Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Art as dialogue: more dialogue about art...

The recent art discussions I've been having with various people on 'art' has made me revisit both old and new ideas on the subject, including a great but rather academic book on a dialogical art practice, and the separate but not oppositional idea of 'art as intent'.

Grant Kester's 'Conversation Pieces: Community + Communication in Modern Art' (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004) has been particularily helpful in exploring dialogical or community art as a framework for social change, as well as ideas on the avant garde and theories around 'authentic' art. The above table from draws on the definitions in the Kester book, though not exclusively, so if you don't want to read on simply click on the image!

A dialogical practice based on the process of dialogue, collaboration, and participation in the process of the work often stands in contrast to the 'banking' model of art (to use Paulo Freire's term) — a process whereby 'the artist 'deposits' an expressive content into a physical object, to be withdrawn later by the viewer'. Typical understandings of the avant-garde (not my speciality, I should add) also cloud the understanding of a dialogical practice:

'Beginning in the early twentieth century the consensus among advanced artists and critics was that, far from communicating with viewers, the avant-garde work of art should radically challenge their faith in the very possibility of rational discourse. This tendency is based on the assumption that the shared discursive systems (linguistic, visual etc) on which we rely for our our knowledge of the world are dangerously abstract and violently objectifying. Art's role is to shock us out of this perceptual complacency, to force us to see the world anew. This shock has borne may names over the years: the sublime, alienation effect, l'amour fou, and so on. In each case the result is a kind of epiphany that lifts viewers outside the familiar boundaries of a common language, existing modes of representation, and even their own sense of self.

While the projects I am discussing here encourage their participants to question fixed identities, stereotypical images, and so on, they do so through a cumulative process of exchange and dialogue rather than a single, instantaneous shock of insight precipitated by an image or object. These projects require a shift in our understanding of the work of art — a redefinition of aesthetic experience as durational rather than immediate.'

The belief that to resist being co-opted art must resist comprehension or interpretation, has hindered understandings of dialogical work. 'It is inconceivable for Bersani and Dutoit that one could ever speak with viewers, only at or against them'. The fact that these strategies did nothing to prevent such works being both 'salable' and 'graspable', or the fact that this viewpoint tends to privilege the maker with some kind of moral superiority to the untrained and subsumed viewer, should indicate the need for the move towards fresh understandings. Instead, dialogical work, while retaining similar ends of the avant-garde, has taken a different path, and this is what Kester tires to illustrate in his text.

'A dialogical aesthetic, then...involves identifying their salient characteristics and linking these to aspects of aesthetic experience that have been abandoned or redirected in some way during the modern period. As I have outlined so far, these would include a critical sense that takes into account the cumulative effect or current decisions and actions on future events and generations. This represents an attempt to think outside, or beyond, immediate self-interest. The second important aspect of the aesthetic concerns a form of spatial rather than temporal imagination: specifically, the ability to comprehend and represent complex social and environmental systems, to identify interconnections among the often invisible forces that pattern human and environmental existence. The third aspect is a concern with achieving these durational and spatial insights through dialogical and collaborative encounters with others.'

These loose definitions question the hierarchy of the object maker/artist, authentic art and its perceived values, and art as a privileged realm of free expression. As Kester notes on Loraine Lesson: 'Lesson defines herself less as an object maker than as an artist who facilitates shared visions'. While not quite 'giving up art' as I noted in other discussions, it is a logical move away from the object and towards more non-hierarchacal forms of collaboration.

The second notion I have been interested in is one more relative to my previous posts. Based in the women's art movement and such groups as Black Mask, Situationism etc etc is the idea of art as everyday life. What this means is that art or the creative act could be understood as INTENT being acted out. Whether this intent is a painting, a poem, a propaganda poster, making a cup of tea, street sweeping, changing a nappy, burning down a factory, throwing a rock at a cop's head, or simply living life — and whether this intent or act is carried out by the cultural worker, 'artist', mother or cleaning woman should be irrelevant. In this way we can 'give up art' and cherish all acts of life, by all walks of life. That this challenges the status of art as high culture should illustrate it's privileged position, and the fact that this approach may seem utopian or unachievable should not negate its worth.

In this way, art could be understood in terms of an activity de-institutionalised and practiced by all, removed from the pillars of the gallery and based back in everyday, creative life. That art has become institutionalised and privileged as an activity to be practiced only by a few 'is a relatively recent phenomenon. The making of art was a central part of people's lives for most of human history — that is, until the relatively recent advent of a capitalist, commodity-based culture in Europe and North America in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At that time the emphasis in art shifted from participants, who could satisfy their own artistic needs, to specialists, who demanded a paying, non-participating audience to buy their 'products'. Essentially, the art-commodity came to replace participatory-art in most people's lives, and art increasingly became a source of alienation.' (G.S Evans in 'Art Alienated').

