Some Thoughts on Our Local Social Experiment: ArtPrize
By Diane Zeeuw, Chair of the KCAD Painting program
I would like to begin my rumination upon our local social experiment known as ArtPrize by turning to the philosopher who is best known for his advocacy of the importance of conversation, Richard Rorty. After all, the promotion of open conversation is supposedly the primary impetus propelling ArtPrize. Rorty notes that conversation is valuable not because it has any sort of metaphysical grounding, but simply because as a culture we have chosen to engage openly with one another, it is our chosen project. Rorty notes that at one time, the conversation within the philosophical world had been whether philosophy “should be free-wheeling and edifying, or argumentative and professional.” By extension we might ask the same regarding the function of our contemporary art world. For example, in Social Works, Shannon Jackson notes that many contemporary art projects claiming to be community-oriented are likely to only ever engage those already “in the know.” So we might ask if there is a way to broaden the possible audience for our projects without also needing to become overly simplistic and didactic. Additionally, a question, which continues to surface every year during ArtPrize regards what can reasonably be expected of a general audience—after all, a conversation implies an exchange of views, beliefs, and experiences, hopefully with the objective of negotiating some sort of understanding.
One argument goes like this: if indeed we are trying to engage the community in a positive manner what place is there in this event for the anti-aesthetic? I would like to think that Rorty might have pointed out that the art world does in itself constitute a community with shared criteria, interests, and goals, and one key traditional function of art is to hold up a critical mirror to society. Unfortunately, within the whole of ArtPrize there is very little, if any, purposively anti-aesthetic work. (Such an experience might be encountered at the Site Lab venue, but most likely, no where else.) Additionally, a concept that would be of great interest to my graduate students, but is notably absent from the conversation surrounding ArtPrize, is the much more sophisticated and viable speculative notion of the paraesthetic. Consider J. D. Urban’s piece, “united.states: an everyday people project,” a video installation comprised of interviews with a variety of people expressing controversial views upon socially hot-button topics such as gay marriage and gun control. This piece functions by reflexively pointing towards moral and epistemological limitations, but “without becoming a replacement for them.” (David Carroll) (Huh? What does that even mean?) Or the Juried Grand Prize award recipient, Carlos Bunga, whose piece “Ecosystem” engages with relational aesthetics á la Nicolas Bourriaud. (Who is Baurriaud?) I think it is obvious why it is that we have two ArtPrizes running concurrently, and two very different conversations.
I would like to argue that while the art world itself readily identifies with the notion of a post-Art world practice, the general public, to whom many of these community-based projects are addressed, still hold a notion of art as a commendatory term, as something inherently worthy of special attention, a narrowly construed Kantian notion of the beautiful, the pleasant, or the well-crafted. To the art world it often appears that the general public is at best interested in a pretty object, and at worst, often indulging in Greenberg’s notion of kitsch. What I find curious is that we as artists and members of the art world legitimate certain kinds of socially-motivated projects on the basis of community good, but often this is not what really interests the community.
While both artists and those from outside of the art world would agree that a successful work must be something worthy of our consideration, we hold wildly divergent notions regarding just what this might mean. Despite the many protestations to the contrary as expressed both by artists and the “public,” all of the work in ArtPrize, irrespective of its media or pedigree, is via context, a member of the broad category generally identified as art. But this does not make it good art. I would argue that for a work to be considered successful within the professional knowledge field known as art, a work must also engage meaningfully with conversations of importance to the art world.
Both the notion of public space and public engagement has become intrinsic to the lexicon of ArtPrize promotional jargon. Rorty also points out that public space is one of the most important constituting contexts supporting our civic conversation. But when we try to apply some sort of definition of “public” to ArtPrize, again we have a hard time deciding just what this might mean. Are the many corporate or business venues “public” space? (On the surface, this question even appears oxymoronic!) When we start to talk about “public space” how does “community” fit into this equation? On a more trivial note, why is the public defined inadvertently as those who can afford the latest smart phone technology?
Finally, Rorty cautions us against a wholesale rejection of tradition, but also warns us to be wary of any sort of encroaching sanctification of current practices. So rather than asking whether discourse surrounding the social experiment known as ArtPrize is the inevitable outcome of a great cultural divide, he would have perhaps pointed out that a more useful question to ask is whether a post-Art world culture “is a good thing to try for.” Does the project provide us with a provisionally useful framework by which to navigate a coherent world? Does such work provide us with additional tools for “coping” with our circumstances? Does it facilitate open conversation?
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Kendall College of Art and Design or Ferris State University.