The pressure of reified bourgeois culture incites flight into the phantasm of nature, which then proves to be the herald of absolute oppression. The aesthetic nerves quiver to return to the stone age.
– Theodore Adorno
One catalyst for this essay is a recent lecture by Claire Pentecost, hosted by INCUBATE (Institute for Community Understanding Between Art and The Everyday ), an isolated lecture within their larger impetus to foster discourse in the local community about the feverish increase in public art projects. Over the past century, there has been a recurring drift from object-centric art practices which recedes into a collective fog of immaterial. Pure ‘material’, or formal art, such as painting, was targeted as vehicular for the homogenizing, false industry of culture. As a linear result artists blatantly transitioned into more performative, discursive, open-ended, and relational praxis. Relational aesthetics was a reimagining and furthering of the destabilized art practices of the 1960’s, and recent social art accelerates this destabilization. But the stress to redistribute aesthetics and encompass the masses began in early modernism, and is not merely the new anti-historical, anarchic character it sometimes fashions itself to be. T.J. Clark pinpoints what he believes to be the first instance of such dematerialization in Jacques Louis David’s painting, Death of Marat (5). For Clark, the projection of a politics for the people onto painting happened in a completely unnatural way; David’s painting had no inherently visual politics. Rather, there was a new pressure to force larger social issues into something which did not obviously contain them, in this case the French Revolution projected somewhat arbitrarily onto painting, as a means to instrumentalize it. Since 1793 (an arguable date amongst art historians) there has been a ‘contingent’ element to all art, where the visual is no longer self-subsistent, but vehicular for politics, the tether of social life in our era. Since then we have been grappling with a fundamental wrenching apart of wildly immaterial ideology, and its dissenting material counterpart.
A more obvious connection might be made between Clark’s contingency example in impressionism’s politics, and recent social art in the everyday. In his essay We Field-Women, T.J. Clark analyses Camille Pissaro’s impressionist painting depicting two women laborers in a field. Observing how a sympathy for peasant laborers imperfectly invades the painting, Clark proposes that the “peasant life was a screen, then, on which modernism projected its technical and expressive wishes”(6). The romance of the pastoral life thrives in contemporary, locally motivated art like Claire Pentecost’s, who retains a romanticized hope in an everyday laborer of Detroit, for example. Though the words we use for ‘peasant’ are now very different, the attitude remains the same: an idealization and abstraction of an everyday mass erased and retained as an artificial blank slate.
New contingent subtext to these dematerialized practices are notions that artists should not submit to their own commodification, but rather engender dialogue about the social forms residing behind them, hopefully transfiguring the type of insular art driven by the market to a more immanent and true form of exchange. Recent social art practices are not merely influenced by the 1960’s political art-project of dematerialization and discursive politics, but is rather an extension of that itself – the aftermath and the expressive dregs of that destabilization, in all its questionable forms. Social art should be understood as the living proof of proposed ideas from the 1960’s, and not entirely isolated as a movement. It is not surprising then that recent projects re-animate similar themes of ecology and abstracted theoretical dialogue within localized communities (a sharp distinction from early modernists’ program of global revolution) — idealized domains which further obscure the confused, destabilized presence of an acceptably unoriginal avant-garde, content with nostalgic aesthetic politics and homework help.
This overtly micropolitical activism deserves to be questioned instead of celebrated, as it merely alludes to larger systemic issues of capitalism. Social artists often venture into other divisions of labor, walking the fine line between complete liquidation into other labor divisions, and artistic autonomy. (such as Pentecost, who works directly with farmers but identifies as an artist) One gets the impression that these artists are increasingly content quashing the role of the artist, to such an extent that the ‘altruism’ of their art projects seem like pure symptoms of discontent with their historical defined position. Though the part serves the whole, it does not contain every other part of the whole in it. That micropolitical artists construe the divided parts as identical and individually complete is a fallacy. Each division of labor is not identical with the others, and thinking that there is mutual translatability between them is a naivete most refined in social artists, who begrudgingly transmute this Marxist legacy. Something so childish as to go against this dehumanizing mechanism – even if its method is a fundamental misunderstanding of systemics – disrupts and reveals its function moreso than when it runs smoothly. But it is mere disruption, and should not be confused as anything more. The whole sytem of production is complicated and requires specialized parts which are refined to the point of exclusivity, severed from any communication which questions its function. Though we all comprise the same mechanism, we are far from speaking the same language.