Jun 11 • 12M

four words for the art you love: coda (in audio!)

But how is it *art?

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Audio versions + experiments at undefended / undefeated, Sara Hendren's words and ideas about design, technology, art, education, and more. transcripts always included!
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Transcript, lightly edited for clarity:

Hi there, readers have undefended / undefeated. I wanted to try out Substack's audio feature, and also just see if audio is something that people enjoy. I'll also put this same text in text as a newsletter to you, but I wanted to try speaking to you, and ideally with you, for this coda to the two-part series, Four Words For The Art You Love [parts one and two]. So this year, I put together a couple of meditations on the critic Robert Hughes's beautiful foursome for evaluating art: lucidity, deliberation, probity, and calm. And if you've read those and you saw that, I worked through both how to think about studio arts—things like painting and sculpture—but then also maybe trying to connect them to the more recent practice of social practice art. And so we looked at a couple of works in that vein: Fritz Haeg's Edible Estates, Haircuts for Children and then at the end, one of my favorite pieces of artwork ever, duration artworks and that is Tamms Year Ten, with the coalition facilitated by Laurie Jo Reynolds.

And I got a really interesting question, from the philosopher and scholar, Andrew Beer, who wrote to me and said it was okay to read this question out loud. I wanted to answer it live, and also in text. So Andrew writes:

I knew nothing of social practice art before and now I'm very glad that I do. One question occurs to me: When exactly does a simple social practice become social practice art? I think for example of the vigil at Bald Knob Cross, [that was part of the Tamms Year Ten], which by itself seems to be a social practice. Any kind of communal worship in fact seems to fit that description. Was its being photographed and the photograph’s inclusion in a larger artistic project what made it social practice art?

Is the idea that the social practice becomes the object of art? That the practice becomes the medium of the artist and so the participants in the practice may have a particular practical objective, but the artist who renders the practice as art is concerned chiefly with creating something beautiful?, he asks.

And these are all really good questions. And I realized even after I hit publish on that piece that I had not really answered common questions that come up about social practice art as art.

There are people who are interested in: Okay, I can accept this as something interesting and compelling, but is it art? And does that matter? And on what terms would we count it as such? So, I would offer to you, Andrew, and then other people who may be interested, three ways for thinking about the way that social practice can function as artwork in ways that are interesting.

One is quite simple, the first one, and that is the notion of the frame. So if you think about the way that a frame functions around a painting, it has this very practical, structural job to do, but it puts a literal, draws a line around some vision of the world. So it arrests and it holds, and it supports that vision of the world to try to bring your attention to it, to concentrate your attention on it. And we would say the same, not about just frames for 2d artworks, but the pedestal on which a sculpture sits, or indeed just the white cube space, the big space of the gallery or the museum, that sets apart and bring some calm space around to set apart this work for you to see as framed, framed for your contemplation.

And that is a very classical idea about the standalone artwork. But you can think of the frame in another way: You can think of the frame as drawing that conceptual line, around any such activity, so maybe it's the temporal line of the curtain in a theater space, right? That draws a frame around action, that draws our attention. But in social practice art, the frame is drawn around what maybe otherwise, yes, social practices or everyday life even. And for some people that feels like, well, that's a bit of artifice and I think, yes, that is a bit of artifice, but it does the same function, that is to say, it draws your attention, it enchants and draws your attention to what would otherwise pass you by as just the immersive, discontinuous experience of everyday life, and concentrates your focus on it so that you see it with those new estranged eyes. You see it again in a new light.

So for example, if you look at Tania Bruguera's work called Immigrant Movement International, that work was a two-year durational work of opening a storefront, in Queens in New York, and offering pro bono English language classes and immigration law, services and advice for people in Queens. And it was nothing more and nothing less than that: this storefront that opened as an artwork, it was at the behest of art institutions, it was funded as art and it drew a frame then around, yes, probably similar practices that are happening everywhere. But because it was both a temporary provision, because it was presented and framed as culture, it drew your attention and an audience to it, and a kind of provocation around it, about this practice as such and the future that might hold that same practice, or that might disappear as culture.

