Why call it art? The Aesthetics of Participation
Last fall, I was having lunch at the Rubin Museum with Shelley Rubin, one of the founders of the Rubin Museum and founder of A Blade of Grass (ABOG), and Kim Brizzolara, a fellow Board Member of ABOG. We were talking about the sort of art that the newly formed ABOG Foundation would be supporting (like a lot of art the Queens Museum has been presenting) — social and public art projects. Some of the projects are relatively easy to understand as art – even though they are placed in unusual or experimental contexts. Other projects are not objects, but experiences – social situations that are created by artists. At one point in the conversation, I was describing Tania Bruguera’s Immigrant Movement International, and Kim became interested in the question of why the artist (or anyone) would want to claim that this environment is a work of art. She asked a string of questions that were very hard to answer!
This got me interested in what it is that people think of as art, and how the new art of participation fits in. A couple of weeks later, I began to ask these questions to friends and family. A particularly interesting conversation ensued with my sister, who is a classicist. She identified three elements that were prevalent in ancient aesthetics: Beauty, Realism, and Skill. This “big three” of aesthetics still seems to be dominant in everyday discourses on art. (I will get into her comments more in depth in the next post.) I will use this blog series to ask artists, practitioners, critics, museums administrators, curators, etc. two questions: Does it matter if we call it art? And if so, what are some of your aesthetic criteria? I’ll of course throw in some of my own ideas and some background, but most blog posts will be a conversation with one or more persons. By the end, I hope to understand these issues better. I had better do so, and soon. I have been asked by the Oxford Encyclopedia of Aesthetics to write an entry on participatory art!
However, here at the outset, I would like to open up with four questions to everyone reading this: What do you think it takes to justifiably call a social project art? Do you think that this is a valuable question? If so, what are some aesthetic criteria you would use? And if not, is it interesting to ascribe aesthetic criteria to projects even without making a determination of whether they are in fact “art”?