Yesterday I watched the “Public Art” episode of Bravo network’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. Besides the ho-hum projects produced and the silly, shallow commentary, the reality show solidified for me (in a fairly formulaic way) the big problem with contemporary art these days. By the end of the show, I didn’t understand why the people who won had won, why the people who lost had lost, and why the person who went home was kicked off. This is a fundamental problem with the show – the stakes are all muddy, and it’s unclear that even the participants understand what they are being judged on, not to mention the general public.
And it’s not that standards for judging art don’t exist, they are just never clearly stated. None of the various fascinating problematics of art in the public realm – histories of site-specificity and conditionality, issues of safety and accessibility – were ever spoken about (yet participants were judged on those implicit conditions nonetheless). Nor was anything outside of a sculptural object ever considered, no historical precursors were discussed, nothing challenged set notions of public art. Mostly there was musing on the blue sky, the poetics of the gravel in the “art park” area where the work was sited, and a lot of inter-artist drama (it was a team challenge – enough said). The show is absurd, and it brings to mind something my colleague Nato Thompson said recently, “Art is fighting for scraps in a Red Bull world.” The pale version of art and artists (some of whom are probably quite talented) that emerges is stereotypical, and reinforces what most of the general public thinks anyway – that art hates people, and that artists are elitist jerks or pixie-ish sprites or control-freak bitches that have nothing better to do with their lives. It’s not even good entertainment, not to mention a blow to advancing a deeper general understanding of contemporary art.
This alienation is what I believe the form (if not necessarily the content) of social practice is responding to, in part. People don’t trust art and artists, or much of anything anymore, and creating legibility in art is still not super popular. The forms that arise from the best social practice projects emerge from deep and durational research, and are often hybrids or plays off of familiar, accessible non-art social forms or spaces – schools, events, lectures, gatherings, story-telling, parks, gardens, speeches, protests, coffeeshops, restaurants, clubhouses, neighborhood associations.
Yet these forms have incurred a host of inadequate art writing, because so much of social practice work is hidden, existing over a long period of time. Traditional object-based art writers, no matter how smart and observational they are, are simply not capacitated to write about social practice. Quoting Nato Thompson again, “Without data, the hard work, the critique, everything is a gesture” – which is in turn the major critique of social practice, that it is just a series of empty gestures. It is therefore de-legitimized, marginalized, and not taken seriously.
A sustained and collective effort must be made to write more responsibly about these projects, to attempt a fuller understanding (or at least point to the untold aspects). Hard work is required – extensive interviews, the collection of documentation, on-the-ground experience over time. I would like to think that most writers don’t phone it in, and I have encountered several that really make an effort, but the mindset that this kind of legwork is needed in art writing must be adopted. I would love to see more dual residencies, writers paired with social practice artists on projects over long periods of time, allowing for a space of reflection and analysis. With the proliferation of both social practice programs and public art & culture theory programs in graduate schools (especially in the West), this kind of collaboration is natural and needed. Perhaps then artists can be recognized for the cultural contributors and thinkers that they are, not a bunch of elitists that perform empty gestures for an uncaring public.