On Bullshit

Thank you, Rick, for pointing directly to the tension between the art world’s tendency to encourage bullshit, and the potential SEA has to be a movement, with a progressive agenda and maybe even shared goals. As an institution, we grapple with this tension on lots of different levels all the time, and will continue to do so. This is work that, as Nato says, has the potential to reshape power, to make new power forms. This re-imagining of power is some of the most important cultural work that we can do right now. We live in a world in which power feels uniquely fixed and monolithic, and these seemingly omnipotent Powers That Be are wreaking all sorts of havoc! My own work as an activist has been somewhat sporadic, in large part because I have so often felt that all I am doing is wasting my body and spirit by throwing myself repeatedly against these monolithic powers. I believe in the potential of SEA to change the dynamic of activism. There’s a lot of activist work to do, and it’s inspiring rather than depleting to do work that is positive, hopeful, and generative.

As an arts organization that believes that SEA has a specific role to play in social change because it can reshape power, the last thing we want to do is neuter the art part, and collapse SEA into extremely small-bore social work. We feel that we have to keep a close eye on the art and aesthetics of SEA, and the value that they are bringing. And, well, art is slippery. It means a lot of different things to different people at different times, but it does have this one little bit of consistent, concrete magic. A great artwork embraces paradox, and contains multiple, sometimes contradictory, truths. I think it’s this quality that gives a great SEA project the ability to reframe, reshape, or for a moment redistribute power. A great project, like Strike Debt’s Rolling Jubilee, can infiltrate and destabilize these power structures that feel so monolithic precisely because it is not designed to solve the problem as much as it’s designed to exist as a gesture and as a result at the same time. The Rolling Jubilee doesn’t have to abolish all medical debt in order to do something important. It does most of its work on an aesthetic level, as a gesture that punches through that which oppresses us in a way that is infectious and influential because of its profound elegance. It is beautiful to take the tactics of oppression and use them to deliver people from that oppression. Other types of social work cannot do this because other social workers have totally different goals. We need the activists and social workers who are attacking problems like economic justice at scale. But we also need to build their ranks, and inspire them to push the envelope!

Flyer for The Rolling Jubilee

I think that much of the bullshit that the art world tolerates is intended as fertilizer to ensure that this magical paradox and multiplicity is preserved. It feels really tough to ask an artist to come up with something that is a little bit magical because it preserves and expands paradox, and is also rigorously accountable to others. I don’t know whether this is why the art world is organized around avoiding accountability, or if I perceive this toughness because the art world is organized around avoiding accountability. But either way, it feels important to recognize that SEA exists in a larger context in which we try to suspend reality for artists by creating faux-contextless white cubes, institutional structures that handle artists, curators whose role is to protect ideas and so forth, and in a larger value-creation engine in which artists are allowed, literally, to do whatever they want except value their own work. I am finding myself wanting to expand on this topic, in part because Ben just wrote a fantastic book about a lot of these ideas! But instead I will simply acknowledge that in order for SEA projects to achieve maximum potential, we need to think about them in terms of their uneasy relationship to the existing art world, which creates its own reality.

I am focusing on this bullshit aspect because I have been thinking so much about what parts of the existing art world must be imported into our organizational structure in order to preserve the creative latitude, integrity and freedom that makes these projects do the voodoo that they do so well. And because, like Rick, I have also been thinking a lot about what actually happens in the communities where this work is being done, and whether it’s harming or helping, or simply being tolerated. One of the most peculiar features of the current landscape is how dependent we are on oral history and the artist’s interpretation of what’s happening on the ground. This creates a persistent question about what is actually happening in these communities, and who owns the story, and whether that story is being told in an accountable fashion. This, to me, is where the rubber meets the road.

I want to create a structure in which artists can define their social change agenda however their brains need to in order to make, expand and preserve multiplicity and paradox. This is why we are using the softer, more vague language of social change as opposed to social justice. This is also why we don’t currently declare that we have a specifically progressive agenda, although we might revisit this. A big part of our agenda at A Blade of Grass is to be open to projects that have a lot of very obtuse angles, or are taking an indirect course, or that perhaps don’t quite know what they are doing, or are operating very responsively. We need to do this because paradox and multiplicity are notoriously shy and mercurial. Sometimes the work artists do is about throwing up barriers to their own understanding and then working to overcome them. Sometimes artists are experts in not knowing what’s going to happen, and surfing that discovery process in a particularly revelatory way. Declaring that we want justice!

(When do we want it? Now!)

feels like a well-intentioned way for us to perpetuate a status quo that we are seeking to change by bringing in a different kind of energy.

A still from What is the Rolling Jubliee?, a video by Strike Debt

While we absolutely must trust artists to fly blind, engage in a process rather than focus on an outcome, and even engage in creative destruction, it’s clear that artists working directly in communities have specific social change goals. The most helpful things we can do are take those social change goals incredibly seriously, and cultivate a sense of accountability, both around these goals and the participants’ experience generally. We don’t think it’s fair, or practical, or in the artists’ best interest to be the sole representative of what the community experienced. We are investing considerable resources in assessment for this reason, and this means both increasing the artist’s ability to self-assess and use participatory action research techniques, and independent assessment by an external evaluator. We’re doing this for a number of reasons. First, we feel that there are a lot of positive, concrete stories in these communities that need to be amplified and given the kind of credibility that an external voice can provide. We also want to build a body of practical knowledge about what works and what doesn’t work when artists work creatively with people. Underlying all of this work is this sense that Rick, playing off Nato, is right when he says that “teasing out when art has a negative effect, or when it uses communities… for the simple purpose of social or financial capital is one of the most important challenges for the emerging field of SEA.”

In order to really thrive, SEA has to adopt what Rick is calling “an ethical agenda,” by which I think he’s saying that it has to treat the people it encounters with care and respect, and not allow itself to be co-opted by the very power structures it has the potential to reshape. And, sure, it could perhaps organize itself as a more specific social justice movement in its own right, one day. But because the work is creative, neither an ethical agenda nor a specific set of shared goals are going to work if they are applied in the form of best practices, manifestos, or any other top-down approach, including our own and other funders’ guidelines. What I feel has more promise is to listen to what is actually happening in the communities themselves, and enable agendas and so forth to emerge in a way that includes the participants’ experiences.


Read more from Growing Dialogue: What is the Effectiveness of Socially Engaged Art?

“What is the Effectiveness of Socially Engaged Art?” – September 18, 2013

“Ben Davis Responds” by Ben Davis – September 18, 2013

“Spaces of Possibility” by Nato Thompson – September 23, 2013

“#DoWeHaveThis?” by Tom Finkelpearl – September 24, 2013

“Working Towards Justice” by Rick Lowe – September 24, 2013

“On Bullshit” by Deborah Fisher – September 26, 2013

“Round 2: The Ontological Question” by Ben Davis – October 21, 2013

“The Ethically Neutral Dilemma of SEA” by Nato Thompson – October 23, 2013

“A Belated Conclusion” by Ben Davis – November 26, 2013

“The Name Game” by Louisa McCall – January 11, 2014

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Deborah FisherGrowing Dialogue: Effectiveness
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