Interviews conducted by Sara Black and John Preus with various authors. This project is ongoing and this document will grow. So far none of our women invitees have responded, we’re working on that.
We are approaching you out of respect for your point-of-view in the hope that you will offer us some brief insights on issues surrounding interdisciplinarity, political/social activism, democracy and/or ethics as a way for us to consider recent developments in art practice referred to as relational, tactical, or socially-engaged.
We, Sara Black and John Preus, are co-founders of the artist group Material Exchange, and are currently collaborating as a duo. For a project entitled, I Feel Much More Like I Do Now Than I Did Before, we are soliciting responses from individuals in diverse fields to briefly respond to a series of related questions. We intend to present your responses in audible form (they will be read aloud by a narrator and recorded) as a means of taking up pertinent topics from inside and outside of the art world. We would greatly appreciate your responses, which have been solicited from well-established leaders in various fields, as well as local friends, acquaintances, and family members. We ask that you limit your responses to a page.
The following paragraph is intended to give you a general picture of some current positions within this broadening community. These self-identified cultural producers are often skeptical of established potentialities in art and harbor broader political ambitions as artists. They do not grant revolutionary, liberatory, nor progressive political potential to the study of aesthetics, the creation of objects, nor the collective values of the art world. They do not entrust ‘monastic’ studio practice with producing a critical and moral citizenry capable of democratic engagement. They think of the infrastructure that supports artists (galleries, museums, granting organizations, universities) as a market like any other and are often loathe to imagine themselves as producers for an art market. Many of these artists have foregone individual studio practices in favor of direct, responsive, participatory, and in some cases decidedly non-aesthetic modes of working with the specific goal of practicing democracy, inciting social change, or steering art’s focus toward realist or pragmatic objectives. Many of these activities are not categorically recognized as art, and generally the methods and objectives of the work emphasize the political and social over the aesthetic (though in some cases the social goal may be to liberate the artist from the institution.)
What is lost/gained when categories broaden in this way? What is at stake in maintaining the perimeter of a field? And who maintains the perimeter? Would it be more appropriate to use ‘ethical’ rather than ‘aesthetic’ criteria to evaluate this sort of work? What is at stake in such a shift?
- Composed by Darby English
What is lost/gained when categories broaden in this way?
It seems to me that much is gained with the broadening of categories, wherever they happen to configure themselves. But probably a great deal else of good befalls us when categories are enthusiastically disregarded.
What is at stake in maintaining the perimeter of a field?
At the risk of the appearance of backtracking, I will say that it depends not only on the field, but whether one’s own position happens to fall inside or outside those parameters. In those fields that I engage most often, what is at stake for those on the inside is precisely the delusion that the language and syntax of field still determine all possible imagination and action within a given set of cultural parameters. What is at stake for certain outsiders, such as myself, is the possibility itself, which seems realer by the day, that a certain criticism of that field which is exercised in a certain proximity to its language and practices, will successfully destroy it.
And who maintains the perimeter?
We all do.
Would it be more appropriate to use ‘ethical’ rather than ‘aesthetic’ criteria to evaluate this sort of work?
I think that the only truly encompassing framework for it marries both in something like the aesthetico-political—it’s ugly but tenacious, and the conceptual difficulty it throws up relates positively to the requirement of rigor that it indicates.
What is at stake in such a shift?
The real survival of differences that matter at least as much as the ‘big’ differences about which people have so much nothing to say.
- Composed by Lane Relyea
Today the question is always “what do you call this kind of practice, this space of operation, this mode of agency?” And the point is always that box-like definitions are inadequate. Museums, galleries, objects, mediums, fixed job titles, all these are fading: in their place are millions of platforms. What does it mean when, as happens so often now, an exhibition or art practice or artwork is called a platform? The word has political connotations derived from its use in naming the listed positions publicly adopted by an organized political group (a “party platform”). Most in the art world don’t mind when a hint of that comes through. But where the word is really borrowed from are the engineers, designers and business managers who widely embraced the term in the 1990s to describe increasingly decentralized forms of coordination, whether in computer systems, product design or interactions between different industrial manufacturers, suppliers and work teams. Here a platform denotes a basic underlying architecture, a common workbench that, while itself stable and enduring, is open and flexible enough to allow for a high variety of interfaces, a range of inputs and outputs. Unlike the sense of principled commitment conveyed by a political platform, this kind of platform avoids lasting commitments as much as possible. Platforms are loose frameworks, not bounded substances; they are traversable, permeable and responsive, constituted by their feedback or “dialog” with an outside. Just as no single TV show or pop song is as hot today as the TiVo boxes and iPods that manage their organization, so too with art it is the ease and agility of access and navigation through and across data fields, sites and projects that takes precedence over any singular, lone objet.
