“I really despise the strip mall/corporate chain mentality that says – in every city a Project Row Houses, in every syllabus a Grant Kester, in every program a critique…” – Even more stuff I said on facebook with the really challenging, thoughtful, responses removed

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/11/2013

The material below stemmed from this (January 2013):

Morning rant:

So, yesterday I saw a status update soliciting ideas for a social practice syllabus and it continues to blow my mind how unbelievably predictable the suggestions were. Foucault, Bishop, de Certeau, Nancy, Mouffe, Jackson, Habermas, Rosler, yadda yadda yadda…

What does it say about the state of education that there is such homogeneity? Sure, we can agree on some common/core texts,but isn’t *anyone* else suspicious about this? Can we really believe that the same laundry list of thinkers passed around from grad school syllabus to grad school syllabus enriches our understanding of social practice? Is everyone so (ahem) lazy? And how can academics otherwise inclined to be critical of universal narratives so readily agree on one for social practice? The global sameness of suburbanization is problematic, but reading (always *reading*) name brand theorists from school to school is essential?

I meet person after person in the field that have a really narrow point of reference clearly gleaned from “syllabus syndrome.” And why is it almost always readings? Or activist and art projects? Why not parents, neighbors, bakers, mechanics, baristas, programmers, bar tenders, clergy, restaurateurs? Do non-academics (that are not activists) have *anything* to offer social practice (other than as a grist mill for “collaboration”)? Should we tell folks to just read through AAAARG.org, check out the Creative Time Summit videos and call it a day?

And ultimately resulted in this: All we have to do is look around: toward a local social practice syllabus – Or, an idiosyncratic “arty party” field guide to Vermont.

…being versed *academics* is part of the problem I’m trying to describe and I’m not sure I buy that social practice is not a “medium”, or conceived as such, or at least desired to be so by said academics.

“A pragmatist turns his back resolutely and once for all upon a lot of inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers. He turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action, and towards power. That means the empiricist temper regnant, and the rationalist temper sincerely given up. It means the open air and possibilities of nature, as against dogma, artificiality and the pretence of finality in truth.” – William James on philosophy

Kaprow and Dewey (but Jane Addams would be even more instructive than Dewey)are near and dear to me (I’ve written about them incessantly), but mostly for the orientation they offer – Dewey pointing away from *school* and toward education as a way of life and away from *government* and toward democracy as a way of life. Kaprow for constantly pointing away from art and also for saying don’t look at my pointing finger!

not suggesting either/or…I very much believe in the value of theory, but only inasmuch as it *actually* clarifies practice. Too often it is regarded as an end in itself, and always threatens this when it becomes “essential” reading. And amen to looking at other cultures – I might offer that a visit to two week visit to Thailand would be as (and yes I admit my bias, I really think *more*) valuable as 15 weeks of readings and critique.

AMEN sister. Discourse is *one* thing, but often presented as the *only* thing. Starting with texts muddies those waters immediately and, I think, sends another message – the (extremely narrow) verbal-intellectual slice of human experience is all that is acceptable in the arts these days. Mystical experience? Nonsense. Emotions? Well, we can sneak those in by calling them “affect.” Love? Compassion? Humor? Cloak them in irony or make them “revolutionary” and we will abide.

Sticking with my James (I’m re-reading), social practice needs to widen the search for God [pardon in advance his gendered language] :

“In short, she widens the field of search for God. Rationalism sticks to logic and the empyrean. Empiricism sticks to the external senses. Pragmatism is willing to take anything, to follow either logic or the senses, and to count the humblest and most personal experiences. She will count mystical experiences if they have practical consequences. She will take a God who lives in the very dirt of private fact – if that should seem a likely place to find him.”

I have no idea whether anything has “backfired” or not. On one hand I want say there is nothing wrong with being “comfortable” and that tying growth to discomfort is an old saw of the avant garde, but then again students *can* be outright lazy, and worse, completely ungenerous with their attention…never talking about the term social practice is probably a wise choice (and one I wish I was better at)…

I might agree ***** if I knew how to tell ahead of time whether such uncertainty was exquisite or not. Sometimes students find only fear/alienation…I have been thinking about social practice (the field) today as a building without an architect, vernacular architecture…and I see academia resisting that, wanting to bring in the professionals and make sure everything is built to code, properly licensed. I’d like to stick closer to the approaches of Freire’s and Horton’s “We Make the Road by Walking” or “Mercogliano’s Making It Up As We Go Along”…

And yes let’s not get stuck with the same old examples either. Being a hardcore localist (and anti-globalist), I am puzzled by people that appear to understand the value of such a perspective when it comes to food or retail/small business, but abandon it in the name of “cosmopolitan” education. This isn’t to say we can’t or shouldn’t learn from outside perspectives – but shouldn’t a San Francisco (social practice) education be distinct from a Chicago one or a NYC one? Not just in terms of faculty, but in terms of who is read and what projects are considered? I really despise the strip mall/corporate chain mentality that says – in every city a Project Row Houses, in every syllabus a Grant Kester, in every program a critique…I thought people took diversity seriously!

