Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Social Contexts for Art

I had a breakthrough regarding the requirements of creative work. It was precipitated by a dinner party from earlier in the summer, a party during which I unveiled an outdoor dining table that I had built by hand. The table had been designed and built over the course of the previous 4 days. I was under pressure to produce it quickly, specifically for the party. Naturally, I was proud of the table, and anxious to show it off to the dinner guests.

Upon hearing that I had built the table by hand, the guests voiced their appreciation and said how nice it was. They may have touched it or looked at it differently for a moment, but then they went right back to what they were talking about before… something about  their parents health problems, or about their jobs. That is exactly the way these things go. Somewhere in the collective subconscious, there is an unofficial list of topics that get discussed at dinner parties. Topics such as work, family, health, sports, television shows, vacations, and traffic are high on the list. This is disappointing, but typical.

As the conversation continued, I happened to observe that a beer glass sitting on the table was reflecting the objects behind it in a visually interesting way.  I got up and went to get my camera so that I could capture an image of it. My leaving the table took people by surprise and when I came back, the conversation came to a stop as people seemed confused as to why I had the camera. I told them to ignore me, and to just keep talking. They did, but their tone of voice suggested that they felt it was weird that I would being taking a photograph while seated at the table. Their unease bled into my own sense of bing isolated from the proceedings. I knew that my behavior was not orthodox. I rushed through the picture taking process and put the camera away as soon as possible.

This episode lit a fuse in my mind, which later (after the guests had gone) would detonate in a rush of mental connections. Several observations occurred to me in succession, each one leading to (and amplifying) the effect of the next one… and the succession was so rapid that the effect wasn't of a series of observations, but of a single, unified observation… i.e., an IDEA.  The following describes the several ideas that combined instantaneously.


First, the party guests did no care that I built the table… because most people do not understands what it takes to make something by hand. Most people don't build things. Most lead consumer lives, wherein they work a job doing one thing… to make the money to then exchange with other people who do one thing… so that they can acquire the various things they need in their lives. This division of labor is economically efficient, but has the effect of removing people from the act of creation, and with it… the meanings associated with creation. Further refinements of production (in all spheres) drives out every possible inefficiency (i.e., evidence of human making) and replaces it with the sterile beauty of the machine made. Such inanimate beauty becomes the standard by which objects are judged.

When I announced that I had made the table by hand, the guests probably paid attention to it in a way they hadn't before. Before the announcement, they probably assumed it was purchased at the store. Upon learning it was handmade, their eyes are drawn to it's particulars, where they might have noticed a small irregularity typical of the hand built. At that point they probably downgraded it to "craft" object, and viewed it with the reassuring pity with which people view handmade Christmas gifts.

On top of that, to announce that you made something seems to puzzle people, who would rather that everyone be playing by unwritten rules of consumer society. But in making things, you announce you are outside the system of commodity production… that you desire to stamp your imprint on material life. Further, you announce that the commodity item is not good enough for you. And finally, you are showing that you have the ability to pull this off. Such implications can irritate people. They might think you are trying to one-up them, or that you think you're better than them. Maybe they think of their own lives, where they simply buy what is offered for sale… the product of other minds in the marketplace. The handmade items cuts against the grain of their value system.

A similar series of annoyances also registered when I had gotten the camera out to photograph the beer glass. As with hand-building a table, I was guilty of interpreting reality on my own terms… to turn the moment into an artistic production. This also cuts against the grain of the social conformity. Although there was every bit as much to talk about regarding taking a photo… that is not on the list of acceptable topics and activities for a dinner party. An open conversation about uncharted, personal reactions to the visual world is too dangerous… too revealing… too volatile to do in a group.

If people talk about art, it is never in a moment of creative thought… but rather… in a conformist moment of talking about officially sanctioned art culture. People are willing talk about museum visits or Picasso, but if you pull out your sketchbook to show them an image, they might-could care less. Probably they will downgrade your effort because it isn't as good as the Michelangelo drawing they once saw at the Met. If you hand them a pencil and say "let's make a drawing"… they will not try. Art, like everything else in their lives, is a commodity experience that is bought and sold in the marketplace… not something you do on your own.

