Is it still possible for art to talk ? Some thoughts on local and social functions of art
par Brian D. Crawford par Malte Schophaus
What conditions have arisen to provoke the question, “Is it still possible to talk about art ?” Though we’re not sure if it was ever possible to talk about art, we are certain that the conditions that inaugurate art today differ radically from those that authorized the arts of a recent past. Rather than taking the dead end paths of art’s status which asks, “What is art ?” - an ontological question that views art most often as a thing - we choose instead to consider art as a moment of engagement that exists under specifically sanctioned social conditions, more appropriately addressed by the questions, “When is art ? Under what conditions does art happen ?”  We can begin by considering the artwork as : 1) a part of a larger interaction that takes place between object and observer (or reader, viewer, etc.), 2) an interaction that takes place within the frames of an artistic institution (such as a museum, or the novel) which authorizes the event as art, and 3) an event which often has the function of provoking the viewer to respond. In assessing recent changes that might shift the social and political functions of art, we turn to the effects of an era of globalization : the new material conditions of communication that shape our daily realities have also reshaped the space of the everyday by creating a different kind of world picture. Viewing the work of art within the larger context of the information society may help to explain the way in which art is positioned today. If the information society results from the shift away from industrial production and the shift towards information production, a significant consequence is that many aspects of everyday life (and art is no exception) are suddenly stamped with the imprint of information, with the potential to be digitized, stored, reproduced, printed, cut up, banalized, forgotten. Other critics have described the information age as one of great acceleration (Glotz, 2001), and as an age marked by the loss of time and space for reflection (Lash & Urry, 1994) ; these conditions of near permanent immediacy are ones that also shape the aesthetic engagement, while at the same time, raise important political questions. The omnipresence of information inaugurates the global, and the impact of the global includes, significantly, an increasing displacement of the local ; that is, the more the global dominates the world view, the more the local loses significance. In this new territory we may find a place where it is not only possible, but also necessary to talk about art. In this article we will side with the assumption that art’s function is that of communication, representation, perhaps even provocation. Even if all that an art object does is bring people together and nudge them into interaction with one another, or provoke them into reflection, these events themselves are purposeful and should not be discounted as insignificant. In this discussion, it will be helpful to look at how institutions that put their authorizing stamp on art have changed, and where these changes have brought the viewer, the exhibit, and the art event. What’s more, we would like to ask if there is still a space left for art to perform social functions, and how these spaces might be defined. If this article is in some small way a contribution to the poetics of social empowerment, it may be so because it is written as a collaborative effort between a social scientist and a literary scholar, with a resulting text that combines the descriptive with the prescriptive.
The original occasion for this piece was a photographic portrait exhibition, in which people in a community were interviewed about the social conditions that shaped their lives with an aim towards improving those conditions. Accompanying each portrait were quotations from the interviewed subject, a presentation that gave each person the chance to address a public. This exhibit is a good example of how art can return a sense of significance to the local by creating a space for a community : 1) to represent itself to itself, 2) to represent itself to others outside of that community, and 3) to provoke discussion about the conditions and realities of that community among all participants. The exhibit serves as a jumping-off place for this article, as an example of how local art may still stake out a place for a local community in an era where the local is made increasingly insignificant at the expense of the global.
To begin talking about art today, it may be helpful to look at a recent and rather different period of art, a moment when art occupied a different place in western culture. The period of Modernism (1900-1945) has been criticized that its art works were too inaccessible to the public and has often been charged with counts of elitism. In the literary world, people complained that one needed an extensive amount of esoteric knowledge in addition to familiarity with several languages, modern and ancient, in order to make sense of writers like Joyce or Eliot. Some considered the poetry of Pound as simply hermetic, offering no access whatsoever. The charge of Modernist art’s elitist nature was hardly refuted by Pound’s fascism, nor by Eliot’s conservatism. Eliot’s notion as the artist was one as a talent, but also one whose job it was to uphold the integrity of the canon, even to reinforce that stable pantheon of great men (and for Eliot it was men). The consequences of this elitism meant that art was only possible for the privileged, because only the privileged had access to an elite education, and only the privileged had the luxury of time that this kind of learning required. An effect of this elitism was that only the privileged viewer was addressed, and thereby implicated as the only worthy recipient of art. In this sense, art was not democratized, and it did not ‘belong’ to the average person.
