October 30, 2010

Re- Certain Aspects of the Creative Time Summit 2 (2010)

As you may know, the Summit is sort of a two-day Pecha Kucha nite for activist artists. Intros are brief, and most presentations are strictly limited to 8 min. in length.

The presentations related to the topics of Markets, Schools, Regional Reports, Food, Geographies, Governments, Institutions, and Plausible Art Worlds; plus there was the presentation to Rick Lowe of the Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change.

There's a great website for the Summit here, with videos of most if not all the presentations here and post-Summit discussion on FB here.

(More visuals I shot of the CT Summit here. For other art stuff seen while in NYC, including links to visuals from the Greater New York and Last Newspaper exhibitions, go here.)

I found the the Summit extremely interesting and enjoyable, and very probably helpful, at the minimum in helping to raise awareness of socially-engaged art practices. Some of my own favorite portions included the presentations by (in no particular order, and perhaps for my own idiosyncratic reasons) Nato Thompson, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Anton Vidokle, Bruce High Quality Foundation, Claire Pentecost, Agnes Denes, F.E.A.S.T., Trevor Paglen, Phil Collins, Aaron Levy, Andrea Fraser, W.A.G.E., Basekamp, Eating in Public, and the International Errorist (who invites everyone to join them; I find no I.E. website, but here's their YouTube Channel).

I also loved the exit-hook music and appreciated Gregory Sholette's manning of the online discussion both during and after the Summit.

The point of the Summit, presumably, was not necessarily to explore any particular topic in depth, but rather to survey recent developments. That said, the program seemed to me more or less haunted by some big, fundamental questions, any one of which could easily devour the whole conversation if not the known intellectual universe; these lurking queries included:

• What is art?*
• What is GOOD art?**
• What is art that's good aesthetically (as distinguished – at least temporarily, for the purposes of discussion – from the question of what is art that's good morally or for other purposes)?***
• What does it take to have a sustainable, healthy art economic system, i.e., a system that would fairly compensate art workers doing work that will, over the long haul, likely be considered "good" (the "why new forms" question being part of this subject, as well as, how the heck are some of these projects funded)?****
• What is a sustainable, healthy economic system generally? or governmental system (recognizing, at least temporarily for the purposes of discussion, a distinction between economic and governmental systems, with CT's question, "what is democracy," being part of the latter subject)?*****
• Etc.******
Each of these questions contains assumptions and/or could be broken down into many more fundamental questions.

I realize artists are relatively independent-minded and that it's hard to get us to agree on much. But I do still think we actually could come to agreement about some of these "background" questions, or at least reach a clearer understanding of where our differences about them lie. And I think the answers to all are interrelated; but at least for me, I feel I make much better progress with them if I break them down at least this far, at least temporarily.

Would our discussions be enhanced if more of us had more clarity about these big, background questions? Maybe. The way they're haunting us is distracting, at the minimum.

Or maybe we just need an explicit acknowledgment up front that all those big, background questions are out there, and they're really bugging us, but we're going to try not to talk about them?


*What is art? Humans invented the term and we can re-define it and all other terms any way we like. My interest is in defining them in ways that will be most useful; e.g., I personally would like to define art in a way that differentiates it from, e.g., such literal expressions as an article in a medical journal, or such objects as a cup made without any regard to appearance or ulterior meanings. Also, if you define art as the same as politics, as one commenter seemed on the brink of doing, then I'm not quite sure how you differentiate it from religion and a lot of other things. Which may be ok; I certainly agree that politics and religion involve art or have art-y aspects; but I think there's utility in having a definition of "art" that distinguishes it from other things.

(My own, current, working definition of "art" is, any expression that deploys non-literal means.)

**What is GOOD art? I think it's important to separate this from the question of what is art. (To me, "goodness" is basically a way of saying that, within a given context, one prefers x over y.)

***What is art that's good aesthetically (as distinguished from what is art that's good for other purposes)? E.g., art can be "good" in effectively altering perceptions and, ultimately, what is actually possible, and yet be highly morally questionable; e.g., Karl Rove produced little that wasn't art (certainly, it was mostly fictional), and it was, in terms of his goals, frighteningly successful; ditto Ayn Rand.

