artists as agent of social change – or agent of government?

Andrea Polli's Queensbridge Wind PowerI was looking this morning for more information on the book, Conversation Pieces, by Grant Kester, when I came across this summary of books on public art. The books that Alison Green reviews are Mapping the Terrain: New Genres in Public Art by Suzanne Lacy (which I just ordered on a recomendation from Amber Hasselbring), One Place After Another by Miwon Kwon, Conversation Pieces by Grant Kester and The Lure of the Local by Lucy Lippard. I won’t go into detail about Green’s text, as you can read it here. But I do want to pull out one of the discussions about the role of public art in the context of “community” or within discussions (or even, gasp – actions) of social change. Here are a couple of statements from Green’s text (sorry I haven’t read the books yet or I would pull directly from them):

Lacy’s explicit focus is on the ‘community’ aspect of public art, as well as its ability to address ‘real’ social issues. She considers public art a ‘highly competitive alternative gallery system’.1 She also eschews artists who have successful careers in the art world who periodically make public art works, or thematise the idea of public communication in their work. For Lacy, the most successful public art projects are ones where the artist works as a kind of agent, or facilitator, and is connected to or connects themselves in a genuine way to a real constituency rather than an abstract ‘public’.

and later,

For Kwon, all of the transgressive and subversive gestures which were the domain of the avant-garde in the early part of the twentieth century have become mere glosses, patinas of radicality that cover what is essentially conservative work, fully-assimilated into political agendas but rarely truly effective as community projects or as artistic ones. For her the stakes are high; the debate on public art comes down to ‘the future of democracy’, in other words whether we live in a progressive society that both looks after its citizens properly and leaves room for protest. If art becomes a salve, it absolves those in power from making structural changes that condition social inequality.

In each of these, Kwon probes the idea of ‘community’ – how it’s identified by the artist, whether it exists in advance of the project or is created through it, how it’s formalised, and who ends up representing it. Her discussion raises a key question that’s shared by arts professionals and community groups but not always artists: how the quality or success of public art is evaluated.

Kester has no illusions about the limitations of dialogical art practices, or of activist ones for that matter. He writes, ‘Not all conflicts can be resolved by free and open exchange because not all conflicts are the result of a failure among a given set of interlocutors to fully ‘understand’ or empathize with each other’.3 He works hard not to idealise the artists he cites as doing exemplary work (WochenKlausur, Helen and Newton Harrison, Stephen Willats, Suzanne Lacy, Littoral, among the best known) and, perhaps better than Kwon does, holds a magnifying glass up to a range of their projects. Kester’s conclusion is to the point: the best activist and dialogical art has left little trace in the critical literature almost as a result of the fact that the distance between the artist and audience was negligible – this is the goal, but it also indicates how marginalised this kind of practice remains within the art world and critical discourse, not to mention bureaucracies. The best work slips under the radar.

Amber Hasselbring's Mission GreenbeltGreen’s discussion of the texts is a discourse on the value of different types of public works and how we got from there to here (how plop art and community art intersect and have transformed over time). But I am currently interested in the specific aspect “If art becomes a salve, it absolves those in power from making structural changes that condition social inequality.”

I had a long conversation with two friends of mine not long ago about the role of artists in political and social agendas (one works in this realm and the other is more traditional) and as well the impact of private funding filling the gap left by the lack of federal funding for the arts and how all of this, overall impacts the culture of our country. (I also had an interesting conversation yesterday with another friend about how a lack of government funding when there is no private funding model, can affect contemporary art).

Here’s the gist of the conversation: President Bush (the elder) in his 1998 inaugural speech called for limiting government spending and asking everyone else to take up the slack:

“I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good. I will go to the people and the programs that are the brighter points of light, and I will ask every member of my government to become involved. The old ideas are new again because they are not old, they are timeless: duty, sacrifice, commitment, and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in.”

—George H. W. Bush, 1988

There’s even an organization called Points of Light.

Packard & Steve discuss New SFAnyway, what became the real takeaway in the new Bush administration (is he neo-bush?) is not just limiting funding (because yeh, I do think we all should be involved in our communities – in fact I think community service should be an option for funding your college education) but completely removing the funding and leaving it to the private sector to, well, do pretty much everything. So when arts funding for individuals dried up, private foundations stepped in, when the arts funding for organizations started moving towards funding conservative and traditional groups, private foundations started funding the emerging and cutting edge groups.

And, as government support and funding for social projects is redirected elsewhere around the world – non-profits and, yes, even artists, are stepping in to fill the role of what was previously a government responsibility.

Is this right or wrong? I honestly don’t have an answer for that. They whole reason I got started down the path of creating works in public was the very frustration I felt over no one else (i.e. gov’t) taking the reins and providing information to people.

HighWaterLine by Eve MosherDo I think artists are potentially more effective than government or even organizations working in the sector – yes, I definitely do. Artists can think more creatively, inspire action and provide an entry into the complex issues by way of art itself. Artists can move more quickly, think more strategically and take on bigger risks.

However, there does need to be some sort of support system in place for this kind of work. Is it right for me to do the work of the OEM without their support? Is it right for Amber to green the mission in SF without the city governements support? Is it right for Andrea Polli to develop extensive plans for wind turbines on the Queensbridge w/out support from National Grid (ne ConEDd)? Sure, a lot of the agencies are happy to take advantage of the project once it has started (I hear Bloomberg is interested in Polli’s project) but where is the support for creative thinking right up front?

If there were better support for these kind of projects – would they get boring and complacent? Or would they get better? (Bigger dreams?)

I am working on a plan for “MY NYC” a plan for a utopian version of NYC (yes more trees & a park on park avenue – yes wind turbines on the bridges – yes a monorail looping the city!) do you think I could get funding from PlaNYC for developing it?

Probably not. But I think I will do it anyway.

Images from top to bottom: Queensbridge Wind Project by Andrea Polli, Mission Greenbelt by Amber Hasselbring, Urban Visions drawing by Steve Lambert, HighWaterLine by me

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