Here's another example of the same behavior. Once upon a time I tried my hand at doing standup comedy. I attended a workshop, developed 10 minutes of material, and performed it onstage at a comedy club. I did OK. Myself and another guy from the workshop decided to hit up some open mic nights at area clubs to keep the comedy effort alive. Whenever I discussed this activity with regular people, they show no interest in comedy as an actual activity. Instead, they immediately describe their favorite comics… famous comics like Carlin, or Seinfeld, or Bill Cosby, or whoever. You know… the best of the best comics they had seen on television Again, they had no sense that the creativity of comedy comes from real people, in real moments... that it is a constructed, not simply consumed.

You can literally stand in front of such people and try to engage them in a moment of comedic creation… but they will not participate… they will not collaborate in the construction of humor. To them, comedy is some product that happens on TV. My very real participation in the art-form is marginalized (by them) by comparison to those famous TV comics, much in the way that my table was marginalized in relation to some "perfect" table in a furniture catalog, or that a sketch is marginalized relative to a master artist of the past. The alienation of these non-creative people animates nearly all social contexts, leaving us awash in a world with little room for free, creative play of the mind.

Later in the evening, after we went back inside and sat in the living room, another thing occurred to me. You see, Margaret plays the piano. I play the guitar and the bass guitar. I like to sing. I like music. In fact, everyone seems to like music. But in all the years I have been in social situations people, nobody ever pulls out an instrument and plays it… or makes music… or sings. Never. Well… maybe a few times Margaret played a Christmas carol on the piano, or played a short classical piece.

But even the few times this does happen, the audience (not all of whom were enthusiastic) begin to fidget in their seats, seemingly anxious for the display of art to end so that they can get back to socially acceptable actives. Oddly enough, when the brief piano playing ends, people will talk enthusiastically about how nice it was, or about their cousin who plays piano, or about how their parents once owned a piano, or about how they saw a piano concert last week. These are all socially acceptable forms of discourse regarding music. But what they will never do, is ask to make music, or listen to you make music.

In general, the logic of social interaction DOES NOT ALLOW FOR CREATIVE EFFORT. People don't sing together, don't make music together, don't explore visual art together…. they don't photograph in the moment. They also do not construct comedy together… or explore experimental or subversive thoughts. They don't challenge each other, or make creative arguments, or produce visionary statements about the nature of their life and the world at large. Creativity AS SUCH is simply not on the menu within the social context of a dinner party.

NOW… consider that creativity is also not on the menu for MOST SOCIAL CONTEXTS. Family, friends, school, work, church, paper route, sports, going to the post office, buying a hot-dog at the Wawa. Consider the endless things we do… both big and small… and how so much of it goes down in social contexts that do not require creativity and do not support it, not even a little bit. Now consider that our lives are spent immersed in an endlessly rotating series of such social contexts… then you begin to get the full impact of the creative poverty that exists all around us. The effects of such poverty is overwhelming. It gets into us like a bad odor.. into our pores, into our clothes, in to our minds. It grinds us down all the time.

You may want to get out the sketch book and draw… but between the idea of doing that, and the actual reality of doing it, lies (probably) a series of conventionalized distractions that suck you into non-creative social contexts. Nearly everyone you know and everything you do is NON CREATIVE. They do not participate in a social-context of creative effort. The world is full of non-creative contexts, and the limitless stream of people making them up.

Those are the observations… here is the central idea… followed by related ideas through which I will ramble.


One cannot engage in meaningful artistic work if one does not have some social context in which to exist as an artist. By "social context"  I mean… the coming together of people for some active purpose… including the reason the activity is being done and the manner of judging it's success. The social group provides ideas, support, and critical feedback.

Everything that gets done in this world takes place within some social construct that is understood by the participants. The most obvious example is work. People go to their jobs and exist within the social context of their particular workplace. Without such a context, they would not be productive. If everyone went to work each day and had to reinvent the reason they were there, nothing would ever get done. So instead, the workplace takes on certain characteristics that allow for a sustainable continuity of productive effort.

Again, everything people do takes place within a social context. Family life, religious participation, diner parties, schooling, entertainment, going to bars, dating women. Anything and everything is done in some way that has precedents in society…  that is, some expected way to engage in it.  Without such social contexts, 95% of the people would not be able to construct contexts of their own. They would wind up wandering the countryside like zombies.

