Ben Davis’ response is certainly welcome. He basically states that he is interested in questions of effectiveness and would like that to be forefronted not only with questions of SEA but activism writ large. Well, who can argue with that?
While I appreciate the response and its generosity, I find myself wondering in which direction to take this. For in a sense, the category is so large, this conversation risks heading out into a series of vast over-generalizations, or treading over territories ranging from John Dewey to Che Guevara, from Rosa Luxemburg to Saul Alinsky. And frankly, it’s a great canon.
It certainly offers a chance for me to clear the record: that I am not a carte-blanche enthusiast of all SEA work. That is most definitely not the case. Like my attitude toward most cultural production, I find much of it certainly worthy of critique. It is just a field where I find the questions and possibilities more exciting than in many other, perhaps safe and predictable forms of cultural production. So, as much as I might appear to be a positive, upbeat guy, I remain rather critical of this field. That said, I still prefer radical ways to engage the functioning of everyday life from all cultural and activist fields. That is to say, I prefer all forms of culture that actually manage to address power and produce new forms of being in the world. Sometimes this happens in SEA, sometimes it happens with paintings, too. I am open! Ok, so that was said.
I would like to give credence to the concern that some works of SEA are ultimately symbolic. That is to say that the image of social commitment is merely a front for something else. I completely sympathize with and share the concern that some of these artworks are merely an image of social consciousness perpetuated in order to get the kind of social capital handed out by institutions eager to cash in on the relatively small, but certainly existing, caché of an emerging art form. Teasing out when this is happening is no small thing. And certainly, being aware that this paranoia of ulterior motives (co-optation and commodification) is the sixth sense of all contemporary life. Paranoia is a popular modus operandi because, well, everything sort of is out to get us (and at times help us).
As a generalization, activists, artists and critics alike might roll their eyes when a large institution gets involved in Sally Struthers-like social work. They sense a deeply opportunistic desire to have the image of doing good, while their underlying commitment remains dubious at best. One could merely look at the British Petroleum public relations effort after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill as an extreme example of dubious social commitment. After producing the largest oil spill in history, the energy giant returned with a massive green campaign on billboards replete with community engaged programs in regions most affected. So let’s not pretend that SEA is ultimately a good thing in and of itself. It is a tool both for doing stuff in the world and at times, can work in the realm of the manipulatively symbolic.
My response would threaten to head into a book if I were to try to tackle the intricacies of this, but I think that we must tread carefully and slowly when thinking about not only the question of effectiveness. The relation we all have (personally, professionally, collectively) to the oft-manipulative realm of the symbolic is very real and very related to questions of effects and affects. Advertising (that thing that says one thing and does another) is the language of daily life and it leaves us paralyzed by reasonable paranoia.
That said, power is not monolithic and neither is capitalism. Questions of co-optation do not always understand the porous nature of power relationships. Capitalism is not a united team. There are spaces of possibility, both symbolically and in the built environment. Understanding that power is variegated and uneven allows consideration of points of action from the Third Ward of Houston, to Gaza, to the media sphere, to the classroom, to the community board, to social movements. There are opportunities to reshape the relationships of power throughout our lives and projects built in space at times can do just that.
Read more from Growing Dialogue: What is the Effectiveness of Socially Engaged Art?
“Spaces of Possibility” by Nato Thompson – September 23, 2013