Useful Art

What with the Creative Time Summit coming up, it makes sense to reach back to June for Robin Cembalest’s thoughts about Useful Art.

Mel Chin, Revival Field
Mel Chin, Revival Field

Her essay lays out a handful of projects, like Tania Bruguera’s Immigrant Movement International and Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses in Houston, and a handful of protests like Walid Raad and Emily Jacir’s actions against Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. And it winds up nowhere specific. Cembalest stays in description mode and never really forms an opinion beyond well, you know, artists have been activists for centuries and these are tough questions and nobody has a real answer.

This is both understandable and unfortunate. We are at an interesting moment that demands strong opinions! Art wants to be useful for specific reasons, and faces a unique kind of resistance. Can art be truly useful? If so, how?

I don’t know the answers either, but I promise to hold on longer than Cembalest-to try to think it through. A Blade of Grass funds artists that innovate beyond the gallery context in part because we are intrigued by this contemporary drive to make art useful. We are very interested in what Bruguera, Mel Chin and others are doing. We believe that this is a site of innovation.

And you know, we can be really invested in the notion of useful art and simultaneously know deep in our hearts that the notion of useful art is deeply absurd.

The one unique quality art has to give the rest of the world is its uselessness. Its lawlessness. Its refusal to resolve itself into a linear, logical result. It is this uselessness that is, paradoxically, most useful right now. The problems we face are of vast scale and are impossible to pin on some unjust external force or otherwise rationalize. As a species, our priorities are a little off. We kill one another too much. We poison our planet. We consistently organize around the needs of the few at the expense of many.

At last night’s Republican debate the crowd took pleasure in the idea that we should let a hypothetical 30-year old die if he doesn’t have health insurance.

Art can’t fix this. It can’t fix healthcare, or the environment. But I need art if I am going to live in a culture in which people cheer when life is wasted. I need art to create a buoyant space in which more than one thing can be true at the same time and anything is possible. I need art to help me sit with these enormous problems freely, without crushing me in impotence and blame. I can’t be the only person who feels this way. It must be true that art can create the conditions-the mental space-for loving one another more, and doing better.

That buoyant space can of course include logical acts like remediating soil, giving people a place to sit, circulating petitions. It feels increasingly like it must, doesn’t it? Concrete activism and other expressions of usefulness draw in the uninitiated, surely offer the artist relief, and can become a sort of a canvas in their own right-Mel Chin and Laurie Jo Reynolds are particularly good at this last part.

But is the most important aspect of these logical-looking artistic acts to make logical progress, or is it to allow other minds to open to the idea that something can and must be done? When artists stop being in the inspiration business, have they stopped being artists and become community organizers? Is there a line somewhere, and can we see or touch it? Beautiful art projects that make concrete, logical improvements in people’s lives exist. But is that the point, is it a side effect, or is it both? Can art become so useful that it stops being useful?

As the Summit rolls next week, we’ll keep going on this topic.

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