We increasingly live in a world not of bounded objects or fields but of loose networks and data platforms. This is supposed to be a good thing. Networks are said to be inherently democratic and egalitarian, this because of their horizontal, multidirectional and reciprocal capacity, the fact that, compared to more hierarchical forms of organization, in the network it’s relatively easy for any one node to communicate with any other. This means that the forces governing networks appear more quotidian, immanent and dispersed rather than concentrated in transcendent executive positions. By the same token, the characteristic flexibility and informality of network structures, the way they depend on the constant, relatively independent movement of their participating actors, is taken as evidence of diminished structure and greater agency. Thus along with networks comes a new ideology, one that advertises agency, practice and everyday life. It’s because of this kind of cosmopolitan character or effect of the network that people today can boast of being both insiders and DIY at the same time.
Why do I sound so snotty, what’s my problem? Today’s stress on practice continues the devaluing of theory ongoing since the late 1980s, itself a political disaster; celebrating dialogical over monological approaches to art and exhibition can mask the crucial role of feedback mechanisms that extinguish every space of privacy in favor of increased just-in-time responsiveness and flexibility; and delusions of agency can obscure the extent of underlying systematic determinants, including the inequalities that evermore structure the field underlying the seeming formal equality of networks. This is the best part of your project in this exhibition, asking that this newly emergent mode of artistic agency develop a self-critical component. How might that critique go? For starters, being part of a network that privileges itinerancy and circulation over fixity, that diminishes hierarchies and boundaries in favor of mobility across a more open, extensive environment, also subordinates the individual practitioner to a general communicational demand, a decentralizing and integrative logic of interface and commensurability. Networks are both integrative and decentralizing in that they privilege casual or weak ties over formal commitments so as to heighten the possibility of chanced-upon link-ups that lead outward from any one communicational nexus or group. Under such conditions both subjects and objects are obliged to shed not only pretences to autonomy but also long-term loyalties and identifications, and instead to become more mobile, promiscuous operators that mesh seamlessly with the system’s mobile, promiscuous operations. Gilles Deleuze calls the new mobile creator who emerges in this transition from boxes to networks a “dividual,” someone who is not a “discontinuous producer” (making discreet objects one at a time) but is “undulatory, in orbit, in a continuous network.” Artists who are more “dividualistic” discover themselves not by securing a role within the historical narrative of a chosen medium but by integrating into a more diffuse ecology that involves not only making art but also putting on shows, publishing and organizing events, teaching, networking, maybe cooking or other services, maybe belonging to one or more semi-collectives, even adopting one or more pseudonyms.
One critical question to ask is how do networks, promoted for accommodating such dividualistic free agents, do or don’t romanticize the reigning logic of opportunistic exchangeability and the very real dangers of our increasing vulnerability to the moment-to-moment fluctuations of global capital. After all, it was during the mid-1980s that “networking” first became a common buzzword, when networked forms of coordination were appropriated as mainstream business policy, and when neo-entrepreneurialism began to take shape and corporations downsized en masse by eliminating middle management positions and outsourcing tasks to external spot-labor markets, all the while continuing a pace with their mega-mergers and acquisitions. In terms of the workforce, the entrepreneur, free agent and consultant have eclipsed the company man as a labor ideal; while in terms of leisure, the mass consumer has given way to the omnivore and mass customizer. Flexibility, mobility, transience and dialog—these are no longer challenges to the system, they are the very attributes the dominant system most loudly promotes. Today’s resourceful DIY artists risk glamorizing the euphemisms of entrepreneurial initiative and individual responsibility used to sell the recent neo-liberal agenda of deregulation, of rolling back state assistance programs, of “ending welfare as we know it.”
Being a non-artist artist, a political artist, a dividualistic artist , an artist who doesn’t make typical art, is romantic, its template is the romantic hero’s transcendent quest of leaving behind common social definitions and roles in search of individual paths and triumphs. Definitely we need more effective politics, I don’t question that. But we need less romanticism. Otherwise we look past the fact that our sense of expanded agency today has been purchased largely through an aggressive dismantling and ongoing collapse of the larger social structure. Falling progressively into ruin, that structure now belongs not to romance but to tragedy.
