Discussion: Social Practice Art, Abstraction, and the Limits of the Social

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]

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One Response to Discussion: Social Practice Art, Abstraction, and the Limits of the Social

  1. admin says:

    Taken from a Facebook thread of the same topic:

    Brett Alton Bloom
    This is a really good read. Gregory Sholette continues to lead the discussion and actually provides criticism and reflection that is relevant to those that practice this kind of work.
    Saturday at 5:08am · Like · 2

    Heath Schultz

    I found myself wondering, or perhaps missing, a discussion of the ‘materiality’ or ‘thingness’ of concepts and institutions that dictate or at least guide Occupy. Abstract concepts like ‘public opinion’ or the ‘community’ come to mind, as conceptual concerns that have very real effects on the kinds of actions and rhetoric Occupy deploys, who does them, who doesn’t, etc. Or, the elephant in the room for me, at least with the discussion of the division between ‘social engaged’ and ‘traditional’ art production was the university itself, as the enforcer of these kinds of practices. ‘Socially engaged’ work seems manifest ‘materially’ for the purposes to reporting back to academic discourse, at least in large part. In thinking about the ‘limits of the social’ in relationship to art or social movements, I wonder if we can speak to its thingness without also speaking to the thingness of its disciplinary or institutional boundaries and how we can overcome them? I’m not sure… It could use another read.

    Here is my favorite moment: ” In this sense, Zuccotti Park, along with all other OWS encampments, embodies an archive avant la lettre, that is to say, a collection of materials, biopolitical practices, and everyday concrete documents waiting to be recognized as an interpretable text.”
    Saturday at 12:50pm · Like · 1

    Brett Alton Bloom
    We need to remember that this work didn’t start in academic places. It has been brought into them and it has simultaneously been colonized by capital and brought into commercial galleries (this is the story in the US – slightly different in the UK or even still different in Scandinavia). The two things have happened almost simultaneously. Not enough distinctions are made between making Thai food in a commercial gallery or growing bacteria free greens with people living with HIV/AIDS pre-protease inhibitors in a non-commercial, far from the art world space. The politics and specifics of this shit matter and are often completely ignored by awful people like Claire Bishop. — Now this work is starting to be used as nationalist propaganda, or “soft power as Frances Stoner Sonders calls it in her book about how the CIA used Ab Ex painting exhibitions in foreign lands to demonstrate “free market” ideals to the world, via the Bronx Museum’s SmartPower initiative with the State Dept. You all know folks involved with this. Really creepy, deeply irresponsible shit. — Some of the limits of the social are the limits of the discourse around it. Greg makes some good steps with this text. He is one of the few people though actually who gets it and can articulate what this kind of work is actually dealing with. I have to say, though, that I really don’t like the term “social practice art” as it definitely turns what was, and still is, a really diverse, wide ranging, and when it started very anti-academic-critical- theory, often very anti-capitalist, field of practice into something much more banal and formal. Bringing it into the institution and creating social practice degrees is also a big part of the problem. I think what Greg might be talking about in referring to the materiality of the social is that every single social situation has a set of conditions that make it what it is – makes it recognizable to us as distinct things or experiences. Socially/politically-engaged art often takes a social situation and plays with its given constraints – the things that make it up or its materiality – and attempts to reconfigure them. OWS definitely creates ruptures in the received situations we all find ourselves in and momentarily disallows them from functioning normally. This is its profound transformative power that has been so moving and movement making.
    Saturday at 1:19pm · Like · 1

    Marc Allen Herbst
    I’ve been thinking along the lines of Heath all day.
    The article is good, I’ve been thinking about it all day. But I fall on the side of the social when it comes to the divide Greg makes… the limits of the social within the social. There are far less clear limits to the social outside of the institutions of representation and reproduction and scholarship that Greg refers too. He makes, I think, far to quick a jump from the more organic sign-making of the protesters (who follow a socialized procedure, not a professional impulse) to the archive for which the work is not primarilly intended. This is the social that I find myself more currently attracted- out of an understanding that it is organic social capacity which made OWS or any other social movement… not a reverence to an archive, political procedure or mediatic impulse.

    I am reading “the devil and commodity fetishism in south america” right now and it is ringing very deeply- one basic thesis is that work in the mines of Bolivia is associated with the devil and transformation, heat, potency and power. Organic, pre-columbian life is associated with fluidity and light, justice and all things sane. While Greg ends the piece “rather than thinking of social practice art as a strategy for unlikely survival against the forces of neoliberal enterprise culture and its strip-mining of creativity, we could inscribe this still-emerging narrative with a stubborn sense of materiality and a vibrant itness , that if nothing else would challenge unspoken hierarchies, and divisions of labor, because a critical, social practice should above all acknowledge the limits of the social within the social itself.” I disagree. I disagree because he normalizes social practice art with sociality… I agree that the itness of social practice art is necessary for its professional survival- a necessary devilish thing.
    But for the social is not in the thing, it is in the organic flow of more normal social procedures. This should not be overlooked.

