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Soft Perimeter

Post #1596 • March 27, 2013, 8:40 AM

In this installment: On Social Practice Art, That 1 Guy and CAMC, Art Basel vs. PAX East, praise for Comics as Poetry, Hess Gallery show starts today,

On Social Practice Art

Recently I had a discussion with Ed Winkleman at his blog about art realized as such by fiat.

A respected art dealer I know, writing about a highly publicized artwork, noted on Facebook the other day that, although he appreciated the piece, he wasn't convinced it was "art."

As I've noted many times here before, I firmly believe that Rauschenberg was right. "Is that art?" is not a valid question for the observer, despite how well educated, to apply to a declared artwork. "Art" is whatever an artist says it is. The role of the observer is limited to deciding whether that declared artwork is any good or not. It's not at all up to them to declare whether the work is "art" or not. The artist said it was. Full stop.

The reason I insist on this way of approaching the question is that it gives maximum latitude to artists to create whatever they wish and to present whatever they wish as a work of their creation. Any other formula is too restrictive in my opinion, limiting where the human artistic mind might one day take us, and in that way a hindrance to ultimate human potential.

I objected.

I no more have to accept someone's claim that something is art any more than I have to accept someone's claim that something is true. Calling something "art" is a request for a certain kind of regard. If the object is in the categorical center of art—a painting or a marble sculpture or something else recognizable from tradition—I'm likely to grant that regard automatically. If the object is at the categorical edge of art—difficult to distinguish from other kinds of objects or activities—I may not.

To the extent that a work of art relies on the act of being named as art to become art, a viewer has the power to disqualify that work from the category of art. The artist is free to call his production art. The viewer is free to disagree. The artist said it was? So what? The artist may be an idiot. So might the viewer, but the artist is responsible for making a convincing request.


I'm far more comfortable with the notion that you can call anything you wish "art" and I'll simply weigh in on whether I think it's any good or not. That avoids having people who are not artists define "art."

But take a shot. I'd like to hear your definition of art. And don't limit your definition to "objects in the categorical center of art" ... that definition is too easy to dismiss.


I usually do what you do—let stand the claim that something is art, and talk about whether it's any good. That's easier to discuss. But you're asking me to do something that can't be done when you ask me to define art in a way that includes the categorical edges. There's not a hard boundary, so definition is doomed to fail to include something claimed by someone to be art.

Instead, there are things that you'd have to be ignorant or prickly to say are not art, Chardin's Boy With a Top, for example. Even if you have philosophical misgivings about that, you have to admit that this fits a common, conventional understanding of art and you have to delve into specialized explanations to claim otherwise. This is the categorical center.

Then there are things that are not art, all the things in the universe that no one is claiming are art.

In between them is a soft perimeter, filled with objects and activities about which there are competing claims as to whether they belong to the category. It's important that these claims compete, because without the competition there's no interest in trying to make a work of art that operates there. If the viewer can't counter a claim that something is art, the world fills up with more and more things called art and more and more kinds of things called art until the category itself becomes enervated, meaningless, and boring. This is, in fact, taking place, because so few people are willing to counter such claims.

A genre needs a productive categorical edge in order to renew the center. Over the course of history, the pattern has been that the center comes to a crisis in which it becomes impossible to do something both good and different, and activity at the edge shows the way forward. Now that what passes for advanced art—Hirst comes to mind, but you could pick any number of people—is so self-evidently corrupt that the corruption is seen as part of the aesthetic, the center is going to have to come to the rescue of the edge. That may not even be possible. Fine art could easily go the way of classical music, with a beloved core of traditional masterworks and some modernist statements that people tolerate to some degree, while all the interesting things are going on in rock and pop. Except for us, it will be museum blockbusters of Impressionists and all the interesting things going on in comics, film, TV, and video gaming.

Ed objected in turn by saying that the center is corrupt, leading to discussion not germane to my point today. I note instead that my reaction to that counter-charge was, Does the edge not know that it's corrupt? Ben Davis, at least, detects something rotten, somewhat in spite of himself. And days after the above, the latest missive from the edge reported on a relatively new effort to contradict the collapse of values: Social Practice Art.

Known primarily as social practice, its practitioners freely blur the lines among object making, performance, political activism, community organizing, environmentalism and investigative journalism, creating a deeply participatory art that often flourishes outside the gallery and museum system. And in so doing, they push an old question — “Why is it art?” — as close to the breaking point as contemporary art ever has. ...

"Say what you will, this stuff is happening, and you might want to put your head in the sand and say, 'I wish it was 40 years ago and it was different and art was more straightforward,' but it's not," said Nato Thompson, the chief curator of Creative Time, a New York nonprofit that is known mostly for temporary public art installations but has been delving deeply into the movement.

