and cultural [emphasis ours] frames of art quickly becomes trivialized life at the service of high art’s presumed greater value. The critic wanted everyone to see the garbage as he did through art history, not as urban dirt, not as a playground for kids and home for rats, not as rags blowing about in the wind, boxes rotting in the rain.”
We see here the application of the art historical gaze, the “as art” gaze. And not unlike the “male gaze” (although obviously the parallel is in how it operates, not in its social effects) it becomes a way of subjugating the world to a particular critical regime and seeks to infiltrate the self-perception of others, so that they see themselves and their activities through the “as art” lens.
We return in closing to Baudrillard’s critique of Marxist anthropology which can be seen to possess the same impulse to universalize its history, its criticality:
“…because the system of political economy tends to project itself retrospectively as a model and subordinates everything else to the genealogy of this model…Thus in the strict sense, it analyzes only the conditions of the model’s reproduction, of its production as such: of the separation that establishes it…By presupposing the axiom of the economic, the Marxist critique perhaps deciphers the functioning of the system of political economy; but at the same time it reproduces it as a model.”
It is evident that the “as art” perspective functions to accept as a given the art model, thus binding itself to merely reproducing the logic of art production rather than challenging it in any substantive way. It presupposes the axiom of the artistic, and shields itself from the messiness of rotting boxes, leaving us in the “internal critical” hall of mirrors, trapped in the “as art” aesthetic fun-house.
Who counts, or should count, as a “meaning maker?” – The problem with “cultural production.” – One side of of a facebook conversation on art and culture
An addendum to this post is now here.
[The following is my end of a multi-participant and mutli-themed conversation. I did not include the names or comments of others (save for a few unattributed quotations) as I did not ask for their permission. The content is essentially unedited.]
*** – The language I prefer to use in describing what you call “antiquated infrastructure” is more in line with Sholette (and Baudrillard). Perhaps art is an exploded star (maybe in the 60s) and like astronomical ones, what we are seeing now is just the last light to reach us from that “long gone” event…
“the madness of making things matter” is a really lovely phrase although I wonder a bit about who you see engaged in such a thing. As you probably know I am quite skeptical about folks that utilize the label “cultural producers” being engaged much in making things matter. Or rather to whom and for whom does it matter?
I feel like despite your half-hearted attempt to leave art behind (at least as you hint at in the comments here), you still want to reserve a place for some sort of special individual (or collective). Someone who stands out as a “meaning maker” or “cultural producer,” thus merely shifting the dynastic reigns to a newly labelled vanguard.
Oh ***, I know you don’t care one whit what my “point” is, but I appreciate you pretending to. It is true that a certain kind of skepticism is my disposition, and that skepticism generally finds its manifestation at (perceived) claims of specialness, elitism, etc. I support radically democratic culture making (pretty sure you do too) and thus find the term ‘cultural producers’ a bit weird. Who is *not* a cultural producer? Who *doesn’t* “make meaning?” I guess radical inclusivity is my point and thus the idea that critics (radical or otherwise) should be writing about activist art true enough, but why do we keep limiting ourselves to the most obvious forms of meaning making, and while obvious, also the least accessible to vast segments of the population?
So again when you say:
“That is why I use the phrase “cultural producers” only as a way to imply forms of culture making outside the tight constraints of an art infrastructure.”
I have to wonder why, given your curatorial history, it seems you want to look outside the art *infrastructure*, but not outside *art* (or activism when you stretch a bit). It gives the distinct impression that “cultural producer” is just a euphemism for smart art/activist types, but does not appear to include car customizers, church knitting circles and the like. I mean if we’re really looking at culture, not *intellectual* culture, not *urban* culture, not *activist* culture, etc. Why does everything done in the name of cultural production feel so constrained?
There is indeed an “entire other universe” being ignored (but not necessarily the one you speak of) and my “point” is to be vigilant in calling that out.
I am certainly not against being interested in one thing over another either. The reason I spout off (aside from having no life) on these issues periodically is that there is a HUGE disconnect in the art world between what people say they support and what they *actually* support. I mean your **** show didn’t cast a wide net (at least from where I sit). It explored a well worn groove, an interesting one, but very few surprises (of course I’m also guilty of considering the title too literally – wanting something beyond its aim, hoping to have seen an exhibition of people living creatively, whose lives explore the art of living more than the art of living (as art)). Time and again, curators claim to be interested in everyday life, the ordinary, cultural production, etc. – yet whenever they put an event together art/activist types are almost all they include (unless one of the artist/activist types brings in some non-art person). So if the statement were everyday life – as interpreted by artist intellectuals, or cultural production as generated by artist intellectuals or others they deem interesting, or *** – as practiced by art/activist types, then it would at least be honest…
So, what *do* I want?
…more grandmothers, more South Dakotans, more gearheads, more fan fiction writers, more karaoke queens, more street performers, more Sunday painters, more NASCAR fans, more tailgating, more collectors (of barf bags, not art), more gardeners (not “radical” ones), more lipdub dreamers, more Civil War re-enactors, more whirlygig makers, more surfers, more conservatives, more stand-up comics, more DJs (not Spooky!!!!), more roadside Americana, more people who have never been to college, more fiddlers, more people who have never left their hometown, more taxidermists, more people who don’t give a shit about art aside from liking pretty pictures, more of all the crazy, delightful people making (and doing things) that mean something, more folks engaged in, as you put it, “the madness of making things matter.”
