Making art accessible for the public, and integrating art to everyday life have not been an easy task; even though artists worldwide come up with projects that share these sensibilities, academics like Claire Bishop and Miwon Kwon show the complicated dynamics behind art projects that engage with a community, in terms of ethics and aesthetics.
Kwon discusses how Sculpture Chicago’s efforts, such as commissioning artists that produce work in and for public spaces, like most public art organizations, remains naïve or unthoughtful as they still carry the notion of a separation between the artist and the audience, between the producer and the spectator, probably failing their own self-stated goal: demystifying the creative process, or “taking art to the man on the street”, which is already quite problematic in itself even by their choice of wording. In these cases, “public art” takes the form of “a disembodied museum,” far from demystifying the creative process, even at times being a literal alienating concept, as in the case of Richard Serra’s 1981 work Tilted Arc, which got removed in 1989 because it blocked the pedestrians’ route in the Federal Plaza in New York.
Kwon goes on to discuss “new genre public art”, a term coined by Suzanne Lazy, that takes the form of “installations, performance, conceptual art, mixed media art” and works that have “a developed sensibility about audience, social strategy, and effectiveness that is unique to visual art”, shifting the focus “from artist to audience, from object to process, from production to reception” (Kwon 106) Other concepts of socially engaged art she refers to are “site-specific art” “community-specific”, “issue-specific” or “audience-specific” art. Later, she argues how ambiguous the term “community” can be, and discusses the politics behind it, emphasizing different natures of communities such as sited communities and temporary or ongoing invented communities. In addition, another important aspect of these art projects is their functions. First, these projects were designed with the idea of promoting the economic development of cities, then, the functions shifted to promoting community development in specific sites.
This brings us to the question of what defines these projects as works of art rather than social development projects. In The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents article, Bishop discusses how many works of this kind suffer from an artistic renunciation, a lack of signature of authorship, embracing a “Christian good soul”. (Bishop 2006 10) She argues, counting on the participation of a community doesn’t necessarily make a project an engaging relational piece. She talks about how Oda Projesi, a Turkish art collective, embraces this Christian good soul with their projects that aim for bringing art to the people who live in their neighborhood by organizing workshops and providing them with art supplies.
Another aspect of the relational aesthetics pieces Bishop criticizes is their naivety and the lack of necessary friction. Drawing on the concept of antagonism, she argues some pieces of artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija’s dinner gatherings bring like-minded people, such as gallery-goers together, where antagonism is erased, rather than sustained. Another extreme case is Santiago Sierra’s works, for which he pays low-income level people such as prostitutes or street vendors for tasks like tattooing on their bodies or dying their hair blond for his piece at the Venice Biennale. The viewers of his works encounter his paid workers and what is left with them is a feeling of shock and discomfort; a collusion of two different groups of society, but not a different generative mode of relationality among them.
As Don Ritter discusses, the perceptual, conceptual, social and technological characteristics of the socially engaged art projects must be carefully thought through, since every decision can be a political one, and as Bishop draws attention to, it is important to keep in mind for what and for whom these projects are designed and implemented.
Here is my blog post where I discuss the problem of subjectivity and relational aesthetics for Spring 2012 Art After Deleuze class.
Bishop, Claire. “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics.” October, 2004: 51-79.
Bishop, Claire. “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents.” Artforum, February, 2006.
Kwon, Miwon. One Place After Another: Site Specific Art and Locational Identity. MIT Press, 2004.
Ritter, Don. “The Ethics of Interactive Installations” in Interactive Media Arts. Krakow: Academy of Fine Arts, 2009.