None of this seems problematic until you want to engage in something that has no social context. The life of an artist is very close to this situation. Certainly there are known formulas for being an artist. For instance, art school itself provides a social context for making art. When you're in school, the making of art takes place in a social context that breathes relevance into what you're doing. This can be continued through MFA programs, and then into an artistic life based on teaching within an art institution. What such an approach might lack in imagination it makes up for in practicality.

Other socially recognized contexts for art making include… the female artists marrying a wealthy man to provide for them… craft artists selling stylized objects with broad appeal… and artists who mimic the prevalent high-art styles, and who network within the art-world.

These social contexts are all very practical for those who enter into them. We might reject them for various reasons… and we might also reject a dozen other social contexts for art… but what is harder to reject is the need for a social context at all. They say it's better to be alone than in bad company, and that seems generally true. But the goodness or badness of the company one keeps is less relevant to the artist than that one is keeping company at all. To keep no company… to be isolated… will lead to failure.

This is a very real problem, because as an artist, it is very possible to find oneself without a social context in which to make art. This is not the case for (let's say) an accountant.. who not only ALWAYS works within a social context… but NEVER works outside of one. In fact, the VERY NATURE of being an accountant is defined by the social construct. You never hear about an accountant "working outside the system"… or "doing accounting on their own". What would such a person do?

All of the functions performed in society have corresponding social contexts that define the activity and judge it's success. Everything except art, that is. Art is the one activity in society that doesn't derive from and appeal to the mass judgements of society.  That is the beauty of it, and the danger in it. Given this ambiguous connection between art and society, the artist has to invent his own reason for existing. That is the function of a social context. But when none of the aforementioned social contexts for art are a good fit for you, where do you turn?


Switching gears for a minute….

I worked for many years as a computer programmer. Over the years I became aware of a tendency of the people in that profession (mostly males) to treat each other in a coldly logical, non-human manner. Everything was subjected to impersonal, logical analysis. The dominant mode of thought in the profession (logic) had imprinted a controlling alignment of attitude toward all issues in life. The emotional landscape in such a culture is bleak and depressive for all involved. I formulated the following description of the problem… "Just because one works with machines, does not make one a machine".

I could extend this logic to the making of art. Because the visual arts are predominantly a solitary activity (as far as making the art goes)… that doesn't mean that artists have to exaggerate that aspect of isolation and (in so doing) construct a culture of alone-ness. But that is exactly what many do. I suppose the logic is this… that if in making art I am alone in my studio… then nothing other than myself is relevant. If the dominant mode of art making is isolated activity, then everything is about maintaining isolation.

For the artist who embraces such an ethos… no social context exists for their art making. The best an artist could wish for in such a scenario is that they have some outlet for their work once it is made… such as a gallery to sell it in, or some venue to display it. But those are contexts for selling the work, not making it. And even those contexts require a kind of involvement with others that the Artist-As-Loner ethos works against.

Furthermore, the isolationist strategy is not realistic for the emerging artist, who very likely has no business contacts or business savvy. To be isolated both in the making and selling of art is to be entirely isolated. Which brings me back to where I started… which is… how can an artist be expected to be productive when he has no social context in which to operate?

I suppose that it is THEORETICALLY possible that some human being might exist on the planet earth that can make art despite total isolation. But I don't know if this person actually exists. The "isolated but productive artist" might only be a theoretical possibility... based on the fact that people have free will, and can somehow WILL themselves to push through all the natural barriers that isolation brings to productive work. But if you look at the history of art, very few significant artists have operated in even relative isolation, let alone total isolation. Even those who are popularly assumed to have been total loners (such as Van Gogh) were actually (upon closer inspection) more tied into social contexts than the Romantic myth of "artist as outsider" would have us believe.

I can imagine a counter argument to this idea that goes like this…. "Despite what you say, I am productive making artwork in total isolation". Assuming such a person exists, I might answer... "Who cares"? I mean that literally… as in… "other than yourself, who cares about the things you create"? The immediate comeback would then have to be something like… "I don't care who else cares"… or "It doesn't matter that no one else cares".

