Aug 7, 2011

Living (and Criticism) as Form

Oscar Wilde wrote that all criticism is autobiography, but criticism can only bear to look at itself so closely. When an art critic or a curator trained in art history, or a curator with a background in art activism, compiles an account of socially engaged practices in contemporary art, he or she wears their personal story as a kind of badge of honor: I was once arrested for protesting against MTV's Real World, he might say, for instance, and references the World Trade Organization protests and Zapatistas of that era of activism as part of his argument. This gives a special authority, or at least particular reference point, to claims about the work being discussed. He's not interested in simple judgments--I like this, I don't like this--but he wants to take for granted, possibly, that any work making oppositional social and political claims is equally worthy of our attention. They're all equally legitimate examples of Living as Form, the name of a Creative Time program curated by Nato Thompson that examines art that models new ways of living. Nonetheless he's obligated to make choices about what examples are more worthy than others. This is his thumbs up--he puts the work on exhibit, invites a speaker, etc. Or in this case, he invites 20 curators to put the work on exhibit.

For Thompson's talk as a part of a corresponding series of engaging lectures examining work that blurs art and everyday life, he self-consciously raises all kinds of questions that are so much on target, without being quite satisfactorily addressed in so many cases. If art is being used to model new ways of living, one question is, where is the boundary of what's legitimately considered art, and does it matter? We're living in a world where everything is in a sense marketing, he says; from Facebook pages to life stories, our lives are terms of art tied in ever-more idiosyncratic ways to the production of economic value, and every personal exchange becomes a resume builder for the job of being ourselves.

How much should we demand of art by way of proof of its alternative possibilities, or its possibilities of resistance, to use a phrase once favored in academia? If an art project claims to be plotting a new mode of economic exchange, should we judge it based on its viability? Or should we all just agree that artists are too naive and ill-trained in social and economic theory--lost in misconstrued French socialism of the 1960s usually--to be using these big words but it was fun anyways?

What about claims that art can benefit a place by attracting economic revenue--in what Thompson sharply describes as the hipster bedtime story we tell ourselves, having assimilated Richard Florida's theory of the Creative Class. Yet city agencies, foundations, and cultural institutions are constantly making claims about the multiple million dollar economic impact of the art economy, arts festivals, art programs, and art institutions. It's especially striking how little art critics and curators are equipped to judge the effectiveness of work making social and political claims given that the standard criteria of foundations and grant-makers require the artist to ascribe impacts on communities. Creative Time was obviously founded and supported for decades on the basis of these claims, which have been substantiated, possibly, by the city's ongoing accumulation of value.

How can we reconcile the assumption that art is always supposed to be functioning as a tool of economic growth with the deep questioning of the economic system underlined by Thompson's appreciation of the Zapatista's anti-free trade movement, the carnivalesque Seattle protests, and his approving use of terms like "neoliberal." A dismissiveness about the use the market as a tool of social progress is taken for granted in artistic communities, without ever needing to be examined.

When Thompson concludes by saying it's "not just the charge of artists, but the charge of everyone on this planet trying to make sense of a coercive, dominating political system,” it signals both a desire to make art accountable for making a difference in the world and a totalizing view of political power. This view of power conflicts with his own observation that power is being constantly mediated through a circus of claims and counterclaims. It doesn't matter how faulty or absurd the argument, how misguided the economic theory in the world of the media circus. As long as it can occupy a few weeks of the 24-hour news cycle, with or without the support of the public, it can sway the terms of debate and produce debilitating changes to the social and economic order. The abandonment of the responsibility to judge consequences or effectiveness is shared by the art critic, the curator, the reporter, and the political leader: it's too complicated, and our only professional obligation is to focus on affective responses. We adhere to the truthiness standard of social and political judgment.

It's worrying when a really careful critic like Claire Bishop rejects any judgment of social and political work based on effectiveness because it's just too complicated to evaluate. It suggests that she's relying on academic training in a field that has never had to approach art as a tool and has no resources to evaluate social, political and economic ends. To abandon this realm of judgment as simply unknowable is to suggest that art criticism is not equipped to take social and political work seriously.

Artists are not technocrats, and they can't be expected to function like an NGO. But we have to take the claims that people make seriously. Artists can't be expected to understand economics enough, perhaps, to put together a thorough analysis of markets and then create an entirely new model of economic exchange. Yet this is precisely what the category of art described in Living as Form is frequently trying to do. The unwillingness to take their claims seriously may be a defense against the embarrassing fact that so often these are lovely experiments, great to participate in, but totally inconsequential unless you consider the economic effect of the artists themselves as consumers and attractors of consumption.

It remains true that everywhere the artist goes, he or she, often inadvertently, attracts capital around him or herself and produces increased value. It may have a minor effect, as so many isolated projects do, or it may be really consequential, if it can draw a critical mass of resources to a place that had previously been subject to neglect. This standard of social and economic impact would be difficult to accept if you presumed an oppositional relation to existing forms of economic exchange.

The art world lives in a contradictory bubble; it wants to claim social and political effects, wants to remodel the world, but is unwilling to look at its real economic effects through available tools of measurement. The anti-capitalist economic theory prevailing in the art world allows it to continually create work in an economic bubble produced by its own presence without ever having to be conscious of the profound inflation of value around itself. Institutionally, producers are often unable to move resources out of that asset bubble; the institutions continue to exist, in large part, to prop up and reproduce their own value.