    One more thing. I would refuse the binary that I and greg are laying out. I have heard talk of artists who work outside of living as form. Who don’t make their work a public document, but instead a normal procedure, something they do. The most stunning political example was an annectdote someone told me of an “artist” who for years would attend both IRA and Royalist meetings in Derry in order to bridge the gap. If anyone knew about the project, it would be over.

    The social is very different from social art.
    Deep respect to all.
    Saturday at 2:13pm · Like · 1

    Gregory Sholette
    I was not assuming or hoping that people would seek to fall on one side or another of some divide Robby, quite the opposite, my aim was to begin disturbing the apparent line between “the social,” and the “material,” or between the so-called institutional and so-called organic production of art. But I appreciate these comments a great deal, as well as those of Heath, and Brett (and I agree, the label social practice art sucks, still, its what has stuck). Only just one more comment/provocation for Robby: are you sure your not trying to re-inscribe the divide at the very moment it might be erased, a bit like the prisoner who soon returns to jail after being freed? -gs
    Saturday at 2:53pm · Like · 1

    Marc Allen Herbst
    I’m sure I’m not trying to re-inscribe. Its “professional necessities” first the market second that can only do that sort of inscribing.

    I want a writing that goes into this distinction, and I’m glad you do. The reality is, I think that people do fall on one side or the other, that social practice in Boise Idaho is different then a gallery based social practice, one is more a hobby, the other a carreer. I know these are false distinction, but they are important distinctions none-the-less. One acts within a less commodified social field, the other acts within a neo-liberal field. I know these are impossibly not hard and fast distinction, and to make them so would be very wrong. Very wrong. As I said, the devil is necessary. I’m a pagan that way.

    I don’t have any problem with the term social practice… its just a name.
    Saturday at 3:12pm · Like

    Gregory Sholette
    Ps for more on the link bet. OWS and archive see: http://artjournal.collegeart.org/?p=2395
    OCCUPOLOGY, SWARMOLOGY, WHATEVEROLOGY: the city of (dis)order versus the people’s archive | Art Jour
    The Occupy Wall Street People’s Library, Zuccotti Park, October 1, 2011, prior to the police raid (photograph © the author)
    Saturday at 3:17pm · Like

    Marc Allen Herbst
    I do really like Raunigs discussion of machines in his 1000 Machines. The movement is a thing outside of ourselves. But also the objet de’ arte is a thing outside of its creation… it has its own life and its own logic independent of its creator and the context of its creation. We write about objects (institutions, art, agit-prop, laws, elections) as necessarily flawed objects (because they are cast-offs from a machine with its own logic.. things that escaped in moments of difference to have their own lives and motions.)
    Saturday at 4:24pm · Like

    Marc Allen Herbst

    Thinking more about this article (note, its Marc, not Robby writing).

    What I’m getting at are two basic questions…

    1. We need to really be clear about what distinguishes the social from the neo-liberal social that social practitioners participate in creating? What is the difference between these two socials (admitting that its a question of minor differences and not clear lines). What is the potentials and differences of these two positions?

    2. What is the nature of the object in the art world that allows it to participate in a different way then a disembodied “social object”, from a political/cultural tactical position?

    This quote begins that look, “The recognition of a resistant thingness at work within the social, including those human-originated technologies that have gone on to operate virtually independent of us…” and your look at the formal play of the early socialist world is right on. In the new issue 8 of Joaap, Victor Tupitsyn’s article has a very interesting take on this- making (in my mind) an importatn point of the power of the state and distribution machines to define the meaning of an object beyond itself… I clearly believe in objects. And do think your direction right on. Lets go deeper.

    What is the social? What distinguishes, by degrees, the social from the neo-liberal social that envolves either of data-mining peers for professional choice or using peers partially as a mutually(?) acknowledge flesh for self-mediation. Its a basic research rule in sociology, physics and anthropology that the research has a great effect on their research. This really needs to be considered.
    I mean this too, not as a dismissal but as a critical question that we really should get much deeper in to.

    ” let’s say that Wright’s un-framed usership is conceivably already taking place; just think of the explosion of informal, noisy cultural activity associated with Occupy Wall Street”
    “a mix of the archaic and the new as if beneath the internet there is cardboard….All this complicates the classroom context.”

    I’ve been out of the US for the most part, but was up at CalArts for some time while the OLA was going on. The mass of students were not involved in any meaningful way with ows.The folks at OLA weren’t by and large artists who have made the choice that Wright suggests. Most OLA folks didn’t seem to be making this choice…”Prior to that day of liberation, any failure to reproduce one’s own academic field simply amounts to professional suicide.”

    If we are to more deeply appreciate the social and its very real power to constitute very inventive movements (with the help of artists), this needs to be very clear.

    This is a great direction.

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