But if nobody else cares, then there is no audience for the work. There is nowhere to display it… to sell it… to put in out there in front of society. To this last observation, the stubborn isolationist artist can say… "Well, I don't care. I don't make art to be displayed, I only make it for myself".


Let's think about that for a moment…. "I ONLY MAKE ART FOR MYSELF"

How is one to understand such an admission? Why should art be made only for the self? Or, in general, what factors might be considered in how art is MADE and USED?  To think about this, the following distinctions about making and use are necessary.

1. MODES OF MAKING ART OBJECT = isolated vs. social context
All art is (in the making of it) an individualized activity.
This means that isolated art isn't simply art made by an individual, but rather, art for which the artist does not draw upon a social context for ideas, support, or critical feedback. They operate in a very strongly isolated context. Likewise, social-context art is also (in the making of it) an individualized activity. The difference between it and isolated art is that the social-context artist exists within some social context from which he draws ideas, support, and critical feedback.

2. MODES OF DISPOSITION OF ART OBJECT => private vs. public
By "disposition" of the art object, I mean… where does the art end up, and what function does it serve.The earlier discussion was about the making of art, and described the opposed modes of isolation vs. social context. The corresponding modes of disposition of art seem to be (a) keeping the art private vs. (b) making the art public.

I believe that the modes of art making (isolated vs. social context) strongly determine the disposition of the art object (private vs. public).

If we combine the modes of making and the modes of disposition we come up with four combinations.

   A. isolated artist who keeps art object private.
   B. social context artist who makes art object public.
   C. isolated artist who makes art object public.   D. social context artist who keeps art object private.

I believe that the first two are more likely, and the last two less likely.

More likely….
    A. isolated artist who keeps art object private.
    B. social context artist who makes art object public.

Less likely….
   C. isolated artist who makes art object public.
   D. social context artist who keeps art object private.

Let's consider the "less likely" combinations first, and show how they are unlikely to exist.

Consider scenario C, the isolation artist who desires to make art object public.
Even if such an isolation artist wants to make his art public, where would the support for such art come from? Let's not cheat here by pretending that the isolation artist is secretly eavesdropping on spirited artistic debates within a social context he refuses to officially be part of. The isolation artist has to be understood as someone who is substantially isolated from the real effects of social contexts. Obviously, the extent of isolation can vary… so the statement can be refined to this… to the extent that the artist is isolated from the real effects of social contexts for art making, the less relevant his artwork will be to the world outside himself.

Consider scenario D, the social context artist who keeps the art object private.
This seems counter-intuitive. The artist who utilizes a social context for ideas, support, and critical feedback… is thereby part of some larger footprint of meaning in the world outside themselves. Such a footprint may be tiny in comparison to other footprints… but it at least assures them of some audience (if only two other people). Given that their work is emanating from some shared intellectual perspective, it is unnatural that such an artist would break that shared connection by keeping the work private.

Seeking a social context is consistent with external display of the art object, if only to the inner circle of other artist who comprise that social context.  This works the other way too… such that the desire for public display implies some social context that one wants to participate in. One can deny that last conclusion, but consider this… If one produces art in isolation and then displays it, such an act draws into sharp relief the urgent question of why one is displaying art to a public that one doesn't respect. If one cares so little for others as to not involve them in thinking about art, why bother to show them the art?  Some artists might want to sell the work, or get praise…. but such motives have no intellectual function… and cannot sustain the activities of a serious artist.

In general, the desire for public display goes hand-in-glove with seeking out a social context for art making… and vice versa… that making art within a social context leads to relevant public display. Likewise, an indifference to public display goes hand-in-glove with isolation… and vice versa… making art in isolation leads to keeping the artwork object private.

The improbability of these less likely scenarios proves (by implication) the more likely scenarios.
      Scenario A: Isolation (in the making of art) tends toward private consumption of the art object.
    This is probably true because the opposite (scenario C) is unlikely.

      Scenario B: Social context (in the making of art) tends toward public consumption of the art object
    This is probably true because the opposite (scenario D) is unlikely.

I think this demonstrates that the likely scenarios are INDEED likely, and should be taken as a generally true. To what use an artist can put this is unclear… but I hope that AT LEAST it can dispense with the stubborn notion that working isolation is intellectual relevant, and can lead to a relevant public display.


