Jan Estep, “The Real Experiment Continued,” reprinted in Paul McAree, ed., Breaking Ground: 2001 – 2009 (Ballymun, Dublin, Ireland: Breaking Ground, 2009), 40-48. Originally published in in Art and the Life World Research Papers, Breaking Ground, Ballymun, Dublin, Ireland, February 2008, 11-12.
Abstract: Motivating art’s deliberate crossing with life is a desire for social relevance and engagement with real-world issues. But what is gained, what is shifted, and what is lost when art merges with life? Certain questions are raised when artists negotiate the art/life divide. These questions are epistemological in terms of the way we categorize and delineate experience. And these questions are cultural and ethical in terms of the way we assign value to artistic creative activity. Using the ideas of Allan Kaprow and Clement Greenberg to articulate two extremes, this article examines the relationship between art and the life world.
along which art moves: toward art and toward life. Pushing in one direction, art becomes a rarified phenomenon, separate from life and autonomous in its pursuits. Pushing in the other direction, art increasingly blurs the boundaries between itself and life, challenging our ability to distinguish the two. Most art occurs in between these two extremes, but at the terminal poles, art ironically threatens to drop out of notice altogether. At the end of art for art’s sake, art becomes a self-referential closed circuit, and at the other end of life, art becomes something totally unremarkable. In other words, when taken to its limits art either disappears from the world or disappears into the world.
These two axes have their supporters and detractors. I discuss Allan Kaprow below as an advocate of lifelike art, but Clement Greenberg described art that sought a radical distinction from life. Greenberg’s model stresses the value of art as something altogether different from anything else. His argument against naturalistic representation and sociological content ensured art’s transcendence, namely that art was not properly a window to the world but instead should draw attention to itself. In “Modernist Painting” Greenberg argues that art that pursues its own limits, using its own methods, is on par with philosophers such as Kant who use reason to outline the limits of reason; both produce an internal critique of their field, using the internal logic and methods of the field, to create the strongest, most internally coherent position.1 For philosophy this means delineating the bounds of rational discourse, what we can and cannot comprehend sensibly. For the artist this means a program of abstraction and formal investigation about media and material.
While some people oppose a self-referential art model as exclusionary, escapist and/or apolitical, for Greenberg the separation of art from the muck and mire of ordinary living champions art’s value as something unique and irreplaceable. Adopting Greenberg’s position allows one to claim that art is special and worthy in its own right. Continuing with the Kantian reference, art is not a means to some other end but an end in itself.
Of course, uniqueness may not be enough to save something from peril. There are plenty of phenomena – endangered species and wilderness to name two – that are unique and irreplaceable and yet are routinely destroyed “for the greater good” or simply out of ignorance, lack of respect or because they don’t contribute significantly to the economy. If something doesn’t have a demonstrable use factor for a large, vocal, and powerful enough contingent of users, or doesn’t effect people directly in their daily lives, then it can be difficult to safeguard on a mass scale. This is an old tale, but witness the disappearance of art programs in American public schools and the decline in government-sponsored arts funding in the United States and it is clear that art does not have a great amount of cultural capital. Within this context art is viewed as a luxury item, for those who have the leisure time to commit to a creative practice and for those who have surplus money to collect it. It is not viewed as an essential ingredient for education or a high quality of life, much less a means of addressing current social problems.
Artists understand firsthand the significance of what we do, no matter how hermetic or accessible the work. We know in the making that art saves lives (our own), art enhances our quality of life, and art contributes to our knowledge and understanding of the world. In other words, we benefit directly from experiencing the creative act, which may or may not have a trickle down effect on the sympathetic viewer. However, justifying the more esoteric art endeavors to the uninitiated can be hard going. “I just don’t get it,” “What is that good for?” and “What has that got to do with me?” are familiar refrains when discussing art with people who do not already appreciate art. Behind this comment is a negative assessment of the importance of the viewer’s alienation. The historical, avant-garde idea of art as a social provocateur, in which a primary goal of art is to shock viewers out of habitual perspectives and get us to question our normal assumptions, has limited impact if the art is seen merely as strange and hostile rather than as potentially enlightening. Unless a practice develops a widely accepted notion of aesthetic or social merit, audiences for it remain small. Thus, since the majority of art is predominantly appreciated by other artists and art-world aficionados, this means that the relevance of what most artists do is not understood. We speak to each other first and foremost.
