26 September 2012

Why We Can't Leave Discussions of Art & Politics to the Art Historians (With Apologies to my Friends and Colleagues in the Field)

Over at The Boston Review you can find this interview with Art Historian Claire Bishop on the politics of so-called "participatory" or "socially engaged" art. The interview follows on the appearance of Bishop's recent book on the subject.*

On the basic point - that art world spectacle is no substitute for actual community or effective politics - I could hardly agree with Bishop more. Sham participation is just that - a sham. But on point after point I thought ... "This is misguided or banal or both." And here, I think, Bishop is held hostage to the terms of debate in those art world circles where she lives and works. No surprise. This is what comes from leaving the discussion of art and politics to curators, art historians and such like folks.

Here is a 'for instance' (actually a few):

(1) Misguided:
"One of the main criticisms that I make in the book is that the discussion of social practice has developed around a set of ethical criteria: has the artist behaved well toward his or her participants? Does the work offer a good model for society? At the moment, good intentions are viewed as sufficient to make a fine work of art. This produces an overly earnest framework for discussing art, as well as projects that are safe, timid and predictable—organizing film screenings, going for hikes, cooking meals, and so on. This approach precludes the appreciation of other productions, especially ones that are more aggressive, disturbing, or perverse; more indirect or subversive approaches to the social are dismissed as exploitative and excluded. But these more radical projects might be telling us something more truthful and honest about social relations. This ethical perspective tends to infantilize participants, presuming they are unable to make their own judgments about a work." 
The basic judgement about good intentions and timidity seems fair enough. But why accede to the tendency to reduce ethics to the intentions of actors? We need not be Kantians, right? Why not challenge the reduction? There are several alternatives available. Bishop simply accepts the liberal individualism of her art world friends to set the terms of debate. But if we insist that ethics is Kantian we are half way (at least) to the sort of self-absorbed enterprise (say, by various Marina Abramović performances that Bishop rightly disparages) that seem to be at issue. And Bishop deflates the possibility of effective politics by insisting that at bottom all politics is grounded in ethics "(because at the end of the day ethics underpins all political beliefs)." The upshot is that effectiveness or success amounts to maintaining a clean conscience, not to effecting consequences in the world in however distant or indirect a way.

(2) Banal:
"By doing this research, I learned that it was during moments of political upheaval—1917, 1968, 1989—that artists intensely questioned the function of an artist and the function of a work of art."
Really? Really? With a PhD in Art History in hand and a tenured faculty position too, you just learned this?

(3) Banal:
"Ideally we should always read art dually, in relation to its artistic context and to its political context."
Really? Really? This changes everything.

(4) Misguided:

"At the same time, the main artistic icon of the London Olympics was a grotesque Anish Kapoor sculpture outside the main stadium, made from £19 million of monstrous, contorted steel. It looks like [Vladimir] Tatlin on crack. This is the epitome of art under the Conservative-Liberal coalition: an overinflated celebration of Lakshmi Mittal, the private individual who funded 85 percent of its construction and after whom the sculpture is named."
Let's set aside the fact that I tend to like Kapoor's work. (You can see some of the sketches and models and so forth for the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the sculpture that incurs Bishop's wrath, here at Kapoor's web page.) It simply cannot be that the funding source for a project is sufficient to condemn it. Here Bishop simply reverts to the infantilizing ethical fretting that she rightly criticized earlier. Sure, Mittal is a filthy-rich industrialist. How does that differentiate him from other patrons of the art world? As Rebecca Solnit reminds us (see sidebar): "Art patronage has always been a kind of money-laundering, a pretty public face for fortunes made in uglier ways." Sure, the sculpture Bishop criticizes here is part of the Olympic spectacle with all its nationalist fervor. (Did the U.S. beat out the Chinese in the medal count?) How is that spectacle less problematic than those that surround the various corporate sponsored museums (those monuments to wealth and national greatness) and biennales and festivals that Bishop frequents?
* Claire Bishop. 2012. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. Verso.

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Blogger bastinptc said...

Jim, I've had some back-and-forth with the relational aesthetics/social practice folks: http://www.portlandart.net/archives/2011/05/notes_on_open_e.html

It may be their exclusion of other art practices that raises my dander. Or, it could be the presumptuousness and naivete that many of them embrace that I find dismaying.

As for Bishop's latest book, it's getting panned by a lot of folks. I haven't read it, and don't know that I'll ever get to it. Nor do I think this "thing" has run its course, for as you point out in your post, money talks, and the social practice folks, are vying for a piece of that pie, which puts them in a rather awkward position, and may be the most "democratic" aspect of their art process: to some degree, we're all hypocrites.

26 September, 2012 12:50  

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