*Some* rural areas are conservative, and what exactly is wrong about being conservative? You seem to equate conservative with “racist, bigoted, sexist and homophobic” and that, of course is a highly contentious characterization. And if homogeneity is a problem, one would think my criticism would resonate. Obviously, we disagree about how heterogeneous the suggestions were. This would stem from my academic “privilege,” I suppose, given that there was almost nothing suggested I hadn’t seen dozens of time before. The funny thing about “privilege” though is that almost *anyone* is privileged from one perspective or another. And I find it as a rather lazy (ahem) way to try to negate someone’s point of view. You are “privileged” to have internet access so, let’s just ignore? Funnily though, my rant was directed not so much at privilege, but at a variant – exclusivity. I am in the middle of putting together a “syllabus” called “All we have to do is look around: toward a local social practice” and the first part of that title sums things up nicely. The idea that we need academic gatekeepers, curators, artists, academics, activists, etc. to understand social practice is troubling. Or rather what your criticism (thank you) and some comments above remind me of is that I need to be clearer about my “either/or” tone – I am not proposing an end to those suggestions that you find value in, but want very much to supplement it with the stuff right in front of us, beneath our feet, right where we are, by non-academics and non-artists. I want a broad, messy social practice, not just the tidy intellectual/political baubles of academe (oops fell back into that tone again – I’m working on it. I swear.).

to the degree that art embraces its status as a “profession” is the degree to which it acquiesces to instrumental rationality – Even more stuff I said on facebook with the really challenging, thoughtful, responses removed

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/16/2013

When does a favor become “labor?” And as I’ve asked a thousand times before, who is *not* a “cultural producer?” That is, isn’t *everyone* making culture all the time? Therefore, why should the state subsidize only artist/curator errr…cultural producers that “count,” and not everyone else? Because the immeasurable impact/enrichment argument applies equally well to backyard gardeners and attentive parents doesn’t it?

You mentioned not helping friends…exploitation is a social relationship…something *experienced* not merely witnessed, or observed by an “expert.”

So, to you an internship is no “favor,” but to someone else it just might be.

And it sounds to me like your reserving some “specialness” for artists which is very convenient, but doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in my opinion

You ever see parents at a playground? Or see gardening clubs, email lists etc?

Ok. Drop the word internship. Use favor. If I’m preparing a meal for a big party and I need an “intern” to help me set the table, make drinks etc. I will hire a server. Get where I’m going?

Of course it is a fabrication, one that artists (self-interestedly) often accept. There is historical privilege that comes with being an artist and now that it is being diminished they are getting agitated. Not unlike men, whites, etc.

“I just don’t understand why certain people deserve compensation and others don’t for whatever kind of work is deemed important” – this is EXACTLY *my* question right? Why should artists be subsidized and not gardeners? Why should Gallery 400 get a grant and not a parent run play group?

If a friend of mine asks me to take care of their kid for the day, should I reject it unless I get paid?

You see, if art is merely a business relationship, not an endeavor among friends, then that is an “art” I have little time for. It might as well be data entry no? Because it seem to me artists often want it both ways – to be compensated based on some market model (wages, benefits), but not be obligated to perform under such a model….

I do hope you see how weird this is – like the most capitalist mind of all, every human sphere is to be monetized under your model. The only expression of gratitude is $$$. The only reward for a favor…errr….labor is $$$.

So, unpaid internships are undermining your wages and you (along with many others) are proposing a strike or boycott which is understandable, but live by the market, die by the market. What if, no one cares? I mean I haven’t been making art for like 20 years, haven’t been curating, haven’t been writing (in the “professional” sense). It has been a “protest” of a certain kind – and one that brings you face to face with a certain determination of “value.” If I’ve learned anything it is how useless the entire enterprise is – but it is liberating. Because having given up the notion that what I was doing was special allowed me to see the value in what everyone else is doing – the fly fishers,the role players, the whittlers, the bird watchers, the pick up basketball players, the fantasy football commissioners, etc. But maybe that was a lesson unique to me and my own hang ups…

But you haven’t done anything to clear up my confusion! I still don’t get why art folks want the govt. to support their hobby and not hot rod builders? Everyone for themselves?