In the above analysis, the motive for making art was either (a) for personal reasons only, or (b) for personal reasons AND for public display. These are two radically different motives for art making.

The motive for making the art object public derives from a need to assert oneself into the world. Motives for this could vary. It could be pure ego and exhibitionism. It could be (on the other extreme) the desire to cooly articulate some view of the world in a detached and transparent manner. But motives aside, the public artist must have something relevant to express about the world. The quest for relevancy will take the artist outside of their own minds… out into the world around them. There, they will encounter a public discourse that they can engage in, or else reject. But if they reject all manner of public discourse, they isolate themselves thereby, which puts them in conflict with their desire to express in an extroverted manner… i.e., have a public display of their art. That conflict will resolve toward one of the two modes… either the isolation/private mode, or the social-context/public-display mode. If it is toward the latter, then the desire for public display mates with the need for engaging a social context… i.e., a public forum of ideas, support, and critique.

The motive for keeping the art object private is quite different. By it's nature, it is not designed to assert oneself in the world. It's purpose is therefore introverted. It serves only the needs of the mind of the creator. Perhaps it engages the artist by presenting them with a puzzle that must be solved. Perhaps it helps the artist expunge thoughts and feelings from their subconscious in a way that is not otherwise possible. These (and other) introverted motives fall under the category of "therapeutic motives". They are therapy for our minds and our lives. Their reason lie only in our selves. They have no requirement to draw from social context, or to present their object for public display.

The private artist is stigmatized as using art as therapy, which suggests that the artist is psychologically weak. The presumption of weakness is NOT simply the need for therapy…. after all… many public artists make work that has obvious therapeutic overtones. The weakness is that the private artist will not push up against the external world and engage it… as if they are too fragile to allow the challenge of public discourse into their minds. This criticism of the private artist is made by the art establishment, who control the views of such things. They control the view precisely because they engage in the public discourse of what things mean. The private artist is mute on the issue precisely because they don't. The private artist is left to either enter the public forum and debate the judgement that is passed on them… or to retreat further into the position of "I don't care". Typically, they retreat… because they don't care about what is said about them… and probably (because they don't care) they aren't generally aware of the criticism to begin with. In either case… they disappear from public life and from the world of art.


A major stumbling block in the mind of the artist is the assumption that seeking a public display is somehow artificial, and that it involves the artist in trying to please OTHER people…. leading to work that sells out to some vague public desire. This is indeed possible. However, selling out to a vague public desire IS NOT equivalent to public display.

Consider this… do you find it artificial when you display your work to other artists who are close to you… with whom you can share confidences and critical ideas? Probably you don't. Some artists actually do. Apparently they are so inwardly drawn and vulnerable to even the most intimate and well meaning critique that they are incapable of public display at all. But this is an extreme case. Their aversion to public display has nothing to do with artificiality or selling it. Rather, they are simply terrified. Their terror is irrelevant and so are they.

But if you not terrified, but are legitimately concerned with not being artificial and selling out, then how do you avoid this without becoming an isolationist? I think the answer lies in considering what gives rise to the "vague public". The public is vague because they have no specific identity. As a group, all these non-specific people floating around society share no common ideology. Therefore, no artwork presented to such a group could connect with them. This gives the artist no basis for making the work, no confidence that it matters, and (peripherally) little hope for selling work.

To alleviate these problems, that artist would have to come up with some idea of what the public wants. In the absence of anything specific, all that is left is to make presumptions about artist tastes of the general public. A short-list would include such categories as… landscape… representational… impressionistic… colorful. But these categories are (the artist knows) simply trite, historical generalizations. Because the public is not sophisticated (probably) they are drawn to these culturally induced simplifications of what art is.

If this was only solution, then it is DEFINITELY a sellout to have public display. If the only audience and motive for making art was to hit such a watered down target, then relevant public display is not possible. MANY artists do exactly this, and you see it all the time. There is TONS of work which channels popular tastes in order to appeal to the broad, non-specific market.