In one sense, one can be thankful that we have each other to speak to. Thank goodness there are people who are willing to discuss the relative strengths and weaknesses of, for example, Tino Seghal’s anti-object position or Lawrence Weiner’s claim that language is sculpture or that aesthetic pleasure should or should not be retinal. Or, here, the advantages and disadvantages of blurring the line between art and life or the broader social impact that art might generate. Most people are just not going to have these conversations. A highly respected philosophy professor once told me that he wrote for four or five other people in the world. But where one might feel sad or isolated by such a small readership, he was making the opposite point, that he considered himself extremely fortunate to have this group who understood his intellect so fully and intimately. This does not discredit what the rest of us could learn from him, but that select group of people could go places with him in their thinking that most could not. Within the art world, we too form myriad sub-groups, joined together by distinct ideologies. And given the tolerance in the field for a wide range of aesthetic and conceptual approaches, we are bound to find others who are engaged with similar issues. Locating where one fits best, even if occupying a number of sub-groups or on the fringes of the art/life divide, gives a strong sense of artistic identity and community. This is our good fortune.
However, many artists are uncomfortable with the specialization of the field – at least on a public level – and do not welcome the idea of speaking only to other artists or working only within the art world. One way to explain the specialization of art is by linking it to the notion that artists are special, but here too artists resist this assessment. This can be for reasons of personality as much as anything else. Aside from the self-assurance and ego that it takes to make art at all, artists often express a modesty that prevents them from declaring that what they do intrinsically separates them from others or gives them greater and better insight. As someone who teaches in a visual art program, this seems especially hard for young artists, who are struggling to find their place and do not yet fully accept the title. For other artists this denial of “being special” is not based on personal modesty or a lack of self-confidence and self-definition but reflects a belief in the far-reaching cultural need for alternative ways of processing information, the proverbial “thinking outside the box” that art encourages. Cultivating the imagination in the ways art allows needs to be open to everyone if it is to have any kind of counter-cultural or revolutionary force. Over and above the private satisfaction that a creative practice delivers to the practitioner and the intellectual, creative comrades we might find within our small niches, most of us want to be working on something that is larger than ourselves. We believe art has a bigger social role to play and art’s specialization prevents it from communicating more broadly.
Viewers too can begrudge art’s specialization. There is an expectation that on some level the artist should be concerned with the audience and not solely with him- or herself, which leads to a sense of entitlement that the art should be accessible in a basic humanist way. Why should viewers care, if there is nothing in it for them or if we don’t meet them where they stand? Furthermore, a viewer’s belief in his or her own creative potential can prevent acceptance of an artist’s extra specialness; reflecting a pop-psychological sentiment that celebrates every individual: we are all special, each in our own unique way. These attitudes are further complicated by a popular evaluation about what counts as legitimate artistic labor. Viewers readily acknowledge superior skill and formal mastery, as extensions of a strong work ethic and committed practice; “hard work” is understandable in the arts as much as any other field. However, art that is too conceptual, too minimal or that downplays craft and traditional aesthetics challenges viewers’ generosity.
Andy Warhol once made a distinction between “thinking time” and “doing time” that expresses this common bias: “Some people, they paint abstract, so they sit there thinking about it because their thinking makes them feel they’re doing something. But my thinking never makes me feel I’m doing anything. Leonardo da Vinci used to convince his patrons that his thinking time was worth something — worth even more than his painting time — and that may have been true for him, but I know that my thinking time isn’t worth anything. I only expect to get paid for my “doing” time.”2 Admittedly Warhol is a complicated case, doing as much to question conventional ideas of the artist and fine art as to confirm them. But he epitomizes the anti-intellectual artist-as-manual-laborer, cranking out product in his Factory as part of the wider culture industry. This aspect of his practice that ties art to physical work rather than intellectual work supports a blue-collar, common-man work ethic that makes an artist’s output more ordinary than extraordinary.
A chorus of protests attests to art’s populist nature: “Everyone is an artist.” “Everyone is creative.” “Art is universal.” Likening the skill and dedication of art to other endeavors, one hears comparisons that further emphasize art’s everyday normalcy: “Cooking is an art.” “Surgery is an art.” “Fixing cars is an art.” Artists who profess “to work intuitively,” generally make the claim to stress that what they do is natural and instinctive, precisely not a product of thinking too much or informed by artificial conventions; again, this naturalness suggests that creativity is a common human trait, potentially shared by all. Conversely if skill and craft are not readily apparent, one hears: “My four-year-old could do that,” an inadvertent way of leveling the creative field even as it registers disdain for the particular effort at hand.
