e-flux has just published my short text “After OWS: Social Practice Art, Abstraction, and the Limits of the Social,” therefore, in the spirit of developing and expanding this discussion around issues of pedagogy, abstraction, material production, and social engagement, my colleague Glenn Goldberg read a draft of the essay and we then carried out this related discussion below. Please join in, greg.
Glenn: do the remnants/products, documents, footage of “socio-political events” need be framed? framed as “art”? what does/will that do?
Greg: yes, I think its a question at the crux of things, because past attempts to merge art with life –for example immediately after the Russian revolution, but also Conceptual artist’s effort to de-skill, and de-commodify culture in the 1960s- both of these landed art back in the hands of collectors, and museums.
Glenn: if artists participate in an encounter whose purpose is “social,” need it be claimed as a work of art? Or better, should it not be claimed in accordance with its highest priority (as art, community/social service, whatever)? In other words, is the claiming of anything as “art” an overt attempt at elevating that activity or material condition? Is this claim really not a kind of political (small p) qualifier?
Greg: I catch your meaning here and would propose that perhaps the label “art” has actually evolved to be less of an effort at escalating one’s position in life (something Pierre Bourdieu once described in relation to working class amateur photography as “upclassing”), and has instead become more or less a routine function of the profession now called contemporary art, which is to say, what professional artist’s with an MFA are licensed to do: transform anything into art.
Glenn: most works of art are not works of art ( i refer to material works), they are paintings, sculptures, videos etc.., but not works of art.
Greg: I am not sure I follow you here Glenn, you mean until a work is recognized as making a contribution to culture/art as an institution or idea, then it remains only a work, but not yet a work of “art” ?
Glenn: when the material work of art became degraded (a function of a process/progress?), it left the void that social practice rightfully attempts to fill. The social practice sector of art is important fundamentally because it is an overt attempt to re-power art with substance and legitimate purpose in a period of intellectual and moral famine.
Greg: nice – we should put that on t-shirts, but seriously, it works only if we look at things from the point of view that art is worthy of being re-powered, and I don’t see that as an issue in theory, but what is problematic is that if the global finance structure of contemporary art does not change in the process, then it will turn social practice into another form of money/commodity soon enough (I was in Chelsea yesterday for first time in a long while, but just awful, not even irritating stuff like trash or cardboard boxes tossed on the floor of giant galleries, but instead, just boring stuff, clearly made for rich people to own and put in spaces that resemble these enormous white cube galleries).
Glenn: the crucial thing is the inherent problem of claiming the priority as “social practice art” in relation to its future.
Greg: agreed, also sorting it out as a type of pedagogy, since what it claims will no doubt translate in the short-run into academic priority for some institutions, that is inevitable I guess and for people like myself with some demonstrable stake in social practice art, it is an empowering thing as well. Still, one of the things that motivated this short text is the problematic division between material practices on one hand, and ideas on the other. I worry that this partitioning will become more exacerbated in an era of social practice art. I see that as untenable for two reasons: the practical issue that most artists (students, faculty, even amateurs, actually especially amateurs) make “things,” the issue is a potential for a kind of absurd apartheid between those who make and those who “do.” But second, the over-simplification that seems to be at play in which social art practice is treated as purely conceptual or immaterial or only in pursuit of object-oriented art practices (for lack of a better term) as a kind of prop for an event say, or even worse, as a residue as you put it that can later be enshrined in a museum. My text seeks to mess-up that reductive view by pointing to the “thingness” of social activity, and visa versa…not really a new idea or lesson at all, Adorno in his way made this central to his aesthetic theory, but its too complex to get into with such a short essay.
Glenn: and I worry about it potentially being doomed to antics, and patronizing political acts as a function of the middle class (and up) constituents who make up the demographic of artists. Is the artist mentality/identity politically radical enough today to avoid analogous pitfalls that most material art has suffered with respect to disingenuousness, entertainment, cynicism and self-service under the guise of political import? Probably not. Anyway, this is my immediate and un-edited response to your essay. All best Glenn
[Note: there is also a thread of debate about the article here fyi on facebook]