The idea of approaching a problem rather than representing or exposing it, and the process through which that approach occurs, is a central concern in social practice.
Claire Bishop, who always provides a nice old-school art historical approach to this tricky subject and is a joy to disagree with, outlines her notion of the central concerns of “participatory art” (a terms that, for her, encompasses the broad sweep of things, from relational aesthetics to public practices to socially-engaged art, whatever you want to call it):
“Recurrently, calls for an art of participation tends to be allied to one or all of the following agendas:
– “the desire to create and active subject, one who will be empowered by the experience of physical or symbolic participation. The hope is that the newly-emancipated subjects of participation will find themselves able to determine their own social and political reality.”
– “authorship – the gesture of ceding artistic control is conventionally regarded as a more egalitarian and democratic than the creation of work by a single artist, while shared production is also seen to entail the aesthetic benefits of greater risk and unpredictability. Collaborative creativity is therefore understood both to emerge from and to produce, a more positive and non-hierarchical social model.”
– “a perceived crisis in community and collective responsibility. This concern has become more acute since the fall of Communism, the isolating effects of capitalism. One of the main impetuses behind participatory art has therefore been a restoration of the social bond through a collective elaboration of meaning.”
Bishop’s framework is limited to the form of “participatory” art, the types of practices that involve audience members in the creation or realization of some type of product or event. As such, she sees only a narrow scope for such art – for her it is a fundamentally anti-capitalist form striving to empower the people (its “subjects of participation”), disperse authorship, and restore the social bond. Hinted in her writing is the idea that participatory art is somehow a nostalgic recasting of the lost ideal of Communism. She is clearly unimpressed by this, and searches for a “critical art” amongst what she sees as nostalgic and moralistic practices.
I feel that Bishop accurately points out some tenets that guide some forms of social practice, but she fails to grasp the larger reasoning behind these explorations. For a different and more encompassing theory of social practice, I turn to Belgian political philosopher Chantal Mouffe and her seminal article Art and Democracy: Art as an Agonistic Intervention in Public Space in the 2008 issue of Art as a Public Issue No. 14.
Mouffe begins by answering the hidden question, “Why the social arena as a site for artistic interventions?” Quoting Andre Gorz: “When self-exploitation acquires a central role in the process of valorization, the production of subjectivity becomes a terrain of the central conflict…Social relations that elude the grasp of value, competitive individualism and market exchange make the latter appear by contrast in their political dimension, as extensions of the power of capital. A front of total resistance to this power is made possible. It necessarily overflows the terrain of production of knowledge towards new practices of living, consuming and collective appropriation of common spaces and everyday culture.”
Clearly, like Bishop, Mouffe also sees these interventions in social spaces as an opposition to the dominant capitalist system and its exploitative symptoms. She explains: “What is needed to widen the field of artistic intervention, by intervening directly in a multiplicity of social spaces in order to oppose the programme of total social mobilization of capitalism. The objective should be to undermine the imaginary environment necessary for its reproduction. As Brian Holmes puts it: ‘Art can offer a chance for society to collectively reflect on the imaginary figures it depends upon for its very consistency, its self-understanding.’”
Mouffe casts this kind of “agonistic” practice (which does not promote an oppositional agenda to the dominant system, but rather an acknowledgment of the limits of any form of rational consensus) as playing an activist role in “the struggle against capitalist domination.” Though her distinctly Marxist viewpoint colors her framework for the role of art interventions in social arenas, the idea that these practices play an important part in the critical questioning of societal systems that self-perpetuate based on exclusion is exactly how I like to think about rigorous social artistic practices. They are forms of much-needed critique, played out in the social spaces of everyday life. They are not solely about “restoring the social bond,” or proposing “non-hierarchal organizing,” but rather about exposing flawed societal systems by experimenting with modes of interactions and social critique…whatever those may be.
We need only think about the current healthcare debate, in which moralistic anger and irrational fear enters into what should be a rational policy debate. Hopelessness that a rational consensus will ever be achieved has certainly permeated my consciousness, and I am tempted to agree with Mouffe, that such consensus is never possible in a democracy, despite what Enlightenment thinkers have taught us. But this is where I believe social practice has a role. Not in solutions, but in experimenting with process, in pointing out systematic symptoms of post-criticality and hierarchy and exploitation, and how these conditions create an imaginary environment that reproduces such broken systems ad infinitum.