A View From Two Exhibitions Part 1

Critic Dave Hickey’s advice to young artists: go to the point where you know art was good and pick it up from there. At dOCUMENTA (13), the most recent iteration of the international art exhibition held every five years in Kassel, Germany, Curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev appears guided by a similar wisdom. The works in the show, while largely contemporary, span the course of modernism. One entry, the small figurines known as the Bactrian Princesses, dates from the second millennia B.C. dOCUMENTA (13) is a sprawling exhibition with dozens of venues and over 2000 events that take over the entire city center during the exhibition’s 100 days. The show’s expansiveness, however, is not limited to chronology, duration, and geography, but reaches to the very definition of artist. The exhibition, which includes close to 200 named “participants,” includes philosophers, anthropologists, poets, zoologists, and even a physicist, Anton Zellinger, whose experiments on quantum entanglement are demonstrated in the Fridericianum, documenta’s central exhibition hall.

Artist Paul Ryan’s pavilion at dOCUMENTA (13)

In the press release for the exhibition, Christov-Bakargiev explains the importance of these unexpected participants:

They contribute to the space of dOCUMENTA (13) that aims to explore how different forms of knowledge lie at the heart of the active exercise of reimagining the world. What these participants do, and what they exhibit, in dOCUMENTA (13), may or may not be art. However, their acts, gestures, thoughts and knowledges produce and are produced by circumstances that are readable by art, aspects that art can cope with and absorb. The boundary between what is art and what is not becomes less important (Christov-Bakargiev 4).

Attending an exhibition so saturated by interdisciplinary, so permeated with so-called non-artists – as well as by artists who work both individually and collectively, who work in object-based practices and in social ones, and who work both inside the gallery and outside of it – caused me to reflect on the mission of A Blade of Grass: “a New York City-based non-profit that supports artists and organizations who innovate beyond the gallery and engage communities, and creates interdisciplinary programming to foster broader, more inclusive contemporary art dialogue.” Countless historical art movements from Dada to Surrealism and Futurism to Fluxus, and more recent ones, such as New Genre Public Art, Relational Aesthetics, and Social Practice, have tried to establish art outside the boundaries of traditional institutions.

In fact, art into life is one of if not the clarion call of modern and contemporary art: For Marinetti and the Futurists, art and lifewere united by war and violence in the idea that “beautiful ideas are worth dying for”; for the Situtationists it was “art into the streets.” Fluxus artist Robert Filliou encouraged the artist to realize that “he is part of a wider network, Ia Fête Permanente [Eternal Network] going on around him all the time in all parts of the world (Filliou 204). What then if any distinction, can we make between the various ways that artists interface with life outside the gallery? And what does it mean to engage community?

In 2001, long-time artist-activists Don Adams and Arlene Goldbardwere commissioned by The Rockefeller Foundation to publish a report on art and community. Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development was an attempt to distinguish between community cultural-development, which Adams and Goldbard describe as a nexus of activities (dance, painting, film) that may be used in conventional arts disciplines, but are instead purposely directed towards social action and the practices employed by many contemporary artists who engage “communities” in their work.

Adams and Goldbard have a bone to pick with so-called establishment artists. Their resentment stems from the fact that while artists such as Damien Hirst can place a dissected cow in a museum without anyone questioning why such an action should be considered art, the practitioners of community cultural-development are constantly asked to defend their position as artists. The author’s note that this friction was exacerbated if not caused by increased competition for arts funding, the most sought after and least plentiful of philanthropic concentrations (Adams and Goldbard 24).  The report Creative Community was intended to combat the perceived marginality of this work among academics, policy makers, and funders. They locate a need to legitimate their profession, develop infrastructure and standards, and connect themselves to larger initiatives like UNESCO, in order to enhance funding and institute internal coherence in the field.

Instead of artists as tastemakers, community cultural-development defines its practitioners under the following principles:

Active participation in cultural life is an essential goal of community cultural-development.

All cultures are essentially equal, and society should not promote any one as superior to the others.

Diversity is a social asset, part of the cultural commonwealth, requiring protection and nourishment.

Culture is an effective crucible for social transformation, one that can be less polarizing and create deeper connections than other social-change arenas.

Cultural expression is a means of emancipation, not the primary end in itself; the process is as important as the product.

Culture is a dynamic, protean whole, and there is no value in creating artificial boundaries within it

Artists have roles as agents of transformation that are more socially valuable than mainstream art-world roles-and certainly equal in legitimacy (14).

Rather than following the post-WW II initiative to democratize elite culture, community cultural-development articulates the “cultural democracy” ideologies of international cultural policy (55). One example of a community cultural development project is the  “Healing Heart Totem Pole Project,” a video which documents a bereaved father in the community of Craig, Alaska who mobilizes his community to erect a totem pole in memory of his son who had died as a result of a drug overdose. The participants in the project also share their own experiences with such tragedies in the wake of a near epidemic drug problem in Alaska’s native communities. Adams and Goldbard cite the Totem Pole Project as an instance in which the “power of culture” is employed to heal a situation of shared suffering (29).

For Adams and Goldbard, the practices of community cultural-development can be defined as those aimed at fighting specific social conditions brought about by globalization, mass media, and consumer culture such as loss of ethnic heritage and alienation between elders and youth. According to Adams and Goldbard, transnational corporations that tout diversity are not interested in celebrating real cultural difference (because this would mean a redistribution of wealth and power in order to create the conditions for social justice and dignity), but in creating products that replicate difference. Community cultural-development, which strengthens human-to-human interaction, therefore circumvents the unidirectional transmission of messages circulating in mass media (5).