Oh and art is no “personal choice?” You sound like a true liberal (as opposed to a communitarian) with your public/private compartmentalization. Smoking is also a choice but has deep social consequences. I would argue having children and raising them poorly has far deeper social consequences than making a shitty painting.

Furthermore, what is “provocative” for me is to see a group of folks who have lost their historical privilege griping about getting it back rather than wanting a more egalitarian distribution of “prestige” and or resources. The breakdown of high and low is celebrated in some corners of the art world until it translates into *actual* effects then the wagons get circled….

Parenting was only one example of “cultural production.”

It isn’t the zygote, it is the cascade of social effects.

And to the degree that art embraces its status as a “profession” is the degree to which it acquiesces to instrumental rationality.

And yeah I like my culture like my politics to be broad and inclusive….

You keep focusing on *one* example of mine. And it is not children that are culture/cultural production, but *parenting.* And “affective labor” is another silly term – Pardon me while I “work” at crying during this rom-com. And man I’m getting all upset by your comments, who will pay me for this uncompensated emotional “labor?”

I do appreciate you providing a normative definition of art, one that falls neatly into the subject of my forthcoming book. Privileging “critique” while certainly fashionable in the late 20th and 21st centuries reeks of grad school syllabus syndrome. It is dogma, but that doesn’t make it definitive.

But back to the notion of art as a “profession.” Why then if it is such, should it alone be exempt from the market?

Also, what is the benefit of your narrow definition of culture? Who benefits from the exclusion of non-“professionals” of so-called “cultural production” other than alleged experts?

Re: professional cultural producers

Let’s do the same with politics. We’ll leave everything in the hands of professional politicians. Let those who are properly trained tend to that stuff and let all the plebes do what they do best – acquiesce to those in the know.

Art “workers” are to art what sex workers are to sex. – Even more stuff I said on facebook with the really challenging, thoughtful, responses removed

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 07/23/2013

This might clarify:

To describe what sex workers engage in as “sex” is accurate, but only in a *very particular way*. I imagine most folks would agree that it is not the same type of sex one means when talking about consensual relationships. Ergo, for those engaged in art as art “workers,” what they engage in is art, but only in a very particular way as well…

Now, I knew the comparison was dicey from a gender point of view, but it is not the nature of the work I was trying to compare, but the relationship one has to, and in, work. The way that “work” transforms an activity.

So, fighting for improved working conditions for sex workers is clearly laudable. But I think a better strategy would be to focus not (solely) on the conditions of one’s “work,” but on the compulsion to work altogether. In the specific case of sex workers, I think those struggles are better attacked from a human rights angle than from a “work” angle…

Again, to me calling art “work” accepts a set of normative principles and imports a whole ideological framework that I think is unwise. I understand the motivation (or think I do), but it’s the same reason I call what I do out here on the boat “cooking” (with scare quotes) rather than without because what I mean by cooking has a set of qualitative conditions attached that get completely severed by doing it as work.

***** – “acknowledgement of the value of cultural labor” is precisely what I continue to object to.

To call something “labor” invites a particular type of “value.” So, do I think artists engage in interesting activity? Yes. Do I think the activity is work? No. Do I think it is valuable? Yes, but the nature of that value and how it is valued is important. If it is indeed, *mere* work (yes, in Bob Black’s sense) then I have no more or less sympathy for it than say selling insurance. If work is supposed to be honorific in some sense, then I think another term might be needed or we need to be expansive in its application (to no good end in my mind other than to be fair and inclusive) so that we speak of juggling “workers”, hiking “workers”, etc. And yeah art *can* be a stand in, and often *desires* to stand in for the “general application of creative principles,” but I think we might need to get away from the word “art” as quickly as we need to get away from the word “work!”

I would say talk of compensation is tricky. When I have friends for over for dinner I hardly expect compensation despite the fact that I might have undergone tremendous effort (“work”) to prepare the meal. So if one’s art is akin to a shared experience among friends, talk of payment gets weird. But if it is not for friends, but a professional endeavor, one in which a “service” is provided to a client then talk of money makes sense – to the extent it is such it seems like talk of “art” then becomes tricky…

I should have said – *can* become tricky. I definitely don’t want to set up ironclad dichotomies…

The comfortable absurdity of artistic “experimentation.” – Toward an expansive “we” (hint: mom and dad are invited) – Some more stuff I said on facebook with the really challenging, thoughtful, responses removed

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 07/22/2013

Mental Prototypes and Monster Institutions. Some Notes by Way of an Introduction – Universidad Nómada (Nuria Rodríguez Trans.)