- Composed by Anthony Elms
Categories should always be stretched, broken and threatened, but that does not mean the perimeters and borders are problems. How else will I be able to speak and define what I want and when what I have is not enough? Perimeters do not only have to be spaces for stopping conversations and exclusions, they can and often are locations for inserting “and” or any appropriately additive conjunction. Unless we allow others interests to be other, we’re talking feel-good mashed potatoes. And I can believe it’s not butter.
I cede the floor, for the moment, to Andrea Fraser: “So this is my problem: I don’t believe that art can exist outside of the field of art, but I also don’t believe that art can exist within the field of art. For me, art is an impossibility. And if art is impossible, then artists are also impossible, and I myself am impossible. To the extent that I exist, I can only exist as a compromise, a travesty, a fiction, a fraud. The only integrity I can hope to recover is by trying to make sure I’m never misrecognized as anything else.”
To be what any one of us wants to be, I need perimeters to try and define what I do not want to be misrecognized for. How to do this without holding onto an idea of perimeters, even if it is for the desire to break them? Let’s stop throwing away, fooling ourselves that concerns like aesthetics, art, monastic studio practices, and the like are over or the problem and keep adding terms to them. Collectivity and cooperation have never been the answer. The idea, I thought, was always to become more complicated and implicated. The answer is to recognize the connections and collaborations that happen in order to function as an individual. To recognize that just because a single author or concern is put forward does not mean that others are not connected.
Oh, and yeah, the myth of social practice, collectives and democratic form, don’t fool yourself. In conclusion, I cede the floor a last time, to Tony Judt, from an interview: “Democracy has always been a problem. The truly attractive features of the Western tradition that we accidentally—and it really is accidentally—get the benefit of are the rule of law, liberalism and tolerance, all of which are virtues inherited from predemocratic societies, whether they were based in eighteenth-century Anglo-American aristocratic individualism or nineteenth-century European forms of a type of developed postfeudal legal state. Democracy comes last. Democracy is simply a system of selection of people to rule over you. And it’s not accidental that everyone is now a democrat. The Chinese are for democracy. George Bush was for democracy. The Burmese believe in it; they just call it something slightly different. South African whites believed in democracy; they just thought it should be arranged differently for blacks. Democracy is a dangerously empty term, and to the extent that it has substance, and the substance consists of allowing people to select freely how they live, the chance that they will choose to live badly is very high. The question is, What do we do now, in a world where, in the absence of liberal aristocracies, in the absence of social democratic elites whose authority people accept, you have people who genuinely believe, in the majority, that their interest consists of maximizing self-interest at someone else’s expense? The answer is, Either you re-educate them in some form of public conversation or we will move toward what the ancient Greeks understood very well, which is that the closest system to democracy is popular authoritarianism. And that’s the risk we run. Not a risk of a sort of ultra-individualism in a disaggregated society but of a kind of de facto authoritarianism.
- Composed by Victor Thassiah
1. The practice of art can simply be masturbationary and ejaculative.
2. As a form of self-expression, self-orientation, self-communication, and artifact-production, it doesn’t have to be disturbed by suffering, injustice, or oppression.
3. The practice of art can respond to suffering, injustice, or oppression, or aspire to their opposites – peace, justice, and freedom – just as the practice of business can.
4. The practice of art and the practice of positive social change can overlap. The practice of business and the practice of positive social change can overlap.
5. Should we maintain the distinctions between the practices of art, positive social change, and business? Yes, at least for the sake of convenience in communication and evaluation. These conventions reflect the integrity (however negotiable, evolving, and non-teleological) of the disciplines of art, positive social change, and business.
6. The boundaries between the practices of art, positive social change, and business remain relatively stable (there are of course occasional paradigm shifts) because of the relative stability of language and meaning. Talk of purity, though, seems pedantic.
7. When practices of art and positive social change overlap, then both ethical and aesthetic criteria should be used to evaluate such practices.
8. The potential of overlapping the practices of art and positive social change is comparable to the potential of overlapping the practices of art and business.
9. The death of a martyr can testify to the underlying unity of metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics.
10. Like the practice of business, the practice of art can be moral or immoral, or somewhere in between.
- Composed by Bert Stabler
What is lost/gained when categories broaden in this way?
