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An Anticipation of Participation

Post #1584 • January 15, 2013, 9:02 AM • 4 Comments

Ray Mark Rinaldi, reporting for the Denver Post:

These days, things are increasingly about making audiences part of the action. You can hardly enter a gallery without some demand that you make the art work yourself, by stepping or scribbling on it, by dancing or singing with it, turning its crank, eating it or tapping a keyboard.

Yours truly, almost three years ago:

I hazard a prediction. Subsequent developments to postmodernism are going to keep getting absorbed into postmodernism as long as they continue to maintain the other-critical attitude. The next phase of art, continuing forward from self-critical to other-critical, is non-critical. Art becomes increasingly heedless of economic circumstances and politically gentle, concerned, when it shows concern at all, more with egalitarianism than complicated critiques of power. It involves objects because it has to on some level, but it's primarily striving for cooperative behavior—the artist's or the audience's. Without self-criticism to drive the work towards visual quality, artists in this new movement compete on scale. Modernists think of Picasso as the most important artist of the 20th Century. Postmodernists think the same of Duchamp. The new movement will anoint Christo. Its watchwords will be participation, collaboration, and interactivity.

... There are more environments to walk through, buttons to press, recordings to listen to, and videos to watch. Since someone has to label the new movement by insulting it, I hereby christen it Interactionism. It will not result in any great art—it will never summon the necessary internal pressure—but it will have the advantage of being engaging, if often in a contrived way. Where modernism was elitist and postmodernism was arch, Interactionism will be populist. Why are people waiting in line for upwards to eight hours for an opportunity to requite Marina Abramovic's stare? Why did the Starn twins build a jungle gym on the roof of the Met? They are bringing on the Interactionist future. Its fundamentally non-critical nature will dishonor postmodernism like modernism never could, although postmodernism laid the groundwork for it, just as modernism did for postmodernism. And I will not jump aboard that ship either.

I was wrong about Christo, but a lot of that holds up pretty well. Rinaldi, explaining that conceptual art lends itself to this sort of interactivity much better than, say, a watercolor, continues:

The concurrent rise of conceptual art—art based on ideas rather than objects—has offered a better route to participation. Museums have gladly turned over huge chunks of space to it while art schools have adopted it as religion, guaranteeing its hold on the field for a generation. ...

The fewer the demands, the more likely people will actually react. But simplicity is a double-edged sword. It invites in the idiots.

At Chang's outdoor chalkboard, where people finish the phrase "Before I die I want to _____", responses can make or break the moment. There's insight to be gleaned from an answer like "adopt," or "become a shaman," but just more showing off in "go skydiving" or "see my children's weddings." Who cares?

When someone writes "pee on my wife's chest," you wish you'd never stopped by.

At best, you can say those moments render the full picture of humanity: We can be brilliant, or we can be jerks. But we don't need art that tells us the things we already know. The piece is interesting, risky in its way, and part of a life of ground-breaking work from a talented artist.

At the same time, it shows where the whole movement can break down.

Rinaldi points out that arts administrators, chief among them the National Endowment for the Arts, have been pushing this sort of thing as a countermeasure to plunging attendance numbers in recent years. One rather gets the impression that we can't depend on such people to advocate visual art in terms that inhere to visual art—say, encouraging folks to go look at it.



Chris Rywalt

January 15, 2013, 10:36 AM

Soon enough art museums will be indistinguishable from children's museums. And I suppose the attendees will be about the same, too.


Piri Halasz

January 15, 2013, 11:21 AM

Very prescient. Actually, "interactionism" has been with us for some time now, at least since the later '50s and probably in Duchamp's day as well, and it hasn't yet entirely replaced more traditional art forms, nor do I think it will—there will always be some interest in painting and sculpture (no matter how poorly done it is). But I certainly agree that "interactionism" appeals to younger audiences, and that's what the museums want to bring in (and do). They figure older viewers who want to appear "with it" will approve the taste of the kiddies, so what we have is an audience of Peter Pans who never want to grow up.



January 15, 2013, 11:21 AM

Calder was performing with his circus sculptures in the '20s, and he would have been a better choice of antecedent than Christo, although I can't say if there's an unbroken line between Calder and, say, Tino Seghal. Or worse, Marina Abramovic.

I wouldn't expect Interactionism to replace traditional painting and sculpture except as the next curatorial preoccupation.


Chris Rywalt

January 15, 2013, 12:13 PM

Do not invoke my beloved Calder. We went to engineering school together! A hundred years apart, it's true. Anyway, the important points here are: I'm not sure anyone would consider Calder anything more than a minor artist; and the performances with his circus were a minor chapter in his career. He didn't build his whole reputation around that—it was playing, which is exactly what it should be. It was sad when I saw his circus exhibited as Sculpture You Are Not Allowed to Touch since it's so clearly a collection of toys which can't really achieve their full flower unless a kid is playing with them. (It's like some kind of "Toy Story" nightmare!)



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