This elitist notion of art does not characterize all art of the modernist period, but it certainly embodies a prevalent spirit of the time - a spirit which has endured with conservative institutions. At the same time, and perhaps just as important, was the fact that modernist art was concerned with the institution of art itself, and this concern expressed itself with the many breaks, not only from previous styles of art, but from rules and standards that defined art to its predecessors. This kind of rebelliousness and experimentation demanded that people rethink the way they talked and thought about art. Art used using itself to raise questions about its own limits and conventions. The frames that define the institution of art today are very much a result that began with these questions.
What has happened to those works of Modernism that demanded from its viewers a rethinking of how art should be understood ? Today, with Modernism safely in the past, a contemporary display of works of that era no longer rebel or create a scandal ; rather, these works now occupy the position of ‘the classic’ in the minds of the public. These works have become canonized, raised up to the level of ‘great art’ ; they are no longer contemporary, (that is, they are no longer ‘local’ in time) and so they when they provoke the viewer, they provoke differently, in a different historical moment. Once these artworks no longer speak about the present, if they endure, they remain preserved and take on a sense of timelessness granted by the social institution of art. What contemporary art says about the present is what usually becomes the stuff of scandals, protests, even violence. The recent controversy in which New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani cut off funding for the Brooklyn Museum  could be viewed as an expression of conservative interests trying to save the institution of art itself from its most recent attack - the danger of art becoming filth. The removal and occasional beheading of statues of Communist heroes in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s reminds us of art’s power in representing current political realities. This all brings us to ask, just what is the place of the immediate and the present in a notion of art that conflates timelessness with authenticity ? Is it possible for the art of the here and now to exist in a significant way ?
It is commonplace to argue that art derives its power from the institutions that authorize it, but we need to be reminded of that commonplace at this point in the argument. By creating what he termed the “ready made” first in 1913, Marcel Duchamp called the public’s attention to the way in which the museum as an institution guarantees art ; Duchamp removed a urinal, the most mundane of objects, from its ordinary surroundings, and placed it in an art exhibit, granting it the status of an art object. This act was a vocal rejection of the idea that objects in themselves could possess qualities that alone grant them the status of art. Duchamp recognized that the object’s status (as art or not) did not stem from particular qualities of that object (it was an ordinary urinal), but instead he saw the designation of art as having everything to do with how the object was presented to the public. The urinal was removed from its ordinary function, and so the object lost its original purpose (toilet) in order to become an object with a different purpose (art). What one can draw from these lessons is the fact that art still needs to be declared as art, authorized by some institution or authority, in order to be distinguished from the everyday. After all, it is hard to imagine that anyone would mistake the urinal in the museum exhibit for an ordinary urinal and actually use it ; the clear distinction in our minds between the mundane and the artistic, the secular from the sacred, only reaffirms the power of the institution of art to inaugurate an aesthetic event. One far-reaching consequence of Duchamp’s action is that the institution of art has moved well beyond the halls of the museum. Once the everyday enters the space of the museum, the reverse also begins to happen - the museum also begins to enter the space of the everyday.
