I appreciate the comments of Jethro Brice and Stephen Pritchard and want to take a moment to respond. The question of innovation does indeed turn on our current neoliberal context. However to tie it irretrievably to neoliberalism is to deny its elemental power and independent relationship to creativity. Pritchard discusses an entrepreneurial perspective on the notion of innovation. What entrepreneurs essentially do is take creative ideas – new ones, or at least variations on old ones – and monetize them. Usually, as Carin Kuoni has pointed out, such ideas build on the past; innovation in the entrepreneurial sense is a renewal and not necessarily the pure creation of something entirely without reference in our present frame of understanding. It is this neoliberal take on the new, this idea that monetizing everything is the answer to drawing all of society “up”, that relies so heavily on an ideological reading of the idea of newness. Ironically, this perspective is actually quite old, rooted in positivist philosophy of the early nineteenth century, particularly that of Auguste Comte and Émile Durkheim. There, a “scientific,” or rational, examination of present conditions is diagnostic, and a logical application of basic common sense is believed to hold the answer to the full range of social ills. And it is no accident that the time of its invention is one of the rise and consolidation of capitalism and the expansion of its empires from the geographical source of that philosophy, Europe. Capitalist entrepreneurship and positivist optimism about our ability to cure social ills merely by applying principles of logic grew up together, like members of the same family.
However, creativity – invention, true newness as opposed to entrepreneurial innovation – relies rather on uncertainty than on dogma; on flexibility rather than the application of a system (whether that system is neoliberal or something not yet recognized or even conceived yet). And this is where we can turn again to Kuoni. The embrace of uncertainty is not an easy or comfortable place for the foundation of relationships and genuinely inventive ideas. But it does offer the most radical possibilities for true change, both in artistic form and in society. If, as I suggest in the comment to Jethro’s response, we have a real formal change in socially engaged art, then we also have possibilities for true, non-contingent innovation. Further, there is a more optimistic view of the new available to us in this conversation. The new need not be tied down exclusively to an oppressive economic system, nor need it be relegated exclusively to the potentially amorphous zone of uncertainty, though that is what allows for a questioning mindset and the true possibility of change. Rather, to paraphrase Sember, the new can act as a reminder that what as been made can be unmade, remade. By returning to the ideologically loaded term innovation the notion of the new, with all its possibility and hope; and by dissociating it from a market-driven entrepreneurial perspective, we can perhaps recuperate both beauty and usefulness for the term. Indeed, A Blade of Grass hopes to see in socially engaged art’s formal innovation, the shift in focus from objects that represent ideas (photos, paintings, sculptures, videos, installations, etc.) to relationships, a realization of the ambition to support artists in enacting a model of instigating change.
Scenes from ABOG Fellow Jody Wood’s project, Beauty in Transition, which provides salon services to NYC homeless shelters in an artist-run mobile beauty salon. Film stills courtesy of RAVA Films.
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Read more from Growing Dialogue: The Latest Thing
“Unmaking Innovation: A Return to the New” by Elizabeth Grady – November 10, 2014
Growing Dialogue is a series of moderated online debates among thought leaders in social practice.