And all the questions that are attendant to that: Is this activity one that we want to see in the world? It's being put forth as a proposal in the form of an artwork that then has these implications for its use value in general. Could it go out and continue as a practice in general—by policy?

And that brings me to the second point that Tania Bruguera has famously said: That she doesn't want an art that points at the thing, at the subject, she says. She wants an art that is the thing. This is the second way of looking at it: the notion of utility in art. Can utility be a vernacular in art, can utility be a result of art? Can utility be a subject at all? And I think a lot of times, if people are schooled in a classical notion of the contemplative object, it has to exit use-value and be concerned with expression and metaphor and symbol, but that's precisely what Bruguera is pushing against—to say, I don't always want the sign and the symbol that points you to the thing.

What if the thing itself could be framed and presented as the art? What if utility could take on that mantle of culture? Not as an end in itself, and not as instrumentalizing. Maybe you disagree with me on this—it may be that trafficking in utility gets you to that efficiency and consequences. But I want to say that there is a place for utility as one of the languages of art, and I think that's what social practice does really well.

And then the third thing is a framing that I learned from a curator friend of mine, a man named Rory Hyde, who has been at the Victoria & Albert museum for a long time. The way he thinks about curation is that he plans an exhibition of art or design work, and he thinks in his mind's eye about three kinds of audiences for that work. He uses a kind of water metaphor for this.

He would say: I'm planning for, in an exhibition, people who are going to engage the work as paddlers, and people who are going to engage it as swimmers, and people who will engage it as divers. So you get the metaphor here, right? There are people who are going to come and splash around a bit in a lightweight way, take a look at the art, take a photograph of it, appreciate perhaps the use of color, the surprise of it, and people who are going to swim, they're going to go a little bit deeper, they're going to read the text, they're going to be interested in making connections between and among artworks and then diverse people who are going to purchase the book at the bookstore, people who are going to go online and do a little more deeper research people who are going to let this exhibition send them on a deep dive.

And the interesting thing about this is that you could say: Oh, well, that's self-evident, good planning. But Rory thinks that all three of those modes of engagement are successful. In other words, an exhibition isn't just there to "try to win" by engaging divers only. Only if you really deeply engage—are you the good audience member for a work? No, that works succeed when they’re effective at all three of those levels. So that you can be a paddler and walk away with something that is perhaps a fleeting moment of encounter with the work, but that is still a success mode and if the work is doing its job, it can reach you at that level. And also again, in the mid-level, and of course in the deep level.

And I think this is relevant to social practice art because you can engage at all three of those levels without that the trip all the way to the museum to be the self-selected art lover. You can encounter social practice in other words, on the street and in fact, the street is often the very frame. So, if you go back to thinking about Fritz Haeg and Edible Estates, you could enjoy that coffee table book, you could appreciate the transformation of the front lawn into a gardening space as a paddler and just be interested in the quirky enigma of that. But you could also swim around in and try to do the calculations of: What would it take to motivate a whole neighborhood or a whole community around turning yards into gardens?

And then you could look at the diving person, and you could look at scale: what would the ecological impact be? And how would you move the paradigm from the ornamental lawn to personal property that does something more productive in gardening? But, all of those are success modes and all of those are ways that you can encounter the artwork, again, outside of the professional expertise of the museum and curation. This is not to negate those strong institutions, and what they do for us around art history, it's just that social practice art lends itself to these other ways of engaging, that I do think can just expand one's own enjoyment of culture as culture, and to see the work of culture, doing something more than the contemplation that the beautiful and perhaps qualified notions of the beautiful true, and good might unite themselves in these practices that are more out of the way, but that can nourish your insights and perhaps your actions nonetheless. So, Andrew, I hope that's a satisfying answer, we'll move on to other subjects in upcoming newsletters. Thanks.