Some people think art is good if it creates knowledge; some think it's good if it's beautiful (using "beauty" broadly/creatively); some think it's good if it has a desired effect (among other theories of aesthetic "goodness"). I personally think the answers to questions about different kinds of goodness, e.g. aesthetic and moral, ultimately converge, because i.m.h.o., the best art involves more than one kind of "goodness"; but I think it helps to analyze the different aspects separately to get to a clearer understanding of it all.

Related is the question of art's "value," which seems to have become fraught. To my mind, however, valuation is not the problem; the problem is who makes the valuation, on what basis, and over what time-frame. I.e., is putting a price on everything in itself such a big problem, or is it that the prices are all being fixed by vultures? And based on the very little I've gathered re- Marxist thought, e.g., it seems to overlook that an art work's "true" value is often not realized until long after the work was created.

That said, again, we can re-define "value" any way we like; and in this connection, I agree it can be a useful, at least as a thought-experiment, to "disallow a monied reading of every interaction or creation," as one commenter put it.

****What does it take to have a sustainable, healthy art economic system? Among other things, what does it take to have a healthy system for funding art – including fair remuneration to individual artists, sustainable arts organizations that are not vulnerable to being hijacked by the impurely motivated, and even national economic systems that work for those at the bottom as well as they do for those at the top?

Many artists seem interested in alternatives to selling art works as "commodities." But charity from the rich and even government funding implicate concerns about artists' independence; while, these days, extracting funds from the non-rich implicates concerns about putting the squeeze on a struggling economic class. Might not a mix of sources be best, so that at least there's some diversity in choices favored by different funding constituencies?

(And I gather Marx proposed that art works don't have any value and/or don't have any use; but over the longer term, haven't many art works proved by almost any measure you want to use – bang-for-buck, pound-for-pound, ultimate impact – to be extremely valuable and useful [if they're not useful, why so much law concerning their use]?)

(And if creativity is artists' capital, should they perhaps simply make sure to invest it only in ways they can ensure will help sustain them and be used in ways they approve? E.g., to take Siegelaub's Artist's Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement to the next level, what if all artists always retained basic ownership of their creative works, and merely licensed them to collectors et al., subject to various conditions? And note that once you've exchanged ownership of your art work for paper money (or of your time in exchange for Time Bank paper), the value of the paper can be destroyed.)

Also, during the Summit, I kept feeling we needed to acknowledge that part of the reason there's so little money for art is that the middle class, much if not most of which might otherwise be happy to chip in the relatively small amounts required to fund a lot of great art, is too busy being brainwashed and looted.

Which implicates the why new forms question: what IS a sustainable art production/remuneration system, or economic OR governmental system, whether small- or large-scale. (Or as Nato/Creative Time asked in a book I bought at the Summit and have just barely cracked, what is democracy, a whole 'nother question. [What it's NOT, of course, is, an economic system.]) Is it really that nonprofits (or, say, democracy, or communism, or private ownership, commodification, or capitalism, in all their varieties) can't work? Or is it, e.g., as Greg Sholette suggested, at least partly also a question of scale? Is it that any organization or system, regardless of form, is more likely to cease to work fairly once it reaches a certain size (or as Plato suggests, once it reaches a certain age), because the many in the middle and along the bottom of the org tend to lose the access/ability to hold in check the few at the top, because of increased specialization and diminished transparency and accountability, and/or because people's memories or applications of the system's axiomatic principles become corrupted? (And, e.g., I agree with Greg that merely having an organization be owned by members is no guarantee that it can't be hijacked by vultures; because corporations are owned by their shareholders, and we've seen shareholders also, frequently be shafted by their own corporations, because the latter now mainly are controlled by and serve the interests of their senior executives [partly because corporations have grown so large]; h*ll, even charities like the American Red Cross have been hijacked. Basically, any org that generates or aggregates value will attract vultures; and I do think that, the larger the scale of the org, the more susceptible it is to hijacking.)

*****What is a sustainable, healthy economic or governmental system generally? History seems to suggest that no organization of great size can function efficiently without some kind of hierarchy, and that efficiencies can also be achieved through some degree of specialization (not everyone is equally capable of financial accounting AND foundry work). And that leads to some kind of mechanism for exchange and valuation, whether it's a currency, barter, or time banking. And pls note that time banking makes time a proxy for value; and it may be a fine proxy, or at least a better one than letting the vultures fix all the values, but, e.g., it doesn't allow someone who's devoted years of unpaid effort developing a skill or expertise to charge any more for their time than someone who hasn't invested the same kind of unpaid time and effort; and the inequity in paying both individuals the same would be only partly remedied by making all education free.