So what are the conditions under which one must speak of art today ? The elite no longer maintains a monopoly on the interpretive or productive power of the institution of art, although frequent examples of the fight to keep art in just this position continue to appear. The authority of this institution has declined even as the residue of it remains, and as art has become democratized, it has left the institutions it once inhabited to appear more frequently in public spaces increasingly defined by the growth of capitalism and by conditions that make up the information society. Public performance art, such as the ‘happening’ of the late 1960s in the US, or works by performance artists such as Chris Burdon, may serve as examples of this kind of displacement. Some other examples include : at one end of the scale, the cooptation of art for corporate marketing, and at the other end, the proliferation of graffiti. The use of art in the corporate realm is not limited to advertising, however, since it also includes corporate underwriting of museum exhibitions, a regulating action that limits artistic and curatorial autonomy by ensuring that the exhibition contents meet the business interests of the corporation. The space of the market which has permeated the art world has reestablished a place for art in the everyday that eschews elitism and demands one sort of democratization, since the consumer base must be as broad as possible to maximize economic gain. This brand of democratization is formed at the expense of lower economic classes, individuals who are excluded from the consumer market. The advertisement as art, of course, violates Kant’s own requirement expressed in the third critique, which requires the viewer to approach the art work from a position of disinterest (Kant 1790). Such a point should remind us that, disinterestedness abandoned, it is only a very changed aesthetic moment that still exists under the corporate umbrella. Graffiti, on the other hand, represents a different kind of democratization that marks the movement of art into the public sphere which is neither sanctioned by the institution of art nor sanctioned by the institution of the business corporation. At worst, graffiti is disqualified from the status of art when it is mere vandalism, destruction of property. When it isn’t vandalism, graffiti can be viewed as a kind of displaced folk art, an aesthetic moment which does not benefit from legitimacy bestowed upon it by the institution of art, except to be viewed by a few, often other graffiti artists, as the ad hoc exhibition. Yet in the best of these cases, one can argue that even without such legitimacy, an art event is taking place ; the art object is one which declares itself as such, and which may provoke a public response, thought, even discussion. The occasional hiring of graffiti artists for murals in public spaces illustrates the use of a public authority to render legitimate what would be otherwise overlooked and considered vandalism. A park in former East Berlin may serve as a further example of the status of such art : one side of the Mauer Park (a small public park created in an area where the Berlin wall once stood) has extensive space for graffiti artists to come and create pieces. In such a space where it is understood that the police turn a blind eye, this activity is legitimated and accepted, thus permitting a kind of performance space. This acceptance, in part, probably stems from the hope that legitimate spaces for illegal activities will help to keep vandalism in check, and the result is not only a cleaner neighborhood, but also a constantly changing public gallery. In the example of the graffiti artist mural, the work is authorized by the authority of the institution of art (as the state), and the work is expected to endure ; more graffiti sprayed on top of the graffiti mural would be considered vandalism and a destruction of art. In the case of the Mauer Park spray space, the activity is tolerated, but the objects are still illegitimate (because it is the activity which is authorized, rather than the products themselves), and these painted pieces therefore only endure until the next artist comes along with a spray can.
One more word on the necessity of institutional recognition for art to exist in a public space. In 1980 there appeared a notice in a Swiss local newspaper that announced that someone was urgently looking for fourteen old television tubes, to reinstall a sculpture that was not identified or recognized as art, and was mistakenly carted away to the garbage dump (Gamboni, 1997, 9). This example speaks volumes about the proliferation of art into the public space, its democratization so to speak, and it yet also reminds us that if garbage can become art, then art can just as easily become garbage when it lacks the institutional affirmation of its status as art.
The authority of the art institution has not been eliminated as its range has increased, but rather a kind of dilution has taken place. As we have seen with examples above, it is still necessary for art to be recognized as art, perhaps declared as art, in order for it to function. One of the results of this dilution of art’s institutional authority is that it has somehow become almost a public right to declare something as art, in this sense it is easier for ‘art’ to exist than it once was, though the resulting art that exists is often somehow something less than official. Art can exist independently of the official institution itself, so long as the institution of art is invoked, so long as a sign declaring ‘art’ is placed next to the thing itself. At this point we return to the example of the community portrait exhibition mentioned in the introduction. The exhibition took place late in 2001 in the city of Miseno near Naples, Italy.  This exhibition of community portraits was organized by a group of social scientists with the intention of raising consciousness and creating a venue for the voices of individuals who were part of this community. The photographs shown included portraits taken by a photographer, landscapes of these areas, and photographs taken by the community members themselves. The texts that accompanied these photographs were compiled from interviews that covered biographical narratives, opinions about the quality of life in this neighborhood, discussions of social needs, and political conflicts that were part of this community space. The neighborhood represented is a marginalized space, since it is what is generally known as a “residual urban area”  - a temporary and undefined place consisting of empty lots, abandoned industrial sites, unfinished and left over spaces. Residual urban areas are transitional spaces, ones that are at present undefined and may later be shaped by city planners and investors ; this kind of space often becomes used as a collection of sites for unofficial community activities such as off-art galleries, unofficial ice cream shops, unofficial bars, unofficial sports areas, and even unofficial residences (often known as ‘squats’). In effect, the exhibit gave recognition to the temporary users of this residual area, inviting participation and the chance to get involved in the process of city planning. The members of this community were asked for their own subjective views about what could be done with the temporary space in order to increase the quality of life in the neighborhood. The exhibition of these narratives, portraits and landscapes gave visibility to the individuals and recognition to the activities of this community. The reaction of the participants to the show was often one of pride that their views were staged in a venue that established legitimacy and importance to the projects that took place there. The presence of international researchers and the mayor of the city helped to bestow authority on the exhibit and what it represented, and in the end, the members of this community spent much time talking with one another, and with officials involved in city planning.