In his anecdotal survey of culture in contemporary U.S. society Cultural Democracy: The Arts, Community and the Public Purpose, James Bau Graves claims that culture as it is lived close to the ground, not the culture of Wal-Mart and cineplexes is about the things people do, rather than the things they consume (Graves 17). It does not necessitate popular appeal, because it is not made for an imaginary general public. He argues that multicultural societies necessitate a response to art that can recognize it in all its expressions, which neither squirrels it away in exclusive institutions nor waters it down in an effort to make it palatable. And yet Graves recognizes the difficulty of his proposition:  “Few of us can be cognizant enough of the inner dynamics of someone else’s culture to be able to accurately perceive meaning. We don’t possess the insider’s code; the most basic distinctions elude us. And this makes cultural democracy very challenging to realize, because those who practice it must often work on unfamiliar terms (17-8).”

Inherent in Creative Community is a belief in the salutary nature of art, but according to sociologist Alana Lentin, the term cultural democracy has very different implications depending on who employs it. What many liberal and multicultural views of community art ignore is that racism, sexism, and other -isms are inherent to democracy, not aberrations of it. To celebrate diversity uncritically can thus lead to misreading of culturalism, “based on a view of identity politics that claims that political action by ‘minority groups’ is solely founded on a need for the culture of each ‘community’ to be equally valorized in a diverse society (Lentin 391-2).” For this reason, practitioners of community cultural-development must be on guard to avoid becoming agents of diversity management, rather than agents of social change, paying false tribute to non-European cultural differences while leaving the dominance of European cultural forms intact (391-2).

Since Don Adams handed me this report over ten years ago, the term community art has become ubiquitous. Back then, I asked myself: as these types of practices consolidate into a field, supported by government agencies, foundations and non-profits, might an essential criticality be lost? Will we fail to make the distinction between art that pacifies-that is simply enjoyable and feel good – from art that actually goes to the source of our discomfort, art that potentially divides people, but also has the power to heal?  How, given the limited sources of support and opportunities for survival, can the artist avoid becoming a tool of diversity management?

I still think that Creative Community is an excellent document for describing the combined practices of art and activism taking place in communities throughout the United States and other parts of the world, but I am also still troubled by the idea that art should be useful. As a curator, I work with both artists whose work could be defined as community cultural-development and others who completely resist the utility of art, preserving the belief that there is an inherent value to being human whether one’s activities are useful or not, and that our very emphasis on use, productivity, and efficiency is a result of capitalism’s conditioning.

In his book Unintended ConsequencesBain Capital’s Former DirectorEdward Conard uses the term “art history major” as a universal put-down for anyone benefiting from a good education who chooses not to be rich. He is not alone in his sentiments: many people consider art, or the study of art, to be useless. But considering the instrumental uses and abuses of culture in the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy or in Cold War-era United States in the last century alone, it is no wonder that some artists are wary of the idea of useful art-they know exactly how powerful culture can be.

Haunting dOCUMENTA (13) is the specter of crisis. This crisis is located temporally in the present, in the false promise of a global economy and also in the distant past-in the countless, senseless ways that humans find to destroy one another over resources, ideas, and territory.  Spiritually, however, the crisis is situated in Germany-beginning in 1931, the year that the German bank crisis lead to the consolidation of the Nazi party, and ending April 30, 1945, as memorialized by Vogue photographer Lee Miller’s self portraits in the bathtub of the Fuehrer’s Munich apartment on the very day of his death. The suggestion here is that like Germany’s Jewish population in late Weimar, we are all in danger of being displaced by the violence of global capital, despite our best efforts to ignore it (Christov-Bakargiev 4).

In writing about dOCUMENTA (13), Christov-Bakargiev declines allegiance to any particular political position, but nevertheless acknowledges the influence of 1970’s Feminism, which extended the idea of the political beyond the traditional Marxist terrain of class struggle and economic production into the realm of the personal. Going one step further, she cites Donna Haraway, Vicane Despret and other thinkers who question the agency of humanity in face of ecological disaster and whether we should limit our interactions with the world to “competition over resources and possibilities (5).” To allow dOCUMENTA (13)’s definition of the world to penetrate the definition of community would mean defining both global and local terrains not only in terms human conflict and cooperation, but also as an environment enacted by animals, materials, objects, perceptions, thoughts and feelings (5).

In classic Tibetan, the word for sentient being (sem-chen) is often translated as one who has a mind, but can also be conveyed by the noun do-wa, which literally means go-er or thing that goes. To conceive of community in a less anthropocentric way, as a particular time and space inhabited by a variety of go-ers, doesn’t necessarily alleviate my internal conflict about the instrumental uses of culture in community-based practices versus the hollow claims of autonomy made by much of contemporary gallery-focused art, but it does give me some hope, found in the idea of not-knowing.


Adams, Don and Goldbard, Arlene. Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development. New York: The Rockefeller Foundation, 2001.

Christov-Bakargiev, Carolyn. The dance was very frenetic, lively, rattling, clanging, rolling, contorted, and lasted for a long time [dOCUMENTA (13) Press Release]. Kassel, Germany: documenta, 2012.

Robert Filliou. Teaching and Learning as Performing Arts. Köln/New York: Verlag. Gerbl. König, 1970.

Graves, James Bau. Cultural Democracy: the Arts, Community, and the Public Purpose. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005.

Lentin, Alana. “Replacing ‘Race’, Historicizing ‘Culture’ in Multiculturalism.”  Patterns of Prejudice, Volume 39, Number 4, December 2005, pp. 379-396.

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