Last week I left off with a question that arose in the Open Engagement Conference in Portland - should social practice artists get rid of the “art” altogether in their practices? Watts House Project was recently counseled by a fundraising advisor to do just that. “You can raise way more money and have way more impact as just a community development organization rather than an arts organization,” were her words of advice. “Impact” is the key word in that sentence. Is it true? Is it the “art” label that holds us back from affecting real change?
There is an aspect other than monetary to consider as well, which I noticed in the furrowed brows and distraught expressions of social practice artists at the conference. To art or not to art, that is the morally-inflected question many of these young artists are trying to work through. Certainly, works that are inherently participatory and aim to be expansive or community-based or even (gasp) aim to affect real social and political change, will involve audience and participants that do not have an art historical background or language, or indeed any way of locating what they are encountering as “art.” This was precisely the reason that Ted Purves’s project Temescal Amity Works presented itself as “storefront” or “clubhouse” rather than artwork. I heard from several artists that they shied away from even calling themselves “artists” when working in communities, even if they considered the work part of their practices, because they inevitably encountered intense distrust. The insularity of the art world, the unwillingness or the inability to rationally explain things in an accessible manner, the “sceney-ness” that another colleague told me he despised (and that’s from someone inexorably entrenched in the art world!), this culture of obfuscation has brought us to this place. No wonder artists are wondering if they should even call themselves artists, or what they do, art.
I return to Ted Purves, and his answer when confronted with this question. “Yes, it makes it more complicated [to call it an art project],” he said. “But it is what it is.” This was a little unsatisfying at the time, and I mulled over the question for about a week. Last Tuesday, I attended yet another conference, this time the enormous American Association of Museums conference in downtown LA’s convention center. One of the keynote speakers at that conference was Peter Sellars - UCLA professor and theater director extraordinaire who gave a well-known talk (but one that I had never heard before) entitled “Art and Social Action.” Besides just being an incredibly engaging and passionate speaker, Mr. Sellars made the important point that the deepest things in life must be addressed culturally - you cannot legislate or mitigate them. His example was a recent rash of teen suicides in the bush of Australia, and that neither cops nor judges nor social workers could affect the pattern, but that artists could. What art provides is meaningful empowerment, a reason to live, and a future shaped by vision rather than fear. This process is not a mass experience, but a person to person encounter, which art can also provide.
He spoke about how our culture privileges the “objective gaze” of neutrality and indifference - from journalism to public schools. Art, he argued, provides the ability to turn an “eye of equality” on our world, a transformative gaze of love that sees with moral energy and understands one’s responsibility to the world. He also said:
Art touches the deep chord of the thing you always knew, inside of you.
Art is the act of recovering your humanity.
Art can create the safe place that empowers people to face and recognize their fears.
This poetic vision of art as being core to the way we live in the world rather than additive or privileged, encapsulates the value of art to social practice. Some things, indeed, can only be addressed culturally, and this interior value provides distinction that give these practices the potential for deeper meaning and wider breadth than projects that exist without the “art.”