What does art really do? A reflection on art, context and agency.


What does art really do? A reflection on art, context and agency.

We all knew that USA won his latest war against Iraq the moment we saw on our televisions the huge head of one of Saddam Hussein's social realists statues being covered with an American flag. This was the image the media liked and broadcasted ad nauseam. Much could be read into it. What happened next was even more interesting: the American flag was replaced with a pre-Saddam Iraqi flag, then the statue was torn down from its pedestal by a tank, and attacked by Iraqis. The statue was literally bashed to death, and with it the rule of Saddam Hussein. These news story, repeated on a loop by television stations all over the world as the 'it' story on Iraq invasion and defeat, made me reflect on what art really does. In the specific case what the statue did. Media images of course are powerful, much more than art, and the American flag on Saddam's head is now an iconic image of our recent history. What I kept going back to was not so much this image, but the following footage showing people attacking the statue, as if the statue itself was invested with the power of Saddam Hussein. In a certain sense, it was, and by killing the statue, political and social change were endorsed.

When thinking about art practices in their relation to social change two main points of views stand out. These opinions reflect at large a general understanding of the role of the arts: on one hand it can be argued that art has agency and that artists and art objects have the power to 'do' things, and to promote social change. On the other, it can be maintained that art has a responsive role of reflection, comment, critique and investigation of social reality, but no active role. In this second approach art can be defined as a discursive arena through which is possible to read social change. What I hope to achieve in this conference is to explore how these positions are not mutually exclusive, and indeed, they coexist as a dialogue between art practices and their critiques.

In this brief introduction, I will reflect on the role of art and social change in relation to location in the context of production and to the language used. First, I will start with the story of an object that while crossing cultural borders 'does' something, to finally become historicized as the reflection of a particular moment in Australian history. This object is now known as the Bark Petition, and hangs at Parliament House in Canberra.

On 13 March 1963 the Australian Government removed 300 square kilometers of land from the Yolngu reserve of Arnhem Land, to enable the Swiss company Nabalco to mine bauxite. The traditional Aboriginal owners in the community of Yirrkala were not consulted about this decision.

In July that year two Labor members of parliament, Kim Beazley Snr and Gordon Bryant visited Yirrkala to meet with Reverend Edgard Wells, at the time superintendent of the Methodist Church Mission(1). The church had unveiled only a few months earlier two bark paintings, one for the Dhuwa and one for the Yirritja moiety, illustrating, according to traditional law, the Yolngu authority over the land. The bark paintings hang until the 1970 in the church on the sides of a cross, underlining the possibility of coexistence of Yolngu and Christian beliefs side by side(2).

When Beazley Snr and Bryant met with Reverend Wells it was made clear that Yolngu elders were deeply concerned about the lack of Government's consultation over the deal with Nabalco and the impact of mining on their land. They demanded their voices to be heard. According to Wells, Beazley Snr advised on the protocol to follow to send a petition to Parliament(3).

The Yolngu people then prepared a petition. It was formulated in a similar way to the Church's panels and it involved both the use of Yolngu designs stating traditional law and title to land, and the text of the petition typed in English and Gumatj. The Yolngu designs depict ancestral figures that created the land around Yirrkala, and consequently the complex relations of Yolngu people to land. The typed text stated these relations in English and requested a Committee to be established to hear the views of people from Yirrkala before proceeding with excision from the land. It also asked to consult with Yolngu people before entering in any kind of agreement with companies whose work might destroy their livelihood and independence(4). As a result, a parliamentary committee of inquiry was set up to listen to Yolngu claims. In October 1963 this committee made a recommendation to Parliament that the mining process was to be monitored by a committee, that sacred sites were respected and that compensation was paid for loss of livelihood(5).

These bark paintings are now regarded as the first documents to link Commonwealth and traditional law. They questioned the fiction of Terra Nullius used to legitimize invasion and colonialism: that Australia was an empty continent because Indigenous people did not have the concept of authority over the land. As such they are considered the documents that paved the way for the recognition of Indigenous rights within the Commonwealth law framework(6).

