Why call it art? The Aesthetics of Participation: Arte Útil Lab and Beyond
What do people call art?
Okay, let me get back to my conversation with Shelley Rubin and Kim Brizzolara. My initial impulse was to try to convince Kim that Immigrant Movement International is art. After all, I have spent many years working on projects like that, and I have just published a book on the topic! I talked about some aesthetic dimensions of the place – not physical characteristics, rather the improvisational and orchestrated patterns of interaction. But a lot of what goes on there is not so different from a community center in an immigrant community – citizenship classes, English language classes, workplace-safety seminars for construction workers, and so on. Despite my best efforts, Kim kept pressing – aren’t these activities (to which I am ascribing aesthetic qualities) ones we could also naturally experience in a community center down the street? Why does one place get to be called art while the other is not? It was at this point that I decided I needed to step back and reconsider. What would Immigrant Movement International be if it were not art? How would that change things? At the time I was talking a lot to Tania Bruguera about Arte Útil, and we were preparing for the Lab at the museum. The idea of the project is that art can indeed be useful, that it can serve as a social tool without losing its status as art. So, a collection of Arte Útil projects would be an excellent moment to contemplate what is art and what is not.
After the Arte Útil Lab opened to the public, we started spending some time in the galleries. Did people see these projects as art? Was it confusing? It turned out that for the most part, the audience at the Queens Museum was not interested in this question. Rather, the way to engage them was to simply talk to the visitors about what projects do. Pointing out, for example that these seeds are pulling toxins out of the soil or that this artist has helped create a hotline for domestic workers. This was interesting. The “Is it art?” question was not. Visitors were happy to talk about the projects’ function rather that their status as art. Great! Why not simply bypass the question entirely? But isn’t avoiding the question a cop-out? Later on I will argue that it is not, but in the meantime, let me get back to the process here.
About a month after the Kim and Shelley conversation I started talking to some friends and family about my interest in blogging about the meaning of calling certain social practice art. My initial conversation points were that a lot of contemporary/postmodern art criticism espouses the aesthetic virtue of complexity, and that a lot of arguments for certain projects being art lay in their relation to tradition. So critics are constantly talking about how a social project they like “works on many levels simultaneously;” that it has a complex mix of visual, relational, political dimensions that are mutually reinforcing. These same critics, including myself, are often interested in finding links to tradition that help explain the works’ aesthetic lineage. So we might look back to Dada and Surrealism or to Fluxus, the thought being somehow that if we can find a conceptual grandparent for the project that is comfortably within aesthetic boundaries, then people might accept the grandchild. After some consideration, my friend Howard Cohn said that he would add transformation to this list. This seemed immediately appealing. When Marcel Duchamp put a urinal on a pedestal, signed it R. Mutt and called it “Fountain” a certain transformation occurred to the object and to the category of art objects in general, just as there are social transformations when one calls Pad-Thai-eating art, or personal transformations when a young artist in Cuba attends Tania Bruguera’s school-as-art project for two years. These transformations are themselves the art in many projects.
My initial list of often-referred-to aesthetic values in the postmodern discourse around participatory art included:
Complexity, Relation to Tradition, and Transformation
In your responses to my first post, several other key concepts came up including (sorry for the super-simplification):
Interesting “terms of encounter,” provocative social form, and Wonder (John Muse)
Morality and Ethics (Franklin and Keith Brown)
Dialogue (Tim Collins)
Flexibility for Experimentation (Randall Szott)
In the next post, I will get to a discussion of what people talked about when they talked about art in the ancient world. But before we go there, do you have any criteria you would like to add to the postmodern list of aesthetic values for participatory art?