Part I: An Historical and Theoretical Discussion of the Project
The genealogy of community- or site-oriented art in the United States can be traced back to mid-twentieth century tendencies which sought to literalize art as a form of critiquing the medium-specific assumptions of high modernism — shifting focus from the surface of the medium to the museum space, from institutional frames to discursive networks, filtered through socio-political movements such as feminism, civil rights, etc, marking a cultural turn.2 This turn was hinged on the assumption that the site of artistic and political transformation had moved from the galleries and museums into communities marginalized by the dominant culture: senior citizens groups, women’s groups, African American communities, LGBTQ societies, Hispanic communities, and so on. “Culture in Action”, an exhibition project directed by Mary Jane Jacob in 1993 in Chicago, typified this political rhetoric of democratizing art (a value advanced by Russian Constructivists and European Dadaists earlier in the twentieth century) in what would eventually be termed by Susanne Lacy as ‘new genre public art’.3 The cultural other in the United States had become the subject of community-oriented art and in whose name the committed artist, so called, contests the capitalist status quo or institutions of art — galleries, museums, the academy, the market, etc. By this time site-specificity had evolved from an inseparable relationship between art object and physical environment to a conceptual one unhinged from its intrinsic reliance on literal space.
When a dialectical prescription was proposed in the 1930’s by Walter Benjamin to “operative” artists charging them to palpably take a position within the means of production — which to Benjamin is the site where inequality is produced— thereby massifying the means to construct alternative imaginations to the bourgeois status quo, the caveat was that it was a revolutionary struggle being “fought between capitalism and the proletariat”4. Benjamin further expresses a cautionary note that “to supply a production apparatus without trying, within the limits of the possible, to change it, is a highly disputable activity even when the material supplied appears to be of a revolutionary nature. For we are confronted with the fact […] that the bourgeois apparatus of production and publication is capable of assimilating, indeed of propagating, an astonishing amount of revolutionary themes without ever seriously putting into question its own continued existence or that of the class which owns it.”5 Regarding the revolutionary struggle, I found an interesting equivocation by Benjamin to place an idea (capitalism) in antagonism to a personage (the proletariat). This may have been his way of buttressing the vulgarity of the problem. For who invents these ideas and/or implements them in the first place? But he was drawing attention to the disparity between a soulless economic system whose set of assumptions and imperatives, thriving on scarcity and concentration, work to the detriment of disempowered masses. In this way, if it is not done away with or altered radically it can only offer what its logical outworking compels it to in the pursuit of profit accumulation and power.
Sixty odd years after Benjamin’s call, Hal Foster’s seminal essay, published in The Return of the Real (1996), juxtaposes the former’s ‘Author as Producer’ model (which reads its subject in terms of economic relations) to a contemporary model termed by Foster as ‘The Artist as Ethnographer’ which reads its subject in terms of cultural identity. Foster demonstrates that both paradigms share three common assumptions: Firstly, that the site of political transformation is the same as that of artistic transformation. Secondly, that this site is always located within the field of the other (be they the exploited underclass or marginalized communities). Thirdly that if the artists in question are perceived of as other themselves, they then possesses automatic access to a transformative power which is essentialized as belonging in the field of the other — in the one instance, people of color, in the other, poor people. Foster goes on to make the point that the inclinations of contemporary artists in the ethnographic epoch runs the tendency of committing the abominable sin termed by Benjamin as “ideological patronage” by performing their critique solely on the basis of cultural identity and not, as well, on economic affairs. Because they become more concerned with the politics of alterity, their critique is therefore done through an ethnographic lens: anthropology becomes their choice discipline as it is the discipline of social science which concerns itself with the study of culture.6
A recent example could be cited with Dutch artist, Renzo Martens’s reflexive documentary “Enjoy Poverty” — where he critically exposes this tendency on the part of the artist as well as his audience — in which he attempts to use art as a tool for capital accumulation: as a way of making the poor class in that part of Congo also benefit monetarily from their condition of poverty (through photography) as were the media, mining, humanitarian and other corporations operating in the region. karî’kạchä seid’ou, philosopher, poet, artist and lecturer at the College of Art in KNUST, Ghana, analyzes it in this way: “In Martens’ estimation, politically engaged art today typically changes the way artists and audiences talk about exploitation and inequalities and so forth by showing work to elite audiences while being indifferent to the work’s position within the exploitative processes of production and spectating.”7
The only people who do not benefit from poverty are the poor people themselves.
Read full essay here.
More about the project here.
1. Chris Hedges & Joe Sacco, Days of Destruction: Days of Revolt, 2012, Nation Books, pp 65
2. See “The Return of the Real”, Chapter 6: The Artist as Ethnographer by Hal Foster, Cambridge, Mass : MIT Press, c1996.
3. See Miwon Kwon, One Place after Another: Site-Specific and Locational Identity, MIT Press, 2002.
4. Walter Benjamin, The Author as Producer, Verso, 1998, pp. 103
5. Benjamin ibid, pp. 93-4. Benjamin critiques Activism and New Objectivity movements of his time stating that “I wish to single out two of these movements, Activism and New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), in order to show by their example that political commitment, however revolutionary it may seem, functions in a counter-revolutionary way so long as the writer experiences his solidarity with the proletariat only in the mind and not as producer.” pp. 91
6. See “The Return of the Real”, Chapter 6: The Artist as Ethnographer by Hal Foster, Cambridge, Mass : MIT Press, circa 1996.
7. Renzo Martens: Tretiakov in Congo?, kąrî’kạchä seid’ou and Jelle Bouwhuis in conversation