Not only would critics of art from other disciplines be interesting so too would artists. One of the reasons I gave up on undergraduate art education was that everybody was busy making stuff without any foundation to drive it – except art. They were all living in an art school bubble (not unlike a Fox News bubble). Making art completely within the framework of art and only questioning it within its own terms.
Sure there were other courses than studio ones, but they were those dumbed down “math for artists” sorts of classes. I would love an art world in which there was no such thing as an undergraduate art degree. Art created from a vantage point of something in the world other than art would be so much healthier and relevant than the inbred mess we have now.
And don’t bother telling me how art education has changed, how people read from urban planning, architecture, etc. The professionalization of art, the specialization, still has a very tight grip. Look at how successful Claire Bishop has been at having people take seriously her efforts to reign in social practice, to bring it back to the fold, to let all the old ideas and frameworks be the starting point – criticality being the greatest bugaboo. Oh how the art world LOVES its criticality! Looking to other academic disiciplines, is fine (as **** suggests) but let’s not confine ourselves to academia.
Surely we can hope for a more interesting and diverse art world than one dependent on academic experts, one that includes pleasure (not “jouissance”), one that thrives in places like Galveston, TX, or Butte, MT, one that thrives outside cities, one that ordinary people (ordinary people are the sort of people that wouldn’t ask “what is an *ordinary* person?”) want to see, one that doesn’t always have to interrogate, deconstruct, critique, or examine, one that is radically inclusive, democratic, local, and in which critics are one, very small part.
This is just a quick reaction to reading Edward Mooney’s Lost Intimacy in American Thought. Mooney is actually writing mostly about philosophy but it is easy to extrapolate his thinking to art. The quotes below are from him (except the Cavell). Extensive notes from Lost Intimacy will find their way into subsequent posts soon-ish and I might even riff on it and social practice a bit more…
Social practice fails, or undermines its potency precisely to the degree that is a public gesture and thus Claire Bishop is right that such practices are inadequate, but wrong to think that it can succeed in the terms she sets for it…it is the ability to enter convivial relationships that give social practices their power and that ability will not be found in DISCOURSE, but “…in a heartfelt acknowledgement of multiple and mutual dependencies enacted in intimate contexts of exchange far from public forums of legalistic or philosophical debate.”
Perhaps social practice needs to embrace “pushing back poetically” against critics like Bishop, those cynical skeptics…while it is certainly possible (and easy) to critique and engage the conceptual shortcomings of her work, you simply can’t argue your way to victory…the skeptic’s failure is not a failure of knowledge or argumentation (although it sort of is with Bishop), but a failure “of affirmation, or acknowledgment – a failure of love.” At some point you either take a leap of faith or you don’t.
“To live in the face of doubt, eyes happily shut, would be to fall in love with the world. For if there is a correct blindness, only love has it. And if you find that you have fallen in love with the world, then you would be ill-advised to offer an argument of its worth.” – Stanley Cavell
Perhaps rather than refute, one should simply set aside. “Pushing back poetically is not pushing with argument or doctrine but with simple lines and longer narratives.” To this I would also add pushing with embodiment, experience, and ecstasy.
This is a much more hyperbolic approach to the same theme.
Claire Bishop (I know, I know, I really thought I would never write another word about her, but the interview above found its way into my RSS feed reader) desperately needs to read Marcia Eaton, the Pragmatists, and/or the Greeks – hell, even re-reading Foucault would help. Of course, if she did, her critical house of cards might come tumbling down. This is because her whole schtick regarding social practice rests on the (false) separation of the aesthetic and the ethical. Now I know she tries to qualify it a bit and even calls for a “double analysis” and tries to employ Rancière, but the pattern is clear – art is for aesthetics and aesthetics is for art. The “regime” of the aesthetic is far more broad than the narrow slice of experience she wants to chain it to (art).
I do agree with her though about the “blind spot” of social practice, although it is important to be careful with wording. She claims social practice denies its “artistic character” and she also claims that it does “not want to be conceived as visual art.” I would argue that these are two distinctly different things. Kaprow’s use of “artlike” and “lifelike” is useful here. Something may be lifelike art or artlike art, but also artlike non-art. So social practice may indeed have an “artistic character” without being “visual art.” To deny one needn’t entail denying the other.
Throughout the interview the worship of criticality reveals itself (and also her infatuation with strategies of agonism, opposition and “radicality” – all the good old avant-garde stuff). It is a symptom of this era in art education/theory. I’ve commented elsewhere that we moved from art for art’s sake to criticality for criticality’s sake and we are no better for it. It is funny to me that the one thing intellectuals don’t seem to care to be critical of is criticality itself. When Bishop speaks of the aesthetic, it appears to mean a critical/intellectual position regarding art and not a holistic human experience. So when she criticizes social practice for having an “allergy to the aesthetic,” she may be right, but only vis–à–vis a very specific employment of the notion of the aesthetic. Her woefully hollow idea of it certainly gives me hives.