These assertions rely on an equivocation between art meant in a general sense as any and all creative activity and art meant in a professional sense as an activity that has a distinct set of conventions, techniques, history, objectives, and specialized language. To conflate the two as the above statements do usually ends up serving the more general sense of the word, broadening the activity away from its professionalism. The broadening was an anathema for Greenberg. The equivocation also emphasized art as sheer self-expression rather than art as critical engagement.
When discussing art and its reception, if the art does not confirm an egalitarian, populist, and naturalized status, the charge of elitism swiftly rears its head, from artists and viewers alike. Within this context, art should make us feel good, not inferior or stupid. It should be emotionally expressive, ennoble its subject matter, and communicate its intentions clearly and unambiguously. Don’t misunderstand what I am saying: for me, art that makes me feel like I don’t know something or resists my habitual assumptions is doing its job, but I have that expectation of art. I want it to poke, prod, and destabilize. In contrast, many viewers are put off by what they perceive to be art’s antics.
Add to the charge of elitism art’s supposed impracticality and relative uselessness and the conversation quickly gets defensive. Artists who are asked to justify their art within a broad social context do not have recourse to certain, well-accepted lines of explanation. Unlike highly trained scientists or economists, for example, artists cannot say that even if the general public does not understand the intricacies and specialized technical features of our research, that we are providing a widespread public good. At least not a public good that can be measured quantifiably for its impact on medicine, global warming, the cost of living, or in other overt, practical ways. This does not mean that art is worthless, only that it does not compete well against fields that have concrete instrumental value, if those are the terms of judgment.3 Nor does art compete well as entertainment if compared to the television, film, and music industries. Art has to make its case on other grounds that are significantly harder to quantify: namely, in terms of beauty, the imagination, the contemplative object, attention to detail, subtle nuance, visual pleasure, visual/phenomenal awareness, the value of creative problem-solving, mental flexibility, the ability to see alternative perspectives, to raise questions, to communicate stories and describe phenomena that are typically overlooked, to explore the human condition, to translate events experientially, to reframe those events conceptually, and to allow for complexity, ambiguity, and even contradiction. These explanations are particularly amorphous as the standards of what makes good art are so highly subjective.
Yet underlying the defensiveness is a sense that we all want art to be socially relevant. Artists want to be seen for the way we engage contemporary social issues with emotional significance, material sensitivity, and critical merit. And viewers want art that speaks to them. Artists who make art primarily for themselves or their friends may be content with a solitary practice; however, the option of connecting with a much larger audience is often desired.
Many artists turn to life in order to make the connections between art and life apparent and hopefully more accessible. They borrow from and transitively mark life with art to show their engagement with the shared lifeworld. A quick survey reveals that artists plumb the art/life divide in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of reasons. Some artists utilize the very things Greenberg disapproved, framing the world in realistic, representational ways. They use art straightforwardly to document the world, for example, Allan Sekula’s exploration of global fish markets or Rineke Dijkstra’s portraits of young Israeli soldiers. The artists’s political leanings are respectively more and less clear, reminding us that there is always a subjective perspective at stake, but both artists frame life for the viewing. Relatively speaking the art is transparent, allowing a viewer to look through it to the subject matter caught in its gaze. Life is the subject matter.
Other artists incorporate real-world material back into their art, literally moving it from the context of life to the context of art. Examples include Haim Steinbach’s use of ordinary found objects that are arranged and redisplayed in a gallery, Christian Boltanski’s use of found photographs that are manipulated and reprocessed, or Fred Wilson’s use of racially loaded artifacts from America’s past. The lived history of the original (life) context remains present in the art context, thereby providing a familiar point of entry and empathy. Even the starker, less personal recontextualizations of industrial materials presented by Carl Andre’s bricks and Robert Morris’s felt or the media appropriations of Richard Prince bring with them an inherent material meaning that connects the art with non-art contexts. In all of these examples the life of the material carries the bulk of the art’s meaning.
