When I was asked to stake my side in this debate I chose the OUTside, and at the end of the debate I’m still on the OUTside, and while I’ve been rethinking my answer since then I think I’m still on the OUTside. BUT, the debate, Fighting Words hosted by Ariana Jacob as part of Assembly: An Art and Social Practice Get-together, seriously challenged why I think this, and made me realize that my position in the debate has everything to do with my role in the art world.
Social practice is the kind of art critics, curators, and historians all love-to-hate to define. So ephemeral! Much engaged! Wow, dialogical! But for real, social practice is art that deals with social relationships and/or socio-political issues through performance based interventions that are historically rooted in Institutional Critique and revolutionary rhetoric. Despite its genealogy we’re all still grappling with what it is, and what is its significance – alone, in a dark closet. Not the awkward excitement when you’re playing 2min in the closet; more like the fumbling with film in a darkroom.
Jokes aside, what I took away most from being a part of the debate, including staking my position with a yellow card and making a stuttering closing statement on behalf of the OUTside, regards the role and relative power of museums, and the role and relative power of critique. First, when I say “museum” you probably think of a large institution like The Met, MOMA, or the Louvre, but as Phaedra Livingstone emphasized, the size and the power these intuitions yield are anomalies. Most museums DON’T have significant collections, budgets, or space. In that regards our own PAM exerts an influence belied by Portland’s notion of itself as a regional city.
On the other hand, any institution with any amount of power can exert that force to neutralize critique, and one of the most effective ways to do that is to invite critique in. Doing so lends the institution the cache of being both critical AND respectable. A heady combination until we realize the maw of respectability rhetoric feeds off of revolutionary energy. What we’re left with are well fed institutions and starving agents of change. Potentially, institutions can give up some of their power, to make the invited critique genuine and effective. However the more power an institution has, the less likely they’re going to be willing to give any of it away.
A perfect illustration of this dynamic is how effectively Disjecta quarantined curator Amanda Hunt from doing the work she is known for, the work for which they nominally hired her to do, and instead benefited from having their biennial curated by a critically engaged woman of color without having to deal with their own whiteness, how it affects their programming, and how that programming affects this city.
Of course, I get to say things like that BECAUSE I’m on the outside. My marginal position protects me and my critique from institutional censorship that artists working within institutions don’t have. I also like being on the outside because it gives me the impetus to expand my critique beyond gallery walls and provide a stepping stone to connect what happens within these venerated spaces to what’s happening outside to vulnerable human lives.
Social practice in art museums also makes me wonder if these “collaborations” are eroding the potency of traditional spaces for critique. Specifically the role of the art critic. Despite the decline brought on by accusations of mere “taste-making” art critics have always pushed their perception of the world onto art they advocate for or diatribe against. In doing so, they bring the art world to a forum where the public can have audience to judge for themselves the relative benefits of artistic work, ideas, and institutions.
I’m against social practice in art museums because I am an art critic. As such it’s my responsibility to be a voice with some kind of freedom to ask the institutions who claim to protect our cultural heritage, reflect and engage multiple audiences, and stand as bastions for democratic values, if their curating, collecting, and programming fulfill their professed missions. To accomplish this task I need to stand beyond their walls more often than not, and I think social practice does as well.