From 'The Assault on Culture' by Stewart Home:

'The use of term ‘art’, which distinguishes itself between different musics, literature, crafts, activities etc emerged in the seventeenth-century at the same time as the concept of science. Before this, the term artist was used to describe cooks, shoe-makers, crafts-people and so forth.

When the term art emerged with its modern usage, it was an attempt on the part of the aristocracy to hold up the values of their class as objects of ‘irrational reverence’. Thus art was equated with truth, and this truth was the world view of the aristocracy, a world view which would shortly be overthrown by the rising bourgeois (upper or ruling) class. As a class, the bourgeoisie wished to assimilate the ‘life’ of the declining aristocracy... (and) when it appropriated the concept of art it simultaneously transformed it. Thus beauty more or less ceased to be equated with truth, and became associated with individual taste. As art developed, ‘the insistence on form and knowledge of form’ and ‘individualism’ were added to lend ‘authority’ to art as a ‘particular mental set of the new ruling class’.

Thus, rather than having a universal validity, art is a process that occurs within bourgeois society and which leads to an ‘irrational reverence for activities which suit bourgeois needs’. This process posits ‘the objective superiority of those things singled out as art, and thereby, the superiority of the form of life which celebrates them, and the social group which is implicated’. This boils down to an assertion that bourgeois society, and the ruling class within it, is somehow committed to a superior form of knowledge.'

Now you can agree or disagree with that statement, but it does have value in describing how art has become separate from everyday acts or intentions.

Aan example (rather dated now, I must admit) of creative act/s formulised by the women's art movement, or in particular, Mierle Laderman Ukeles illustrates the idea of life and art being one and the same, therefore denying the privilege and hierarchy that currently exists in the art world:

'The chores that accompanied the raising of children became meaningful as she refused to define her domestic role as being anything more than a neutral work-system. Thus, by rejecting the standard "housewife" ideal, Ukeles hoped to revive the idea of housework as a functional endeavor—a ritualistic series of activities that maintain the hygiene of the family unit. Thus, she intended to confront the apprehension and anxiety of falling into a role and of being handed a social image she abhorred. Rather than disavowing her existential dilemma, Ukeles chose to "perform" housework as a maintenance system—a literal art of work existing in real time.

Having read the Freudian historian Norman 0. Brown some years earlier, the artist was able to identify her struggle between housewife and artist as resembling the familiar life-against-death conflict used in psychoanalysis. By accepting the reality of her situation as a necessary role in maintaining the household, she discovered the reality of maintenance as a means to the survival of personal freedom, art and all other social institutions. In other words, maintenance art was a necessary part of the human condition. Through this approach to the problem, Ukeles began to extend the references in her work outside of a purely feminist content in order to reveal the conditions of work, and the stereotypes handed to maintenance workers on all levels, whether in public, private, or corporate enterprises. Her mode of "doing" art became a series of actions that acknowledged the basic human operations that supported various institutions and perpetuated the idea of culture. In the course of redefining her own domestic role, she caught the meaning of art as action, art as gesture, art as circumstance within an appointed system or any designated structure.'

As I have mentioned before, I am excited in the holistic approach a creative praxis could take, or more specifically, how creative practice could help bring about positive social change towards a classless, stateless society based on the premise 'from each according to ability, to each according to need'. The libertarian possibilities of disavowing art as an individualistic activity that is somehow special or superior to other human activities are endless. Creative energies could be channeled into any (or every) action one could imagine. To give up artistic privilege, consumption and productivity — addictions which capital has convinced us gives our individualistic lives value — is the negation of art, the negation of domination. By approaching art in a dialogical manner in tandem with organising for radical, social change is something I feel is worth exploring — no matter if it seems idealistic, utopian or propagandist. As noted in 'Community Development' by Ife:

'Positivism, modernism and the Cartesian world view has lead to the de-emphasising of visionary thinking. The rationalist, pragmatic paradigm easily dismisses it as 'unrealistic' and impractical...

The importance of an alternative vision is not necessarily that it will ever be achieved in full, rather it serves as an inspiration for change, and as a framework for interpreting and seeking change from the perspective of medium and long term goals, instead of being purely reactive. It allows one to seek an alternative, whereas purely reactive 'problem-solving' and it's insistence on being realistic mean being permanently imprisoned within the existing dominant paradigm. If we are to change the world we must be able to say 'I have a dream' and seek to share and live that vision of a better world.'


Richard said...

I'm interested in this and Laderman Ukeles... (I read about her before when the debate happened with Scott etc)

But I feel while the "total art" you imply is great - there will also ways be a place for "individualistic" art...

I'm going to link your Blog to my EYELIGHT BLog.

Regards, Richard

Jared Davidson said...

Thanks Richard, and thanks for keeping san on the Maps blog!