Some artists pose deliberate interventions into life that blur the lines between what is real (life) and what is art, for example, Jeremy Deller’s full-scale re-enactment of the 1984-85 miner’s strike in Orgreave, England; Pierre Huyghe’s first-person restaging of a true-life bank robbery/hostage situation that inspired the movie Dog Day Afternoon in The Third Memory; or Gillian Wearing’s recording of anonymous secret confessionals in Confess all on video. Don’t worry you’ll be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian…. Each of these presents a retelling of an original event from the subject’s own point of view that is complicated by time, memory, and the teller’s emotional self-awareness. The personal life stories are transformed in and by the frame of art, so that the filter of art thereafter becomes part of the life story.
Other artists adopt a dialogical practice that interacts with specific community groups and concerns, for example, Suzanne Lacy’s work with elder women in Minneapolis and teenagers in San Francisco, Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s ongoing work with the Department of Sanitation for the City of New York, Sophie Calle’s museum-guard interviews about missing artworks, or Harrell Fletcher’s theatrical productions with nonactors. In each of these projects the art arises from a lengthy process of collaboration where the exchange between artist and participants is central to the finished results. A few artists create work that functions with real-world effects, such as Mel Chin’s Revival Field, a toxic-waste reclamation land project that rehabilitates a polluted environmental site, Superflex’s Biogas project that burns cow dung as fuel, or Critical Art Ensemble’s investigations of bioengineered food and reproductive technologies. The irrefutable use value of such projects contradicts accusations of art’s isolation from practical concerns.
The list cataloguing artists’ connections to life is extensive and complex, and goes far beyond the examples here. Walid Raad’s factual/fictional archive about the Lebanese war for The Atlas Group. Wendy Jacob’s autism-inspired squeeze chairs. Dan Peterman’s use of recycled plastics. Elizabeth Peyton’s portraits of celebrities. Francis Alÿs’s walks in public spaces. There is art about love, war, consumerism, politics, AIDS, comedy, pop culture, and design culture. There is art about personal trauma and historical trauma, art about food and science, and art about globalization and colonialism. There is relational art, political art, activist art, hactivist art, feminist art, and identity art. In fact, given that most artists rely substantially on life for meaning and materials, it is somewhat hard to understand the lingering charge that art is a rarified activity. So what accounts for this? Why, despite an undeniable reliance on life, does art continue to be viewed as more artlike than lifelike? Apparently the fact that art is about life is not enough to override the barriers put up by its professionalism and specialization, which still seem to keep many people out.
Pondering this same observation in “The Real Experiment” (1983), Allan Kaprow delineates the differences between artlike art and lifelike art that developed in the 1960s and ’70s. His primary target is the root separateness of avant-garde artlike art in favor of the “connectedness and wide-angle awareness” of lifelike, process-oriented art.4 Against the backdrop of earth art, body art, conceptual art, early video and media art, perceptual art, and others, Kaprow describes how the entire field was secularized: form, frame, audience, and purpose. Artists shifted away from traditional art venues to actual environments in the world. They performed real actions and experimented with real processes, blurring the boundaries between when art ended and life began. The notion of art’s public changed to focus on local exchanges, ad hoc situations, and participatory events; art happened everywhere else but the gallery. Lifelike art was continuous with life, “inflecting, probing, testing, and even suffering it,” and the purpose “was therapeutic: to reintegrate the piecemeal reality we take for granted. Not just intellectually, but directly, as experience – in this moment, in this house, at this kitchen sink …”5
These adjustments and relocations continue to be used today by artists wanting a closer tie to life. Yet Kaprow writes as if he wants art to become life and do away with the distinction altogether. He describes two ideal examples of lifelike art, a situation where an artist is elected into political office and helps a township to dissolve and to merge with a neighboring town, and a situation where an artist goes for a series of focused nature walks, trying as closely as possible to repeat her experience of the first day. In neither situation was the art announced. No one knew that their politician was an artist, making art, and the nature walks were private. Neither situation needed to be understood as art to have value and meaning. In fact, labeling it “art,” especially in the town’s dissolution, would only have gotten in the way of the task at hand.