This community art exhibition gives us much food for thought when addressing the question, “Is it still possible to talk about art ?” Here, if anywhere, is an example that allows us to return art (and thereby importance) to the local and reinstate recognition of that community. Although this is not the only direction or social function of art, it seems to be one example that should provoke further thought about the place of art in contemporary culture. One is reminded here of the vehemence with which W. B. Yeats called for portraits of the Irish people to be returned to the state gallery in Dublin ; his angry demand was a recognition for the need of a community to have images of itself in order to have a self image, while it also operated with the knowledge that a legitimating institution could grant legitimacy to the people it represented. In the case of the Miseno exhibition, one can see how a community can be legitimated through the political event of an art exhibit, and that these exhibitions can take place outside of the museum, but rather also in public buildings or even in residual spaces : outdoors, under tents, or whatever facilities are available to the community. Such an exhibit offers the members of a community the chance to reflect on themselves and how they constitute that community. In such a case, the community has the opportunity to talk about art while art talks about the community. Here art serves the social function of creating an open space that encourages interaction between individuals of the community, and invites self-reflection. The community exhibit also allows its members to represent themselves to a wider public. People from nearby neighborhoods, local politicians, and other interested parties are drawn into the dialogue engendered by the exhibition’s opening. Such an exhibit provides one answer to the question, Is it still possible for art to talk ?
The Miseno exhibit has retained a certain kind of legitimacy by going beyond the scope of the social science community project, and by invoking the authority of the institution of art in the way in which the exhibit is presented. The exhibit combines reportage and documentation with an aesthetic presentation, and in that way exceeds what language philosopher J.L. Austin (1962) would call a constative utterance - that is to say, the exhibit presents something more than a set of plain factual statements about the real world. Documentation, of course, provides a ground for the political issues raised by the exhibit, but mere documentation may not be enough to evoke the kind of participation necessary as a catalyst for social action. The exhibit also employs a necessary aesthetic indeterminacy that invites the participation of the viewer. Literary theorist Wolfgang Iser discusses the function of indeterminacy in the aesthetic engagement as a critical component for participation on the part of the viewer : “The indeterminate sections, or gaps, of literary texts are ... a basic element for the aesthetic response.... This means that the reader fills in the remaining gaps. He removes them by a free-play of meaning-projection and thus himself provides the unformulated connections between particular views.... In this way, every literary text invites some form of participation on the part of the reader. A text that lays things out before the reader in such a way that he can either accept or reject them will lessen the degree of participation, as it allows him nothing but a yes or no. Texts with such minimal indeterminacy tend to be tedious, for it is only when the reader is given the chance to participate actively that he will regard the text, whose intention he helped to compose, as real. For we generally tend to regard things that we have made ourselves as real.” (Iser, 1989, 9-10).
