Taking On the World at Large

Steve, thanks for these quick thoughts. I am excited about this discussion because it’s getting at an important tension. There’s this promise of power in art’s indeterminacy, irreducibility and even uselessness that we are all leveraging as cultural producers. At the same time, when artists are working directly with people out in the world in an effort to really change something, it becomes necessary to develop a sense of how influence and agency work on a practical level. I think that it’s good to linger on this tension, because when artists, particularly social practice artists, talk about power and agency, there are usually two equally unsatisfying outcomes that we want to move beyond. Either the artist is misperceived as wanting to have their cake and eat it too, or the artist is misperceived as not caring about the art part.

I got two art degrees because it seemed at the time like the freest, and therefore most powerful, thing I could possibly do. In any other career, I knew was going to have to compromise; collaborate; become one interdependent part of something larger than myself; make sense; be useful. But in art classes, my work was valued because of its ability to be in world without resolving into something useful, interdependent, entertaining, or specific. This was intoxicating! It’s also a legitimately important aspect of art production and consumption. Art that makes too much sense is often not very good. Whether it’s a painting or a social project, we value an artist’s ability to abstract the known world into its formal components and rearrange them in a surprising way. I think Jonatan and Lars-Erik are right to want to hold on to that sense of distance and indeterminacy.

They, and Harrell, are also pointing, in very different ways, to the fragility of this promised freedom, and the institutional protections it requires. If artists have the freedom to not make sense, to reject interdependency, and a mandate to legitimately surprise and challenge rather than entertain, then some sort of authority has to give them permission and resources to do this work, and this authority also has to signal to the rest of the culture that this work has value. Perhaps in Sweden it is easier to see oneself as not being instrumentalized, popularized or standardized because the government supports artists better, or at least in a way that makes this social contract more clear. Perhaps in America, where the institutional supports for art have a clearer relationship to the market, its easier to see how little agency the artist has within this system that is structured to provide total artistic freedom to a chosen few.

I can’t speak to the differences in institutional supports, but I can say that in my own experience as an artist I could “do anything,” but I could not value my own work. In order for my work to have value, it needed to be chosen, framed and affirmed by a supportive institution. Harrell has already made the comparison between the art institution and jail, so it is almost timid of me to simply admit that this institutional support is an occasionally infantilizing boundary on creative output when it’s working well, and that it fails all the time. It does too good a job telling us what “good art” looks like. It hurts artists by training them to be beholden to it. It often rejects the truly important stuff.

What happens when artists move beyond one type of power—the ability to “do anything” within a narrow framework of support, and start taking on the world at large?


In Paul Ramirez Jonas’ Dictar y Recordar, ten typists transcribed volunteers’ memories of Honduran history over a 24-hour period. The project took place in Tegucigalpa, Honduras in 2010. (Photo courtesy the artist)

One interesting thing that happens is artists start working directly with power instead of working within a rather rigid power structure that they are free to critique. This is a radical shift. Instead of depending on a supportive context in which anything is possible, artists are influencing lawmakers; having difficult conversations about capitalism with thousands of people; building self-sustaining ecosystems; transcribing memories into a history of a country. This requires more than the power of artistic freedom. It requires negotiating skills, trading favors, and understanding that agency and instrumentalization are like peanut butter and chocolate—we cannot use without being used, and this is okay.

I also see artists working far more interdependently, building a more robust system for one another instead of focusing exclusively on their independent creative output. The most interesting trend in our open calls is the large number of artists creatively addressing their own need for housing, food, studio space, showcases and venues for projects, funding structures, discourse, skills, and so forth. I think this reimagining of the support system itself is a fascinating cultural shift, in part because it demands that artists balance this mandate for uselessness against a clear assessment of the value they add.

The question is what happens to artistic freedom when artists are working in ways that are genuinely not free. We usually think about this in terms of ethics. Is Santiago Sierra free to strip laborers of their dignity? Is the thousandth collective that just dropped into Detroit free to declare that the city will collaborate with them on an yet another community art project that will uplift and revitalize their broken city? Is an artist free to work with collaborators who want to work with her, even though they might get hurt for doing so?

But what’s happening in this conversation that I like is that this question is going to a very basic place. Artistic freedom and artistic agency both feel like currencies. Do they work together, or is one like dollars and the other like euros? Are they two separate lines of credit that an artist has at their disposal? Are they sides of a coin?


Read more from Growing Dialogue: No Longer Interested

“No Longer Interested” by Steve Lambert – April 1, 2014

“Difference Not Indifference” by Mary Mattingly – April 2, 2014

“In Defense of Interest” by Harrell Fletcher – April 3, 2014

“The Strategies of Artspeak” by Jonatan Habib Engqvist & Lars-Erik Hjertström Lappalainen – April 4, 2014

“Sleight of Hand” by Jim Duignan – April 7, 2014

“What Do We Really Want?” by Steve Lambert – April 8, 2014

“Breaking Out of the Studio/Gallery Paradigm” by Harrell Fletcher – April 9, 2014

“Protecting Ambiguity” by Jonatan Habib Engqvist & Lars-Erik Hjertström Lappalainen – April 10, 2014

“Collective Power” by Mary Mattingly – April 11, 2014

“Time Traveling” by Jim Duignan – April 14, 2014

“Why Are You Avoiding the Question?” by Steve Lambert – April 15, 2014

“Taking On the World at Large” by Deborah Fisher – April 16, 2014

“What Artists Think Is Possible” by Harrell Fletcher – April 17, 2014

“Exploring the In-Between” by Jim Duignan – April 18, 2014

“Impossible Understanding” by Jonatan Habib Engqvist & Lars-Erik Hjertström Lappalainen – April 21, 2014

“Inventive Contradictions” by Mary Mattingly – April 23, 2014

See more articles tagged:  
Deborah FisherNo Longer Interested
More Articles Like This One
  • Now more than ever we need to support and learn from artists
  • Read “Aikido and Power” by ABOG Executive Director Deborah Fisher
  • The Value Proposition for Socially Engaged Art