Well, after sorting through all of the theoretical gobbledy-gook, I find myself in some agreement (with the intro “Mental Prototypes and Monster Institutions.”) with the spirit… But then I get to the conclusion in which they call for 4 circuits (not feeling all this 90s grad school lingo – “circuits” “monsters” “hybrids” “swarming”). These circuits sound an awful lot like they will need to be populated (and led) by artist-academics. How convenient! Their description does not seem to align with the stated ambitions:

“struggles and forms of social existence that some would accuse of being non-political or contaminated or useless or absurd ”

“monstrous, because they initially appear to be pre-political or simply non-political in form”

“another politics, that is, another way of translating the power of productive subjects into new forms of political behaviour”

I *wish* the proposed circuits, were not circuits at all and were more “useless” or “absurd.” Absurd that is in a way that academics would find uncomfortable rather than the comfortable absurdity of artistic “experimentation.”

I wouldn’t characterize my reaction as “phobia.” Rather, I would call it allergic.

The problem with the notion of hybridity advocated here is that the multiple layers don’t really seem all that “multiple.” So describing this writing as “technical” might be right…it is a field manual for the already converted, the ones who already speak the same way, the ones who always do all the speaking and not enough listening. Communication isn’t just about finding the right rhetoric. It is also about developing the proper dispositions right? I would be far less suspicious of the circuits if the notion of collectivity they proposed didn’t seem to place academic/activist/art types at the center (or at the very least, the sorts of programmatic structures they have such an affinity for – educational projects, research projects, media/publishing, and institutes/foundations). In other words, let the monsters rise, but not be created, educated, published, and exhibited within the comfort zones of the academic/activist/artistic industrial complex! Screw their mental prototypes.

I am allergic to missionary fervor – to being “saved” or “helped” by those in the know. As you have already guessed, I got nothing. But, yes, folks out there do have something, and I will not lead them. It is true we don’t read the same way, but I am happy to have at least put our readings in contact.

I have been hearing/reading big plans and big ideas from academic art types for quite some time and the track record here in the US is pretty paltry. Until they figure out a form of (non, anti, new) political engagement that has them at the margins, that has small ambitions, that isn’t predicated on “producing knowledge,” that stops thinking only in terms of urban space, that advocates diversity without being dismissive of *actually* dissenting points of view, that accepts pleasure (especially “unhealthy” sorts), and especially gives up the romance of avant gardism – I too feel like I’ll be waiting for them to work their “magic” forever…

Happy 4th of July!

I would say to your last question that *not all* art criticism, cultural theory, and yes, even urban planning is technocratic. And I would add that the technocrats have had ample opportunity to use their “expertise” to manifest something good and have very little to show for it…

Yes “we” have art, “we” have culture, and “we” have education – but a point of contention here is how expansive that “we” is. From my 20+ years around academic/art/activist types it has become clear to me that the “we” is pretty narrow. My white heterosexual middle class mom who has no interest in overthrowing capitalism, or has much clue what heteronormativity might be is pretty clearly excluded even though she might agree in spirit with the notion that a fairer allocation of resources might be a pretty neat idea…I am for a “we” that isn’t the hollow fantasy of grad school romantics, one that includes their moms and dads and all the unironic mall shopping conformists they think they are so much better informed than. I am for a “we” that includes gun owners and people who don’t have a clue who Zizek is (or even Chomsky). And I have no problem at all with attempting to “contribute towards the emergence of a non-centralized liberatory culture.” I just wish for a little more humility a little less grandiosity and maybe less occupying of parks (which is indeed useful) and more strolls. And I do think you sell short the power of the stroll vs. the dérive, or what I might call (thanks to Scott Stroud) artful living vs. art. Here is a snippet from him that may or may not help (asterisks added for emphasis):

“***Life is always lived in some present, and it is here that the battle of life is fought***; one can come armed with habits that foster engagement with that present, or one can bring in ways of viewing the here and now (be it an art object or a work task) as a mere means to achieve something in the remote future. Both of these approaches will affect and tone the quality of lived, transactive experience. Dewey’s point, which I will explore at length in this work, is that the former approach is constitutive of artful living.”

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

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/12/2012

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.