Iser’s discussion here is of literary texts, but the leap one has to make to include an exhibition of social documentary art is not too great. An inclusion of the element of the aesthetic allows for greater participation on the part of the viewer, while at the same time endorses the exhibit with the legitimacy that accompanies the institution of art. The combination of the documentary function is one that anchors the exhibit in a specific current social issue, limiting ambiguity to a degree, but still not curtailing it if the documentary is structured in such a way to include the necessary aesthetic ambiguity. That kind of ambiguity accompanies subjective quotations from the individuals pictured in portraits, for example, or from the aesthetic effect of photographs of sites that lack a certain amount of captioned commentary. The Miseno exhibit is only one example in a large range of possibilities in what could come under a discussion of social functions of art. In the case of this particular example, one should be careful before simply making a new call for social realism, since that has its own set of pitfalls, not the least of which include the promotion of Stalinist- style agitprop. Less obvious problems include the potential to create, in the name of social empowerment, a set of rather inflexible and dogmatic statements about social conditions that limit a range of views. After all, when recalling the example of Yeats, one should not overlook that his own project to provide the Irish people with an identity was itself, at its core, nationalist. This possible danger is always especially present with artistic statements that claim to represent attitudes or situations of the people represented therein, with the institution of art having the potential to legitimate and solidify a particular set of views at the expense of others. Both aesthetic and documentary modes can further this potential in different manners : ambiguity can promote the omission of significant information while at the same time covering the traces of that omission ; on the other hand, even with meticulous attention to detail, the documentary mode has the power to create a representation that carries along with it the suggestion of accuracy and claims to truth which accompany the documentary mode itself, an implication which may occlude fact that the represented point of view is not universal, but limited in nature. The aesthetic representation of social documentation has the potential to provoke and invite enlightening discussion, but also to produce real changes in the world, as one can learn from the photography of Jacob Riis (1890), whose documentation of New York tenements was a moving force in improving the conditions there. But the aestheticization of bleak realities like poverty also carries with it the potential to make suffering appear beautiful (which it isn’t), and which can have the end effects of exploitation and of compounding the distress of the represented situation by making it more easily ignored as the depicted subject is transformed into something pleasurable, contentless, and abstract - a transformation that relieves the conscience of the viewer without asking for anything in return. These are some concerns raised when art performs a social function, even one that attempts to return some substance to the local from its dispersion by the global. Yet these concerns alone should not be enough to allow us to shrug our shoulders and give up. The awareness of these potential hazards caution us to move forward responsibly, as with any representation that attaches itself to the identity of a community. Since one of the results of the social aesthetic is the opportunity for greater discussion, the opportunity to expose these possible dangers within that discussion should provide the kind of self-correction that often characterizes thoughtful criticism. The resultant dialogue can be one that, with the catalyst of an artistic venue, begins very powerfully, provoking conversation and reflection, even giving a voice and a face to a community. The echoes of these voices that speak from this artistic opportunity, however, are ones that have the chance to be known even better through the actions that follow.
Austin, J.L. How to Do Things with Words, ed. J. O. Urmson. Cambridge, Mass, 1962, pp. 2-8.
Gamboni, Dario. The Destruction of Art. London : Reaktion Books, 1997.
Glotz, Peter. Die beschleunigte Gesellschaft. Kulturkämpfe im digitalen Kapitalismus. Reinbek bei Hamburg : Rowohlt, 2001.
Iser, Wolfgang. Prospecting : From Reader Response to Literary Anthropolgy. Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. 1790. trans. Werner Pluhar. Cambridge, Hackett Publishing, 1987.
Lash, Scott, Urry, John. Economies of Signs and Space. London : TCS/Sage, 1994.
Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives. 1890.
 For much of my understanding of aesthetic matters, I appreciatively acknowledge the teaching of my professor, Wolfgang Iser, who provoked me with important questions, including, “When is art ?”. (BC)
 Sensation : Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, New York, USA : 2 October 1999 - 9 January 2000.
 The exhibition has been part of the research project “Urban Catalysts : Strategies for Temporary Uses - Potential for Development of Urban Residual Areas in European Metropolises”, which is part of the Key action 4 “City of Tomorrow & Cultural Heritage” within the Fifth Framework Programme “Energy, Environment and Sustainable Development” of the European Union.
 The Miseno case is a very specific type of residual urban area, since it exists on an archeological site that may be excavated at some point in the future, and therefore cannot be developed in any long-term manner at present.
© Brian D. Crawford Malte Schophaus / Organdi 2000-2007