And history also seems to suggest that for certain kinds of large-scale or long-term tasks (building a cathedral, sending a man to Mars), you need an org of adequate size as well as a degree of specialization. And as noted above, whether the org be a government, a corporation, a labor union, or whatever, it tends to become susceptible to being hijacked once it gets too big for those in the lower levels of the pyramid to exert meaningful control over those at the top. (Mind you, there are many factors in creating a sustainable system; another factor in the success of the U.S., such as it's been, has been due to the absolutely rockin' axiomatic principles in the form of the U.S. Constitution, among other things.)

(And maybe the question of optimally healthy, sustainable forms or systems can't just be answered once for all time; maybe there's a sort of arms race between those who wish the benefits of human endeavor to be shared fairly and those willing to exploit the chinks in the systems [and since no system is perfect, there will always be chinks] in order to benefit themselves at the expense of others [or said another way, maybe there's a race among competing definitions of what's "fair"], so that no matter how evolved your systems are, eventually the exploiters either will succeed in their exploitive goals or will force the rest of us to attend to the chinks . . . but even if that's true, that doesn't mean we should give up on making things as difficult as possible for the exploiters, any more than we should give up trying to keep the cookie jar out of the reach of clever children; it just means we can't afford to stop paying attention.)

(And maybe it's also a question of analyzing how capitalistic aspects may work better for certain purposes within a society and socialistic aspects may work better for other purposes within the same society – and I have some ideas re- guidelines re- which do which. In this connection, I wish more conversations about these subjects began with an analysis of the smaller-scale, democratic socialist governmental systems in Finland, Sweden, and Norway. I don't know that much about them but am curious, since they appear to be working well.)

(And yes, I totally agree with another commenter that you cannot have revolution in just one country. The export of U.S. jobs, e.g., is as big a problem as it is only because we're not also exporting labor and environmental protections, etc.)

******Etc. E.g., there's what I also think should be another separate question, which is, whether art CAN have political or social effectiveness. I personally have no doubt it can, but I've heard this disputed; and discussion of the point might help elicit useful info re- just how it is that it can have such effects. Among other things, e.g., is art most effective when it enters the legislature? Can it be as effective using more circuitous means? (And in this connection, our prior inquiry re- what art is may also be pertinent; for I think most of us agree, some kinds of political or social efforts might more usefully be called something other than art.)

(I.m.h.o., art can't NOT have political effectiveness, at least to some small degree; and others agree. Queen Elizabeth I censored Shakespeare's Richard II; the Guggenheim cancelled Haacke's Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings show; and the C.I.A.spent millions promoting ab ex. But note, if you make political effectiveness your main criterion for good art, Karl Rove's scores well.)

(And i.m.h.o., there can be no greater art project than that of re-shaping the world; and I see no reason artists should shrink from such a project more than Rove or others do.)

Then you get to the question of whether art should deliberately try to be politically or socially effective.

These questions are complex but not ineffable; but answering them requires real study and clear thinking/speaking. James Madison, in preparing for the brilliant job he did on the U.S. Constitution, carefully analyzed the governmental systems of many other then-past and -existing nations (by now, the vultures have successfully enlarged some serious chinks; but nothing lasts forever).

I don't believe artists have to consciously take on this kind of task either in lieu or as part of their art-making in order to make good art or even in order to have positive effects in the world (I believe art can have major, world-shaping effects outside of the legislature as well as, perhaps, within it); but I believe that the more the various factors are understood by artists, the more, better art works will likely result, whether they address the complexities directly or indirectly, deliberately or incidentally.

UPDATE: Rachel Cook has a very helpful review of the Summit on ...might be good.

I'm now wondering if, as a prelude to another program that might take these big questions on more directly, maybe someone should set up an online forum in which we can thrash them out a bit in advance. Again, I think the questions need to be broken down into sub-questions, and based on what I've seen elsewhere, a suggested word-limit might be advisable (say 600? with the option to link to longer treatises elsewhere).

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I will look at other comments on your blog. We seem to have similar perspectives, especially on art is political.
    Susan Platt