In melting all boundaries, art loses some degree of coherence, both in the sense of unity and the sense of intelligibility. But unifying arbitrary elements and hovering at the edge of intelligibility is what has always made art transcendent; the big shift in the twentieth century was in applying traditional, fundamental elements of artistic content to the overall functional logic of artisitc production and interpretation, its context. Most contemporary art represents a certain trauma of sel-aware capitalist modernity, whether it means to or not, because context is now where (reluctantly or enthusiastically) the horizon of deferred meaning is recognized to reside.
What is at stake in maintaining the perimeter of a field? And who maintains the perimeter?
Maintaining boundaries in art (or any discourse) is essentially ludicrous. This isn’t to say that art isn’t a field, but it’s tricky to define where boundaries reside in fields– it’s like saying clouds have edges. Art connotes its proper spaces to be displayed and its recognized academic, commercial, and domestic infrastructure. But visual art in particular has problematized those reference points in a way that hardly any other areas of culture have managed to do, mirroring the semiotic meatgrinder of capitalism and making every pretense of conservatism utterly farcical.
Would it be more appropriate to use ‘ethical’ rather than ‘aesthetic’ criteria to evaluate this sort of work? What is at stake in such a shift?
Interestingly, the word “appropriate” connotes both aesthetics and custom/etiquette, which have an indubitable connection (and is coincidentally, as a verb, a polite synonym for theft). But neither really reminds me of ethics, although custom/etiquette could be seen as the clearest overlap of ethics and aesthetics. But ethical considerations are legitimate in any piece with conceptual content, and every piece has a historical, social, and generic context, and therefore conceptual content. The shift is really one from the ethification of aesthetics (if you will) to the aestheticization of ethics. This is the real difference between “political art” (beautiful concretized propaganda) and contemporary social practice (interactive process-based performative work).
- Composed by Frank Burch Brown
As my writings would suggest, I would not actually be among those wishing to divorce aesthetics (or even the study of aesthetics) from the political and social. One can see how life has been much impoverished through movements (revolutionary or otherwise) that refuse to envision aesthetic dimensions of ethics/politics, and vice versa.
But to make that claim that with any cogency depends, naturally, on a rather different notion of what to cover under the term ‘aesthetics’ or perhaps also ‘ethics.’ My point for the moment is just that I would definitely want to grant some “liberatory” potential to aesthetics in certain modes, although much less so in others. I decline to accept an either/or split between aesthetics and ethics, though a needless confusion (or worse) results if the two are simply conflated.
- Composed by Noel Carrol
It is difficult to say in advance what will be gained or lost by expanding the categories in this way. One has to wait and see. One potential danger in broadening the categories in the way you suggest is that artists and audiences will lose a sense of relevance — they won’t know what to focus upon nor will they know the traditions in which to situate the work (since the categories will be fluctuating unpredictably). One of the values of having a perimeter is that it directs attention. Who should manage the perimeter? Those artists and audience members, including critics, who are most articulate about the new work. And yes the work should be evaluated both aesthetically and ethically in accordance with the kind of work it is.
- Composed by Jonathan Preus
There seems to be only one position described in the “Background” paragraph, that of “self-identified cultural producers.” Why does Socialist Realism come to mind? It engaged some very gifted artists, since it was unprofitable, if not dangerous, to create works which did not conform to the required aesthetic of the day. Art has always served many different purposes, and advancing progressive political purposes is as good as any other. But as the sole criterion for the validity of art (however one defines that term), it is much too limited.
Good art reveals truth, focusses the character of a person, a relationship, an experience, a situation, a scene, a social condition, an event, in such a way that a sensitive person can recognize the truth which the artist has brought to light – whether it is the mood of a certain scene, or the urgent need to change something in our common life. The artist will not be aware of everything that he/she has revealed – just as we are unaware of all that we are revealing about ourselves in our everyday actions and words. Which leads to this: of course a good deal of the art one finds in museums was produced to flatter patrons, but the effect is social criticism. Social criticism doesn’t have to be totally obvious.
As to the categories, there is no way to establish clear boundaries between art and social action, or between art and any other human endeavor. A good cook can chop vegetables artistically. One could honor the work of artists with political purposes by judging their work according to their own stated purposes, whether aesthetic or ethical. Does the artist want his/her work to be judged according to whether it captures something true, or whether it leads to improvement of society, better behavior, reduction of some evil? These are not mutually exclusive, of course. However, social improvement hardly can happen without revelation of truth, but art can feed people’s souls without producing measurable social change.
–> © 2010 All Rights Reserved | Sara Black and John Preus