31 January 2007

Forging Spaces for Imagination


"A city of presentation without creation defeats the central purpose of radical art: to make art an invitation to join in rather than just to look on, to give voice to the unheard, to engender conversation about the meaning of the lives being led all around us, to build a vital relationship between artists and public." ~ Rebecca Solnit

Warning, this will be a rambling, inconclusive post. I want to trace some loose and tentative connections between possibilities, public space, artists, communities and urban vitality. In part, the proximate impetus for the post is this anthology Participation edited by Claire Bishop that just appeared in a new, joint MIT Press/Whitechapel series called "Documents of Contemporary Art." I picked up a copy yesterday. The anthology is a bit parochial in the fairly predictable sense that it contains contributions occupying the intersection of European cultural theory and art history. It will be useful to me because that is a forbiddingly inscrutable terrain where I generally fear to tread. But the underlying thurst of the book is to see how the boundary between artist and audience has been understood and intentionally subverted in various ways in modern/contemporary art. That John Dewey, Jane Addams, Randolph Bourne, among others, had been articulating this agenda in the U.S. early in the 20th C seems to have been lost on the editor and contributors to the volume.

I also am reading a book Rebecca Solnit and Susan Schwartzenberg collaborated on a few years back about the role of art and artists in vital (and decaying) urban centers, Hollow City: The Seige of San Francisco & the Crisis of American Urbanism (Verso 2000). I was prompted to read this by a conversation with one of the smart graduate students in our PhD program in Visual and Cultural Studies here at Rochester who is interested in issues of public space and redevelopment. I lifted the passage at the top of the post from this book. It seems especially germane to the blinkered redevelopment vision in the City of Rochester which seems to me to be focused on making this a city of presentation and to neglecting or even eliminating the sorts of spaces needed for processes of creation. Actually, our extant spaces for creation typically seem to be connected to elite theatre, arts and music insititutions that carefully manage any opportunities for participation. By way of contrast I will call attention (again) to the much more progressive Project Row Houses in Houston about which I posted a short while ago.

The Houston project might well serve as inspiration for similar undertakings in places like Rochester where relatively inexpensive, appropriately zoned spaces like this are on the market.

In the right hands a converted church could provide modest but vital gallery and studio and performance space in a community that is marginalized within a city that itself is becoming increasingly marginalized politically and economically. And the imaginative projects that might incubate in such a space could, in turn, help foster the capacity of community members to envision ways of resisting the pressures beseiging them that might not be otherwise apparent. Just a thought.

Solnit and Schwartzenberg punctuate the notion:
"How do you face a time that, with new technology, new globalizations, new hybridizations of art, entertainment, race, politics, media, genes, new economic principles, can't be described in old terms but demands a response before its too late? With imagination. That's one reason art matters."
I warned at the outset that this post would ramble and it has. It also remains inconclusive. Whose are the right hands? Where might funding come from? What legal and political and social obstacles might emerge to threaten such an undertaking? Who knows? Creating spaces for imaginative practices requires diligence and imagination too.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello James,
I emailed you some time ago in defence of Rankin. I have just enjoyed reading the blog again, catching up with all I missed whilst away. Fascinating as usual. Ref 22/01/07 (Fashion phot.) Why do you dismiss various photgraphic genres as not being art? Have you written anything that explores why you think they aren't valid? I disagree with you obviously (and do not have enough space to explain why) but would like to hear more, regards Howard

01 February, 2007 15:19  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Howard,

Welcome back! Thanks for the pointed question. Here is my rambling reply.

I actually have been thinking about the issue you raise - what "counts" as art and why recently (I am teaching a course that raises the issue). There are those (Arthur Danto) who claim that there is no set of criteria that allow us to delineate the realm of art. So it may be that I can't provide a coherent answer.

My sense is that we have lots of practices - say, photojournalism, advertising (commercial and political), and so forth - and that we try to sort those out for various purposes. Our purposes often are legal or political or ethical. But sometimes they are, say, aesthetic. Fashion photography has an aesthetic and a commercial purpose. And it is often very fetching aesthetically (indeed, that may be its primary goal); the folks I criticize (Meisel, Rankin) are incredibly talented. They are good at what they do. But why should we want to incoorporate that into "art." (An analogous quesiton arises regarding the boundary between advertising and journalism or art and journalism.)

I think the folks involved want to gain a certain sort of legitiacy. They may not need it! The same goes for the ways they try to claim political or ethical gracitas for their work. Why? If there is something about their work that is valuable in its own terms (as commercial photography), why grasp after gallery shows or "political" statements or implausible influences?

That is not really an answer to your question. But somewhere in there, I suspect, are the grounds for an answer and I need to think soe more. Thanks.

02 February, 2007 10:54  

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