In response to the predictable question that if lifelike art resembles real life, then what makes it art, Kaprow replies that “if by art we still mean artlike art” then many such situations are really life situations. “But let’s say that art is a weaving of meaning-making activity with any or all parts of our lives… purposive and interpretive acts instead of mere routine behavior… This definition shifts the model for art from the special history of the field to a broad terrain embracing not only lifelike art but religious, philosophical, scientific, and social/personal exploration.”6 By making art more lifelike in its form, processes, and contexts, art connects to an array of other conceptual frameworks, all of which aim to clarify and create meaning. Art thereby contributes to our ability “to make sense out of the countless disconnected, and sometimes very dangerous, pieces of our culture and to rediscover the whole.”7 For Kaprow it is art’s integrative function that serves viewers best. Lifelike art helps us understand our world situation better and therefore live more meaningfully. If art takes us away from life, “holding out a promise of perfection in some other realm,”8 we lose the connectedness that makes art relevant and useful.
Greater understanding is a primary goal here. Kaprow points out that the meaning of art rests heavily with a viewer’s prior knowledge. If she does not know much about art or its history, then she will not get much out of artlike art. This prerequisite is what frustrates art appreciation for most people. But conversely, he also points out that if a viewer doesn’t know much about life, she won’t get much out of lifelike art either. For either activity a broader experience and knowledge base enables deeper meaning. But where art for art’s sake keeps a viewer within the closed realm of art, lifelike art deals more directly with lived self-knowledge, defined by Kaprow as “the hard and long process of existential comprehension that can slowly turn a person’s life around.”9 The implication is that self-knowledge and heightened awareness about artlike art leads back to art in a closed loop, but self-knowledge and heightened awareness about lifelike art and thus life lead to ethical social action, that is, real change. It is as if this art-life knowledge compels change.
The tension surrounding art’s relationship to life and hence art’s social place revolves around two main issues: accessibility and utility. Certainly, you don’t need art to do good things in the world. You don’t need art to live meaningfully or to come to greater self-knowledge, and not everyone is suited to being an artist. Nor is art an efficient means of feeding the poor, housing the homeless or solving global conflicts. But admitting these things does not devastate art any more than advocating for art disparages international diplomacy, relief work, sociology or literature. All of it contributes to our understanding of the issues and no single perspective adequately addresses the whole. Whereas some activities have concrete practical outcomes in mind, art creates platforms for thinking and feeling our way anew. With Kaprow, such art acts as a catalyst for improved self-evaluation and self-awareness, and this makes alternative action conceivable, which is a first step for making it possible. However, art can have this impact only if stands apart, not so far apart as Greenberg suggests, but not as close as Kaprow describes either.
Art has something distinct to teach us about ourselves and the world that depends on the specificity of its approach: the unique choices that individual artists make in response to life as they confront it, and the specialized methods of communication and investigation at their disposal. If art becomes so generic as to appeal to everyone, it reduces to clichés. And if art dissolves fully into life, then it ceases to be noticed. The separation of art and life remains a central condition for critically re-contextualizing life through the frame of art. Without this separation art cannot do its job. In the end we need a combination of Greenberg’s specificity of art and Kaprow’s connectedness to life without going to the extremes.
Regarding art’s specialized nature, if we do away with the myth that art is simply a natural extension of human creativity and allow it to be what it actually is, a highly cultivated, complex way of processing information, sharing ideas, and making meaning, then we can acknowledge its specialization not as an unnecessary, fabricated barrier but as an opportunity to learn a new way of engaging the world. In one’s search for meaning, one may decide to leave art behind and to choose another path, but it is narrow-minded to dismiss art simply because one has found another calling. Art is a premier discipline for revealing alternative perspectives on aspects of life and culture that are usually taken for granted, perspectives that are in turn hopeful and caustic, unifying and contradictory, generative and flawed, bold and infuriating. Art also belongs to those who have faith. Rather than give up its specialization or preach only to the converted, we should do more to proselytize on its behalf.
1. Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 4, John O'Brian, ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993, p.85.
2. Andy Warhol, “Warhol in His Own Words: Untitled Statements 1963-87,” in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, eds., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, p.342.
3. In this regard Stanley Fish discusses the relative uselessness of the Humanities in two New York Times editorials posted in January; see “Will the Humanities Save Us,” 1/6/08, “The Uses of the Humanities, Part Two,” 1/13/08, and the fury of responses in defense of the Humanities, at http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/01/06/will-the-humanities-save-us/ and http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/01/13/the-uses-of-the-humanities-part-two/
4. Allan Kaprow, “The Real Experiment,” in Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, Jeff Kelley, ed., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993, p.204.
5. Ibid, pp.205-206.
6. Ibid, p.216.
8. Ibid, p.218.
9. Ibid, p.217.
copyright 2008, 2009