Unlocking DIY as an Art Form

Do-It-Yourself culture, popularized in the 20thcentury by the 1970’s punk rebellion and the Riot Grrrl movement of third wave feminists in the 90’s, has become synonymous with “scrappy.”  In obvious terms, DIY is all about self-sufficiency: albums recorded in bedrooms, homemade fashion statements, zines collaged from disparate elements, but it extends far beyond the patchwork aesthetic it’s come to represent. The DIY ethic is an independent response to a perceived gap in dominant cultural narratives; a form of resistance through self-reliance. It is a way of inserting one’s own approach to, and understanding of, the objects and experiences that make up our lifeworld. Taking things into our own hands allows for the circumscribing of personal experience within personal meaning; a self-directed and creative re-imagination of culturally prescribed frameworks.

Of course, this is really nothing new. Artists – ahem, people – have found ways to create and sustain new cultural meaning and value throughout the history of mankind. Our contemporary moment, fraught with economic hardship, has perhaps spurred on a little DIY renaissance, with a growing interest in things like free culture, skill shares, and OpenSourceWare. Of course, the rapid spread of social media has also made it so easy for anyone to become master of their own meaning. Take the explosion of Pinterest, a website devoted to “curating” social content (i.e. images of stuff you like) as a popular example of the cultural hunger for outlets that allow us self-organize and collage together a network of ideas specific to our own particular tastes and experience.

The increasingly pervasive DIY ethic, emphasizing the influence of individual action, has been interesting to consider alongside my thoughts on the connection between self-taught and social art.

While the heterogeneous sphere of social art may take on diverging concerns (ecological, pedagogical, relational, political), categorically, most social art projects are essentially contextual.  They create a self-determined criteria of value, which is to say, the significance of the work is held in direct relationship to those who participate in it or with it. And, in building an attempt to make meaning from one’s surroundings that is not operating according to a dominant mode, the work is adjusted for mutual creativity and import. The DIY imperative is embedded within the site-responsive nature of social art project, inspiring a call to experiment with creative possibilities for social activity.

Artists without academic training “do it” – make their work – through a self-directed process of acquiring a certain technical know-how and innovating with it to meet a particular vision. This is the embodiment of DIY. The objects and experiences produced by these self-taught practitioners are, contrary to exclusionary vocabulary like “outsider,” part of a process of situating oneself within a larger cultural narrative, but also perhaps given over to a very specific set of concerns that might not hold mass appeal. Such work is prone to marginalization because there is a real failure to listen for, or care about, the personal meanings that their makers are trying to convey, and an unawareness of the myriad social and cultural concepts that may already exist within these expressions.

Let’s get specific for a moment. When we notice an embellished roadside memorial, or happen upon a particularly well-dressed yard, or discover a rock cairn, it’s important to acknowledge that these self-made expressions carry great aesthetic and personal value, even if that value is not readily apparent to the viewer. If as a culture we’re trending towards an ethic of making our own cultural meanings, doing our own home renovations, creating our own holidays cards, and ultimately tailoring our experiences to suit our particular needs, then wouldn’t this shift logically lead to a greater occurrence and acceptance of this vernacular phenomena as something more than just, well, phenomena?

Ed Hall’s banner for Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane’s Folk Archive, 2005.

Here’s a set of revealing questions: Why do we accept a “socially-engaged” project like Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane’s Folk Archive as Art, yet hesitate to point towards the commonly made visual works contained therein as, themselves, art? Is Deller and Kane’s virtual curation of these works more significant than the works themselves – almost like a Pinterest page (can I make that comparison)? How does this pairing of academic and non-academic work challenge our ideas about creativity and artistic drive?

The history of art is not as neat and tidy as it seems many of us would like for it to be. The overlap that occurs between artists, ideologies, and practices goes to show that human creative activity is a messy and surprising endeavor, and we need to remind ourselves that it’s OK to embrace the ambiguity and let it push us into uncomfortable territory.

Special thanks to Greg Cook.

More Articles Like This One
  • Announcing our new
    Executive Director!
  • Spring Update!
  • Announcing our
    Executive Leadership Search