What should we expect from art in the next few years/decades? And what is art, anyway?
I had a dream last night. In my dream, our cities, communities and the natural environment are the museums and galleries of tomorrow. In my dream, the traditional exhibition spaces and art objects (material objects) no longer exist, and artists, cultural agents and creative practitioners collaborate with citizens, communities and professionals from other sectors (scientists, farmers and politicians) to design better systems and to co-create activities and programmes that encourage creativity and bring about social change.
The main reason that led me to work in the arts and cultural sector in the first place was the transformative power I believed it had. Art is intimacy and inspiration. Not only does it transform the physical spaces it occupies but also the people it comes in contact with. I have always thought that art should not only be understood as an act of creating/producing/exhibiting material objects and/or digital experiences. It should also be the way in which individuals approach/organise/structure life, and their willingness to care for themselves and for others.
The French philosopher Foucault identified, more eloquently, this same idea in the 20th century: “What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are amsts. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?”
These words seem particularly relevant in a world where we will have to learn to live with coronavirus over a prolonged period of time. In a world where scientists estimate the arrival of new pandemics every 5–10 years as a direct result of our way of living. In a world dominated by alpha males of the likes of Trump, Putin, Bolsonaro, Boris Johnson, López Obrador, that are putting the lives of millions at risk for the sake of capitalism. Michael Moore too, who from an influential position in the media, reiterates in his latest film Planet of Humans a damaging premise: Renewable energy doesn’t work.
In a world where we are already confronting critical interconnected challenges: climate change, the refugee crisis, food scarcity, system collapse, etc. I think it is essential that we continue asking these questions: what is the role of art at a time of social transformation? Why do we make art, for whom and does it make sense to continue using the same formats and materials? What should art be focusing on and what difference can it make? How far can artists go in social transformation without renouncing their role as creators/artists? When does it stop being art? Can the art world provoke and drive social transformation, a shift in values, making us rethink our relationship to material culture? Can it reveal new definitions of what progress means? Without doubt, the current situation leads us to question/rethink/reimagine the way art institutions, art practices and artists operate.
I recently came across an interesting proposal by Curator Hans Ulrich Obrist in response to coronavirus. The text is taken from ARTnews:
“Hans Ulrich Obrist has revealed his own idea to help foster art-making in the time of a pandemic: a vast public arts project on the scale of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Great Depression–era work-relief programs…From 1935 through 1943, artists enlisted by PWAP and WPA produced roughly 15,000 public artworks, including murals, motivational posters, and sculptures for government buildings”.
Back in 2018, I started working on an idea for a long-term project that revolves around the following questions:
1) What would happen if, for a period of one year, a large number of artists (established and non-established) decided to change their ‘studio-hermit’ practices and object-based art productions for a non-object, non-material = more participatory, social/community-based practice?
2) To what extent is the art/cultural sector (funding bodies, institutions, foundations, curators, critics, artists, producers, etc.) preparing itself to operate in a future with resource scarcity: energy, materials, food or water? *I would like to see more funding opportunities dedicated to supporting new (and more sustainable) ways of creation, production and distribution of artworks, projects and events.
3) How realistic is it to keep creating/making/doing business as usual if there isn’t a solid/fair/sustainable structure/infrastructure in place that can sustain what we create/do? Shouldn’t we be putting all our energy/resources/time/effort to design/build/rebuild/demand stronger systems/infrastructures/frameworks? And I apply this reasoning to all sectors, including my own: Arts and Culture. I wonder if we should “pause” that impulse of creating objects and material stuff until we have a clearer idea of how we are going to continue living on this planet. Can we redirect all of that creativity towards something else? Maybe towards something that is more useful to our present communities/society?
What I am proposing isn’t linked to the materiality of the art object itself but to the impact of the art practice, and the characteristics and potential of the system that sustains it. It is about placing the emphasis on ideas, values, knowledge exchange, wisdom, tools for change, etc. or as Domenico Dom Barra once said: “it is about shifting the focus from the art piece to the art practice and from the artist to the community, art can influence society with its practices. We should engage in those that can help nurture human values and positive counter-narratives. It’s about acting and not about making”.
This initiative doesn’t necessarily need to be “vast”. I believe small gestures/actions are in the end more powerful than spectacular works of art — think Eliasson’s blocks of ice brought to London from Greenland so the public could observe/interact with them while melting outside the Tate Modern.
If art is a reflection of who we are, of what is meaningful, what we value and of our principles…If the work of art mirrors who the artist was at the moment of its production, what I hope is that in those moments and what comes after, art/artists are more conscious and socially engaged. Imagine art which is capable of rekindling values of care, kindness, compassion, action-taking, social justice and cooperation. I’d like art to take a larger social dimension. Art isn’t about stagnation, conformism, fear. Art is about risk taking, resistance, empowerment and transformation.
If we are going to have to re-engineer society after coronavirus, we need art that is less about individualism and the “artistic genius” and more about artists and institutions that focus on systematic solutions and collective/collaborative practices that foster community care and participation, collective consciousness and action-taking.
Can we use this time to 1) identify and analyse the weaknesses, strengths and opportunities of our sector 2) think and discuss how to build a stronger, fairer, more resilient and sustainable sector 3) plan/design the next steps accordingly?
Moving content online and commissioning artists/cultural practitioners to create new digital content/activities is important but, in my honest opinion, I think we should also use a bit of that money/time/energy/resources to create think tanks/work groups, etc. (where we involve institutions, artists, funders, governments and citizens) to discuss structural problems and design solid and long-lasting strategies. We don’t need an over saturation of content/activities as if there is no tomorrow. What we need is a stronger sector.
Thanks for reading, and stay safe.
*Author: Carmen Salas. Text proofread by Alejandra Johnson.