When I started to think about the way art can engage with social change, the Bark Petition were an obvious good example: not only it documents the beginning of a change, it actively operates cross-culturally to promote social change. The Bark Petition established a contact zone between the white Australian and the Yolngu cultural and legal systems, but also between cultural practices. The artists who painted the bark petition did so using a language that was part of the rich texture of everyday life in Arnhem Land. This language belonged to the same context of production of meanings and of social relations as the content it illustrated.

The Yolngu elders who painted the petition crossed the borders that up to then had contained the production of barks. Barks, in the 1960s, were produced as an integrated part of everyday and ritual life and as a fruitful trade with serious collectors that enabled artists to have an income outside the grip of the Methodist church. Becoming a petition to the Australian parliament, the two barks moved into a different context: they became legal documents, and the channel through which Yolngu people chose to communicate the complex system of relations between land and people to the rest of Australia.
The barks were, in brief, instrumental in activating social change. They thus became objects invested with the power to make things happen, objects whose role was not simply commenting, educating or illustrating, but also 'doing'.

If art can 'do' things, and what happens when, in the course of 'doing', art crosses borders of cultural systems as well as of cultural practices in terms of engagement with social change, are the questions I am positing here. These questions imply also a definition of 'art' which crosses borders of established genres, disciplines, or art forms to make use of a language that is part of an integrated material, historical, political and cultural context of production. Yet, this is not an attempt to define the role of the artist in contemporary society.

Arundhati Roy, writing about the contradictions of being a writer in contemporary India, reminds us how such a role cannot be fixed or externally regulated, but rather it is a role that needs to be constantly negotiated:

A good or great writer may refuse to accept any responsibility or morality that society wishes to impose on her. Yet, the best and greatest of them know that if they abuse this hard--won freedom, it can only lead to bad art. There is an intricate web of morality, rigour and responsibility that art, that writing itself, imposes on a writer. It is singular, individual, but nevertheless it's there. At its best, it's an exquisite bond between the artist and the medium. At its acceptable end, a sort of sensible cooperation. At its worst, it's a relationship of disrespect and exploitation(7).

Walter Benjamin explored similar concerns in his 1934 essay 'The Author as Producer'(8). In his text Benjamin theorizes the necessary overlapping of aesthetics and politics in works of art politically viable. Benjamin's text is based on a lecture delivered in Paris at The Institute for the Study of Fascism, an organization close to the Popular Front, whose aesthetic tendency would have been in favor of Social Realism, the accepted 'revolutionary' style(9). Benjamin refuted, in a veiled form, this aesthetic assumption. On the contrary in his text, he implies that an artwork to be politically correct it had to make use of innovative techniques. Benjamin tackled the dichotomy between commitment and quality which informed the contemporary debate around the role and place of artists, stating that rather than presenting an either/or scenario, political commitment or tendency and high quality had to go hand in hand(10). To explain his position Benjamin refuted the question of the relation of the work of art to the social production relations of its time. According to Benjamin inquiring whether a work of art endorses the productive relations of its time and is therefore reactionary, or if it challenges them and is revolutionary is positing the wrong question. The question to ask would be what is the position of the artwork within the production relations of its time(11).

This shift in thinking the place of the art work from a relationship of either acceptance or critical response to the location within the context of production is an important one. It gives the artist, and the artwork, an active role, rather than simply the role of critical response, or illustration or comment. Can a similar assumption shed any light on the role of contemporary arts vis a vis social change?

Starting from the 1970s, and in the 1980s and 1990s Postmodernism critiqued high modernist formalism and its obsession with essential purity of mediums (flatness and colors for painting, narration for fiction, etc) as advocated by Clement Greenberg in his 1961 'Modernist Painting'(12). Pastiche, trickling down and bubbling up of high/low culture, and a general blurring of borders and cultures were presented as alternatives to medium specificity, as well as to modernist transcendental ideals. Artists and theorists working within and around feminist frameworks in particular paved the way in the exploration of alternatives to the grand narratives of modernism.

Despite this critique, Western mainstream art forms have largely remained distinct disciplines inhabiting allocated spaces. A theatrical performance remains a theatrical performance, as much as an exhibition of visual arts is inscribed in the confinement of visual arts. Similarly a visual art exhibition, of old or new media does not make any difference, is likely to happen in a rarified white-cube space of a gallery. Rarely it will engage in a critique of the space as institution, or in a space that is public and lived. This disinclination to move outside canonic boundaries, reflects also a lack engagement with the social, cultural and political context of production.