Thus conjuring the typical non-existent objections that neophiliacs rely upon to shore up the vacuity of their concerns at any given time. Pace Mr. Thompson, forty years ago was 1973. By then, Pop was twenty years old, Fluxus had already produced its first wave, and video art, performance, and happenings were exploding. John Baldessari had been included in Documenta V the year before. So you might want to put your head in the sand and say that this effort to include more and more kinds of activities into the category of art hasn't been going on for a very long time, but Duchamp produced his Bicycle Wheel a hundred years ago, and one has to admit that mere positioning at the categorical edge of art is no longer a point of interest. For straightforwardness, it does no good to reminisce about 1973. And no one does. There are simply people who, when told "This is art!" answer, "No, it isn't." Or perhaps, "I guess, but I don't care."

Works can be as wildly varied as a community development project in Houston that provides both artists' studios and low-income housing, summer camps and workshops for teenagers run by an artist collective near Los Angeles or a program in San Francisco founded by artists and financed by the city that helps turn yards, vacant lots and rooftops into organic gardens. ... [It] has recently caught fire with a new generation of American artists in what is partly a reaction to the art market’s distorting power, fueled by a concentration of international wealth. Many artists, however, say the motivation is much broader: to make a difference in the world that is more than aesthetic. ...

Mr. Thompson of Creative Time said that many of the most dedicated social-practice artists see a huge divide between themselves and the commercial art world. “There are artists who don’t want to be the entertainment,” he said. “During a crisis of vast inequity they don’t want to be the sideshow, off to the side juggling.”

You have to marvel at the confusion here. There are people for whom the aesthetic is not enough, and so they go into... art? Are they not aware that there are many fields of endeavor, even employment, in which one can devote oneself to greater-than-aesthetic pursuits, if one is inclined to think about them that way?

Social-practice programs are popping up in academia and seem to thrive in the interdisciplinary world of the campus.

For "interdisciplinary," read sheltered. Casting about for objections, he refers to a blog post written by Maureen Mullarkey in late 2010.

[The Portland State University MFA degree in Art and Social Practice] confirms my contention that art is increasingly not about art at all. It is fast becoming a variant of community organizing by soi-disant promoters of their own notions of the common good. Thanks to the reader, here is more to testify that distaste for that word practice, spreading like a cancer through curriculum lists, is fitting.

To keep the ever-swelling ranks of MFA grads employed, art departments have to be inventive. Hats off to PSU for coming up with the latest disciplinary wrinkle: Social Practice. Forget all that passé stuff about painting, drawing, sculpture and, you know, making things. That was so yesterday! Besides, it was hard. Posing is infinitely more congenial than risking one’s trembling ego over, well, a work of art. Anyway, who wants to spend years in learning and perfecting studio practice.

Urgent, personal expression and lasting creative innovation do not thrive in the academy, so this tells us something. Ultimately, Social Practice Art is yet another form of Interactionism and as such doesn't insult art any more than any other artistic movement not driven by aesthetic concerns. Rather, it insults social practice. Mullarkey finds some choice examples.

[T]here is Amy Steel, artist and educator, who teaches at PSU. Ms. Steel earns her keep with such things as SnackBar, a project in which participants make drawings in exchange for snacks.

Then there is Ariana Jabob who “uses conversation as medium and as subjective research method.” Her project sits us all down to shoot the breeze:

Conversation Station is an informal conversational research project where Ariana invites people in public places to sit down and discuss what they think about unsettling but ordinary subjects, including American relationships to history, why liberals and conservatives disagree with each other, and death.

Outside academia, this would be laughed off stage as horseradish. Irish Bull. Hogwash. Bold-faced bunkum. But in the Department of Art, PSU, it is worth a graduate degree. And then there is Eric Steen, another civic consciousness native to Portland.

His work explores leisure, pedagogy, and microtopias through socially engaged projects.

That is perfectly clear to you, isn’t it? I hope so, because I have no idea what it means myself. Something to do with brewing beer on the inspiration of an artwork. [Shouldn't that go the other way around?] The practice of Helen Reed, though, is a little clearer:

Over the past 5 years Helen’s art practice has involved working with specific invested communities. During this time she has landed the first senior citizen on the moon, contacted Marshall McLuhan by Ouija Board, and coordinated a lesbian-separatist rave in the farmlands of Ontario.

Dropping in late last year on Miami's art coverage, I found that a Miami sculptor had penned (scrawled, really) an essay about visiting a crack house, and later taking a woman to the Seven art fair. The wrinkle was that she was suffering from "crack induced insecurity" and the artist used the occasion to take pictures of her around and in contact with the art on display. Presented variously as diary, documentary, intervention, market critique, and Situationist action without committing to any of the above, it had some of the markings of Social Practice Art. I commented:

If you were really just trying to better a handful of lives, I would respect the shit out of that. If you just enjoyed the company of young, inner-city black women, I wouldn’t judge you for it. But instead you’ve used these people for a quasi-art project and publicized it through an online art magazine. The humanitarian or social aspects of these situations, to the extent that they even exist, are serving your career interests in the form of an exposition of your creative and intellectual practice. This isn’t scanning well, and your self-described passivity and victimization in the way it all went down is making it scan even worse.

