Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Oppenheimer Art and Public Life Statement

Specters in Public

Beijing, September 2014


I would argue that in any “free” and complex community there will always be conflict. Art functions as a stand-in for social discourse and as such mitigates violence. I don’t look to art to solve our problems or make me feel a part of any group. That’s quite a burden to place on any cultural institution save government—something with a monopoly on violence. For me, art is a place where values and meaning come into productive conflict— not resolution. At its best it does not produce solutions but provides a space for a reorganization of vision.

Much of the art we call public practice focuses on the rational, correctable and liberal parts of the public psyche at the expense of common irrational, libidinal states that are important aspects of what make us human and go a long way in defining our relations with our fellow community members. These specters suppressed within us have an outsized but little discussed role in human interaction and are certainly an important part of art. As I sit down to write about art and public-ness, it strikes me that for a publicly minded art to address only our social egos and not our ids is speaking to only half of whom we are.

Personally, it seems an overly broad conversation to group my colleague Theaster Gates’s direct engagement with the forces of capital, power and development with the collective Fallen Fruit’s political arborism but I’ve noticed that for some practitioners of public practice there is the idea that process is equal to or is the final formal outcome. I see this as a modeling, making an exemplary example of the type of social relations that are desired communitywide.  This utopianism, the formal production of an idealized state, is an idea with a long pedigree in the visual arts. In this process of modeling behavior, public practice engages in an anesthetization not of politics but of public manners. Producing a performance of social institutions and behaviors, the work I call into question builds through accumulative gesture an exemplary example of the social conditions desired. There is often a either overt or implicit answer. I admit that I harbor a profound skepticism of the possibility of singular answers to the questions of justness that public practice admirably takes up. We’re just too diverse a culture with too many conflicting positions.

In the prescriptive space that much of the work we are speaking about produces I wonder what room is left for the individual imagination and subjectivity of the viewer. Yet it’s so seductive; of course I should eat local food… treat my unknown neighbor with respect… eradicate blight by building a garden together!!  There is not a ton of headspace for our own subjective and perhaps irrational perspectives. This type of artistic space is telling me, not always showing me and when this happens there is a position I am being asked to affirm and that’s what social realism does.

What is the difference between aestheticizing politics and public practice’s performance of cultural value? What I mean by this is that the social value of materials, objects, and sites is accrued. It’s a slow process, both rational and historical as well as irrational and psychic. At its best art can shed light on this process, making the relations between things, people and each other more apparent. Art can be something that makes the viewer more subjectively attuned to how he or she inhabits our shared space and the rights and responsibilities of doing so, but in a way that brings the viewer to an awareness of their own feelings rather than instructing them through a series of correct answers.

I also ask what's wrong with the aestheticization of politics anyway? Politics itself is a designing of social interactions, and, with surrogates and form, a way of keeping us from killing one another (sometimes). Perhaps the distance a socially reflective object provides can bring awareness to the structures that we use to define our interactions. At the very least, these structures and values can become a slightly more recognizable, understood form—they’re no longer so abstract, as much of our interactions with one another are. This strikes me as one of public practice’s strongest attributes and one that it shares with sculpture. If public practice is doing this already maybe we could let go of this social prohibition and see where these ideas can go if left unregulated.

When I’m in the studio I approach a set of concerns and in doing so bits of form and social cues that intersect with the issue at hand come into the work in ways that open up new ways of thinking about the world, its problems as well as visions of how it could be. Hopefully. It’s an impure mashup, a phantasmagoria made of the world reconfigured. It’s sometimes freighted, sometimes joyful, but ideally fostering a moral and cultural self-awareness of the regimes that are the patrimony of a community. Simply put, it’s something that opens up new ways of looking at the world. This is what the arts can do.

In closing, there is a place for objects that are socially reflective alongside what we call public practice in the range of options available to artists today. While public practice is having a moment of vogue, the arc of history is long and no one argues there is only one legitimate avenue left for politically and socially engaged art. There are many. Discrete works of art can and do speak to contemporary social concerns in a way that is beyond the decorative, is engaged with the public, and deals with public-ness. The difference is that a socially reflective object puts pressure on the individual rather than on a community, without the brackets of the pedagogical. It is in this freedom that art makes social structures visible and acts as a bulwark against forces of social control—from both the right and left sides of the political spectrum.  In this day and age we are called on to make many choices—personal, political, moral and communal—and we should have the freedom to make ones that are both good and bad. Good art brings awareness, allowing us to see our own ghosts.