This self-referentiality has its counterpart in art practices - in the West and the East, North and South of the world - that cross over genres, disciplines, that operate collectively, and spill from designated art spaces into the public consciousness if not into public spaces. These practices chose to engage with cultural diversity, with social issues, with politics in a tactical way(13). Tactical refers here to Michel De Certeau distinction between strategy and tactics:

A strategy assumes a place that can be circumscribed as proper… a tactic, on the other hand cannot count on a 'proper'. A tactic insinuates itself into the other's place, fragmentarily, without taking it over in its entirety, without being able to keep it at distance. A tactic is always on the watch for opportunities that must be seized 'on the wing'. Whatever it wins, it does not keep. It must constantly manipulate events in order to turn them into opportunities(14)

Likewise, tactical arts move within the everyday:

The art of tactics seeks a new relation to everyday life; sometimes that relation takes the form of collaboration with communities beyond the art world, sometimes the form of political intervention of a distinctively post-utopian character. Sometimes these tactics involve provocations that are not overtly political but have political consequences, and sometimes they simply adopt new forms of public address(15).

If art is located within its context of production, it can also be considered as the site of entanglement with the everyday. One could say that these art practices and objects embody and make visible, either acting upon it or responding to it, the blueprint of their everyday cultural, social context(16). Fragments of histories and changes become enmeshed in these practices. When cultural borders are crossed and art enters a different context, inevitably new fragments and social issues become entangled with it.

I would like to finish suggesting that it is precisely because these art practices function in the everyday, within their context of production and they speak the same fragmented, fluid and hybrid language, that they can make art that 'does' something, rather than as Oldenburg pointed out in the 1960s 'to sit on its ass in a bloody museum'(17).

1-www.foundingdocs.gov.au/places/cth/cth15.htm, p. 2, 19/12/2002
2-Djon Mundine'Saltwater', in Saltwater Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country, Recognizing indigenous Sea Rights, Yirrkala: Buku-larrngay Mulka Centre in association with Jennifer Isaacs Publishing, 1999, p.22.
4-Djon Mundine, 'Saltwater', p. 23.
5-www.foundingdocs.gov.au/places/cth/cth15.htm, p. 2, 19/12/2002
7-Arundhati Roy, 'Shall we leave it to the Experts?', http://www.outlookindia.com/full.asp?fodname=20020114&fname=Arundhati+Roy+%28F%29&sid=1 , p.2, 24/5/2003.
8-Walter Benjamin, 'The Author as Producer(1934)', rpt in Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood Eds. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1992, pp. 483-489
9-ibid. p. 483
10-ibid. p. 484: ' I should like to demonstrate to you that the tendency of a work of literature can be politically correct only if it is also correct in the literary sense. That means that a tendency which is politically correct includes a literary tendency. And let me add at once: this literary tendency, which is implicitly or explicitly in every correct political tendency of a work extends also to its literary quality: because a political tendency which is correct comprises a literary tendency which is correct.'
11-Ibid p. 485
12-Greenberg, Clement "Modernist Painting" (1961) rpt. in Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood Eds. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1992, pp. 754-760
13-See for instance Glenn Harper collection of interviews with activist artists Interventions and Provocations. Conversations on Art, Culture and Resistance, New York: State University of New York Press, 1988; Jay Koh, 'Art and Activism and Cross-Cultural Projects in Thailand and Myanmar: The Need to Open Up Structures for Engagement', EZINE, www.fineartforum.org/Backissues/Vol_16/faf_v16_n03/text/feature.html, 19/12 2002;
14-Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkley: University of California Press, 1984, p. xix.
15-Glenn Harper, 'Introduction, Interventions and Provocations. Conversations on Art, Culture and Resistance, p. x.
16-I am borrowing the concept of substantiation of a cultural blueprint from Grant McCracken Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988, p. 74.
17-Oldenburg, Claes. "I Am for an Art..." (1961) in Art in Theory. 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. Oxford, Eds. UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1992,727-730

Ilaria Vanni