Purity of motive doesn't count for much in art, but in humanitarian work it matters. Results matter most of all, but the way in which the actors take credit for the results, and why, bear consideration. Maimonides described eight levels of tzedakah, "charity," roughly, though the word means "justice." The first and highest are interest-free loans, gifts, or business partnerships that enable enterprises that will one day make it unnecessary for the recipient to rely on others. The second highest is to give anonymously to an unknown recipient. The third is to give anonymously to a known recipient. Social Practice Art guarantees the aggrandizement, however slight, of the person or group engaged in good works. Enough aggrandizement impugns the giver. Putting such works into the category of art, and thus marking them for special consideration and as products of personal achievement, is even more aggrandizing than such acts would be otherwise. Because of this, when the examples are inconsequential such as the ones cited by Mullarkey, they seem narcissistic to the point of brain damage. When they're consequential and well-executed, such as the Pulitzer Foundation for the Art's town hall meeting described by Kennedy, they seem a little unctuous. And when they're consequential and poorly executed, such as the Miami example, they seem predatory. When I ran this last one by an artist friend up here in Boston, she noted that it didn't look like an accident that the artist selected a younger female for involvement in his escapade, and the subject of his current work in progress is a "sex worker and drug user" who looks younger still.

If that weren't complicated enough, there's the problem of what happens when you believe that morality leads inexorably to a particular political view. Kennedy again:

[T]he political nature of the movement propels it into territory that is unfamiliar to many artists and art institutions. Last year, for example, a group of artists boycotted a summit meeting that has been held annually by Creative Time since 2009, saying they objected to the participation of a digital art center supported by the Israeli government. (Creative Time later made clear that the meeting received no funds from the organization or the Israeli government.)

Or as the Miami sculptor put it, verbatim, as he defended his work:

Franklin, You are just about the most inept and ignorant right wing nut jobs that I have ever met in Miami... Now, you have moved along to Boston. Good riddance.

For anyones information, Blue is now in a rehab... Why? Because I give a shit. I encouraged her and other to get help... Part of that caring is being in solidarity with them–my friends...

Its People like you Franklin who do nothing but complain... always seeing evil self serving interest in those who actually care. Stick with your tea party people Franklin you are better off.

But morality doesn't lead inexorably to a particular political view, any more than it leads to a particular way of making art. All this reminds me of Philip Guston's personal crisis in the late '60s.

So when the 1960's came along I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue. [..] I wanted to be complete again, as I was when I was a kid.... Wanted to be whole between what I thought and what I felt."

Aside from a handful of unflattering drawings of Nixon, the imagery in later Guston does not illustrate a particular political angle, but uses an iconography of Klansmen, cyclopses, and disembodied limbs to describe an existential state upon which politics weighs. So the aesthetic was not enough for him, but Guston resolved the crisis through aesthetic means, through his painting. It can be done. But it requires a wrenching of feeling into form that most self-described artists are not capable of accomplishing, and in which some of art's representatives in the academy and the museum no longer fully believe. Those of us who do don't have to believe in them either.

Hello Friends

This past weekend I saw That 1 Guy put on a devastating performance at the Middle East. The opening act was Captain Ahab's Motorcycle Club. It turns out that my brother profiled the latter just a few weeks ago.

[CAMC main person Corey] McAbee said that one of the things he recognised about film is it requires all of the arts to work together—costume design, set design, acting, filming—everyone. He wanted to take money away as an incentive, and see if you could find a way for everyone who wanted to to contribute to a project of this kind of scope.

Here is some That 1 Guy.

Here is some Captain Ahab's Motorcycle Club.

Some Perspective

Total attendance at Art Basel Miami Beach, 2012: 50,000. Total attendance last weekend at PAX East: 70,000.

Praise for Comics as Poetry

Tamryn Bennett:

Comics as Poetry collects works that experiment with the forms of comics and poetry, inviting audiences to investigate spaces, silences and moments between the observer and the observed.

Aaron Geiger:

Comics as Poetry does something that we lose, for the most part, in the digital world: it uses space as a medium, as an agent, as a deliverer. The sender breathes space and the receiver listens to the language of nothing. Who would ever have thought that nothing was actually something? Even with our large, glorious screens, we cannot replicate the portrait and classical use of space. Leave that to the book. ... I strongly encourage you to support these poet-artists as they tread lightly to the side of the mainstream.

Noah Berlatsky on Derik Badman's contribution to the book:

Badman’s comics almost demand to be viewed, not as cut up panels of comics, but as conglomerations of pop art images — and in creating those conglomerations, he makes it hard to see pop art as anything but conglomerations. Lichtenstein’s canvases...are they really isolating images from a narrative? Or, instead, are all those isolated images trying but failing but trying to talk to each other, so that all of Roy Lichtenstein’s panels end up, not as bits from different comics, but as their own single melodramatic discontinuity?

The Seattle Star:

Comics as Poetry is truly a lovely book.

And at the invitation of Creative Relay, I wrote an essay about how it all came into being. You can order yours directly from New Modern Press.

Hess Gallery Exhibition Starts Today

My solo exhibition starts today at the Hess Gallery of Pine Manor College and runs through August 11. An opening reception and artist talk will take place next Wednesday morning, April 4, at 10:20. Hope to see you there.




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