By a strange twist of logic, I think this Sell-Out-Scenario is EXACTLY the fate that most isolation artists will find themselves in if they seek public display. Because the isolation artist seeks no social context, they are building no network for relevant public display. Therefore, their desire to display can only be satisfied by appealing to mass tastes. Some isolation artists work is too weird for that, so they are doomed again. But many who operate in isolation can and do appeal to the mass public. After all, how hard is it to sit in isolation and know that people like impressionistic landscapes? You don't need a network of intellectually challenging artist to come up with that. So here's what you end up with… working in isolation (no critical stimulation) selling cliched artwork work to the public (no critical consciousness). Isolation art and selling out… a perfect match.

So the challenge is to have public display that isn't based on appealing to a vague public. The only way to achieve this is to have a social context for art making, and to leverage that into public displays for a small (non mass market) but select audience. In practical terms, the social context has to come first, and the connections to  opportunities for public display will flow from that. The only alternative is to sell out, or never display work at all…. both of which are artistic death.


These arguments can go on much longer. The isolation artist can find more and more ways to specify why isolation is equally relevant to social context art. The various points of argument presented here can all be unpacked and argued in more complex ways. But I think that even allowing for such expansion, the overall point has been made. So instead of trying to prove anything further with yet more arguments that could (again) be unpacked endlessly, I would rather change direction and talk about common observations that shed light on what I'm talking about.


The first observation is that the isolation artist has to produce a complex argument to defend his isolationist strategy. And though the logic of such an argument can be laboriously constructed, it seems (in the end) to be a universe of denial within a larger world that sees social-context as the basis for all advanced developments in every field. In other words… in all things, we observe that the engagement of social contexts for ideas, support, and critical feedback seems to produce the optimal efforts from all involved… or at least a far better effort than if they are left to their own devices. Why should art be exempted from such social logic?

I suspect that this lies in the Romanticist notion of the artist as outsider… where art is thought to emanate solely from each person's particular "genius" and naiveté (who they are uniquely) … both of which are crushed upon contact with the corrupting influences of the exterior world. The desire to keep oneself PURE in this manner is utterly Platonic… viewing the world as a duality between the pure and the impure… between perfect forms and their imperfect reflections in the actual world. Regardless of the merit and meaning of such a philosophy… and even granting that many artists couldn't even articulate Plato's theories… the cultural legacy of such dualism (being written into modes of thinking that people embrace unknowingly)  is to cut off truth from the real world. In art, this has produced a long tradition of "purification" strategies, which pit the artist against the outside world. I think the isolation-artist is part of this tradition.

But why do this? Why isolate oneself in the face of the obvious downside to being outside all system.  I'm not talking about being outside of particular systems, or particular points of view. Obviously there are terrible points of view that one wouldn't want to be part of.  I'm talking about being outside of any system… of being removed from any social-context. The isolation is numbing and destructive of creativity.


As if all this isn't bad enough, consider this…. that even if one rejects social-contexts within art…. one cannot reject social-context in every other area of life. Everything else that happens all around us is being driven by some social logic… and this logic washes over us all the time… like radiation. We are faced with endlessly repetitive social contexts that don't' allow for creativity. It seems to me that the ONLY chance for the artist is to find (or more likely) construct a social context for art.

For the creative or artistic type… having been so long faced with uninspiring social contexts… they probably have adopted psychological isolation as a means to avoid being driven mad. Further, they have probably come to view any social group as being bad. This handicaps the artist greatly, as they have cut themselves off from connection to ideas, support, and critical feedback that they could get from an appropriate social context.

One has to be strong… one has to have fortitude and vision. But without a social-context for creative expression… is it possible at all? Can one exist totally isolated against a backdrop of a non-creative, post-modern, conformist life, yet still be a productive creative force? What superhuman requirement does that place on us? And though super-humanity is a glamorous notion, is it a relevant goal? Or is it simply the fantasy we engage in to sooth the transition from wanna-be artist, to the failed-artist, who was martyred by the cruel world. If victory in such matters is the priority… if succeeding at art and getting your vision out there is the goal… I think the bullshit and fantasies and Romantic notions of noble isolation have to be rejected in favor of something that has half a chance. I've been arguing that this "something else" is a social-context for creative thought and activity.

But because artists might typically be isolationists and introverted, such a shift to a more public consciousness (as required for developing social context) necessarily involves them in a radical reorientation in their thinking about how to work with others. That is the topic of PART TWO of this essay.

No comments:

Post a Comment